Viv Albertine talks candidly to Will Parkhouse about her musical reawakening and the release of her excellent new EP Flesh, on Ecstatic Peace - February 25th, 2010 - thequietus.com
In the cosy confines of Borough's Gladstone pub, Viv Albertine is singing a song, a percussive Nico-like chant in which she declares: "I believe in granite/ I believe in mud/ I believe in mountains/ I don't believe in love." As the performance comes to an end, her eyes appear to have welled up, an odd contrast to the song's denial of emotion. The second track from her excellent new Flesh EP, out on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, it's the most affecting moment in a set which has its bumps evened out by assurance and humour. "Legends do that, you know," she tells the audience after forgetting her guitar capo. Later she warns: "Here's where it all comes out. Confessions of a milf."
Certainly the most glamorous of The Slits, Albertine quit music for film school and directing and raised a daughter before the chance to play with her old band came up in 2008. She's here solo after choosing not to go down to reunion route taken by former bandmates Ari Up and Tessa Pollit. When we interviewed them a few months back, they didn't want to comment on her fledgling solo career – but they spoke of her with affection: "She was really articulate and really cutting and really caustic," said Pollit. Perhaps Albertine's not as acerbic as she was back then (fine by us) but she's a bright-eyed, engaging conversationalist, as willing to talk about the old days as the new. Judging by the size of the venues she's tackling, there are still plenty of dues still to be earned, but the post-Slits-y lo-fi and lyrical honesty of Flesh ("I'm quite shocked about some of the things I think now," she tells us) should win her more than a few followers.
You've said you were traumatised when The Slits split up in 1981. Why was that?
And you didn't listen to music for three years afterwards?
Has the way it ended coloured your memories of the band?
What made you decide to get back into music?
Tessa asked me to come and play with the band, but told me I had four months to learn all the songs again. I hadn't touched a guitar in 25 years! I got a Squier from the guy down the road and sat at the kitchen table, and my husband's going, "You're fucking mad, what are you doing?" But I'd been here before. In the Slits days, people I knew, good mates, said to me: "Viv, you can't play, stop it, go and do something else." For people to say it to me again now, I was like, I've heard that before and look what happened. You idiots. Don't underestimate me.
So I just plonked away for about six weeks or so and then one day as I played, I just sort of lost it and my hands started going mental. From somewhere the old style of Viv playing came, the weird, slightly atonal, slightly oriental thing that I do, and I wrote a song. Then it was like an avalanche, the songs just came pouring out. I became like a teenage boy, who had to be in his room playing every day. Nothing else mattered. It's quite strange for a woman of a certain age to feel like this and I realised I hadn't known what was going on in myself until it all came flying out from the guitar. I hadn't realised how fucked up I was.
By the time I went on stage with The Slits in 2008, I'd written all these songs and played some gigs in small pubs and it didn't feel strange to be on stage with them. But I didn't feel any affinity to what The Slits were doing, which I wouldn't have known if I hadn't been doing my own stuff. The songs were great, but I couldn't be singing something I wrote that long ago, because it's just not relevant now, to me.
The new EP is pretty personal – was it challenging to bare your soul like that?
What was happening, what were you going through?
On one of the tracks on the EP, you sing, "I don't believe in love…"
Was that a passing phase or…?
Keith Levene originally taught you to play the guitar – what did you learn from him?
Yeah! Do you still see him?
You went out with Mick Jones from The Clash – did he teach you any guitar?
Mick's very supportive and a humble, nice guy. All through the whole punk thing, which had very strong ways of thinking, he kept to his own thoughts, he didn't follow the crowd. Malcolm and Vivien were like the priest and priestess of it all, and I was interested in their unusual takes on things, like, we don't believe in love, or sex is just squelching about or whatever – but Mick had such a thinking, intelligent mind, he wasn't swayed by the latest wave of thinking or what was trendy. That's what's so great about Mick. Yeah. Brain in there.
Before The Slits, you and Sid Vicious were in The Flowers of Romance, which must be one of the most famous bands never to have actually recorded anything or played a gig – can you tell us a little about them?VA: The first time first time I met Sid, we were outside a pub and even though I couldn't play I said, "I wanna get a band together," and he immediately said, "Oh, I'll be in a band with you." And I was so touched, because at that time, guys didn't want to do what girls did. For a cool guy like Sid to want to be in a band with a girl was forward-thinking. I don't think Johnny Rotten, Mick, or any of those other guys would've answered that.
We arranged to meet, went to a squat and rehearsed all through the summer of 1976 – the hottest summer on record for a long time – and emerged at the end of it absolutely white, and without one song. Nothing. [Cracks up] And we were in that basement for hours every day. I remember Sid jumping up and down, doing that pogo thing, tooting away on the sax, and Palmolive [Paloma Romero who later joined The Slits and the Raincoats] was on drums for a bit, and a girl called Sarah [Hall] on bass. I couldn't play guitar at that stage and we were thrashing about and it'd be a bit embarrassing. And that was it, the whole summer, nothing, not one song.
Is there a side of Sid we don't hear about, do you think?
John Lydon recently said he regretted bringing Sid to the Sex Pistols…VA: Well, he just went for it, didn't he? I remember me and Sid watching the Pistols at The Screen on the Green and saying, "Oh my God, this band is the best band we've ever seen and will ever see, and what is the point of ever doing anything musical now we've seen them?" Because if you can't be better than them, what's the point? And about a week later, John did ask him to be in the band, and he said: "Should I do it?" I said: "Hell yeah, of course, you must." And he knew he couldn't turn it down. But he did actually think about it – whether he should do his own thing, or go into something that was already happening and he hadn't really been a part of. But he did it and… I don't know, that's just Sid. Just took it to an extreme.
Viv Albertine's Flesh EP is released on 1 March through Ecstatic Peace