Sunday, 9 October 2011

Skin & Brian Tufano

What a corker of a night. Yes, we returned to the heart of Brighton for our October installment of The Space. We welcomed along BAFTA winning cinematographer Brian Tufano and cult femme fatale, Skin.

Skin at The Space, Brighton
Skin Deep
Where do I start with Skin? Struck first by those menacing fire-starter eyes we have all grown accustomed to seeing in those dark, dynamic videos of band Skunk Anansie, this first lady of misfit-rock stands with regal Amazonian attitude, posing calmly and composed for photos with fans after a very frank and lively getting-to-know-you. Dressed all in black with sheer blouse and elongating skyscraper wedged shoes to remind us of her Athenian shape, as put to use on the catwalks by the likes of fashion houses Alexander McQueen and Gucci; I can only surmise that meeting her does not disappoint.

As a fervent fan of Skunk Anansie’s second studio album Stoosh, this album saw me through my teens with the externalised angst I could only dream of letting explode out, as I traipsed from the four walls of my bedroom to the four walls of my secondary classroom. Their music encapsulated the inert energy of anyone who found themselves wishing to scream at the top of their lungs, with a jagged galvanised edge, wipe-clean leather trouser, with a fairy dust delicate voice of pure emotion and soul.

Skin is honest. Not scared, nor PR conditioned to be bubble-gum pop innocent, she tells it how she sees it, making her one of the most entertaining guests I feel exceptionally lucky to have met. Despite her reputation and fame, we learn that under that layer of obvious presented beauty, is a virtuous, self-deprecating strength; the truest evidence of why Skunk Anansie are not back, but really have never been away.

Sing For Your Supper

Far from the processed musical standard of Stepford-reality shows littering the music industry today, Skin and the rest of Skunk Anansie were incubated from that old fashioned ethic of hard graft: “The first few Skunk Anansie gigs were just outside London in back yard places. We knew we were rubbish; we didn’t want to be rubbish in front of the NME crowd, so we were rubbish to one man and his dog, and his rope. And he left half way through the first song! (Laughter) There was definitely a vibe of ‘we have something’. You have to start with ‘something’ to build on. A good voice for instance. When we did our first rehearsal together, after 30 seconds playing we just stopped and started laughing; because it was really f***ing good. We’d probably just played the worst song that no one had ever heard. The energy and the chemistry when we played together was just, there. Then we just worked and worked and worked, tour after tour. We did 5 tours before we had any success at all. It was really just down to just rehearsing and playing non-stop and working.”

Getting Signed

“The first band we got together was me and Cass, which we were in for 2 years. We had an amazing guitarist, I liked to call him Jimi Hendrix, but an absolute c*** of a person (laughter). He was so good for those two years, but eventually we were talking about deals and I told my manager ‘I cannot be in a band with this man anymore.’ And I just mashed the band up and said to Cass ‘let’s start something else’. So we brought Skunk Anansie together; it was like a super group, with Cass Lewis who was in Terence Trent D’Arby’s band, big dreadlocks; beautiful man. Then we stole Ace from another band, who started the Water Rats Theatre in London. We went up to him and said ‘we’re starting a band’, and he said ‘you are?’, and then said ‘I want to be your guitarist!’ and that was all we needed to hear. It was the three of us. We did one gig, and because Cass and I were from the band Mama Wild, and Ace was in Big Life Casino, the place was rammed, we did the gig of our lives. Then we did another gig which was rammed again, but full of A&R people - this was back in the day when they used to go to gigs (laughter). It was that horrible day that Kurt Cobain died. So we went on stage, and Rick Lennox who worked as A&R at One Little Indian records was in the audience. Rick was a massive Nirvana fan, who wasn’t initially going to come to the gig. But he came down, and told us, ‘you took me away from thinking about Kurt Cobain’; and so we got signed off that.”

Rise to Fame

“The thing about success in a band is that you go do a fantastic gig, and then you leave that place, onto the next town, and  all that ‘oh my God weren’t they amazing’ excitement is all back there. So it took a few years for it to catch up with us, for us to realise that we were actually doing all right. Especially if you are from a working class background, you always feel like you are surviving; you’ve got to keep going, it’s all going to fall apart if you don’t. Then we stopped for a while and suddenly realised ‘oh, I’m kind of famous, that’s a bit weird’ (laughter). But it was quite hard to contain; we hadn’t been trained by X Factor, we had no skills at all; we were just drunk all the time (laughter).”


Google Skunk Anansie for their genre, and you will soon some across the term ‘clit-rock’. Self-invented, it was a way to find their feet in a lad-clad lager and fag led era of British music: “It was weird – there was this massive Britpop and Britrock scene, and then there was Skunk Anansie. We weren’t allowed on any of those TV shows; we were doing our own thing over here. We were asked one day what we thought of this Britpop scene, and we just turned and said ‘well, we’re our own scene; we’re ‘Clit-rock’. And that was it. There were scenes being made up everywhere to sell more copies of NME or whatever, and I was totally taking the p***; yet people still ask me to this day in interviews (Skin puts on mock Euro-trash voice): “So zis zene that you ‘ave cre-a-tid in ze 90s,‘clit-rrrock’.” Skin exclaims: “For the life of me, it was just a joke!”

“The Americans tried to pigeon hole us; we were an RnB band in America, I kid you not! (At this point the audience erupts with amused chortles) We’d see our albums in the RnB sections every time we went into a record shop. On a plane over there once, one of the  American record execs from one of the labels we were going to see was on it, and asked us if we were in a band, and told us (Skin puts on an American accent) ‘When we get back I’m going to introduce you to the Head of the Black Music Department’, and stunned, we were like, ‘why?’ We’re a rock band. It went straight over his head. And true enough we went there and got introduced to him. It was just hard back then for Americans to look at me, and understand that I’m not an RnB singer, and I can’t rap! It was very segregated; there were no white rappers or black rockers. Of course there actually were, but they weren’t taking us seriously. There was a whole scene of black rock music going on at that time, bands like Living Colour. They had to try and club together and knock on the door of the big radio stations. It was very difficult for us all out there.”

Skunk Anansie have headlined many a festival in their time, and asked about being at festivals and whether they actually got to enjoy them, Skin replied: “A little bit too much (audience laughter). Our first album is called Paranoid & Sunburnt, because the first time we played Glastonbury was at 12noon on the first day; a Friday. We only did four songs as we had the wrong passes to get in, so we jumped out the bus, ran on stage and did four songs. Then we came off stage, we remained for the weekend. I don’t really remember much, but we did call our album Paranoid & Sunburnt because of the experience - so you can fill in your own jokes there (laughter).”

Trust in your fans

Not averse to getting caught up in the moment whilst performing, Skin is known for stage diving at their gigs. Presenter Briggy asked about the inherent risks that go hand in hand, if such an expressive trust in your fans were to go wrong: “Touch wood, I’ve never been dropped (Skin quickly starts earches for wood to touch while seated, eventually settling her hand on the stage floor). You have to tell people you’re coming”. At this point, Skin stands up and starts animatedly gesturing to an imaginary crowd; “And they get it. You have to warn people.”

Models Own

Skin isn’t just a pretty voice. She’s also a black swan of a runway icon, with a side-line of modelling in her repertoire. The audienceSkin from Skunk Anansie at The Space was warmed by her self-disparaging approach to the glitz of the supermodel sway: “It feels uncomfortable. I can’t take myself seriously. I’m a singer-writer, and because of that people ask me to model their clothes. It is really good fun, a laugh.” Briggy asks about Skin’s skills in the sashay: “Shall I do it for you?” With audience encouragement, Skin walks towards one end of the stage and floats with elegance, but simmering with ferocity. “That’s my ‘taking the p***’ walk that everyone does.”


Skunk Anansie have produced a menagerie of feisty numbers, and its no surprise to hear that they have featured on film soundtracks too. Most recently in 2011 they featured on Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch with their track Search & Destroy: “It is like an hour and a half music video, a beautiful movie.”

They also featured on  Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days:  “It was funny as we’d just been a band for six months…We got asked to go to Hollywood to write music for this film, and we soon realised that this is some big s*** right here. They aren’t kidding around. So we write a song, and we were in the film singing Selling Jesus – and it was possibly the hardest we have ever worked. We had to do this for 8 hours non-stop without a break, full steam jumping – it was mind-bogglingly exhausting. Imagine doing an eight hour Skunk Anansie gig. We didn’t eat, we didn’t rest; we just went on and on. The movie was fantastic, and incredible to be part of; a lot of people in America still love Skunk Anansie because of that film.”

Splitting Up Is Hard To Do

After a successful run in the charts from 1994 to 2001,Skunk Anansie split up, coming back for more reforming in 2009. Asked what it was that led to the disbanding, Skin explained: “Lots of small reasons, but  I think the main feeling is that we just grew apart because we were just exhausted. We’d done a lot of work in a short space of time; through our own doing – we wanted to work that hard, no one made us do it. You just get a brain fog, you get Yoko Ono in the band; weird things start happening. Skunk Anansie have always been this ball of amazing chemistry, a circle of energy - and that just dissipated because we were all in little worlds doing our own thing. There’s lots of different reasons why that happened, there wasn’t any one major thing; which is the reason why we’re still such good friends. We didn’t have any beef with each other. No one slept with anyone else’s girlfriend, no one slagged any one off to the press, and there were no horrible stories of hate in the press. We just grew apart; I think we all just wanted to do something else for a while.”

Going Solo

During the split, Skin went on to establish a successful solo career, releasing solo albums Fleshwounds and Fake Chemical State, along with becoming a name as a DJ. But it wasn’t all plain sailing: “In the end I don’t think I’m narcissistic enough for it. I love doing different things, different kinds of music, and doing the solo thing was really amazing as it really honed in my song writing skills, and it really taught me a lot about the other parts of the band. I’d really only been a lead singer and a played a bit of guitar, but I really got to understand the bass, the guitars, the drums. I had to go and buy gear, amps and stuff, and I really learnt and had a more respect for what everyone else in the band was doing in Skunk Anansie, as I was having to do it all for myself. Being solo is like being in a tree and you’re at the top, and everyone else does what you say as they want to keep their position in that tree. You have to be right, a lot. Whereas in a band we argue, we challenge each other…everyone’s throwing ideas in the pot. When you are solo you have to be coming up with it all. You need a huge dose of healthy narcissism to deal with that. Which I think is good and why some people are amazing at that; but I prefer being in a band.”

Skunk Anansie’s reformation album, Wonderlustre was released in 2010. So how did Skin feel, getting back into : “We’d all learnt volumes about our craft. Ace had gone away and produced 14 albums and had a radio show here in Brighton, so he came back with a huge amount of knowledge and information and excitement. Cass had been working with other people and had put bands together, teaching kids how to do music production and had a studio and rehearsal room. Mark had been in the band Feeder, among other things, and he was the one who had probably done the most emotional, internal work, and so brought that energy into the band. I think that when we came back together we were very much more solid as individuals, very excited about music, and very learned; old statesmen of ourselves. So it was great having all these different parts of the band;  Cass would do the studio music, Mark was doing all the videoing and the internet stuff, and Ace was helping with all the merchandising, and I was creative doing all the fashion, photography and the artwork. We did it all ourselves; it was so much easier to run and organise because we just talked to each other. There was no record company helping, no 20 people you had to refer to, to get permission from. What we learnt from being away from the band is that it’s supposed to be f***ing fun! If you’re worrying about this and worrying about that, with big ambition trying to get on this or that TV show, it squeezes out all the fun of everything you are doing. In the 2-3 years we’ve been back, we’re already in a bigger position than where we left off. And that is something to be very humble about (audience applauses).”

In August of this year, harrowing disaster struck the Belgian music festival Pukkelpop, with five people losing their lives during a freak storm that hit the festival causing a stage to collapse, injuring many others. Skin gave her account of this tragic happening: “Terrifying. I’d actually walked on stage with heat stroke; it was so hot; not one single cloud in the sky. We were doing press and I didn’t have a hat on, and I have no hair so got heatstroke.  People were saying there was going to be a bit of a storm and I was thinking ‘I don’t think so’. Then just before we went on stage the sky went dark. Really dark. We went on stage, and we were having a great gig, and it just got darker and darker, rainier and rainier, until just before the end, we were doing the last couple of songs, it just started vertical hail storming, with 5p size hailstones falling straight in to us. I was saying stupid things like ‘we’re going to carry on!’ because the more the weather was getting more atrocious, the more crazier the crowd was getting; ripping their shirts off. Then I just got blown backwards, and we were literally holding onto each other, walking at obtuse angles, trying to get off the stage as we really thought it was going to get blown off after what had happened previously in Indiana (a stage at The Indiana State Fair also collapsed resulting in fatalities) . So it was really, f***ing, scary. I’d never experienced anything like that, and never want to again. It just came from nowhere, within five minutes, and then it was gone twenty minutes later.”

Skin went on to give us a brief overview of all the charities she is involved in, more details of which you can find out about on her personal website:

An advocate and fighter for the nonconformists, Skin and Skunk Anansie stand loud and proud, and long may they continue to Tear The Place Up: “We’ve always been outsiders.” But with a defiant smile, and to audience applause: “But we’ve lasted.”

And here are a couple of Skunk Anansie's music videos:


Examples of Brian Tufano's films
BRIAN TUFANO: An Eye for Detail

The role of a cinematographer is not easily placed from the title, but plays a fundamental part to how a script is translated into the pixel perfect projection upon which our eyes feast at the multiplex.

Brian Tufano is quite possibly one of Britain’s national cinematic treasures, having been one of the creative minds behind such cult pieces as Trainspotting, Quadrophenia, Billy Elliot and East is East. A career spanning over four decades  in the industry, Brian still seeks satisfaction in a story with grit, helping realise some of the latest British emerging auteurs, working with the likes of Noel Clarke on Kidulthood (2006) and Slumdog Millionnaire director, Danny Boyle on his first feature film; Shallow Grave (1994).

One would say that he deserves a medal. But instead he has been recognised with both a BAFTA Award (for Outstanding Contribution to Film and Television 2001) and a Special Jury Award for Outstanding Contribution to Independent Film at the British Independent Film Awards (2002). Brian is jewel in the British celluloid crown methinks.

So when asked what it is Brian actually does, Brian had this to say: “I’m responsible for photography; I work closely with the director and decide how to interpret the script visually, then working with the crew to meet that end. It’s my job to work out the logistics to get that shot, and to keep on schedule.”

Honestly, I still wasn’t overly clear about what this entailed on a day to day basis, so when Brian was pushed further by presenter Briggy on this, the haze soon transformed to sepia filtered crystal: “In my other life as Head of Cinematography at the National Film School, I try to convey to students, what I call the ‘visual subtext’, or there is another phrase for it; ‘seeing sideways’. In a cinema, you can take your audience anywhere, and I start thinking: ‘How do I interpret the script visually, in such a way that I am adding to what the writer has put on paper.’ You look for clues in the script. This sets me off thinking about what pictures I want on the screen. There is one scene in Billy Elliot where Billy’s father becomes a scab, a strike breaker, and attempts to go back to work. In the script it was quite a simple scene where he has to get on a coach with the other strike breakers to get to work.  We didn’t have a location for it initially – but my idea came from a moment in the future scene where Billy is excited and asking his dad about a future trip to London. His father admits he has never been, as “there are no mining pits”. He has only ever known this Northern English mining life – so it’s that back story you are looking for. You never see this back story but it’s what drives the characters. So it was my feeling that when this father character has to throw everything he knows away to earn money for his family, these people would not be catching a bus at the local bus stop; they’d be somewhere hidden away, where the pickets couldn’t get at them. The location manager had found us 5 different areas, and the one we chose was the only one that was one completely surrounded by coal. So by using that location from the moment he walks to the bus to the moment he breaks down, that is what I call ‘visual subtext’. Visually it’s very interesting. It’s what I am looking for.”

“After a research trip for Trainspotting, Danny told me that heroin addicts spend most of the time on the floor, so he wanted me to play with that and work out a way for the camera to reflect this. This is another case of ‘visual subtext’.”

But it’s not just imagination and theorising, the role of the cinematographer is a rather faceted, hands-on role. Speaking about that iconic toilet scene in Trainspotting (warning: step away from the Campbell’s before reading): “Ah yes, we got very intimate, Ewan (McGregor) and I, and the camera. It was a mix of soup; oxtail and mulligatawny. But I don’t want to put you off tinned soup! It’s a standard throughout the industry. Then the other scene where the character Spud doesn’t do too well in the night (a fair amount to excrement representation in said scene); it was not pleasant filming it. There’s a wonderful publicity photograph of me and Danny (Boyle) dressed in our rainproof clothing, with a lot of the substance coming straight at us. So oh yes; it was definitely soup.”

Not being entirely a film buff myself (but always learning), I always find it refreshing to hear how the guests we have at our events have ended up where they are; from serendipity to passion, to who they know and ‘falling into it’. With Brian, it was down to a mix of destiny and an unfazed youthful confidence: “When I started I’d never heard of the word cinematographer, it was just ‘a cameraman’. According to my mother, from the age of 9 in my school books, which she very thoughtfully kept, were drawings of men with cameras. It just fascinated me. Aged 11 I discovered amateur film clubs, and one in Shepherd’s Bush where I lived, knocked on their door, and they let me become a member. So at the age of 11 and a half I’d started on 16mm and 9.5 camera, and have been shooting film ever since then. However I couldn’t get into the film industry when I left school; I was told by the employment officer to become an apprentice in the engineering works, which looking back may have been a wise thing (laughter). I didn’t know anyone in the industry and had no family members in it. To get into it I discovered you had to be a member of the union. But to be in the union you had to be in the industry doing a job; which when you are 16 makes no sense at all. The only way in was through the BBC. So as a page boy (runner), I discovered the film department, I badgered the film crews to take me along to nightshifts and I went from there into BBC Sport.”

Brian Tufano at The Space, BrightonIt’s no secret that a film can be an arduous adventure to get off the ground through to completion. And the buck stops with budget. A Life Less Ordinary was the highest budget film he has worked on: “It was a figment film for Danny (Boyle, director) and Andrew (McDonald, producer). It was an American film, shot in America with 20th Century Fox money, which started out as $16 million; which is peanuts by today’s standards. But Danny and Andrew had made this pledge that they would have final say on the final cut of the film. But this isn’t the way American studios work; they always have the final cut. And so there was this continual backwards and forwards between Danny and Andrew and 20th Century Fox. We were up in Salt Lake City getting ready, when they went back down to Hollywood for yet more meetings, and when they came back, the budget had been dropped down from $16 million to $10 million, so that they could keep final cut.”

Further budget challenges are part and parcel in the film industry. But you can have all the money in the world thrown at a film and it still turn out a train wreck. It is more the skills required and the minds behind the imaginative uses of the resources available to play with. The 1999 British identity comedy East is East is one film that Brian cites from his repertoire for having the budget limit his creativity (though it still turned out to be a corker): “There is an opening parade scene, the kids are running up a back alley, parallel with the road. I wanted to get a crane up over the top so you could see them running, with a contrast to the parents who were the other side of the parade above them, getting them all in the frame. There was a big time pressure due to the money. It would have needed half a day to get the timing right, and one of the biggest cranes in the industry requiring four men to operate; it could have proved lethally dangerous – acting as a giant catapult had it gone wrong! So I hate to use the word compromise, because what you are trying to achieve your vision with the material and money that you have got.”

Evidently in the thick of it, working on a film is a constant and delicate balancing act. But before filming comes the biggest decision of all; choosing which film is the right film: “The script is the most important part when choosing what film to work on next, if I think there is something I can do with it. Then the next step, if I get it, is to meet the director. They always think they are interviewing me, but if I don’t like them, I call up my manager to make up some diplomatic excuse, because I don’t want to spend the next 2 months of my life not seeing eye to eye with them. This was the case with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – I set up all the shots but then we parted company simply because I didn’t think the director was doing Ian Drury’s character in the story justice. I thought Andy (Serkis) was brilliant in the role, which was what was bugging me; it was that the director was interested in shooting the film like one long music video, whereas I wanted to get inside Ian Drury’s head, because that’s where the story was. And because Andy is such a brilliant actor, I could see it going on before my very eyes, and I wasn’t able to get it on camera. Everybody sees it differently, but I can’t spend those weeks being frustrated; it’s just one of those things.”

Meticulous with his script choices to which colleagues he works with, Brian has a keen sense of direction and forethought. Despite over forty years in the show we like to call ‘biz’, Brian confessed that there is still al lot of energy and excitement to be found working with new talent in comparison to established directors: “I think I prefer working with first time directors, simply because they don’t bring any baggage with them, which is kind of wonderful. There is more freedom and an open mind, and to a great extent they use more imagination. I’m a bit off the wall with some of the things I suggest and they tend to listen to me, whereas the others don’t as they tend to get nervous (laughter).” Brian openly welcomed any budding artists in the audience to send him their scripts for visualisation (though don’t ask me how to get them to him, that’s your first challenge).

Not quite the norm for a cinematographer, Brian has even dabbled in casting: “There was one really interesting time in Trainspotting. Danny (Boyle) said ‘we’ve got to find the actress to play Diane in the next casting session tomorrow morning’. So the following morning we went into this rehearsal room, and had a succession of young actresses come in. As the queue left, I watched Kelly (Macdonald) from the window as she left the building and cross the road, and you just know. I said ‘Danny, Kelly’s the one, she has to be.’ And he said ‘you’re absolutely right; she’s just got it’.”

So, a talent spotter on a number or levels, Brian is still going strong, with an active creative eye and mind, helping raise a generation more of passionate and original storytellers. There is something very comforting in that thought for our British filmic future.
Posted by: Geek Girl Kerensa Creswell-Bryant
Geek Girl, Updated at: 20:58