Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Exclusive: Interview With Pauline Black Of The Selecter

For my money, The Selecter and Pauline Black embody the best of 2-Tone and if pressed to name my favorite album of the entire 2-Tone era I would have to say "Celebrate The Bullet" by The Selecter. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Now don't get me wrong. I love The Specials first album and I am always moved by the near perfect majesty of 'Ghost Town' and the straight forward and soulful lament of 'Why'. The first album by The Beat was the soundtrack to my youth and I love the way I can track different times and places in my life by each Madness album. Indeed, 'Victoria Gardens' and 'The Sun and The Rain' are among my top 10 favorite songs of all time.

However, in my humble opinion "Celebrate The Bullet" broke the mold and remains the most creative and unique collection of songs to come out of the whole 2-Tone era. I wouldn't even call it a ska album necessarily. This is a dark, haunting, bluesy iteration of ska that to my knowledge has never been attempted before or since (No Doubt tried and failed). This is very intense and emotional music. For that reason, it is a very unique record and it goes against the grain of what fans of 2-Tone probably expected when it was released. At times the songs have a new wave feel via synthesized keyboard melodies that buzz over Neol Davies' blistering, bluesy and soulful guitar solos and riffs. Other times its almost undefinable as the songs are driven by a seamless melting pot of rock, reggae and new wave via memorable melodies that stick in your head. In fact, I would argue that 'Celebrate The Bullet' is on par with 'Ghost Town" as one of the best songs of the 2-Tone era. And personally, its the very end of 'Bristol and Miami' when there is an acapella chant taken from The Beatles 'Black Bird' that seals the artistic and emotional quality of the record for me.

I had the honor and pleasure to meet Pauline Black and Neol Davies when my band supported The Selecter when they toured the US in 1991. I most recently saw her when she and Lynval Golding of The Specials sat in on tour with The English Beat in 2006. The highlight of those shows was when Pauline came out mid-set to perform 4 songs by The Selecter. Black remains a triple threat as an artist -- she sings, acts and writes -- and she remains one of the most intriguing personalities to emerge from the 2-Tone era. While some members of other 2-Tone bands distanced themselves from their legacies, Black kept writing and recording new music under The Selecter moniker through the 90's and into the 2000's.

As the band celebrates its 30th anniversary, she has returned with renewed energy and vigor to reclaim the spirit that fueled the band and has moved forward in playing live shows around the world in the last year. Despite differences with some of her original bandmates that mirror The Specials reunion saga of last year (guitarist Neol Davies has announced the formation of his own version of The Selecter with a new singer), Black is enjoying a well deserved resurgence.

Black recently conducted a detailed, straight-forward and honest interview with me about the current state of The Selecter, her forthcoming book, solo record and a screenplay about her 2-Tone experience, as well as the 'Celebrate The Bullet' album, which also happens to be her favorite by the band.

You have been touring quite a bit lately. What kind of response have you been getting from fans around the world? Are there any plans to come to the U.S.?

I was asked to do the Warped Tour this year, four dates on the West Coast, but in the end it proved impossible to make the schedule work. Coming to the US is certainly on my agenda, but it is probably going to be next year in 2011.

I returned to the “live” performance scene again, largely because I had an offer from two South American agents to tour in Argentina and Brazil in early 2009 and I was feeling adventurous.

I didn’t have a band together at the time, having disbanded The Selecter due to some directional difficulties with my songwriting partner Nick Welsh, in 2006, after a fruitful 15 years of building up a solid reputation on the “live” ska circuit all over the world. It was a welcome opportunity to re-charge my batteries and for Nick to follow his particular path with Skaville UK.

The Selecter achieved much from 1991-2006, 2 live albums, featuring Neol Davies, 4 studio albums after Neol’s departure, 3 Trojan Songbook albums,2 Selecter Acoustic albums “Unplugged For The Rudeboy Generation” and “Requiem For a Black Soul”, plus a collaboration between Jake Burns(SLF), JJ Burnel(The Stranglers), Bruce Foxton (The Jam) & Nick Welsh and me for the ‘3 Men & Black” Acoustic album. Nick and I were rarely short of new ideas or songs during those years. Often it felt like “pissing in the wind” during the “ska doldrums” of the late 90’s & early Noughties, but we buoyed each other’s spirit until it was obvious that we could no longer move musically forward. We decided to disband in December 2006, possibly less than amicably, but always with a lot of respect. I believe both of us are now beginning to reap the benefits of decisions made during those tough times.

From 2006- early 2009, I performed a show “The Very Best of Nina Simone & Billie Holiday” with a jazz trio as an homage to these two great ladies. The trio included Pick Withers (Dire Straits) on drums and Dom Pipkin (currently touring with Paloma Faith) on keyboards & Nigel Portman-Smith on double bass. I also performed on the “This Is Soul Tour 2008” with Geno Washington and Eddie “Knock On Wood” Floyd. Both projects were eminently enjoyable and allowed me to stretch my wings beyond purely ska or 2-tone music. The Geno show was kind of ironic, because he supported the original Selecter at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles during our 1980 US tour when his career was in a similar downturn phase. It was a real pleasure for me to be included on the bill with these two fantastic artists, who still generate so much energy on a stage.

After my two-year hiatus, I was feeling particularly gung-ho as regards performing again, so I decided to re-enter the fray by going somewhere entirely different-South America-a whole continent in a different hemisphere that apparently had a very different “take” on the ska sound.

Initially, I went to Brazil to do 6 very successful shows in Sao Paolo, Porto Alegre, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba & Campinas, backed by an excellent homegrown ska band, Firebug. Then I did two shows in Argentina, in Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata with Doreen Shaffer of The Skatalites billed as “The Queens of Reggae and Ska”. I have known Doreen a long time and the shows really were the perfect fit for both of us. While in Buenos Aires I met a young man with a furious talent, Hugo Lobo, who plays trumpet and leads his own mega ska band, “Dancing Mood”. Instantly we had a rapport and he invited me back to Buenos Aires the following October to headline a concert that he organized in front of 30,000 people complete with Nyabinghi drummers and a 30 piece string orchestra, where I performed, “Bristol & Miami”, a self-penned song for the Selecter’s “Celebrate The Bullet” album, for the first time in 29 years! (see the video of this performance below). We have collaborated since on other recorded material and a DVD of the concert will be released soon in Argentina. On my return to the UK, I was asked by Neville Staple and Ranking Roger to join them on their “Legends of Ska” tour in Dubai and Australia.

It was after these musical excursions that I decided to work primarily as a solo artist and concentrate on my new material, as well as the Selecter hits and some choice covers. This involved forming a new band. Initially Neville Staples’ band very kindly offered to back me and learn my set. This was just an interim measure until I could build myself a band that I was happy with. It’s taken a lot of rehearsal and gigging, but currently I have my own fantastic 6 piece band including a choice horn section and 19 year old keyboard wizard Greg Coulson. The band has been working and rehearsing hard for the past few months and now has garnered a couple of nice reviews along the way and a date sheet that is filling up all the time in the UK and Europe.

You just signed a publishing deal for your memoir 'Black By Design.' What was it like to write a book? Did you sit down and write everyday?

I have been writing short stories and opinion pieces for BBC Radio 4 in the UK for years, since the early 90’s. I also wrote a novel in the mid 90’s “The Goldfinches” which picked up publishing interest, but then the recession hit and money was scarce and the interest evaporated. Therefore I did not approach my book as a novice. I knew that I wanted to write my own memoir. When a “ghost writer” is used it is usually obvious. The main difference between my first outing into the book world and now, is that I got a literary agent. Without a literary agent it is almost impossible these days for a writer to be taken seriously by publishers. Publishing interest in my memoir was there from the beginning, largely because I was the only female among the bands that did the legendary “2-tone tour” in 1979 and also because I have extended my repertoire over the past 30 years to include, acting, presenting, radio broadcasting & writing, while still remaining active as a musician throughout the 90’s and Noughties. Therefore my story covered a wider brief. I didn’t want my memoir to be just about the brief period of the 2-tone years. Fortunately my literary agent and publisher agreed with my approach. For the book to have been signed by influential, maverick publisher “Serpent’s Tail” is very much a dream come true. They have a great publishing history reflecting many of the books that have influenced me throughout my life, most notably many of the “Harlem Renaissance” writers like Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen.

Primarily, “Black By Design” is about my search for my cultural and racial heritage, which, I discovered, had surprisingly original beginnings. It vigorously discusses the twin evils of “racism” and “sexism”, which gave me the motivation to join a 2-tone band in 1979 and enter the ongoing musical polemic offered by that inclusion.

I wanted my book to be “ideas driven”, to ask some difficult questions about what it meant to grow up black in a predominantly racist Britain in the 50’s and 60’s and how being adopted into a white working class family influenced my decision to choose music as a career path. I didn’t want to write some dishonest potted history of my private life or just a scrupulously kept diary. Hopefully I have achieved my goal.

Your new album 'Pigment Of My Imagination' features an amazing cover of The Motels 'Total Control'. What prompted you to record a version of it?

The Selecter’s tour manager, Malcolm Rigby, had this Motel’s song on tape and used to play it on our tour bus during the band’s first visit to the US in 1980. I immediately loved the song and it has remained as a firm “all-time favourite” of mine ever since. When I was putting new material together for the album, the idea of covering the song surfaced and I decided to give it a try. I’m very pleased with the result (see a live performance of the song in the video below).

It is not an obvious choice to sing to a ska crowd, but you just have to be brave and surprisingly enough, audiences really enjoy my interpretation of it. I’m very pleased that I have managed to bring something of my own to the song. It’s a real treat to sing it on stage in such a stripped down format. When a song is stripped down that much, there is no place for a singer to hide. I like that challenge.

I wasn't in a hurry to get my new album “Pigment Of My Imagination” out. Now I have my book publishing deal in place, it makes more sense to coincide the release of my album and the book together. So I’m working on that package for 2011. I like to let songs evolve in “live” performance. I may indeed record some of the album again. We shall see. People can hear the tracks on my website; just click on “discography”.

Another song that I love singing at the moment is a ska/reggae version of Amy Winehouse’s “Back To Black”. She is always trying to do old ska tracks, so I thought it might be nice if one of us 2-tone ladies returned the favour, because she is a fine songwriter as well as singer. Obviously she wrote this particular song for me! It goes down a storm at gigs.

A film called 'Ghost Town' is now in development that will feature your story along with Neville Staples and the boxer Errol Christie. Can you share a bit more about the film? Will you be in it?

No I will not be acting in it, but I hope they find somebody suitable to play me if it makes it into production in the not too distant future. It would be rather wonderful if the movie release also coincided with my book release and a Selecter tour next year. Roll on 2011!

You recently announced a 30th anniversary show to celebrate 'Too Much Pressure' later this year in London. Are there plans to do more shows like this around the UK or EU?

Gaps Hendrickson and I did not want to miss the opportunity of doing something constructive for fans, many of who would like to mark the celebration of the release of the Selecter’s “Too Much Pressure” album this year.

Earlier in the year, I was approached to do two shows as The Selecter, “The Sinner’s Day Festival” in Belgium and Bloomsbury Ballroom in London. Never one to shirk my responsibility, I accepted both shows. My plan was to invite other members of The Selecter, most notably Neol Davies & Gaps Hendrickson, to join me. Unfortunately, the day the London show was announced coincided with Neol Davies’s announcement that he had formed a new version of The Selecter band with a new singer. This was an unfortunate piece of serendipity, but then the artistic course of The Selecter never has run smoothly!

Fans can make their own choice or better still relish the best of both worlds. Nothing would give Gaps and me greater pleasure than for Neol Davies to come on board for both shows. I firmly believe that doing these two celebratory shows does not have to preclude what either of us are doing as solo artists.

The plan is to perform the “Too Much Pressure” album in its entirety and include 4 bonus tracks, “The Selecter”, “The Whisper”, “Train To Skaville” & “On My Radio”; surprisingly the latter song did not appear on the album release in 1980. I hope fans of The Selecter will support this venture and put as much effort into its promotion and being there on the night as they did for The Specials.

I believe that the song "Celebrate The Bullet" is on a par with The Specials "Ghost Town" as one of greatest songs of the whole 2-Tone era. It’s such a haunting and emotional song. What was the genesis of that song and were you surprised by the reaction to it?

“Celebrate The Bullet” remains my all time favorite Selecter song. In fact the whole album is full of forgotten and neglected gems. When we recorded the song back in 1980, Neol Davies wanted to sing the song. Fortunately for me, Roger Lomas our producer, made him see sense. It is a surprisingly difficult melody line to sing; not for the faint-hearted vocalist. Neol brought a delicate poignancy to the guitar solo, which is after all his forte, that is unmatched by anybody that I have ever heard try to play that solo since.

Not a lot of people know that after the band sacked Charley Anderson as Selecter bassist in July 1980, Norman Watt Roy from The Blockheads was brought on board to play the fabulous bass on this track and the equally sublime “Washed Up And Left For Dead”.

It was a shame that the brain dead moronic DJs who inhabited BBC Radio 1 at that time banned the single version of “Celebrate The Bullet”. With no airplay the single was doomed. It was a tremendously upsetting period for the band and largely led to our breakup. But the song has stood the test of time. It’s relevance is more obvious these days than in 1981, because we now live in a society with a rampant gun culture and the powers that be seem to have no idea how to deal with it.

Charley Anderson (Selecter bassist 1979-1980) chooses to remember a different version of these events. I recently read an interview with him that you conducted Marc, in which he implied that he thought “Celebrate The Bullet” was a bad single choice and a totally wrong direction for the band to go in. He cites this as the reason why he left. He even suggests that he received “Divine Intervention” while making his momentous decision: I quote:

“With regards to my leaving The Selecter, I refused to play on “Celebrate the Bullet”. I didn’t think it was the right direction for the band and the rest is history. We all know John Lennon was shot two days before the album was released. Maybe I had a premonition”.

In my humble opinion, his statement is disingenuous and a distortion of the actual truth. “Celebrate the Bullet” was The Selecter’s proudest and finest moment and more importantly didn’t pander to what was expected of us. Strong words indeed from Mr. Anderson, considering that he never wrote an original song for the band during his one year tenure.

You wrote the song "Deepwater" which could be the inner monologue of a person here in the U.S. contemplating the loss of their home in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Tell me a bit about that song?

Or indeed the theme tune for what is currently happening with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico! I like the fact that my song works on many different levels.

Just before the Selecter disbanded in 1981, “Deepwater” was a next single candidate after the unfortunate demise of the single version of “Celebrate The Bullet”. I have some rather strange, quirky mixes of “Deepwater” on which Neol plays some very funky guitar; totally different from the album version.

The idea for the title came to me on the Selecter’s first US tour. I saw a highway sign from the window of our tour bus for a town named “Deepwater”. The name just struck a chord with how I was feeling at the time. That tour was fraught with internal problems among us and I was deeply unhappy for most of the time, so I began to pen a song to reflect those inner feelings. I finished writing the song just around the time that keyboardist Desmond Brown finally walked out of the band for some unknown reason, just prior to the sacking of Charley Anderson. Believe me, it really did feel as though we were in ‘deepwater’ back then.

When I wrote that song and more particularly one of my other self-penned contributions to the album, “Bristol & Miami”, which dealt with race relations in the UK & US in 1980, little did I think that within 30 years a black man would be elected to the highest office in the US, primarily to deal with the deep shit that the country’s foreign and domestic policies had landed itself in. The future is most definitely difficult to predict.

There seem to be two versions of The Selecter at the moment. What are the chances that you, Neol and other members of the original band will end up on stage together sometime this year?

The Selecter shows to “Celebrate 30 years of Too Much Pressure” that I have accepted are in place. If members from the original band wish to approach Gaps and I, with a realistic sense of what it would mean to work together again, in order to give loyal fans a wonderful evening’s entertainment, then perhaps a discussion could begin. If not, then I hope fans will understand that Gaps and I have done all that we can to bring about some kind of reconciliation. I fervently hope Selecter fans will do everything in their power to make these shows and any future Selecter tour a huge success.

Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 'Too Much Pressure' album with a concert on Saturday, November 13, 2010 at the Bloomsbury Ballroom in London. Tickets are now on sale.


Steve from Moon said...

Incredible interview with Ms. Black, Marco! Thanks for doing it!



Daniel said...

Great job! Right after the Heavey Manners piece, another fundamental interview. This is so much good work... When do we get Neol's version?

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I'm glad Pauline finally found time to do it. Her book should be a very interesting read, I look forward to it.


Marco On The Bass said...

Thanks for the great comments! Pauline remains one of the most interesting and intriguing musicians I've met.

I have reached out to Neol Davies and hope to get his take on the band as well.

Heather Augustyn said...

Oustanding interview. I especially enjoy Pauline's discussion of Celebrate the Bullet, which I think many, and I, have underestimated in the past, and thanks to your interview and Steve from Moon's reviews in the past, it is worthy of a relisten from everyone. Thanks again, Marc!

Anonymous said...


REFFA said...

Great interview, i was at 1 of the 79 2-tone gigs, and also seen them about 2 years ago, in a small club in Breda, Holland, 100 plus people, but forme , cool to be close up!
Got a video of the CELEBRATE THE BULLET track they did that night, but...
Unfortunately, its in the hands of a now x girl-friend, so, not sure if its easy to get back, but if i can i ll post it..
Good stuff Marco as usual.....

Kev said...

It's great to see Pauline still doing her thing in the music scene. I see her at Butlins a few year ago and she was outstanding , thankfully alot more than 20 people really loved the show. It looks like 2011 is going to be a good year to watch for a ska impact again......keep the ska going Pauline x :)