‘I didn’t get permission – I just went ahead and did it.’ That was then, but Siouxsie Sioux is still as punk as she ever was
Don’t get Siouxsie Sioux started on the subject of the internet. Before we meet, the video for her new single, Into a Swan, has been leaked online. “YouTube,” spits the high priestess of punk, “technology – I hate it. Everybody has downloaded it. You try to stop it, but it’s pointless. Someone from [the gay club] Trannyshack in San Francisco is already miming their act to the song. Even my brother hasn’t heard it yet. Mind you, he’s only just got an answerphone.”
If you were going to meet Siouxsie, what would you expect? That she’d be as spiky as her hair still is, frosty, magisterial, aloof? She’s none of those things. In an adenoidal voice with a twang that recalls her fellow Bromleyite David Bowie, Siouxsie in the flesh is candid, approachable, emotional, her pale-blue eyes often swelling with tears of laughter or distress. The woman once labelled the queen of goth is as far removed from her image of severe, slightly threatening “artiste” as it is possible to be.
“I’ve never been able to categorise what I do,” she muses at one point, “but I know others try. Though there has always been that undercurrent of, ‘Don’t get too comfortable.’” The labels we plaster her with are, she thinks, for the most part wrong. As just one example, the blogs are agog with speculation about Into a Swan, on which she intones: “I feel a force I’ve never felt before/ I don’t want to fight it any more.” Bingo, they tap-tap-tap: she’s come out as a lesbian. Or not, as the case may be.
When I ask her how long it took for the inner her to catch up with the outer one – confident, defiant, a mask of industrial mascara and punked-up hairdo – who stared out of early photographs, she says: “I think maybe it’s still trying to catch up, in total honesty.” We’re in a London hotel bar, patrolled by a clipboard Nazi whose pernickety perambulations Siouxsie delights in monitoring. Mantaray is her first solo record, after 11 studio albums with the Banshees and six with the Creatures, the side project she formed with her husband, the Banshees’ drummer, Budgie.
Her home for the past 15 years has been a farmhouse near Toulouse, packed with cats and books, and she briefly considered making the album there. “But you have to have a workplace to go to,” she says. “You think, ‘Oh, how perfect: when I get an idea, I can just walk into that room and do it.’ But there’s no urgency, it’s always domani, mañana, demain. Yet the idea is still there, lurking, like a reminder that you haven’t done anything today.”
Discussing the logistics of travelling from France to the studio in Bath where the album was recorded, she says, matter-of-factly: “I’ve just gotten into driving again. I hadn’t been driving long while I was in London, I didn’t enjoy it, so I quite happily gave up and allowed my husband to be my chauffeur. And so, in the last ...”
She pauses. “I’ve actually gone through a big upheaval. I’m divorced now. This is the first time I’ve publicly told anyone.” Another, longer pause. “So, in the past two or three years, there have been major changes – practical, emotional, all kinds. I knew I needed to get to the airport. So I got a car, a little secondhand Renault. It’s been like a real journey – literally.”
Then she adds, in a much smaller voice: “And, you know, there’s tons of other stuff as well. It’s not just about getting myself to the airport.”
Siouxsie fans will be able to enjoy many a “eureka” moment sifting Mantaray’s lyrics for postdivorce fall-out. “I want the record to stand up on its own,” she says, aware of this possibility, “and not be, ‘Oh, it’s about all that stuff.’” Lines such as “If it doesn’t kill you/It will shape you” and “Sweetness covered falseness” may mean she is denied this wish. But it’s clear the album deals as much with history as with recent events. She mentions, again, the disparity between the up-yours 1976 photos and the person behind the disguise – back when Susan Ballion became Siouxsie Sioux and was part of the so-called Bromley contingent, alongside Billy Idol and the Banshees’ bassist, Steve Severin, caterwauling through a punk version of the Lord’s Prayer at the 100 Club and getting chatted up by Bill Grundy during his infamous television interview with the Sex Pistols.
“The confidence youth projects isn’t very deep,” she says. “When you’re very young, you desperately want to blend in. I remember feeling aware that my family background wasn’t akin to everyone else’s, that our home was at odds with what was around us in suburbia. And there was a point, round about 13 or 14, when I thought, ‘You know what? F*** it.’” This metamorphosis wasn’t, then, an act of rebellion against her upbringing, but against the suburban conformity she saw around her. Home life was, though, pretty complex, by all accounts. Her mother, a bilingual secretary, was, she says admiringly, “someone who went out to work at a time when I didn’t know anyone else’s mum who wasn’t at home. I had a great teacher there, and I’ve had to remember that again now – you know, I used to do all this shit before, I lived on my own, I was the boss. She was the odd-job man, too, changing fuses, painting, doing the gardening. My dad was there, but not functioning”.
Siouxsie’s father, a scientist, was an alcoholic, and died from complications caused by drink when she was 14. She has, she says, spent years telling herself that isn’t the whole picture. “You’re angry at the disease. It’s like you’ve been robbed of this person. But it’s not the person, it’s the disease you hate.” Thinking back, she associates music with happiness, albeit in a complicated way. “It was like the classic Tom and Jerry cartoon, where they’re getting on fine when the music’s playing, and the second it stops, they’re at it again. I remember, when I was young, feeling really dismissive, but later I knew there was this other side: he read to me, things like the Just So Stories. He was educated; he had all these ideas, a great sense of humour. Apparently, he invented a tropical-disease cure – I’ve only just found that out. I wanted to know, ‘Why is this so?’ And it was always, ‘Don’t ask so many questions.’ But I’m still of the opinion: shine the light on it, get it out of the darkness and let’s look at it.”
On her wonderful new album, Siouxsie does just that: raging against adversity one minute, calming herself down the next, drifting off into fantasy on Sea of Tranquillity (a song she describes as a “sci-fi murder mystery”), bathing in Bernard Hermann-like strings on Loveless. Here Comes That Day is so brassy, it sounds as if it’s auditioning for the next Bond film, while fans of the early, Metal Postcard-era Banshees will welcome the motorik austerity of About to Happen and They Follow You. The endlessly inventive soundscaping of her producers, the Robert Plant collaborators Steve Evans and Charlie Jones, means those jittery drives to Toulouse airport were not in vain.
Siouxsie turned 50 in May. Her influence – on the likes of Björk, PJ Harvey, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bat for Lashes – has never been more apparent, though she reckons she wouldn’t last long if she was emerging now. Innovators, these days, “get assimilated”, she says, “eaten up and spat out. Something becomes fashionable and, like all fashion, it’s destined for the heap”. Not that her memory is rose-tinted. The moment punk was commercialised, she says, “it lost its teeth. People forget it was an attitude, a mindset, reacting to what was going on in the world, in music, at that time. You can’t take that and place it now: that would just be mimicry. It’s weird when you hear things like, ‘This is the new punk rock.’ They’re so obsessed with looking back. I mean, after Bill Grundy, forget it. Once it hit the tabloids, it became a cartoon. People doing their own thing – that’s punk.
“I did that. I didn’t get a degree that told me I could do it. I didn’t get permission. I just went ahead and did it, gatecrashed the party and took it over.” She throws back her head and laughs in delight at her bombast. There is, she admits, “a bit too much of Beryl the Peril in me sometimes. But I think I’ve always had the ability to channel my anger or frustrations or longings through music. And, without vulnerability, there is no daring. If you’re thick-skinned, if people say stuff and it doesn’t hurt you, well, what’s so strong about that?”.
A move back to London is being considered, though Siouxsie says she’s wary of the noise, of “all those straight lines and grid-like routines”. Any new home in the city would have to be central. “I’m not going to the suburbs,” she cackles edgily. “I’d rather commute from France than from Bromley. To me, that’s a much more painful journey – in every way.”
Mantaray is released on Sept 10 on W14