Survival of the Fittest

B Side magazine, Feb/Mar '95
by Sandra A. Garcia

1994: that unstylish year of boring pseudo-punk, intelligence as a disease, right wing ascendancy and zero attention span is finally dead. To ring in the beginning of 1995 in a blaze o f stunning style and rapid wit, allow me to present some original punks: Siouxsie and the Banshees. The British press questioned their validity back in 1984, wondering if they had become "pop stars." Today we clasp our hands and ask: what ever would we do without them?

The ravishing Siouxsie Sioux can always be relied on for a visual moment. While being given a peek at their new video for 'Oh Baby' I'm watching Siouxsie watching Siouxsie frown at Siouxsie's reflection in a lipstick-streaked mirror. The flesh, the image and the reflection in one frozen second. String scores of those glittering seconds together and you'll conjure up Siouxsie's long career.

First, there's the flesh and blood Siouxsie, a glorious woman of startling dark looks and savage humor who looks younger with each passing year. She must know arcane magic mere mortals aren't allowed to possess. Then there's images that Siouxsie has danced in and out of over the years: from brittle blonde punk to dark-haired diva, she's discarded enough looks to fill a fashion season. This segues into the many fleeting reflections Siouxsie's left, kept alive through her fan's [fans'] adoration. Drop by the average Banshees concert and you'll see creatures emulating ghostly versions of Siouxsie's dark tresses and glamorous make-up. Hold on: there is no such creature as an average Banshee's concert, is there? Their concerts are painful, exhilarating, uneasy, hot and cold, but NEVER average.

The Banshees aren't an average group. That word isn't in their commanding vocabulary of music. Fronted by Siouxsie since that fateful 1976 'Lord's Prayer" live performance, the band's other legends are percussionist Budgie and bassist Steve Severin. Steve's been Siouxsie's musical half since the band's conception, lending his sartorial splendor, sardonic wit and powerful songs to their potent brew. When a song deals with poisonous love and lust check the lyric credits: they're often Steve's. The quicksilver Budgie signed on after drummer Kenny Morris fled at the start of a 1979 British tour. He's stayed put behind the kit, emerging to capture the heart of Ms. Sioux in one of music's best kept secrets: you knew they were an item but Siouxsie wasn't one to kiss and tell. If you dared to ask, she'd tell you to kiss off.

This strong nucleus of voice and rhythm offers the key to the Banshees' unique sound. The exotic rhythms are perfectly suited for Siouxsie's deep compelling voice: there's always been an understanding of her voice and its power. On this new album the strength of purpose shimmers: after the disappointing Superstition, The Rapture's confident creativity declare the Banshees haven't gone senile.

The domination of rhythm and voice also explains the lack of guitar stars in the Banshees. Guitarists have never found a comfortable home here. This started when the band fired guitarist Peter Fenton while onstage! Now THAT'S real punk! John McKay, John McGeoch, the Pistol's Steve Jones, the Cure's Robert Smith, and Clock DVA's John Valentine Carruthers followed in Fenton's footsteps, although Smith bowed out due to exhaustion from being in two popular bands at once. Current six stringer (and former Specimen member) Jon Klein has triumphed through three albums, which wins him the longevity award. When the observation is made that Jon has survived due to his good nature and low-key ego, Steve slyly interjects, "He's got no choice!" There is a fitting reward for Jon's devotion: Siouxsie, Steve and Budgie will graciously let him remain in the Banshees and create more music with them. Siouxsie declares, "If someone is with us it's for a good reason and if they're not with us it's for a good reason as well."

They admit to having a sick sense of humor. It saturates that new video for the deceptively upbeat 'Oh Baby,' The Rapture's first single. The video features Siouxsie as a contestant in an actual junior beauty contest filmed in Flagstaff, Arizona. A sly, Subtly cruel document hidden in a music clip's innocent guise, it's sheer Banshees in a wickedly mocking fashion. Budgie playfully wonders if the MTV crowd will get it at all...Budgie is asking the wrong person.

It's a warm December night in New York City, where far above the city the tangled car horns sound like violins when mixed by sky and distance. The elegant threesome are exhausted but alert, filling Geffen's conference room with enough second hand cigarette smoke to create a fog bank. It's appropriate since the band refers to unusually quiet Geffen East as the Marie Celeste, the famous ghost ship. It's made known that the imposing table, which Siouxsie thinks an entire rain forest died for, is as big as her "not quite a room" at the trendy Paramount hotel.

Siouxsie's looking tailored and business-like in her gray vest and trousers, while Steve's sheer-sleeved black shot through with blue shirt adds the proper touch of glamour. Budgie's in practical cat burglar black from head to toe: it serves to emphasize his bright blonde hair. This trio is witty as well as exquisite to the eye: no ripped jeans and T-shirts here. It's odd how much you appreciate that quality in a band. They've come an amazingly long way from the tattered and torn punk look of 1976.

"What HAS happened between then and now?" mocks Siouxsie at the thought of their first erratic performance. The amazing growth of a band from grating punkers to divinely decadent artists is what happened. Tear off the wrappings each year and there's something new inside every time.

Siouxsie offers, "We always feel it necessary to sweep away anything that is in the past, and start as if it's your first record. The only difference is you've got a whole lot of experience! You've got a lot of situations you've been through that you can draw on, and I don't know, 18 years, on paper it looks like a lifetime for a lot o f people out there. Obviously if it felt like 18 years we'd stop and say it's time to go."

"It also has to do with the fact that we approach things so intuitively when we're making music that as soon as you look back on it when it's finished, you're able to use the experience o fit, like ahh, if we had done that, that was really good, let's push that side of things forward for the next record. So it's a constant evolution that we don't analyze if before we go in , we just do it and analyze it as we go along. We look back and go we could have done that better or that differently..." explains Steve.

"We are our own worst critics... or best critics!" amends Budgie with a smile. "We're hypercritical, and we can't con ourselves... we have tried."

Siouxsie adds, "It also has to feel genuine, too. We promised ourselves form the beginning that we would never allow what we do to become a mindless job that you have to keep down. There's no fear in letting go, and we're still here. We haven't lost our excitement about what we do. I mean creating something from nothing i s the biggest buzz you can get. We still act like expectant parents every time there's a new one."

When the Banshees first howled to life they were a slashing rebellion against a turgid music business. Nothing has changed: faster and smarter, they're still kicking kaleidoscope fairy dust into the face of a lumbering giant that's forever trying to pin them down.

"It still IS a turgid business, although it's got bright new packages and labels. It's been repackaged and disguised..." mocks Siouxsie.

"There have been some really good things along the way," interrupts Steve, "but it's still a horrible, horrible stinking mass of mediocrity in the middle of this business we work in."

When the Banshees emerged there was no real support for them. They even had club owners against them due to their disruptive style. Even though they had to hack their own way out of London's vicious musical jungle, they still feel the late '70s/early '80s were much healthier for a truly creative band.

Steve exclaims, "Oh God yes," while Budgie agrees it's almost impossible for young bands now. Siouxsie fleshes out the thought, exclaiming, "The pressure to be like the next big thing is... there was a certain amount of naivete and innocence within the medium. Certainly music journalists tended to be more fans of music rather than being careerists or frustrated rock stars themselves."

"That's why you have such a big dance underground at the moment, because it's easier to create what you want without the restrictions of being seen as the next big thing. There's also a bit o fear in it that they don't put their faces on what they do. They can quietly walk away from that disaster and go on to something else, and no one really has them down as five minutes of fame and they're out the door," murmurs Steve, adding he feels that dance scene is already dying and won't admit it.

As much as the Banshees admired the initial spirit of the dance underground, they're a traditional guitar-bass-drums band, and like many other bands they go through the mind-numbing chore of finding the perfect producer. The Rapture is emitting an added buzz since the Banshees chose to work with the legendary John Cale, avant garde hero of the Velvet Underground turned acclaimed solo artist and producer. One musician declared working with John Cale isn't a challenge since he kicked his habit. The Banshees didn't find this to be so.

"It was a nightmare," groans Siouxsie dramatically, quickly laughing. "No, the only question we kept asking ourselves was why didn't we think him before or SOONER? We've been huge fans of the Velvet Underground and that was a band that you were aware it was four individual performers and writers, which was quite a unique thing. I think it's always been its appeal to people: there's something more than a bunch of musicians having fun together. And his solo career, there's been a big journey there."

Steve agrees, adding, "He produced such landmark albums, too. The first Stooges album, which people still quote today, the first Patti Smith album, the first Modern Lovers album, so we see that this is our first album in many ways because of... it's one of those things that you have to put it down to synchronicity. It was the right time to work with John Cale. It just happened."

"It wasn't a force, it was just a series of coincidences. We're still open: I mean you can meet someone tomorrow and everything can change, it will affect what you are doing," murmurs Siouxsie.

"Which is the best way that things seem to happen in a lot of areas. You can try and push something onto people, and say this has got to take now. But if it's a spontaneous thing that is in the right place and the right time..." Budgie trails off.

Steve steps in. "The '90s have been good to us. '91 we had Lollapalooza, '92 we had Batman Returns, working with Tim Burton, and now '94 with John Cale. And for a jaded old bunch like us, these things, you feel really excited. 'Oh, we're going to meet Tim Burton,'" Steve enthuses.

"We're like kiddies again," laughs Siouxsie.

"With a bunch of new toys," adds Budgie.

"It's great. There's no plan to these things, except now we're trying to look into the future and see what's coming next year," concludes Steve, spicing his words with a pinch of sarcasm.

Even though the Banshees seek out those who have similar outsider tendencies, they admit their plans don't always work out. Budgie supplies a specific example. "We chose to work with Bob Ezrin, because of things that we liked, like Alice Cooper's School's Out and Lou Reed's Berlin. Thinking this could be a wonderful union... but it didn't work out! It lasted two horrible weeks, and..."

Siouxsie sputters with evil laughter, declaring, "We sent him on the plane home!"

Budgie nods, adding "So what may seem right just isn't always so... you can't manufacture it. There's a chemistry within the group when we write songs, there's this chemistry... there's this alchemy thing that locks on. The more ingredients that you can get in to it without fogging the issue, that's the thing that we're always looking for. This strength of direction that you just tap into. And somehow, sometimes, it just runs away with you. And you're dragged in with it!"

"Sometimes things just get missed by chance. For instance, we would have worked with Brian Eno at one point, but I don't think we would now. We're beyond that point... what could he give to us, and what could we give to him? It wouldn't make any difference now," shrugs Steve.

When Steven [sic] Hague was selected to work on 1991's Superstition, an immediate alarm went off. His work with fluffier bands denounced Hague as far too polished a producer for the Banshees, especially after the experimental plateau they'd reached via Peepshow. Unfortunately, the recorded results proved the distrust to be well-founded. There has to be a gracious way to explain Superstition's lackluster soul: can we be kind and call it an experiment?

Siouxsie instantly replies, "Yes."

"He approached us. He was really keen to do it, he wanted to do a really great Banshees album," adds Steve.

Siouxsie is willing to explain what exactly went wrong on that album. She's not hiding her disgust. "We like when someone is enthusiastic. It's not just oh, here's the next band on his list. It was like you always hope for this kind of cross fertilization and a joining of a similar spirit. But this album was a definite reaction against how we did the last album. Part of answering your earlier question, part of putting ourselves in a different situation to see what happens to get a fresh response, well, Superstition was a result of that. 'Well, we've never done that, OK, we'll see how it goes.' Then suddenly you're involved with it, and after touring, playing the songs and then going back to listen to the album, it was so disappointing! 'Oh SHIT, there's a vital ingredient missing here.' This album, is going back to that vital ingredient, and that's us, being intuitive, not compartmentalized and separated under the microscope with tweezers. It's, as you say, it was an experiment. Sometimes things like that work. If you don't know what the end result is going to be, then they don't work. "There was something not quite right: there was a bit of curdling going on in the ingredients. It wasn't perverse enough."

"These things always work on two levels," offers Steve. "There's a collective idea of where you think music is going, and that's what we took on board with Steven Hague. We felt that's where it's going, what does it mean to us and how can we use this approach? And the other side of that is your personal evolution that you feel. No one could have predicted that as soon as we finished working on Superstition and as soon as Lollapalooza started, that Nirvana album would come out and cause such wave thorough [throughout?] all sides of music, not the least was inspiring other bands to follow a similar guitar-oriented live thing. So even though it seemed like it became a dead end anyway, we felt it was a personal dead end, but it drove us to make the type of album that we made now."

Steve's expression says more than his words when he quietly describes that people are actually asking the band if this album is a reaction to the whole Unplugged phenomenon. "Of course not! It's rediscovering part of us!"

"It's appreciating what we had been through," scoffs Siouxsie.

There's a certain area of music that the Banshees excel at: they have that lush, atmospherically dangerous territory completely staked out. When experiments are conducted, they're fine for one record, but if the band did it again...

"Fools!" cries Siouxsie.

Steve knows what their audience's response would be: "You are trying our patience! Just stop it! We'll slap your wrists!"

"We just did it to confuse everyone out there," grins Siouxsie.

Yet in America Superstition yielded them many radio singles and the interest of a new audience via their Lollapalooza dates. All this from a weak album... what does this tell the band?

Steve strongly defends, "We didn't think it was because we changed tack [track?] or sidestepped, that it became more popular than before. To us it just seemed like a progression. For us, we think that just as many people should like this record, if not more."

Siouxsie firmly closes the subject by stating, "At least we realized it. We didn't go tripping merrily down the wrong path."

They have found their path again. The Rapture regally bears the Banshees true signature: fiercer bass, unusual musical elements, exotic topics, and more rage and ruin. The Rapture takes the wild spirit of classic albums like A Kiss in the Dreamhouse or The Thorn and updates it. The album's manic closing track, 'Love Me Out' [!] showcases the Banshees as they should be in 1995: dazzling, dangerously delicious and different than anyone else.

"It's not cartoon Banshees," agrees Siouxsie. "It's not how people perceive us. On our journey there's been one thing that's been part disappointing and part accepted: this cliche of how people perceive Siouxsie and the Banshees. They're dark, depressing, morbid, introverted... I am really disappointed with reviews, when you get... it's almost like you can read the first line and go 'OK, I read this one thirteen years ago!"

This attitude extends to that vital visual image: fans are fixated on the image of Siouxsie as 1982's dark queen with her elaborately teased hair and stark make-up. Too many people have frozen that goth punk Siouxsie in their memory as their lasting perception of her. Isn't that getting tiring to the band?

Diplomatically-inclined Budgie has a defense for these fans. "It's like anything, i f something affects you in your youth, you always think of that one instance in that artist's development: that's where YOU remember them from. After that you're not interested in them anymore. So you will always be that to those people, that particular point. 'Cities in Dust': from where we were then, it's been a constant progression for us, but that one image of Siouxsie... it's ALWAYS from years back. You see it when people come [to shows]..." he breaks into chuckles, "they're in different parts of where we were."

"That's quite affectionate when the audience does that," murmurs Steve. His soft voice gains emphasis when he continues. "We don't like it when critics or journalists take the soft option."

"And not even listen to it," retorts Siouxsie. "They do what they think is expected of them."

"We don't mind bad reviews: it's LAZY ones we don't like," underlines Steve.

So trust the progressive Banshees to do the unexpected. In the lazy short attention span theater that makes up the music scene of the '90s, they're artfully brandishing an epic title song at us. 'The Rapture' shows the band thumbing its nose at convention and pouring on the sensuous atmosphere thick and satisfying for an entire eleven minutes.

Siouxsie exclaims, "We actually got that song played on 200,000 listener radio station in Rome. It was fantastic! It was midnight when we went in, and there was this amazing guy who had this radio show that knew things about us that we'd forgotten about! He had this family tree, and he was talking about instances that had happened in the band..."

"we got to 1978 and we saids we'd have to come back to do from 1979 to 1982," laughs Steve.

Siouxsie is completely delighted with this DJ. "At the stroke of 1:00 he put on 'The Rapture' for eleven minutes! He said this is probably the only time you're ever going to hear this track on the radio. We said cheers! Happy New Year!"

There's been this immense suspicion of long songs ever since the death of progressive rock. Groups like Yes took up entire album sides with bloated meanderings that staggered and collapsed under their own bombast. The Banshees were part of the short sharp shock troop that helped blow that trend out of the mid '70s. So why in 1995 are they giving it new life?

Steve easily replies, "That's why we did it... can WE do it? Can WE get away with it? WE'RE reclaiming it."

Siouxsie laughs, "Can we get away with it without doing drivel?"

The song is also a reaction against feeble songwriting. "It's the manufacturing of songs that have just become basically the chorus, verse and just chorus. It's getting more and more condensed, and it's over," frowns Budgie.

"It's so formulaic," dismisses Siouxsie.

Worse yet, weak songwriters take their trite choruses and verses and drool them over a five minute song, not realizing the song died after only two minutes.

Budgie declares, "We know what song you're thinking of!"

Steve grandly announces, "I am thinking of whole CAREERS!"

Siouxsie agrees with a healthy laugh, admitting that 'The Rapture' laid the keystone for the entire album. "The idea was there before we went into the studio. I had the title of the album and this song before anything else. It was the springboard of where we ended up with all the other songs."

"It wasn't a concept, it was more like stating the attitude, the approach, the frame of mind we wanted to put across," adds Budgie.

Siouxsie explains, "I wanted the cello to be more up front. It's a much more physical instrument. I wanted the music to forget about the last album and just realize what we're good at, without explaining. There's very little debate of what we are, how we are in this band. It's great when things aren't said but they are UNDERSTOOD. And after all this time it's how it should be!"

The Banshees are bound to have a silent communication going on: otherwise they wouldn't be talking about a new album.

Steve grins, "It's silent communication because we only talk to each other through lawyers!"

That sounds like a worse hell than those evil prog-rock songs! Another way the Banshees keep their creative resources refreshed is by their various peripheral projects, from the Creatures featuring Siouxsie and Budgie to Steve's work with film scores. Side projects bring in new ideas that lead to improved musical sparks.

"That was even more pronounced this time because we are working in two different countries now. It's good to get together and we all go..." Steve growls, supplying a fierce lunge and a running dialog. "'Have YOU seen THIS?' 'Well why not?' 'THIS is great.' 'Have you heard THAT?' 'No, THAT'S boring.' 'OK, I'm going home!'"

Oh well, creative differences: see you next album! But instead of taking the easy way out and cobbling together an album to fill a contract, the Banshees took their time with The Rapture. They knew that coming after Superstition, this one HAD to be brilliant.

Steve details, "On this album we had completed nine songs and had written and recorded them in France, and we had mised that album as of October 1993. The album was due for release, but we decided that it wasn't ready yet. It's not complete, it's not ready."

"The record company was there waiting with their cling wrap wanting to wrap it up an throw it out!" laughs Siouxsie.

Budgie continues, "After that period, we decided to start more writing, and that's when we started looking around to bring in a producer. Up until that point we had been doing it ourselves. We were, I supposed, at that point where you take on a whole new bunch of ideas as well. We'd been on tour to Australia for the first time in ten years. We'd been doing live stuff around Europe, playing the songs we'd just finished. So we were taking on board all those extra things."

Budgie adds that they didn't hand John Cale completed songs to merely produce. "We had quite a few songs but things were also sparked off by having John Cale in the room with us. He's a pretty inspiring person to have around. He's also pretty scary as well!"

John Cale seems like an intimidating persona. "Yeah, in this big sort of Welsh way," grins Steve.

Is Steve implying that he's scary beyond how his mind works? Steve laughs in agreement. "It's the way he looks!"

"Yikes!" yelps Siouxsie." This man is not Florence Nightingale!"

"No, there is nothing fluffy about him!" continues Steve.

"Which is what we wanted," agrees Siouxsie.

Budgies stresses, "We don't suffer fools and neither does John. We were instantly aware that we couldn't con him. We couldn't go through the motions. We have a language that we've developed over the years: we can make a few noises and we'll sound like us. But that's not enough."

Steve admits, "Really he was the first producer we've ever worked with. Everyone else was more accepting of the pace the band worked at, always wanting to please..."

It's not hard to imagine a producer being intimidated by the three of you in full creative throttle. Steve agrees with a laugh. "Yeah! So it was great to have someone saying get here at 10:00, record, and then you get pumped up and want to do good stuff! We'd driven ourselves to one limit working without a producer, and being down in the mouth about the length of time we'd had to be away from the project,,, so getting someone like John Cale, no, I can't even say getting someone like John Cale, getting John Cale in... he's like an old fashioned producer, like you've always imagined they would be. They get in and do it!"

Not that the Banshees would care, but what was the record company's immediate reaction to using John Cale?

Steve doesn't miss a second, retorting, "When was his last hit?"

"That['s] what they said," sighs Budgie in disbelief.

"There we were, skipping and going 'yes, he wants to do it,' and the record company was like Steve said, 'is he in the charts?' It was like..." Siouxsie's elegant jaw drops in remembered shock.

"Did he produce Kylie Minogue?" laughs Budgie.

"We were very determined. 'Well, we didn't ask your opinion but we got it anyway,'" sniffs Siouxsie.

"It's mind-blowing the things that record companies say to you," murmurs Steve. "You've think they've said everything then they come along and say something else and your mouth just drops and you think, oh, the stupidity! You think they've said it all..."

"Big howls of laughter all the way around, but we didn't let them know we were laughing," grins Siouxsie. She abruptly lets loose an amazing caterwaul of laughter. "'Did you hear that one, waughhhh!' Screaming laughter echoing over the sea and all around.

"But they kept us sane with the comedy element. It was always good for a laugh each day with a new name to make you howl your head off!"

It was good of Polydor, their British label, to make the Banshees' life so amusing. "It wasn't like that at the time," grumbles Steve.

Siouxsie threatens, "They were lucky I was in France. The doors to Polydor would have been kicked in!"

"What's even funnier now is that they wanted to put out a 'best of' at Christmas, to revitalize the English market! I said 'yeah that's the only area we're looking at, bloody England!" mutters Steve.

"We just released Twice Upon A Time! You probably notice that all these 'best of's' have got one extra track on them from the best of from last year! It's just repackaged with another title and it's like the Ultimate Collection!" Siouxsie has a superb announcer's voice when she puts her mind to it.

"Let's face it, this is where they have been making their money from over the last few years, reboxing and repackaging everything on the face of the earth. Glorified CD, digitized enhancement of the best of the unfound work of... the lost tapes of..." laughs Budgie.

Steve wearily murmurs, "Most of the record companies through the 80s spent all their money making bad choices on bands, and losing lots of money on terrible bands. So what's the easiest way to play safe?"

"And they're preferably dead," laughs Siouxsie.

Steve exclaims, "Let's have a look at that corpse's catalog!"

Siouxsie tops him. "Let's pull up that corpse and see how much more we can get out of it!"

There's that sick sense of humor! It has helped them work together after all these years. The band has known each other for so long that they cheerfully admit they know exactly how to get on each other's nerves. "And we do it every day!" laughs Budgie.

Siouxsie keeps talking about jumping out of a cupboard and scaring people half to death. If she launches that evil caterwauling laughter while in mid leap, heart failure would be certain.

"We are quite wicked with each other!" laughs Steve.

"Which is why we probably go through so many guitarists: their hearts aren't very strong!" laughs Siouxsie.

"It's from all that jumping out of the cupboards!" laughs Steve. "Oh no, I'm in Siouxsie and the Banshees! I thought it was a nightmare but I am still in the band!"

Wicked, willful and wonderful. Long may they annoy both each other and their detractors... as long as they still thrill their listeners!

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