Figureheads of the mid-nineties Britrock movement, Skunk Anansie have remained one of the most important British rock bands of the modern age, counting five studio albums since their 1995 debut Paranoid & Sunburnt and spanning generations of fans.
Skunk Anansie are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year with the release of 25Live@25 – a collection of 25 tracks from their whole catalogue, recorded live across their 2017 tour. Known for powerful live performances, the album gives an impression of their formidable stage presence; however, there’s nothing like the real thing, Skunk Anansie drummer Mark Richardson explains:
‘When you look at a painting, you get an immediate emotional reaction to what’s in front of you, whereas with our records, that’s only part of the picture. When you’ve got Skin screaming down your throat as well as the music, it’s a very different beast to just listening to a record. We pride ourselves on the sound and the visual aspect of our shows.’
I remember how it felt when Skin ran on stage and grabbed the mic – it’s something I’ve never forgotten
‘I first saw the band supporting Therapy? in ’94, just before I joined, and I remember how it felt when Skin ran on stage and grabbed the mic – it’s something I’ve never forgotten.’
One of the things that makes Skunk Anansie’s music stand out is their unique juxtaposition between rage and vulnerability, with a heavy sound and a softer, more melodic rhythm. Skin embodies this beautifully in the way that her singing spans from screaming to hushed tones.
‘It’s completely at odds with itself, isn’t it?’ Mark agrees. ‘I don’t know many other bands that do that. Most bands write a good ballad and stick with it, and then you’ve got bands that only write heavy songs. We seem to be good at both and our fans seem to love it. Maybe we could have been a bigger band if we did things differently, but for us it’s about having some integrity and being true to ourselves.’
Maybe we could have been a bigger band if we did things differently
They’ve also stood out thanks to their melting pot of musical influences, from punk, dub and reggae to electronica. ‘It’s not something we’re afraid of as a rock band. I think we’ve always been influenced by electronic music. If you listen to Stoosh and Post Orgasmic Chill, there’s electronic interludes, which Cass did. And throughout the albums since 2010 there’s a lot of electronic loops that we make ourselves. It’s a melting pot of personalities and tastes and that’s what comes out in our music.’
It’s a melting pot of personalities and tastes and that’s what comes out in our music
Skunk Anansie split between 2001-2009, during which time Mark became the drummer for Feeder after the death of their original drummer Jon Lee, while other band members involved themselves in other projects. However, Mark says it felt as though a reunion was always on the cards for Skunk Anansie.
‘I think we just became better at doing different things. I got into the whole film and editing thing and started a little production company. And I toured with Feeder and did some other bits and pieces musically. We came back together and the overriding feeling was that we belong together.
‘When the four of us are onstage, it’s better than when we’re onstage with anyone else. We always felt like there was more music to come.’
We always felt like there was more music to come
Skunk Anansie made headlines recently for another reason, after Stormzy Tweeted that he was the first black British artist to headline Glastonbury, quickly apologising on being corrected that Skin was the first in 1999 with Skunk Anansie. This paints a bleak picture for the rate of progress in the music industry towards cultural diversity, with a full 20 years between the Glastonbury performances.
achieving chart success as black, queer women-fronted rock band
Skunk Anansie have always stood for underrepresented and marginalised members of society, not only by achieving chart success as black, queer women-fronted rock band, but also in their message. They’re bringing queer punk duo Queen Zee on tour with them this August – ‘a really important statement for us’ says Mark – and they’ve never been afraid of upsetting the status quo.
‘It seems that there are still not many people like Skin who will get up on stage and say “when you encounter sexism, racism, homophobia, transgenderism; you have to stamp it out, you have to say no”. She says that every day.
‘Bono is one, Michael Stipe is one, and a few others, but generally I think people are too afraid to say the wrong thing. They’re too afraid to stand up for what they believe in. It’s easier to just say what’s expected and not push boundaries and be likeable, rather than keeping your message true to yourself.
people are too afraid to say the wrong thing
‘We will always stand up for and encourage people to come forward and be open and true to themselves. We get a lot of people at our shows who really appreciate that. We’ve had messages from fans saying, “I was about to kill myself and then I found your music”. It’s not just music; sometimes, it’s a lifeline.
It’s not just music; sometimes, it’s a lifeline
‘We’re not a band that likes to preach but we do have very strong social commentary. To pre-empt a question that we’re often asked, can music change the world? The answer is yes. I think you can make a lot of small changes over a long period of time, and that adds up to a huge change and a huge influence over time.’
Skunk Anansie have also always been a voice for outsiders and rebels, and haven’t shied away from political comment with tracks like Yes it’s Fucking Political, Little Baby Swastikkka and We Love Your Apathy.
‘The current political climate is a mess. The old school Etonite network have no idea what it’s like to live in a council flat in Sheffield, living with no money with three kids and you’re struggling; you’re willing to get a job, but you just can’t find one.
‘Whether you’re a fan of Brexit or not, let’s get somebody in power that people respect, someone who has a way of talking to people without lies and denial. What is good about the current state of affairs is that it’s giving other parties a bit more power. At the end of the day, though, you’re always left with red or blue. And the choices we’ve got are not that many.
‘Let’s vote somebody in that is all for recycling and getting rid of plastic. Business is business, it will never change. It will always be about money or profit. But let’s have somebody in power that will make these massive corporations change the way they do business in terms of it being healthier for the planet.’
Aside from the continued social and political unrest that Skunk Anansie’s music aptly soundtracks, Mark believes that part of why Skunk Anansie have remained relevant across generations comes back to their live performances.
‘There seems to be a distinct lack of performers and I wonder why you would want to be up there if you didn’t want to perform. For me, it’s always been about theatre and I think we provide a spectacle. Skin’s such a great performer and such an icon that she never gets boring.’
There seems to be a distinct lack of performers and I wonder why you would want to be up there if you didn’t want to perform
In terms of what kind of spectacle we can expect on their upcoming tour, Mark says: ‘We’ve got this amazing backdrop that changes colour and we’ve got some lights, but we kind of went back to basics for this tour. The screens were getting bigger and bigger, but this time we wanted the focus to be on us. With gigs of 3,500 people, you can still see us – you don’t need the screens. But don’t think that it’s going to be boring – all I’m going to say is gold lamé, you can do with that what you will.’
we went back to basics for this tour
Although Mark wasn’t Skunk Anansie’s original drummer, with Robbie France recording the percussion on Paranoid & Sunburnt, he’s been very much a part of the whole journey. Mark met the brand new band in 1995, while they were on the hunt to replace Robbie, making a bold introduction –
‘I was in two other bands and I went to see Skunk Anansie play. I was a bit pissed and I went up to Skin and I said “your drummer is shit, you need me in your band”. They said their drummer was only temporary, why didn’t I come and give it a go? I got a phone call from the manager and I went for an audition, and two weeks after seeing them I was in the band.
I remember everybody running to the stage, because they wanted to come see these crazy gigs
‘It was amazing. We had a summer of being first on at festivals and I remember everybody running to the stage, because they wanted to come see these crazy gigs. Now nearly 25 years later we’re still doing those same festivals. I mean, what a life! You have to be grateful for this. So many people are miserable in this business, I feel like slapping them and saying well go be a bricklayer then, go work in a supermarket, or be an accountant. Don’t do this job and not be grateful for it. It’s too precious. It’s too wonderful to have this life.
Don’t do this job and not be grateful for it. It’s too precious. It’s too wonderful to have this life.
‘We’re bringing joy to a lot of people who want to go out on the weekends to be entertained and get away from the drudgery of their normal life. And that’s what our job is – our job is to get up there and make people happy.’
With 25 years already under their belt, fans will be pleased to hear that Skunk Anansie aren’t going anywhere for a while. ‘We went writing for two weeks before we came out on tour. Hopefully we’re going to record more lives songs from this tour and then a new album for next spring. There’s lots of things to do, lots of music to write and play, and lots of fun to be had.’