The Wire (August '02)

Invisible Jukebox

Every month we play a musician a series of records which they're asked to identify and comment on with no prior knowledge of what they're about to hear, This month it's the turn of. . .

Steven Severin

Tested by Biba Kopf

Following the break-up of Siouxsie And The Banshees in April 1996, bassist and founder member Steven Severin disappeared into the digital underground, where he has rediscovered the state of independence enjoyed by The Banshees in their pre-signed period (1976-78). Since setting up base at his RE: Website (, he has released three CDs of computer-generated music. His first, Visions (1999), is an expanded version of his soundtrack for Nigel Wingrove's short film Visions Of Ecstasy, which was banned on the grounds of blasphemy. He followed it with music for Brazilian theatre group Os Satyros' adaptation of Lautreamont's Maldoror (also 1999). And this spring he composed the score for choreographer Shakti's adaptation of Kobo Abe's existentialist novel The Woman In The Dunes. As a lifelong non-musician, Severin's response to the challenge of digital music is as enthusiastic as the first time he picked up bass for The Banshees' notorious birth at London's 100 Club's PunkFestival in 1976, where their set consisted of a ferocious 20 minute improvisation of "The Lord's Prayer" That initial shock attack subsequently informed everything that followed until their split. It is felt most directly on their 1978 debut The Scream and its successor Join Hands (featuring a new Improv version of "Lord's Prayer"), however, its echoes can also be heard through their Beatles cover "Dear Prudence" (1983), the demolition derby single "Dazzle" (1984) and the late-flowering Licht und Schatten of "Peek-A-Boo" (1988); not to mention The Glove, Severin's side project with The Cure's Robert Smith. The Jukebox took place in London.

"Melody Laughter" from The Velvet Underground Live In Columbus 1966 (Hind The Magic bootleg)

[After a lengthy scraped string drone] No idea...

The official recordings are too familiar. This is a bootleg.

Is it live?

Yes. One member was in the running to produce your first album.

Oh, is it The Velvets? [Tom-toms start up] I would recognise this now. I came to The Velvets slightly late: I think it must have been 1971, when they had already split up It was through somebody's older brother, who introduced me to Can and The Velvets at exactly the same time, so it was quite a weird indoctrination. I still listen to all the old albums. In fact, I also listen to the recent live reunion one, which is great musically, but Lou Reed has forgotten how to sing the songs, really. Just before Cale produced the last Banshees album [The Rapture, 1995], we were recording in France and The Velvets were playing at the Paris Olympia, so we took the weekend off to see them play, and it was absolutely amazing. I thought there would have been a much more nostalgic feel, but we obviously hadn't heard the music properly before, the way that Cale's viola interplayed with Sterling Morrison, who was the revelation. I never realised how important he was to how all the sounds fitted together in such a unique way.! He was the standout And Moe [Tucker] was fantastic.

Were The VU an important influence on early Banshees?

They were absolutely vital. I don't know whether we played "Sister Ray" to John McKay [guitarist who absconded with drummer Kenny Morris after The Banshees' second album Join Hands], but we said, 'That's the kind of guitar we want'. Siouxsie always used to say she wanted the guitar to sound like a cross between The Velvet Underground and the shower scene in Psycho. At the start we couldn't play, not for a long time. So our hearts were always into sort of minimal extravaganzas. The other record in a similar vein was Terry Riley's A Rainbow In Curved Air followed by In C. And another big influence wa s Monster Movie by Can. I don't think Sioux ever really got into Terry Riley, but we certainly had the Velvets/Can connection. Eventually we sort of developed our craft, if you like, by doing "The Lord's Prayer" each and every performance, and we would always discover something different each time we did it. It got into some very staccato rhythms where I would just go on and on until we decided to stop or change. It wasn't like someone was there yelling, 'Go to A'' or something.

John Cale produced the final Banshees album, but wasn't he also in the running for your debut?

Yeah, Cale might have come up for the first album. We really liked [the mostly Cale-produced Jonathan Richman LP] The Modern Lovers, which came out a few years before The Scream. But he was working with Miles Copeland at the time, he was producing Squeeze and all manner of bad records, so we passed. But 1 7 years later we ended up working with him. It was good to meet him, but I am not mad about the results. It sounds funny, but he was brought in midway through and I don't think he really understood what we were trying to do. I wanted him to come in and make [an equivalent of Nico's] marble Index with us.

"She Is Beyond Good And Evil" from Y (Radarscope)

[Immediately] The Pop Group. "Beyond Good And Evil". I wasn't a big fan I think they talked it better than they performed it, really. They were very arrogant in interviews and stuff and I remember liking that. They talked about dub techniques, mixed up with jazz and stuff. They were stretching beyond their means, I think, I saw them in London with This Heat, and This Heat were really amazing. I walked away thinking I had seen something really special in This Heat but didn't really think much of The Pop Group. Which is funny: here come the bright new things, The Pop Group, and I am thinking, 'Oh no, I prefer these old people from the Robert Wyatt/Soft Machine end of the spectrum'.

So a generation gap really was opened up by punk?

I think so. The Sex Pistols really were like Year Zero. It just felt totally like a completely different generation who were going to make a completely different sound. When you look back now and the years merge together, it all seems quite seamless, the way glam merges into what we call punk, but at the time it seemed a much more radical change than it really was. There are glam rock bits in everybody from around that time, even Wire.

Weren't The Pop Group bringing funk to the party?

As I said, I like the dub thing, which I think The Slits did a little better. It wasn't quite right for me, that funk thing. It was too white for a start.

Some say music can't get much whiter than The Banshees.

Yeah, but I don't think we tried to be anything but... although we attempted a few funk things [grimaces at the memory].

Weren't The Pop Group pushing post-punk diversification?

I think that was a good thing, though I wasn't too keen on the Rough Trade groups of that time, like Au Pairs and Scritti Politti. I thought, 'Oh God, here come the hippies again.' Not to be completely nostalgic, but there was a time when you could go out and see Throbbing Gristle,Wire, Cabaret Voltaire and it seemed totally normal, as opposed to... The last show I saw approaching that sort of atmosphere was Main somewhere in North London. It is such a rarity to see anything like that anymore.

"Sultanesque" from "Love Is The Drug" 7" (EG)

I know this. Is it Panasonic?

No. Much earlier.

I played this recently. What the hell is it? Is it Kraftwerk? No? But I heard this recently.

The Wire's publisher said if you don't get this, you can't be a true fan...

[Laughs] Oh dear. [Long pause] Roxy Music! God, that took me long enough. Now what's it called? It's called "Sultanesque"? Yes! It's the B-side of "Pyjamarama"? "Streetlife"? "Both Ends Burning"? I was completely shocked when I put this on because it is so Eno, and he is not there. So who did it? Is it [Bryan] Ferry? And if this is a Ferry solo track, then why doesn't he do more like this because it is good. I remember it being credited to Ferry but that doesn't mean much [laughs]. Roxy Music were such a great role model. I don't think there has been another band like them in the way that they managed to cross across everything, somehow. In a lot of ways that is what [The Banshees] were hoping for. I think everybody of our generation believed that you could make great singles and then you would turn it over and you would hear something like "Sultanesque". That was the reasoning behind "Hong Kong Garden" and "Voices" on the other side. It came out of that belief in the hoodwinking you could do with the single just by turning it over and showing a completely different side of your influence. Yeah, this is a good one, and hundreds of thousands of people got to hear it.

Didn't adventurous B-sides disappear with the 7" format?

Right up to the advent of CDs we always tried to put something a bit off-key on the B-side never Just an album track. Usually me, Budgie and Sioux would go into the studio, write them quick and we wouldn't have to pay the other musicians! They always came out much more experimental that way. And of course the A&R men couldn't give a toss about B-sides. These days, with CD singles they just fill them out with endless remixes of the same track.

Did The Banshees succumb to remix culture?

Personally, I tried to avoid it like the plague and still do. I can't get beyond the question why you would spend so much time crafting something just to let it be torn apart by someone else... I pretty much hate most of The Banshees' remixes. Mine's a kind of old fashioned view, but if you stick to that view, you won't come to any harm.

In what way were Roxy Music a role model?

With both them and David Bowie you knew that if you went just beneath the surface there was all this avant garde information. I can remember vividly that the first time I ever heard of William Burroughs was in a Bowie interview. Then you had things like Roxy Music having tea at the Ritz with Salvador Dali. I loved the crossover of fine art in to music, it really took it somewhere else.

And Eno being a confessed non-musician...

Yeah, that was really appealing [laughs]. The first thing I ever got involved with was playing with tape recorders, making loops. We had a school band that couldn't play anything. It was like Banshees Mark I! We used things like ches t expanders and hit bits of metal. I'm not trying to make it sound like Neubauten or anything, it was just 13 year olds messing around. I guess we kind of thought that if The Beatles could do it on "Revolution No 9" then so could we [laughs]. They were just childish collages of noise, but the spirit of the whole non- musician thing continues on.


Absolutely. I never used to practise, ever. If I got the guitar out, I was either doing a gig, going into the studio or writing a song. Since the band split up it has stayed in its case. I never get it out to entertain anybody with a song.

"Helpless Child" from Soundtracks For The Blind (Young God)

Sounds a bit like an outtake from [Nico's] Desert Shore or something. Is it an early Steve Reich thing? No? [After first guitar chord] Swans. It's post-MCA Burning World. Is it something from White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity? Ah, "Helpless Child". Which album's this on? Oh dear, Michael will kill me. A friend of mine brought Michael Gira around to my apartment about two days before Swans did their first ever gig in the UK. They were doing Cop and Filth. I think. I am not sure I went to see them that time, but we got on really well. Since then, every time I was in New York I would see him, and when he was in London. We bonded over Glenn Branca, who had just played in London for the first time at the Riverside, and Michael had played guitars for him at one of his shows in New York. I used to treat going to see Swans as a religious experience It was the only thing for which I would drop everything, because I knew something would happen, no matter which phase. I saw them at the notorious Town And Country concert, which people complained was too loud. It wasn't, but it was monolithic. I loved The Burning World phase I thought it was a great move, the way they added all the acoustic elements. What got me more than anything was the lyrics, honed to the bone. The words seemed to fit the music so perfectly There's a track on Michael's solo album Drainland called "I See Them All Lined Up", it's so evocative, you feel you are there in the courtyard watching an execution. The words are very simple, nothing flowery There's something very beautiful about that kind of brutality.

"Some Velvet Morning" from Some Velvet Morning EP (4AD)

Rowland and Lydia. They were another really good live band, The Birthday Party I did a couple of gigs with them, playing with Lydia, which was... interesting. When Lydia Lunch first came to London, she played at [defunct punk club] The Vortex or somewhere, and Dingwalls, and we saw both shows. All The Banshees went to see her. We were like kindred spirits immediately. Lydia could only have been about 16 or 1 7. Amazing. Teenage Jesus's stuff on the No New York album was brilliant, head and shoulders above everybody else on it. On our first proper tour of America in 1981 Lydia supported us on a couple of dates. She was in between Eight Eyed Spy and 13: 13. About a month later she turned up on my doorstep after sacking her band at JFK [airport]. She put on a tape of the 13:13 album and asked me if I could put a band together for her. I said I had no idea how to do something like that, but if she wanted to do something new... She had about four or five shows, two co-headlining with The Birthday Party and the others supporting The Cure. She had found an album of sounds from the Six Day War. We went into the studio and just put some feedback on top of that and that was our backing track. Then we jammed over the top of it. It was probably terrible. For me it was like a holiday. It gave me the opportunity to hang out with The Birthday Party and The Cure. I didn't get along too well with The Birthday Party, to be honest.

How come?

The wrong drugs, probably. But their performances were brilliant: out of the Iggy Pop handbook, but still, how many people do that for real? They had a unique sound as well. I think they mastered that angular funk sound where Pop Group didn't. The Birthday Party had more aggression, more focus. I appreciate what they did, but felt closer to Teenage Jesus - probably because they couldn't play [laughs].

"The Woman In The Dunes" from Film Music Volume 4 (JVC Japan)

Lovely strings [After a long pause] I don't recognise it.

It's Takemitsu's soundtrack to The Woman In The Dunes.

I didn't listen to it when I was doing the Dunes album. I would never recognise the music without the images.

How would you say your approach to the story differs from Takemitsu's here?

Because it was written in Japanese and then translated into English, there is bound to be a missing layer that I couldn't have got, or anybody could have got from the English version. But I never really approached it as being Japanese, even though the [Shakti] dance company are Japanese and it's a Japanese story. The themes of Kobo Abe's novel are universal it could have been written by Albert Camus. It's much more repetitive than my other solo stuff has been. Because the dance needed some pieces to run for such a long time I would leave the whole thing running for ten minutes, so it evolves much slower than I would normally do it, which was really good discipline. A couple of tracks work better in performance than on the CD. One track called "Dance Of Sisyphus" had to be 12 minutes long, and it really does grind on. I found it really difficult to listen to it, but knowing what it was going to be used for, I had to let it have a life of its own. It was a battle for me to leave things out, because this track is supposed to be about the relentless, unchanging shifting of the sand, otherwise you are going to die.

Do you listen to much classical music?

Not a lot, no, and certainly not vocal music. But having said that the last thing I got into was the soundtrack to Fannelli, II Castrato, which is just amazing.

How did your Visions soundtrack differ from Dunes?

Well, that was different because I had the imagery from the film first. The side of the film that interested me was about five children in Yugoslavia, who saw a vision of the Madonna, I have this great book about the scientific experiments these friars did investigating the children's visions. They had great diagrams of 'before ecstasy' and 'after ecstasy', when the children would collectively say they'd seen a vision and the needle would go off the scales. That is what interested me rather than the film's dubious sexual element. I tried to take some of those waveform patterns of their ecstasy, put them into the sampler and change sounds like that. I have read reviews about it being a very spiritual record, but as far as I was concerned there is a lot of air in this record, where all The Banshees records are kind of suffocating.

"Lonely As The Sound Of Lying On The Ground Of An Airplane Going Down Part One: Broken Chords Can Sing A Little" from He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms (Constellation)

It sounds like it is going to be Diamanda Galas. Is this a group? Another one that is untypical?

It's a Canadian group, if that's any help.


Related. It's a Godspeed side project.

I did think Godspeed when it first started What's the name of the spin-off?

A Silver Mount Zion.

I love Godspeed. I had read a lot about them and thought to myself, I am going to like this lot, and then when I heard them it threw all my expectations up in the air. I was expecting a new Swans type thing, something like that. I don't know really what I expected. I like the way the vocals are found speech here. They're a collective, aren't they? They have to develop a doctrine in some way, because with that many people, to communicate you must almost by necessity have a certain set of codes to make anything happen at all, rather than individual egos moving things in one direction. [Looks at sleeve] It feels like one person is at work here. All the titles of the songs are coming from one vision, it's something you couldn't sit down and decide upon collectively.

Could you work in a collective set-up?

Possibly. If you asked five years ago, I would have said, 'No, absolutely not'.

Steven Severin's The Woman In The Dunes is out now on Re:

Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.

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