Thinking Out Loud: Skunk Anansie's Skin

She was born Deborah Anne Dyer in Brixton in 1967, but you’ll know her better as Skin – the singer in British alternative rock band Skunk Anansie.

The band split in 2001 due to fatigue and personal problems within the group, but following an eight-year hiatus they officially reformed in 2009.

They’ve since released three new records, their sixth studio album, Anarchytecture, is due out next year, and they continue to chart and tour all over Europe.

Outside of Skunk Anansie, Skin has enjoyed a successful career as a solo artist. She’s also worked as a model, an actress, an electronic DJ, and she recently joined the line-up of judges on the Italian version of the X Factor.

Here’s what she has to say…

**“My first musical icon was Blondie. **I remember watching Top of the Pops as a kid, and Blondie came on with Debbie Harry in her black and white striped dress. I was 10 at the time, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I want to be like.’ So she was the first person that I wanted to be like. But within my own culture I didn’t have any reference point. The closest I had was Grace Jones, but she was reggae. I grew up with reggae and ska because my granddad owned a nightclub in the basement of his house, and everyone from Muhammad Ali to Bob Marley used to come through the door, but I never really identified with that music. I wanted to be a grungey white boy, like Kurt Cobain.”

“**Skunk Anansie were really influenced by American grunge, and Nirvana were one of our favourite bands. **We loved Rage Against The Machine and Smashing Pumpkins too – all of those bands. We wanted to sound more like them, because the English scene was very wimpy. We weren’t into the indie Britpop thing at all: that wasn’t our sound. We were much more aggressive. We were from a working class background and we wanted to play rough and ready music. So we weren’t really part of either scene: we weren’t grunge because we were British, but we weren’t Britpop because we weren’t white boys in skinny jeans. We were separate from all of it. We were a group of underground outsiders, really. But alongside those two scenes we did very well. We toured all over the UK and America, and it was a mad time. We regularly did festivals with everyone from the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, to Limp Bizkit and Slipknot, and then we’d play with people like Portishead and Massive Attack as well. In those days everything was really mixed up, and nobody cared about the colour of your skin or sexuality. It was just, ‘You look great and you play really well, come and be in our band.’ It was a unique time.”

Mark [Richardson, drums] will tell you now that he had a horrible addiction, and that was one of the things that split us up. He was having some real issues and problems, so we decided to take a break from the band. And it took him about five years to sort himself out. Now, you can’t find a more incredible and genuine human being, and that’s because of all of the things that he’s been through. But we were all exhausted from constant touring, and we’d done a lot during those first few years as a band. So the break was necessary. And we always wanted to come back. Being in a band is a unique experience, and I think we all made our best music in Skunk Anansie. So we came back with the greatest hits album [Smashes and Trashes, 2009], and we wrote three new songs for it: Squander, Tear the Place Up, and Because of You, which are now three classic Skunk Anansie songs. That’s when we thought, if we can write stuff that’s as good as our old stuff, then we need to make another album. And so we did [Wonderlustre, 2010]. And we’ve written two more since then [Black Traffic, 2012 and Anarchytecture due out in 2016]. People really like the new songs too, and we’ve got a new fan base of kids coming to our shows, which is great. That’s the point of staying together, and for us the new stuff has to be as credible as the old stuff in our hearts and minds. If it’s not like that then you’re not being artistically true to yourself as a band.”

Skunk Anansie in 1996

Skunk Anansie in 1996 (Image credit: Bob Berg/Hulton Archive)

We were on stage when the hurricane hit Pukkelpop in 2011, and it was one of the scariest days of my life. The weirdest thing about that incident was up until that storm there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was burning hot, and I get sunstroke really easily because I’ve got no hair. So we were doing press before the show, and I was feeling really sick. I remember doing an interview and the journalist telling me that there was going to be a storm. I was like, ‘Really? You’re taking the piss aren’t you?’ There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Then literally half an hour before we went on stage it went from being a beautiful sunny day to turning all dark and cloudy. Then three songs into our set it started raining, and by the fourth song it was a total downpour. By the fifth song the wind started coming in, and by song six it was a full-blown hurricane. It was fucking crazy! All of our gear stopped working, but we kept playing we’ve never come off stage no matter what. And we didn’t know at the time it was a hurricane: we just thought it was bad weather. At one point it just went to another level, and I was literally blown off my feet. The organisers later told us that the best thing we could’ve done was stay on stage, because otherwise even more people would’ve gone running into the tents, and the one that collapsed was already too full. You always have these doubts with something like that, that maybe you should’ve done things differently, but thankfully we were told we did the right thing on that occasion, and that keeping people out in the open was the safest thing we could’ve done. But it madness, and then we later found out that some people had died. It was awful.”

“**My marriage ended on Valentine’s Day this year, and that completely changed everything about me. **Our new album is really my way of trying to describe what relationships are like: in a relationship you have to build all of these things to make it successful, and you need structure for things to work, but it’s madness because at the centre of that structure is two human beings who are fucking crazy, and humans get more and more crazy as life goes on. It’s kind of like building a glass structure around people having a riot, you know. That’s why we called the album Anarchytecture. It’s political too, and there’s always been that side to Skunk Anansie. Cass [bass] would look at it in a much more communist way, because he’s much more radical and political than I am.”

“**When my marriage broke up I just started saying yes to shit, because I wanted to be busy and not think about my own personal situation. **That’s why I agreed to be on the Italian X Factor. I also wanted the challenge. And the show over there is very different because they have rock bands, and that’s why they wanted me: they wanted the credibility of someone who knows what being in a rock band is like. And the other judges are all musicians: there’s no TV stars or celebrities. There’s a hardcore rapper who’s covered in tattoos, called Fedez. You’ve got Mika, who represents pure pop. And then there’s Elio, who’s the Italian version of Frank Zappa. He has the best musicians in Italy in his band, and he makes really leftfield music. He also has a theatre company and he dresses up in all these weird outfits. We’re allowed to swear as much as we like, and we can do whatever we want as well. So it’s quite radical. There’s still a format, and they write a lot of stuff for the show, but it’s a lot of fun, and it’s Simon Cowell’s favourite of all the X Factors, apparently. It was really difficult learning the language though, because the whole show is in Italian. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for in that respect. I only had five weeks before the first show to get up to speed, and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. But would I do it again if I knew? Yes, because I love speaking Italian. It’s a country that I love and I go there all the time, and I have lots of friends there, so to be able to properly speak the language is amazing. The Italians have a phrase: ‘If you start your year in shit, you end it on a rocket,’ and I think that sums up my year really.”

Skin was talking to Matt Stocks. Skunk Anansie’s new album Anarchytecture will be released on January 15, 2016.