The Selecter are a band that are synonymous with the stylings of Two Tone music, and the social ideaology of inclusion, unity and the confrontation of injustice. Their most recent album, Subculture, carried the same vibrancy as their debut record, Too Much Pressure, released in 1980. Building on the momentum of that release the British band have just finished a tour of Mexico, and plan to head out on the road again before recording material for a new album in 2017.
Pauline Black, the band’s unmistakable voice, took some time out of her hectic schedule to speak with ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann to discuss the continuity of sound within the band, her creative relationship with Gaps, and social injustice, but also the resilience of people that she encounters all around the world.
Christopher Friedmann: The Selecter just wrapped a U.S. and Mexico tour, and are back on the road again now with Jools Holland. With one tour just finishing and another just beginning, how is the mood in camp?
Pauline Black: The mood in the camp is great. I think I should clarify here tho, when we came out to America, we came out as an eight-piece band, which is what we are. When we play with Jools Holland, it’s Jools Holland’s R&B orchestra, as it’s called, and it’s myself and Gaps Hendrickson, who is the other singer in the band. We do five or six songs with him and we’re in the middle of 33-date tour that he’s doing at the moment, which takes us all over the U.K. basically.
CF: That’s a long tour…
PB: … Yeah, it’s good. And then we all come back together, the band, The Selecter, and we’re doing a live radio session with the BBC in December, and then a gig here in Coventry, which is where I live, the home of 2 Tone obviously.
CF: Speaking of your tour with Jools Holland. How did your connection with him come about, and what is it about his style and skills that fits so well with your and Gaps?
PB: Well I’ve known Jools for a long, long time, probably ever since the early 80s our paths kept crossing, and Jools has this 30-piece orchestra that he takes out twice a year, and he also has a BBC radio program.
Gaps and myself went to do a session for him, I think at the beginning of 2015, and we were asked to do one hit, which was “On My Radio”, and a cover, and we did this cover of “Secret Love”, Doris Day’s old hit, and he and the orchestra enjoyed it so much that Gaps and I were traveling back in a car afterwards and about 15 minutes into the journey, he just rang my mobile and said, “Hey do you want to come tour with us?” So I thought for a nanosecond, and thought, “Yeah that would be really cool,” and hence it started. So really we’ve been with Jools doing various tours and festivals and now this bigger one since around this time last year.
CF: You and Gaps have been making music together for about 40 years. How do you continue to keep things fresh?
PB: It’s not quite 40, it’s 37, and at our age every year counts (Laughs). I think that Gaps and I get on very very well, and the band, the unit that it is at the moment, which has been touring now for over five years, we get on great, and enjoy making music together, both on stage and in the studio.
I think that if you do those kind of things and also have some interest in what’s going on in the world, then as that feeds into maybe the narrative of what is 2 Tone, what we actually represent, then what’s not to like? It’s a real privilege to be able to go on stage and play our songs to people, and still be asked by others to come play with them and all those kind of things. So like I said, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It feels fresh. As long as it feels fresh, I think that it’s always worth carrying on.
CF: Have you two developed a musical telepathy?
PB: We do have a musical telepathy on stage that’s for sure. There’s all kinds of things that we can communicate to each other with a look (Laughs). With other individuals in my life, they probably wouldn’t know what on earth even a raised left eyebrow means – a whole load of things to Gaps that I probably couldn’t communicate in words.
CF: As you were saying, The Selecter has always been known for a certain stance and multiculturalism, and from what I understand the recent Brexit decision had something to do with your most recent reformation…
PB: Yes. I mean I think it’s true to say… we got back together again in 2010, we’ve been pretty much permanently on the road during those five years. We put out three album, and the most recent one was Subculture, which came out in 2015 and charted over here, and has been doing well, sort of within our ska kind of fan group and everything, all over the world.
We had certain tracks on that record which have fed, I think, into, bearing in mind that we started writing songs for that album in 2014, which is, of course, when Ferguson kicked off and all those kind of things. Brexit was a glimmer on the horizon at that time, and it had only just started, but all of those things sort of came together probably this year as much as anything.
A lot of things that we were talking about on the album hadn’t quite come to fruition by the time we put it out, but I think the people who look at that album now can say, “Yeah.” Songs like “Breakdown”, “Babble One”, and things like that really do feed into the narrative of this time.
Y’know, Black Lives Matter in 2014, I don’t even think was a hashtag, I’m not entirely sure about that, but it was a very embryonic hashtag as it were, but now that’s the premise a song like “Breakdown” is based on. We have a lot of people in this country who were similarly killed while being arrested, either through gun violence or some other form of their demise and those in authority have mostly not been brought to book for those crimes and that’s what we were trying to say through that song, but it’s like with all these things these days, it’s not just a thing that happens on a national level, it’s a thing that happens on an international level.
It’s like there’s a war on young black men throughout the world and that was something that I think, when we began doing those songs, we hadn’t quite envisioned how that might play out, or we certainly hadn’t envisioned anybody like Donald Trump. Or even on our side of the pond, somebody like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson, feeding that whole Brexit nonsense.
It’s like hate has suddenly come to the fore. We felt very much that maybe that had been, through the ideas of multiculturalism and diversity and all of those kind of things and people beginning to think about what that meant, that maybe hate had been put on a bit of a back burner for awhile, but it’s come roaring through this year on both sides of the pond, and it just horrifies us. But we met a lot of people in America while we were out there who shared the way that we think about life and that gave us great hope that come the middle of November people aren’t going to make a horrendous decision.
CF: Subculture seems to refer to 2 Tone’s ability to unite different cultures. Why is 2 Tone able to accomplish this?
PB: It’s not really whether it’s able to accomplish it or not. It is just a thing… 2 Tone was set up in 1979, as a lot of people know, by Jerry Dammers, who was the founder of The Specials, and ostensibly to have a message of anti racism and a lesser known one, which is actually anti sexism. Obviously both of those things feed into things that I believe and certainly the narrative of my life.
I feel that here we are in 2016, neither of those things have been dealt with or gone away if anything, I mean they are even more fiery now than they were back then, and I just feel that those bands who were involved with that at the time kind of have a duty of care to make sure that 2 Tone isn’t forgotten. It’s kind of a flag waving, possibly in the wilderness at the moment, but nonetheless it’s a beacon of some kind of light to say that it’s only through diversity and multiculturalism and a coming together of people that it’s gonna solve world problems, rather than raining bombs down on people.
CF: Talking about that division for a second, given that a Brexit is now imminent, how do you push forward in your effort to unite cultures?
PB: Well you have to go with the hand you’re dealt, and our way is through music, so we will be putting out a new album in 2017, which we will be recording in January and February of next year and will be out later in the year, and we hope to tour that.
In the meantime, at the end of March through April, we are out with The Beat, (The English Beat as you know them, but The Beat over here is Ranking Roger is the main singer) and we’re doing six quite big shows with them, which culminate in a show in London at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Obviously we both feel very very strongly about what 2 Tone meant to us and pushing that whole idea of celebrating the things that unite you rather than the things that divide you, so that’s what we’ll be doing in 2017.
CF: It’s often said that ‘art reflects society’ and that’s very true in the music you make and the political issues you discuss. But with that in mind, what elements of society do you feel you reflect?
PB: I think that we very much reflect the kind of people who have to work for a living, be that any work. If you receive a salary you work for a living. It doesn’t really matter how you might feel about yourself, but that’s what it is.
Also, we reflect people who don’t want to just settle for that status quo, who think that the world can actually be a better place. But it is only going to be better if people start working together, working for the majority, rather than just working for the economic enhancement of the few.
CF: Could you talk a little on local and global concerns that you feel share the same root problems?
PB: There’s a lot of global concerns. You take any country they all have problems. Black Lives Matter, over here, is beginning to get off the ground. Obviously in a kind of sympatico way with American Black Lives Matter. The whole Native American lives things, you know we see that and we see what big business is doing, if it decides it wants some land and it doesn’t matter whose land it takes, I mean that is the culture of imperialism isn’t it. It’s the culture of capitalism. I make no bones about it, a socialist structure would be much much better for everybody. They just don’t know that (Laughs).
With your Bernie Sanders, with our Jeremy Corbyn, who is the main opposition here, and things like that, I think there’s a lot of room for people to express their grievances. And maybe direct their political lives in ways they actually maybe haven’t thought about before.
However, all of those things don’t just come from ideas, or maybe we think this might actually be a good idea, they actually come from people’s real concrete lives, and the whole package of austerity measure that have been going on in this country have really impacted working class people’s lives. We have filmmakers like Ken Loach bringing out films, showing that to people, and really being hammered by right wingers for having the temerity to bring out a film that deals with the underbelly here, and what it means for people who don’t have money and don’t have access to all kinds of things that maybe working and mainstream people have. They just fall through the net and get forgotten.
It’s like whole generations are going by now; maybe the parents haven’t worked, the children haven’t worked, and all of those kind of things, and you know, man or woman is nothing if not the work they do, and they are being denied that. I’m talking about meaningful work here, I’m not talking about things that make up the numbers that make less than the minimum wage that sort of work.
So, I think that there is a whole narrative going on about people now that are saying it’s just not good enough. And if they can’t sort it, well then boot them out and we will get somebody in who can.
CF: To take that a step further, I read you address the concerns of refugees in the book you are currently working on…
PB: Yes, that was something that I felt very very strongly about, I mean since I started working on that. The narrative of that has gone far, far. Who could have seen what was happening in Aleppo. Who could have foreseen what was going to happen in Syria, and people coming out of that country and into Europe, being denied access to all kinds of things and all of that.
I was talking about Nigerian refugees, refugees coming from Africa, but again we saw in this country quite recently what happened to mostly young black people who had been camped out at Calais, which is the last French port before you get to England, and the kind of way in which the whole camp has been stripped, and they’ve been sent to camps in the interior of France, and nobody really knows what’s going on with them, and all of this kind of thing. You know, it’s a subtle form of racism which goes on even among refugees.
Unfortunately all one can do sometimes is stand by and watch, but one can at least talk about it and engage people in the thinking of is this right or is this wrong, and it’s most definitely wrong as far as I’m concerned.
CF: If you could have one track played to the dislocated people in the camps – what would it be?
CF: Given the longevity or your career and the spectrum of rock and roll experiences you must have had, can you share something about the most grounding moment you’ve had in your career?
PB: I think that whenever you go to a foreign country, one that you don’t live in, be it either Australia, one we’ve toured, or America, one we’ve toured, it’s always amazing to see those people go to our shows. We’ve been going a long, long time, but they’ve kept up with what you’ve been doing and all of those kind of things.
I’ve found probably playing in New York on this last tour, and bearing in my mind we haven’t been to America in three years, playing at the Gramercy Theatre in New York that was as a pretty grounding moment. There was a lot of love in the room for the band, and I think we were really loving what we did. We really like playing those grand old theatres. It is a great space to play and it was like, “Here we are. We are in America. We don’t know what to expect.
We’ve seen all this rubbish recently on the television, so you are expecting somebody to have a gun on every corner, and it wasn’t. It was just full of a lot of people with a lot of love for the band and seemingly understanding what we were trying to say on our new album. So I always take a most recent experience rather than casting back to 30 years ago when I met so and so and they said this or whatever, that’s gone that’s history. It’s what you’re doing now that I think is the most important thing. And we are hoping to come back to America in 2017, another couple of times I think. So yeah, I look forward to whatever America has to bring.
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