Interview: Viv Albertine

vivalbertinewebSinger and songwriter Viv Albertine is best known as the guitarist in female post-punk band The Slits. The group – also featuring Ari Up, Palmolive and Tessa Pollitt – released the seminal Cut album in 1979 and are widely credited as one of the most influential acts of the time.

Viv released her debut solo album The Vermillion Border in 2012 and has just published her autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes… Music, Music, Music… Boys, Boys, Boys via Faber.

What are your first musical memories?

It has to be You Can’t Do That by the Beatles – the b-side to Can’t Buy Me Love. I heard that at my babysitter’s house. I was just transported when she played it to me. It was the everydayness of John Lennon’s voice, plus I liked the urgency, the jealousy kind of turned me on even though I was only nine or ten. That was it. It showed me a different world. Until then I was stuck in this suburban Muswellhillian hell – I was so bored with it. I didn’t know there was anything else to life.

How did you first pick up an instrument?

From writing the book I looked back and saw a sort of line from falling in love with music to getting an instrument. But it didn’t feel like a line when I was living it. All I knew is that I would follow bands around, read the music papers every week, work in music venues like Dingwalls or the Tottenham Royal – I just followed music all the time.

It was all these different strands coming together and eventually seeing the Sex Pistols play. That was the end of it. When I saw them and Johnny Rotten on stage – it was more Rotten than the Pistols – he’d come from a North London council estate like me and didn’t have much of a voice or musical training – that’s what made me think ‘I’m gonna do this’.

How did The Slits get together?

I was in a band called Flowers of Romance. We rehearsed at Joe Strummer’s basement in Westbourne Grove with Palmolive on drums. Bit by bit the band collapsed and Olive joined The Slits. I went to go and see them play thinking I wasn’t going to like them but I was bowled over. She was great and Ari was a brilliant frontwoman. I hassled them until they let me join.

Where did The Slits find musical inspiration?

The Slits were very conscious of not following male role models. We didn’t want to fall into that trap – either musically or in how we dressed – which is what we thought had happened to [Joan Jett’s band] The Runaways. So we pulled everything we did apart and looked at things we really loved for inspiration, from musicals like Mary Poppins or West Life Story to Burt Bacharach and dub reggae. We were very much into good songwriting regardless of genre.

How important was producer Dennis Bovell to the making of Cut?

Dennis was incredibly important. He did what every great producer does – he listened to what we were trying to do and made it happen without judging. He was as open and playful as we were. If we wanted to put a toy instrument on a track, then Dennis would be up for it. It’s fine to say that now but back then producers weren’t like that. They were old school. Now everyone is like, ‘Oh let’s dub it up, let’s play plastic instruments over the top’. No one was  then but Dennis had the widest love for music. Like us, he was non-judgemental and into all sort of sounds as well reggae and black music. That was brilliant for a start. He also had the technical know how and was very strict about it being in time. It made us much better musicians after we were recording for so long. He was instrumental as a conduit for recording but he didn’t play anything. All he did was a rhythm track for Newtown. He could make sounds with his mouth like popping forks and he did a rhythm track like that for the song. We played it all but we weren’t tight enough at the beginning. We sure as hell were by the end.

How did you feel when making Cut?

Very excited but terrified. We all wanted to make a great record. There were no egos in The Slits and we had this very pure mission. The glass control room in the studio was up above, with everyone looking down on you. You had to fight the lions down there. It felt like an amphitheatre with everyone watching and listening. But it taught us so much. We were also lucky to have Dennis. It’s almost like having a first love as your best lover. To follow Dennis Bovell as a producer – his lively mind and open attitude – it just spoilt me.

Did perceptions of the band change after Cut was released?

It’s now considered the first post-punk record but we didn’t really fit in. Initially we were seen as these wild girls and everyone was terrified of us. They couldn’t label us. Looking back now people can understand our contribution. But I don’t think the album did make a huge difference to how people saw us at the time. We were shocked as we thought we’d made a classic.

What are your best memories of that time?

I don’t have any best memories. We were all very harsh on everything we did – how you conducted yourself with a boyfriend to what you wore. But we had to be. We were trying to re-write things and say you didn’t have to be a guitar hero to be in the industry. The Eric Claptons and Peter Greens were all trying to show off their virtuosity. That’s what it was like before punk. But the legacy is you don’t have to be a great player or be born into the upper middle class to be in the music industry. You can do it yourself without fitting in.

What was the motivation behind writing the book?

The Slits and punk were the least interesting parts for me but I knew I had to include them as that’s how people know me. Really the book is just a woman’s life. I think I’ve had quite an eventful life – illness, divorce, miscarriage, being in a band – all these things will resonate with so many different types of people. Punk is only a small part of it.

You had your own solo album out in 2012 – how did it feel to return to songwriting after a 20 plus year gap?

It was funny going back to songwriting as I didn’t think I would be able to do it. When I did I was absolutely bursting like a volcano to get these things out that I felt needed to be said. I didn’t know whether they were for other people to hear or for me but I was absolutely driven to write them down. I had to relearn to play guitar to make them real.

I was amazed once I got in the studio how much I knew what to do. How to ut a counter melody line in, backing vocals. It was very odd. Not because I’d done it before but if you trust your own instincts, which again is a legacy of punk, you have got it in you. With music, you don’t have to have much knowledge. Just listening to the world can make you a musician.

Do you think the music industry has changed?

No. The industry and the people all seem horribly familiar. But the internet means that you don’t have to go through the same channels as we did. If you do, and I’ve seen it happen to younger women, then you still get made into something the male managers and labels want you to be. Thank god now there is the internet.

Have you any advice for songwriters?

Be truthful and honest and eventually you’ll hopefully transcend your background to become an artist. But I’d hardly recommend it. It’s not something I’d want my daughter to do.

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