Not Typical Girls Not Trapped Animals: The Slits Interview
, October 22nd, 2009 02:46
Will Parkhouse meets Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt to talk about getting dissed by Bob Marley, the sexism of the music business and the importance of being a Slit
There are a number of eye-catching types wandering past Ladbroke Grove tube station on a Wednesday afternoon, but Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt still aren't hard to miss. Ari, The Slits' lead singer, who started the band at the tender age of 14, is now in her late 40s, and bassist Tessa has crossed the line into 50, but as they lollop towards us, it's hard not to notice a certain effervescence about them. The glances of passers-by — perhaps drawn by Ari's ever-extraordinary rusty red dreadlocks, thick as rope — bounce off the duo and their lack of self- consciousness.
They must be used to the attention by now, though. This year marks the 30th anniversary of The Slits' classic first album, Cut, which neatly coincides with Island Records' 50th birthday, making it a shoo-in for a deluxe redux remastered rerelease. Meanwhile, Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits, Zoë Street Howe's account of five and a half chaotic years and the first ever book about the band, hit the shelves in July.
Then there's the small matter of a new album. Having reformed for 2006's excellent Revenge of the Killer Slits EP, which featured a ramshackle line-up of newbies and old faces — Paul Cook (The Sex Pistols), Marco Pirroni (Siouxsie and the Banshees) and Chris Hughes (Adam and the Ants) were all involved, though original Slits guitarist Viv Albertine wasn't — Ari and Tessa recruited three new members, including Cook's daughter Holly. And, 28 years on from second album Return of the Giant Slits, Trapped Animal is ready to be released.
Having stopped by a heavily-graffitied wall (its top right corner bears Tessa's name) for an impromptu photo session, we arrive at the Inn on the Green. Ari is sprite-like, all piercing blue eyes and scattershot rants in that odd Germaican accent; Tessa's the laid-back philosophical one, keeping the conversation on course. We settle down for drinks, cigs and a chat about why The Slits deserve a bit of damn credit.
Tell us how The Slits reformation came about in 2006.
Tessa Pollitt: It's funny, we hadn't seen each other for a long time, but, uncannily, we were both thinking about it. I went to the grave of my daughter's dead father [Rip Rig & Panic bassist Sean Oliver, who died in 1990 from sickle cell anaemia] and was just feeling a bit lost, you know, like: "Help me, help me! Give me a sign!" [laughs]
Ari Up: He did though, didn't he?
TP: I hooked up with a good friend of his from the label we did the EP with and he said: "You should get the Slits back together." I went to see Ari at a solo gig in London and we just clicked straight away. It was like we'd been having parallel lives and it felt like months, not years, that we hadn't seen each other.
AU: Yeah, we lived in totally different worlds, but we had the same vision and the same musical interests. Trying to get The Slits going started from 2004 really. I arrived back in London on 7/7, when the city was being bombed. They called it the biggest thing since the Blitz, Blitz rhyming with Slits, so I wrote a song; it was like being in the Blitz again, trying to get the Slits going. Then there was the hurricane that affected me because some of my kids were in Jamaica – hurricane Emily, Dennis and all of that shit – and I was thinking, "Hmmm, bombing, hurricane, bombing, hurricane." Then there was the hurricane of New Orleans and we were in the middle of that doing the EP. It was typical Slits.
You seem to have a very strong sense of the band's identity, but there's obviously been this huge hiatus – you never thought of trading under a new name?
TP: No, not at all.
AU: That's a normal question to ask, not only because of the time that's passed, but how burdened we were with our name in the beginning, because it meant we were banned, couldn't be played on the radio. But there's no way we could use a new name, because The Slits is the legacy, it's something that people are dying to see now and to hear. It's a name that doesn't sound so impossible to work any more.
Why's the new album called Trapped Animal?
AU: [screams] BECAUSE WE'RE ALL TRAPPED ANIMALS! WE'RE TRAPPED, WE ARE!
Why are you trapped? Are you frustrated?
AU: No, no, no, we're not frustrated. It's mythological: it's relating humans to animals. I grew up with a lot of fairy tales. People used to read me animal stories that were really about humans.
TP: I think we have animal in us, as well.
Are we all trapped?
AU: I think we're trapped.
TP: We are trapped in our earthly existence
AU: I think we're trapped by society. I think it stinks. [Puts on New York accent.] It's rotten. Rotten to the core.
In what way?
AU: When we started in '76, why did we say: "Anarchy for the UK"? Why did we take part in that whole revolution, all of us? Because there was that total oppression. The system is fucked, it's totally fucked.
Has anything changed?
AU: No, it's gotten worse over the years.
Do you think punk made a difference?
AU: Yes, a huge one, and people are trying everything to relive it now, they're trying to find every way to see what we've been through – because they're desperate for a revolution themselves.
TP: It didn't last for long, but what it was followed with was… I just lost interest in music in the '80s period, I just went off music completely.
Was that a consequence of the band's demise?
TP: I think it's what specifically in England, maybe in America there was more going on…
AU: No, no, no. No, the '80s sucked, because it became yuppiefied – we had breakdancing, that was good, hip hop, reggae was still going on, but I basically just retreated into the jungle, lived naked in Belize and Borneo. I just couldn't handle it. Tessa went to Africa and lived in the desert. [Much laughter.]
What do you think of Zoë Street Howe's book about the group?
AU: I think it's got a lot of wrong info in it.
TP: There are quite a few mistakes, I'm hoping if they do a second edition they can correct a lot of mistakes. I still think it's good that finally there's a book about The Slits…
AU: And there are some good, good moments in it…
TP: It fizzles out a little bit towards the end, but it's supposed to be a celebration of Cut.
AU: They took a whole half a book before they got to Cut.
TP: It's interesting to have talked to all the people around us at that time, like [Cut producer] Dennis Bovell.
AU: I think there was too much bitchiness in there. I really wanna stay away from the gossip and the bitchiness, so if we had a book our way, we wouldn't have none of that.
TP: You're always going to be pissed off with something someone's said about you – but overall I liked it.
AU: The biggest mistake she made was how we met, where we met and the fact that we didn't build a group before the summer. I'll never forget the summer of 1976, because it was a heatwave and we hadn't built The Slits yet. She said we met at a Patti Smith concert and we didn't. We really met after the summer at a Clash concert, that's where I met Palmolive [drummer Paloma Romero, who left to join The Raincoats]. The summer was still really hot, it went on and on, till October or something. I don't know the exact month, but it wasn't in July or June, that's for sure, because I was still a schoolgirl in the school holidays, in Earl's Court, busy giving away kittens.
Um, why were you giving away kittens?
AU: 'Cos I had kittens.
Oh, it wasn't, like, a part-time job or anything?
TP: Ari the kitten dealer.
AU: [laughs] Yeah, Ari the kitten dealer.
It's not an official biography, but you were obviously quite involved in the process.
TP: Yeah, I was supporting her in doing it all along. I just thought it was really necessary, because most groups have a book about them. We're still trying to put ourselves on the map.
Why is that? One of the things that comes across in the book is that your influence has been underappreciated.
AU: 'COS WE WERE GIRLS! THE FIRST GIRLS!
For example, there's this persistent myth that the band weren't much good at playing their instruments…
TP: Exactly, but Island Records are rereleasing Cut, plus all our demos, instrumentals, before they've been produced and this will hopefully prove that to be untrue. It's got a real raw feel to it, it's unpolished, but that's got to show that it wasn't just the production.
AU: I think the John Peel sessions will be on it as well – they proved that we could already play pretty well.
TP: As [Trapped Animal producer] Adrian Sherwood's always saying, it's the charm of The Slits, that one moment it falls apart, then it's a moment of genius and then it's really humorous. There's no other group like us – there's nothing slick or superficial about us. I mean, we had a reputation for being difficult…
AU: And we were. We were. We were difficult to a degree, because we were so different. We wouldn't have that reputation now – it's 'cos we were 30 years ahead of our time.
TP: When I first started playing acoustic guitar, I was at college, and this guy came round to help me play the guitar. He said: "Why have you got your legs apart? Woman aren't supposed to sit like that…" And I was just sitting there normally in my jeans! It just makes me laugh really.
AU: We were living in the dark ages.
There are these two contrasting notions of The Slits in the book: the band that did achieve something amazing despite the odds being stacked against them and the band that maybe could've been so much bigger if they'd played the game a bit more. Would you have done anything differently?
TP: No, I wouldn't have changed it.
AU: You gotta remember, we might not have done it the compromising, commercial way, but then again, we had artistic control, which was unheard of. Jimi Hendrix didn't have it, he had to change his album cover.
How did you achieve that?
AU: We were genius, I guess, 'cos we were little girls, we weren't even grown women, we were fucking teenagers.
TP: We just got the lawyer to keep hammering away: "They will not compromise, they have to have this clause in the contract." We just didn't give up.
AU: We wouldn't have been able to have the Cut album cover if we didn't have that. We got a real fight with that cover. The A&R people didn't want it.
What do you feel when you look at that picture now?
AU: I think it was really, really the right thing. It expresses the way we still are, the way we feel, the way we sound and the way we visualise life.
TP: It could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. I like that about lyrics as well – it's going to get misunderstood, but then some people are going to get it. It has ambiguity.
AU: I like in the way that it offended the feminist rights women, for instance. We were just doing a thing spontaneously, naturally.
Yeah – you didn't have an agenda.
AU: I like the part in the Typical Girls book when it describes how a lot of people at that time were pretty asexual. There wasn't all that cock-rock agenda in the punk scene, which was great for The Slits, because it gave us so much support from the boys in that time. They weren't sexually motivated.
TP: It was childlike in a way.
AU: And it was the same with the girls: Siouxsie, Poly Styrene, Tina from the Tom Tom Club, they weren't thinking: "Oh, we're females and we have to make a stand." Same with the boys.
It was quite innocent, then? That's not really something you think of when you imagine the '70s punk scene.
AU: Yeah, it was. Now, when I look back on it, I never encountered any sexual harassment. I was only 14 and everyone was older than me, but never did a boy come up to me and say: "Oh, have you got a boyfriend, can I fuck you?" There was never any of that, there was always respect. We were protected by the boys as if we were sisters. We were never sexually humiliated. That shows the innocence, right there.
In terms of being women in the music business these days, do you feel like you're still up against it?
TP: Yeah, it hasn't changed at all. How many female groups are there? There are still hardly any all-female groups. There are more girls individually playing instruments, but it still feels like the same battle. We're still getting the same negative criticism a lot of the time. We'll see what happens with this album.
The story in the book which stuck with me was the one about Bob Marley removing the band's name from one of his songs [an early demo of 'Punky Reggae Party'] when he found out you were girls. That must have been quite hurtful.
AU: I was really, really hurt.
TP: Somewhere at home in my cassette collection, I've got the copy of it.
AU: Where the fuck is it?!
TP: I've got to find it, I've got to go through hundreds of cassettes.
AU: Don Letts will have it!
TP: He might.
AU: We must find it. We can't put it out officially because we'll get in trouble with Rita [Marley], but I'm sure we can promote it by putting snippets on the internet.
TP: As far as I can remember it went, "The Clash! The Slits! The Feelgoods will be there!" Maybe a couple of other names…
AU: Something like: "The Clash, The Damned, The Jam! The Slits, The Feelgoods will be there!" And he took out The Slits when he found out we were girls.
And who did he change it to?
AU: Some other band, innit. Forgot.
TP: They just sliced us out, slit us out of the tape.
AU: Totally slit.
AU: It was sad to us too, because we could really relate to reggae – it was such a totally inseparable part of us. We grew up with it. There were English reggae groups everywhere.
TP: It was all around us. In this area, there were so many houses with reggae music blaring out. It's so different now.
AU: So dead.
TP: It's kinda spooky, it's like a ghost town compared to how it used to be. There used to be shebeens, all around here, all-night blues parties in houses. It's just a different world.
AU: They had this whole revolutionary atmosphere, which was very impressive to us. If you listen to the Peel sessions, you'll already hear the influence. Tessa played heavy bass, reggae bass at an early stage. Most bands in the rock scene and even in the punk days – even The Clash, who were so influenced by reggae – played with a pick and they had a trebly bass sound. But even in our rawest punk stage, Tessa played with the fingers.
TP: I gave up on using a pick very early. I probably kept dropping it and losing it…
What do you think it was about the recording environment that turned Cut into such a great record?
AU: The Slits developed the Slits sound. To this day, no one sounds like us, no one. People trying to categorise the music has fucked us up over the years: "Oh, we can't label you, what are you?" It's… Slits! A totally new sound. We had no heroes. We had no one to look up to. It talks about Patti Smith in the book, but I didn't relate to anyone – I didn't use Patti Smith as my big hero.
TP: It was just instinctive female music. We weren't trying to play like men. We were just being ourselves.
You did face some physical violence…
AU: Always, oh yeah, it was dangerous. Every day we were worried about what could happen. Just walking on the street was really scary.
Was it ever tempting to give it up?
AU: Not when you're in a revolution, no way.
TP: No, because we so strongly expressed ourselves in the way we dressed, and that was part of us, as important as the music.
Was the hostile reaction because you were girls or because you were punk?
AU: Both, both. Everything, a combination.
TP: And, like, aliens. People were like: "What are those girls?"
AU: Witches! Burn them at the stake!
TP: Yeah, witches. That's the most similar thing you could compare it to in history.
AU: If they could've burned us…
TP: They would've done.
Trapped Animal is out on 26 October