Tinder Is The Night
Siouxsie & The Banshees
The how of the Banshees, transcribed by Richard Walmsley
For nearly a decade Siouxsie and the Banshees have been lighting fires. Now after four guitarists and eight albums do they still have the spark?
Just off the Caledonian Road in North London is a large, rather grubby rehearsal studio. Teeming and busy, stacked with bulky items of stage soiled equipment in padlocked cages, dotted with offices and peopled by long haired men and women in tight jeans, it feels like a cross between a student union and Steptoe's yard. It may be a Happy House, but it seems an awful long way from Israel or Hong Kong Gardens.
Nevertheless, incongruous though it may seem, it's the place where Siouxsie and the Banshees, that most aloof and self determined offspringing from the mythical Punk era, are meeting to rehearse their coming engagements.
The Banshees are mortals though, as I found out whilst waiting in the cafe for the band to arrive. A character enters, mingling easily with the roadie-types enthusing over the predicted Led Zeppelin reunion. His face I don't recognise, though he is betrayed by his jet black hair and full length black cloak.
This is in fact John Carruthers, onetime guitarist with the Sheffield-based band Clock DVA, and the successor to John McKay, John McGeogh, and Robert Smith as the latest Banshee guitarist. The album which the band have just finished recording is his first.
The original Banshees line up of Steven Severin on Bass, Kenny Morris on drums and John McKay, has almost been forgotten now, the colourful character of Budgie overshadowing Morris, and Severin being the only original member to survive. And if you thought that the steady succession of guitarists was an indication that the band tended towards the headstrong you wouldn't be far wrong.
"To differing degrees all the band are quite headstrong," explains the new boy, "and I wouldn't be able to survive in that atmosphere unless I was more or less the same."
In a world where producers are often held in higher regard by the record companies than the bands themselves, this wilful nature spelt problems during the recording of their latest album, Tinderbox.
"We know what we want and if somebody else can't get it, it's up to us to do it. We started last February doing production rehearsals with Bob Hesrit, who's well known for his work with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. We all admired the Berlin album, but it turns out that the whole album was made around Lou Reed's demos, because he failed to turn up at any of the recording sessions. So Bob took all the vocals off the demo, and built a whole album round it with his piano, orchestral arrangements, and bringing in people like Jack Bruce. Anyway, he seems to have gone totally Mega-Rock now and he only seemed to be interested in making a Rock and Roll album. As a new boy in the band he didn't seem to be interested in what I had to say, and he was all for getting in a Heavy Metal guitarist instead at one point. He lasted about a week."
The recording sessions carried on in a similar vein at Hansa Berlin, The Garden, Matrix, Angel and Airstudios in London. The guitar parts recorded in Berlin all had to be scrapped when they got back to England.
"The room where we recorded in Germany wasn't soundproofed or anything and they had horrible JBL monitors. When we got back to England the guitars didn't seem to have any presence or clarity at all. So we just kept the drums, that was all."
John's forerunners, McKay, McGeogh, and Smith, were all stylists — character guitarists — and so it's safe to assume that John himself has an idea or two in his head that make him stand out as an instrumentalist.
"When everyone is using Strats and compressing them; getting that really studio sound, I like to get hold of a really old guitar and stick it through a Fender twin every now and then. My favourite guitar is a Hofner T6S, a new version of a Hofner Verythin with active electronics. As far as I know they only brought a couple into the country. I like it because it has such a range of tones on it. It's got treble and bass roll off, and it's just a very fine sounding guitar. I'm not a great fan of DI sounds, so I usually stick two amplifiers through two mikes and get out of the room because it's so loud."
As a member of the band that inspired many of the sounds of The Cocteau Twins, it's understandable that guitar effects have had to play a large role in Carruthers' style.
"Effects are something I'm only just coming to terms with. We got a bloke from Quark to build racks for us, because we got so fed up with using separate units, so now everything is switchable from one pedal board."
However, for the numerous live shows that Siouxsie and the Banshees do, a lot of attention has to be given to this aspect of guitar playing simply because the restrictions on stage are far greater than in the studio.
"I use all manner of Boss pedals — octavers, wah-wahs and so on when I'm in the studio, but I like to keep it to a minimum when we go on stage because with 10 buttons to press I invariably press the wrong one! You have to go for a compromise in sound because it creates havoc out front when you're switching between a loud sound and a very thin, reedy sound. We've tried using compressors to smooth out the level between the two, but it tends to dampen out the dynamics. Steve won't use one at all even though we've tried to make him. So anyway, I try to go for a basic sound and colour it with effects."
John's playing style, in spite of his having broken all his knuckles during a contre-temps with a skinhead a few years back, includes picking as well as using the plectrum. Although he can't claw pick now, he has developed a fast picking style, the only limitation being that he can't do it in rhythm! He also makes use of a number of unusual tunings.
"Mostly when I use a funny tuning it's because I can't be bothered to learn the proper fingering. I don't use things like DADGAD, or tune to an A chord.
One thing I have done is tune all the strings to one note, like an A. The first people to do that were the Glitter Band, and that's how they got that peculiar Yowl sound. It's mainly an effect; you fret across the strings with a bar to play melodies, but when you've got five strings all tuned to one note and the amp is turned up, it sustains forever."
At this point Severin, the man who uses aluminium picks and has the hazardous habit of blowing PA rigs out, arrives. The coolest of the Banshees, he has nevertheless worked in close conjunction with all the Banshee guitarists, the only exception being perhaps Robert Smith.
"On Hyaena it was a completely different writing situation. I would put my bass lines down, and then Robert would come in and put down what he wanted either on guitar or piano. He played a lot of piano on that album because he didn't want to do too much guitar; either he was bored with it, or he wanted to save himself for The Cure".
Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but for this album, the band tried to discipline themselves by going into the studio with eight songs ready worked out.
"The situation at the moment is much more like it was at the JuJu period, where me and John McGeogh would sit down together and write the songs from scratch. Mind you, it's not just me and John (Carruthers). Budgie writes a hell of a lot of tunes, and you also get a lot of ideas from his drum style."
Whilst Siouxsie and the Banshees have always kept their distance from the world of Heavy Metal guitar bands, they nevertheless have the same instrumental line up as a "power trio" and have to keep some of the same considerations in mind.
"Unlike normal bass players who play bass lines, I'll actually play three note chords and play triplets across them with the pick. We usually try to keep out of each other's way so that if John's playing down the bottom I'll play up the top, so we don't get a horribly middly sound. It's basically about filling the whole musical space, but we have three instruments to do that, because Budgie's drumming style enables him to fill up points where there would normally be a gap in a three piece band."
For John Carruthers such demands meant only one thing when he did his first tour with the band; he had to learn all the guitar parts from the older songs that they performed.
"The one I found hardest was John McKay. Apparently when he started he had no conventional skill in guitar playing, like chords or lines. He must have had hands like a gorilla because he was playing chords like this (stretches hand right out). I've no idea what they were, and you couldn't tell by listening because they were going through fuzz and flangers."
Meanwhile, down in studio two, Budgie was adjusting his new Sonor Phonic Plus, Hi-Tech finish drum kit, (reviewed elsewhere in this very issue.) Since his earliest days with Siouxsie, after finishing with The Slits, Budgie has used his old Gretsch kit almost exclusively. So much so, in fact, that he describes it as an extension of himself now.
One of the main attractions of the Sonor kit for Budgie, was it's seemingly Teflon-coated finish, however at this precise moment he was mainly using it as an experiment to see how well he could relate to another kit. At the moment he has no plans to stop using his older, self-built kit.
"We were down Putney one day, and this guy had these Gretsch shells, and I just started from there with two 14" and 15" rack toms, 18" floor tom and a 22" bass drum. I built it up just doing simple things like putting Premier fittings on, and getting to know what heads sounded best on them. I use Ambassador heads now, and all the drums are double headed. The bass drum has a wide hole cut in the front head, and I just chuck a towel or a cushion inside."
Budgie's style of drumming has extended past the realms of simple rhythm playing — especially since he and Siouxsie recorded together as The Creatures — into the domain of the semi-melodic. Naturally the way his drums are set up reflects this.
"With the Gretsch I get different notes out of the drums. Not actual musical notes, but just tuning them in ways which bring out the resonance of the drum. The tuning is very important, the bottom heads as well. I usually tune the bottom heads about a tone below the top one, so you get the tension, but you also get the after ring. With the Sonor I've found that there are two completely different sounds on the top and bottom heads, so you can mike them separately and blend them together at the mixing stage."
It would be easy to call Budgie's attitude to percussion conservative, but that's only because the electro buffs seem to have railroaded the term 'innovative.'
"I did try syndrums a bit when they first came out, but I find it takes all my time to get good sounds out of these drums, and I find that more exciting. I don't use LinnDrums either, because I like to get the sound and resonance of a whole kit, rather than individual drum sounds like on a machine. This Sonor kit has just come from the recording studio, and there's nothing dampened on it apart from a little bit of towel sellotaped to the front head of the bass drum. In the studio I like to leave all the drums undamped, and I only use noise gates on the snare, because the whole ambient sound of a kit is what I aim for. We recorded the drums for the new album in Hansa studio two, and Angel studios in Islington, both of which are like big church halls. At Hansa, we set the drum kit up on the stage and had ambient mikes at various distances down the hall, the furthest being about eighty feet away."
Once again, when playing live — like the rest of the band — Budgie has to accept a few compromises.
"Not using dampers tends to cause a few problems when we play live, but we get round them by using noise gates, especially on the lowest tom toms. I change the tuning of the drums all the time in between numbers; it's become a sort of second nature to me now. I ride on the toms as well as on the cymbals, and I do patterns across the toms, so they don't stay in tune. Therefore during the gig I just touch round the kit with the drum key to get the fine tuning right."
Budgie's attitude however is that he will try anything, and he does use effects on the drums, and has created percussive tracks that would only be possible using electronic means.
"I'll try anything, but only starting from this; there's no limitations to a real drum kit.
"Sometimes the sounds are all effects, in the sense that the sound is going through every piece of outboard equipment. But it's still the sound of the drum kit in that I'm playing off the effects, such as a delay with a certain amount of regeneration of feedback that wouldn't otherwise exist. We use drums to trigger things, but normally I set that kind of thing up afterwards.
Like on Sweetest Chill off the new album. I'd recorded a marimba track which wasn't sitting right with the track, but did have the right atmosphere. So I triggered it with a gate from the snare so that most of the time there was no marimba, but when the snare got busy the marimba came in. It makes the snare sound pretty strange, but not so it doesn't sound like a snare beat anymore."
One track on which the Banshees did use a drum machine however was Cities in Dust. John Carruthers tells how that came about.
"Cities in Dust wasn't intended to be on the album. Steve came down with a cassette of the drum machine and the synth line, and it turned into a song inside six hours. The drum machine was an old Roland box thing with all preset rhythms which can be set against each other, like a Samba and a March. We put the whole thing through a flanger which is where you get those weird ping pong noises at the beginning of the track, and then Budgie recorded drum tracks like on any other song."
Well the rehearsal had to begin some time and it did, the band as I left them sounding no different from a hundred other bands beginning a practise. In the street a pair of young goths were passing on their way to the launderette. They halted as a familiar strain wafted from within. Several bum notes followed. They shrugged and walked off quite unaware just who it was "murdering that classic."