Our paths crossed again in early 2012 when Viv joined a discussion panel put together by Wears The Trousers and EKO London for the Roundhouse Rising Festival. The album, she told us, was still in the works, and she spoke very passionately to the audience about the changing face of the music industry and the challenges she was working to overcome in relaunching herself as a solo artist. Using PledgeMusic to help fund the making of the album, with all the ups and downs that go along with that, all Viv’s hard work finally paid off late last year with the November release of The Vermilion Border, a characterful record containing Viv’s trademark use of unconventional rhythms and fiercely honest lyrics. Sai Ragunath gave her a call to get an update.
You’re an artist who emerged from a hugely influential counterculture, and someone with strict DIY ethics. How was this manifested in your new record?
I just sat down at the kitchen table and taught myself very simple, rudimentary guitar again because I hadn’t touched it for twenty-five years and couldn’t play. I didn’t stick to chords and scales, I just played what I made up in my head. Obviously it felt exactly the same as when I first started playing. The DIY scene then was the same. In fact, one of the reasons that I thought I could even attempt to come back was because of the internet and feeling that I didn’t need record companies or approval of any organisations to be able to get myself heard. Thank god! If I tried to go through any of the normal channels they would have just said, “You’re too old. You’ve been away too long. You’re not a virtuoso. You haven’t got a beautiful voice” – what people said the first time around would have been said the second time around, but I just took no notice again. I mean people did say that to me anyway the second time round, but at least this time I had a little hindsight to realise that it doesn’t really matter what people say as long as you’re compelled and committed enough to do it. Plus I didn’t know any musicians anymore, so I just did what we used to do in the old days – if you liked the look of somebody and you heard they played an instrument, you asked them to play on the record. Amazingly, if you trust your instincts – if you get a feeling that a person is good and interesting – it always works out. It felt so similar, like déjà vu to be honest.
This year in particular, the internet seems to have self-consciously become the “new punk” – Tumblr is full of zine promoters, and there’s a newly heightened awareness of feminist issues and pop culture. I wondered how you felt about the digitalisation of our experience of music and art in a DIY setting.
Well, it’s so different to how it was back in the ’70s. The ethos is kind of similar, with fanzines and such, but the reach is enormous, and because of that everything is watered down – it’s saturation overload. I think there’s an essence of the same processes. I mean, whenever a new communication tool is invented it is revolutionary, and it does give a voice to the people – whether it was printing, photocopying, printing presses, it always seems to help. Even with all its disadvantages, I wouldn’t wish the internet away for anything.
Did you struggle with crowdsourcing at all and what was your experience of using PledgeMusic?
The crowdsourcing thing was amazing, really. At first I thought whether I really wanted to it, and is it kind of sad to say “Oh, please can you help me?” I was a bit embarrassed about that! But, actually, once I’d committed to it I thought, ‘Well, no, it’s actually a very egalitarian way to do something.’ Then of course I had the feeling that no one would pledge. My worries were only insecurities, but once people started to pledge it really helped my confidence. To think that people out there were willing to take a risk on me, to put money in before hearing anything was very empowering, because I didn’t really have many people around me who were empowering me. These anonymous people, the pledgers, became like friends. There weren’t millions of them, but there was a core group of people who thought I’d done enough in the past to trust me. I felt a massive sense of responsibility to make something very good, and I was a bit late delivering because of that – I wanted it to be right, I wanted it to be something that a lot of work and thought had gone into in terms of the songs, the rhythms, the packaging…everything.
A lot of people have wondered what you were doing, and why you suddenly wanted to put out a record now. I was wondering if there was anyone who really encouraged you to pick your guitar up again?
There were little angels along the way, strangely, and they come in disguise. One little angel was Vincent Gallo – you couldn’t have a more beautiful angel in some ways! [laughs] He encouraged me from across the ocean. Also, a couple of very close girlfriends. I’m not someone who has millions of friends – I don’t spread myself thin – but a couple of very close girlfriends didn’t doubt me for a second, whereas I doubted myself every single second. There were a couple of men down in Hastings, people who didn’t want anything from me and didn’t have an agenda, who really supported me by taking me to open mic sessions along the south coast. There was also the guy in the guitar shop that I went to. I mean, to turn up as a middle-aged woman with a Telecaster and say, “I can’t play guitar but I’m gonna start learning again” and to be taken utterly seriously is extraordinary. So those are some examples of the open-mindedness of certain people I came across along the way. Keith Levene as well, actually. He taught me guitar the first time around, so I went to see him and told him ever so tentatively that I had picked up the guitar again. Without a missing beat he said, “If you want any help Viv, if you want me to play with you I’m happy to play beside you. I still think you’re a very exciting person.” Certain people didn’t waiver in their confidence, and if it hadn’t been for them there’s no way I could have done it. I couldn’t have sustained all the knockbacks that come in this line of work without those people.
Tell me a little about working with the bassists – you had a different one on each track. How has it shaped those songs, and did you have a lot of direction in asking people how you wanted them to play or did you just let them do their own thing?
All the songs were written and lots of them were already recorded – just haphazardly, however I could get them down. I’d pop into the studio every now and then when I had a little bit more money and put down another track. I think of it like making a patchwork quilt, sewn up bit by bit. Sometimes I brought in another bass player because I didn’t have a band – you can’t really get a band together now; no one wants to stick together and have no money that way any more. I thought the nature of the situation was that I was having to use people as and when they’re around. I knew I’d never get the same person twice, so I sort of made a virtue of that. I didn’t know any of the bass players beforehand, I just approached them cold or through a friend. Each one brought their own thing to the record, but above all they brought enthusiasm and open-mindedness, which, again because of not playing for so long and being so insecure, meant the world to me. People say, “Oh Viv, you’ve done this and you’ve done that” but I couldn’t have been more scared, more shy, more under-confident a person that I was, and am. So when Jack Bruce comes along and takes me seriously, and puts his heart and soul into the piece, or Glen Matlock comes along and says, “No, I don’t want any money, I’ll do it for nothing,” that sort of validation…I mean, I know I shouldn’t need validation, but when it comes from your peers it means the world.
Of course. I mean, it’s your first proper solo record and when you were working with The Slits you had a gang together and the support of each other. To direct yourself must have been very hard.
To be this age and to have not played for twenty-five years, I had to absolutely start from zero, from standing still. It’s not like I had even been in the industry all this time. No skill again, only my memories from twenty-five years ago. It was unbelievable, absolute madness, but I’ve done it and I don’t regret it for a single moment. I was absolutely compelled to do it. I will have to do it again, but I’m in a better position now.
Where do you think you could go from here? Have doors opened for you musically?
I don’t think doors have opened for me particularly. I mean, people say “You’re a legend” but it’s absolutely meaningless in my day-to-day life. It’s not like I draw huge audiences or make loads of money; I have no advantages. I’m just like a young person starting out, and at least they have the ‘cool factor’ or whatever. I still can’t make any money from making a record, just like everyone else. I’m used to that though – it’s just like how it was in the ’70s. No one did it because we wanted to make money. There was no money then either; there was no room for us, and no logic for doing it. I don’t expect to be famous and I don’t feel disappointed in that way. I must say, though, that sometimes when I’m in a grotty hotel somewhere oI do think, ‘What the fuck am I doing? I’m in the middle of nowhere on my own’; it’s quite possibly horrendous. You feel like you’re shouting out into a void, because what I’m trying to do is communicate and if that fails it can make you feel like it has all been a bit of a waste of time. There can be highs and lows, and not much in between.
I wasn’t really familiar with the term ‘vermilion border’ before your record. At first I thought it was a reference to where the horizon meets the red glow of a sunset. What sort of horizons or borders do you feel you’ve crossed musically, and personally?
Many. So many. I left safety, domesticity and conformity, which was fine when I did it at seventeen but to do it now, when I’m getting old and I have a child… I stepped out into the unknown so I crossed that border, and I’ve crossed borders personally going from feeling utterly invisible to feeling empowered by creativity again. Even if the record doesn’t resonate with loads of people, it’s the sort of sense of fulfillment you get when you stretch boundaries within yourself. Things like turning up to a recording studio and going to a rehearsal with people you don’t know. All those crossings can be terrible moments, as well as taking small steps further into empowerment. The picture on the cover is me leaving a middle class row of houses in Camden [laughs]. But also there’s a slightly erotic edge to the title, it’s about lips and the redness and femininity of it all.
Does the record have a feminist voice? I’m thinking of songs like ‘Hookup Girl’ here. The Slits didn’t label themselves feminist as such, but was that something you had in mind on this record?
I don’t think so, actually. I think calling it feminist is quite a political stance on the record. The songs are more personal observations on everyday life for a woman, like going on a date and noticing that certain things are expected or not expected, or you looking around at other girls you know and at the risks they’ve taken. They’re just observations on everyday life, so the record is not meant to be a sort of rallying cry or beacon in any way. I think anyone could have written a song like ‘Hookup Girl’. It’s the sort of thing where you meet a guy who expects you to hookup and might expect a relationship or take easy options, and you’re a bit cross about it.
There are some stunning tracks on the record, and really witty lyrics, in particular on ‘Still England’. Personally, what is your favourite cultural aspect of ‘Englishness’?
It’s funny, because for many years I didn’t consider myself English because I have no English blood in me whatsoever. I think what I like most about England, or even Britain, is the people, and I think that’s what really sustains the country – the mix of people in this country. Wherever I go I come back thinking, ‘I like how the English think, I like their humour.’ I enjoy the fact that they’re cynical, that they question things and don’t like bullshit. I wasn’t born or bred here, but probably now that I’ve lived here for such a long time I have become English. I might go to America or Europe or whatever, but when I come back I find the English amuse me in their grumpiness. I ‘get’ them.
That song is very nostalgic actually. I read in an interview that you don’t really like the idea of ‘nostalgia’ per se, but I feel like that song is an ode to the musical era you grew up in. It’s like the musical equivalent of liner notes to the artists and musicians you were most inspired by along the way. How do you feel about this?
I think that’s one of the perks of the job, to be a songwriter and namecheck the people you know! I started off thinking that I’d just write about dead eccentrics, but it was such a hard song to write because I didn’t want it to be egotistic or nationalistic, and I didn’t want it to be taken and used in that way at all. I did it very carefully, and the words had to rhyme in the right places. I’m not saying that the past is better in terms of, you know, being ‘better’ than the present, and I hope that the song doesn’t reflect that. The past is the building blocks, the people making England what it is, and it’s a bit like the ceremony in the Olympics – it’s not nostalgic in the sense of thinking ‘I wish we could go back there’, but at the same time it’s a nod to those people who did represent the crazy side of this country, and all the eccentric people I appreciate – an affectionate nod towards the people who made the things I like about England.
How have the deaths of Poly Styrene and Ari Up affected your perception of life? Did it encourage you to want to regain musical strength?
Regarding the death of Poly Styrene, I knew her personally towards the end of her life, and she lived near me in Hastings so we became quite close. What I took from Poly’s death was just what a good, open person she was, and I thought I’m going to try and keep that spirit within me – a bit of Marianne/Poly within me. I’m not sure I have managed that! She was so good, and so unjudgemental. I don’t know if her death affected my music, as I was already making my music by then. I actually suggested to her that she make an album on a car journey, and she said, “I don’t want to record anymore.” I had all these thoughts and felt no reason why we couldn’t do it again, why it couldn’t be just as exciting.
Regarding the death of Ari, I think it still is resonating within me strangely [short interruption]. Oh my god! There’s a massive march outside the window! It’s like the ’60s! Anyway, Ari and I were like sisters almost. We imitated each other, were hard on each other, tough with each other, and we formed our musical ideas which were very comprehensive and very strict. I think about Ari every single time I practise, actually; she is very much in my head. I think she’s very deeply within me, for better or for worse. So yes, Poly for her goodness and openness, and Ari for the huge influence she had on me – even though she was only fourteen and I was twenty-one! For a twenty-one year old to hang out with a fourteen year old…there was an extraordinary connection there, in a way.
The most wonderful aspect of The Slits was how you guys paid attention to every little detail about the band, musically and stylistically. How much did you have that in mind when making The Vermilion Border?
I had this sense of duty or responsibility to do that, and it came naturally to me; I didn’t adopt it because it was cool. I was an incredibly strict purist, and still am. It annoys the people around me, but I’m a purist and perfectionist up to a point. My lyrics had to be honest and authentic, the rhythm had to be non-lazy and non-formulaic and not fall back on habits. I applied exactly the same so-called rules as I did with The Slits, and all the same vocal rules that I did with them. This is why I didn’t want to go back and do The Slits again on the reunion because I felt it wasn’t right to go and play those old songs, that it wasn’t being true to the way we were back then. I wanted to be true because I believed in it, and still believe in it. I believed that that was the way to make music; to talk about what you know, be absolutely honest, even though it’ll maybe hurt the people around you. There’s no point doing it if it’s not honest and if you haven’t got something to say. Even if it’s about your own little life, it doesn’t matter how little it is.
What are your thoughts on Pussy Riot? In digital culture they have this potent immediacy of their image portrayed as a punk riot grrrl band. Western politics often mischaracterize them with that immediacy and there is a conflict of interest in whether that appears to mask what they’re really about. Can you comment on that?
I don’t really feel I’m able to comment because I don’t know enough, I haven’t read enough to really know what they’re about. Just because they’re girls and have been given these labels it doesn’t mean I have a view on it. I haven’t researched the context of where they’re coming from, and the political context of their country. I have actually been asked to do so many talks on it, because they think that Viv Albertine from The Slits is going to have something to say. But I don’t know if we’re linked or not, and I don’t like to comment on things I don’t understand or have enough context about. Same with the riot grrrl thing. I had my head down at the time doing other things like bringing up a child, etc. I know now that they were very cool and interesting women, but I missed it at the time and can’t really comment on that, even though people say we’re linked. It probably is linked.
I guess it’s a common misconception to assume you’d have a huge opinion about these things! That must be quite overwhelming, actually, to find out that there’s this whole movement you were unaware about connected to The Slits who “pioneered” it.
[laughs] I was completely looking the other way when it happened! The whole thing is, once The Slits ended, we weren’t cool again for many, many years. It was only five years ago that people started talking about us, and I didn’t think what we’d done had sunk into anyone really. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, they’ve been influenced by us’ when I heard other bands. I just thought, ‘Oh, we’re gone; it’s stopped.’ I went away to film school, I directed, I thought that time had passed. It was a shock when it started to be resurrected thirty years later as something important. It’s not that we didn’t think it was important, because we did, but we’d given up on anyone else thinking that way. We knew it was important at the time, and we knew that what we were doing was groundbreaking, but in the end we thought, ‘Fucking hell, hardly anyone gets it!’. I’d totally given up and I never spoke about it. I never told anyone I met that I was in The Slits. It was interesting to be so invisible because no one I met was particularly interested in me. They thought of me as an ordinary middle-aged woman, and if I didn’t toot my own trumpet it’s amazing how little people take any interest in you, if they just think you’re an ordinary person.
Did you feel a clash in personas of Viv from The Slits and Viv and her normal life?
I buried Viv from The Slits. I actually buried her. And I think that’s why it all burst to the surface in a sort of explosion four years ago. If I had let myself show my rebellious side a bit more in the last twenty years, and if I hadn’t tried to keep a very heavy job going while bringing up a child and not letting her know how much of a nutter her mum was; if I hadn’t suppressed it all, I don’t think it would have exploded with such force to the point where I had to actually blow my marriage apart in order to be able to express myself. It was a conflict but it was a denial actually, and when you deny, as you know, it will come out later on. They didn’t run alongside each other. I absolutely squashed Viv from The Slits.
How does that affect your live performances now? How do you feel performing on your own?
It’s strange, I never get nervous at all. I feel like I’m just sitting in my bedroom chatting to people when I perform. I don’t care what goes wrong, and that’s the legacy from the past. If I break a string or I have a coughing fit in the middle of a song, or I drop my capo, or whatever. I think it’s amusing, and it makes the gig better. I love having to improvise and think on my feet. Whenever I step on a stage I never know what sort of vibe is going to come out of me. And if anyone heckles I’m perfectly happy with that, too.
Do you have a fond onstage memory? Something that was particularly special to you, whenever it was?
Um um um, I don’t know! Sometimes I get really aggressive. I can be aggressive or I can be soft. I did a gig somewhere, and I felt completely trusting of the audience, and told them some things I’ve never told anyone. I just don’t know how it’s going to be – each gig’s a one-off. It’s like saying which conversation is better than another! The gigs are like a series of conversations. I’d just done four days in Holland where I got on stage and read from my upcoming book, and that was something I’d never done before which was really interesting. I’d make the audience laugh a bit, then I’d shock them a bit, then I’d make them upset.
The Slits were very rowdy and rebellious on tour I imagine, what do you think is the most rebellious thing you’ve done since then in recent times?
I think my whole life is a complete rebellion now [laughs]. It’s a complete political statement to be fifty-odd, pick up an electric guitar, learn it from scratch, and go around on your own playing very truthful, personal material. I feel like it’s insanity and breaking a mould, and I think it’s a statement. It’s very brave for me because I’m actually shy. Totally shy and totally scared, lonely, and completely on my own. That’s as rebellious as it gets really.
Do you connect with your daughter musically?
I connect with her very much musically. When I stopped pretending to be a perfect mum and wife – or attempting to pretend to be – it was amazing how the relationship with my daughter got so much deeper and more real. And I’ve talked to others who have been embarrassed and they all say the same, that when they’ve started to tell the truth to their kids about who they really are, instead of what you dread – that your children are going to hate you and disrespect you – it’s the opposite. They really appreciate being treated with that respect.
How old is she now?
Does she play anything herself?
Yes, she plays piano, violin and bass guitar. She’s got a great ear, and is more of a proper musician than me because she’s got a natural ear for it. I don’t have a natural ability for music and was never taught music, or never trained my ear in any way. I didn’t even start playing till I was twenty, and then I only played for two years, stopped and started again at fifty. I couldn’t call myself a musician; I’m just someone who uses an instrument to communicate.
You were involved in the Roundhouse Rising panel in February, giving advice to audiences, I was wondering how often you get asked for advice and how you feel about being portrayed as a role model?
[giggles] I’m the worst role model, in fact I’m thinking of calling my book How Not To Be A Woman. I just make a lot of mistakes. I’ve been doing some radio series where I’m doing talks of the week and I’m thinking of calling it ‘Bad Advice From Viv Albertine’ because no one should ever look to me for any advice. I’m just stumbling along foolishly, in everything – music and love – and that’s what my book is, just a catalogue of unfortunate events. I think there’s more to learn from mistakes than successes, and I honestly think I’ve done nothing but stumble from one mistake to another. My life is basically damage limitation, and whether I can recover from it. There’s a thin line between bravery and foolishness. A very thin line, and I definitely fall the wrong side of it quite often.
Are you still influenced by film at the moment, and is that something you’re interested in continuing to do?
I gave up film in a way because it took so much money to make a film – you’re either just doing a job, like I was, or making a movie or short film. There were no tiny little cameras to do guerilla style filmmaking like you can now. That interests me, that you can do that kind of thing these days, but I know what an absolute number it is to make a film even with your own little camera. I don’t know. I just love the fact that with songs you can just sit in a room, write it, and it doesn’t take money or anything. I can play guitar no matter how depressed I am, but I can’t do other things when I’m depressed. I can’t ‘make’ things when I’m depressed – I couldn’t muster the effort to make a film, but I can always play guitar.
What styles of film do you enjoy the most?
Oh, goodness. I really quite like films about broken men! ‘Last Tango In Paris’, or ‘The Brown Bunny’ by Vincent Gallo – honest films about broken men. I don’t know why. I think I have a soft spot for broken men! I just like honesty in a film. I can watch anything, really, but I think I was always brought up trying to get into a man’s head. You know, all those quizzes in girls’ magazines, and in songs and lyrics. All my life I’ve been immersed in romantic love, and the search for it. So I suppose I still see man as an enigma in a way. I love action movies as well.
Are you still searching for romantic love, or the meaning of it?
I suppose I’m searching for something that I’m beginning to think is all a bit of a con [laughs]. I might seem foolish, but I am foolish, especially with affairs of the heart. That’s where I make the biggest fool of myself, really. It would be nice, I guess, I don’t know. I think I’d reassess romantic love, with hopefully a more practical view on it now.
I think those sentiments resonate in The Vermilion Border, certainly.
It’s sort of what we expect from the other person, and whether that is really achievable. I don’t want to spend any more of my life trying to achieve something that isn’t achievable. That’s a waste of time, and I don’t want to waste my time. I’m not going to be cynical for the sake of it, but I came out of a long marriage and you think, “What was my fault? What was real and what wasn’t real? How can I not make the same mistakes next time, and how do I look for something a bit different in a person?” You want to learn from life and not keep making the same mistakes. Or at least make a slightly different mistake.
Thank you once again, Viv. It’s been a pleasure.
No, thank you! I am very fond of Wears The Trousers because you were the first people to interview me when I came back – at Zoë Street Howe’s book launch actually. I hadn’t done anything yet, and you guys took me seriously. That was great.