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An Acoustic Skunk Anansie - Live In London

In the days and weeks leading up to Skunk Anansie's first ever full acoustic live concert, vocalist Skin found herself experiencing an unfamiliar feeling: a gnawing sense of trepidation about what lay ahead.
"I was having something of a crisis of confidence," the front-woman admits. "A lot of singers don't like their voice as much as everybody else likes it, and for a little while, I was feeling insecure about just how scarily exposed my voice was going to be when all the noise that traditionally envelops our songs was stripped away. It was like, 'Okay, I know I can sing very loud, but can I sing very quietly?'"

That question is answered in the most emphatic terms by “An Acoustic Skunk Anansie - Live In London”, an exquisite rendering of a very special evening for the British rock band. Taped on April 15, 2013 at Belgravia's storied Cadogan Hall, home of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the recording sees the quartet serving up beautifully re-imagined versions of some of their best-loved songs before an enrapt audience of 900 fans. An intimate portrait of a band boldly toying with convention and their own illustrious history, it's a timely reminder that, even as Skunk Anansie approach their 20th anniversary as a band, the Londoners retain the power to provoke and surprise.

"As a band, we've kinda done everything at this point," guitarist Ace notes, "so you start to think about what you can offer that's fresh and different. We've never recorded a live rock album, but there are so many clips of our TV performances and festival appearances on YouTube now that we wondered if that concept is now redundant. But the idea of playing a full acoustic show was something completely new in the career of Skunk Anansie and something no-one had seen before. And doing something new is always exciting."

As with some of the best ideas, the notion of Skunk Anansie playing a full acoustic concert grew, says Skin, out of a series of happy accidents. In April 2012, while DJ-ing at an aftershow party at Zermatt Unplugged, Europe's only acoustic music festival, the singer was asked by the Swiss festival's organisers whether her band would ever consider playing the event. The conversation sparked off a discussion within the group which soon snowballed into a grander, more ambitious, plan.

"We realised that in order to play the show we'd have to completely re-work the songs," says Skin. "We've done lots of one song acoustic performances for radio over the years, but this was going to take more work than our one annual day of rehearsals! So then we decided upon doing two gigs, one at Zermatt festival and one in London. And once we'd agreed on that, Mark [Richardson, SA drummer] said 'Can I film it with a proper crew?' And so then we thought 'Well, if we're going to film it, we'll have to record it really well.' So suddenly you get to the point where it's this whole other thing! But the more we talked, the more the idea excited us, because it was a proper leap into the unknown."

"It was actually a massive challenge musically," Ace explains. "You have to go through the songs and see which ones will work acoustically - some of our best known songs really don't, because they're built around big riffs - and then you have to rearrange them: shortening sections and simplifying parts and rewriting the chords and reworking the strings, which we asked Wil Malone (Massive Attack, Depeche Mode) to do. Our band hates rehearsing, but we knew we had to really push ourselves this time to get something unique."

Originally, the concert was conceived as an invite-only event to be held at the world-famous Abbey Road Studios, but the band were adamant that the occasion should be made accessible to fans: all 900 tickets for the gig were duly snapped up within hours of going on sale. The result was an evening that neither the band, or those lucky enough to be in attendance will ever forget.
"It was really special," says Skin. "It showcased a whole new side to the band. When you strip everything back a lot of the beauty and vulnerability and menace of the songs shines through in totally new ways, the nuances of the writing really comes through. And people were really listening, really concentrating, instead of jumping up and down and stagediving as is the norm at our concerts. Even though most of the audience had probably seen us play before, at some points it must have been as if they were hearing the band for the very first time."

Drawing upon material from all five of Skunk Anansie's studio albums (plus the “Smashes And Trashes” compilation, released in 2009 to celebrate the band's return from a nine year hiatus), “An Acoustic Skunk Anansie - Live In London” is an astonishing document of the night. From bruised and beautiful set opener 'Brazen (Weep)' through to the funky, Zeppelin-esque stomp of 'Charlie Big Potato' which brought the evening to a euphoric climax, it's a unique snapshot of an iconic band performing at the peak of their powers. By turns haunting, vulnerable, confrontational and menacing, the band's takes of love and loss, recrimination and revenge are reframed in startling, stark new forms, distilled down to their purest essence. The late Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard once opined that all the best songwriting could be summarised as 'three chords and the truth': re-contextualised here in acoustic form, Skunk Anansie's open-hearted anthems have never sounded more powerful or affecting. As a bonus, the band - expanded for the evening with the addition of a string section, Skin's long-time songwriting foil Len Arran on guitar and Mark Richardson's wife Erika on backing vocals - also serve up a spine-tingling take on Paul Weller's 'You Do Something To Me' (a highlight of The Modfather's acclaimed 'Stanley Road' collection) which proves beautifully suited to Skin's honeyed vocals.

"We never really do covers, so we thought we'd try something special," says Skin. "I love Paul Weller, and when 'Stanley Road' came out I just played it to death, and this is one of my all-time favourite songs. A lot of my favourite songs I could never imagine singing in a million years, not because they're untouchable, but because they don't sound good with my voice, but this one just felt right. And I just really, really loved singing it. Again, it's something new and unexpected for us."

"The whole night was completely nerve-wracking," laughs Ace. "No-one gets filmed and recorded playing songs they've just written, which was effectively how it felt for us, so that's a terrifying idea. You walk offstage and think 'Was that okay?' because the perspective is different when you're sitting onstage and really concentrating on your own playing. But when we watched the DVD we realised that it really captured the vibe of the night. It was all so fresh that the performance had a real vitality and newness about it, and that energy and excitement is impossible to fake. Obviously we're proud of every album we've made, but I think this one is truly something special."

"As artists, it's important for us to keep moving forward," adds Skin, in a final reflection upon both the night and a future yet unwritten for her band. "We've effectively done three albums in four years, and for us it's all about 'What have you done for me lately?' That's what the music business seems to be about too. So we've stepped up and challenged ourselves and took a risk and hopefully delivered something really fresh. It's nice to have a new string to our bow. And, who knows, it might be interesting to explore this further..."

An Acoustic Skunk Anansie - Live In London” will be released in September through Boogooyamma and earMUSIC.

Black Traffic "I think it's good to have a little anxiety about the standard of music you’re trying to create, it drives us to know that you're only as good as your last record" impassions iconic Skunk Anansie front-woman Skin. "We have that insecure thing inside about everything we do, always asking yourself if it could be better. Other bands [put out average records] all the time, but we feel that if we put out something without great songs we would not survive."
Skin's fighting talk may be a telling example of the evident fire burning in the belly of Skunk Anansie, but rest-assured, their newest efforts are far from average.

'Black Traffic' – the band's sixth full-length release, named after the dark channels that wrap around the world, is the band’s third album after they got back together in 2009 after a nine-year hiatus. It’s the product of a lengthy and experimental process that saw the quartet rip up their own self-determined rulebook and start again. Written over a year and a half of month long sessions in London and LA ("It was nice to go to LA" notes Skin before jokingly adding, tongue in cheek, that "We had a great studio for a few years that was inspiring but kinda mouldy with black mushrooms and crap, we loved it but did get to the point where we said ‘We're not a student band; we want air-conditioning, heating and toilet roll!’") and recorded with long-time friend of the band, the great Chris Sheldon (Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro), it's an album that stands alongside the aggressive, forthright output of the Skunk Anansie cannon yet technically ups their game dramatically.

"We recorded this album in a completely different way than we've done before" the singer explains. “We threw down a template, recorded some basic tracks, then deconstructed the whole thing. If you want to experiment and you record it live it limits you because you get too much spillage in the sound so it’s hard to mess about and move stuff around, so we recorded everything quite separately so we could sample things and turn them upside down. Our main task was to keep the music vibrant and to not lose any emotion or feeling, but to still be able to go buck wild with our ideas. When you start sampling things it often sounds quite cold, but we wanted something fresh, fat and warm and full of life yet still individual." Lyrically too, 'Black Traffic' finds the group in customarily confrontational form, yet with a new sense of refinement - as Skin notes herself, "Our energy hasn't changed, but we say things more concisely and we've worked out the way to hit harder if we want to. We've honed our force-field, our sword goes straight for the heart."

The force field they've honed here is one that acutely taps in to the current political landscape and connects itself to their own social surroundings. Many regurgitated bands exist in a regressive, nostalgic state, but Skunk Anansie are very much present in the here and now without losing the core of who they are. From 'I Believed In You', which notes the disappointment many feel about their elected politicians ("I think a lot of people feel let down by their leaders. Everybody wants us to vote, but who for? They all fuck up because eventually it becomes more about keeping their positions of power than elevating the position of their country”). 'This Is Not A Game' - a hard-hitting comment on how we are all effected by the consequences of the current financial crisis, Skin, Cass, Mark and Ace have written a record that faces their social preoccupations head-on and comes out fighting. "Don't try to mess with me I'll train you like a hound" howls the taut mission statement of 'I Will Break You' - a gutsy declaration of empowerment and in-your-face lust that opens the record with an almighty roar. 'Sad Sad Sad' continues the visceral attack, kicking off on a throbbing, Queens Of The Stone Age-recalling bass-line before erupting into a powerhouse chorus that spits with aggressive energy yet retains a catchy, hook-laden sensibility, whilst 'Our Summer Kills The Sun' shows the group's softer side with Skin's inimitable howl reigned in to a more fragile strength about our delicate earth. 'I Hope You Get To Meet Your Hero', meanwhile, talks of the disappointment of being let down by your own distorted elevated aspirations and ego, whilst the album's closing gambit 'Diving Down' rounds off 'Black Traffic' in sweeping, atmospheric style. Combined, you get a wide-reaching record that hits hard but also, crucially, knows when to step back and take a breath.

Of course, when it comes to their live show, stopping for breath isn't in Skunk Anansie's vocabulary. Famed for their intense delivery and high-octane performance (a recent review in The Independent wrote that "Skin's distinctive voice moves between beautiful, gentle melodies and piercing almost-screams... every song is made even more potent through the passion of each performance"), 'Black Traffic' will surely only add more fuel to the quartet's live fire. Handy, as they'll be hitting the road again for a 20-date European tour, culminating in a home-town show at London's Brixton Academy on December 1st.

'Black Traffic' will also act as an introduction to Boogooyamma - the group's newly established record label. The label will release 'Black Traffic' as its inaugural output, realising a long-held ambition of the band's to maximise creative control and "finally [be] out of the hands of others". It exemplifies Skunk Anansie's progressive approach. Throw them a reunion cash cow and they'll stick two fingers up and get back in the studio. Wail about the music industry waning (let's not forget that when the band first came out, CD sales were in fruitful health), and they'll find a way to make it work for them.

“When you've always been the ‘outsiders’, then a little change is just another thing to take in your stride, a lot of greatness is born from our hardest struggles”

"When we first were a band we wanted to fit in with the cool kids and then we very quickly realised the cool kids aren't actually cool at all", Skin smiles. "For us, we've always liked being our own scene; we enjoy not fitting in, that's where we thrive. When you're not part of a clique you end up understanding more of your own soul. We've always stayed true to ourselves and we are what we are. We're just Skunk Anansie." And that'll do nicely.