Having exploded into a decidedly Britpop-shaped zeitgeist in 1994, Skunk Anansie tore up all available opposition with invariably incendiary live shows, a trio of chart albums and a round dozen hit singles.
Following an extended lay-off, the quartet returned in 2009 and are primed to release their sixth album, Anarchytecture. Classic Rock caught up with the band’s hyperactive lead vocalist Skin, now enjoying a concurrent career on the judging panel of the Italian X Factor, to talk “big, fat rock”, maturity and focus.
What did the constituent parts of Skunk Anansie do in the years you were away?
I did two solo albums and kind of basically honed my DJ skills. Ace [guitar] did a couple of degrees, started a school [The Ace Guitar Academy in Brighton], did a solo album and produced a whole bunch of indie albums. Cass [bass] built a studio and rehearsal rooms, and Mark [Richardson, drums] was playing with Feeder and started up a film production company.
I’m guessing life’s always good when the four Skunk Anansie family members are in the same room?
We have a real fat laugh, to be honest. We’re really good friends and you know, I think the reason why that gapette lasted so long is because we’ve all started brand new careers that are all kind of connected and involved with music – we’re not the kind of people who are just going to sit around and do nothing. We all remained in the industry, putting music out, producing in the studio, film. It was interesting because things really changed in that time as well, and while people say, “You weren’t doing Skunk Anansie,” so weren’t aware of those changes, we all had albums out, and we were part of those changes.
When we’re back together in a room, we’re really good friends. We hang out with each other, individually and together, when we’re not working. We have a real laugh. We know each other’s humours very well – we take the piss, to be honest! Ace gets it in the neck a lot.
Going back to the genesis of Skunk Anansie, things seemed to happen really quickly for you. History tells me you formed in March ’94, but when I first wrote about you that June, there was already a massive buzz around the band.
We were all in bands before Skunk Anansie, and those bands were the indie giants of the scene that was going on in King’s Cross at the time. We were all playing in The Splash Club. Ace was in a band called Big Life Casino, and they started The Splash Club because they could use it for rehearsal. In the early 90s, that club became a hotbed of loads of different bands – you know, Compulsion, Raindancer – who became Feeder – Echobelly, Oasis played there, Rub Ultra, and there was Mama Wild, which was me and Cass.
So, when we got Skunk Anansie together, it was the best bass player in that scene, the best guitarist in that scene, which was Ace, and me, who was the best kind of frontperson. Originally we had the drummer from Mama Wild, but he left after one gig because he couldn’t handle it. We were like a kind of unsigned supergroup. So our first gig was rammed, just out of curiosity. People were like, “What is this going to be like?” And it went off, and the next gig was rammed with at least 40 different A&R people from 40 different record labels, and we got signed from that second gig.
Aside from the fact that the musicianship was amazing, you were a proper old-school frontperson, putting on a show and really selling the material, at a time when static strumming was the order of the day.
Yeah, shoe-fucking-gazers and all that stuff. Our influences were all huge rock bands. We liked everybody from AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin and Motörhead to Rage Against The Machine, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and all those bands Andy Wallace produced. Those were our peers and the guys we wanted to support and play with. We were always into rock on a grand scale and all those bands have fantastic frontpeople. In England then, there was this mentality where if somebody really went for it, they’re not cool. To be cool you had to have a huge, big jacket and just strum the guitar. That wasn’t our influences. We went for it, we were a rock band and we absolutely went crazy on stage. We were just very, very good. In the beginning, that kind of perception was difficult for us, but we just knew we had to be, like, fifteen times better than everybody else to get noticed, and that’s really what happened – we were just better than everybody else.
Probably because you’d been watching rock bands, you were using big stadium gestures right from the off. You may have been playing to a small club, but you were always looking at the stars.
We weren’t really aware of it, to be honest. We had no idea. We were just doing what we were doing. Our inspiration was big, fat rock bands with a big, fat rock sound, made by all those big, fat American producers. That inspired and influenced us, but we never analysed it. I wasn’t trying to be Bono – I was just doing what I was doing. There was an innocence and a naivety to it, but I was just being me.
The main thing was that we literally didn’t fucking care. We didn’t care if we were cool or not cool, we didn’t care about any of it. We didn’t care what we were wearing, we were just rocking out. It was grunge – we were getting our clothes from charity shops and from the army shops, you know.
Anarchytecture is primarily a rock album, but there are different shades to its sound. While the rockers like Beauty Is Your Curse really do rock, the big ballads like Death To The Lovers have a fiercely contemporary mainstream gloss, a real pop edge.
Well, I think we’ve always written pop songs, and we’ve always liked Nirvana. We wrote pop songs from the very beginning of our career because we always liked hooky choruses: AC/DC, Metallica, all of those bands. We used to listen to old Rolling Stones and Beatles records. We just liked pop hooks. But our sort of pop music wasn’t Britney Spears – our sort of pop music was those bands and those influences. It was popular because there was both a melody and a lyric that caught hold of you – it had depth and profundity. Not like what I hear on the radio now. [Sings] ‘You know, I’m going to getcha, baby.’ It was: ‘Just because you feel good doesn’t make you right.’
Everything had something to say, and they’re the best pop songs, whether it’s Madonna, George Michael or the Sex Pistols. That’s what this album’s got. Every single chorus has something to say, so it’s hooky in that way, because it’s not just about the melody, it’s about touching people, and that’s what we’ve always done.
We came out of a scene in the 90s where you went into a big studio, recorded an album and made it the best you possibly could. That was the Led Zeppelin and Queen influence – they went into the studio and captured the best performance they were able to deliver at the time. We still have that mentality and that’s why our record sounds really good now, and that’s why the Sex Pistols album still sounds so good now. At the time it seemed too glossy, too perfect, too amazing, but it still sounds good now for that reason. Our early records still sound good for that reason, and the new album is very contemporary. We can’t go backwards – we’re not going to make a shit-sounding album just to try to make it cool, because that’s not what we’ve ever done, so it would be us trying to be like somebody else rather than ourselves. We’re true to ourselves whether people like it or not – we always try to make the best album we can afford, with the best people.
Tom Dalgety, who produced the album, has got the same mentality. We’ve got lots of influences now because I DJ techno, and I know a lot of fans fucking hate that, but I don’t care. Electronic music has always been an influence; we always loved our drum and bass . We came out at the same time as Goldie, Portishead, Björk and Massive Attack, played festivals with them, and were influenced by them.
In Skunk Anansie’s earliest incarnation, you personally seemed so driven, angry and radically committed politically. Have you mellowed with the passage of time?
I think you change. When you’re a kid you’re quite incendiary. Compare the Billy Bragg of twenty or thirty years ago to what he is now. He’s still very political, but in a more measured way. And I think it’s the same with me. I don’t want to be 21 again, and if I tried to behave how I was then, I’d look pretty fake, a bit tired. We’re all nearly 50 now; we’re not 21 any more. We’ve got 25 years more life experience, so lyrically and in terms of what we’re doing, we know what works and what doesn’t work.
In the early days, all we had to express ourselves was your music. Now, as an adult, I have lots of different ways to express my political opinion, and I do a lot more stuff as opposed to just say stuff on my record. So it’s different times. It’s different times, and we’re different people. We’re older and more mature.
Since your arrival on the panel of the Italian X Factor, and the mainstream celebrity that has afforded you, you’re presumably producing a record for a significantly broader audience.
I think we’ve grown up with X Factor and all kinds of talent shows. The way people consume music is really different now. There’s practically no music television any more. MTV plays those shitty fucking VIP shows, and there’s no Top Of The Pops. When we started out we had TFI Friday, Top Of The Pops, there’d been The Tube, The Word, Jools Holland… There were about five big TV shows in the 80s, into the 90s. Now we have the new TFI Friday and Jools Holland and that’s it. The way people access music is completely different now. It’s very social media-based. You’re not going to see a metal band on X Factor or The Voice. In Italy, yes, we have bands on X Factor, but not in England.
Did you learn to speak Italian specifically because of your recruitment to X Factor?
Yep – it’s something I’d wanted to do for a very long time. There was a personal thing that happened. I was married at the beginning of the year and that ended [Skin entered into a civil partnership in 2013 with Christiana Wyly, daughter of American billionaire Sam Wyly]. So when they first asked me, I said no. Then they asked me again after my marriage ended and I said yes, because I just thought, “I’m going to say yes to everything, I’m just going to do a bunch of things I’ve never done.” I did a movie as well [Andron: The Black Labyrinth]. It’s just like a wicked, dirty, kind of violent sci-fi movie. I just started saying yes to things to give myself a bunch of new challenges.
To learn Italian was very difficult, but I’m speaking it now, so I’ve learnt it, just about. I spoke a little French because I lived in France for a time, but just before I got the grasp of it I moved to another country. It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do, but if you’re in a situation where you have to do it, that’s the way to learn a language – when you don’t have any choice and you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done because it takes six months to learn a language, and most of that time you really need to be living in that country. I learnt it in four months and only lived in the country for one month.
I remember from interviews we’ve done in the past that you do like a good swear. Does your own particular Anglo-Saxon vernacular ever jump into your mouth when you’re on air?
[Laughs] Oh absolutely – you’re allowed to swear on Italian X Factor. It’s very, very different to the English one. You can swear and say ‘fuck’ as much as you like. They also have a rock band section. This year ours was the first X Factor across the whole world that has that. So they have metal, rock and all kinds of bands auditioning, which is really fun. I think that’s why they asked me to do it. I didn’t end up judging the bands – I don’t have the bands. All of the X Factor judges are musicians, so there are no TV presenters or anything. You’ve got Elio, the Italian Frank Zappa; the international judge, which is me; Mika, who’s totally pop; and a rapper called Fedez.
Do you maintain those traditional X Factor judge roles? If so, are you the one with the arm on the shoulder and tear in the eye, or are you the nasty one who makes children cry and tells pensioners they can’t sing?
No, we don’t do any of that. There are none of the clichés you see in the English one. It’s the same format, but there isn’t a Mr. Nasty or a goody two shoes. There are no characters – we’re just ourselves.
With X Factor now established as the ultimate model by which to sell music to the mainstream, involving rock bands in the process – as the Italian version now does – could offer an enormous shot in the arm to the rock world as a whole. A levelling of the playing field to finally usher rock back into the international musical mainstream. They have very different ways of doing things in Italy. One of the biggest radio stations here is also a record company. It’s all linked, all one picture.
Being in a band now is not the same as being in a band in the 90s. In the 90s, my personal job was to write the music, record the music, sing it live. Now I’ve also got to be the director of my record label. Our band’s now a brand. As directors of that company, the four of us have different roles. So Mark does all the video and online. Ace does all the merchandising and because he’s got business management skills, he works with our manager on the business side. Cass helps with the production – he has a production studio. I’m the one who oversees everything. I’m the chief songwriter, so I make sure the music gets done and gets done in the right way. Then I’ve got to make sure the image is right, working with art directors, working on the online image with the artists, then I oversee everything else. I always did. Then our manager manages it all.
So, we have four roles, and those roles used to be done by the record company. Now we have to do them. When we first signed to Virgin, they had 30 staff. We’re on Universal now, a partnership deal, and they have two staff, and they still get the same amount done.
A few years back, the radical Skunk Anansie were raging against the machine, against the man, but now you are the man, you can set your own agenda.
Exactly. That’s exactly my point. People that complain about social media are living in the dark ages, because social media has given the power back to bands. If you can come up with a different way to do things, you can completely, one hundred per cent do it yourself. You don’t have to sign to a record company if you don’t want to. You can just build your own model and you can do it all from your bedroom. Literally from your bedroom – lots of artists have.
If you don’t welcome and embrace social media, you’re not controlling how your band is seen; you’re just not on top of it. If you’re a young kid, before you even approach a record company, you’ve got to have your music sounding wicked and you’ve got to come up with videos of your stuff. You’ve got to do it all yourself before a record company will even look at you, because they don’t have people at record labels that can do those jobs any more. At a certain point you’ll need to sign to a record company because they’ve still got the distribution, but there’s no A&R any more – those guys have gone. All they have are accountants, marketing and distribution.
I suppose you’ve got to graft now to be a rock star.
I think that’s a good thing, because one of the myths that_ X Factor_ put out in the early days was that all you have to do is jump on a stage and sing to be a star. Now people know that isn’t the case and can see how difficult it is. Watching those artists on _X Factor _shows how difficult it is to make it, and the fact is, you can win these shows and still fucking disappear. It’s really hard, and if you compare the standard of artists getting signed in the 90s to the standard of artists getting signed now, it’s a much higher level now, because they’ve got to get a lot of stuff sorted before they sign, and their songs have to be better. You don’t get artists signed from nowhere now, with a huge marketing campaign behind them and all their songs written for them. That just doesn’t happen any more.
You’re personally facing something quite rare in the world of rock these days: thanks to X Factor, you’re enjoying the stratospheric level of celebrity that only a prime-time TV role can provide. How are you with that? I always got the impression that somewhere hiding behind Skin, there’s always been an intrinsically shy Deborah?
That’s right! [Laughs] You’re exactly right. Most people who front bands are incredibly shy when they walk off the stage. Over the years… I’m just grown up now. I still have that little girl inside going, “What the fuck?” Like when I did X Factor, I was sitting there thinking, “Oh my God, oh my God.” But I just don’t let anyone know. I just think, “Okay, you’re in this, you’ve got to just do it.”
I’ve always had the ability to dig myself out of a hole, to rise to the occasion and rise to a challenge. That’s probably my predominant characteristic trait. I do rise to a challenge. Now, I like challenges. I used to hate them, but now I like to see if I’m going to win or not. I mean, I regularly stare failure in the face. This year has been a lot of staring failure in the face and, ‘Okay, so what am I going to do now?’ You’ve just got to pick yourself up and go forward.
The prime-time thing is primarily one country, it’s Italy, although it bleeds into other countries, and it is kind of crazy right now. It’s really difficult to walk down the street on my own now, but it goes up and it goes down. This isn’t the first time in my career that I’ve had this level of fame. In the early days, the 90s, and when I had my solo stuff out, it was the same shit. It’s really just part of the picture. I’m here because I’m a working musician, I love music, and you’ve always got to remember that. Nothing happens without the music.
**When I first saw you perform, watching you stand on that stage, preparing to be ‘Skin from Skunk Anansie’, it was like watching a 100-metre sprinter on the starting line. There was that same level of total focus, as if you were consciously inhabiting a certain headspace in order to perform. **
You know what it’s called? Pure terror! [Laughs] Absolute terror. In those days I had so much stage fright. In those days, just to walk on stage took all of my power and all of my concentration. To get over it, I used to – and I still do now – literally run onto the stage. I used to be a sprinter at school. It’s funny you have that very perception of me, to have that analogy, because I do have to run onto the stage, and I do focus and have concentration before I walk on stage. And I have to be bloody fit, what with the amount of physical and emotional power it takes me to do a Skunk Anansie show. I do have to be like a racehorse or a Formula One driver to do it.
**How did you enjoy Rod Stewart’s version of _Weak_?**
[Laughs] I thought it was good, I thought it was really cute that he changed _‘Weak young heart’ to ‘Weak old heart’_. I heard that he found it really difficult to sing, which surprises me. He maybe didn’t realise it goes from low to quite high, but that was a great moment. I love Rod Stewart, especially his early stuff. When you get a singer like that, of that level of class, that likes one of your songs enough to cover it, you’re like, “Fuck, yeah!”
Is it fair to say, then, that in general life’s been good to you?
Do you know, just like everybody else’s life, it has its ups and downs. I studied interior design because I was into architecture. I worked for an architecture company – it was crap and I hated it. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be when I wanted to be an artist, and I got sidetracked into design. I still love design, but I walked out of my job when I was 21. I was just like, “‘I’m not doing this fucking shit any more. I’d rather spend my days doing what I love. Some days I’m going to hate it – it’s going to be really hard – but some days it’s just going to be so rewarding.” I wake up every morning really happy with what I have to do that day, whether it’s easy or hard. I think it changes you as a person, when you wake up every morning to a challenge.
It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge you’re giving to yourself.
Exactly – the challenge is to do it for the rest of your life, to be honest, and you’ll keep doing it. That’s the challenge – to be able to do it, and nothing else, and keep doing it, and not have to do something else because you’ve got no money. That’s the challenge.
So are you a little bit more well-off than when we last met?
[Laughs] Definitely! I had to turn a lot of shit around this year. The end of my marriage at the beginning of the year was incredibly hard, but then you’ve got to turn it around. So I think my year’s going to end completely differently to how it began. I heard a really funny, really appropriate phrase in Italian recently which was, basically, if you start the year in shit, then you end it in a rocket.