VIV ALBERTINE (SLITS)
VIV ALBERTINE talks to SIMON McKAY in November 2009 about her new band, her new songs and why she didn't rejoin the Slits for their recent LP and tour.
VIV ALBERTINE in her favourite boots from Vivienne Westwood's Sex (photo by Carolina Ambida 2009)
Musically, Viv Albertine is best known as guitarist with the Slits who, in 1979, created their celebrated debut LP, Cut. The band split in 1982 and in a state that could be described as 'heartbroken', Viv didn't pick up the guitar for 25 years. The writing of Zoe Street Howe's biography of the Slits was instrumental in recently reuniting Viv with the other members Ari Up and Tessa Pollitt. Viv was silent no more and in the space of four months re-learnt the whole of Cut and played two gigs. But she says, "It felt a bit like homework… by then, pouring out of me were my own songs, which were relevant to me now so I felt funny playing songs from 30 years ago."
In October 2009, a six piece line up of the Slits played a gig at the ULU in London. Viv was not there. That night, as part of a brief American tour, she stood alone on stage at the Knitting Factory in New York performing her new songs.
A year and a half ago, Viv made a tentative return to music playing two songs in pubs on the coast in front of audiences that she describes as "a fisherman and a lady in a bobble hat leaning on the bar hiccupping". Not surprisingly, responses were muted but she persevered and recently emerged from the recording studio with four beautifully crafted songs. Viv now has a band and has made a clutch of live performances with them. Onstage their chemistry is very cohesive. The songs have a style and substance that, regardless of current trends, impose themselves on an audience.
The recordings marked a huge leap from the open mic performances. They feature Dylan Howe on drums, Ross Stanley on piano and Hammond organ, Simon Yapp on Violin and Zoe Street Howe on backing vocals and percussion. The songs were recorded in the Levellers' studio in Brighton.
There was no intention to release them but they turned out so well that Viv made 500 CDs and is selling them herself. "Dylan and I just clicked. He recorded them so well and Dennis Bovell mixed them." (Dennis regularly produced the Slits and in the same period worked with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Michael Smith.) The sound of the EP is remarkable and the dynamics fantastic. Viv agrees. "He's got so much classier at that. He didn't make the sounds louder by making one instrument louder than another; he did it by sonic range. It's so subtle… sonic range: maybe that's his forte."
Viv described what it was like to pick up the guitar after 25 years. "I started off by getting a bloke in the local guitar shop to show me the bar chords again. I could remember the shapes but he showed me a bit of vamping that I could work with my fingers. I got used to holding bar chords."
Viv's guitar style is a delight and very stylised often focusing on the top 3 strings, which allows her to play with great agility. But I am a little confused by what she just said because she doesn't play bar chords!
"I know! Within about a week all my funny sounds started coming out again so I just dumped the bar chords. The top 3 string thing came out again. Keith Levene said to me, guitarists are so lazy. If they can play their piece on the same two frets, they'll find ways to do it whereas I'm up and down the frets all the way through one song so I'm not like a lazy guitarist in that way but I did have my quirky sound. It quite shocked me, which was good because I'd forgotten everything and I was totally in denial about everything I'd done and it made me think it wasn't just me pretending to be different because it just came out naturally again after picking up the guitar."
VIV ALBERTINE (photo by Carolina Ambida 2009)
When Viv began writing her songs, she had absolutely no confidence. "I was sat at the kitchen table with my husband scowling and sighing as I'm plonking through my songs. I can't sing particularly so I was trying to sing the songs thinking 'one day I'll find a singer who can sing them' and 'is this a proper melody?' 'What the fuck am I doing? I must be mad but I can't stop doing it'." During the early open mic nights Viv describes how she'd "warble out of tune" and the audience would stare. "I stood up with my painful little songs and my painful voice and my painful guitar playing but someone would always get it almost every night." It's not just the sound of the songs that can be painful. She acknowledges that the honesty in her lyrics can be upsetting for the people she is close to but she feels that it is this honesty that communicates what she is feeling and connects her to an audience.
"It's been hard to explain why communicating is so important to me."
Isn't communicating important to everybody?
"No. It really isn't, no. Not everyone wants to communicate with what they do in their life… A lot of people just talk on the surface all the time. A lot of people don't want to go deep."
It's much safer up there.
"Yes, it's much safer but I've never trodden that safe road. But it's bloody painful. It's embarrassing and I would say that without doubt, every song I've written recently, I've thought is probably the most embarrassing thing that I've written and then I'll go and play it and someone somewhere will say, 'God, I know what you meant when you wrote that.'"
"And now I feel more like that picture of a teenage boy - lonely in his room - pouring out his troubles. No one understands me. I feel more like that now than I did in the Slits. I can't stand a day going by when I haven't played, whereas I certainly didn't feel like that in the Slits. It was, 'oh God, I'd better sit down and go through it, we're got a tour coming up'. Now, it's almost a matter of therapy. I've got to do it…" Although Viv presents a playful and enthusiastic image of her creativity there is recognition that she is no longer a woman in her twenties able to pursue her art to the exclusion of all else. "People think I'm completely mad that one minute I'm like 'happy housewife' and the next I'm raging, 'I've got to express myself' and I'm out playing in clubs every night."
DYLAN HOWE - Drummer & Producer
(photo by Jerry Tremaine)
The breakthrough in Viv building up her confidence to perform was during the recording sessions with Dylan earlier this year. "I was bursting with the happiness of feeling like I was creating something. It was so fulfilling and it was so exciting for those 4-5 days. And Dylan being so great as a producer. He was totally in tune with me."
When the Slits split up, Viv's life changed completely. "I wasn't Viv Slit anymore; I was Viv Albertine and people just dropped away like flies. Whether it's people in the street just not interested in you anymore, no party invitations - all gone: honestly, overnight." Viv went to film school and went on to direct for about ten years and "made some money not art". She got married and spent a number of years at home raising her daughter. She didn't return to film but instead took up sculpture limiting herself to the subjects of love and sex and is now exploring these themes further in her music. The decision to front her own band was carefully considered.
"I never ever saw myself as a solo performer or as a singer who could front anything. Then being a bit older, there comes a point when I looked around and thought, look at all the people you do know who do that and the people you know who don't do that and what have they got that's any different except the bottle to do it. Have they got bigger personalities? No, they're just people. I think about people like Kate Bush, Yoko Ono or Patti Smith who are very private people yet when they're on stage they let go and commit to the performance. I thought, Viv, just because you're a private person, doesn't mean you can't commit to the performance while you're up there."
Month by month, Viv felt that she was becoming better at getting her message across in a way that people could relate to. "They don't mind if it's not technically brilliant... That's such a great legacy of punk that technical ability comes pretty low down the list about what's necessary live."
VIV ALBERTINE'S LIMERENCE - 12 Bar Club 2009
(photo by Narflin)
The Slits came together in 1976 because they were like minded people, not because they wanted to be famous but recently, when putting together her band, Viv experienced the world as a very different place. "Things have changed so much out there. The young musicians especially don't want to be in a band that doesn't pay money, unbelievable, when we all did it just to stay alive mentally. Now it's, 'I'm sorry I can't do it if there's no money in it. I've got to live.' It's so different since Thatcher. Really that's the benchmark that changed everything - her way of looking at things... So many people wouldn't work with me because there was no money in it and they didn't have the vision to see that there might be a future in it." Viv has now found three committed musicians; Dan Donovan (previously Big Audio Dynamite) on keyboards, Katherine Wallinger (previously The Candys) on bass and Dani Turner on drums. They perform as Viv Albertine's Limerence although as they become better known that will be shortened to Limerence.
Viv doesn't have a manager and although she claims that she "doesn't have a clue", at the moment, she prefers to manage herself and keep building organically. Since returning from America, she's had a couple of offers but she didn't take them because she wants to continue at her own pace. She's keen to get an album out though so something more formal does seem likely. The release will probably be with an indie label. Viv already has a vision for the sleeve. "I really feel strongly that I want to be naked in a lot of my photographs especially if it's on an album. Partly because it resonates with what the Slits did... [and for] the same reasons a) it's timeless and b) it's like saying here I am 'raw' and I feel that very much now, very exposed; nothing dressing me up. There's no fashion in the work I do now. I made that music completely in a void. I wasn't listening to other music particularly. I have been music mad for years and years but when I made that music I wasn't aware of what was going on around me musically. For all I knew, I'd made something that sounded like it had come out of the ark. I didn't know. I just went for every sound that I liked - in terms of the harmonies my guitar was playing. My words were honest and it was made in a vacuum. I thought people might laugh at me because it might sound like really old music or mad music."
SLITS - CUT (LP Sleeve 1979)
Famously, the Slits posed clad in little more than mud for the photo on the sleeve of Cut. Viv agrees that she has learned from the legacy of using that image. "It has become timeless because we're not there in bondage trousers or spiky haircuts so I'm going for that again." There is something else she has learned recently about the response to the photo - that adolescent boys were 'very interested' in it. Hurriedly, I explain that I spent more time copying the Slits lettering onto my schoolbook covers than I did looking at the photo.
"Really? Oh, no. That's very disappointing. I love to think of lots of boys out there who wanked over me. Isn't that terrible?" (Giggles)
Am I going to quote you on that?
"Yeah, quote me on that. Lots did apparently. So they tell me in later life when they come up and talk to me now. I'm hoping to sort of… (laughs)… (pauses)... no I'd better not say that."
I don't have to print it but you can tell me out of curiosity
"I'm hoping to make that happen again!" (All out laughter)
VIV ALBERTINE (photo by Carolina Ambida 2009)
COUPLES ARE CREEPY
Viv has embraced MySpace as a means to communicate directly with an audience. Such technology makes it possible to operate, at least on a smaller scale, without a record label. Viv recently posted an item about a new song she has written called Couples Are Creepy.
"Did that sound bitter and twisted?"
Were you having a good day?
Viv laughs. "That was a good day! I'd been thinking about how creepy couples are for a long time. I was just thinking - this thing we've all bought into - we all desperately place so much weight on finding another person and that's what we've all got to do and I remember wanting to be married - whereas most girls want it at 15, I wanted it at 35 - or find the great love or the soul mate. But it is too fragile a craft to carry all those expectations. Also that it's supposed to last for years and years and there probably is a natural cycle where it finishes or whatever."
"Yeah, right (Viv doesn't sound convinced). It becomes a religion for people who aren't religious. Some people probably take it fairly straightforwardly and don't live in each other's pockets and don't lean on each other too much but I just can barely be in the presence of most couples, although I can love the two people individually, it's their funny little ticks - almost how twins relate to each other - they're too close. They answer for each other and they finish each other's sentences: little bickerings going on and little power struggles that you can see played out. I'm hyper sensitive to these things anyway so it's really painful for me to be in the room with so I just found myself casting this cold eye. It's about time someone said how creepy it can be to be in the presence of a couple when they're canoodling and it's revolting when they're arguing, bickering or sniping at each other. Often they wait until they're in public to do these sorts of things. It's not saying I haven't been there. I've been there but doing all this stuff in front of people. It's only one song. I'm not saying all of my songs are about that but in my opinion they're pretty creepy."
VIV ALBERTINE (Pre-Slits) with Keith Levene and Mick Jones
Some of the best songs are about Viv's love affairs. The Slits' Ping Pong Affair and Mick Jones wrote the Clash's Train in Vain. Viv enthuses, "Train in Vain, what a beautiful song. It still makes me laugh when I hear it because mmm… I wasn't that bad."
Oh… you expected the song to be objective?
"Yes, I suppose (realising what she said). No, I'm really proud to have inspired that but often he won't admit to it. He used to get the train to my place in Shepherds Bush and I would not let him in. He was bleating on the doorstep. That was cruel. It's such an odd title; there's nothing in it about a train."
Viv returns to clarify an earlier point about her album covers. "Put the wanking thing in."
I'm not sure that fits with the tone of my magazine. I'm high brow.
"No one's high brow these days."
I'm not high brow and I don't think Viv is either but a 25 year absence from the stage has ensured that she is as fierce, hungry and desperate to communicate as somebody starting out. Yet, she shows patience and a willingness to allow both creativity and popularity to grow at its own pace. It seems like an obvious thing to say but when an artist is so open and honest then their music and performances are very accessible. I found that I don't need a radio to nag me into liking what she's doing. For me, it was as simple as listening to the songs on her website and then going to a gig. Now I'm looking forward to the album.
Viv has self financed the recording of 10 songs for her debut solo album. She describes them as having "a distinct personality and sound of their own". They still need mixing and mastering before they can be released. Via Pledge Music, you could sign up for one of the 'Viv packages' that will get you the music plus a choice of additional goodies such as artwork or even an evening at her house where she's hosting a small dinner party and performing songs. As 'pledge' suggests, you agree to pay a price for the package of your choice but you don't pay until it's available so if the record doesn't come to fruition you haven't laid out any cash. Click here to read details and sign up: Pledge-Music
To read a 1981 Slits interview in ESN 3 click-here
Viv's website (includes her ceramics) www.vivalbertine.com
Viv's MySpace (check for upcoming gigs) www.myspace.com/albertine
Dennis Bovell's MySpace: www.myspace.com/dennisbovell
Dylan Howe's website: www.dylanhowe.com
Zoe Street Howe's Slits biography: www.myspace.com/slitsbook
Carolina Ambida: www.artnet.com/artist/425940069/carolina-ambida.html