Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Ari Ups the Stakes

Written by Jesse Sposato
Photos by Jason Rodgers
Makeup by Veronica Liljeblad
Ari Up tells stories of the punk days the way your grandmother might reminisce about meeting your grandfather. They are mostly based on truth but the kind that has been filtered and glamorized through memory and time. Whatever her formula is, it doesn’t matter—her tales are irresistible, her laugh and giant personality infectious. (Ari’s personality was, in fact, so huge and infectious that there are points in this interview when Jason Rodgers, our photographer, and Veronica Reid, our makeup artist, couldn’t help but join in the conversation.)

Meeting Ari Up reinforced the true meaning of punk to me; not punk in the stereotypical Clash T-shirt and tight leather jacket wearing sense, but the kind where gender stereotypes are defied, all the rules are broken, there is no holding back, and no pretending to be anyone other than exactly who the fuck you are. Ari inspired me without giving me unrealistic expectations to live up to. She is real and flawed, and while I’m hesitant to use the term role model (ever), I do admire her courage, bravery, and confidence. 

I had waited impatiently my entire adolescence for someone to liberate me in this exact way before realizing that the key may just be to figure out how to do it for myself. I started Sadie around the very idea that I wanted girls to know to fight for their lives, to push all boundaries, to be true to themselves. Here Ari Up was before me doing just that, reassuring me I had chosen the right path. So, thank you to Ari Up and the Slits for setting the precedent of truly being who you are and not apologizing for what makes you unique.

Jesse: OK, I’m gonna start from the beginning, the early days….How did the band first form, and what were your intentions and expectations for it?

Ari: Well, we first formed…I met Palmolive, the drummer, at a Clash gig. Everyone keeps saying it’s a Patti Smith gig…but I want to just correct that. No, it was a Clash gig!

My mom used to take me to the spots…They wear school uniforms in London, so I always had to throw off [my] uniform real quick to put on regular little girl clothes at the time, you know. I had no clue what I was walking into. And when I saw the Clash, [they weren’t] even as impressive that night as the audience…The audience, the girls really, they were amazing cuz the stuff that they wore, it’s never seen [now].

They wore these sweaters that Vivienne Westwood made in the sex shop in Chelsea. She had a shop called SEX with Malcolm McLaren and everyone used to go there just to hang out but not necessarily to buy stuff cuz, you know,…most of us wouldn’t dare to shop in a boutique. Even if it was a punk boutique, the only punk boutique at the time, we wouldn’t be caught shopping there. But my mom bought a bunch of sweaters that were very…every punk had one.

Everyone had those sweaters at the time…You find somebody from that time, they know what I mean…They go really long like a mini so the girls at the gig would wear them like a mini with some crazy Dr. Martens or some crazy heels…[You] can’t imagine how that looked, you know, coming from the hippie times when everyone was a hippie, and then to see these people, it’s like out of this world with torn up stockings and torn up tights….

We looked like we were gonna kill people, but we weren’t. We were very harmless actually. We were just the least violent people, all of us. When I mean all of us, the little circle of the punk days back then, the few groups that were out, it was just a hundred of us in a small circle….

Jesse: So you met Palmolive at that Clash show…

Ari: Right!...And then she said, “Listen,…we gotta do this. I’ve got a vision. I go out with Joe Strummer.” [So I] found out she…was [Joe Strummer’s] girlfriend, and you know Joe was in a band before the Clash…She was his girlfriend before the Clash, but they were still really tight, so…he sort of stood by Palmolive to say, “Listen, get it together.” He was like, “Get a girl band, it’s good.”…So I was a school girl and then she said, “What do you like?” Oh, I like Abba [laughs].

Jesse: Amazing.

Ari: I did. I liked Abba. I liked all kinds of people, musically.  But I couldn’t relate to anyone, mentally. I had no women to relate to, no people on the whole, guys and girls. So she said, “Well I wanna make a girl band. Are you in for it?” Cuz she knew that my mom was this big promoter chick.

She was not just a promoter…she was the home base for all of us to go…Essentially, everyone needed to have somewhere to hide or to be comfortable. There [weren’t] any clubs, don’t forget…Most of the clubs banned everybody. We were banned the minute we were called the Slits. We could barely play anywhere. So the only places we got to really play were the town halls that we hired and…some movie theaters that we hired to do a gig, also.

Jesse: Oh, wow….

Ari: …So then [Palmolive] said, “Just be in a girl band,” you know. So, I’m like, OK. So the next day, that was it. That was the Slits. I went to rehearse and took the mic and sung “Blitzkrieg Bop” [by] the Ramones, and then Palmolive had a whole bunch of songs already…And so we were rehearsing instantly with the old bass player. We didn’t find Tessa till later….

…The Slits got a story written in ’76 [in News of the World] the minute we started rehearsing…We were already famous because of the Clash and the Pistols and everybody around us and being that we were the first girls, cuz don’t forget, there was only the Runaways.

Jesse: I was going to ask you, did the Runaways influence you guys at all?

Ari: No way! We only respected the Runaways because we heard they were this American chick band…and we liked how they sounded, and we thought, that’s cool that there’s a girl band. But then we met them and we found out about them, and the only one I really respected was Joan Jett…We were disappointed with them because they were big [based on] an image…

And so of course we weren’t influenced by them because they were doing heavy metal, [they were] in a totally different environment, and they [we]re not from our revolution. But they were at least drum, bass, guitar. But why I say we’re the first girl band, really not just the first punk girl band…is because no guys put us together.

Jesse: Yeah…

Ari: And nobody told us to hold our guitars at our crotches, like, [yells] we’re trying to be like guys. Look at us, we’re tough! Look at us, yeaaah. We can be just like men. If I want…that kind of wannabe-like-man-sexy-heavy metal type thing, then I listen to Suzi Quatro [laughs].

Jesse: Yeah, totally.

Ari: …But you know, all through life I find that…girls compete with guys. I think even now, when girl bands exist, they should [do] their best to not try and keep up with the boy bands, and [not] try to be so politically correct. Try to be just feminine by nature…You are just you…No matter how manly you are, you’re still a woman…Everybody, whether female or not female… should always try to be themselves, [but] not for the purpose of uniform[ity] and political correct[ness]. [Some female musicians are] on the defense all the time because [they]’re competing against the male market, you know?

Jesse: Right…

Ari: There’s no point in that, and that’s I think what’s so special about the Slits, that we just got together and did [it]…That [goes] back to your first question, what was the thing that we wanted to bring?

Jesse: Right…

Ari: And that was just to really be able to express ourselves without having any heroes or worshipping anyone. We could be doing anything we wanted to do, just coming from ourselves. So even if I liked…David Bowie, I wasn’t gonna be like David Bowie, you know [laughs]? Because…the whole antihero thing came in, in the punk days too.

Jesse: My next question kind of relates to that. Obviously you guys were integral in putting women making punk on the map. Were you aware of the impact you were making at the time, while you were still in it?

Ari: Yeah, totally because again with the News of the World thing, when that hit the world, that’s when we saw the article [about] the Castrators…and they show [this] nice girly-girl group of four really straight girls. We [didn’t] even know what that was…I don’t think they played any instruments though. That’s the difference…

Jesse: Right…Oh! And that’s how you got Tessa, when you read that article?

Ari: [Right], and then we got Tessa because we read the article [about] the Castrators…And then the minute we did the first gig with Tessa, we knew it impacted, not just our people…and London and our scene and the immediate media that was in our scene—it didn’t just affect them—it affected, it’s gonna affect the world.

Jesse: That’s awesome. Did it feel like a male dominated scene at the time since you guys were kind of the only girls doing what you were doing?

Ari: ….We were in one…It wasn’t a feeling. That was [a] fact.

Jesse: So what did it feel like to be a girl band in that environment?

Ari: The environment of our circle was good. Our circle…[was] all males but…they were different…[They were] our colleagues. These guys were really protecting us from the rest of the world. And there was a window in for girls…If there was ever gonna be any girl bands, they should have come out in that time because the protection and defense we got from the boys [was amazing].

And there w[ere] never any sex remarks cuz remember, I was fourteen, fifteen. None of them ever said, “Do you want to fuck me?” None of them ever got vulgar and tried anything. And none of them even tried to approach me nicely like, “Can you be my girlfriend?” you know, “Can we get together?” none of that.

Jesse: And this is the Pistols and the Clash?
Ari: Yeah, but it wasn’t just them…There was the Jam, the Damned, EDA, Subway Sect, what else?…Buzzcocks. They were all our friends. All of the boy groups were protective. They were all hanging out with us and there was totally room for us. There was nothing about male domination [in the] industry coming from our people because we were able to be in a revolution, right?

Jesse: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Ari: But the rest of the world, which was most of the people cuz we were only a small circle, like I said, it was a tiny amount of people, looking the way we did, changing culture the way we did…[was different].

Because the male dominat[ing] men said all the women who were in this male dominated, chauvinistic, sexist world…had to be subdued under [them]…For them to even get a job or be in [the music] business, they had to follow along with the guys. So either they had to do everything the guys told them, or they had to compete with the guys…[and be] just as bitchy and chauvinistic themselves.

So, it’s not just a [male dominating]…thing happening at the time…It was from women too cuz the women in society were just like the guys in that way; they had that same chauvinistic mentality.

Jesse: Right, totally….OK, this is a good one. You had a reputation for being kind of crazy and volatile in your early days. Did you feel like because you’re a woman you had to act sort of “crazy” to get attention?

Ari: Well,…I haven’t changed much [laughs]. I’m a little [more] mature, but I’m pretty much the same…It’s not [that we] (me and the other girls at that time who were doing similar things) were that crazy. It was that we were ahead of our time. We were in a different twilight zone loop.

So, people might see [me] now and say that I’m crazy—imagine if I walk on the street now or if I perform on stage or whatever I do, people would still probably say I’m crazy. I haven’t changed that much—but am I? I mean, I’m not. I’m just, I don’t think I’m really crazy….

Jesse: So that’s just peoples’ perception of you? That doesn’t really…

Ari: It’s a perception cuz we were really out there. Of course we were like, “Don’t ask [us] boring questions. Fuck you!”...Questions weren’t like [they are] now. Now the interviews are all normal and interesting and totally make sense. Back then, an interview was terrible. It was like, “Why would you be wearing those shoes?” And, “Why don’t you comb your hair?”...

…We had this [one] radio interview[er] and he ask[ed] all these really straight questions, questions we can’t relate to now…And so we started doing tribal dancing and drumming. And instead of answering his questions, and every time somebody called in and asked a stupid question, we’d be turning on the radio with some tribal music and we’d be like, “Ahh ehh ahh ehh ehh [yells and claps],” you know?

Jesse: Just like, fuck it?

Ari: Yeah,…and that was, of course, upsetting to people. I can imagine cuz it was such a male [heavy scene at the time], and there weren’t any girls, period. And then guys were well-behaved too; even the Pistols were well-behaved.

Jesse: Interesting. The media paints such a different picture of them…

Ari: Well, to a degree…If you look back at the interview that they really got exposed to the world with,…where they were interviewed by a guy who…got them to swear and…say fuck on TV,...that caused headline news the next day. Everyone knew about the Sex Pistols at that point, and then they were fired from their record label…They were just signed by a huge record label, EMI, to be a promising, new band. Then that interview happened and EMI was so embarrassed, they fired the Pistols.
But…what was great about it [was that] they weren’t able to fire them; EMI was breaching contract like that. Firing them on what grounds? So they had to give them double the money back.

Jesse: Oh my god, that’s awesome.

Ari: So all the money they got [an] advance for, for them to no longer be with EMI, they had to be reimbursed somewhat….That [was] a huge thing in history, especially in England for the Pistols, but it affected the whole punk scene.

Jesse: Yeah…

Ari: But if you…find that interview, probably 1976,…they were very, you know, quiet and the Pistols talked very nice and neatly, and the guy was just constantly…pushing them and provoking them,…and then John went like, “Ohhh…” He was gonna answer and say shit but he stopped himself cuz he realized it was live TV at the time…So the interviewer said, “Oh, go on then, what were you gonna say? Go on, go on, tell me then. Go on, say it, say it.” And John went like, “Oh no no, it’s a naughty word. I was gonna say a naughty word.” So that’s how quiet they were, and…then he said shit, and then the interviewer went off on it.

And then Steve [who] was the guitarist of the Pistols whose got no education, whose illiterate,…he could just barely spell at the time, he went off. “You dirty fucker, you fucking bastard, you bloody…” you know, he went off [laughs]!

Jesse: So, that’s where they got their reputation?

Ari: And also he went off like that because Siouxsie of [Siouxsie and] the Banshees was standing right there in the interview….[and] the bloody, dirty interviewer [looked at her and] went like,…“Oh so, you meet me later.”...Back then, guys were dirty fuckers on TV…You know how Benny Hill always had girls like that? That was nothing. We were able to laugh at that because that was actually a mocking thing, but the state of mind of people in TV at the time was [demeaning] to women.

Jesse: It was just like chauvinism was accepted?

Ari: Oh, totally. And then because she had the crazy makeup, and the crazy clothes, and the punk, she had really spiky hair at the time…He just couldn’t help himself….If that [had been] the Slits, we would have never hesitated…The Pistols took a while because John’s very…reserved so he wouldn’t say shit, and then it went off. But if we had an interview [on] live TV and [the interviewer] would have said, “Come on, then say something,” [we would have been like], “What the fuck you want us to fucking say, you fucking asshole [yells]?” You know, I would have done that immediately…So if that’s what they needed, the Slits were out there, hell yeah!

Jesse: Amazing....

Jason: What do you think about the girls now like Karen O and Beth Ditto and all these girls, even like Deerhoof or…Sleater-Kinney?

Ari: I do think the riot grrrl movement…[was] really essential…We must remember and pay tribute to them because the riot grrrls brought the Slits back in a big [way]. They made [us] a legend….

Jesse: That’s how I found out about the Slits when I was a teenager.

Ari: There you go! And so I never take that for granted. That in itself is amazing cuz the bitch Madonna wouldn’t do it. She ripped us off. She saw us at a gig, and the next day she looked like our guitarist.

Jesse: Oh my god!

Ari: She had ribbons in the hair. She had the torn up [stockings], lace everywhere, the Dr. Martens thing. That was the whole look of our guitarist, cuz we all had a different kind of look. And our guitarist had the ribbons and the laces and the rubber and the crazy gear, but she looked really street with it. And Madonna then gave it a more glossy, more tidied up look....

Jason: Like bubble gum?

Ari: Yeah, she went…mainstream [with it] kind of…And I think that Madonna should have said, “Hey, [have] you heard about the Slits?” Or put on a Slits T-shirt as a tribute or something. Or in an interview, say something the way I always big up the riot grrrls…You know, why wouldn’t [she] do that?

Jason: Yeah,…when I read an interview of someone that I love and they say I love this band, this band, and that band, I look that shit up right away.

Jesse: Totally. 

Ari: Kathleen Hanna of course, she big upped the Slits, and all of them. Of course Courtney Love cuz you know, the Slits, Hole; Hole, the Slits.

Jesse: Yeah, totally.

Ari: But she didn’t deny it. She kind of gave tribute to the Slits too….

Jesse: What made you decide to get back together with the Slits, and what has it been like?

Ari: Oh! We needed to. It’s the unfinished mission. That’s it.

Jesse: Yeah, totally. That makes sense.

Ari: It’s a short answer….

Jesse: Well, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to add?

Ari: Just how my vagina is doing, is my poom poom OK?

Jesse: Yeah. How is it?

Ari: It’s not happy at all, not happy.

Jesse: Why [laughs]?

Ari: Because I’m in this stage now, right?…where, this is very tricky, all right. It’s like in the right stage where you really want to fuck. You really want to have sex…And…you could do it like amazingly. Everything about sex there is to know, you know it now. You know every angle; you know every position; you know what to do; you know where to go…And you’re having fun with it, and you’re relaxed with it, and you enjoy it, and you need it. Here’s the problem…Don’t like to do it here and there. Want it only in a relationship…Here’s the problem. What if you don’t have a relationship, and don’t have someone?

Jesse: Mmm, yeah. Totally.

Ari: You get NO sex! Because I don’t want a one off sex, or here and there and everywhere, it doesn’t work….

Veronica: Ooh, I have a good idea: a fuck buddy. They are the best…

Ari: But the chemistry, it’s not the same because I don’t want to just fuck. There’s a certain chemistry that comes out when you’re really passionate in love…When you love someone and you’re in a relationship and you’re with…[that person] and you’re tight with them, every time you fuck, it gets tighter, and more different and you want it more. And then you start getting very creative cuz you think, well, we fucked like that yesterday, there’s no way we’re gonna fuck like that today. So you start thinking of different things all the time. Not necessarily freaky shit, I’m not talking about freaky stuff, just talking about different speeds, different levels, different positions, different, you know…

Jesse: Moods…

Ari: Moods, moods, thank you…So that’s my dilemma.

Jesse: Yeah, that sucks.

Ari: It sucks cuz back in the day, you didn’t give a shit. I didn’t really care because that’s when I had the relationships but that’s when I wasn’t that crazy about needing a sexual relationship without being a body, without being just a friend.

Jesse: Yeah, totally….So what do you do in the meantime? Do you at least have toys or something?

Ari: No! Because I hate toys. I would never try that….[But] I hardly masturbate. I have to say. Probably I get it through music then.

Jesse: Yeah…

Ari: Because music has to be very sexual. And it’s related to sex, sexuality and sex. So the Slits, when we’re on stage, it’s got to get me going.

Jesse: Right…

Ari: And if it doesn’t feel…sexy to me, like the beats turning me on and stuff, I stop the song. I tell the audience, no, I need to feel it more, and I’m not feeling it now.

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