Photo: Jules Annan

Taking Back Control: An Interview with the Selecter

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the “Queen” of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends
the Selecter and universally recognised “Queen of Ska”, it is something she seems to take in her stride. “People can call you whatever they like,” she tells PopMatters, “so I suppose it’s better that they call you something really good!”

Almost four decades since the rise of British ska, Black (born Belinda Magnus) and the Selecter have been busy. They’ve recently finished a US tour supporting Rancid (“that was absolutely fantastic … Tim Armstrong, what a lovely man!”) and have just released
Daylight, their fifth album since the band reformed in 2010. However, a lot has changed since the band’s heyday and one could suggest that thanks to the mid-’90s rise of jocular bands such as Sublime and Reel Big Fish, the legitimacy of the ska genre could easily be called into question and it’s an image that Black seems eager to distance herself from.

“I think the main reason why we’ve endured for the last 40 years is because we were actually part of the Two-Tone movement. It got a bit depressing when ska went through that phase of wearing shorts and silly hats onstage,” she laughs. “I parted company with the third wave of ska.”

Daylight on the other hand, is an album full of politically-charged tracks that reflect the anxiety of the times we live in, casting a light on international racial injustice yet never straying from the classic Two-Tone sound to which the Selecter were one of the main original contributors. Though their heyday hits such as “On the Radio” and “Too Much Pressure” form the bread-and-butter of the band’s current live show (“I have no problem at all with singing the early hits — they seem just as relevant today.”), Black feels it is still her duty to write and release music that proudly demonstrates the relevancy of ska in the modern age.

“I think the idea of Two-Tone and its anti-racist, anti-sexist stance is as true now as it was back in 1979 and even in some ways truer, with all the revelations that are coming out now about all kinds of issues,” Black notes. “I think that we’ve always been there, we’ve always had a message which seemed to ring true for all time, therefore, you remain current with that message … and also it’s damn fine music!”

The message of the album seems to be one of both awareness and desperation, and along with bandmates Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson (vocals) and Neil Pyzer-Skeete (horns and production) Black has written a collection of songs that reflect this sense of distress, with the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU, of course, being a major influence

“The album was written in the wake of the Brexit vote in our country which we feel very strongly about,” Black says. “We feel that we’re probably better off being economically and fraternally joined with Europe and all that that entails. Why not break down national boundaries? I feel they separate people more than anything.”

The lyrics and video for lead single “Frontline” depict a (slightly heavy-handed) message of widespread and dangerous mindless consumerism which Black attests is exacerbated by the ease of access to funds available to the general public.

“Social media has definitely changed the world and the way we relate to each other and lots of people are very vulnerable. They may have no money but there’s always the line to easy credit and that whole way that people are bombarded by images with easy access to stuff that we don’t need. It just swamps people with debt. Imagine, the US is trillions in debt, we are here too. It comes back on working people.’

The working class has always been the demographic to which ska has been aimed, and the Selecter have always sought to highlight social problems that have affected it but these days they are drawing inspiration from more than just problems in their homeland.

“We’ve very much been taking on board the things that have been happening in the US with the whole racist aspect of shootings black males that are unarmed and very young,” Black notes. “All of these issues and we have the same problems in Britain. The rise of the far right, both in America and Europe as well and what they believe is the complete antithesis of what Two Tone was set up to say, the message that we wanted to spread.”

Though Black’s tone suggests she is deeply passionate about her music and the message she wishes to convey, one could easily forget that fronting one of the UK’s most renowned ska bands has not always been her occupation, nor her sole creative endeavor.

“After the demise of the first Selecter [the band broke up in 1981] I had the opportunity to get into some acting,” Black reflects. “I did that for about 10 years. I suppose the most important thing I did was portray Billie Holiday onstage in London which was a huge plus for me. I’d always been a fan when people hadn’t really heard of her. I even won an award that John Malkovich presented me and I was highly pleased about that.”

However, she seems to relish her position as the Queen of Ska, and when asked if she’s stayed in touch her fellow members of the British Two-Tone movement, Black lights up with enthusiasm.

“Some of the Specials still live in Coventry!” she beams. “When we were over playing with Rancid, Lynval Golding [the Special’s rhythm guitarist] actually turned up one night to see us and actually came onstage for ‘Too Much Pressure’. We were hugely pleased about that, we’ve known him forever, at least 38 years. He was very instrumental in getting people together to form the Selecter in the first place. I always call him the Henry Kissinger of ska! He seems to go around like a diplomat. You may know from some of the history of these bands that diplomacy is not our strong point.”

When talking to Black it quickly becomes clears seems like she could talk for hours about her experience and passion for Two-Tone, but when questioned about her regal title, she appears to be most humble, expressing that she feels she is unfit to wear the crown.

“For my money, I would call Dorreen Shaffer ‘The Queen of Ska.’ She’s just such a lovely lady, I saw her a few months ago she has this wonderful girly voice. I don’t know how she does it and keeps up with the heavy touring schedule of the Skatellites. If anyone deserves the title of the Queen of Ska, I think it’s her.”

From our conversation, it appears that, though 40 years into the game, Black has no intention of slowing down. Her enthusiasm for her ska and the message it conveys is infectious, and though the times we’re living in seem racked with instability, she seems optimistic about the future of her genre.

“When we were on tour with Rancid I was certainly very taken with a young ska band called the Interrupted. I thought they were really great. Great stage presence, a great girl singer and even the way they look. They’ve really paid attention. I try and listen to new music, like FKA Twigs or Ghost Poet, but my first love is alway ska and reggae.”