By Poppy Tohill
Forming in mid 1979, with just a few breaks between 1981-1991 and 2006-2010, the 2 Tone ska revival band, The Selecter are currently celebrating their 35th anniversary together, and showing no signs of slowing down. Making their way to New Zealand for the very first time throughout their long career, to perform shows in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington this month, I had a chat with Selecter vocalist and front woman Pauline Black, about all things 2 Tone Ska Music, touring with The Selecter and their upcoming album and shows.
Not particularly having a lot of knowledge about the style of 2 Tone Ska music, I made sure I did a little research on the genre prior to the interview, although I thought I'd still be good to hear a description right from the lady whose been in the thick it for over 30 years, that many refer to as the Queen of Ska, none other than Black herself, so kicking off the interview, I sneakily asked, ‘How would you best describe the style of Ska music to someone who wasn't very familiar with it,' trying not to make it too obvious that I was one of those who ‘are not very familiar with it.' "I would best describe it as, very up full and joyful," Black happily chimed. "It is music that is obviously, lyrically, socially aware, and knows what is going on, and has some social commentary on that too," she continued. "Rock is a four on the floor type of beat, but ska is a four on the offbeat, the beat that makes you feel good," she laughed.
Remaining quite intrigued by this specific genre, Black went on to share just how she first became interested in this particular genre and style of music. "I guess really I became interested in 2 Tone Ska music, because I happened to be living in Coventry, where it originated, which is pretty much in the middle of England," she began. "I'd come to Coventry to go to university here and got involved with some musicians who were mixing up different sounds and doing something that I thought was really, really interesting," Black admit. "It wasn't the music I grew up with, but I was aware of it when I was growing up, because it's the music that originated in the late 50s/early 60s. At that time I was more interested in punk music and a lot of black soul music though, as those styles were my influences when I was growing up. But it was the way everything was getting mixed up together that really interested me with Ska music. I'm in great favour of mixing up everything, because it just makes for a more interesting society and more interesting music to listen to," she concluded.
"Yeah I guess so," Black responded when asked if music was always a big part of her life growing up. "It wasn't necessarily that I was involved in music, because I did a lot of things," she began. "Before I got involved with music, I was studying and then became a radiographer who does all the X-rays in a hospital, so I was just playing guitar and writing my own songs as a hobby at first really," she exclaimed. "Then I got involved with these guys who were beginning a band - which would then go on to be the Selecter, but initially I had no plans to be a musician," she added. "It was just a hobby and then before we knew it, we'd got a hit single, we'd been out on tour with madness and then low and behold we were touring around America and Japan. It was very much like that," Black explained. "I'm very much a, make it up as you go along person, so that's how I've lived most of my life," she laughed, before admitting, "I think it's an excellent way to live!"
Returning back to the conversation about 2 Tone Ska music, Black went on to talk about how she believes the impact of this music has changed over the past 20 years. "Well I'm amazed, when you actually consider the music we made was 35 years ago, that any one is interested in it anymore, let alone people half way around the world," she exclaimed. "But yeah, the music still seems to be making an impact. I mean, we've just been out doing a 35th anniversary tour of our debut album, ‘Too Much Pressure,' and we've found that people all know the words. So 2 Tone music still seems in very high regard, and The Selecter as well, and as a musician, you can't wish for too much more than that," Black honestly proclaimed.
This then began the conversation of us discussing the different generations of Ska musicians Black has seen come and go, and she was kind enough to share some helpful tips for young up and coming ska bands to consider. ‘I think the best things that young Ska bands can do is not copy," she remarked. "By all means cover other people's songs (we do), but don't copy and don't necessarily copy their style down to a tee also. Don't say, ‘hey I'm wearing a red fez and I've got this on and I've got that on, so I look as though I might be a member of Madness,' be totally original with it!" Black continued. "Grab it, take it and take all the best bits but bring your stuff to it and bring your words to it, your ideas and then build it on," she exclaimed. "Someone really needs to grab that batten that we're holding out now and say ‘yeah, I'm going to go forward with this."
With the mention of going forward, we went on to talk about the band's new album ‘String Theory' and how the subject matters and lyricalcontent related to numerous controversial social topics Selecter are known for singing about, have changed over the years, with their more recent releases. "I would hope so, other wise what are we talking about!" Black chimed, breaking into a laugh. "They have changed as we like remain relatively current in the things we talk and sing about. In ‘String Theory' we talked about the riots that went on in London, and with London's Burning. Now we're recording a new album at the moment which is going to be called ‘Subculture,' where we wanted to talk about what is happening in the Middle East and the things that are actually currently going on in the world and how the world are responding," Black explained. "That doesn't mean to say that the whole album is about that, but I think the odd song will definitely be about that. I mean there are ten million love songs out there, so occasionally somebody needs to sing about something else, because we haven't got the love thing right yet do we," she chuckled.
"I think the issues we discuss should be important to the whole world at the moment though. Because we're all connected by social media, and all those kinds of things. We're all tweeting about this, that and the other, and there are so many things happening out there, and it is your generation that is going to have to take it on board and do something about it. So, if I'm this little lone voice over here that says, ‘hey, what about this,' and someone takes that on board, then great. I mean Rihanna sounds great doing whatever, but what she's singing about is not the be all and end of the entire universe," Black truthfully concluded.
"It's defiant when people say I'm always standing up against racism. I mean, I'm not continuously standing on some battle front somewhere," Black laughed. "There are people, and normally they're called politicians, who are probably better equipped to do that, but I would support all activists if I agree with what they're standing up for, and obviously racism is very dear to my heart," she continued. "It's something that all countries, all people- usually left in the minority, have to endure, and my way of fitting it really, is being who I am. Being in the band I'm in and producing the kind of music that we produce. 2 Tone was established to have something to say about those issues, so we're doing the best that we can from our position," said Black.
"It's definitely flattering because it's better than some of the other names," she gleefully chuckled. "It's very flattering indeed. I don't really know what things like that mean," she admits. "2 Tone isn't over run with ladies, let us say, in terms of songwriters or performers. So it's not really like you have to rise through the ranks to become the queen of ska," she burst out laughing. "You kind of maybe just push one person out of the way, but that isn't really my style," she continued chuckling. "But if people choose to call me that, that's fine, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm the lead singer in the selector and I'm very proud to be that," she happily declared.
Having been with The Selecter for than more 30 years now, Pauline went on to tell me what touring with the band now a days is like compared to touring between 1979-82. "I think we are all older, all wiser and we all know our space now," she remarked. "No one gets in each others face or any of those kinds of things. It's absolutely wonderful to be back singing with Gaps, the other singer in the band too," she exclaimed. "He's a really lovely man and the one unique thing I think about The Selecter, is that it's a male/female duo up the front, and that is unique with all of the 2 tone bands, because that hasn't ever happened before. So that gives us much more breadth in the kind of songs we can sing, what we do and how we interact on stage. Everybody in the band is incredibly lively and that's the whole thing about ska music, is that it should have a joyous element to it and the audience should be dragged into that by the scarves on their neck, to make it go really well," she laughed.
"It's very hard to write completely from scratch together," Black replied, when asked about the bands songwriting process. People will come up with an idea for a song maybe on guitar or piano with a lead lyrical line, or lyrical idea," she explained. "It's much easier if you have all the lyrics done," she laughed, "because that's sometimes the hard bit. Then we build it up from there, take it into the band and go - ‘what do you think about this?' and someone might come up with a bass line. So it is collaborative, but it's collaborative in a way after the song idea is fully formed and you feel confident enough to say - ‘hey, what do you think about this?' Many end up in the bin!" she added, laughing.
"Both. I don't really mind these days," Black responded when asked what she prefers more out of recording in the studio or performing on stage. "But doing a really good gig usually kind of a festival-y gig so you're getting it across to a lot of people, is very very nice. But probably some of the best gigs that we ever do are in quite small venues and very intimate spaces. I know the ones in New Zealand are going to be like that, because you can just create a really really great atmosphere, and I mean for any band its all about creating the atmosphere on the night and the immediacy of it. Ska music is a very immediate music. Either you don't get it or you do get it, you don't dance, or you do dance. You don't have to sit around and surreally go through things, or think what we were meaning, we're not Pink Floyd you know what I mean. You can do that if you want, but it's better if you're moving to it. So yeah, I enjoy the immediacy of a really packed out small venue and everybody's there to see the band and they're really up for it."
With the mention of the band's upcoming shows in New Zealand, Black admitted, "We're New Zealand virgins, none of us have ever been there! I've been to Australia, because my mother lives there but never to NZ. So we're very excited about it! We're also looking forward to meeting the people, because that's another thing about The Selecter. I know that some bands come out to countries and when they turn up at the venues they sit backstage, and you never see them, apart from on stage, or if you do meet them you've paid a ton of extra money to get a VIP meeting with them. But we're not like that and I firmly stress that!" she poignantly stated. "I personally, and a number of the band members always come out before the show and after the show. We sell merchandise, and we're very very happy to talk to people and sign stuff. It's a much better approach if you're coming to a city you don't know. Getting on a bus and going around to see all the sights, is not as efficient as getting to know the people, and I always think that if you do that, you have a much better gig too, believe me. So I'm really looking forward to that," she honestly chimed.
"I never went to see those films that were made down there that everyone goes on about (Lord Of The Rings)," Black confessed. "But the first thing that pops into my head when someone mentions New Zealand, is this really great lighting person we had back in 1980 who was from New Zealand. It was just great to see a woman on tour, because usually all the people who surround tours are guys with their trousers round their bottoms and all the rest of it. So it was just really great to have this woman there, and of course I once made the mistake of saying she was from Australia, but she put me right back in my place," she laughed. "But she was just such a joy to be with, and ever since then, every New Zealander I've ever met, I've thought, ‘I really like these people!' So I'm going to be very intrigued to come down there and have a look at your place."
"Well this is our 35th anniversary of the ‘Too Much Pressure' album," Black replied when asked what we can expect from their shows, "But Imean it's going to be an emulation of all the highlights, and the hits from ‘Too Much Pressure,' the follow up album to that which is ‘Celebrate The Bullet,' then there will be a few tracks from both ‘Made In Britain,' and ‘String Theory' and we may be working on a song from our forthcoming album, ‘Subculture,' as well, so its going to be a good spread of 90s mins of I HOPE really good music!" she exclaimed.
Still on the topic of touring, Black informed me of her favourite country to tour. "I would say that the one I most probably like to tour or perform in, one just because of proximity and two because Italians really get it," she chuckled. "They just look so good as well because they've got all that Italian mod gear that they wear and all that kind of stuff. They're very stylish, but they really let their hair down and get all sweated up," Black remarked. "It's also a very warm place to go if you live in Britain!" she laughed. "So yeah, I would say Italy. But of course after we come to New Zealand I'm going to think that NZ is the most amazing country in the world," she concluded, laughing.
"There's loads of stand out moments," Black happily responded when asked if there were any particular highlights from the bands 35 year long career. Funnily enough there has been a lot of high points happen this year. We got to play the Isle of Wright festival here which is this really great historical festival (Jimi Hendrix played there) and people like that who are kind of giants in music (in my mind anyway)," she exclaimed. "So just to be asked to play the festival was really brilliant. But after that they have a poll as to how well all the bands did, and they ask the audience about this, and we came 5th or 6th! We were gob smacked," she begun laughing, "because we didn't think anyone would even notice us!" she continued chuckling. "So that was a huge high. I think in 2012 probably doing the Coachella festival in America was a huge high point for us also, because after our return that was like the first international big festival that we'd got to do. I tend to think about the highs of what have happened most recently as opposed to the highs that happened years and years ago," she admit. "Because those things tend to get forgotten," she laughed once more.
Not only has Pauline Black had a significant career throughout the music industry, but she spent over a decade acting in theatre and films. When asked how she got into acting, Black explained, "Like I said, I make it up as I go along and the one thing I've always been good at is performing. So if you're performing and somebody comes along and says, ‘hey, do you want to do a play? I know you've never done any acting before, but you can try!' you say, ‘yeah why not! I'll try that! Then somebody see's you on the stage and says, ‘well I'm doing this television programme, do you want to come audition?' so you go audition and you find you like that and it just kind of carries on from there," she explained. "So yeah, that's how it was. I don't necessarily prefer one to the other," she admits. "I think that I prefer performing music more than anything else, but all of those different disciplines have their own way of behaving. and it's good to learn those disciplines, because they all cross over at some point in time. So you get better at everything!"
"Probably what I ought to be doing," Black jokingly responded when asked what she thinks she'd be doing if she weren't in the performing arts and entertainment industry. "Honing back my medical coat as it were, and slipping off across the world to people with the Ebola Virus, or something like that. I would have carried on working in the hospital," she confessed.
As the interview drew nearer to an end, Black went on to tell me what she believes are the best and worst aspects of today's music business, and whether or not she thinks its harder to sustain a living as an artist. "That's a tricky one, because The Selecter has had a number of hits and even after all these years, is still a named bands, so therefore, for us it's not that hard to get ourselves some shows and do tours, and those kinds of things. But for young people who are starting out, Its both easier and harder," she exclaimed. "It's kind of weird, because you've got social networking, so yes, you can get your video up there and get your song heard, much, much easier than what we could. We had to have a record player and be able to make records and all that, but now days you can just backwards and forwards mp3s with your phone! But because of that, loads of people have come into the market place, so it's very difficult to get yourself seen. So that's why my advice to any upcoming ska bands is be original, because that's the main thing. Be original and never copy!" she triumphantly remarked.
As we began chatting about various artists, the interview came to an end as Black informed me of why she doesn't have any musical inspirations, as such. "I get inspired by artists, but when people talk about inspirational artists, in some way they're obliged to think of someone who might have had some influence on the music you personally make. But I don't really look at it like that. I get off on the energy of somebody if i really like what they're doing. So it could be a jazz performer like Billie Holiday, or it could be someone like Bjork who is Icelandic and does the weirdest stuff in the world but is just really, really cool because she's her own woman and is original. That's what I look for in other woman, is some degree of originality. It gets a little bit boring when it's yet another singer songwriter whose got a guitar. I like my woman to be relatively out there and strong with an opinion and all that," she exclaimed. "I'm afraid that the ‘I'm wearing a nice cute cardigan and I'm playing this track,' just doesn't do it for me! It might do for other people, but I mean like wise, I don't consider that, ‘what's the skimpiest outfit I could possibly wear to get myself noticed' is the way to go either, but if it works for you, then who am I to say. All I can say is I have a particular style and I look for other people who have an originality of style and have done something with the music that they do- whether I like it or not is irrelevant, but if what they're doing is interesting, then I'm hooked."
The Selecter NZ Tour
Thursday 9th October: DuxLive, Christchurch
Friday 10th October: Bodega, Wellington
Saturday 11th October: The Studio, Auckland
Tickets via Metropolis Touring