Ska icon Pauline Black talks to Juliet about her new album and Grammy hopes in our exclusive interview.
EP: The Selecter had huge success in the late 70’s/early 80’s with two tone classics like ‘On My Radio’ and ‘Missing Words’. What inspired you to reform in 2011?
PB: We actually re-formed to celebrate our 30th Anniversary in 2010. But we didn’t just want to become a ‘heritage’ band that was only good for playing their first two albums. We wanted to make new music & in particular to talk about the times we were now living in. Essentially by moving the remit of 2-tone on and embracing the idea of multiculturalism with our music.
EP: A lot of great artists emerged from the Coventry scene at that time, what do you think it was about that area at that time that made it so relevant and what was it like to be a part of that huge Ska explosion?
PB: Purely and simply Coventry was provincial and not London. It allowed the bands to grow unimpeded by the pressures of the entertainment industry. We stayed close to our roots and talked about what went on around us in our music. We developed our own style of music and fashion.
EP: How do you feel the music industry now compares to how things were back then? Do you think it’s harder or easier for emerging artists?
PB: It’s definitely easier to record and get a record out there and heard, but it’s still as difficult to get traction within the music business. Big amounts of money are still required for marketing and promotion and without that, the average band will always have difficulty getting themselves heard by the wider public. Being playlisted is just as hard, if not worse than it was 36 years ago.
At least back then we had John Peel – the kind of DJ who would play a record just because he really liked it & not because his producer told him to.
EP: You could easily trade off of you past success, but your music has evolved from those early days to create a very fresh sound. Do you find it important to keep moving forward as opposed to looking back?
PB: The Selecter acknowledges its heritage, but insists on moving forward. We owe it to our fans. The original 2-tone movement’s ethos was and is to fight racism and sexism. Those twin evils are still rife in the world, even though currently the most powerful man in the world, the President of the USA, is black & many women have entered the career politics arena. Obviously rights have been gained and laws passed to further the aspirations and protect people against racism and sexism, but the world is still an uneven playing field, whose inequity the present world political system is loath to do anything about & leaves the poor of the world largely propped up by charity from the trickle-down economics of the last century.
Therefore the role of a band like The Selecter is to keep that contradiction at the forefront of peoples’ minds by spreading our 2-tone message through our new and old recordings & performing those songs with as much passion as we can muster, while we still can.
EP: Your TV work has played an important role in your career, most notable of which was your Channel 4 series Black on Black where you interviewed some major black figures. Who would you say left the biggest impression you?
PB: I interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 when he stood for the Democratic presidential nomination. He had just founded the National Rainbow Coalition, which sought equal rights for all Americans. He was a real charismatic and it was humbling to remember that when Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in 1968, Rev Jesse Jackson had been standing next to him.
EP: You have a new album, ‘Subculture’, released 15th June. We rather enjoyed it and must confess have been playing non stop since it arrived on our desk! Can you tell us a little about that?
PB: So pleased that you are enjoying the album. It was recorded with a lot of love & felt special even in the early days when songs were still coming together. The first song we wrote was ‘Boxfresh’, which at first sounded like a poppy reggae track when I put down the idea on my laptop. Neil Pyzer our producer asked me how I heard it sounding in an ideal world, and I said like a reggae band bumps into Clean Bandit one sunny afternoon and write a song together. Everybody thought this was mad, but it’s just the way I work. A few days later, the song began to evolve in exactly that direction. I particularly like the rhythm guitar figure on the finished track.
It made the song.
I think the album is about a celebration of subcultures. The 2 tone movement was originally a loose subculture of different youth tribes – skinheads, mods, punks, rude boys & rude girls, soul boys, Northern soulers, who all enjoyed a love of ska music. In 1979 we came together to fight racism, sexism, economic inequality & homophobia. In 2015 I still believe that a hybrid mix of ska/reggae/punk/and rock, with dash of calypso & forthright lyrical content gives a voice to disaffected people everywhere. It’s why the Selecter is at home anywhere it plays, be it a punk show or a reggae show. We embrace the subcultures & they embrace us.
EP: You’ve included a couple of covers on the album, what made you choose these songs?
PB: It’s a tradition to re-work a song in the ska/reggae world. I’ve spun the lyrics to make them more meaningful to me in ‘Because The Night’ & ‘See Dem A Come’
EP: Do you have a favourite track on the album?
PB: My favourite track is ‘Breakdown’.
EP: Since reforming, you have played at major festivals like Coachella, the Isle of Wight and Glastonbury, headlined two UK tours and recorded three studio albums. Were you surprised at how well reviewed The Selecter have been by new audiences?
PB: I’m constantly surprised by what The Selecter has achieved. I believe that as long as we put in the work, that work will be rewarded.
EP: Would you say you attract a different kind of audience now, to that of the early 80s?
PB: We still attract all types of people to us from across the tribal spectrum.
EP: Your songs have always been full of social commentary, is it important to you that your music makes a statement?
PB: Yes, totally. We sing and play what we live. We don’t know any other way.
EP: The Selecter are, of course, masters of the ska sound, have you ever felt tempted to record something in a different genre?
PB: Of course, Jazz mainly. I’m a great fan of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
EP: Your autobiography ‘Black By Design’ was written about you growing up, as a black child in a white family. Why did you feel that was a story that needed to be told?
PB: Identity is an issue for any adopted child. Throw being mixed race into the mix and it is an added problem.
EP: In October you are playing some dates with Jools Holland, which include a gala performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall. How did that come about?
PB: Gaps Hendrickson and I were booked to do a session and interview with Jools and his band at his studio in Greenwich for his Radio 2 show. We were asked what track we would like to do and we decided on ‘Secret Love’, which we had recorded for our ‘String Theory’ album in 2013 in an old school ska way. He loved the idea and the band did our version of the song. We got a cab back into town and after during the trip I got a phone phone call from Jools who asked us would we like to do 17 dates with him and his orchestra in the autumn. That was a no-brainer. Besides the tour starts in Dublin on my birthday- what’s not to like?
Dublin is a great place to celebrate.
EP: Having achieved so much, what’s next on the agenda? What are your future plans and ambitions?
PB: A Grammy award would be nice, in the reggae category 😉