Skunk Anansie have carved out their own space in music history. 21 years after their debut album, they talk to TGA about laying themselves bare, picking up where they left off and cutting out the middle man
At exactly 8.50 pm, Skunk Anansie take to the stage at Heitere Festival in Switzerland. A 75-minute slot will follow just as the sun starts to go down.
The band is all dressed in black. Frontwoman Skin (real name Deborah Anne Dyer) seems to take her own sartorial inspiration from athletes — for tonight anyway: she’s dressed in white trainers, wet-look leggings and an oversized black top to allow for ultimate freedom of movement.
Stripped of accessories, she stands confident in front of the crowd. A woman who is here to work. Surrounded by her band, Richard ‘Cass’ Lewis (bass), Mark Richardson (drums), Martin ‘Ace’ Kent (guitar), Skin and Skunk Anansie play wholly for the benefit of the audience. They’ve been doing this for years.
Jumping around one moment; the next, standing still — commanding, staring straight out into a sea of faces. A big grin spreads across Skin’s face as she announces, “This one’s for all of you”. And they launch into Hedonism.
The mood is euphoric, and she and the band smile to one another as the audience sings back the chorus. But make no mistake: this is a tightly managed operation.
When it comes to bands with longevity and continuing success in the music industry, the song plays out the same way every time. The band forms, the band does well, its members get successful, they get exhausted from touring. They become fed up with one another, then someone usually develops a substance abuse problem, and the band as an entity exhausts itself. Et voilà: break up.
Or they go on hiatus, of course — often indefinitely. Skunk Anansie were no exception. It’s expected, given that being in a band is like a marriage, but with several partners that you can’t get away from.
Skunk Anansie’s individual parts each had a few transitory years of not being rock stars, after they split in 2001. They embarked on solo projects, and had to get used to being identified as something entirely separate from Skunk Anansie.
Most notable was Skin’s career as a solo artist and DJ. She released an album called Fleshwounds, followed by Fake Chemical State in 2006. She collaborated with Timo Mass and Martin Buttrich on a side-project called Format-3, and provided vocals on albums by Maxim, Sevendust, Pale3 and Ed case. She worked as a model and is now a judge on the Italian X-Factor.
Skin will soon be delivering to the world a cadre of young artists whose sound and image she has personally fostered. Unlike the UK version of The X-Factor, which has been criticised as merely a vehicle for making money rather than producing interesting or challenging artists, the Italian panel of judges allow more scope for bands.
With Skin on board, a voice of dissent against a corporate, money-making rhetoric, there is more guidance on practice, and a value placed on compelling performances over beauty; and rather than mould people as young as 16 into something purely meant for ‘entertainment’, there are words to encourage self-expression and to inspire. It was a project Skin picked up after her marriage to producer Christiana Wyly broke down in 2015 (more on that later).
Reuniting in 2009, all differences put aside, Skunk Anansie were ready to revisit the excitement of the first part of their narrative without having to face the burdens that made the second part inevitable. And they haven’t looked back since, their working relationship stronger than ever.
The excellent albums Smashes and Trashes, Wonderlustre and Black Traffic followed and this year they released Anarchytecture on Spinefarm. The band opted not to release independently, unlike previous album Black Traffic, which was a decision based on economic uncertainty and retaining control.
“Because we were out of a deal and it was at the time where a lot of labels were going bankrupt or being swallowed up by others, we decided to pay for our own record and have licensing deals with labels for distribution,” explains guitarist Mark Richardson before their set. “Cutting out the middle man — to a certain degree — has worked really well. We retain control of everything while avoiding the complicated mess of the modern business.”
Skunk Anansie’s initial burst of fame in 1995 took the UK completely by surprise. Punk rock guitars were accompanied by lyrics about sex, politics, racism, heartache and alienation.
“We kicked the little baby’s head against the wall,” screams Skin on their first single, Little Baby Swastikkka, which nailed their barbed, hard-rock aesthetic. Meanwhile, “Lost in time I can’t count the words / I said when I thought they went unheard / all of those harsh thoughts so unkind / ‘cause I wanted you” on eighth song Weak is a nice lead-off giving fans an early insight into Skin’s subsequent standing as one of the best ballad writers of the last two decades.
Their debut album Paranoid and Sunburnt was the truest record released at that time, and a direct, uncompromising document of their personal and political connections. The band weren’t arrogant or conceited – unlike Blur or Oasis who dominated the Brit-pop music news.
Skunk Anansie were the antithesis of everything in the charts, a punk band in the truest sense, whose aggressive and loud roots in the genre fermented alongside ambitions charged by new styles and fresh approaches.
The album is renowned for its punk rock riffs and unforgiving thrust into dub. But it also features the sumptuous, airy yearning of Charity, one of their finest ballads. And there are telling, human details even in the noise, like the opening of I Can Dream, when Cass’s frantic, repetitive bass playing leaps forward in an in-time spasm. The album is a seesaw of guitars, drums and Skin’s soaring vocals pushing ever louder against everything else, dominating the mix. It was a protest record that made people sit up and listen.
By 1999, the band had released albums Stoosh and Post-Orgasmic Chill, headlined Glastonbury and played at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party. Despite this being the stuff of myth-building dreams, the band remained relatively silent outside of touring, there was little coverage in mainstream press, allowing the music to speak for itself – cultivating devout fans the old-fashioned way in an all-access era, in the kind of remove that is itself a show of power.
“We’ve never tried to fit in. We just made sure we were really fucking good and that seems to have transcended everything else,” says Skin.
Anyway, who needs tabloid buzz when you can lay claim to performing with Pavarotti at a concert to raise funds for Tibetan children and meet the Dali Lama? Controversial videos like Selling Jesus and its arresting imagery – Jesus being bundled out of a building amid press and screaming fans, while Skin drives around pregnant in a truck in typical USA ‘white trash’ style – swaying violently to the lyric “They’re selling Jesus again / They’re selling Jesus again / They want your soul and your money your blood and your votes“—the video as instantly relevant today as it was 21 years ago.
One which could still easily form part of ongoing public discourse about election tactics in America and the UK. As with most things Skunk Anansie do —they’re not afraid to make their point of view known. And yes, they’re fucking political.
There was never a problem with reuniting well into middle age either. While some bands who try to sing songs from their previous life just seem like they’re doing it for nostalgia reasons, Skunk Anansie have never been that band. Songs like Cheap Honesty, You’ll Follow Me Down and Infidelity are still as poignant and as beautiful as they ever were.
Today, Skin still recognises the woman who wrote those songs more than 20 years ago. She’s happy to sing them live today, and states, “Our music is fresh, experimental and diverse without being obscure but we are not so desperate to fit in that we jump at this year’s sound. We have our own sound and we have a lot of fun messing about with that. In the end we are Skunk Anansie, people follow us, we don’t follow anybody.”
There’s a resoluteness in her claims and while self-aggrandising statements are frequently thrown around by bands – often making for a cringe read — the key thing about Skunk Anansie is that they are unique. They’ve always been a divisive band and they’ve always done their own thing.
Skin nods, “I think we stand alone as Skunk Anansie, in that there is nothing like us and never will be.”
On Anarchytecture, Skin declared herself open to scrutiny, using songwriting to provoke difficult but necessary conversations about the most fraught topics in her life. The album is about trying to make sense of her broken marriage. In other words, she’s not just going to sit back and pen easy songs removed from personal experience, she’s going to keep earning her success.
“I think using life experience to write songs is what defines what being an artist and songwriter is all about. It’s always difficult to expose your emotions in songs knowing that at some point these innermost feelings are going to be dissected and you will be grilled about every word by a complete stranger,” Skin laughs. “That takes courage.”
But courage she has in droves and Skunk Anansie today are not too different a creature. They’re still one of music’s most exciting voices, open to creating and breaking boundaries — and their songs are just as much fun to make for them as they ever were. “My favourite track [on Anarchytecture] is Victim,” says Skin. “I love the lilting emotion in the melody and also that it starts off electronic but ends in a fat riff. Very Skunk, and it encompasses new and old.”
In their latest incarnation, they’ve released an album of grandiose, visionary rock music. And recent tours have been just as intense as they ever were. The well-drilled group of musicians create grooves that are both uplifting and punk rock in the same breath.
Encompassing moods from the tender to all-out aggression, crowds worldwide continue to eat out of their hands as the band succeed in capturing the positivity and ever-evolving sound of Skunk Anansie.
Onstage at Heitere Festival and united, the character of Skin takes over and Skunk Anansie are all anyone cares about. In that moment, they choose to be something remarkable — even if it is strange singing Hedonism, a song about a first heartbreak, twenty years later.
“Absolutely!” Skin laughs. “But it’s very cathartic, getting those feelings out. Now that song is like an old lover who’s become a friend that I go visit sometimes.”
Mark agrees: “We’re still blown away by the fans. Sziget, Pukkelpop, Lowlands and Pink Pop amongst many other festivals are consistently fucking mind-blowing in terms of the reception we get from the crowd.”
It’s a moment of true honesty – and it seems the band are never far away from a performance. The music scene has changed, but that doesn’t bother Skunk Anansie, because they have the best of it – they’ve had, and continue to have, massive success and they’ve never compromised their sound or ideals along the way.
“I think every band dreams of a long career but very few actually achieve it,” Skin adds. “But we managed it somehow.”