Interview: Ari Up of The Slits
It was pretty much inevitable that Ari-Up of the seminal grrl group the Slits would be living a fairly uncommon life. Her mum Nora Forster had a kind of home for the disenfranchised, and later married Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Ari-Up joined the Slits at the age of 14, eventually touring with the Clash — most notably on the infamous “White Riot” tour — and recorded Peel sessions and two studio albums, Cut and Return of the Giant Slits.
While the Slits split in 1981, they have regrouped recently, producing more of their fucked up, experimental tribal, reggae, punky sounds. Verbicide contributor Maki interviewed the still super-sexy Ari-Up, who tells us of her life in a sometimes barely decipherable German/Patois accent.
So can we start off with the Slits being reunited?
Well, the Slits aren’t being reunited — it’s more like a “new Slits,” but it is a continuation of the old Slits. We are mixing old school with new school, obviously, because me and Tessa are the old original Slits, and then we have new girls. We were ahead of time anyway, and we never finished what we set out to accomplish. Basically it’s just a continuation of where the Slits left off.
What kind of sound is the new Slits?
With the Slits, the sound was always a hybrid; it was experimental, putting lots of flavors together. We have no real limits. We just do anything we feel like, and also the “female ingredients” are very strong, so it comes out very different. Even if the old stuff is one way, the new stuff is the same in that whatever is around us is going to take part in our music. In the old days, there was only dub, reggae, and culture reggae, and we integrated it into punk, funk, and the tribal rhythms. We would do that now, but [also] include, of course, electronic sounds and all the things that are going on now.
How has being in Jamaica affected your outlook on music?
Well, it’s never really changed because I already had a lot of influences in England; there was such a big connection with reggae, and the rebellious movement going on at the time, amongst West Indians, Jamaicans, and reggae music, but also with punk. So I mixed it back there, and going to Jamaica was just an extra step — it takes it deeper. It’s just a continuation of the natural circle of the life of the Slits.
In the beginning, how did you get into the Jamaican sound?
There was no music that we could relate to, and the only thing we were doing at the time was bashing out our punk stuff, or whatever you want to call it. If there were [punk] bands, no one was signed. So reggae was one of the few [type of music] that was around to listen to, so that’s how we got into it.
How about now? What aspects of reggae are important now?
I find that the modern revolution of reggae is very important. That very high-energy, raw, rebellious sound — that’s really something I can relate to.
When making tracks how does that come about?
All my tracks are based on everyday life. What I feel, what I experience, what the other people experience.
What’s the actual process of creating a track?
Usually, I would start with the drum machine, put [down] my own bass lines, make the track, and then put the lyrics on it. Or, I make the lyrics first, with the melody, then put the rhythm around that. So it’s not strictly one [method]; it just depends on how it comes about.
So are you concentrating more on your own stuff (the New Age Steppers) or the Slits?
Both, both, they are both a part of me. With the New Age Steppers, you can hear a lot of the Slits in the songs, then you can hear something that is totally Ari-Up. So they all integrate, the two of them into one.
What exactly is your lifestyle? You seem to flit around Jamaica, then New York, and also the UK.
I’m a gypsy in a way. It’s in my blood, growing up as a gypsy, moving around. I’m very free-spirited; I’m really the true essence of an untamed spirit. It’s a fight, every day, every fucking day, especially as a woman. I don’t think women have come that far, because when you are being a free woman, it’s very hard.
With the early Slits days, how did it all come about, when you were 14?
Well, I was with my mum going to all the shows and she was basically keeping a home for all the punks to go to. I met Palmolive; she really stuck out in the crowd. She had a lot of energy, and had a crazy pig [earring] in her ear, which was unheard of back then — a girl wearing a pig? It was uncalled for! Girls had to be girls back then, and lady-like, and that really impressed me. She said, “Let’s do a band, I want to do a girl band, come to rehearse tomorrow.” And I said, “Okay.”
Are you still in touch with her?
No…a little bit, but, I mean, they all have their own lives now. So…
How about touring with the Clash?
Well, there was more than one tour, but the White Riot tour is the only one that anyone seems to remember! We did lots of gigs with them, too…gigging around. So we have lots of memories with them. We were like in a college, [and] they were more like colleagues, so I don’t see it from a fan’s point of view, I see it from a peer’s. Listening to them everyday, learning from each other, about life and music on tour. I was a kid, doing what I wanted to do, and having a good time, really isolated from the rest of the world, because the world just wanted to see us dead, basically. The driver was a problem, because the driver wouldn’t take the Slits on the bus, so the manager of the Clash had to bribe him. We had to give him money just to be let on the bus! We weren’t the rude ones, like the Clash — they were much ruder, but just because we were girls, it was too much for their driver — he was a really straight, typical guy, Chauvinist pig-type of person.
I’m sorry, you probably get asked this to death…but can you comment on that album cover for Cut?
We were never trying to be controversial. We were in the country, doing the album, we were eating a lot, which is why our bellies are big. We were actually quite slim, all of us! We were in the country that month being fed lots of good food. We ate ourselves to death. Then we heard that someone is going to come and take pictures, maybe, possibly for an album cover, so we thought, “Okay, let’s just roll around in the mud.” We wanted something tribal, and something to represent how we were feeling at the time, so we thought that was great, certainly not to be controversial. All real controversial bands are never trying to be controversial, because then it becomes pretentious. They all be who they want to be, and express themselves, and then for some reason people say it’s too much for them to handle.
What kind of person are you? Who is Ari?
I’m too many things as one. I like music and art and clothes; I like animals and children, being young and being old, and being natural and traditional, but being modern. All of that is in me. The most important thing in my life is my children, the Slits, and the music. Someday I want to be a producer, discovering artists and helping them get out, and I would like to be a film director one day. I would like to make the movie of the Slits.