EXCLUSIVE! INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN SEVERIN (SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES)
He’s best known as the bassist, co-lyricist and co-founder of seminal ‘80s band Siouxsie and the Banshees, but in the last few years, Steven Severin has been making a name for himself scoring films. His latest project is Music For Silents, which has been described as “a programme of new scores for the 1928 surrealist classic The Seashell and The Clergyman.”
Directed by a female director, Germaine Dulac, Seashell was scripted by infamous French playwright Antonin Artaud and influenced the creation of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s infamous short film Un Chien Andalou. Severin, a fan of both the surrealists and silent films, has composed a score for Seashell, and has been presenting it, along with a programme of modern short films in the evening’s second half, around the world under the Music For Shorts banner. He performs it tonight (Saturday, July 31) at Toronto’s Neutral Lounge.
Fresh from his stint as a jury member at this summer’s FanTasia Film Festival in Montreal, Severin sat down with The DLB on the patio of Queen West eatery Shanghai Cowgirl to discuss Music For Silents, why Banshees fans might like it, and why banning people from playing the guitar might not be a bad idea.
Tell me about Music For Silents. Where did the idea come from?
I’d wanted to do music for silent films for years and years and years, and it wasn’t until fairly recently that the technology was there to basically do it at home, to wait to be commissioned to do it by some established venue or something like that which is normally the case. And it sort of coincided with… I started doing film soundtracks in about 2005. The first full feature that I did was a movie called London Voodoo, and it went on the festival circuit in Europe.
And I started to go to all these different festivals with it, and I realized that there were all these kind of connected festivals, and I started to see these short films. And once I got the idea of performing live. I wanted to give myself as many options as possible so I wanted to choose a movie that wasn’t too long, that wasn’t kind of demanding 90 minutes of an audience’s complete attention. It’s a lot of time to sit in their seats and watch.
And then I found The Seashell and The Clergyman, and it’s only half an hour long. It took a long while to get this idea together, but then I thought well, if I had that as the first half and then the second half were some of these short films I started to see on the film festival circuit, modern films, and that would be a nice juxtaposition between the old black & white style and new colour, not specifically silent, but there’s no dialogue. There’s some Foley and some effects and some screams.
When did you first see The Seashell and The Clergymen?
It’s one of those films that, in the art houses in London, it would always be on a double bill with something, and it would usually be something that I’d already seen so I just never got to see it. The name was always in the back of my mind, and I knew the history of it – that it was written by Antonin Artaud, it was pretty much the first surrealist film, and directed by a woman. And I think I saw clips of it on YouTube in the end, and then I tracked down a copy of it on DVD.
What did you like about it?
In many ways it runs like a really extended music video because it kind of has no logic to it, there’s no dialogue, there’s a priest chasing a woman around for half an hour. And there was never any music written for it in the first place so I wouldn’t be replacing anything. So it appealed to me on lots of different levels.
From what I have read, the director, Germaine Dulac, did not want a musical accompaniment to this film. What convinced you to attempt one?
Well, it’s 80 years old. I can take license, I think.
Behind all of this is the idea that I’m actually trying to bring these things back to people in a way that they might appreciate. Certainly Seashell, very few people actually know about it, and so I’m trying to create a new audience for these kind of films because it’s something I feel very strongly about. We appreciate all these genre films, all these fantastic films, but they all came from somewhere. And as people will see, a lot of those ideas and effects and techniques were done a long, long time ago with very little resources.
What is about silent films which, so to speak, can speak to a modern-day audience?
Like I say, when you see Seashell it…. We’ve all now grown up with a language of pop videos, and a lot of them don’t make much sense; they don’t have proper stories, they have random imagery. I think people can understand these older films a bit better now. It’s not the Keystone Kops, that variety of silent movie. It just happens that they were done before sound was invented.
How does writing for film compare to writing songs?
The film stuff is something I’m much more comfortable with now because I’m not really sure… It’s two-fold: I’m not really sure I would have anything to say in a pop song and I don’t really know who the audience would be for it anymore. I think it’s something that’s been and gone in my past. I think [the Banshees] kind of ended at the right time. So the transition to film has felt extremely natural.
But the demands are very different. I tend to choose projects that I know I’m going to get a lot of say in how things turn out. Not complete control because you’re working with a director.
So that’s different because when you’re writing a song you have complete control. It’s only once they’re written that people start having opinions, and A&R men [get involved. But thankfully those days are all gone now. I’m my own A&R man, thank God.
You are best known as a member of Siouxsie and the Banshees. What appeal will this production have to fans of that band?
I think they’ll recognize the kind of lineage of the music. Not necessarily if they only know the singles, but if they know the Banshees albums, they’ll know that there’s always been a fairly cinematic element to the Banshees.
To me it’s just a natural evolution, and the way I think of it is my new front person is the movie. That’s taken centre stage, and I’m doing what I always did, just being on the side, controlling the music. It makes sense to me, and if people know what I’ve done specifically, The Glove and my work with Lydia Lunch and all that, things that have gone parallel with the Banshees, it won’t come as a shock. I hope not anyway. It might be a pleasant surprise.
It’s a funny little story. I went to Salerno in Italy. It was a patio like this; beautiful weather, fantastic. And the sun goes down, I start doing The Seashell and The Clergyman, and just two minutes before it’s about to end, there’s a thunder crack and the heavens opened; the second half was all rained off.
So everyone ran for cover, they took the equipment down very fast, went inside, and the promoter told me that two people came along to the show and after about five minutes went back to the promoter and said ‘we want our money back, that’s not him.’ And he said, ‘It is!’ ‘No, no, no.’ I don’t know what they were expecting, maybe me to be playing bass with a band or something. They just insisted it wasn’t me! Maybe that was just their get-out clause.
To what extent do you still relate to the punk spirit of ’77 and ’78, especially now that you are an independent artist?
I kind of always had a problem with this DIY tag thing because I think it’s pretty obvious that if you let everybody do it, not everybody does it well. And this has been completely exacerbated by the Internet and MySpace, and everybody’s putting up a song. You have to wade through so much rubbish to find anything good, but the alternative is to ban people from playing guitars, which is an idea. It’s something I’ve thought of. [Laughs]
Steven Severin performs Music For Silents tonight (Saturday, July 31) at Toronto’s Neutral Lounge (349A College St. at Augusta). Doors are at 9 pm, with Spacenoiz (featuring former Rhea’s Obsession guitarist and composer Jim Field) opening the evening at 10 pm and Severin taking the stage at approximately 11 pm. Tickets are $20 at the door or $15 in advance.