Siobhan Duffy, 1989, credit: Eve Prime
Siobhan Duffy, originally an artist from Long Island, New York, has undergone several transformations as painter, drummer and lead singer. An original member of God is my Co-Pilot, a quasi-queer band from New York City, Siobhan has gone on to sing for Gunga Din and play with Kid Congo Powers and The Pink Monkey Birds, a band that opened up for The White Stripes early in their career. The following is an on line conversation between me and Siobhan. She currently lives upstate, New York with her husband and daughter.
Kofi Forson: Most people know you as drummer for God is my Co-Pilot...It was quite a time wasn't it? The mid to late 80's and beyond...Well that's a whole 'nother story making it past George Bush Senior into the Clinton era. New York had a beat of its own coming from post Neo Expressionism, death of Jean Michel...the cycle stemming from what we knew as underground was taking on a whole new meaning. It wasn't cool just to be punk.
Siobhan Duffy: The excitement of punk came from seeing people in the city, different from Long Island where I grew up. These people, and then the music, sparked something. It was what seemed beautiful to me, raw and exciting. I enjoyed it. I met the godco (God is my Co-Pilot) people in 1987, and started playing with them in the city the following year. The first gig was at the Lizmar lounge on First Avenue. I wasn't even old enough to be in there legally. I moved to the lower east side in 1990. I went to SVA (like you, right?) to paint and think, and was very happy to be in the shambles of a very alive, dangerous, ruthless environment. I was as much influenced by my neighborhood weed dealer's music from across the street, or the hit that all the peoples in the hood were blaring out the windows of their very hot apartments...That and the uzi gunshots ringing out from Avenue C. As far as art was concerned, what excited me at the time was Andre Serrano…Plainly sexy.
KF: What ideas and language from your studies at SVA did you apply to your music overall? Was your experience there more about applying yourself to a subculture other than art circles or was your art experience there just as important? Come to think of it the air had been sucked out of the New York market at this point. Did you get that sense...you know like "what am I doing here"? Were your friends without a clue or did they have that drive to succeed? Tell me about the SVA hangout or your dream to become the next big thing...
SD: I had no ideas of becoming some art star, but I needed a place to go to before being strictly on my own to realize I was not shit. That I had a brain, and some talent... SVA was a good place to explore, so was New York City. Sure I was surrounded by the usual testicular "art speak". But I was not there to become an artist. I felt I already was. Very frankly, my painting teachers would elaborate about how painting was dead. It was not news to me but I suppose they meant the market for art. My paintings were typically of animals. Drumming on the other-hand was pure energy and angst. During those four years I met people who exposed me to the Beats, Joseph Campbell, poetry and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. I actually had the honor of seeing him at the age of 13, but had no idea what an impact his music would have on me later on. Music has always been more important to me than art. But when you walk around a physical thing, like Richard Serra's sculptures, it is a totally somatic and mind-bending experience. To create things as joyous as that is something I completely respect. Music just has always been more present and more accessible to me and I love watching it's affect on other people. You cannot deny its power. It is also more transcendent than physical works of art. It's the metaphysical heroine and crack combined.
Green Album Cover, credit: Danny Clinch; Group Shot (First Single) (1991), credit: Eve Prime
KF: You brought that decided frenetic and kick start drum technique to God-Co. How would you describe your playing style? It's always an anomaly when you listen to a record and discover the drummer is actually female. It doesn't happen to guitar or bass just drums, maybe sax... But you play sax as well. Who was it? I mean was there a drummer or musician that turned you on to drums? Female drummers that come to mind are Mo Tucker from Velvet Underground or any number of girl groups. You mentioned Fela. Does it reach further than that with African rhythms? Do you know Soukous from Juju? What kind of musical texts are you working from as a drummer?
SD: I hear tones, like notes when playing drums. I never had the drive to be the next John Bonham, but knew I could keep time, even if it was odd timing. I also was aware of having "it". I have feeling, soul whatever you want to call it. People can play for years and be perfect technically, but if they don't have "it" ... (Get the point). I always liked the idea of being a drummer because you could be silent but very loud. You could hide behind the drum set. You didn't have to sing, you could just spaz out. My first influence was Animal from the Muppet Show. He had a good look, and he would just grunt and then wail. I suppose Keith Moon predated him. He was probably based on Keith Moon. I love John French's drumming for the Magic Band. All of the frenetic calisthenics...It's just enjoyable and challenging to play. Playing drums has always been more of a male thing. It's not as if you could just be cute and play the keyboards, you actually had to play well to play the drums and not be the token grrrl. Look at Evelyn Glennie. You've come a long way, baby! I am not aware of Soukous. I have been collecting a lot of African music over the years. But Fela is my all time favorite.
KF: What was your reaction to that whole riot girl thing happening in the nineties? Everyone from Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and the Deal Sisters all stood for this kinda awesome feminine power… Where did you fit in as an irate artist musician from Long Island thrusted onto the stage at a time when rock was big…I mean really big?
SD: I did not subscribe to this "movement", although I suppose it was assumed that I did, being a drummer in a band with an atonal and seemingly angry female singer. I wasn't a fan of any of the music either. When I was 10 and wanted to play drums in the school band, I talked myself out of it. It was a "boys" instrument, but by the time I was 13, I found punk rock and it gave everyone permission to do it yourself. I didn't think it excluded females, although according to what I read that was the impression by the riot grrl bands. I remember going to punk shows and in the mass of bodies in a mosh pit and being groped by anonymous fingers and hands and have no idea who was doing this. All I could do was try to break the fingers. I was very young and probably thought if your mind was open enough to punk rock then you wouldn't be some gross pig of a man. I was very wrong. There were a lot of meat heads in punk rock like any other scene. But I never felt that I needed to sing or write about it. To carry myself with the assumption that I should be included and treated equally should be enough. The irony is that when you do so, you are challenged by other females who don't feel the same way, and you are taken for a snob. It's worse when you are viewed as "pretty." That is just plain stupid, and I have never felt like any part of a "sisterhood." I am more than fine with that.
KF: Well Siobhan I’ve been a fan of yours dating back to the mid-nineties. I’ve never had a rockstar crush come true… I mean nothing beyond listening to albums or going to concerts. But I do remember however the night you walked into that café Heaven with your entourage. We were both kinda young…you more so than me. But I knew it was you. I was like there’s Siobhan from God-co. I came up to you guys and probably said something stupid. To have reinvented this dream is quite the thrill for me. I wish you luck with your daughter. From what I remember you saying she’s already the musical darling. She should be… Her mother is a force to contend with…
Siobhan Duffy & Alex Klein in the 1990's
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Kofi Forson is a writer, POET and PLAYWRIGHT living in NYC. His current blog is BLACK COCTEAU, a mixture of philosophy and art on modern culture.