The Selecter was an integral part of the original 2 Tone scene in the UK with hits such as Too Much Pressure and On My Radio. With a major tour coming up in early 2014 and a new album just out, the band took to the road for a few dates supporting Public Image Limited. On the final night of the tour, at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, the band’s dynamic singers Pauline Black and Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson sat down with me for a chat before the show. Pauline made me a cup of tea and the two iconic figures of the ska scene opened up about creating new music, getting older, sexism and their first sighting of a certain Johnny Rotten. Imelda Michalczyk talks with Pauline Black and Gaps.
This is the last date of your tour with PiL – how’s it gone?
Gaps: We enjoyed every minute of it.
Have you toured with PiL before?
Pauline: No, but back in the day John Lydon used to come to our gigs. There’s one very specific gig that I can remember, which is when we played Hammersmith Palais and he was in the audience. Linton Kwesi Johnson was on the bill. It was a benefit gig. That was the first time I’d ever seen Lydon. A lot of people have said ‘how do you fit The Selecter and PiL on the same bill?’. But really we’re speaking to the same audience – if you’re a certain age you know that, but if you’re very young then people don’t know that and they seem poles apart, but they’re actually not.
How different is touring now for you than it was when you first started out in the late 70s?
Pauline: Well, we’re older! (Laughs).
Gaps: We’re more experienced and we can spot the nasty people miles away.
Pauline: Yeah, that’s true. I think it’s like Gaps said, with age comes experience so we pretty much sort ourselves out. People get to places on time and they go on stage, they don’t bump into the furniture and they do their gig and they get off and then they go home. So, for the time that you’re on stage it’s a real buzz, whereas before they’d be a lot of business to do beforehand a lot of business to do after. Now we have cocoa and go to bed. (Laughs)
The new album is called ‘String Theory’ – can you tell us what you wanted the album to say about how The Selecter sees the world today?
Pauline: You have to go back to ‘Made in Britain’ which came out in 2012 and on that we just wanted to have a conversation basically about where The Selecter was at, where we were at in relation to 2 Tone. And 2 Tone had kind of metamorphosed I suppose into multiculturalism during all of that intervening time and that’s what people are talking about now. They weren’t talking about that in 1979. They didn’t even really know that racism existed then. Now they do. So, I think that with ‘String Theory’ – a year later in 2013 – we just wanted to continue that conversation because if you go beyond molecular level, string theory suggests that we’re all made of the same stuff. And it’s the same stuff as the universe is made of and, if that is so, then everybody in the human race is connected in some way or another. So, it works on that level but it also works on a micro level, which is that we’re tied to our past of 1979 and it’s kind of like a piece of string and we’re like fumbling through to the future. It was just a nice way of saying that. Whether people get it or not really doesn’t matter, does it? Makes for nice art work. And Gaps thinks it’s…
Gaps: Thunderbirds! (Laughs)
Didn’t you study science – is there a link there?
Pauline: Yeah. Well I see no difference really between science and art. They both have elements of the same thing in the other. That’s just my interest really.
How has the writing and recording process changed from when you started out to now?
Gaps: With the ‘Made In Britain’ album there were songs ready so that was done in less than a month. With ‘String Theory’ we took more time because we wanted to really get something that we’d be proud of years later and I think we’ve achieved that. I think it’s some of the best work that The Selecter have made so far.
Pauline: The history to ‘Made in Britain’ is that I had a book coming out, which was ‘Black By Design’ and I was sitting around in a meeting with the guy who books our London shows and he was introducing me to a PR company. They were going to do PR on the book and I said well, we’ve got this idea maybe to do a cover of ‘Back To Black’ and also this song that we have called ‘Big In The Body, Small In The Mind’. And I said would you be interested in promoting those as singles alongside the book, then we’ll release them as the year goes by? And they just very coldly looked at me and said ‘Nobody does singles any more’. (Laughs) They said ‘It’s all about albums, dear, it’s all about albums. Now if you could give us an album by blah blah blah..’. So, I went home that weekend and we talked and basically we put it together over that weekend and then went and recorded it. Very fortunately, it was a really nice calling card for everybody involved and got people interested in maybe a bit of the history about The Selecter and stuff like that and the shows that we were doing. So, it was something to build on over that year. Of course, once we were back on the road and we were doing gigs again, you’ve got that luxury of time where you can start thinking about what you want to do next and that’s really how ‘String Theory’ developed.
Gaps: And we just enjoy working together in a little small room and putting the ideas together. It was really great.
Pauline: I think we should mention Neil too. Neil Pyzer who’s the guy who has a record company called Vocaphone Records. We record on that label and he’s got his own studio. But he’s also the saxophonist in the band, kind of MD for the band as well and I’d been working with him on a solo project a year before we came back together again. So, there’s history there, so that was nice and he’s just a great guy to work with.
Had it not been for that prompt, do you think you wouldn’t have put an album together?
Pauline: I really think we would have put an album together. It might not have been as soon. When you put out a book you get one bite at the cherry. People are either going to read it or they’re not going to read it. You want to maximize the stuff that happens around it. I think that these days we’re not really interested in managers and people like that, we know enough to figure things out for ourselves about how things work within the business, as opposed to just the creative aspect of it. It’s time consuming but I consider that it’s much better. I mean, there’s nobody breathing down our necks, you know? We are as old as we are, we do what we want to do, when we want to do it. In so far as you can in this business. And if people are interested then they’re interested. It’s been a slow building process, but we’re still in an upward trend and we haven’t really put a foot wrong, yet, I don’t think. I think some of our contemporaries have come back sort of with their back catalogue and really concentrated on that but haven’t really offered anything new. I feel as though, I mean, it’s up to them what they want to do, but I feel that if we were doing that it might be a bit of a disservice to the fans that actually like us. I do feel that a band is as good really as its last record.
How much of the show is the newer material – is it a balance between the new and the old?
Pauline: It is when we do our full show. But on a tour like this you can only do 40 minutes or 50 minutes and it’s a very strict changeover and all those kind of things, so it’s quite difficult. Also you’re playing to an audience where maybe a quite a lot of them don’t know you or haven’t heard of you since whenever, so you’ve got to do the things they’re going to know and then slip in the things they don’t. But we’ve managed to slip in, off the ‘String Theory’ album, ‘London’s Burning’, ‘Secret Love’, ‘The Avengers Theme’, ‘A Prince Among Men’ and ‘Warrior’, so it’s good in that way. When we do our full show it’s pretty much half and half, I would say.
Although the emphasis in the 2 Tone era was unity and anti-racism, you’ve said that there was an anti-sexist strand to it as well. Do you think that’s recognised as part of its legacy?
Pauline: No, probably because we didn’t shout loudly enough about that. The racism aspect of it, I feel, was pretty huge at that time and that had to be dealt with. I do think that some of the songs that were around – even from bands within the 2 Tone stable – were slightly misogynistic, I mean ‘Little Bitch’ (by The Specials) isn’t exactly bigging up the anti-sexist stance is it? But I always felt that within The Selecter, what we did, and particularly what Gaps and I do, we’re unique in terms of it’s the only male/female duo and we have equal footing on the stage. I think that you do it by demonstration rather than anything else. It’s the same as the racism thing.
Gaps: Yeah, demonstration. Back to the old cliche ‘actions speak louder than words’.
Do you think attitudes to women have changed much within the music industry from your experience?
Pauline: It’s always difficult to quantify but still the music industry is run by men in suits, but then all industry is run by men in suits, so I don’t really think there’s a great deal of difference wherever you go. It’s a joy to see young women that are coming up now who can play instruments, write their own songs, have much more say in what they do. That’s not to say there weren’t women like that when we were around. There’s was Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Poly Styrene, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, they were there. I just think there’s more of them now and they’re not all twerking. (Laughs).
Do you have a stance on that, as there have been quite a few prominent female singers voicing their disapproval of Miley Cyrus?
Pauline: Oh, let the poor girl do what she wants to do! You’re only young once, goodness me. Everyone wants to have sex – what’s wrong with having sex? Nothing! Sinead O’Conner should just shut up. There’s nothing worse than older women complaining, rather than just big up the fact that hey we’re older we can still do this. You do it differently – no one wants to watch us twerking but if somebody wants to watch the poor little girl do that well then fair enough. If she feels as though she’s empowered doing that, then let her do that. I think older women should, you know, just get on with your own menopause. (Laughs). I’m quite happy with mine.
Are there any female singer/songwriters there any that you find particularly interesting at the moment?
Pauline: In terms of female singer songwriters it’s got nothing to do with me or any music that I do, but sometimes I look at what Beyonce does and just stand back in awe. Particularly when she plays with her all female band – they are absolutely stunning. I dip in and out of bands. I’m always interested in female singers because they’re a rarity and they’re like flowers that ought to be nurtured. I like that girl in London Grammar. I was listening the other day to something that they’re doing and I just thought wow that’s a really beautiful voice.
What music are you listening to at the moment, while you’re on the road?
Gaps: Reggae music – especially like the real Jamaican roots. But I listen to anything – as long as it’s pleasing to the ears, I got no problem with it at all.
Pauline: I like Bjork. I always have done. I like Laura Mvula, I really do think that she’s quite something. Her whole way that she hears music is wonderful.
You’re back on the road in the spring, can you tell us what people can expect from this tour?
Pauline: It’s 26 dates. I think the main thing is we’ve never actually done the ‘Too Much Pressure’ album in its entirety before. We’re lagging, do you know what I mean, like two years later, because we really did feel as though we should do new stuff. We feel that the fans are probably ready now. This is our 35th anniversary – let’s have a look at this now and see how far we’ve come. So, it’s really more like a see how far we’ve come tour as much as anything.
Lastly, what would like people to take away from The Selecter show when they go home tonight?
Gaps: WOW! Just wow.
Pauline: I want them to take away that it’s possible to be in a band and be older. I just want them to have a good time, if they have a good time then that’s great.
‘String Theory’ is available on Vocaphone Records.
Words and photos by Imelda Michalczyk
21 October 2013