From Radiography To The Radio: The Selecter’s Pauline Black (Interview)

British 2-Tone ska band The Selecter begins its 3-date New Zealand tour tomorrow in Christchurch. The band is still fronted by rude-girl Pauline Black and also features original co-vocalist Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson. In addition to her work as a musician, Black has revealed her talents as an actress and author over the years. On this tour, The Selecter will be playing their ground-breaking 1980 debut album, Too Much Pressure, in its  entirety. But, as Pauline Black tells The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda, there’s more to The Selecter than that one album.

Click here to listen to the interview with The Selecter’s Pauline Black:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: Just give me an idea of who is in the band these days so that we know where we’re coming from.

PB: Well the band is been together now for four years, I mean myself and ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson from the original line-up.

MD: Right.

PB: We’re together, I mean it’s great to be back together again, singing together. I’m really, I think one we, we started out I guess in 2011, we wanted to do some new work as well as kind of, you know, the old stuff.

MD: Right.

PB: And that was a big thing for us. So we’ve put out two new studio albums so far, Made in Britain and String Theory. The year before this year, which is last year, obviously and I’m getting muddled up with my years, you know, it’s really weird sometimes.

MD: They start kinda dissolving into each other after awhile

PB: Yeah, yeah. They kinda lay together in some weird kind of way. And we’ve toured really, really extensively, I mean everywhere, I think we’ve done about sort of, you know, eight or nine countries this year and we did the Coachella festival last year when String Theory came out in America and it’s really just kinda taken off, you know. I mean some of the people in the band I’ve been playing with now for, oh gosh, I don’t know, you know, something like twenty odd years so.

MD: Right.

PB: Things evolve with bands, you know, but I think the essence of The Selecter is still there and very much I think it’s vocalists who are the same up front, and people are very happy with that and the sound of the band.

MD: Right.

PB: And the other thing as well is that my cousin ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, a male female duo at the front is kind of unique among whole of the 2Tone bands.

MD: Absolutely.

PB: and also gives us a much greater remit for being able to do different kinds of music, you know, and mix things up differently.

MD: Now I think the way it’s being promoted here is it’s being promoted as the Too Much Pressure tour. Are you…

PB: It is, basically because it’s thirty five years, it’s our 35th anniversary.

MD: Right.

The Selecter Too Much PressurePB: We’ve done that tour here but, and so yes we do the whole of the debut album Too Much Pressure in its entirety but if people actually know The Selecter, they know that On My Radio, probably our biggest hit, didn’t appear on the Too Much Pressure album.

MD: That’s true. It came out, that was your first single, wasn’t it?

PB: Yeah that’s true. So that gives us plenty of time to be able to, you know, put in some other stuff which maybe isa bit more up to date, take some stuff off the  Celebrate the Bullet album and just so people have a flavour of a lot of different things, it’s an hour and a half show.

MD: Oh okay. So back when you were, when The Selecter was starting out, was there more of an emphasis on the single rather than the LP?

PB: Well that was really the times wasn’t it, you know, I mean it was 1979, obviously in those days people put out singles.

MD: Yeah.

PB: It’s a very different scene now, I mean they put out singles and they were on little records and then you got bigger records and then you got 12 inches and all those kind of things, you know. I mean these days it all comes out on iTunes, people download it onto things called iPods, don’t they or whatever crap phone they’ve got.

MD: Right.

PB: So a single back in those days kind of meant a great deal. One, it was physical.

MD: Right.

PB: And came with a whole lot of blurbs that you can kind of read and things and you can stand in strange little booths on Saturday morning in a shop downtown and listen to it on, you know, sound coming out of some weird little booth and to see whether you like it or not and to see whether it charted, maybe chart shows. I mean all of that is gone, I mean these days, I think, you know, if you can sell 5000 singles, you’d find yourself probably in the top 10.

MD: Right, right.

PB: I don’t know what it’s like in New Zealand but.

MD: I think if you could sell five records, you’d be in the top 10.

PB: Yeah, yeah. Sell 250,000. So things are very different.

Selecter On My Radio GoodMD: And especially with 2Tone, the physical thing was really important because they had the particular design. I’m looking at my copy of On My Radio that I bought as an import in The States and you know, you have the jacket, the sleeve of the 45 was very distinctive, the label itself.  How did you feel about the way that the records were being presented back then?

PB: Well, I mean, you know, everyone who was involved in 2Tone then and I mean The Selecter was very much involved in 2Tone. The iconography of it was exactly what it says, the black and white jacket, you know, it was black people, white people playing in the same band together, getting along well on stage and all those kind of things and us really looking to the audiences and saying ‘hell if we can do it, you can do it’ and you know, those people have gone out and grown up and have kinda carried that ethos on. You know, that’s the way you kind of break down racist attitudes. You might find in society, but I think as well, people forget there was also any anti-sexist kind of, yeah anti-sexism kind of vibe to it as well.

MD: Right.

PB: There were women involved in this, you know, myself and also The Bodysnatchers recorded on the 2Tone label.

MD: Yeah.

PB: and I think, you know, we just had this feeling that equality was the way to go.

MD: And do you think you made a difference? Have things changed over the years?

PB: I actually have no idea whether we made a difference. The only difference I can say is, we were here 35 years later and we’re still touring. So I guess that we made a difference to somebody.

MD: Right. Was there much resistance at the time? Did you run into any kind of problems being a female in….?

PB: Well I mean, come on, we were running into problems whether we were in a band or not.

MD: Right, right.

PB: Racism is widespread and I mean, you know sexism wasn’t exactly kind of a whole bundle of whatever. It’s, all of those ‘isms’ were there.

MD: Right.

PB: So irrespective of whether we were making music or not but it definitely seemed like the right idea at the time to be able to get over, I suppose, a more positive message through music than just moaning about kind of, you know, what was going on and accepting the status quo.

MD: Yeah. What were you doing immediately before you joined up with The Selecter, were you involved with music then?

PB: I was a radiographer. I don’t know what you call them but.

MD: I think I’d call it a radiographer.

PB: Okay. Some people call it, I don’t know, something to do with X-Rays, X-Ray technician.

MD: Right.

PB: Things like that but yeah, I was a radiographer and I’d been working in that for 5 years. Prior to that I was trying to do a degree in bio-chemistry and decided I really didn’t want to push test tubes for any more than 2 years.

MD: So how did the transition happen for you from radiography to music?

PB: Well at that time if you were female and you wanted to song-write, then probably, you ended up playing guitar in a smoky little, kind of, back rooms of pubs and stuff like that, normally with a load of folkies…

MD: Right.

PB: So it was all a bit finger in your ear, but I didn’t do that. I just kind of let them have it with both barrels or something, a whole other idea. That’s how it all started anyway. I was just playing around town and stuff and eventually I found someone that I started writing with and eventually The Selecter found me, I guess. So it was all a little bit like that, I was the last member to join.

MD: Right, right. Did your song writing have to adjust itself to fit in with what The Selecter was doing?

PB: Not a great deal. I mean it’s, I already had, I mean there’s a track on the Too Much Pressure album, They Make Me Mad, which we still do and that kind of just fitted instantly really. It was more a vibe, I think we just generally had an understanding of what the vibe of The Selecter was, which was quite edgy but mixing up sort of ska with a bit of soul, bit of Tamla, a bit of punk.

MD: Right.

PB: And quite a lot of reggae. So, you know, we were, we were all kind of singing from the same hymn book, I guess at the beginning.

MD: So when you actually went to record Too Much Pressure, was that with the idea of recording a complete album or was it considered a collection of tracks that could be singles, could be album tracks?

PB: No what happened was, the whole point of the 2Tone label, which it started by, I guess the founding father of that, which is Jerry Dammers who is in The Specials, the keyboard player in The Specials.

MD: Right, yeah.

PB: Everybody kind of in, you know, Coventry knew him and some had played in other bands with him and stuff like that. But when he first got the deal and set up the 2Tone label, he got the deal with Chrysalis to be able to release records on the 2Tone label. He also had power to, any band of his choice were given a 1000 pounds to go away and record 3 tracks and out of those 3 tracks would be picked a single, an A and a B side. We recorded 3 tracks, which were On My Radio, Too Much Pressure and Street Feeling and out of that On My Radio was picked as the A side and Too Much Pressure was picked as the B side and then we went on and kind of recorded the album after Too Much Pressure had hit the top 5. Yeah, so it was quite cool I suppose to have the very first thing you recorded go top 10, you know, I mean it’s, that was really good for us.

MD: Right and you say you are recording fairly regularly these days. How would you say the recording process, your song writing, compares with what you were doing, you know, 35 years ago?

PB: I think the ideas remain the same but I think that probably the buzzword these days is multiculturalism because it’s really that, it’s not like racism has gone away, it is now like most countries are filled with people who possibly come from other countries.

MD: Yes.

The Selecter 2014PB: And I think personally, that enriches the country and it’s something to be upheld and praised and all those kind of things. So we’ve very much tended to kind of, you know, go down that route and celebrating the things that kind of unite us rather than things that divide us and those two albums which I mentioned, Made in Britain and String Theory, very much went down that route and we’ve got a 3rd coming out which we will be touring next year here called Subculture. I do believe in calling something what you are and definitely 2Tone is a subculture.

MD: It sounds like you’re keeping pretty busy anyway.

PB: Well, you know, you’ve got to keep it interesting and as far as any of us in The Selecter are concerned, it isn’t enough really to rest on your roles? what you did 35 years ago. I mean it’s great, it’s absolutely wonderful, a celebratory year to know that, that music that you did that long ago, it still remains relative to people but I think that, you know, everyone needs to be carried, sort of, or dragged kicking and screaming occasionally in this century.

MD: Right.

PB: And also it keeps us on our toes, you know, we have to make it interesting for ourselves otherwise no audience is going to be interested in us.

MD: Right, right.

PB: Or they’ll just think oh well they’re coming through again, they’re gonna be doing this again, you know, so we like to mix it up a bit.

MD: And speaking of audience. What kind of do you draw usually when you’re doing your shows these days?

PB: Well it’s really strange. I mean it can be anything really from kind of, you know, 5 through to about kind of, 60 year olds. It really depends, I think on, you know, what year people decided that hey this is 2Tone and we really, really like it.

MD: Right.

PB: That has changed a great deal, I think over the past 10 years since we’ve had social networking because, and iTunes as well, because people have this, they can cherry pick, what they wish to listen to now. It’s less faddish, its less nostalgic in that way, therefore lots of kids, I don’t know, may go out and buy their Fred Perry and they may go out and buy their Doc Martens or whatever and then they’ll look around for maybe the older music like The Skatalites then they’ll come forward in time and find us and then they might find, you know, third-wave ska from America and all those things or vice-verse go back the other way. So it’s interesting and it’s a voyage of discovery and that’s what music is about, you know.

MD: Yeah and I think we have The Skatalites coming here as well in a couple of months so.

PB: Oh, fantastic. Great band.

MD: And I assume there was quite a bit of sense of comradery between the 2Tone acts. Do you hang out, do you get in touch with any of the other band members from the label kinda keeping things in touch?

PB: Oh of course, I mean, we’re constantly kinda bumping into each other or, you know, Rhoda Dakar from The Bodysnatchers regularly DJs at our gigs and stuff, we did a few gigs in London. We do shows with Neville Staple from The Specials, same with Roddy Radiation from The Specials as well and yeah I mean everyone knows what each other are doing. I mean, I believe you had The English Beat out there.

MD: Yup. I had Dave Wakeling up here in my apartment a couple of months ago so.

PB: Oh right, great. Yeah so, I mean it’s not like people don’t know each other, we know each other. We’re all too long in the tooth I think really, to sort of, you know, get mad at each other anymore.

MD: Right, right. Yes, you’d like to think that people would have grown out of that by now.

PB: Well I guess they, you know, people can be, I remember going on tour with The Skatalites, quite a long time ago, this would be in the 90s now when most of the members were still present.

MD: Right.

PB: And I think Tommy McCook was having an argument with Roland Alphonso.

MD: Right.

PB: And they were arguing about, I don’t know, one of them took the battery out of the other one’s car, I can’t remember which one it was, but this is like, happened 25 years before and they’d just bring it up periodically and have a row about it. So, you know, people can do that even when they’re quite old.

MD: Yes, I’ve witnessed that myself.

PB: It’s a salutatory tale, put it that way.

MD: Alrighty. Well thank you very much for taking time to talk to me. It’s not going to be long, you’re here in like a couple of weeks?

PB: It’s not. We fly out on Monday, we will be in New Zealand this time next week. So we hope that you could come along maybe to the show?

MD: Absolutely.

PB: Great, well come and introduce yourself because we really make a point of manning the merc stall with the sellers and that so we could sign people’s merchandise and sort of chat, you know, the better way to know a country I think is by talking to the people. We like to do that before the show and after the show and we do it for free.

Click here for more information about The Selecter’s New Zealand tour.