The Selecter is a 2 Tone band at the intersection of politics and partying. Months after forming in 1979, they were already touring with ska powerhouses, like The Specials and Madness. Unlike those bands, The Selecter was made of predominantly black musicians and fronted by a woman, Pauline Black. Maybe it was too much too young being one step beyond and on the radio but after a formidable three years, from 1979 to 1981, the pressure dropped and The Selecter disbanded.
Over the years, they’ve gotten back together. Once from 1991 to 2006 and again from 2010 to the present. They are, thank the ska gods, still making raw, rude music you can bop or brawl to.
DGO spoke to Pauline Black about The Selecter’s new album, “Daylight,” 2 Tone life, and her 2011 autobiography, “Black by Design,” heading to the big screen.
Inspirations The first Selecter song I heard I was about 15 and it was “On My Radio.” It was so otherworldly, I remember exactly where I was and just staring at the sound system. Has a song ever done that to you? Around the same age, around 14 or 15, the song that stopped me in my tracks would have been “Respect,” by Aretha Franklin. It was the first time I had seen a completely empowered black woman, do you know what I mean, just striking down the street. That really famous video. That song took me completely by surprise and she looked so in control that I thought, “Yeah, that is possible.”
Is there a song that is so sacred to you that you wouldn’t sing it in public? That would probably be Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” I wouldn’t dare even touch that song. It is so pertinent to her and everything she feels about America and her place within it. I’m speaking in present tense, I know she’s passed, but you know what I mean? That’s so special that you feel like she’s still here every time you hear it.
There’s a famous photo of you and other iconic female musicians in the 1980s that Debbie Harry set up. If you could set up a similar picture today, who would be in it?I think that I would want all women in it. I would do exactly the same thing that Debbie Harry did, really, which was bring to the front people who the public don’t know or aren’t very familiar with. They would all probably mostly be women of color because, really, I find that the most interesting thing at the moment.
I might have a guy in there. Like Childish Gambino. [Laughs] If he wants to be Donald Glover at the same time, he can come and do that.
I think I would have FKA Twigs in there. I find her absolutely shockingly amazing in everything she’s doing.
I’m trying to think of who else. You’ve really caught me now. You put the phone down and then you think, “I could’ve said that. I could’ve said this.” Let me keep thinking about that one.
A bit of historyWhat band from back in the day made you dance the hardest, besides your own?I think that would have been The Specials, without a doubt. We used to go on before The Specials a lot. I was always in the audience afterwards. I had loads and loads of energy to burn off after the show.
Who’s the best dancer from back then?Oh, that has, without a doubt, got to be Gaps Hendrickson. That man has moves. All of his moves are elegant.
Making modern musicThe new album, “Daylight,” comes out in October. What can you tell us about it? We’ve got 10 tracks. We had 15 to begin with and we culled them back and culled them back to 10. It’s a pretty good snapshot of where The Selecter is at and the way it feels about the world we currently live in in 2017.
I feel like a lot of bands, certainly of our vintage, have become inverted heritage acts, which really means you go and you play your hits, as it were, however many you may have, and choice cuts, probably off your first two albums because that’s what people remember you by, and you steer clear of doing new stuff because you feel as if the audience that has grown up with you might not like that. But we thought, “Hey, people either like us or loathe us or ignore us.” They can be indifferent, as well. In for a penny in for a pound, really, you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
The Selecter makes people dance, but the band also acts as a translator of socio and political ongoings.The thing that makes me really happy, at the moment, is that there are a lot of people out there now, much younger people than me, who suddenly have woken up and I don’t know how much Donald Trump had to do with that, or over here how much potentially coming out of the European Union has made people wake up, but it really does feel like we’ve been asleep at the job for a while and letting things coast along.
If you let things coast along then look at what you get? That, I think, is the reason why we’ve called the album “Daylight.” We wanted to shine some daylight on it. Here we are in this roaring daylight of all the things that are going on that people say, “Well, we can’t do anything about it” but I think we can do something about them. We can certainly do something about the inequities in society and if any of our songs move any people to question those kinds of things like, “Why is there this inequity?” and recognize that we can make that better for people, that we need cultural and political change, then we’ve done our job.
On “Black by Design”You went from an extremely collaborative space in writing music to a solitary one in writing “Black by Design,” your autobiography. What was that like?I don’t really have a problem with that. After all these years, that wasn’t the first thing I wrote. It was the first thing of any length that I wrote, but I’d been writing stuff on and off and songs are like little three-minute vignettes about life. I’d been writing for radio over here and doing my own scripts for TV. I’d had some training in being able to tell a story and doing it relatively succinctly and also having someone come along and putting a big red line through it and saying, “Write it again,” ya know? So I wasn’t precious about the things I had to say and if an editor thought that I was barking up the wrong tree, then I would take that on board. There were a lot of draft versions of it, but each time I took away what was said to me, or went away and cried for a bit, as writers always do, thinking, “Man, I gotta lose maybe a hundred pages here.”
I didn’t really mind. There is something about my personality that is kind of persnickety and I like to get the details right if they can be gotten right. Almost a bit prim. It’s kind of like, “Nope, I’m not going to have that! I don’t care how long this takes me. I’m going to make it right.”
The book, is it getting adapted? We are talking to some people at the moment. I can’t be specific but they approached us. There have been a few bits at that cherry over the years since it came out in 2011 but it was people who I didn’t really think understood it, as such, and wanted to make an entirely different picture to what I had in mind for it.
The people who have come on board and I think will eventually get this together, what they want to do is tell the story of 2 Tone through that book … An awful lot of our band, six of us, were black in the beginning, with Neol Davies being the only white musician within the band. We were taking the times on full ahead. Every time we stepped on the stage, it could be a battle because there would be people in the audience who really didn’t like what we were doing or who we were and had come along ostensibly to heckle. Whatever frontline that was then was definitely one which was fueled by racism.
We live in different times now and people have taken on much more of the sense of multi-ethnicity within a society and what that means. It still comes from difficulties but all of those things that really weren’t talked about from back in 1979 are all freely being talked about now. Things like sexism, identity, gender identity, and all of that, is out there and open and up for grabs. That all needs to be a part of the story.
I also hope, which is certainly a suggestion to everybody that might be involved in the project, that a woman of color directs it, too. I’m pretty adamant about that.
Back to reframing that Blondie photo with modern musiciansGoing back to the photo …I mentioned FKA Twigs, I’m really, really into her. I think, in a way, what I would like to do is sit down with younger women and talk to them, the ones I like. I could go on forever about the people I like. I’m interested in other women and what they bring to the table. I tend to think that I would have the young French lady [Héloïse Letissier] who is in Christine and the Queens. I think she’s phenomenally interesting. I also go to my Jewish heritage on my mother’s side, and I would certainly have those young ladies who are in Haim because I think they are phenomenal. I’d have St. Vincent because I admire anybody who can play guitar and sing like that. It’s pretty much the complete package. I also am really interested in someone like Lana Del Rey. And thus it begins to look a little bit like what we had going on then. In place of Poly Styrene, probably, I would have FKA Twigs. I’d like a whole heap of other women there as well. Beyoncé is very interesting. Her sister, Solange, is equally interesting. Lianne La Havas, I admire what she does.
I think that would be a really big photo by now.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Patty TempletonDGO Staff Writer