Human Nature

Published

Oisín Kealy

… checks in with punk pioneer Toyah Willcox!

toyah_thehumans_02Does it feel like thirty years since It’s a Mystery?
No, because I performed it six weeks ago to thirty thousand people, it’s remained completely constant. I don’t really think back, I’ve got too much going on. I feel absolutely no connection to the eighties at all. That said, I think it’s because for me I’ve never stepped away from that music, I’ve always performed it. So I’m more in touch with the music than with the actual eighties. For instance I’m not very fond about shoulder pads coming back in!

Do you think you retained your punk spirit as you grew older?
I don’t think I ever grew out of the punk ethos. It was absolutely remarkable being there. It was the first time where I saw that race didn’t matter, disability didn’t matter, sexual orientation didn’t matter, and if you had a good idea, you had ears that listened to it. It was the most all-encompassing thing that I’ve ever come across. It’s probably the most rewarding movement I’ve lived through and I’m 51. I never thought I’d be alive, I thought I wouldn’t survive past thirty. I knew that I could never have family because I’d rather have glass inserted under my skin, and I knew I would never stop working. In a way I’ve kept to that but I never conceived what it would be like to hit fifty. I think that’s because the media ignores the power of each decade, and I feel very critical about that. I never believed that there would be value beyond thirty, and there is incredible value. I’ve moved away from my roots very obviously — I’ve presented the Good Sex Guide live, I’ve presented Songs of Praise, I do pantomime, but at the same time I’m working with Bill Rieflin and Robert Fripp, who are both legends. So I feel very lucky in that I’ve never been trapped by any particular type of genre.

How did The Humans come together?
The Humans came together because the president of Estonia, who is a big fan of Robert Fripp (my husband), asked him to play for his birthday three years ago, and Robert couldn’t do it. I found this out and phoned the embassy and said I’d put a band together that will be economically viable and we will write the whole project for the president and perform it for him, and they accepted. So we went out there, we played for the president, we sold out a tour literally overnight, and dedicated the first album to Estonia.

If you say why Estonia, Estonia until 1992 was ruled by Russia, and it’s been through the most unbelievable recent history. The paranoia Russia brought to that country… for instance, it removed all signposts so that children during the winter months couldn’t find their way home and froze to death. So to go there and to perform and write for a country that is just newly independent is very important to me.

You covered These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ as part of The Humans, how did you choose that song?
That was Bill Rieflin’s idea which took us all by surprise. Now, Bill has been in Nine Inch Nails, he was in Ministry, he was in R.E.M for seven years, and he does not compromise on anything, he is the ears of this project. He said “Boots was written for your voice”, I said “okay, it’s about forty years old…” and he said “no, you’re gonna do it”. I think he’s very clever because, I remember Boots coming out in 1966 and it was a quirky little love song, but now all the barriers of sexuality and sexual proclivity have come down and the song has a very different meaning. I was about eight years old when it came out, and it started a trend of wearing PVC boots, and men loved it! There was absolutely nothing feminist about that song, but now I think it’s completely gone the other way.

How does The Humans differ from your solo work?
The Humans is deeply personal and very, very dark, and my blueprint when people work on it is that you’ve got to think of European film noir, you’ve got to think of an audience who want to touch the dark side of their nature. It’s very, very internal rather than external.

With this in mind, who do you imagine your audience to be?
Obviously we’re still exploring that. Both Robert and Bill say this is a European band, meaning that the European audiences go into theatres to listen to the most obscure stuff. The European audience can accept something you have to listen to. I disagree, and I think The Humans can find an audience on a worldwide basis, because really I’m after the punks that are my age, and I think it’s a natural progression for a punk to do something that deconstructs the pop song, turns it on it’s head, and gives it a very dark nature.