Saffron - Drop Dead Gorgeous
(All photos by Kalpesh Patel)
Formed in 1994 from the emergence of Acid House and Rave and with a striking techno punk rock sound, Republica were a huge part of the iconic ‘90s Britpop movement. Their 1996 self-titled album sold 3 million worldwide and colossal hits such as Ready To Go (still heard in sports stadiums around the globe) and the delicious Drop Dead Gorgeous are as recognisable and relevant today as they were back then.
The band were hugely successful, securing top 5 slots in the UK, America and Europe and worked with a wide range of influential artists including Gary Numan. Republica’s second album Speed Ballads was released in 1998 but didn’t get the push it deserved due to the closure of their record company Deconstruction in the release week. The band took a hiatus in 2001, during which Saffron guested on tracks with artists such as Junkie XL and The Cure.
Republica reformed in 2010, performing a string of dates including a comeback gig at London’s 02 Islington Academy and issued Ready To Go 2010’. Following a stunning return in 2013 with their critically acclaimed EP Christiana Obey and high-profile European festival appearances, Republica headlined the Q Alternative Live Music stage at Brighton Pride 2014 and embarked on a sell-out nationwide 20th anniversary tour with Space.
A couple of years back, on assignment for RockShot Magazine, I caught up with the exuberant (and still drop dead gorgeous) lead singer Saffron on a sunlit London evening ahead of Republica’s gig at Under the Bridge that week. She was warm, articulate, intelligent and so much fun. She chatted warmly about why supporting up and coming new artists is essential, meeting Mick Jones and how it really felt to be part of the Britpop revolution…
Lovely to meet you Saffron! 90’s Brit-pop was undoubtedly a great time – I was a gawky teenager in my Adidas Gazelles but you were part of the revolution! Can you describe what it was like to be in such a hugely successful band at that really special time?
It’s interesting, I was talking to my friends Nicole and Natalie Appleton about this the other day at The Prodigy gig in Brighton. We were saying how really exciting it was. Literally nearly every week there was a new single, or a new album or a new gig coming out and there were so many British bands given the chance and quite rightly so. It was such a big scene in that sense and now everything seems too watered down, nothing to kind of follow or be individual.
At every gig or a club night there were so many bands and it was such an exciting time. Quite a few of the bands in the last year have either come back or reformed; Cast are back, Shed Seven, Echobelly, Skunk Anansie and Space. Some of us never really went away and I still write music. I was with my friend Mark Morriss from The Bluetones the other day. He does his own solo stuff now and he played with the comedian Matt Berry’s band who are amazing. He brought out this album on vinyl called Opium and it’s really good. We are big fans of The Wonder Stuff who play one tour a year and Garage are back with their 20th anniversary tour which is amazing.
You’ve done some amazing collaborations with such a wide range of incredible artists in your career to date; including Fuel My Fire with The Prodigy (The Fat of the Land 1997), and The Cure on Just Say Yes. Anthem by N-Joi still sounds as relevant today as it did then. What was it like to perform it back in the day?
I was in a band called N-Joi and we were friends with The Prodigy; both bands were from Essex so I really trod the boards at illegal raves in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s! It was wonderful, a social revolution of music and people that was really, truly underground. It had never been done before; people were writing their own music and with the advance of technology producing their own tracks and it was a purely organic scene. It was a great experience doing hundreds of gigs.
Mark Franklin and Nigel Champion were, and still remain, seminal as producers of electronic music and are still seen in such high regard. You have to respect an artist’s desire or ambition – it was all about the music then, they weren’t interested in anything else. If it wasn’t going to be played by Fabio and Grooverider – that was it. I still don’t think even they realised how much they encouraged other artists and seminal music to be played. It was the punk rock of then, the antithesis of everything today. It was not a talent show, not judged by anybody; it was ‘I’ve done this, I’ve been influenced by my favourite DJ or my favourite night out with my friend, and I’ve written this piece, I’ve expressed myself in this way and I’m putting it out there’.
Do you have a personal favourite Republica song from the discography that you enjoy performing?
There are too many! It’s interesting though as I do have favourite tracks that I don’t think we’ve ever done live like 'Don’t You Ever' or songs that wouldn’t necessarily come across live.
I love them all, but it’s difficult because it’s not about me, it’s for the listener. They always request different songs so we always listen to the fans – it’s not about what we really want! We get requests for some of the less well known songs and feedback from fans saying ‘please play this one’ or ‘we’d really like to hear this’ etc and frontrunners come out.
I then have to say to Tim (Dorney) ‘We have to do it all again, get that part reprogrammed!’ but it is great that someone is giving us that feedback. Sometimes they weren’t necessarily hits or album tracks but it’s the fan’s favourite, and that’s what important.
One of your support acts, Kenelis, was quoted as saying that ‘People often ask me, what is making it? My new reply would be…. THIS!!! Kenelis + Republica!!’ and described you as ‘a musical hero’. How important to you is it to keep influencing other artists who are just starting out or who are quite new to the scene?
It’s always so important to encourage new up and coming artists. I remember when I first started there were three artists I met who I really admired and respected. They helped and encouraged me when I was nineteen years old; Mick Jones from The Clash, Jah Wobble from Public Image Ltd and Matt Johnson of The The.
Mick Jones came to our first ever gig and we only had three songs! He was really kind backstage and said ‘You’ve got potential but you need to write more songs!’. We blagged our way into this party at the Royal Albert Hall so that was our first gig. A week later we were playing at Vauxhall Arches to about three people! I grew up with PiL, and Jah Wobble wrote me a song that helped me when I was a solo artist. It was amazing that, someone who you’ve grown up with, who you’ve saved your pocket money to go and buy their album or their single and who mean so much to you, not only talk to you but come up to you and say ‘you can do it’. That really motivates and drives you.
So much so that in the last couple of years I’ve mentored at The Brighton Institute of Modern Music and the Bristol Institute of Modern Music in Live Summer Masterclasses with the kids there. It’s fantastic, I’ve really enjoyed it and take that part very seriously.
You recently cited 'King Snake' by Than.Eye as the best video you’ve seen in a while. Are there any new artists out there that have currently caught your attention?
Yes, that’s an incredible video. There are so many! A new band called Yak are really amazing; I think they’re going to do really well. Kwabs has an amazing voice; that’s really something – it actually makes me really happy that something so organic made it and got to that point. Beth Hart is great. Courtney Barnett is a really exciting artist from Australia. Bands like Slaves are really good, fresh and exciting and vicious and punk, and you need that sound to be coming out of your radio. There’s a really interesting singer-songwriter on Alan McGee’s label, John McCullagh & The Escorts. It’s nice just to randomly listen to music that people send me, and to Annie Mac – she plays some incredible stuff from across the board. She really loves her rock and punk stuff as well as the dance. She’s so important.
You’ve been described as an ‘iconic and fiery front woman’. With the rise of female-fronted rock/indie bands of the 1990s, how did it feel to be part of that movement, i.e. with Garbage, No Doubt, Elastica, Sleeper etc.?
Apart from the fact of having to kick a lot more doors down, before you do a thing if it doesn’t exist, you have to make it exist. People weren’t playing female-fronted bands because there weren’t any. Or, if there were, they weren’t playing them, so you had to get yourself into position to make them; you make yourself known and heard.
Especially for No Doubt; in America their Just A Girl track was being played on the radio and they had been together for fifteen years before that. Unbelievably they couldn’t get anywhere but MTV picked up that record. In some ways it really helped us, as suddenly it was ‘what’s this, are there any others, who are they’? and the interest was sparked.
What’s important is, whatever gender you are, it was a time of British songwriting; songs that were being made and played in Britain and being played in the US. We were very lucky as we were one of the bands who managed to be successful in America, but if you’d have said that before, my money would not have been on us because of the punky element of my voice – or because I was from South London and talked like a Cockney! But somehow it did transfer over to other countries, which was very really exciting; we got to go to lots of different places.
Republica sold an incredible 3 million albums between 1996 and 1999, and Ready To Go and Drop Dead Gorgeous, amongst others, are still instantly recognisable and relevant now. Do you still get a sense of pride knowing how much of an influence the band and you have?
Who would have thought it; twenty-one years later they are still being played all over the place! We did not foresee it, it’s absolutely wonderful. The songs are gifts, they are almost immortal. They’ll last when we’re all gone but if they can exist or carry on bringing a smile to someone’s face wherever they are in the world then that’s great but we never thought it. I’ll meet kids that don’t know me or the band, but they know the song from the football terraces in Sunderland or from lots of football matches, NFL, and New York Rangers ice hockey team in America.
I get a real sense of pride especially from those kids who aren’t even twenty yet and know our songs. I think ‘You do? How?!’ You have to be proud of that wonderful achievement. Music is very powerful. Playing Brighton Pride last year, the amount of couples that came up to me was amazing and there was a lot of love in the field. Drop Dead Gorgeous has always been a big gay anthem and they’ve always supported us. It was really wonderful.
If Wikipedia is not telling fibs, I noticed it’s your birthday on 3 June. How do you feel about growing older in the music industry?
My birthday date is correct, but there are lots of lies online about, for example, my hometown and my age. I’m very proud of my age and anyway, what’s the definition of age?!
I’ll never forget what Courtney Love said to me once – if there’s ten things in an interview; nine great ones, and a really bad one that attacks you personally, it’s human nature to go to that one. I’ve had to learn to have a very tough skin in this business and certainly at the beginning being a female as well, a lot of our early interviews were not good but I had to get used to it. People were focusing on the fact that I just happened to front a band and I was female. That was relevant but this is a band and it’s not about me – I wanted them to talk about our music, our songs; those are the important things!