Skunk Anansie have recently released their debut album, Paranoid and Sunburnt, and grabbed the support slot for Therapy?'s European tour. Consumable talked to the entire band before their Berlin gig.
The band is composed of a rag-tag bunch of musicians, all drawn from different backgrounds. The four members assign to themselves, variously, affiliation with punk (guitar player Ace), funk (bassist Cass), and rock (drummer Mark). Vocalist Skin holds the mixture together with a big voice reminiscent of the bombastic female vocal chords lodged in Nina Hagen.
Their hard but seamless album was produced by Sylvia Massey (Tool, Prince) and mixed by Andy Wallace (Nirvana, Faith No More). Just what distinguishes Skunk Anansie from other heavy rock bands is difficult to pin down, yet the difference is there.
Skin tries to explain: "We're made up of people who are into rock music, and all different types of music in London. In London everything is very kind of intermingled and integrated and multi-cultural in alot of ways. And we're a good example of that - which makes us different. We're all completely different and look completely different, and there's no pressure to be anything else."
It is no little irony that Skunk Anansie are now playing to audiences as big or bigger than any of the much-hailed British stars like Oasis and Blur, for the band sounds as if they are from another planet: an alternative London in a galaxy where Jane's Addiction is revered above any Britpop act, past or present. Their disregard of current trends makes them sort of anathema in Britain: "In London," Skin says, "we're very unfashionable because we're rock."
Dread-locked bass player Cass points out, "We're not anything to do with the whole Britpop scene. We've got our own little area that we've created, which is just the Skunk, stinky, rank scene, really..."
Skin expands: "I think in England bands seem to place too much importance in the press. A lot of bands, a lot of scenes, seem to be press- lead, which we're not into at all. We don't care if we're fashionable or not. We're not interested in being a factional part of a scene or whatever; we're just interested in being very individual in ourselves but then joining together in a band."
"We're trying to create the scene as opposed to following a scene," says Cass.
In a way, the oddity of their progress can be explained by the ever- growing ranks of fans who follow various hybridizations of metal and funk. And the fact that Skunk Anansie are not comparable to any other current British band turns their glaring incongruity into a glimmering beacon that cannot be mistaken - such uniqueness is difficult to conceal even when seemingly engulfed by a huge, dominant scene like the pop renaissance in Britain.
Skin: "We've not been hyped up because we get alot of bad press along with the good. There's lots of people who hate us as well as people who worship us. We'd only start having problems if we started worrying what the press think."
Furthermore, the fight to get attention in a musically hostile world gives them a motivation that others lack. "The drive comes from wanting to do something that was ourselves," says Skin, "and that we could be really happy for and not have twinges or be uneasy about. We don't have any of that in Skunk Anansie. It's just the four of us going for exactly the same goal with four like minds..."
Cass interrupts to add, "...with completely individual flavors."
The band has certainly gained fans in important places, as heavy rotation on radio and a collaboration with Bjork testifies.
Cass says working with Bjork came about rather serendipitously: "We're labelmates with Bjork - signed to the same independent label in England - and one of the people at the label played her our album. She was just about to release the "Army of Me" single and she stumbled upon the idea of getting us to do a rock version of the song. It was recorded and mixed in something like seven hours. When she heard it she asked us to do 'Top of the Pops' [British TV show] with her, which we all mashed up."
The music that Skunk Anansie spews forth is raucous but disciplined, very hard but smoothed by that funk element. Ace laughingly tries to describe it as "kind of groove rock, punk/funk, agit-pop..."
Skunk Anansie are unlikely to be easily categorized, even alongside other funk-metal bands. For one thing, Skin does not rap; instead singing her charged lyrics with a power and range that escapes the rapped or ranted outpourings of Urban Dance Squad, Body Count, or Rage Against the Machine.
Like Rage, Skunk Anansie is perceived as a politically-oriented band. Skin takes issue with this tag, however, and says, "We're not a political band, really: we're a band with politics in it. The way that we see our lives is political because you can't escape politics. You can't just ignore certain situations.
"It's not like 'Oh, what topic should we write about now.' It's mainly what we saw and it happens to be that topic. It's not an intentional thing." This seems a fair assessment, as the record is deeply personal and only with hindsight can the lyrics be thought of as political.
For Skunk Anansie the outsider position has paid off. Formed in early 94, it took but a year for them to get airplay, a b-side on Bjork's single, and a support slot on a huge tour. The worry must be that, once established, the band will lose that outsider edge and stagnate.
Skin sees that possibility as remote: "We're always looking to the future. We are a modern band - not a retro band. If the scene comes to us we'll run off somewhere else."
Cass adds playfully, but with latent seriousness, "We'll run off somewhere else and see if they can find us again."