Getting under Skunk Anansie’s Skin

In an interview with the ‘Post,’ Skunk Anansie’s charismatic vocalist Skin talks about her fiery past, coming to Israel – and her new hair.

July 13, 2013 22:52
Skunk Anansie

Skunk Anansie370. (photo credit: Courtesy PR)

She’s just your everyday bald, black, gay political activist who can sing like a banshee. With a seemingly permanent scowl, an ominous and awesome oval pate and aggressive, politically charged musical tirades against oppression of any kind, Skin – the fiery vocalist for British agit-punk band Skunk Anansie – was a force of nature in the 1990s... and just a little bit scary.

She could have easily KO’d any tag team efforts of put forth by leading butch front women of the day, including Sinead O’Connor, Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde, and even Scary Spice.

But for Skin, it wasn’t – and isn’t – just a pose. Her antagonistic persona was backed up by some of the most incendiary music of the decade, courtesy of her three band mates from working class Brixton, guitarist Ace, bassist Cass and drummer – the only one with two names – Mark Richardson.

“We started out when it was all about grunge, which in many ways was based on being imageless. So I think we were the way we were – I just looked onstage the same way I was offstage,” said Skin recently from an airport on her way to Paris where Skunk Anansie were set to being a two-month European tour that includes two shows for a traditionally strong fan base for the band – Israel, on August 20 and 21 at the Zappa Shoni Amphitheater in Binyamina.

“I didn’t put any effort into creating a stage image whatsoever – my image was all about not having to deal with my hair, which is why I shaved it. Now 20 years later, I have a little hair to play with – it’s fun.”

The fuzz on top is one of the few apparent changes that the years have wrought on Skunk Anansie, who released three acclaimed albums in the 1990s before breaking up at the dawn of the new century.

Named after a West Indian folktales of Anansi the Spider- Man, they changed the spelling slightly and added “Skunk” to give it a “nastier” feel, said Skin.

Described by the Allmusic Guide as “an amalgam of heavy metal and black feminist rage” and by Skin herself as a “clit-rock” group, Skunk skirted the borders of punk, pop, dub, reggae and electronica until it mindmelded into one.

After an eight-year separation, the four members regrouped in 2009 for a reunion tour that went so well, it resulted in an album of new material, Wonderlustre in 2010, followed by last year’s Black Traffic, as well as regular touring around the world to play for fans who hadn’t forgotten them. In an unlikely second chapter, Skunk Anansie, despite the added maturity, is still full of spunk and spit. According to Skin, it was like the band had never been apart.

“It was really easy – we all stayed friends and hung out over the years,” said Skin, who was born Deborah Dyer, and adopted her moniker due to her slender frame.

“We had some discussions about ‘will the public still like us’ and whatever, but we decided if you’re going to be chickenshit, why step out there at all?” Skin, who released two solo albums in the ‘00s and did some modeling, added that the usual suspects of excessive touring, too much togetherness and lack of commercial success all played a role in the band packing things in for a decade.

“We needed a break, we just didn’t mean for it to be so long,” she said. “I was quite comfortable performing solo, it was like being a dictator. But it was nothing like Skunk, the one and only, and the only band I would ever want to be in.”

With provocative singles like “Selling Jesus” and “Little Baby Swastika,” the band’s in-your-face, anti-fascist stance did not make for easy-listening background music. But Skin insisted that their intent was not to stir up a political storm, but simply to make a point and express their views and frustrations at the state of the world.

“Those songs just reflected our honest opinions, we never really set out to court controversy,” she said. “We were just the people who we were, living in very trying times. I’m a black female from Brixton who was bisexual – you’re always going to have a lot to talk about in that case, by nature of who you are.”

“While I’m not really the soapbox role-model type, since I’m not that perfect, I do have a voice and try to use it in a positive way. I’m proud to be gay, black and female, and I’m not going to step away from that – I couldn’t if I tried.”

With such a clearly defined liberal outlook, it’s a little surprising that Skunk Anansie not only didn’t have any qualms about performing in Israel during their initial incarnation in the late 1990s, but are excited to be returning next month.

“People have been very vocal about saying we should go and that we shouldn’t go to Israel,” said Skin. “I feel that we can stay at home on our sofa and listen to everyone else talk about their experiences, or we can go and have our own experiences and work things out for ourselves.”

Likening modern-day musicians to age-old wandering minstrels crossing borders regardless of consequences, Skin noted that the equation of performing in a country equals supporting the government of that country doesn’t necessarily add up.

“I have issues with both the British and American government and the list goes on,” she said. “We’re not going to play for the government in Israel, we’re going to play for our friends. There’s a huge misconception out there about what Israelis are like – that they’re all Palestinian haters. And I think there’s also a huge misconception of what Palestinians are like too.”

With 20 years behind her since her “angry young woman” phase, Skin sounds today like a well-reasoned, well-balanced adult with an irresistible, chirpy British accent that belies her menacing image. That transition has been less traumatic for her than it probably was for similarly-bred punky rabble rousers, and she embraces the additional layers of expression that are now open to her.

“Growing up changes your voice in the way you speak about things, and how you go about doing things day to day,” she said. “When you’re young, you go out there all aggressive and it’s ‘ahhhgggh!’ Then you grow up and find different ways to make your point which could be much more effective. I don’t think it means I’m slowing down at all, I’ve just become much more choosy about what I say.”

As long as she says it with the passion and purpose that’s always defined Skunk Anansie, people will continue to listen.

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