From Banshees to Vampires… An Interview with Steven Severin

Marshall WardCategories:2012Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

It’s an unsettling tale of terror and tormented humanity.  A small village has fallen under a vampire’s curse, and the boundaries between the real and unreal have blurred.

Steven Severin, co-founding member of Siouxsie and the Banshees, has composed a new score for Vampyr –the 1932 horror movie by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Severin is currently on tour, screening the film and playing the instrumental score solo on stage — his third Music for Silents project.

Severin co-created Siouxsie and the Banshees alongside goth priestess Siouxsie Sioux in 1976, and was featured on all 16 albums and 30 singles as co-lyricist and songwriter during the band’s two-decade career.

Rock Cellar Magazine recently tracked down the reputedly dark and mysterious Severin, who was surprisingly charming (like any persuasive vampire should be) during a wide-ranging conversation about Vampyr, Siouxsie, and the original Lollapalooza.

RCM: Tell us about the film Vampyr, and how it compares to the Twilight franchise, in which vampires are portrayed as dreamy hunks whose perfect complexions belie their nocturnal existences?

SS: I can’t really comment on the Twilight movies as I haven’t seen any of them — and don’t intend to! Vampyr was shot in 1931, making it one of the earliest vampire movies ever made — the only significant predecessors being Nosferatu (1922) and the lost Lon Chaney film, London After Midnight (1927). Vampyr is not based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but rather Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.

I think what is quite shocking for people seeing Vampyr for the first time is the lack of cliches that have evolved since. There is no garlic, no bats, and no use of crosses or holy water. No fangs even.

RCM: Were you approached to write a new score, and is Vampyr a public domain film?

SS:  I choose all the movies I score, not that I would be adverse to the odd commission now and then, it just hasn’t happened so far. The film itself is out of copyright, but I wanted to use the brilliant new restoration by Eureka/Masters of Cinema, so I came to an agreement with them where I now have special permission to do this current tour.

RCM: How have the U.K. shows been going since the Vampyr tour premiered in Edinburgh back in January?

SS:  Unlike other scores, I ran this one to the wire and was still tinkering with it a day or so before the premiere. It’s the longest score I’ve attempted so I was very aware of the possibility of over-cooking it. The film itself is very dreamlike and understated, so I wanted to preserve that and indeed highlight those qualities. I also wanted to gauge the reaction before committing the music to disc. That reaction has been great, really positive, so I’m taking the opportunity afforded me by a two-week break in live shows to recompile and expand the material so that it works as a standalone CD without the film.

RCM: Can you share some insight into the craft of writing soundtrack music?

SS:  There are two parts to the process: the first involves watching, re-watching, reading, researching and watching some more! That part takes months. Once I feel I have absorbed enough, the second part begins: composing the music. This part is usually very fast. I did Vampyr over three weeks at quite a leisurely pace. It’s very much a jigsaw puzzle. You zone in on one cue, write that and then see if it can fit or be adapted to another cue. Themes evolve using this method. Gradually, piece by piece the score comes to life.

From “Vampyr” 1932; Carl Theodor Dreyer

RCM: Do you consider yourself a film buff?

SS:  I’d say “enthusiast” rather than “buff.” My knowledge pales in comparison to some people I’ve met on the festival film circuit.

I tend to enjoy anything macabrely entertaining, surrealistically erotic, absorbing and intelligently thrilling–

–So most things by David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, Luis Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Von Trier, Pasolini, Fellini and Russ Meyer. It all started when I was eight or nine with Jason & the Argonauts and Dr. No.  So, you can blame Ray Harryhausen and Ursula Andress.

From: “Vampyr” 1932

RCM: Your previous score was Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film Blood of a Poet, which was not a strictly silent film — nor is Vampyr, right?

SS:  Yes. Both were made on the cusp of silent to sound so they still have a silent aesthetic, particularly in the acting styles. And, as both films were subtitled, I felt I could just remove all the original sound. My music tends to stray into the realm of sound design anyway, so I think this approach really works.

RCM:  It was 20 years ago this past summer, Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell took a chance organizing a traveling music festival featuring alt-rock acts like Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour, Nine Inch Nails, Violent Femmes, and your band, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Can you shed some light on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour in the summer of ’91?

SS:  We were invited on the tour by Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction). At that time, Jane’s Addiction weren’t particularly well known over in England, so it wasn’t an instant “yes.” We had an album coming out, Superstition, so it was perfect timing and that’s really what swung it. I’m glad we did say yes, as it was one of my personal highlights. Behind the scenes, some people were wary that we were just being invited to add some old-school credibility, but it was obvious as soon as we met them that Perry and Dave were big fans.

RCM: Were there any bands on that tour whose company you especially enjoyed?

SS:  It was a lot of fun hanging out with the Butthole Surfers, as every day brought different drama — some good, some bad.  And it was quite unlike a “normal” tour so, in that sense, it was really galvanizing and I think that was mirrored in our performances. I thought we rose to it, as it were.

Steven Severin – Founding Member Siouxsie & the Banshees

RCM: With Siouxsie and the Banshees’ reputation as British avant-garde glam-punks, was there any tension between your band and harder-edge acts like Rollins Band and Ice T and Body Count?

SS:  A few of the bands were a bit wary of this odd English mob. Everybody warmed up pretty fast and there were more and more guest appearances as the tour progressed. The thing that people aren’t really aware of was that there was quite a lot of nervousness and even some resistance to the idea, as it was untested in North America. Big festivals were commonplace in Europe, but the concept of a traveling festival freaked out a lot of promoters and record company execs. It was, as you can imagine, a big gypsy circus. Some bands embraced that while others kept to themselves. So yes, things were a bit tense at the outset.

RCM: Is there a particularly memorable moment from Lollapalooza that stands out for you?

Steven Severin: Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers) joined us on stage for an encore of Helter Skelter, wearing a dress and carrying a shotgun. That doesn’t happen every day!

RCM: What was that time like in the band’s career, having just released Superstition?

SS:  Prior to Lollapalooza, relations with the band had been fairly shaky. After the Peepshow tour in 1988, we decided to take a break, not quite knowing if or when we’d get back together.
Siouxsie and Budgie went off to record as The Creatures, and I did some production work along with my first film score for Visions of Ecstasy. We eventually reconvened in 1990 to write and record Superstition with Stephen Hague producing. The sessions were still a bit tense as Stephen was a very hands-on “digital” producer.  I loved working with the new computer software but I think Siouxsie and Budgie found it quite a difficult adjustment. They preferred the old way of capturing a live performance in the studio rather than Stephen’s way of piecing the best bits together. It looked, at one point, that we might fall apart again but Lollapalooza invigorated us all — so we went on.

RCM: It must have been invigorating to see the album’s first single, Kiss Them for Me, find huge success in the United States — the band’s first Top 40 single. How did that dreamy, uplifting song come to be written?

SS: Well, for the very first time I had my computer rig set-up alongside my bass stack in rehearsals. We went to residential studios for these writing sessions, first in Wales, then later down in Sussex, near Brighton. That meant that any time of day or night we could work. I would often go in there on my own, early in the morning to get some writing time on the computer before the whole band came in to play live. One of those mornings, I started the skeleton of Kiss Them for Me based around a couple of samples and a bass line.

Martin McCarrick, our keyboard player and cellist was the only other member of the band to embrace music software on the computer at that time, so he started to flesh out my original ideas. Then at a certain point, we played it to the rest of the band and it just kept evolving all the way into the studio. I think we instinctively knew it had potential to be a single, and once that becomes apparent you tend to steer it more or less in that direction. It was very crafted and composed in a way that I love.
Sometimes a song comes very easy, sometimes the more you work on it, the more you sculpt it, the better it gets. Kiss Them for Me was pushed, pulled and moulded into one of our best singles, I feel.

RCM: Your post-Banshees solo work is prolific —  collaborations, film and documentary soundtracks and the upcoming CD due out this Spring. Any other projects in the works?

SS:  In between working on scores for silent films, which is my passion at the present, I’m still working on new films and commercial projects, as it were. With my wife Arban, I recently worked on an upcoming biopic of James Dean’s early days in Hollywood entitled Joshua Tree, 1951. Unless anything else comes up, after this tour, I’m then going to stay still for a time and start work on my memoir. Just need to build the shed at the bottom of the garden first!

RCM: Do you plan to tour with Vampyr this summer?

SS: I would imagine some continental European shows will follow the U.K. tour in late summer and possibly a North American tour in the fall.

RCM: North American fans will be happy to hear that. When fans approach you at live shows or horror conventions, what do they usually say?

SS:  It depends on how nervous they are. A lot of people find it difficult to say anything. I mean, what do you say to someone if you have been following their music and career for decades?  Most people are conscious of trying not to say anything that might appear dumb, I think. They shouldn’t be nervous.  I don’t bite…much.

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