Aquatulle (Spring '02)
INTO THE LIGHT
Ex-Banshee Steve Severin emerges from his somber past; ballet will never be the same.
by Ken Scrudato
Perhaps...no, make that undoubtedly, one of the great satisfactions of being both chronologically and aesthetically aligned with nascent British punk, is what you knew all along it would be someday capable of. Despite hordes of numskulls in cheesy punk uniforms who got it all wrong (i.e. LA "punks" still think it's all about playing four chords really loud and whining about your girlfriend leaving you—duh), at the heart of punk was an avant-garde cultural, political and social movement, which was only so raw in its presentation because it was being presented by teenagers. It was, like it or not, about art.
Siouxsie &The Banshees were among the prime culprits, most certainly. Their debut album,The Scream, was a revelation not for how great it sounded at loud volumes, but for how utterly singular and groundbreaking it was in its time.They would go on to, artistically, have a hit and miss career (mostly hit, mind you) which lasted eighteen years, eventually landing them smack in the middle of a boring musical movement called alternative rock, and putting them face to face with a preposterously labeled "punk" revival, characterized by harmless, ineffective boobs like Green Day and Offspring.
But after the Banshees called it a day, it was no wonder at all that one of the band's arch creative forces,bassist Steve Severin, would be once again sidestepping the obvious. He's been since answering a higher cultural calling, composing scores for the stage and releasing them on his own label, RE:. The first was Maldoror, for the Brazilian theatrical group Os Sartryos. His new recording, the lush, evocative soundtrack to The Woman In The Dunes—based on the existentialist novel and later film-was commissioned by avant—garde dancer Shakti for the Vasanta Mala dance company's stage production. It debuted last year at the Institute For The Contemporary Arts in London, and was also performed during the Festival D'Avignon and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, drawing rave reviews. We caught up with Mr. Severin in New York, and chatted, of course, over a "proper tea" at the T Room.
Ken: What you'd been doing for years with Siouxsie &The Banshees was immensely different from what you're doing now. Was this a very natural transition?
Steve: Oh, totally. People are usually quite surprised that I've been doing the sort of music I've been doing since the Banshees stopped. But to me it's totally natural.The elements of what I do now were always in the Banshees.
Ken: Is this a harbinger of the rest of your music career?
Steve: I think now the same way I've always thought about my career, which is, as long as I'm enjoying the things that I'm doing, that's as far ahead as I think. What I'm doing now encompasses a lot of different things, so I can never get bored. For instance, the last three months I've been pretty much concentrating on someone else's record for which I haven't had any creative input whatsoever. It's by Alan Moore, the comic writer...
Ken: The Watchmen.
Steve: Yeah, yeah. He gave me a completely finished spoken word album, and I've released it on my label. So, I've taken on that role, which is a completely new role for me, but it means that everything else gets a rest. I don't get stuck in a rut because I can't.
Ken: How did The Woman In The Dunes come about?
Steve: It sort of bounced off a previous project I'd done, which was Maldoror, for a Brazilian theatre company. They were due to play it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and they didn't make it; but I started corresponding with [dancer] Shakti, and then the idea of collaborating on something came up. She'd already had the idea of doing The Woman In The Dunes and I was familiar with the book and the film. We met in January and by May the whole album was finished and the first performance took place.
Ken: When it was finished and you listened to it, were you surprised by what you'd done?
Steve: I didn't have time to think about it. I was given a really loose brief on what was required. I found it strange, working with a choreographer, that she would be so loose, but the majority of what she does is very improvised.
Ken: Did you have an easy time working without the structure that comes with a band?
Steve: Yes, I found it really, really easy. Doing it the other way around is hard, putting an idea into the shape of a song, to fit around lyrics. It's a completely different process, really. I think that's why I'm able to work fast on the instrumental music, because there are so few disciplines. For The Woman In The Dunes, I was just given a couple of guideline emotions and a time limit.
Ken: It's interesting, because punk created an entirely new generation of musicians, or non-musicians, and the likes Bruce Gilbert of Wire or John Lydon went on to do really avant-garde work. Yet, can you imagine that Kid Rock or the members of Limp Bizkit would ever go on to do anything like that?
Steve: The mind boggles.
Ken: It is a very different mindset. Intelligent versus, well, stupid.
Steve: Well, I think people would only be surprised by what the original punks went on to do if they had a very defined idea of what punk meant in the first place. The nucleus of what we called English punk was very, very diverse.You had the Sex Pistols on one side and you had Throbbing Gristle on the other. You had Wire, you had Cabaret Voltaire. There were lots of avant-garde things going on. It's only when you look beyond, that you get all these stereotype thrash bands that imitated The Ramones and could never do it very well. I could imagine if people had that idea of what punk represented, then all the avant-garde music that followed would seem odd. But I think all of that was there in the beginning; it's just that everybody was so young, so it was a very raw expression, and we were striving for something that we hadn't mastered. I think you can hear that even on The Scream.When that came out, it was a very avant-garde album—there was no band doing any thing like that. The nearest thing was Roxy Music, and they were much more...
Ken: Much less confrontational,
Steve: Less confrontational, much more proficient. And they were more obviously art-school. If you think of New York punk bands, though, like the Talking Heads; and the No New York album, which Brian Eno produced—it was always coming from the avant- garde point of view.
Ken: Well, except in LA.
Steve: Oh, the Dead Kennedys and all. No, no, no.
Ken: It's funny because one of the things that Johnny Rotten made a point of early on, was that punk was a reaction against art- school rock.
Steve: Well, John said a lot of rubbish.
Ken: But it wasn't really anti-art school. It was just anti-establishment.
Steve: Quite like you said, it was more confrontational. It was more urgent.
Ken: Clearly you were involved in the confrontation. What does that mean to you now? Do you eventually lose your desire to confront on a socio-political level and wind up just channeling it into artistic confrontation?
Steve: I think the things I say and the methods I use are not necessarily confrontational, but they're obviously political in some ways. Even embracing the internet now, for example, I'm making a point of saying that I'm not going to use major record labels. That's a political stance in itself. But with the Banshees, it was never really about, you know, standing on the barricades, that kind of agitprop. It was always much more subtle.
Ken: There was a lot of ideology then...
Steve: Yeah, but that was mainly The Clash's thing. I didn't want to wear fatigues and spray paint slogans on myself.
Ken: One thing that seems certain is that you're not mired in your past or trying to play off it. How do you feel about the Banshees history, looking back?
Steve: I'm immensely proud of all the work we'd done. In some ways, every year it becomes a little more important, because nobody seems to be coming along to replace us. For starters, the whole female thing with Siouxsie, which is a really big part of it that can't be overlooked. She was the first, and inspired thousands of people to do whatever they wanted to do, and feel better about themselves as being independent. So I think the legacy is strong.
Ken: Do you think the Banshees stuck around as long as they should have?
Steve: Well, it was up to us. It was our thing. We stuck around...well, that's a horrible way of putting it. We didn't just stick around, we evolved and we did what we wanted to do, and there was an audience every time until we decided to stop.
Ken: Nostalgia, if you get mired in it, is damaging.
Steve: That was one of the contributing factors in deciding to split. Whenever you read an article, it would start with,'Punk survivors...'; it was like, please, can't they approach this from another angle?
Ken: Well, journalists...
Steve: Journalists are lazy, that's their problem.
Ken: Do you feel like you've got some catching up to do because of how long you spent with the Banshees?
Steve: Yes and no. I always felt I was completely expressing myself within the Banshees. As far as I was concerned I was one of the two people who drove the band and therefore it was my band as much as it was Siouxsie's band. If I was unhappy, it was my fault, no one else's. But there is a point where you become aware that you're a brand as much as anything else, because the name has been around and you've been successful; so there was a desire to slip away from that.
Ken: Banshees Incorporated?
Steve: Yeah. More so for Siouxsie. That's why she did The Creatures.
Ken: Did you like what they did with The Creatures records?
Steve: I'm incredibly biased; everything I listen to, I can hear my input missing. Some things are just brilliant, but other things I tinker with in my mind. I'm too attached.
Ken: A lot of artists are stuck in the past because they don't want to face the challenge of looking ahead. Do you feel you're challenging yourself right now?
Steve: Obviously I think what I'm doing now is a challenge, extending myself into areas I've never dealt with before.
Ken: What you're doing now has a decidedly more European feel. What kind of impact do you think you can make in the States?
Steve: Are you saying the music itself has a kind of Teutonic feel to it? Well, I think the world has shrunk, it doesn't matter anymore. It may surprise people.There are people who might like it who are into ambient music and may not have ever been Banshees fans.
Ken: Are you as excited as you can be right now about what you're doing?
Steve: Oh god, yes. I don't display it very openly, but I feel incredibly passionate about everything I get involved with. I wouldn't bother doing it otherwise.
Ken: Finally...what happened to style?
Steve: I don't know-it died. I blame Oasis. Or maybe it was the Happy Mondays—those baggy people.
Ken: And Eddie Vedder over here.
Steve: Maybe it was ecstasy. People were too chilled out to dress up. They took the wrong drugs.
Ken: Well,The Banshees came along at a time when being in a band was about grand conceptual presentations, including radical statements of fashion. And that kind of disappeared, didn't it?
Steve: England still has extraordinary fashion designers. But I think Suede is the only band in England now that have that certain style and swagger. Well, and Placebo; Brian Molko's a glamorous figure. There are pockets of dissidence. But are film stars as glamorous as they used to be? I don't think so. I think Nike has take over the world and we're all wearing sweat pants. What can you do?
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.