Viv Albertine From the Slits is Too Punk to be Scared
"Asking me to talk at high school is like asking the kids who broke all the classroom windows to come in and explain to the other kids how they did it."
Viv Albertine, the punkest MILF in the stairwell. Photo by Chris Power.
Like everyone else, I've been obsessed with the Slits and their legendary records for years. When I saw Viv Albertine listed as the opener for the Raincoats' reunion tour a few years ago I didn't know what to expect and considered skipping the set. Touring in support of her solo EP "Flesh" (later re-released on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace! here in the states) Viv Albertine took the fractured guitar symphonics and languid, jittery rhythms we associate with "Cut" to a darker, more cerebral place. With a few shy introductions and a some hilarious and heartbreaking anecdotes from the "Actual Punk Years," Viv cemented her rightful place as not only a punk icon, but a legendarily influential songwriter. 25 years after the Slits broke up, Albertine's just released her debut solo album, The Vermillion Border, with meditations on love, death, sex and truth. All the good stuff. Time has mellowed neither her sound nor her wit:
Noisey: Hi Viv! I can't wait to hear your new full-length. Does it have a title yet?
Viv Albertine: Yes, it's called The Vermilion Border. Should be out in October. Been difficult making it due to lack of money and experience. Been difficult getting it out due the lack of a music industry. And as for being a legend, that's a load of bollocks. No one in a position of "power" is interested in helping. But that's how it was in the Slits. Fools.
You mentioned that the songs are quite personal. Are you ever worried about revealing too much? Or do you have no secrets?
Yes, I lie awake at night worrying that I've said too much! I've always been this way. My mother was always telling me to "keep my own council," but I can't do it. There were lots of secrets in my family when I was growing up. As a child I heard things half-whispered and would make up the story. I don't think it's healthy to have secrets; they hang over a family for generations. Also I think there's actually a lot of protection in telling the truth. People think you're vulnerable when you tell the truth but it's never hurt me.
What's your backing band like these days? I know the last time you toured the US you performed both solo as well as with a combo. Do you prefer one or the other?
I love being solo. I was forced to do this for financial reasons and I was terrified but now I love it. Just me and the Telecaster and my untrained voice and my words. It's so raw and direct and I can gauge the audience and play with the songs, the speed the interpretation, much more than if I have a band. it is also very exhausting and draining and lonely, so having a band and sparking off other musicians is a luxury and a treat when I get it.
What's your songwriting process like? Do you think in terms of lyrics first or guitar riffs?
Both, but I lean more towards lyrics. I have a notebook and my iPhone and jot down thoughts, conversations and rants, they look completely daft a lot of the time. I write the silliest things, no censorship.
Your guitar playing is so distinctive! You've spoken a bit about picking up the guitar after a number of years and being pleasantly surprised that you've still got the original Viv Albertine guitar vocabulary. I just assumed that you must have been constantly practicing. Is that accurate? Or is it just a divine, innate gift?
Not a gift! Just the nerve to be honest and direct through the instrument. To have the confidence to speak through it, constantly monitoring myself for clichés and habits. Both of which I do fall into but at least I'm on the lookout.
You've mentioned recently that since picking up the guitar again, your life has seen some major changes. Did this happen since the Flesh EP came out in 2010? How have your personal travails affected your songwriting on the new record?
Well I suppose I'm a "confessional" songwriter, so yes it is all in the songs. I'm not a gifted storyteller so I write what I know, and hope that honesty resonates with other people's experiences.
What's your favorite song to play live?
That changes every night. It's strange how a certain song can gel one night and have a deep connection with the audience. They really get it. Then another night it'll be a different one. Sometimes it's down to the audience's receptiveness, and sometimes something clicks in me and I lose myself in a particular song, I never know beforehand if or when that's going to happen. It happened recently with a song I used to call "Void" but I changed the title to "In Vitro." It was the first time I admitted the song was about my experiences with IVF [in vitro fertilization] and just that acknowledgement to the audience and the change of title, made the song so powerful.
Photo by Carolina Ambida.
Among the many legacies of your time in the Slits, you've made an indelible mark on fashion. I understand that the combination of miniskirts and Doc Martens was out of pragmatism, to make a swift getaway from trouble. But while so much of the punk "look" gets attributed to Westwood and McLaren, photos of you and the other Slits are constantly and continually referenced in modern styles. Can you talk a bit about the look you'd put together during your time in the Slits? I know from seeing you perform that you're still quite a keen dresser. What do you like to wear now?
I always felt very free about experimenting with clothes. I was into clothes in a big way from a young age. Not expensive but fun and experimental. I made a lot of my own stuff and would buy little pieces from Biba and Mr Freedom to supplement my look. I was always quite daring sartorially. So when I met Malcolm and Vivienne and discovered their shop Sex, they reinforced something that was already in me. I liked to take the piss out of peoples' attitude to sex through my clothes and drawings, and they did too. In the Slits, because we had the safety of a gang, we took that even further. We would walk down the street looking like a cross between porn models and aggressive boys. It totally confused people. Threatened the men. They were repulsed and attracted at the same time. Now I don't have a specific look. I like to go from elegant and classic to experimental and fun, often within one day.
I saw on your Twitter page that the kids at your daughter's school were studying the Slits, and you were asked to come in and speak. Is that weird for you? How do you feel about the influence of the Slits in popular culture? Is it something you notice, pay attention to, or ignore?
They asked me in to give context to the so-called "punk" thing. They thought I was a nice middle class mum and would be sensible. But I'm not and I wasn't. Asking a "punk" to come and give a talk at school is like asking the kids who broke all the classroom windows to come in and explain to the other kids how they did it. I was as uncompromising as ever and they practically escorted me out by the scruff of my neck. Ha-ha. The sixth formers loved it though and not only will they not forget it, they got a true flavor of what we were about. Something they needed to hear in these rather safe times.
One of the things I really like about your songs is that they don't take a hard stance—you don't claim to have all the answers about everything. Is it hard to write songs about, essentially, curiosity?
I come across as someone with very strong opinions, but as you get to know me you realize I'm constantly questioning and open to change. It's easier to put this into a song somehow as a song distills your stance. It has to, by the nature of its length. I like the constraint of writing in that format.
Do you have any pre-show rituals, good luck charms, or superstitions?
Absolutely not. I'm a realist. I'm never nervous because I'm not putting on a show. I'm just being myself. The gig just goes how it goes. The mistakes are my favorite bits.
What has been the absolute best reaction you've gotten from an audience member… or a groupie?
Occasionally a very handsome boy will be quite taken with me and of course that's nice. Once I got together with a beautiful guy and we dated for a little while but he turned out to be a seriously disturbed psycho, so I'm never going to do that again! So really, the best reaction is an understanding, an intimacy, a laugh between me and the audience. At the end of the gig it's like we've become friends.
What advice would you give singer-songwriters or artists who are just starting out?
You will be poor. Can you handle that? If you're a girl, you'll be lonely. Can you handle that?
Your visual artwork in ceramics is really interesting. I think it shares a theme with your music: They're about sex, about love, but don't exist simply to titillate. When you're making artwork about love and sex, how much do you think about the audience's experience? Are you trying to turn on the crowd, or does that not matter?
I'm trying to turn on myself! I have a low-ish libido. I'm very easily turned off on food, sex, and everything else. So on my own, making slightly erotic stuff, I can enjoy myself. I don't masturbate either, never have. It just doesn't work for me. I'm also turned on by humor. Often my words or my pieces make me laugh to myself.
I've seen in a number of places that you refer to yourself as naïve or shy, but from a fan's perspective, your body of work has been marked by bravery. I'm thinking first of the iconic image of you on the cover of "Cut." Do you feel brave?
I am brave, because to be a naturally shy person and yet do what I do takes some courage. I have to overrule my fears. If I was a natural exhibitionist, I wouldn't be brave, because it would take no effort to do it. I can't bear letting fear dictate my actions. It's so petty. I've got one life. I don't want on my gravestone, '"She wanted to do it, but she was scared."
Pick up The Vermillion Border right here.
- Noisey Blog