Steven Severin is clearly attracted to the dark side. As bass player in Siouxsie and the Banshees for two decades, he helped define the scarier, more mystical side of punk. When the band imploded in the mid 1990s, Severin’s first job was scoring the soundtrack to the only film to have been refused a certificate on the grounds of blasphemy. Other soundtracks have helped illustrate left-field supernatural fare onscreen in London Voodoo and Nature Morte. Severin has also worked with Edinburgh Festival Fringe favourite, Shakti. Even Severin’s name was taken from the Velvet Underground song, Venus In Furs, by way of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s erotic novel of the same name.
It’s unlikely that the clientele of the bar on the edge of Edinburgh’s New Town would be able to glean any of this from the silver bearded and slightly donnish 52 year old sitting among them today. Nor the fact that Severin is about to make his first ever live appearance as a solo artist in the city he, his Texan wife Arban and young son Cage now call home. The performance will be of yet another soundtrack, this time to accompany a silent Surrealist classic.
"I’d always resisted doing anything live because I wasn’t sure how I would do it," Severin says of his score for Germaine Dulac’s neglected 1928 film, The Seashell and the Clergyman. Derived from a scenario by Antonin Artaud, the film preceded Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou by a year. “I got fed up waiting for The Barbican to commission me, so I thought I just better do it myself.”
Severin will complete his programme with scores to several short films by brand new directors.
"I wanted to juxtapose the old and the new," he says. "It’s very different to anything I’ve done before, and hopefully should be really good fun."
Fun isn’t a word you’d readily associate with a man whose first public appearance was performing an extended version of The Lord’s Prayer featuring a pre Sex Pistols Sid Vicious on drums. That was at the 100 Club’s punk festival, an event which the former editor of Melody Maker recalled as something that put him off Siouxsie and the Banshees for life.
"There was nothing we could do to reinstate his faith in the band," Severin laughs. "So we did some good."
It took considerably longer for Severin to grow tired of the band. By that time he’d become its unofficial musical director, and was more prone to work on his computer than jam in traditional rock style. Severin had already scored Visions Of Ecstasy, Nigel Wingrove’s 1989 short based on the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila. That film became something of a cause celebre when it was refused a certificate, and the film remains unreleased. Once the band was finished, however, Severin was free to fully embrace this new direction.
"I wanted to get completely away from that lifestyle," he says, "of living 23 hours for that one hour onstage. There was no substance to it."
Severin expanded Visions of Ecstasy into a full album, formed his own label to release it and followed his instincts. This led to working with Canadian dance company Holy Body Tattoo and junkyard cabaret subversives The Tiger Lillies.
"It’s the drama of it," Severin says of the attractions of such collaborations. "I’m always attracted to things like that, where you connect with someone and one thing leads on to another."
With such dramatic inclinations, what Severin calls "the magnetism" of Edinburgh was inevitable. Indeed, Scotland has played a large part in Severin’s history, ever since the original Banshees broke up in an Aberdeen record shop while on tour. Severin went on to produce Altered Images, while the Banshees were joined by Greenock-born guitarist John McGeogh, late of Magazine. It was McGeogh who introduced Severin to Richard Jobson, then charismatic frontman of The Skids, who "thrust himself in my face in about 1979 or 1980. There was a whole gang of Scots musicians in London at that time; The Skids, Midge Ure, Billy Currie, The Zones. I kind of got corralled into that, so much so that Jobson and I shared a flat for about a year, and we’ve been friends ever since."
Some of Severin’s work was used on the soundtrack of Jobson’s Kung Fu flick, The Purifiers. By that time too Severin had become something of an Edinburgh regular through working with Shakti. That particular connection came about after an aborted collaboration with a Brazilian theatre company who’d based a work on the Marquis de Sade. A permanent move north came two and a half years ago when, for Severin and Arban, London was becoming a dangerous place.
"We’d already decided to move away before the bombs went off on the underground," Severin recalls, "We lived in Crouch End, where the nearest tube station was Finsbury Park. That was the line that was bombed, and two weeks later when they had the hoax one, my wife was actually stopped from going into Finsbury Park station because it was all closed up. So we thought, enough, let’s go."
As one of punk’s original 'Bromley contingent,' the move marked the final cutting of Severin’s umbilical links with his past. As Steven Bailey, Severin discovered The Beatles aged seven, and "very quickly became enraptured by pop music. I just loved it, and I had to find out everything and anything about the things I liked. I just used to follow links, and pick up on any kind of reference to anyone else I liked. If they mentioned anybody else I would go and check them out. I’d never heard of Iggy Pop till Bowie produced Raw Power. I liked Roxy Music, and Eno worked with John Cale, and so it went on."
Even so, up until two says before the 100 Club gig, Severin had never picked up a bass guitar in his life.
"It’s just part of the fabric now," Severin says of punk. "It’s an identifiable bookmark that people refer to. There’ve been shifts ever since, but nothing has been such an earthquake like that was. There was a vacuum to be filled, because all the people we grew up liking, like Bowie and Roxy Music, they’d all gone to America or disappeared. They weren’t playing the places we used to see them at, so there was no groundswell coming from anywhere else, and something had to happen. I think the country needed that jolt of honesty. Everybody was fed up being lied to by the Conservatives, we’d just had the three day week, and at that point this country was really sick."
Siouxsie and the Banshees reformed briefly for a tour several years ago.
"It shouldn’t have happened," says Severin, "and will never happen again. We’d moved on, and were completely different people. So I’ve no desire to step back into that milieu at all. I’m much happier where I am right now."
Even so, Severin has become the band’s archivist, overseeing re-masters of the band’s back catalogue, including material previously unreleased on CD. It’s an approach that ties in with Severin’s work on The Seashell and the Clergyman.
"There’s a lot of preserving of stuff going on," he says. "Even things that are only 20 years old, there’s an awareness that these things matter somehow. Rock and roll is still a very young medium, and whatever it becomes, I think people are aware that a heritage has already been created. Some of this stuff has really affected the way the world works, and it touches people so much that it’s worth keeping."
Beyond The Seashell and the Clergyman, "If this live stuff works I hope to do a lot more silent film work, maybe even to the extent of having a label, and inviting other people to do soundtracks. A lot of these works are ripe for it, and really feel relevant. They just need updating for a more refined audience, I think."
Other new work includes more soundtracks composed with Arban, a soundscape for a gallery in Berlin and a possible album of Jacques Brel songs with Tiger Lillies singer Martin Jacques. There’s also what may well prove to be Severin’s most haunting work to date.
"I’m doing a six part documentary series for Channel 4 about the history of finance," he confesses. "It’s hosted by the historian Niall Ferguson, and I’m having to score the Battle of Waterloo, The Merchant of Venice and the collapse of Enron. So there’s a lot of scope there to be very dark indeed."
Steven Severin performs his score for The Seashell and the Clergyman plus Music For Silents at The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, Sat May 3.
The Herald, April 26th 2008