Makeup: Siouxsie Sioux Hair: Mark English Clothes: Pam Hogg
When Siouxsie Sioux climbed onstage at the 100 Club in September 1976 with a band made up of nonmusician buddies—Marco Pirroni, Steven Severin, and Sid Vicious—she probably wasn’t thinking about world tours with roadies, lighting rigs, and costume changes 30 years down the line. From all accounts she mostly shrieked the Lord’s Prayer over a walloping din created by the guys while dodging loogies. Ah, but fate has its own plans. Sixteen Siouxsie and the Banshees albums, ten Creatures albums, and an insane number of singles (big hits! “Hong Kong Garden,” “Dear Prudence,” “Cities and Dust,” “Peek-a-Boo,” “Israel,” etc.) later, she’s on the road to everywhere with a solo album, Mantaray, and still making ’em hurt with her glittery dark-glam voodoo thing. After a recent US tour, Vice gave her a call in France.
Vice: You’re in what part of France?
Siouxsie: Southwest, near Toulouse and Bourdeaux. We’ve got the Pyrenees nearby.
And Spain. So you’re back home there after your solo tour?
Yeah. We were in the States for February. After that we came to the UK and did some regional dates, which I hadn’t done for well over ten years, and then ended up at London, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which was just a great show.
How do you like the US these days?
I really enjoyed America this time. We did pretty much all-new material and some choice oldies, and the response was great. A lot of old regulars, but definitely younger fans coming. The last show we played was Orange County, California, and there were all these really young kids, their mums with them, obviously. There was one girl of nine or ten, she knew all the words.
I could see children loving a Siouxsie Sioux concert, sure.
My catsuits were going down a storm, I think. I really landed them with my Emma Peel look.
Do you think of the new solo album as a continuation of your work with the Banshees and the Creatures?
Lyrically this album is more direct than the others. I’ve been going through a lot of changes personally. Also, over the years I’ve seen many aspects of the pop world, the music industry, and life as well.
You were smack dab in the ’76-’77 punk stink-bomb, but you didn’t make your first record until 1978.
Yeah, we were one of the last of those bands to get signed. We’d resisted a lot of crap that was around that wanted to exploit what was happening in the early days. Also the fact that I was a female actually did scare a lot of the labels off. They weren’t really into a band fronted by a young female with what they considered to be “attitude.” But by the time we were signed we’d gotten our own audience, so we weren’t at the mercy of relying on hype and the record company doing what it does naturally.
The Scream probably wouldn’t have been successful in 1976. By the time it did come out in ’78 the musical vocabulary was expanding again.
Exactly. But to me, early punk did mean something a bit wider and encompassing than it became. It became very cartoon, three-chord wonder, blah-blah-blah. And very male. In the beginning it was a great time to be a woman. When people overview punk, they kind of miss those points. It was really more about shaking things up, and a lot of change happening. Musically, but mainly socially.
It’s not often mentioned, but punk was originally instigated by a lot of fags and women.
It’s a really significant point that needs to be grasped. I do get pissed off when people don’t cover the whole spectrum. They always mention the usual suspects and never see the diversity of what was happening. Once you take away those facets, it becomes less harmful.
You have an argument with what became hardcore...
Oh, I hated that. Unimaginative and loathsome. In England we had the Angelic Upstarts and Sham 69. All that “Oi! Oi! Oi!” football music.
...but what about the Batcave kids who embraced you as some kind of Queen of Darkness?
Again, taking a very narrow view of one aspect of the band. John McGeoch used to have a quote in our bio. He said the Batcave thing was all obvious monsters and dark houses. With us it’s not buckets of blood, it’s more the tension of blood splashed on a daisy in the sunshine.
Well, your voice has always conveyed that sort of tension and mystery. It can be a monstrous instrument at times.
Right, but that comes from not having any actual musical training. Also, a lot of musicians and singers tend to want to sound like someone else. As soon as I started making music I knew that I didn’t want to sound like anyone else. I remember reading something by William Burroughs about letting the voice be an instrument, but also a weapon. A tone being able to break glass or a bass note being able to make people’s insides fall out.
The brown sound.
Yeah. I remember thinking, “Well, that sounds good.” Hence, the first time anyone saw me performing at the 100 Club in ’76, I had three microphones strapped together. I was so naive, I thought, well, if I put three together, that might cause a nasty effect. [laughs] Of course, y’know, three microphones is just three microphones.
Sometimes I’m not even sure what nationality your voice is.
A lot of English singers have American accents, that kind of drawl. But with us it always sounded, for want of a better word, European. Which is ironic because I grew up with loads of ’60s R&B... Atlantic, Tamla, Motown. But then there’s classical and film music in there, and a lot of English artists like Bolan, Roxy, and Bowie. I’m picky about the kinds of singers that I do like.
Was Julie Driscoll one of them?
Yes! I covered her version of “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
Another one with a big voice and an unaccountable accent.
You’d have to put Nico in there, too. But then also a lot of male singers that I saw as having their own voice, like Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop. I even loved Hendrix’s voice. And Howlin’ Wolf. So distinctive. I don’t know how people gauge a voice simply by whether it’s in tune or pretty.
You’re so full-on live. Do you do all those singerly things to protect your voice?
When you’ve done a lot of touring, it’s tough on the vocal cords. The one thing I have learned more recently is doing exercises before I go on stage.
Have you ever gotten up there and nothing came out?
In the past, sure. I’ve gone onstage knowing I had laryngitis, the worst feeling in the world. In the early days we’d play five or six nights in a row, traveling as well. The voice can’t take that kind of punishment. I would always dream of being a backing musician and not having to take the spotlight. There are also singers out there where it’s pretty much on one level. They don’t really push up or down or around. It’s all midrange.
It’s amazing that you’ve never worked with a voice coach.
When I knew I wanted to try singing, our manager at the time sent me to Tona de Brett, who I think had tried to teach Johnny Rotten to sing. [laughs] Anyway, I went along and had one lesson with her and thought, well, OK...
I have to say, your live performance is a revelation. You look like you’re going through some kind of transformation.
I love touring and playing live. To be able to really go for it and not have any restraints, physical or otherwise. And the subtleties as well, all the control of it. It’s so liberating.
You mentioned your early-80s guitarist John McGeoch before.
Easily the best guitarist of that era. A lot of younger musicians like Radiohead and Johnny Marr are citing him.
He’d been brilliant in Magazine, and later in Nick Cave’s band. How do you write songs with a guitarist like that. Lyrics first?
The way we worked was much more gregarious. First we’d play together in the same room, very tactile. And I’d describe things. I’d have a vocal melody, and he’d come up with something. McGeoch was adaptable and imaginative, but I don’t think he’d worked in that kind of open way before.
So wait, the Banshees were a jam band?
Yeah, it was fairly open. Even onstage we liked to play material that wasn’t properly worked out.
You were known for your B-sides being extemporaneous.
We pretty much released an album every year and we were touring a lot as well. So I’d look forward to the B-side session because it was a way of getting back to how we worked initially. We’d just have a studio for two or three days and see what we came up with. And it could be anything. Usually it was me, Severin, and Budgie, and whatever was in the studio, maybe just a piano. “OK, we’ve got three days and we’ve gotta do two songs. Let’s see what happens.” Some of the B-sides I prefer to the album tracks, actually, especially with the later albums. “Peek-a-Boo” started out as a B-side.
OK, different subject. I’ve always thought of the Banshees as a “film band.”
Definitely. From The Scream on, you can hear it. The Bernard Herrmann-ish tracks on there, and Shostakovich. We were all into our films and loved soundtracks.
Who do you like in film these days?
Tarantino loves his music. I like the way he uses contrast. For a heavy scene he’ll use something quite light. And of course David Lynch.
How’d you feel about Inland Empire?
That was the first one I didn’t really rave about. Usually it’s such a feast to get your eyes on, but he was using the digital and it didn’t grab me. But I see quite a lot of English and American films here.
I speak French, but it’s too fast to take it in. I’d probably do better with French subtitles. I have to say in general I don’t check out French film directors. But the guy who did Delicatessen, what was his name?
He did a string of films, and I loved that. And do you remember La Haine?
The skinhead film?
Yes. Vincent Cassel was brilliant. As he was in the latest Cronenberg as well, Eastern Promises. He’s the spoiled brat. Cronenberg is up and down. I’ve seen a few I didn’t like at all. Remember Existenz? [laughs]
Well, given the fact that you were once in a John Maybury film and have hired directors like John Hillcoat to shoot your videos, why aren’t there any Siouxsie features?
Honestly, I haven’t been asked. Ages ago they wanted me to star in Breaking Glass.
That 80s new-wave nonsense? Weird.
I’m so glad I had the sense to say no. If I’m going to be in a film, the last thing I want to do is be a singer. I have just done something for a new John Maybury film, The Edge of Love. It’s about Dylan Thomas. Angelo Badalamenti did the music and I worked with him on one song. But no, I’ve never been offered a role. I’d even love to do a cameo character in a good movie.
I’ve been hearing about that Dylan Thomas biopic. Are you a big reader?
Books are one of the few things I collect. I always want to read more and more, and that’s something I miss, living in France. I can’t just go to the bookshop and browse around. Although there are a lot of French authors I love. Sartre, Camus. I also love Samuel Beckett and Eastern European writers like Patrick Süskind.
You mentioned Burroughs before.
If you remember, Bowie was always citing Burroughs in the 70s. It was through being fans of music that we got hints at literary things.
And then had to go out and find somewhere that sold such books.
Yes. It was more social and that’s how you tried to connect with other people. Of course back then you thought you were totally isolated and the only freak in the whole world. Going out there and meeting people, whether it was at concerts or getting the books, those friends that I made were important ones. I still know some of them.
Severin and his friend at the time, Faio, I met them at a Roxy Music concert. 1975. The one with Ferry and the backup girls in air-force uniforms.
The Siren shows. All right, let’s talk about clothes and costuming. What’s happening to teenage style?
Hmm, well. I do think it’s the whole internet thing, the accessibility and the ease with which people can have this or get that information. It’s just made people really lazy. It’s taken away a lot of hunger and individuality. More than ever, people are very much in a fret about having the latest fashion and are being dictated to. I’m pretty perplexed by it. But I truly think the answer is getting out of the house! [laughs] Leave the virtual world. You cannot do better than to have the real thing.
Technology worries you?
Well, we’re talking about a generation that has grown up with computers. My big worry is that the need to connect with the actual is slowly getting eroded.
Can you as an artist really expect to affect anything?
You can only inspire someone to do something they wouldn’t have before. With me it was getting into music, and specifically the type of music it was had a big effect. Especially at that age—14, 15, 16—when you’re starting to form opinions and notions of where you want to go. The music that you find then can create a life change. And again, the key is to be able to connect with other people.
You’re big on that.
Because for me it was where things began to change and happen. You can’t choose your family, but you can make a new one with soulmates. The connections that you make first off are really strong ones. You’ll create something with those people.
How is it being 50?
I’m enjoying it. There are a lot of things where I say, “Oh, that makes sense now.” And then I can finally forget about them.