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Interview: Siouxsie Sioux: The punk icon turns 50

Thirty years have passed since the summer of 1977, but Siouxsie Sioux is still a force to be reckoned with. Hermione Eyre meets an original punk icon turned solo survivor

Saturday, 1 September 2007

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Just Sioux: Shewas a star before she was a musician

Siouxsie Sioux inspires me to rewrite a celebrated Sondheim song from Follies: "Good times and bum times/ I've seen them all and my dear/ I'm still here/ Sometimes with Banshees/ Sometimes with Creatures/ Now it's just me and my gear..." I hum as I wait for her to finish her photoshoot for The Independent at Home House, a swanky London club. I tap my foot. It's nice out here in the garden area. "I've seen off the Pistols/ Without flaunting my Bristols/ I've shown the door/ To the Cure..."

But hang on a tick – what's that? A crazy horrible face is looking out at me through the window, sticking out its tongue, making flapping ears with its hands. God almighty, who is it? The face relaxes out of its grimace into the stately beauty of Siouxsie Sioux. She carries on posing for the photographer. Phew. That put an end to my little ditty. She's not only still here, but she's still giving us all a bit of a fright.

In fact, the old Siouxsie Sioux of the 1970s and 1980s is very present culturally: she featured on the soundtrack of two of the most talked-about films of last year – Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette and Richard Eyre's Notes on a Scandal. "Hong Kong Garden", her first-ever single, held its own in the Court of Versailles. But in Notes on a Scandal, the Cate Blanchett character Sheba Hart's nostalgia for the Banshees and her own punk days was presented as self-indulgent. Her kohl-smeared eyes at the end of the movie had the madness of a grown woman trying to go back to her adolescence, to an over-romanticised culture now gone. None of that for Sioux, the mouthy one from the Bromley Contingent who became the star of "the most �litist band in the world". She hates looking backwards. The greatest hits collections can look after the legacy. She's covering new ground.

She has an album out this month called Mantaray. Over her career she's released more than 20 albums, but, would you believe, this is her first solo work. "I'm on the verge of an awakening/ A new kind of strength for me..." she roars on the single "Into a Swan". The video for this is like the view through a kaleidoscope found in a Gormenghast nursery. Black-corseted and feathered, our heroine divides and doubles in a kind of amoebic reproduction, so that in some shots there's a whole army of Sioux. "I burst out, I'm transformed!" she yells as she metamorphoses into an owl and flaps off screen. I know it's naïve to expect videos to have anything to do with a singer's state of mind but I can't help feeling this might...

Ah, here she is, stalking over on heels, under a mane of black. The make-up isn't stagey – there's just a suggestion of those angular eyebrows – but the presence is full watt. She was a star before she was a musician. Years before she had a record deal, she caused a riot on Bill Grundy's Today show (don't tell me you haven't seen that clip where she and various Banshees and Sex Pistols swear themselves blue. What do you mean, you haven't watched The Top Ten Totally Terrific TV Moments? What do you do on a Saturday night?).

The heads of the businessmen in the Home House garden turn, whether or not they know who she is. There is something abject in their eyes as they look up at her, though.

So that new video... "Yeah. I liked the fact that Harvey and Carolyn, who made it, come from a background of making fabulous, glamorous, otherworldly commercials. But advertising has hundreds of thousands of pounds to play with so they had to get back to basics for old Universal." A grin. "Sometimes it's velvet/ Sometimes just pretzels and beer/ I'm still here..."

"Another video I'd like to make would be for 'Here Comes that Day'," she adds. It's another fabulously strong number, very John Barry/ Shirley Bassey and throbbing with punishment: divine retribution by big band. "Oh here comes the rain on your parade!" she sings. "There's a price to pay for a life of insincerity..." Every syllable of "insincerity" gets its due. "My vision of the video is a very empowered stripper in front of a culprit, one of the many guys there who has double lives or whatever. She becomes far too raw, progressive and confrontational and very violent even ... She might be swinging a nipple tassle and then..." – she mimes this with some relish – "take 'is eye out with it!"

As she crosses her legs and lights a cigarette – she has to, she says, 'cause giving up was so bad for her health – I notice her strappy sandals and the matte-black nail varnish on her toes. No, hang on a minute, her toes are bare but her big toenail is discoloured by a purple bruise. Slightly gothic, putting it on show like that. Slightly screw-you, too. Power to the toe!

I wonder what might have changed in her life to give her the boost to make this strong solo album – not to reinvent herself so much as to simply be herself spectacularly again. Soon it emerges that her husband and bandmate Budgie is in her life no more. "He's doing his own thing. It's been two or three years, actually, but I don't make my private life public. Life is full of change and reinvention and things don't work out how you expected and it would be boring if they did. It wakes you up. Maybe you have to tear down a bit what's gone before and start again. When you have to start again you just feel really alive. It's not over yet! There's plenty to do, you know."

She hits a throaty war cry. "Come on!"

Poor old Budgie. Sioux was always making jokes to journalists about how she was the cat and he her feathered victim. "I'm always eyeing him, wanting to bite his neck," she once said. Another time she made a quip about throwing a blanket over Budgie's cage when he wouldn't shut up. But of course these lines may be misleading about what really happened in the relationship.

There's a lot of pain and disappointment on the album, and certainly one or two cut-up-his-suits tracks. "It's healthier not to shut it down and block it up. It just gets heavier and heavier if you carry it round with you. There is some anger there on the album," she says. If I were Budgie I wouldn't be putting my eye near a stripper's nipple tassle any time soon.

"I think men and women are very different and maybe we're not totally suited as partners. We are so different emotionally. Women are allowed and encouraged to have all these emotions, whereas I still find men repressed. Isn't it weird the way, politically, women are oppressed but emotionally men are? I just do think females are superior. I, erm, I think they have the whole package." Is Sioux telling me she's a lesbian? "I've never particularly said I'm hetero or I'm a lesbian. I know there are people who are definitely one way, but not really me. I suppose if I am attracted to men then they usually have more feminine qualities." Russell Brand, did you hear that?

So no wonder the solo energy of her album felt real rather than manufactured. There is some kind of transformation in the works. It was her 50th birthday last week and about nine friends came to stay at her place in France (an 18th-century stone house near Toulouse that sounds suspiciously like a château).

Sioux recently said that one of her all-time favourite songs is "Hey Ya!" by Outkast, so I imagine them all dancing round the pool to Andr� 3000, but perhaps the party was a little more subdued than that. "Weather was a bit crap but it's been crap everywhere." She seems happy about the birthday. "The big 50. Half a century. One half down, many more halves to go. In fact I've already done a few half centuries. I'm actually 350 years old but I just look fabulous for my age." It's weird seeing her laugh so freely. In the past she had a rule never to smile when she was performing, so on most of the footage the nearest thing you get to a smile is a sort of lipstick leer.

What is her elixir of youth, by the way? "I need my eight hours, still. I sleep a lot. I try and copy what my cats do. Eat, sleep and play."

Ah, the cats. She loves them cats. No children but three moggies: Spooky, orange and waspish; Spider, sleek prince of Siam; Dandy, white and fluffy murderer-cum-cutie pie. Are they on the album anywhere? Do you sing to them? "Oh I give regular shows to my kitties. And if they don't storm off with their tails up high thinking 'insufferable woman' then I know something's gone wrong. If it's something they find quite tuneful they might be my backing singers... Miaow." She's mocking me I think. Pretending to be all ironic about it. Why can't she just admit it – she sings to her cats. It's nice.

Anyway, she's got to rehearse – a tour starts this autumn. "I don't step up until I've got an audience. I don't like the idea of having a routine. I like mixing it up and including things I haven't played before." How does her new band take that? "Ha! Sometimes I'll torture them and I'll get a thrill out of making them suffer, like: 'Right, what was that B-side I did 30 years ago?' I like to wind them up – in a good way. I like things when they go wrong."

What will her costumes be like? "Have to wait and see." Fashion's currently having a goth phase... "God, not again. Posh Spice in black nail varnish? Ugh, whatever next? My rule is, if what you're wearing's in fashion, it's time to do something different." For inspiration, she might wander round the V&A.; She loves the collection of art nouveau. Watch out for that black mane stalking the corridors at closing time.

Before she goes, two quick questions. I know she doesn't want to talk about the past, but on that Bill Grundy programme... She rolls her eyes – "The so-called 'Filth and the Fury', yes." Did you have something going on with [Sex Pistols guitarist] Steve Jones? Was that why he leapt so fruitily to your defence when Grundy tried to chat you up? "No! He was just being a gentleman, innit!" She pulls the same wide-eyed Marcel Marceau expression as she did back on the show. And finally, do you ever get frustrated spelling your name to call centres? What is the name on your bank card? Siouxsie Sioux or Susan Ballion? "Ere, I'm not telling you! What's your pin number then?"

"Good questions, bum questions/ I've seen them all and my dear/ I'm still here/ I've lived through punk, post-punk, new punk/ And I'm here!/ I've given Budgie the nudgie and yes, I'm still here! Look who's here!"

Siouxsie Sioux's debut solo album 'Mantaray' is released on 10 September on W14/Universal. The single, 'Into a Swan', is out on Monday

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