Somewhat unfairly, New Wave has been considered a male-dominated genre. Bands like Talking Heads or The Cure are assumed to have made it on their own, but just hearing the phrase “girl group” suggests artifice or a contrivance manufactured by record execs. But in the case of Bananarama, the British trio of longtime friends whose moody hits — “Cruel Summer,” “Robert DeNiro’s Waiting” — belie the infectious sunniness of their name.
Bananarama’s original members — Sara Dallin, Siobhan Fahey, and Keren Woodward — reunited to tour for the first time since 1988, and they’ll be swinging by San Francisco’s Warfield Theater next Wednesday, Feb. 21. SF Weekly spoke to Dallin about the band’s enduring fan base, the peculiarity of building a career off a single sung in Swahili, and Mike Tyson.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Congratulations on winning Classic Pop’s reader’s award over Blondie and Depeche Mode.
I know! I noticed that!
Depeche Mode is at the peak of their game, too. Their tour is outselling a lot of people, so that should mean a lot to you.
They are fantastic, aren’t they? We were discussing that [on our tour]. We couldn’t believe just how well the shows went, they were so well-received, it’s not like we haven’t toured before, but with all the bells and whistles, it’s really fantastic for us.
We’re delighted that we’re going to get the original Bananrama lineup, since it’s been many years.
Keren and I toured in San Francisco in 2012. We did a Hard Rock tour for breast cancer [“PINKTOBER”] and we played there eight or nine dates, which is fantastic, so we have been there as recently as that — but we’ve never toured with Siobhan, she left in ’88. We did a world tour with Jackie O’Sullivan; she joined us for a couple of years, and for the last few years, it’s been Keren and I. We just tour everywhere.
Often, when people hear the phrase “girl group” or “girl band,” their immediate reaction is to think that it’s manufactured or somehow not authentic or genuine — and Bananarama is anything but that. You were friends for life, not just put together by producers to sell records. It’s a perfectly organic act with the same claims to legitimacy as Duran Duran. Does that annoy you?
I feel like because there were always so few female artists — or even if there were, they never sort of made it on the big stage — we were termed a “girl band,” but it was just a grouping because of our gender. It wasn’t like a Motown band. … The traditional idea of a girl band is somebody who writes for you, somebody who puts you together. Obviously, as you say, we weren’t type of group, so we were identified as much with male bands, if it was the Cure, or the Prodigy or whatever band came along, people we became friends with.
It is frustrating, but it is a lot easier for male bands to have screaming, teenage, adolescent-type fans who’ve been with them and still love them. I think it was harder for girl bands, but having said that we’ve always had a 50-50 fanbase. Loads of girls came to our shows. There’s so many gangs of women who remembered us because we meant something for them, obviously. We were opinionated and empowering for them, and they totally identified with that. It’s such an eye-opener when we saw how many females there were in the audience.
It might even go further than that because “Cruel Summer” and “Robert DeNiro’s Waiting” are not happy songs. These are darker than the average pop song. Does that have something to do with your staying power?
I just think we chose our producers really carefully, and when you’re really young you are really in tune with what’s going in on your age group. We went to clubs and we were involved with fashion so we were fairly good with what we found. We cowrote everything.
I’ve always loved the song “Aie a Mwana,” which was the first single you cut. Singing in Swahili as an unknown quantity sounds almost as if you’re cutting against the grain as much as humanly possible, and yet it launched your career. Do you find that amusing?
I actually find it quite strange when we do it on stage now, and I love it. It has such a great memory, because we were so young and danced on stage like maniacs and sang this mad song. When we do it now — with more control, and we know what we’re doing — it’s like, “Wow, what a ridiculous song.” It had all those African beats.
It has such intense energy.
Yes, it does! It’s the only song when I get on stage and I’m exhausted at the end.
Do you know what the lyrics are?
No, we have absolutely no idea. Siobhan thinks it’s “Everybody get up, mom and dad are here, and dance.”
Is there one moment of hard partying that you think about, like “I cannot believe that happened?”
We had a night out with Robert De Niro when he called us and said, “Do you want to come out for a drink?” My boyfriend came out and said, “Robert De Niro’s on the phone!” We met with him he was in town filming and he had heard about the song, and we ended up at a party on Mulholland [Drive] at Jack Nicholson’s house and Drew Barrymore. … You’re very young, going to clubs in London, and the next minute you’re in parties in L.A., all over the place.
This could very well be apocryphal and if it is, I apologize — but is it true you once came out of a hotel room to hear Mike Tyson singing at you?
We did indeed, although it wasn’t a hotel. We’d just gone to a diner for breakfast and we’re coming back down the hill and he’s sitting out there and he started singing “Cruel Summer,” and we’re like, “That’s Mike Tyson, singing our song. How did he even recognize us?” ‘Cause we were in shorts. We were about to go to the beach. That was just wow, just insane. Obviously, he knew it because it was such a popular song, but it was fantastic. I couldn’t get over the size of his neck.
When Siobhan rejoined, was it frictionless? Did it require lots of rehearsal?
Obviously, Keren and I have been going for years, and it’s been great. We just thought we’d like to do something different. We’d spoken to Siobhan and met up with her in L.A. from time to time, and we thought, “Let’s do a a Christmas show!” But it takes so much time to get together, and it obviously never happened, but let’s see if she wants to do a one-off or a tour of the U.K.
Keren called her before Christmas and after Christmas she came over, and the next minute the shows were booked and the venues were booked and we got down to it. It was quite daunting, really. It all worked out really well, and obviously we’re only doing the period of songs she was there for — 1982-88, the best hits — and it just was just amazing. We’ve been on stage and we know the adulation and the fans who come over from the States to see us, but for Siobhan to experience it just blew her away. It’s been great to actually do it because it’s such a laugh, and we’ve known each other for so long. Obviously, there’s been a huge gap, but when you’ve known someone since you were young, it’s like family. So it just feels like a really nice experience.
Bananarama, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 8 p.m., at the Warfield, 982 Market St. $39.50-$50; tickets.