The Slits band members.

Slits Tradition: A Revolutionary Interview with Ari Up

Music Interviews

Ari Up grew up in 1970s London, and at the age of 14 formed the band that would eventually become The Slits, one of the most seminal and influential punk bands of all time. Their first tour was alongside The Clash in 1977 and their monumental album Cut was released two years later.

The Slits released a second album, Return of the Giant Slits, before disbanding in 1981. Up, who lives in both Kingston, Jamaica and Brooklyn, has joined up with her old bassist and a few new girls and decided to reform the legendary band. I had the privilege of interviewing Up, and she was lovely and enthusiastic–-just what I’d hoped from such a pioneer of punk rock.

SLUG: Have you seen any positive or negative changes in the way women are treated in the music industry? Do you think they’re still seen as something of a novelty?

Ari: I think the mission is clearly unaccomplished. The Slits had a great impact, but if there was a little more space for us to meet the demand of where we were heading for music and for women, and if more people would have known about it at the time, I think we would have established more ground. Now, I think women are still struggling basically as much as we did.

Not much has changed, you know what I mean? And that’s why we are so important, to come back and accomplish that mission. I think The Slits are a great missing link in the industry. For things to change, there has to be room not just for women but for men, too, because men will be influenced and inspired.

But specifically women, of course, just to do what the fuck they want to do, and that’s obviously not really happening. You know what? There’s going to be a revolution. If The Slits really take off like they did the first time…there’s this whole underground movement going on right now, so there would be more of a support system now than there was back then. We were too ahead of the time back then and it was such a shock to people. There’s going to be a revolution. There’s going to be a fucking revolution.

SLUG: Yeah … with all the bad music that’s coming out these days …

Ari: I don’t think the music is as bad, it’s the bloody behavior–having people totally compromise their spirits. There is a lot of bad music, but there’s good music to choose from all of the bad music. When hip-hop started, remember, it was very revolutionary…but look at it now.

Although I have to say, the music’s very good; even though it’s pop music, the rhythms are brilliant. The hip-hop beats are brilliant, but it’s the attitude–it’s just so lame and not rebellious. So that’s really the issue of what the industry has done to people. It’s made artists compromise, saying ‘Let’s do this,’…it’s really an easy way out. You can still have good music coming out, but will it be revolutionary?

SLUG: So what was it like performing as The Slits? I know you’ve got Tessa [Pollitt] back on bass, but the rest of the band is new.

Ari: Yeah, Tess hasn’t changed, she’s in the saddle with the bass as always. She’s got that touch, that feel, that very Slits-y style of playing. We’ve got four new girls, all in their 20s, and wow, they’re great, because we’re playing a mix of old school and new school. We’re showing that the roots are there, and we’re not straying from The Slits, but we’re modern and keeping up-to-date; we’re not just a vintage thing. There’s no way that would work because The Slits have never really come to the forefront anyway … we need to [start] being new again.

SLUG: I read in an interview that you said people are hesitant because they don’t know how to categorize your music. Why do you think they’re so eager to label you?
Ari: Good question…let’s separate that into the past and now. There’s a slight difference because in the past it was such a shocker, being the way we were, ahead of time and different like that. They had a problem labeling us…this was before alternative music, before drum n’ bass, before [music] exploded into different directions.

So when we were so unique, they only had punk to hold onto. We came out during the punk movement; we were born into that revolution. We were naturally punky, of course…[but] in a very Slits-y, unique way. We came out with punk, got labeled with the punk label, but yet they couldn’t quite categorize us…[but over time] there was a unique Slits sound that people caught on to.

So people can’t really label us, because it’s just a Slits sound. Why are they obsessed with labeling us? Because they’re obsessed with everything being labeled. They don’t want to say that The Slits are responsible for a whole revolution of looks, outlooks in life, music…they don’t want to admit that.

SLUG: How long have you been living in Jamaica, and how has that changed your perspective?
Ari: The first time I went to Jamaica was just around the time [The Slits] broke up. One of my biggest influences is reggae…whatever we do, there’s always that reggae thing in there somewhere along the line. Even if you don’t directly hear it, even if you don’t have a direct reggae sound, something is in there. It’s a Slits sound…I’m having a hard time describing it myself. (Laughs)

SLUG: You’re performing in Jamaica under the name Madussa. How would you compare that sound to what you’re doing with The Slits?

Ari: It is very different. Because the reggae sound that’s happening here is so revolutionary and so different…the Japanese are very smart and they caught onto it; the Japanese came over one by one and they’re all living in Kingston–not as tourists, as dancehall fanatics. [The Slits] are planning on throwing in the new Jamaican sound when we make our album. [Also] if Madussa’s in The Slits as Ari Up, it’s going to rub over. Madussa does mostly dancehall music. It will be very interesting because Madussa wants to mix in some of The Slits’ sound, plus vice versa.

SLUG: Are you releasing any albums as Madussa?
Ari: I did release an album, but I put it out as Ari Up [Dread More Dan Dead]. I figured I’d have more following under Ari Up, but in a way I think I should have highlighted the Madussa thing more. So now I will. There are two songs on [the solo album] that are very much like Madussa songs.

SLUG: Are you looking forward to touring North America next month?
I would prefer it if The Slits got out of England and came to America. I think the reception would be better…in Europe, they’re always trying to be cool. In America, thanks to the riot girl movement, they’ve given us so much credit and made The Slits bigger than life. That’s when the mythology of The Slits started, because of the riot grrl movement in the 1990s.

They made a website called Typical Girls, which was also the name of a song on our [1979] album Cut. It’s not just the 90s movement–there are also the new girls, like 18 to 20 year olds, the young ones…I think we’re covering a whole ground of different generations that are coming up.

The Slits’ new three-song EP, Revenge of the Killer Slits, is out now on S.A.F. Records.