An Interview With Pauline Black, The Selecter
Are you excited about the new album coming out?
Yes indeed, I’ll say! The albums getting a lot of support which is really really nice because we’ve worked really hard to get everything this far and its just nice to know people are on the same page as you.
You played the main stage of Rebellion last year, how did you enjoy the performance?
Well I enjoyed the flamethrowers on stage because no one told us about them and they just came on half way through the performance! They were a bit of a shock to the system when you’re mid song and no ones told you that’s going to happen!
Since 1979, inevitably the line up has changed. I noticed you have a particularly young keys player, can you tell me a little about him?
Oh Greg! He came to us when he was 17 and he is currently on sabbatical from The Selecter because he’s landed a part in a big musical so he is rehearsing out in New York at the moment. I think he’s going to be opening his show in London soon and it may go into the West End so we said go for it young man, you go do what you need to do. At the moment we’re using a keyboard player called Lee Hawsley who plays with Spiritualised. He knows our music and we know him. He’s out of Nottingham, which is close to where we live in Coventry, and he has very graciously said he will cover for Greg until he comes back again.
What spurred on the reform of The Selecter for you personally?
There was a 30th anniversary coming along and it’s always nice to celebrate these things. If you were married you’d think that was really good. So someone wanted to put us on in London at the Bloomsbury Theatre to celebrate 30 years at the end of 2010. Also there was a big Belgium festival and they wanted to put us on as well. So I rang round a few people and Gaps Henrickson the other lead singer in the band was interested immediately and we just got together and started it, thinking that we were only going to do two shows and here we are five years later with three albums under our belt and everything to play for.
How fast has the last 35 years gone for you?
Yes it has gone really really quickly but I think as you get older you treasure those moments and those memories more than you did when you were longer. When you’re 18, 5 years seems like an entire lifetime doesn’t it? But it doesn’t now!
When you play festivals now how do you bring back the energy of your early Top Of The Pops performances?
We’ve always had that energy and it doesn’t seem to diminish much with age. We just have a real passion to play. For heavens sake last week Grace Jones turned up in the nude at a festival and she’s nearly 70. I mean, talk about raising the bar! She’s put it out of the arena I think! So we don’t think anything about it, must of our audience can’t keep up with us!
Do you get the same adrenalin?
Yes, always. Finding another person onstage who you sing with that has as much energy as you do which Gap has, really makes a great performance and we just spark off each other and the whole band sparks off each other too. I always like people who are in a band because they’re performers. I choose people to be in a band because they’re performers. Not just because of their style. Obviously you have to like what they do but performance is everything in my mind.
Completely, if they don’t have stage presence its not going to work is it?
Well no! We are not a band of shoe gazers. As lovely as our shoes are!
Is two-step and dance important to you?
Yes. Yes I think so. This is dance music and Ska music, 2-Tone music it tickles the souls of the feet and it tickles brain cells if the person has them of course! I always think that’s a plus because there are so many things in the world to talk about and politicians talk about anything but them and never seem to resolve them so I always think that if there’s an opportunity where you can communicate ideas in your music then go for it.
It’s very sad that we lost Christopher Lee this week; you were in a horror film with him in 1994 called Funny Man. What was that like?
Yes I had quite a big part. Chris played a lunatic devil in it and I think my character was called Sengo and had beamed him out of space. I wore purple spandex and I think my left arm turned into a rocket launcher every now and again! And I had a huge afro, I was way ahead of my time obviously! But yeah it was cool, it was one of those shock horror movies!
Is there anything you haven’t done? Because you’ve written a book ‘Black By Design’ as well haven’t you?
Yes I wrote my autobiography about 4 years ago and that went down very well in many part of the world. It was good just to be able to put your story out there and because of my background of being adopted, being mixed race, I think it resonated with a whole lot of people who maybe didn’t have a voice for the things that had happened to them. So that was all good.
All you can say is a whole load of bonking and a whole lot of miscegenation went on then. Good! You know, I see a lot of those ladies who got pregnant were shunned by their own families and stuck in unmarried mothers homes and all those things. I see them as pioneers really. Because that’s exactly what they were, pioneers for modern women. You don’t have to put up with all that kind of retribution that comes down on you when you’ve got into a situation like that. It doesn’t happen like that these days. I’m not saying it’s a bed of roses for people if they find themselves a single mother. It isn’t. But nobody looks down on you or treats you badly because of that or hides you away in unmarried mothers homes. That was the whole stigma it came with of being a bastard in those days. And being mixed race as well, carried its own racist stigma, which is just stupid. But I see those ladies and particularly white ladies in this country that reached out to black guys who had come here from Africa or the Caribbean, I see them as pioneers.
The term ‘Rude Girl’ comes up quite a lot in your history. What would you define as a ‘Rude Girl’?
Somebody who doesn’t give too much of a ‘you know what’! Someone who defines herself and isn’t going to be bound by any boundaries. Men don’t have the same boundaries placed on them as women and I don’t see why I should have any boundaries placed on me. Try everything, do everything and if you don’t succeed the first time, always do it again!
Did you find there were many woman in the 80’s who you found inspiring and were female singers seen as sex symbols rather than artists?
I don’t think I’ve met anyone who set out in music just to be a sex symbol, with the exception possibly of Jordan. But women who are serious about their music tend to have a sex symbol status thrust upon them. Look at Debby Harry in Blondie, a greater artist, a greater performer, I can’t think of but its like anything. Women are judged on their looks and whatever performance you deliver it is always sexualised in some way. They will always talk about how you look and ‘is it a sexy performance?’ way before they talk about lyrical content and maybe what you have to say. It’s a two-edge sword and you have to stay one side of it or the other. I had lots of great contemporary’s, people like Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sue, Viv Albertine from The Slits, Poli Styrene from X-Ray Spex and Debbie Harry herself. So there were actual role models and Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, people like that you could look to and say that’s the kind of image I want for myself because these are women doing what they do, doing it how they want to do it and not having any boundaries place upon them. There are still female artists out there doing what they did, people like FKA Twigs, she’s a real artist out there doing her thing. People like Bjork fly that flag as well and I wouldn’t want to get in Beyoncé’s way either if she wanted to do something! You’d get slapped down!
So 35 years of The Selecter, you’re 61 now, what is the secret to eternal youth?
(Laughs) I think the best thing for women to do is just not worry about it. Obviously you try to keep yourself looking as good as you can, that goes for men and women, we all have to look at each other. I dislike the amount of photo shopping that goes on. It’s the wrong message to send out to young people that you have to distort your face in order to remain eternally youthful. It’s a state of mind that keeps you youthful. As long as you are still ticking over and doing the things you want to do, everything else is irrelevant.
You won a Time Out award for a play ‘All or Nothing at All’ about Billy Holiday. What was it like to play Billy Holiday?
It was a very steep learning curve. In my spare time I messed around doing Jazz singing and it wasn’t like I sounded like Billy Holiday, it was an acting part too. It was an honour to portray someone with that amount of spirit, independence and thought and get to the essence of that. Also John Malkovich gave me the award so I think I was more excited about that than anything!
So getting as big as The Selecter have, you guys have reached something of a cult status. I know you have toured the states many times. Was it an eye opener touring South America in the 80’s?
Yes back in 1980 it was an eye opener, we had a story in my book where we all turned up to do a shoot for Zounds music magazine and we were posing on the front of Southfork which is where Dallas was filmed. We were just standing on a dirt road with a picket fence and a great big sign reading ‘Southfork’ and eventually a great big truck came along with a bunch of guys who had baseball bats and they talked to our bus driver who was a bit of a red neck himself really from down there but he was very sympathetic to us and they took him aside and basically said “If you don’t get those n*******’s out of there and back on that bus, then we will sort it out.” So if that happens to you on a dirt road in Texas you do as you’re told. So yeah it was not all beer and skittles in those days. That was 1980. Whether that would happen today or not I don’t know but I haven’t been back to Texas yet to find out. We normally play the West Coast and the East Coast in Canada. Those kind of people will always be preaching to the converted. It’s better to know those things.
Recently we had Nigel Farage run for parliament and it’s sad to see so many people blaming their problems on immigration.
That’s what the government wants to happen and that’s why they let people like Farage have their say and have them all over television. I think the masses of the population in this country are not quite so dumb that they buy that argument totally. I mean we did live through the Second World War, everybody saw what happened to all these ‘mini Hitlers’ and what becomes of that way of thinking. I put my faith in working people to be totally honest. I know that theres a whole load of jingoism, I’ve got them in my own family, people with racist ideas surprisingly enough. But these things they work themselves out and people always shoot themselves in the foot in the end because basically they’re really stupid. Nigel Farage is very stupid. Young people will always think for themselves, they don’t always think properly for themselves but there will always be a sizable group of young people who are so disaffected by what’s going on that they make a choice which isn’t the status quo and that’s good.
Your new album is entitled ‘Subculture’ which is a really interesting title, what brought you to it?
Mainly, you just have to stand on stage at a Selecter gig and look out over the audience and there it is. It’s a subculture! Not only the fact that 2-Tone is a subculture but its because we embrace all the others; Mod, Punk, Skin Head, Rude Boys, Rude Girls, Soul Boys, all of that kind of thing and they’re all there. We can tour with other people who have a punk audience and we go down as well there as we do at our own shows. It shows that there is a lot of cross over and the main think about music is to have a lot of cross over and not to be so Catholic in your tastes that you end up some weird heavy metal idiot. Maybe they should be confined to their bedroom.
When you were writing the new tracks, where was the inspiration coming from?
Well, you’ve just got to look around, I mean we’ve got a track called Babylon. It’s a play on words, babble – on. What inspired that track was the day that a bomb was dropped on the Gaza strip on the coast on the sea side there were little boys were playing football and they were basically blown apart. Any people who stand around and say that that’s ok, I find is absolutely reprehensible. That needs to be sorted and that’s what we’re saying really, that these politicians really just babble on and they really are Babylon.
Since 1960 over 1000 black people have died in police custody and nobody has ever been prosecuted for that crime. They didn’t all die accidentally. One of them was our own Smiley Culture who police say stabbed himself in police custody, which I find very hard to believe. Nothing seems to get done about this, which is what the song ‘Breakdown’ is about. It’s not only happening here its happening in America too and just recently a video appeared on the internet of that young black girl being physically forced down to the floor straddled by a cop with his gun out and that was just for swimming. Then they wonder why riots kick off. That’s what ‘Breakdown’ is about. ‘Open Goal’ is about sexual inequality between men and woman and its about abusive relationships where women are treated like an open goal in some situations. But there are some sunny songs in there like ‘Box Fresh’ and ‘Karma’ which is basically about what goes around comes around. We’re not religious but I do believe that if you treat people right, then good things will come back to you. If I was going to believe in anything, I would believe in karma because that’s something that I can do every day. I can treat people well and we can all learn by example. It’s not good to go around being horrible to people because horribleness comes back to you. That isn’t a religion, that’s just common sense and makes for a good society.
I wanted to ask you about the song ‘Box Fresh’ because in the Bronx and the Hip-Hop scene wearing new trainers was a vital part of the scene and I wondered what that term meant to you.
Well everybody knows about wearing box fresh trainers and no that wasn’t in my mind. Really it was the first track I wrote for the album and I was sitting around at home and thinking we want this album to be refreshing and new. We didn’t want it to be a heritage album or sound stuck in the 80’s. I asked myself ‘how do I make this box fresh?