Not a typical girl: Viv Albertine interview
Viv was born in Sydney to a Swiss mother and French father and grew up in North London. She attended the Chelsea School of Art and in 1976, while still at art school, she helped form The Flowers of Romance, which also included Sid Vicious and Keith Levine.
She was close to the key punk groups, part of the Sex Pistols’ inner circle and going out with the Clash’s Mick Jones. In 1977 she joined the Slits, who were one of the most challenging and iconoclastic punk groups. They started with scratchy guitars and reggae rhythms before becoming more experimental; of their three albums, the boundaryless nature of Cut makes it a lost classic. Viv also played with The 49 Americans, the New Age Steppers, Flying Lizards and Singers & Players.
After The Slits disbanded in 1982, Viv studied filmmaking and worked as a director for the next 15 years. She has a film to her credit (1991’s Coping With Cupid) and various television work. She returned to music in 2009 and her first gig was at the legendary Windmill on 20 September. In March 2010, she released an EP, ‘Flesh’ on Ecstatic Peace! followed by a solo album, The Vermillion Border, in November 2012 on Cadiz Music. She also contributed to the soundtrack to Joanna Hogg's 2010 film Archipelago.
Viv (with Siouxsie Sue) is the most stylish and best preserved of the punk originals. She’s articulate, forthright and witty and her forthcoming autobiography Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, due to be published by Faber & Faber in Spring 2014, should make fascinating reading. We spoke to Viv on 29 March 2013 in Brixton.
SXP: How’s your book coming along?
Viv: My book? It’s a bit like doing homework. When I have to remember things from the past, then it’s a bit of a slog. But when I’m writing about emotional things that have happened, whether it’s 30 years ago or 30 days ago, then it all flows out. It’s a sort of emotional memoir so only the memories that are in my mind are going to get written down - I’m sure I’ve got loads of things wrong. I’ve discussed some of the chapters I’ve written with people who were there and they remember it completely differently but that’s what memory is, isn’t it, it’s completely personal to you. I’ve tried to be a hundred per cent truthful and it’ll be completely wrong.
SXP: You released an EP a couple of years ago and an album last year but everyone still talks about your past more than what you’re doing currently. Does that irritate you?
Viv: Not really because I think, [with] women especially, because of the nature of how we have to live our lives - children and multi-tasking and everything - you have to look at their life’s work. [With] someone like Louise Bourgeois or Yoko Ono, it’s not until they’re coming to the end of their work that you can start seeing a whole body, and I just think that’s what I’m doing now. Now I’m building a lifetime’s work and it’ll all add up to a picture!
SXP: But your album was a unified whole and stood for itself.
Viv: Yes, it stood really well for itself. I’m not saying that each thing you do isn’t one hundred per cent the best that you can do, but people will look back and think: “oh, that was Viv’s journey, that was Viv’s arc, she went from making that kind of music, she didn’t go under and she came back, she made something strong again”. All that will start to build into a whole big picture and that’s what I was thinking of; I’m not thinking I want a hit record. I’m thinking really long term, if I make it much longer!
SXP: Did it surprise you how people responded to the album?
Viv: It wasn’t that great a response was it? It was a good album. I knew it was good; I mean it took me fucking 3 years to make it and I intended it to be good so I didn’t expect too much “oh it’s shit”. But, on the other hand, everything’s so dissipated nowadays. You keep putting your stuff out there and don’t expect too much but, hopefully, people recognise the work that’s gone into it and the thought that’s gone into it.
SXP: I ask because I was surprised a few weeks ago to see that you had a 2 page spread in the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine. And it seems like there are lots of bands who just don’t get that treatment.
Viv: But the Guardian turned me down! Can you believe it? Can you think of an audience that would probably be more interested in me than a Guardian audience? They’d rather put an 18 year old rapper there, trying to seem cool! I think I deserve two pages in a big newspaper because I think I’ve made a contribution.
SXP: Could I suggest one? You look at all the women in bands; they wouldn’t be around if it hadn’t been for the Slits and the Raincoats.
Viv: The Raincoats wouldn’t have been around if it wasn’t for the Slits - they admit that themselves!
SXP: You made it cool for women to be in bands and you did it on your own terms – you didn’t allow men to dictate what women should do or sound like. Does that make you proud?
Viv: Yeah, I think I just took no notice or it for about 15 or 20 years, thought nothing of it, was completely in denial, never mentioned it. With the internet, and young people making an effort to hear what’s gone before, they’ve made it mean more than people my own age. Young people have said: “this has influenced us and this has resonated over the years”. The Slits were very much written out of the history of punk - it’s interesting that 30 years later we’ve been written back by the people. Because the A&R men and the journalists and the DJs, they sure as hell didn’t take us seriously. We knew we were something special, that little core of fans who followed us around knew we were something special, and the fact that we get talked about now is a new thing to us, it’s totally new.
SXP: There are so many nostalgia programmes about the 70s and you occasionally pop up in them…
Viv: Too much probably! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking back if you’re not resting on your laurels, which I’m not; I don’t do any old stuff. I’m happy to talk about it, and I’m certainly not embarrassed by it; because we got ignored for so long, I’m very glad to be asked to put the Slits’ point of view again. That’s why I do it. That’s why any of the Slits do any interviews. We were really miffed that we weren’t taken seriously for all those years, we’re not on any compilations or in any of the books or anything. You know: about fucking time! That’s why I go on those shows.
SXP: And is it right that after the Slits you stopped playing music completely?
Viv: No, I went on playing for a year, a year and a half. I tried to read music thinking I can’t rely any more on my own intuition or my self-taughtness. But gradually the whole face of England changed as Thatcher came in, and the 80s kicked in, and the music industry, instead of something to kick against, became absolutely consumed and absorbed into capitalism and it was a fucking bore! I just wasn’t interested - it wasn’t a place for me to make music. If I’d been in a bigger country, like America, you could still do your own thing but in England there was no room for us. So I just went and did my other stuff; I was more interested in filmmaking so I did that.
SXP: I thought you’d left music but given the influences on your record, you must have been keeping in touch with what was going on?
Viv: Not at all. That music came out of nowhere. I haven’t listened to music hardly at all, for 20 years. If you’re very truthful to yourself and the sounds you like, then music is timeless. I think the Slits’ music is timeless because of that, because we didn’t copy 12 bar, we didn’t try and copy other people’s guitar sounds, we literally dug deep inside, to some primal truthful vein of something, and I just did the same. I didn’t know whether it would sound like I’d just crawled out of the ark, I just didn’t know what people would make of it, but I didn’t really care.
SXP: I think it sounded fresh and contemporary, and it didn’t sound like people from the 70s or 80s who come back with bands and try to recapture old glories.
Viv: I can’t bear it – you might as well go around doing pantomime than do that!
SXP: Why did you go back to music?
Viv: Why? I often ask myself that when I’m in some shit motel somewhere! I was utterly compelled to, there was no logic to it, it was like a volcano exploded inside me. It took me by surprise; I started writing songs again, I started trying to learn to play guitar. It was the most insane thing I’ve ever done, even more insane than picking up a guitar the first time with no role models and having to do it now, older, was even more insane. I think I was picking up on the times; there was an openness to a musician being any age, because of the great wonderful internet, which I’m very grateful for. I didn’t know I’d be playing gigs or anything but I knew it’d be OK to have a go.
SXP: In the preceding years, you mentioned films and TV. So you’ve always find creative outlets. Did you do ceramics as well?
Viv: That’s the first thing that kicked me off. I did a degree in filmmaking, I’d been directing for 12 to 15 years, and I went dormant for a bit. I had a child - that’s a creative thing in itself, but it took me over and before you know it you’re in a rut. I started going to the local art school in Hastings and it was through that that I found myself again. I had the most amazing teacher called Tony Bennett. He said to me “Viv” - he didn’t know who I was or what I’d done – “you’ve got to start expressing yourself through your work”. And I said “no Tony, I’m sick of expressing myself, I just want to make nice brown pots”. And he came back the next week and said: “I know why you said that, I heard you on the radio and you’re Viv from the Slits. I see what you mean!” But he did unleash me and out came all these erotic sculptures and aggressive things - and that was the floodgates opening. My marriage broke up and he said: “you don’t know how many marriages break up when one or the other comes to art school because you cannot make art, express yourself, without finding who you really are”. And so often you find out you’re with the wrong person! That’s what happened.
SXP: Lots of musicians say that their songs are not autobiographical. But your songs are so personal, they seem to be autobiographical – are we reading too much into them?
Viv: That’s such a hard one because of course I can start out thinking I’m going to write a song about *blah* and then the song takes over. Everything that goes into it is still you but it takes on a life of its own. They’re always autobiographical but not in an A-B-C way. It’s not a diary always, although I consider myself a diarist more than a musician, but sometimes your writings are obscure.
SXP: By the way, the last time I saw you, you were wearing Vivienne Westwood boots and tonight you have a ‘77 jacket. Do you wear something retro at every gig?
Viv: It’s a bit like being a bride – something borrowed, something blue! I felt a bit pissed off tonight because I can’t stand public holidays, they really make me feel so gloomy. So I thought I’m gonna put on that fucking hot jacket and a string vest and a bra and I’m just gonna go there and…fuck ‘em! I don’t always wear something 70s - I did a gig the other day, I looked like a nice middle class girl. I think it’s a laugh playing with your clothes, your image.