Pauline Black: ‘You need new blood and new ways of looking at things’

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Ska legends The Selecter are back with a new album and tour. Frontwoman Pauline Black spoke to Chris Broom about their place in the world and why they are still needed.

In the late ‘70s The Selecter were at the forefront of the British ska movement. Their debut album Too Much Pressure spawned the enduring hits On My Radio and Three Minute Hero.

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And in frontwoman Pauline Black they had not only a powerful singer but also someone who literally embodied the multicultural ideals of the 2-tone movement. Born of an Anglo-Jewish mother and Nigerian father, she was adopted by a white middle-class couple.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the issue of multiculturalism is never far from the headlines. And The Selecter are back with their 12th album – Subculture – which, Pauline told The Guide, reflects what they think the band represents in society today.

‘I’m a big believer in saying what you are,’ she explains, ‘and that’s exactly what we are – we occupy that space as being a band that was associated with 2-tone and we very much about being a band that wants to carry on the narrative of 2-tone and of a multicultural society as a way forward. We do represent a subculture.’

The 2-tone movement always had a political edge, Subculture is no different.

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‘We always address people who might be thinking of voting Ukip or whoever – it’s not specific to this album. It’s great that people are talking about these kinds of things these days.

‘When we started back in the late ’70s, there were the ideas of 2-tone and then there were things like the Sus Laws going on on the street.’

The Sus Laws allowed police to stop and search ‘suspect’ people, leading to accusations that the police were targeting minorities and using racial profiling, It ultimately led to riots across the UK in 1980 and ’81. The laws were repealed in ’81.

‘When you look in a worldwide context the same things still apply, racism is still rife,’ Pauline continues. ‘It’s not completely centred on what white people think about black people, it’s something that is a global phenomenon, for whatever reasons, and I think we would be remiss to not to attempt to write a song or two about these things.’

Given her background though, is there anywhere she truly feels at home?

‘No, and in a way I’m quite glad of that. I think people should be uncomfortable. If you’re uncomfortable with yourself then you question things, and if you question things, then you sometimes might come up with something that’s not necessarily in line with the natural status quo or what you’re supposed to want or like.

‘When I was growing up I was able to eavesdrop on both kinds of society – white society and black society.

‘And when I look around now, and we’re talking some years later, I see a lot of miscegenation has gone on, and to my mind, that’s the only thing that’s going to break down racial tensions.

‘If people start mixing with each other, and talking with each other... it’s when these dialogues stop, that’s when the problems start.’

It wasn’t just race though where Pauline was on the frontline. As a woman fronting an all-male band she had few peers.

‘I was in a band and fronting a band and was as loud as the men, and we got some notice taken of us because we had some hits.

‘As a result some people went: “Hey, there’s a female in a band!” And I used to think: “Get used to it”.

‘Fortunately I was in some good company at the time.

‘There was a relatively famous photo of myself, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry and Viv Albertine, all in one place at the same time and it was put on the front of the NME because they thought: “If we put all of these women on the front for this one, then we can get on with putting men on the front again – unless we can find another woman who’ll take her clothes off”.’

Does she think the situation for women in the music industry has improved though?

‘Things have changed, that’s all I can say about it,’ she says with a chuckle. ‘I don’t think you can really appraise it at the time. In 20 years’ time it might be interesting to look back at it and say: “Well, that worked, and that didn’t”.

‘There are certainly some interesting notions of feminism that are very different of the notions I had of it.’

The band Pauline has gathered around herself is a mix of the old and new, including co-singer and original member Gaps Hendrickson (pictured left): ‘It’s good – you need new blood and you need new ways of looking at things.

‘If you just stay hard and rigid, just bashing out the same tunes all the time without anyone saying why don’t you try this?

‘If 35 years had passed since you began you’d have to be living with your head under a rock to know that a whole load of musical movements have gone through since then.

‘It’s very wrong to stay in that particular style because you’re not really moving anything along, either musically or for yourself.’

And Pauline relates it back to her earlier point: ‘I think cross-pollination is the thing – it’s what I was saying with people.

‘The more you do that, the more you get a window into their world and they into yours, and the less divisive society becomes because those differences can’t be used against each other.’

And as to those who refuse to engage?

‘I don’t know what you do with these people.

‘All you can do is appeal to their better natures. Whether they have one or not, I don’t know.

‘How many lessons do we need from history?

‘I would have thought the Second World War would have done that.

‘But I have the greatest of faith in humanity, irrespective.’

Pauline on...

...former Slit Viv Albertine’s autobiography

It’s excellently written and it’s very much her experience as well. There aren’t many women who get to write their own autobiographies – but there are plenty that are ghostwritten.

...doing a show on 6Music

I was originally asked to do the Guy Garvey show when he was on holiday. That must have gone well because they invited me back to do a month of Sundays. It was a real responsibility – it’s a lot of songs to play.

...the ska revival in the UK

It started in the Caribbean, but it’s a little bit like chaos theory – aomeone taps their feet in Jamaica and a whole movement is born in Britain.

Where & when...

The Selecter are at The Brook in Southampton tomorrow with special guests The Tuts. Doors open 8pm. Tickets cost £16.50 advance, £18 on the door. Go to the-brook.com or call 023 8055 5366.