Kelli Ali has always been that voice.
As the former singer of the Sneaker Pimps, the iconic trip-hop band known for their hits “Spin Spin Sugar,” “6 Underground,” and “Tesko Suicide,” Kelli first captivated listeners in the ‘90s thanks to her instantly recognizable vocal style — an elastic, twinkling voice that’s both haunting and soothing, and perfectly primed for any genre of music thrown her way.
Following the 1996 release of Sneaker Pimps’ runaway first album, Becoming X, Kelli parted ways with the electronic group and pursued a solo career with albums like 2003’s sun-kissed dance-pop record, Tigermouth, and its edgy 2004 pop-rock sister, Psychic Cat. She also teamed up on a string of diverse features and collaborations, lending her inimitable voice to tracks with funk legend Bootsy Collins, Linkin Park, and Marilyn Manson, among many others.
Yes, Kelli Ali has always been that voice — and in the music video for her sinister new single, “Sadistic,” premiering here first on LADYGUNN, she uses her instrument to make a poignant political statement about the state of consumer culture and commercialism.
Described by Kelli as a “modern ode to infatuation and addiction,” the hypnotic, pulsating electro track comes with a fever dream visual. Featuring Kelli wearing a Marilyn Monroe-esque wig and perpetually applying lipstick as images of bullets, consumer goods and the words “DEEP FAKE” flash across the screen, “Sadistic” plays like some sort of twisted, subliminal late-night infomercial. (And in fact, you can purchase a USB lipstick containing the track and its video here.)
“The way you can’t stop thinking of someone when you have a crush on them or when an addiction to something has crept under one’s skin. As Bukowski so beautifully said: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’ I think that’s what we tend to do; it’s a characteristic of the human animal,” Kelli shares.
She adds that the repetitive lyrics were meant to convey a “constant loop of fantasy and delusion” and the “internal conversation that occurs in the mind of one completely consumed with a passion or addiction, and how that can be ultimately devastating. The nature of human existence can often be quite sadistic, when you think about it.”
Watch “Sadistic,” below:
Kelli is currently working independently to release her new album, Ghostdriver, which finds her returning to her trip-hop roots, as well as exploring jazz and dark orchestral elements. The album will also be released alongside — and serve as the soundtrack to — an indie noir film of the same name.
Frustratingly, the project was crowdfunded (123% of goal, no less) on PledgeMusic, which abruptly folded in 2019, leaving countless artists — Kelli included — in limbo, unable to receive the funds raised by their fans. Thankfully, Kelli still plans to release her album, but the incident highlights the fragility and potential dangers of corporate-run crowdfunding platforms, as well as the challenges facing independent artists today.
Below, Kelli Ali opens up about her “Sadistic” new single and noir-inspired upcoming album; the challenges of filmmaking and crowdfunding; and working with her Sneaker Pimps bandmate Liam Howe for the first time in years.
You wrote “Sadistic” alongside your longtime friend and collaborator Satoshi Tomiie. What has your creative relationship with Satoshi been like over the years?
Satoshi got in touch with me after a long time where we lost touch. He sent me the music and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know exactly what will go with this.’ I had the lipstick line rolling around in my head for a while and a verse, and when I heard the track I knew it was made for that line. Originally [the song] was for Satoshi’s album, but he wasn’t feeling it so I asked him if I could use it and he kindly said yes. I asked the brilliant Guido Spannocchi to play sax on the track and that really brought it into its own landscape for me.
How did mass consumerism and corporate corruption inspire “Sadistic”?
[After making the song,] when I began thinking of a concept for the video, I realized that I was making this release as a lipstick USB stick and though I see my work as art, as opposed to commerce, I was still making a product … to be consumed by other humans. If I had a billion listeners, I would no doubt want to make a lot more lipsticks! It got me thinking [about] how we are all intricately entwined to a system, and share in the corruption of these corporations and governments whether we like it or not. We are implicit by default.
All through history, mankind has struggled with a perceived evil and darkness. More often than not, the systems and faculties devised to help with the struggle, such as religion, become more corrupt than the imagined threats they were designed to repel. I began thinking of human nature and its inherent predatory instinct, the power of huge corporations and corrupt governments and the old adage: “Power is corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Power, profit, money… most of us have either been conditioned or have this innate desire for more. We are on a cataclysmic cycle of unfulfillable [sic] need, and it seems on the precipice of sure destruction as a species.
The video for “Sadistic” plays like a hyper-surreal consumer culture fever dream. What inspired the visuals?
I edited the video myself as I was very clear about what I wanted for it. At first, I kept seeing this great graffiti around London and loved the tattooed, gangster-style Marylin [Monroe] as an icon of the mashed up aesthetic of now. It’s like an ode to Banksy in a way, too, as I love his work. I suppose like everyone else, I’ve been bombarded with logos and news/political scandals and social media as part of daily life and was questioning what it all meant to me. The Amazon was on fire (maybe still is?), the water is being poisoned and yet, it seems there’s nothing anyone can really do. It’s like none of it is real because many of us still have water running from a tap when we [need] it.
I believe that there are so many unanswered questions about existence and life and the universe; that no one really knows what the hell is going on anyway (which I find much more exciting than a world that pretends to have all the answers), but Banksy has a brilliant way of exposing the hypocrisy and inherent corruption at the heart of society.
As I started researching for the video, I was amazed by the hypocrisy of some of the big companies pulling out of funding schemes due to political pressure in the US, but reaching out to the LGBTQ+ and youth cultures in their ads. Then the massive influence of food and pharma companies on politics, and then the arms trading of the UK and US governments, and hugely corrupt Vatican practices over centuries… Everything began clicking into place for the video. It had to be a massive mash-up of it all — as much as I could fit in to a few minutes-long music video — with the tattooed Marilyn/TV shopping channel narrator as an impartial, kind of blameless but disturbing entity representing modern entertainment.
Do you think the world has gotten a bit “sadistic” in terms of our social and political climates?
It seems to me that things have always been pretty dodgy. I grew up in the ’80s in Birmingham on a council estate, when Thatcher and Reagan were around. Almost everyone I knew was on the dole (because wages were so low, it made no sense to slog your guts out — not much change there) and I always thought everyone in the UK knew that they were screwed over. The class system assures that most people will work and live like dogs chasing their own tails to prop up the overlords. [You] just gotta do the best you can to escape that fate and live your own life—find beauty wherever you can and understand that nature is not equal and everything is not always what it seems.
The Tories have always been pretty disgusting with their smug, reptilian, fat cat ethos, but in general, I am not a political animal. I thought the Brit Pop Blair Labour regime was equally disgusting with their illegal invasion of Iraq. I stay away from it all as much as I can. If you look at Stalin, how brutally cruel he was to his own people and, indeed, in Hong Kong at the moment and the disgusting re-education camps in China, countless other injustices are being carried out by governments. It’s obvious that there has never been any relent in human cruelty in terms of power abuse. Same in Ancient Egypt and Rome and Medieval Europe. The difference now is the industrial scale on which atrocities against nature are being carried out.
I read a great book called Dracula Was a Woman. It’s about the batshit crazy Elizabeth Bathory. In a letter that they found when she was about twelve years old, she recounts an episode where some gypsies were accused of stealing a child. The punishment for this was to slit open a horse, put the accused inside the horse, and then stitch it back up while both the horse and person died a slow, grim death.
I guess modern times are not quite as gruesome for a lot of us in the West in the individual sense, but in the grand scale you could say the few in power have much greater abilities to cause much deeper infliction to greater numbers and the world at large. But if we are indeed nature itself, and not outside of nature, maybe that is [the] purpose of humanity: to bring full destruction for greater renewal to take place. I simply don’t know, of course. All our fears are based on the fear of death. This is the greatest mystery and until we know what death really means to the consciousness/spirit, we will always be in the dark about most of life’s questions.
So, maybe we are parasitic and sadistic by nature, for a reason that we do not yet understand, just like any other parasite? Maybe it all never changes really, it just [becomes] another version of the same relentless, crazy, beautiful mystery until boom! It all goes back to nothingness again.
What themes and stories will Ghostdriver explore?
Ghostdriver explores questions of isolation and love, art, sin and repentance, and light and dark within the human existence, using the great city of London as a kind of floating world. Each of the arts is represented in some way within the film; it is an ode to love and the arts and London and all my loved ones.
What inspired the jazz and noir influence?
The Ghostdriver album is the soundtrack to my Ghostdriver film. The film is black and white and very noir. One of the main characters of the film, Jack knife (played by Cult With No Name singer Erik Stein), is a trumpet player. My character, the Ghostdriver, is in love with [and] obsessed with him, so I felt that the whole album should be have that jazz element to subliminally follow that thread of her obsession. Also, I have fallen in love with so many great jazz musicians. Chet Baker often plays here [in London], so it was quite natural for me to want to bring jazz into my next record.
What sort of role does your character play in the film?
I play two parts in the film. The Ghostdriver is a lady chauffeur, a lonely soul entrenched in an immortal timeless London, which is palpable in almost every scene of the film. She is very much based on my own experiences of loving and witnessing London and all its beauty and darkness, but she is lost in her own way, not really aware of what lies behind the scenes of her own existence. She is obsessed with a trumpet player, Jack Knife. This is a big deal for the Ghostdriver, who has never been in love before. Jack is in love with a psychotic torch singer called Chelsea Blue — who I also play! It’s funny: I only saw Jean Cocteau’s wonderful film, Orphee, way after I’d finished filming Ghostdriver, but there are some very close symbolic parallels [between] the characters which I couldn’t believe.
What sparked the idea to release a film? Was filmmaking a dormant passion for you?
I have been experimenting with film since me and my close pal, Leigh [from] Bit-Phalanx started making videos for my music, starting with my videos for “The Art of Love” and “Kiss Me Cleopatra.”
From those experiments, I felt ready to try and approach a feature length film, and just felt it was the right time to try it. At first, I think we thought of it as a shorter film piece, but the whole story began clicking into place for me and as always, if I get a really strong idea, it just won’t let me rest until I run with it, so I did. I have always loved film from a very early age.
Luckily, I am surrounded by some of the most beautiful, talented artists in London, so the whole thing was a blast. Leigh helped me so much with filming and of course, those close to me. I also made some new friends along the way. I learned to edit the film and that was a great experience, learning such a different thing, which made me love filmmaking even more. It’s like shaping a dream. Every day while I was editing, I would wake up and just could not wait to start editing. That kind of creative excitement is very important for an artist.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced while working on the film component, and how did you overcome them?
Creatively, there were very few challenges. I am happy to say the whole process was a dream, a delight! Perhaps initially, conveying my ideas to others was tricky because I didn’t write a full screenplay until halfway through filming. I didn’t know how, so I learned to do that along the way. The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone read it anyway! The actors just read their own scripts that I wrote well in advance of filming, but at first I had to just show people exactly [how] I wanted them to film or act.
I could see it all before me when I closed my eyes. I chose all the locations and props, but it’s not always easy to describe scenes that don’t already exist to someone, without creating a copy of someone else’s work, which I of course avoided. After we had filmed a few hours of footage, I think everyone on board had a better understanding of the world and characters I was trying to bring to life, and things began falling into place quite beautifully. Though we were always working on a very tight timeline, as there was so little budget, the big challenge was being focused enough to organize things in a way so everyone involved could do their magic without too much chaos once we were shooting.
The biggest challenge for me, personally, was in the editing process; creating a sense of pace and not just a string of scenes. With a record, you have a group of songs with spaces in-between, but with film, it has to tie together and feel like time passing — sometimes days — so that the person watching can get lost in the world you’re creating. That’s something I never anticipated when we began filming.
I guess one of the biggest challenges that I’m facing now is the completion of the film. I have to work outside of my own zone and find people I can work with who I believe in and can work for essentially no budget.
Where does the situation with PledgeMusic stand currently? Have you had any success in getting any of the funds you’re owed?
There has been no word from either PledgeMusic or the administrators who have taken over to deal with winding up the company, so everyone’s still in the dark as far as I know. Unfortunately, PledgeMusic has made no effort to compensate any of the people affected by the mismanagement [and] theft of funds. My listeners have been incredibly patient and encouraging. I am dedicated to completing the film and delivering all the pledges either way, but without the remaining funds it just takes time.
Your former Sneaker Pimps bandmate Liam Howe did some producing and mixing on the upcoming album. What’s your relationship with Liam like today, and how was it working together for the first time after so long?
Liam and I began corresponding a couple of years ago when I was recording the Ghostdriver album, and I was delighted when he agreed to mix the album. He is a great sonic artist and has worked with a lot of my favorite artists, such as FKA twigs and Lana Del Rey. The production on the album was mostly done already, but Liam brought his great wealth of knowledge of all things sonic and gave the record the precious finishing touches that take an album from being simply good to outstanding. Only a great producer can do that and Liam is, in my view, one of the best. It was great fun, too! I always enjoyed his company and I was delighted and honored to work with him again.
You’ve dipped into many corners of music over the course of your career, from the electronica of your album Band of Angels, to the folk and psych-rock of Rocking Horse and the rock and industrial of Psychic Cat, to funk in your collaboration with Bootsy Collins. And, of course, trip-hop, among others. Are there any particular sounds/genres or elements that are still on your bucket list?
Yes! I’ve been called the “Cindy Sherman” of music at some point — a great compliment, as I adore her work. I tend to do whatever turns me on at the time. I feel that I will always just explore whatever interests me creatively, and as I love so many different things, they all tend to overflow into each other. I want to write a musical for sure, and an opera, and a dance piece in three parts. So yes, lots more in mind!
You’ve also collaborated with many incredible artists over the years. I wonder if there’s a standout collaboration that is dear to your heart? (Fun fact: “Faster Kill Pussycat” is one of my favorite tracks of all time, and it wasn’t until years after its release I found out you had written it!)
I’ve loved working with everyone I’ve had the great pleasure to work with. Working with Bootsy Collins was a fabulous experience — what a gentleman, what a star. I love him.
Also, [working with] Bryan Ferry had to be one of the greatest experiences of my life as I adore his music and he was so thoroughly charming. We sang side by side in his studio and he danced just like I hoped Bryan Ferry would do, and he was just so kind and lovely and stylish. Bryan had saw us [Sneaker Pimps] on a music show called Top of the Pops and just wanted me to sing backing on his new album [at the time], Frantic. It was like being a dream, all I could think of while we were singing was, “Oh my God, it’s Bryan Ferry!” I was in some kind of trance state the whole day. He invited me back for another session too, which was just as wonderful.
I’m glad you like “Faster Kill Pussycat!” I loved Brittany Murphy ever since seeing the film Spun, which she was amazing in! Fun fact: I had cut my arm trying to close a hotel window and was on my way to the hospital when that song first came on the radio — and I knew it was a hit!
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STORY / ERICA RUSSELL