Jan Svenungsson

"A Conceptual Bass Player", in: We are all normal (and we want our freedom), ed. Katya Sander & Simon Sheikh, Black Dog Publishing 2001

I suppose anyone who works in an artistic field has experienced moments when the world and its possibilities suddenly appeared in a glorified light.

Myself, I remember having listened many times to the Siouxsie & the Banshees song Placebo Effect when it suddenly dawned on me that Steven Severin plays the same bass-line throughout the whole song, not bothering to change when the rest of the music changes. And not only there. On the following songs on the album Join Hands he goes on in the same way. And we aren’t talking about feats of technical complexity. No, these bass-lines are extremely minimal: two or four bars long, consisting of three notes played straight with a pick, one or at most two notes a bar, then back again to the beginning ... as if he was obsessed by the idea of not changing.

What a superbly free mind, I remember thinking then. And the reflection recurs now, much later, as I observe that certain fascinations never go away.

Everyone who has at one point wanted to play in a rock band – without any musical background – knows that the bass is commonly seen as the easiest instrument to begin with.

It’s because you can play very simplistically and still do some good things: thumping along with the root note of the guitar chord, like a dog on a leash. It’s easy to find where to put your fingers on the neck of a bass guitar. As you get better, you can play a few extra notes, and later on you’ll probably try some syncopation. It is a whole different matter to be able to go on playing like you did at the very beginning – long after you’ve achieved perfect control of your instrument.

About a year after my discovery of the minimalistic bass-lines on Join Hands I read an interview with Siouxsie & the Banshees where Severin makes the following statement:

– I never practice. I don’t want to get better – then I would no longer have to think.

This statement made a strong impression on me. I was both disturbed and inspired. Can a bass player be conceptual?

When I realized just what Steven Severin was doing down in the depths of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ music, his achievements took on an identity and luminosity that stood in direct contrast to the minimalism of their expression.

Steven Severin remained faithful to his credo. If you listen through the albums of Siouxsie & the Banshees you’ll notice that he was able, with admirable consistency, to continue constructing and playing bass–lines that always had a strong identity and simultaneously came across as coolly calculated, using a minimum of effort at any given moment.

When someone who always dresses in black appears one day in a red shirt and green trousers, the effect will be strong. When Severin, from his obstinately repetitive position in the depths of the sound, suddenly replaces a couple of notes, or just changes octave – the effect can be one of far–reaching beauty.

In the mythology of Siouxsie & the Banshees, the story of their beginning is fundamental. During a punk festival at the 100 Club in London, in the autumn of 1976, Siouxsie, Severin, Sid Vicious and a guitarist named Marco went up on stage and – without prior rehearsals – performed a twenty-minute improvisation with the title The Lord’s Prayer. Neither Siouxsie nor Severin had ever made music before. It must have sounded awful. Many concerts did in 1976. What makes this occasion special is that Siouxsie and Severin took themselves and their experience so seriously that from this moment on they knew exactly what they wanted to do. They immediately began basic research on how to play and compose music (Sid Vicious was swiftly disposed of). In less than a year they were to become a professional band touring all over England.

It’s ironic that the visual appearance of this group was often more likely to be discussed than their essentially far more radical musical constructions.

In the course of the band’s career a number of media-technological inventions were introduced, innovations that radically widened the playing field for various creative practices. Computers began to make their mark in the eighties. Introduced in the first half of the decade, the sampler allowed the musician to borrow any sound and play it from a keyboard. From the same keyboard he or she could programme machines to play whatever else was wanted. In a way it had now become possible to make music without ‘being able to play’ ... just as the visual artist, after Marcel Duchamp, could choose to express him/herself by giving already existing objects (or photographs, or whatever) new names, and making them bearers of his/her meaning.

Successful musical and artistic expression today is much more dependent on being able to think well, and on really understanding the possibilities of the medium you choose to work with – rather than on demonstrating mastery of the practical manipulation of various tools.

By this I don’t mean to say that skill is not rewarded – but the skills you look for have changed character and become intellectual rather than manual, flexible rather than absolute. The first time Marcel Duchamp took an everyday object and with nothing but his words changed it into a work of art – on that day the conditions for artistic expression were changed forever.

To be able to use this development to get positive results, it’s more necessary than ever for the creative person to be clear about WHAT he or she is after – now when the synthesizer can play generic music endlessly ... until somebody pulls the plug.

In the field of visual art notions like concept and context have been discussed for much longer than in popular music (if they’ve been discussed at all there) – but they have had a different kind of practical impact. The impact of the computer on visual art has – so far – not been as far-reaching as in music. This is because visual art has not yet grown together symbiotically with a reproduction technology – as popular music has with the recording studio (although popular music is an area that is rather difficult to delimit).

The true quality of Steven Severin’s bass–lines would have been hard to establish without the possibility of listening to recorded music over and over again.

It’s one thing to speculate on how music and art have arisen and developed. It’s quite another thing to create them. Conscious innocence can’t be maintained indefinitely. One day innocence, conscious or unconscious, is no more. Even if the attitude were to remain the same, conditions change, and with them the efforts you have to make to keep your interest alive.

In 1988 Siouxsie & the Banshees had a success with a song called Peek-a-Boo. The basic track is recorded backwards: the group first learned to play what they wanted so it would sound right – but only when the tape was played back in the wrong direction. In concerts they play a version that mimics the reversed tape – but without the help of a tape recorder. Minimalism is no longer Steven Severin’s sole challenge.

In 1996 – after 20 years, 15 albums and an untold number of concerts and tours – an official statement was released saying that Siouxsie & the Banshees had ceased to exist.

Had their musical skill finally become so vast that it was no longer possible to continue?

Jan Svenungsson