Music for Silents: Steven Severin performs live in accompaniment to The Seashell and the Clergyman and other provocative silent films at SF360 Film+Club, Tuesday, January 12.

Steven Severin On His Silent Spring

Michael Read January 8, 2010

It’s been roughly a decade and a half since the breakup of Siouxsie and the Banshees, the influential and audacious punk band that Steven Severin founded with the iconic Siouxsie Sioux in 1976. Once known primarily as a bassist, Severin now follows his muse in many directions. His most recent work has consisted largely of film scores, including several for silent cinema. In a rare San Francisco appearance, Severin will perform his scores live to screenings of rarely seen silent shorts, including Germaine Dulac’s avant-garde work The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) at SF360 Film+Club Tuesday, January 12. Dulac’s surrealist classic–a lunatic tale of the delusions of a priest–was met by antipathy on its original release by the British Board of Film Censors, which wrote that it is “apparently meaningless. . . . But, if there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.”

Known for weaving intense and dark musical tapestries, Severin is uniquely qualified to score Dulac’s iconoclastic landmark film. Severin was a key member of the Bromley Contingent, a group of Sex Pistols fans which went on to captivate the music, culture and fashion scenes in 1970s and ’80s England. He shared his thoughts on scoring for silent cinema and his creative process in the following wide-ranging interview, conducted via email. Tell me about the origins of the Music for Silents project.

Steven Severin: In 2007 I was approached simultaneously by people in both Edinburgh, Scotland and Krakow, Poland about doing a live show. Although I have been ‘solo’ and working in electronic music since 1998, I’d never actually played live. The idea of man & laptop never really appealed. I’d always had, in the back of my mind, a dream of "accompanying" a silent movie. The two guys were really persistent so that drove me on. How were you introduced to the films of Germaine Dulac, and how do they resonate with your sensibilities?

Severin: I had known of the film ever since the late ’70s but had never managed to see it. It was always playing as a double-bill with something I had already seen. I finally saw it in pieces online, then found a DVD of it. I liked the fact that it was only 32 minutes long because I already had found “new” silents on my travels around the European Fantastic Film Festivals circuit. I thought it would be an interesting mix to present the show in two halves: the first, The Seashell and the Clergyman, a surrealist film from the ’20s, and a second half comprising of six short color films by emerging new artists or directors. It took about a year to put the show together and I’ve been travelling around with it since May 2008. As for Seashell, it’s got it all: a rampant man of the cloth, a besieged heroine, murder, chase scenes, a dream world and even a flash of nudity. It’s like it was made for me. When did you first become entranced by silent film, and how has your relationship with bygone silent classics evolved?

Severin: You know, I can’t really remember, it’s just always been there as an idea. I saw John Cale perform to The Unknown and Philip Glass do Dracula, but I think my desire to re-score probably goes much further back to when I first saw Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle. There was a time when his films were shown with music by Electric Light Orchestra. That is so wrong! Which cinematic works would you like to score in the future?

Severin: I’m just finishing a new score to Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930) which I’m really pleased with, and earlier this year at the Edinburgh Fringe festival I did four different versions of a new score to Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). This was an experiment because many people have done Caligari so I wanted to show that there isn’t one single way of approaching a film. As with all experiments, some of it worked, some of it didn’t. There are so many films I’d love to do. An obscure Japanese film by Teinosuke Kinugasa called A Page of Madness (1926) is one. Benjamin Christensen’s H„xan (1922) is another, but I’m trying to persuade Alan Moore to create a new narration to go with it. That would be amazing. What is your general approach to re-scoring films, and what are your intentions? What form does your creative process take?

Severin: I take the same approach as I would on a brand new film. I simply look at it from my own perspective. As I do with a new film, I break it down into scenes or acts, then further down into cues or stings. My commercial work is pretty different to other people’s because I get right in there, sometimes frame by frame, trying to make as many ‘directorial’ connections as possible. Many soundtrack composers just write a few recurring ‘themes’ and leave everything up to the editor and director. I get totally immersed, sometimes too much, because as scenes get reedited I have to go back and essentially rescore each time. It’s a lot of work, but that’s the way I like it. Music is so important in a film, and I try to really mold it into the fabric of the drama. It’s so effective and affecting when you get it just right. You are involved in so many projects, but, of course, you always will be associated with Siouxsie and the Banshees. How do you negotiate that legacy?

Severin: The past work opens a lot of doors for me, that’s for sure. But because the Banshees’ catalogue is so known and so distinct, I find I have to go to great lengths to describe what I do now, as it is very different. I can see the obvious progression in the work because it’s evolved over 30-plus years! Others less familiar with my career need more help in understanding that lineage. Playing live to old films is something that most people can understand, so that helps. If I couldn’t explain it that way, I think many people might be expecting me to have a band and get up and play bass. That’s the last thing I want or intend to do. Describe the coalescence of talent and energy that resulted in what became known as the Bromley Contingent. What was it about the synergy of that time that positioned so many of you to pursue your respective arts?

Severin: I think it has a lot to do with being the first generation consciously detached from the Second World War. That, and the will to change. Unknowingly, we forced the hand of technology. We didn’t know what tools were on the horizon, but that will forced them to appear. I think that’s probably true of every cultural shift. A kind of psychic energy builds and builds from all over; in the case of what they call ‘punk rock’ it exploded. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening again, because via the Internet we have so much access, so much diffusion. How does performing with films and a laptop compare to your previous projects?

Severin: It’s strangely quite similar. I’ve never craved center stage so in many ways the screen is my new “front person.” There’s a lot less sweat–which I’m grateful for–and less aggression, but the intensity is there, and as long as it’s loud–I’m there. Any thoughts about how the music industry has changed through communications technologies?

Severin: Doing business through social networks is totally the norm for me and I’m really comfortable with that as I’m quite naturally shy. One of reasons I left London was that the endless real socializing was getting me nowhere. I hate the phone so the medium of email is perfect for me. I actually feel I’ve evolved directly as a result of these new options. I think the industry is suffering because it’s incapable of understanding technological and social change. Artists have always driven that sometimes from within but like now, more often from outside. No matter how they twist and turn the corporate music industry will not sustain. The empire will fall and I shall applaud heartily.

Steven Severin will perform Music for Silents Tuesday, January 12 at Mezzanine, 444 Jessie Street, 8:00 pm (doors 7:00 pm). Tickets are $12 for SFFS members and $15 for the general public, and are available at Must be 21-plus to attend.