Siouxsie & The Banshees
"Tinderbox" talk with Severin, Budgie, Carruthers. New album, new chords.
The songs, their playing, the performing, their gear, the tunings, their regrets, a mention of fungus, and even their new LP, "Tinderbox" - all Banshee life is here, crammed into one brief interview with Siouxsie's musical cohorts, Steve Severin, Budgie, and John Carruthers.
This interviewing lark can be a joyous experience, when you meet people whose gigs you've been to, and whose records you've bought since their first single, and you find they're funny, friendly, and intelligent people, and not the awkward prats that most popstars turn out to be.
Allow me to introduce the band: blond haired, black-clad Steve Severin plays the bass with Siouxsie & The Banshees.
Steve: I've gone back to using Fender Jazz basses live - I still use the Musician Stingray, but not so much on stage, as it tends not to be so thick-sounding.
He uses a number of different bass guitars in the stage show.
S: They have different tunings. I'd worked something out on the piano, and was trying to play the chord shape on the bass. It was impossible for my fingers to reach it, so I started tuning up two of the strings so I could use a simple shape and play the thing I wanted to play. Then it led on to all the shapes I played on a normally tuned guitar giving me a whole catalogue of new songs. It plays havoc with John, as I now play A/C/D/A# instead of E/A/D/G. And I've used a DX7 on 'Red Over White'.
He also uses amplifiers and effects.
S: I think amps and things look really ugly - the audience don't want to see that sort of thing, they'd rather have an almost theatrical show. I use Ampeg SVTs and a rack full of choruses, flangers, and octave dividers - the octave divider is a very under-used effect, but not by me. It doesn't work on chords though, only single note things.
John Carruthers, with two years tenure, is the newest member of the group, and plays guitar. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a neatly handwritten piece of paper: it reads
GUITARS: Green Yamaha SG2000/brown sunburst SG1500/Hofner 'Verithin' semi T65/Ovation 'Glen Cambell' 12 string acoustic/Yamaha FG450 six string acoustic/Ovation Breadwinner solid body. EFFECTS: Drawmer Compressor/Boss Heavy Metal/MXR Flanger/Eventide Harmonizer & Delay/Ashley Twin Parametric/Yamaha 1010 analogue delay/Cry Baby Wah Wah/Boss Tuner; built into Quark Custom Rack with individual noise gates. AMPS: Marshall MV50 x2/Roland JC120 with ATC speakers x2.
Budgie drums, laughs a lot, and smiles disarmingly.
B: I couldn't write all my gear down... I've been using a Gretsch kit since 1980. My Eddie Ryan snare just died on me, so I've pulled out an old Gretsch wooden snare - 5½in, I think. I've been using the Gretsch kit so long, it's like an extension of me, but recently I've been trying to find a different sound, so I've acquired a Sonor kit with really heavy shells - 3 or 4 ply compared to the Gretsch, which is about 9. It takes the best part of a year before I feel at home with a kit, which is why I like acoustic drums. Trying to get that sound you have in your head is a very physical thing... I like players who dominate their instruments, there's no barrier between them and their instruments.
J: But not when the guitar becomes a phallus.
B: I don't see drums ever becoming a phallus... more of a fungicidal growth!
Siouxie & The Banshees began recording "Tinderbox" last April, in Berlin's Hansa Studios, with Hugh Jones producing and engineering. After a month, they returned to London's Garden Studios to work on overdubs. Mixing was held up by the disemployment of Mr Jones, and the hunt for a new producer. They spent some more time working on demos at Matrix ("cheapest SSL in the country"), until 'Cities & Dust', originally intended as a B-side, was released. Live dates followed, including a stint at Hammersmith Odeon during which Siouxsie severely injured a knee. The LP was finally finished in AIR Studios, in Oxford Street, with Steve Churchyard and The Banshees producing themselves.
B: We've written all of the songs from scratch, from ideas in the rehearsal room, and developed it that way. "Hyaena" and "Kiss In the Dreamhouse" happened much more in the studio. With this LP, we've thought more along the lines of "Ju-Ju", which was written before we went into the studio.
When you write, what comes first?
B: There's really no pattern with it - whoever gets to the rehearsal room first - bass line, drum pattern...
J: We've not had one start with lyrics as long as I've been here.
B: When Robert was writing with us for "Hyaena", he stopped playing guitar for some reason, and was writing a lot on piano - for instance, 'Swimming Horses', which had a lyric and tune early on... Sioux and Steve tend to hang onto their lyrics until suitable music appears.
How long has the LP taken to finish?
J: It's taken a good year; we took 2 days in Hansa Two [where Iggy Pop's "The Idiot", and "Heroes" were recorded] just to get the drum sound.
B: When you take so long recording in so many places, with so many people, you realise how different things can sound.
J: Some tracks I ended up covering all the guitar parts four times: by the time you'd got from Germany to London, you didn't know where the hell you were. Things would suddenly sound completely strange because of the monitors, so I'd do parts again, then decide I really liked the feel of the first one, and I'd try and get that back... in the end, I went completely mental for three days. We left all the mistakes in - I hate playing everything note perfect.
Did you use a click track on the drums to help keep the timing tight? I read that Budgie once experimented with a strobe flashing in time.
B: I gave up on the strobe - it just makes you feel sick. Steve does a lot of things with drum machines, and sometimes you want to retain that initial simple rhythm box demo feel. Then you need the consistency that a click track gives.
S: Obviously you need one when there are sequencers in there, as on 'Cities & Dust' and 'Painted Bird'.
B: We used a Dr Rhythm, on 'Red Light'.
Do you use many sequences?
S: Not as many as I'd like. I love sequences.
J: I play a lot of sequence-like stuff on the album, purely because I've got an echo box, and this trick I've nurtured for six years of playing in time with it, like on 'Land's End'...
S: And if John's not doing it, I play a lot of cyclical stuff on the bass...
J: With hindsight, I think I over-complicate this LP a bit; as I was trying so hard to get an idea across, I was playing far too many notes. A couple of the tracks have got eight guitar parts on them... playing it live, you spend all your time standing on pedals instead of getting into the guitar. I'm gonna make a conscious attempt to write more concisely on guitar from now on. The next thing we do will be a lot more basic, guitar wise.
"Steve Severin: The only bass player I've ever listened to is Holger Czukay from Can... everything else is nonsense."
Do you play together live in the studio when you're recording?
J: We do, in order to get a good feel for the drums; then we might keep the bass, but we always redo the guitar.
B: When we do it initially with all the group in there, I'm trying to pick up on what might be the end result, trying to anticipate what might be coming on top, putting the punctuation in before there's really anything to punctuate - I follow the inflections of the voice crescendo.
So the drums take their cues from the voice?
B: I don't just listen to the voice. It depends what stage the song is at when we're recording it - sometimes we'll have been playing it for quite a long time, and something quirky might happen when you get it to the studio. Or we might still be arranging when we start recording; then I am listening very much to the others.
Where does the bass fit in?
S: I play somewhere between the drums and voice. People used to tell me that I should listen to the drums - I've always thought that's complete nonsense. If you just listen to the drummer, things get stiff: it's more intuitive. The idea of a bass should be to lock the group and the melody together somehow, travelling between all three instruments, trying to find where the actual right timing of the whole group is. On 'Pull To Bits', the bass line just repeats and everything changes over the top of it, with everyone working off that. But playing live, there has to be a performance to it: if you don't play as if you mean it, it sounds awful.
How do you go about getting a good performance in the studio, though?
S: The most important thing is to get the right headphone balance, or the right position of each person in the studio. We all play in the same room if we can.
Are there any songs that shine as good performances?
S: All the performances on the new album, especially 'Parties Fall', which is a brilliant performance, and a terrible mix - our lost cause, that song. 'Candyman' was a good performance... It's partly playing until it's right, but it also depends whether you recorded the song in its embryonic stage, as they develop and gain dynamics when you hear them on stage. With this album, we tried to write and play as much of it as we could before we recorded it.
Are there songs that you regret having recorded in embryonic form?
S: Oh God yes, 'Israel'.
B: We were playing that in the BBC Pebble Mill studios for the Something Else programme, writing the middle section while we were there. It changed after that... it was one of the songs we wrote on tour.
S: All of the last album, "Hyaena", would have been better if we'd gone out, played it, and cut it down a bit.
Although The Banshees are now on their second drummer, and fourth guitarist, and are coming up for their tenth anniversary as a recording band, they remain remarkably vital. I know, 'cos I saw them at Hammersmith Odeon on their last tour, and even with Siouxsie's leg in plaster they were astonishingly powerful. So don't argue. I asked Steve how the Banshees' songs had changed over the years.
S: The arrangements have stayed basically the same, but they change both because we have a new guitarist playing them (most weeks), and because Budgie tends to punctuate to the vocals. One of the reasons we're still here is that we're in a constant state of rebuilding; being a democratic four piece, we had to build up virtually a new group when John joined, and this takes quite some time, as we all have our own ideas.
J: I had to learn about 30 songs in 10 days. It was horrible.
How has John changed the group?
S: I get more lip than I ever did before.
B: It feels like the group felt around the time of "Ju-Ju", when we were quite settled as a unit. That happens when you start to write together.
Did you have to adapt your style?
J: Yeah, very much... it was far more technical than anything I'd done before. I used to rely on effects pedals for doing sound washes, playing noises, and Frippertronics ...
B: Steve uses different bass tunings, so John has to tune accordingly.
J: I just tune to a chord I like, then find the fingerings. I've one standard tuning with the top two tuned down a semi, one where the G string's tuned up a tone. There are 3 songs in the Banshees where the E string is tuned down to get a low D for a drone...
Steve's thick heavy chordal bass style is one of the band's most distinctive elements...
S: In the beginning, because McKay was coming up with such strong chord structures, I hadn't needed to play chords, and the bass had a sort of dynamic role, pushing and pumping. Basically when he and the drummer left, and suddenly it was just Sioux and me, then very quickly Budgie, we realised that we would have to write songs without a guitarist. The first song I really used those chords was 'Christine'.
J: We have to watch where we're playing - sometimes Steve plays right up the neck, which means the guitar either has to go even higher, or lower. If we just played in the same register, the whole thing would be a mass of noise. Steve sometimes cross-picks chords as well, which can also make things difficult for me. So we either play in unison, or apart from each other, to give the songs a bit of space.
Do you have any hints for young musicians?
B: Don't be scared of trying something, even if people tell you it's not the done thing. With playing drums, it's not the speed that counts... it's probably what you don't play. The simplest things are usually the best.
J: If you want to be a session guitarist, learn everything; if you want to be someone like Stanley Jordan, forget everything you were ever told - it doesn't matter what tunings... I think he's probably the most innovative guitarist playing today.
S: Not to follow any trends, I think is the most important thing - we've survived because we've never taken any notice of what was #1. Budgie's never been to the Townhouse for that Phil Collins drum sound, we're never gonna have a Trevor Horn Fairlight sound - these fads aren't going to last very long. Just ignore everybody else and get on with what you want to play, and what your vision of music should be.
Interview by Jon Lewin
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