With her overflowing dreads and colorful, internationally inspired clothing, punk singer Ari-Up appears to have stepped from a National Geographic spread on some futuristic aboriginal tribe.
As the legendary frontwoman for the groundbreaking female band The Slits, she helped expand the parameters of punk with a bouncy, tribal sound led by her feral trills and hiccupped vocals. A revolutionary act in its day, the band took a do-it-yourself approach to music in the late '70s that would influence generations to come, particularly young women.
"The Slits were going back to the roots of cultcha and earth, but not in a hippie way," says Up, who during our phone interview is apparently naked in a garden in Los Angeles, eating bread. "We were like militants, but not those that go to Iraq. Then I moved to the real jungle, where you have to chop [brush], carry protection against snakes and jaguars and things."
Born Ariane Forster, the granddaughter of a wealthy German press magnate (Der Spiegel), Up was raised in London by her rock promoter mother, Nora, who brought home everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Barry Gibb to stay in their musician-friendly, communal home -- and later married singer Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols fame.
By 14, Ari-Up was a creative force. After seeing a Patti Smith show, she co-founded in 1976 what would become one of the most influential girl rock groups of all time. A year later, The Slits would join The Clash's "White Riot" tour, which also featured up-and-comers The Buzzcocks. Onstage, the wild-looking women delivered joyfully chaotic, ska-inflected punk that soon added elements of reggae and jungle dub. English manager Malcolm McLaren wanted to turn them into the female Sex Pistols.
"We only stayed with him for two or three weeks. He came to rehearsals telling us how to fucking play, and I'm like, 'Gimme a break,'" Up says in her unusual Jamaican-German-English accent. "Funny, I'm taking a piss right now on cue."
Recalling that period, Up notes that The Clash would not have been as famous if not for unofficial fifth member, Bernie Rhodes, a "clever and creative" manager.
"Most groups do make compromises for commercial success; even the Pistols did," she says. "We were revolutionary because we didn't want to compromise at all. But it's a high price to pay as well."
Although their debut album, "Cut," is now considered one of the all-time great punk albums, The Slits disbanded in 1981 to pursue other projects. With no money, Up relocated to the jungles of Borneo and Belize, later settling in Jamaica, where she raised three sons. Now 46, Up says that the early '90s radical feminist movement known as Riot Grrls has carried the girl-power flag. "They gave a lot of tribute to us with a Web site, Typical Girls [named after a Slits song]. We owe them."
The inspiration was mutual, because 25 years after calling it quits, Up reformed The Slits for a 2006 reunion tour with original bassist Tessa Pollitt and an internationally diverse band of young women. (Alongside New York shows with Sonic Youth, the group played a memorable show in Charlottesville in November of that year, with Up wearing a cheerleading outfit "accidentally featuring Virginia colors," she says.)
Backing singer and keyboardist Hollie Cook, 22, daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook, quit school to join the band. "It's honestly been the most fun thing I've ever done," Cook says. "I grew up with The Slits as family, and just sort of fell into it."
Last month, film actress Chlo‰ Sevigny hired the band to play a party celebrating her new fashion line. Among the celebrity guests were "SNL" star Andy Samberg and his date, harpist Joanna Newsom. The upcoming Slits tour is highlighted by gigs at South by Southwest in Austin as well as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
Both women say the band hopes to record a new full-length album of original material, but they are unsure who would release it or how they could be marketed. "We don't have a label," Up says. "Industry people are scared of us. We're very much ourselves. Definitely a threat to society."
While vague talk of revolution may sound threatening, The Slits have never sold millions of records, and their shows are essentially fun, crowd-friendly dance rallies that commingle spiritual and sexual appeal.
"I've been living in Jamaica all my life, so I have to be sexy," Up says, laughing. "It's very important to worship my poom-poom. I have to say big ups to the poom-poom." S
The Slits perform an all-ages show with Brooklyn duo Shellshag at Toad's Place Thursday, March 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15. Call 648-TOAD or visit www.toadsplacerva.com.