In August of 2013 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pauline Black, the singer for original 2-Tone band The Selecter, for Time Out-New York. Below is the full transcript of the interview. Thanks to TONY and editor Steve Smith for letting my post this in its entirety.
Back around the dawn of the 1980s, Pauline Black was storming England as the frontwoman of The Selecter, one of the Big 4 of Second Wave Ska. And while the avowedly anti-racist bands of the 2-Tone movement were universally mixed-race, the English Beat, Madness and the Specials all had singers with white skin and X chromosomes. With her singing partner Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson and with a sleek, horn-free lineup, they seemed the most streetsmart of the set, putting such strident anthems as “Three Minute Hero,” “On My Radio” and “Missing Words” on the British charts. Things quickly fell apart for the band, with the death of keyboardist Desmond Brown being a particularly serious blow. In the ensuing years, Black has worked with varying lineups of the band and won a trademark battle with founder Neol Davis, has acted and worked as a television promoter and has now seen success as an author. Her autobiography Black by Design is an engaging read, telling not just of the 2-Tone years but of growing up as an adopted child in an all white working class community and of trying to survive as such stylized New Romantic bands as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet edged her baand out of the charts. The Selecter has found a renewed energy in the last couple of years with a new album – String Theory – and a recent appearance at Coachella. They're at the Gramercy on Sept. 20 as a part of the East Coast leg of an American tour.
Time Out New York: I was excited to read a book about the Selecter, but wasn't expecting the time before the band to be such a powerful read. One thing that really struck me when you write about your childhood is your feeling like your skin was made darker by having been adopted. That could be out of a Toni Morrison novel.
Pauline Black: Well, I have read quite a bit of Toni Morrison, so maybe there's some influence there [laughs]. I think really what I was trying to get across was feelings of lack of identity. The book is all about identity in that way, and sort of vaguely knowing a fairy tale version of your origins, those feelings of displacement – although they were strange at the time – kind of fueled the whole thing for getting into 2-Tone when the opportunity presented itself and really informed that decision. It's a little bit like making a positive out of a negative.
Time Out New York: How long have you been a prose writer? Were you doing it prior to writing your book?
Pauline Black: No, but because I've acted a lot I know how things are put together, what themes are and all that kind of stuff, but mostly it's been personality pieces for radio, opinion pieces, stuff like that. I've never actually taken on a full-length piece that I was going to send out to publishers, although I have had a bit of a stab at a novel in the early 90s.
Time Out New York: I've got to say in general reading memoirs by pop stars, you have to take them with a grain of salt, so it's wonderful to read one that's so well written.
Pauline Black: Oh, that's wonderful. Well a lot of them are obviously written by other people [laughs]. The whole narrative of 2-Tone is a bit of a white male construct. There were very few women around the ska scene. There was myself and Rhoda Dakar who was in the Bodysnatchers so until now there hadn't really been a female point of view and then of course you need to add in the particular color of that female, which of course informs all kinds of things.
Time Out New York: Another thing when you were writing about your childhood that really struck me was your discovery of Langston Hughes and your discovery of a black role model of sorts there.
Pauline Black: I wasn't really aware that there were mixed race people, if you see what I mean. I saw black people on the television and I saw photographs of black people but having a friend's mother describe this person as a mulatto and taking that word away and sort of conjuring with it as you do when you're a child and you learn a new word, it opened up my world to other possibilities that were out there. Most of the black people that I saw on television were either the black and white minstrel show which was in full flow over here at that time, the blackface, or they were maids or felons or any of the other stereotypes that you can think of in the black acting canon. So it was a bit of an eye opener.
Time Out New York: The book has had a nice critical reaction.
Pauline Black: I haven't read a negative thing about it, actually, which has been really nice. People seem to uniformly think that at least I got to the nub of something. But what I take away from it is the book readings I've done at festivals and the people who've come along to those and had very similar childhood experiences and wanted to share that with me and it obviously informed what they went on to do. It's a little bit like this lost generation that got adopted. I'm not going to call it a stolen generation like the indigenous people in Australia, it wasn't quite like that, but nonetheless we were a little bit awash there for a while. I feel that the mixed race narrative has never really been told and now here we are with Obama as, well, allegedly the most famous man on the planet, certainly the most powerful man on the planet, allegedly, and I look back on that now and I think, hell, where did that come from?
Time Out New York: Should I question you on the “allegedly,” if he isn't?
Pauline Black: Well, undoubtedly he is, but I think there are shadier people than him who run things – no pun intended.
Time Out New York: When you were working on the book, did you think you were working on something that would reach beyond fans of your music or your acting?
Pauline Black: That's a difficult one to answer. Obviously when you're writing a book, particularly when it's about yourself, it's an autobiography, you hope it's going to be read by a lot of people. But most of the time I was writing it I kept thinking to myself 'who is going to read this? Will fans even be interested in this? Will it just kind of be marginalized as only of interest to black people but I think you have to put things like that aside and just try and tell it as honestly as you can. Honesty is kind of a strange thing because obviously you're writing it and you can be selective about what you wish to be honest about, but I felt like there were things that I hadn't seen dealt with in books – or I felt that they hadn't been particularly well dealt with maybe – and I thought maybe I could show it in a better way. It's very difficult to talk about some of those things from my childhood. It was a challenge because I had to find a way of doing that and it very much informed the later parts of the book.
Time Out New York: Something else that comes up in the book is you have dreams about water.
Pauline Black: Well, very Freudian I guess [laughs]. I think I don't swim very well. It's just one of those kind of recurring dreams that I used to have, I don't have them anymore, but it was always 15 feet of water and I could never figure out why – and still can't. There could be all kinds of psychology speaking about that one but I thought I'd just offer that one up there. Maybe someone can come up with a notion about why that might be.
Time Out New York: Without invading your psyche too much, do you put much stock in dreams? Do you think they're giving you messages?
Pauline Black: I don't think they're giving one messages, I think the messages are already there, you just don't see them very well because your conscious mind gets in the way. I do put quite a lot of stock in the unconscious because it's in the subconscious mind, I think, that we're all joined up as humans no matter what color, creed or nonsense we either believe or don't believe and therefore, speaking as a creative person, things bubble up out of that that you're not really sure about. I've written songs, and certainly things in that book, that I didn't really understand until I'd thought about it for a while, not dreamed about it but thought about it for a while. I think these things are constantly bubbling up which you present to the world as a bit of art, a three-minute pop song, and you actually think you know what you're talking about but much later you find out that it wasn't actually that and there was something else that informed that. I would say those are the things that are in the unconscious mind.
Time Out New York: It seems that the band, at least in the early days, had a fair bit of bad luck or forces to overcome. With better luck, how big do you think the Selecter might have been?
Pauline Black: I don't know. I never deal in “ifs.” You know, it was what happened. What if? It'd be great, wouldn't it? You'd have a mansion and you're own private jet. Who knows? It didn't happen. What I am glad that happened is that we were part of a movement and the 2-Tone movement said so much more to fans who are around now than just the idle good luck of bad luck of what happened to you out there. And that's the main thing that I take away from the Selecter. We were there at a very lucky time in a way that those things could be talked about and could come to the surface. I mean, yes, racism had been talked about and there was the civil rights movement, but here we were in Britain and Brits are pretty weird about talking about anything anyway, aren't they? [laughs] Anything that might be a bit weird or strange or actually challenge what the status quo is. So to have been around at that time and actually have a bit of a challenge at what was going on there and uniting lots of people, albeit briefly, or just through the music or whatever, it did open up a way that informs people who are now 40 years old, sometimes older, about how maybe you could live in a multicultural society. I think we were a precursor to that.
Time Out New York: So it turns out in the book that you're a Jewish princess.
Pauline Black: [laughs] That's a joke. I don't even know if it's a very PC one. I hope my reasoning isn't going to upset people. But it would appear so, yes. I thought that was quite funny. I've got quite a lot of Jewish friends myself. I just wanted to belong.
Time Out New York: I don't know if we want to give away too much about what that means but it does turn out to be the case. So, the new tour. I'm looking forward to seeing you in New York. I've never seen the band before!
Pauline Black: Great!
Time Out New York: The two headlines maybe for the tour are 1) Gaps is there, and 2) there's horns.
Pauline Black: Yeah, there's horns. And not just horns. Gaps and I have had a really great relationship with Neil Pyzer, who plays tenor sax in the band. We all write together. Neil used to be in Spear of Destiny and we're all kind of at that age now where we've all been through it, we've all been in bands, and we really have a good thing going. Neil has his own studio at the bottom of the gardens and we all pile down there and knock these albums together. We didn't feel that it was good enough really just to come back and say “yeah, well, we did this then.” I don't want to be doing the past. I want to be doing the past, present and looking at the future at the same time because I feel that in a way 2-Tone deserves better than that.
Time Out New York: You've worked with Gaps, I know not consistently, but for over 30 years, and you've got such a tight relationship onstage. What is it like after so long to be sharing the stage with your singing partner?
Pauline Black: Oh, it's like one side of a pair of really comfy shoes. It's just really nice. We both know what our strengths are and we both know that when we put those two things together we get a really good, high-energy show. We both keep ourselves ridiculously fit – or I mean, try to, you know, sometimes as you're getting older it's a little bit like diminishing returns and it takes twice as many pushups to get as fit as it did 20 years ago. But I just really really love Gaps as a performer, his dancing is second to none and the whole way he puts his own spin on songs and what he brings to them I just think is wonderful.
Time Out New York: The new album starts with the line “Stop me if you've heard this one before.”
Pauline Black: That's exactly what I mean about Gaps, I mean, he just comes up with those things.
Time Out New York: So what are people going to hear from the Selecter that they haven't heard before.
Pauline Black: Well, they're going to hear the hits because we have to do those and we still enjoy doing those, but we have a really good set now that's been honed over the past year and got honed when we came out to do the West Coast and do Coachella in April, culled from the Made in Britain album which came out in 2012 and the String Theory album which came out in 2013, so it's both old and new. When we go out there, maybe lot of people in the audience, they don't really know what the hell we're going to do, they don't really remember us from the first time around. They know we're somebody but they're not exactly sure who that is and it's our task to make them believe that what this is is a really great thing to have come and seen – and we usually do the job. [laughs]
Time Out New York: I have to ask you as a 2-Tone fan going way back, at least almost as far back as when the first records were coming out, do you have any contact with [Specials founder] Jerry Dammers? I'm so impressed with the big band he's doing.
Pauline Black: Oh, yeah, the Spatial AKA Arkestra is great. I haven't managed to get to see them because when he goes out very very sporadically and we've always been out on the road when he's come to Coventry – the town where I live – to play. But I would every now and again bump into Jerry and we say “hi” across the room and smile at each other and all those kinds of things, but as for creative involvement, in that way, he has his thing and we have ours.
Time Out New York: Sure. Last question for you. Is 2-Tone relevant today?
Pauline Black: It's a question actually that I am grappling with at the moment. I think it's relevant today in the fact that racism obviously hasn't gone away and I think the thing about 2-Tone that people often miss is it wasn't just about the black/white situation or whatever tensions or wonderful unity there could be. It was celebrating those things that unite us and not those things that divide us, but people often forget that it also had an anti-sexist stance and that hasn't really been addressed. There's a whole heap of misogynistic nonsense in some bands songs which I won't go in to [laughs], but I have noticed, and that's why I feel Gaps and I are in this unique position to talk about this, and just to see a black woman and a black man onstage surrounded by other black and white musicians kind of gets over that one immediately. And that was the thing about 2-Tone, we were just demonstrating to people that all these sorts of people can get along, so if we can, why can't you? I really do feel as though I want to explore that aspect of things more, which is one of the reasons we did “Secret Love” on the new album. Everybody knows the whole Doris Day gay icon scenario but we've obviously mashed that up a bit. We plan on making a video quite soon and releasing that as a single because we feel quite passionately about the same sex marriage thing in the States and also talking about what's going on here and also in Russia as far as Putin and how he feels about gay people and it seems to be a way of moving it out from just the black/white thing. We're living in a time in the world where violence against women is probably at an all-time high, certainly an all-time high within the media. There's a lot to talk about and I feel those are some of the subjects we should be covering in our music and certainly in our thinking, so whether 2-Tone is relevant or not, I think it still has a lot to say. Maybe we should be calling it 3-Tone.
Time Out New York: On a slightly personal note, talking about racism being still alive, I'm talking to you from Ostrava in the Czech Republic and a couple of days ago the city center was shut down by protests and a riot between the Nazis and the Roma here. It's shocking to see there are people out there calling themselves “Nazis” still. It's unbelievable.
Pauline Black: Well, that's Europe, you know? It's there in Italy, I think it's been in all European countries underground for years and years and years. But the thing that's fueling it isn't people's desire to suddenly become Nazis, it's the global recession. If the people don't have any jobs, it's those they see who they think are taking those jobs that they're gonna round on. I feel that all countries, Britain included, are suffering from that. I've played in the Czech Republic and you know the corridor that you drive down to get in? The women who stand along the sides of the roads plying their trades and there's just forest behind them? It's just shocking, the vulnerability of the women who are standing along these roads with nothing seemingly between them and oblivion, you know, if anyone took that way of thinking about things. And just knowing that Nazism is on the rise in those countries too is quite frightening So when you say “Is there a reason for 2-Tone today?” then you have it in one: Yes, there is.