Richard Dawson: Interview
Louder than War’s Ioan Humphreys interviews Richard Dawson ahead of a snowy sold out gig in Swansea and gets an insight into his recording process and his go-kart driving abilities…
March 1st 2018 not only brought St David’s day to Swansea, it also brought the much feared and dreaded ‘Beast from the East’ weather front. This ‘Beast’ would prove to be a right pain in the arse when it came to reviewing Richard Dawson’s sold out gig in the intimate setting of Cinema and Co in the evening. Some of this later. However, in the cosy (and safe for now!) setting of Rhodri Davies’ music room in the suburban outskirts of Swansea, I sat down for a chat with the softly spoken, funny, engaging and thoroughly lovely bloke that is Richard Dawson. Currently riding high on the brilliant reception to his latest album ‘Peasant’, Dawson was in a very talkative and relaxed mood despite the weather outside.
Louder than War: I have a feeling you’ve got a close affinity to Wales. Is this your first time to Swansea and what is your connection to Wales?
Richard Dawson: No it is not my first time and I do have a close affinity to Wales mainly through Rhodri (Davies. Harpist, friend and one of Dawson’s close collaborators). Rhodri moved up to Newcastle in the 90’s and I met him when I was working in the record shop. I was already familiar with his music and had heard on the grapevine that he had moved here. I met him and over the next few months got friendly and then we were quite firm friends and have remained so. It really educated me being around the family and being around the welsh language, and then of course a few years ago we started the Hen Ogledd project. I knew a tiny bit (about Wales), but it really told me all about the old kingdoms there and where the Welsh migrated from, where I am from there is that link back around 500/1000 years. I feel it is in the humour and a certain approach Very friendly people. When you find that out it kind of makes sense, you find those connections. I’ve never played in Swansea but I have visited a lot. We recorded some of the (Peasant) album here in this room so I think it is something in the identity of being a Geordie and the border which has closer affinity with the Scottish and Irish.
LTW: So Rhodri was quite an important meeting then do you think in terms of your music?
RD: For sure. On a personal level it will always be the main thing because the music comes from that. We have a lot in common in terms of taste and they cross over. A lot of differences too, but a really wide crossover r of things. We got together and tried to play something for the first time after knowing each other a couple of years and it was really very bad and just didn’t work and we weren’t ready for it. But then Rhodri came and played in the Glass Trunk a little thing in between songs and that was the start of something, then we were asked by Tusk music to promote up in Newcastle.
LTW: Do they do the Tusk Festival?
RD: That is right yes. He had asked us to perform as a duo on the back of the last trunk as a support to Thurston Moore so we did that it was our first gig and then just sort of took it from there.
LTW: Thurston Moore? Wow, that is a pretty full on first gig!
RD: Yes a good one.
LTW: Improvised as well?
RD: Mainly improvised. The interesting thing with this project, and this band, is to try and find something in hopefully that little sweet spot between composition and improvising. So that was the beginning and then we had 2 or 3 gigs, made the album and then made a second album so Hen Ogledd group is expanding all the time, it is quite different now.
LTW: Coming back to your music then, Peasant was very well received last year. Voted no.1 album by The Quietus. Top 5 in the Guardian. Top 28 in Louder Than War. How has that felt for you?
RD: I try not to put too much weight on it really. The exciting time for me really was making the album putting it out there and sharing it, that is the crucial stuff.
LTW: Do you read the reviews that is the thing!
RD: I read everything but I only remember the negative comments!
LTW: But you have obviously had exposure from it.
RD: Yes I don’t mean to brush of the end of the year stuff because I am sort of aware that more people will hear the record because of them so that is great.
LTW: So did you have a highlight of the last year or any gig?
RD: We ended the year with three dates, Norwich, Manchester and London. The London show we did at the Islington Assembly was really something. I think because it was the full stop to a busy year, in fact towards the end of the show I relaxed and could take it in where often I can’t. I enjoyed the atmosphere and being all together with the band.
LTW: You had the whole band with you?
RD: We always try to do it with the band, but sometimes Rhodri can’t make it and/or sometimes Angharad can’t make it and the other singers. It was just one of those really wow moments and take it all in because this doesn’t happen often.
LTW: You did The Quietus fundraising gig recently where you supported pigs x7. I saw those guys 2 years ago and they were fantastic. You have a link with them right?
RD: Yes Sam recorded the album. We’ve worked on the last 4 albums and Jonny the bassist is also the bassist for me and matt the singer is the drummer.
LTW: There is a lot of instrumentation, strings, etc. on Peasant. Do you play them live as well?
RD: Yes, but we don’t try to recreate the sound on the record. I don’t really have an interest in doing that. What works live and what works on record are often two different things, but the sounds can work in a number of different set ups and it becomes more towards a kind of rock thing. Then we have got Angharad pulling all these amazing shapes which almost brings a number of layers and depths. And then there is Rhodri with his amazing work and a whole load of other characters so it’s a pretty full sounding that is going.
LTW: So that Islington gig you captured that, is that why it was so special?
RD: I think it was the atmosphere as well and Christmas. It was really challenging last year. Happiness too, but there was a lot of stress around and I found it very stressful and I was trying to manage that. Over the Summer I had had problems with my ears and tinnitus and there were a few other things in the mix so it just ended up with everything being heightened so I think that was really coming into play at that particular show and it all came together so it was good.
LTW: So the new Richard Dawson LP. Are you in the middle or writing recording stuff with new ideas being thrown around?
RD: Yes. First we are working on the music. I am thinking about the instrumentation but, nothing more just the songs and the melodies and working them out on a guitar and I will get that to a point before I will start thinking about words. I am going to try and take it to a slightly different process to the last record, but in terms of I like to get all the music ready then the words come.
LTW: I was listening to Hollywood Avenue from the Jazz finger album which I think is just a beautiful song. You go on about your pets and the dogs you have had and then how you go back to your mum’s house and you are haunted by the scratching on the door and things like that. Then listening to Peasant with lines about ‘packing the horse’ and getting married and then is some quite vivid imagery about children hanging off strings and choking to death on dummies of puke and things like that. So you have got the growing up and going back to your mums, and then you have the really growing up and settling down with a partner. Is that a conscious theme or have I got it wrong with Peasant?
RD: I don’t think you have got it wrong at all. Some of the things talking about families and issues that are important to us via means that are something else, we don’t talk directly, but it is not like cowardliness or shying away from the thing. It is just actually the most direct way you can talk about emotional things. Indirectly so through an object or a pet. So that is one side of it, how we communicate with our families and work family dynamics we all have it. The other side is anything improving whether the issues are around violence or tolerance or learning to be more peaceful or be more productive everything will come back to the family. All of those things are linked to your set up and the people you are around and how you learn passed up from generation to generation.
LTW: John Doran of The Quietus has posed you a couple of questions. ‘You use a lot of what could be called literary devices in your lyrics, can you name some of the more interesting obscure or unusual sources of inspirations for some of your lyrics?’
RD: It is difficult. I try to get to a point where I sponge things and soak things up but then hopefully not be too indebted to one thing like for instance I don’t listen to any song writers, not much anyway. I like to get away from that stuff. I think more about writers and painters and different kinds of artists. Right around the time I was starting Peasant I was describing some ideas and someone said it sounds like (2013 Russian science fiction film) ‘How to be a God’ which is a film set in a medieval planet so that was in my thinking as well. I think in terms of particular devices wordplay I could go into detail about certain lines, but I am in danger of unpicking them.
LTW: When I first listened to Peasant, you occasionally sound like a wandering minstrel in a Chaucer’s tale. Not so much now, but it is just I found it so different to anything I had ever heard before. So I was just wondering if it was something like that John is getting at.
RD: I wonder if one of the things is that some of the language is quite exaggerated version of some roughly old English thing which would have been spoken when the album was set, so I think the idea was kind of to disguise the exaggeration at first. But actually if you listen a couple of times, some non-existent words and certain things like that kind of try and suggest some things.
LTW: Fellow Louder than War writer Simon Tucker wants to know ‘what made you choose the period of history to focus on for Peasant?
RD: That particular period on practical level was because there isn’t much documentation of that period. It is very vague in history books so it was much more of a blank canvas and that was useful but that is not a good enough reason to set it there. I think that time after the Roman Empire coming out of the UK and leaving things in a period of flux sort of struck me that that was an interesting time and a lot was up for grabs not just material, but ideas and how to run a society and a lot of two and fro and actually to live in a time like that would be a big challenge for me and how do you just keep everyday things together really those kind of challenges. People sometimes face some moral conundrums that before you might never of had to think about.
LTW: You have got several music projects on the go. Eyeballs? OB?
RD: Oh yes Eyeballs is pretty much done, I did that for a few years. I think other people were working in the same fields making better music.
LTW: What genre was it?
RD: It was like an electronic drone music. It was long pieces.
LTW: You’ve mentioned Hen Ogledd and then OB. Does having multiple projects help with your writing or sort of perspective?
RD: The only band I am doing now is Hen Ogledd. That’s it.
LTW: So that is quite interesting, you have played the field almost and now you are settling down. How’s the music scene in Newcastle? I read recently about Blank Space Studios reopening? Is this going to be good for the music scene?
RD: Absolutely yes, the Blanks are amazing people and they have built this new studio from the ground up and it is incredible. Absolutely amazing and they have got a great approach. They have got the price scale, but then if they know a band if they believed in someone, or if someone is local and just trying to get a start then they will make it happen. It is such a high level of work, I got involved with them partly on reputation and partly because I could afford it. But now we are a little bit further on we could probably go to another studio and get the help from there but I wouldn’t do that. I would continue working with them, they are doing world class work. So bands coming through can go in and see that and learn it is absolutely invaluable for the area. So that is part of their ethos which I think is quite rare. In terms of the local scene I am a little out of touch to be honest, things are a little more intense also because I have been in a relationship for two years now so going out less and being a bit hermit like so I am a bit out of touch.
LTW: Have you got any gigs lined up for the next few months?
RD: Yes just a sprinkling, I need to slow things down and get cracking with some other things, but we are in York next week, Budapest, a Newcastle show, Athens in April and a couple of festivals.
LTW: I think you coming to Swansea to play Cinema and Co tonight is a big deal and I’m not surprised it’s sold out. It is good for Swansea and good for the scene and the venue?
RD: I think what Rhodri is trying to do here could be pretty great for gigs and bringing some amazing people who would probably bypass Swansea.
LTW: Ahead of the gig tonight, does anything go through your head? Have you got any rituals before a gig?
RD: Not so much, with it being a busy period leading up to this I haven’t practised as much as I would have liked so I will just go over things this afternoon. I try not to overthink it, just be prepared and I have just been trying to warm up more thoroughly. There is the one aspect of warm up which is getting your voice and body ready so I have been more thorough with that and also watching how much I talk or talking in a loud room just practical concerns. The thing about the warm up as well it is almost meditative you are training your body to get ready and it does prepare you mentally as well by association having said that tonight we will see, it doesn’t always work.
LTW: You are going to be on your own tonight, but obviously we spoke earlier about the big sound you have got. So is it just going to be you and your guitar? Do you use loops?
RD: No that amplifier (points to a Fender in the corner) and that is it. There is a sweet spot on those amps and a lot of Fender amps where you can get a bit of distortion. It depends where you attach the string it can be really clean and pristine or really growly so you have a good range of colour there.
LTW: Have noticed that in Peasant, you do attack the stings quite a bit and in particularly on ‘Scientist’, at the end you really do attack right at the end.
RD: Real anger
LTW: Yes do you want to tell me about that?
RD: A really dark moment. A lot of it came from the frustration of not being able to play it as well as I wanted to and you kind of get into a certain state. During the recording of Scientist and Masseuse, I was beating myself up really badly and it was horrible to watch, but it is not often it is like that. I think those two songs in particular. Masseuse particularly was horrible and there is a lot of nasty business in there.
LTW: It really came out.
RD: Yeah so the guitar was the first thing we recorded. So you actually piece it together and so that bit you hear at the end of ‘Scientist’ would of probably been recorded somewhere in the middle when I fucked something up, but it actually fits. Let’s just grab that and tap it in there.
LTW: That is fascinating. I think just before the noisy bit at the end, you can hear you dropping something on the floor. I thought you had unplugged your guitar and thrown the lead.
RD: It wasn’t the lead, I can’t remember what it was but yeah I know what you mean. It was something DIY for light switches or something. I had some of those tied to the guitar so they were rattling and it was just cello taped so at the end it just sort of dropped and hit off the wood and fell and that is that sound.
LTW: I love that.
RD: Again that happened way off in some other tape.
LTW: That if fascinating getting insight into your recording process.
RD: Tricks of the trade. I don’t know what would be the longest passage of play would be. But you might do whole takes, but when you listen back and start to go into the process of thinking that bit was bob on and that bit is not. Lets go back. Once you start thinking in that way, then everything has to be as good as can be and appropriate.
LTW: Ogre is quite a euphoric track I feel. Especially when you start singing the end parts and the choir sing “when the sun is dying.”
RD: “Climbing” for the first eight and then “Dying”. I think the idea of it was a kind of frenzied chase or a surge getting more and more frantic. Actually in certain horrific moments in life, there can be a certain frenzy or exhilaration to grow as awful things. Things that aren’t as straight forward, often they are very interesting and enjoyable facets to experience or vice versa really.
LTW: Final question from John Doran. What was the last thing that went through your mind when you realised you weren’t going to make the corner in time when you were driving that go kart at Christmas?
RD: (Laughing) The last thing was something along the lines of (swears) I think I thought am I going to flip? I am not going at a speed enough to die but I could nearly badly wound myself, am I going to be badly injured? What happened was we went go karting on Boxing Day and it was my first time ever in a motorized vehicle as I don’t drive. I try to avoid any physical exertion, so I was just trying to get round for the first 15 laps then we had a break and I was last on the sheet. Way out! So I thought I have got the hang of this, I am going to go for it. On the second lap I really pushed it and was going really well, so I thought. Got on the straight and then went so fast I got mesmerised and I tuned out. I went to hit break, but instead I hit accelerator so I went full pelt into the bend barrier which travelled and then when it hit the next barrier it hit across here (points to his chest) so I was totally winded. My first thought was I couldn’t get my breath. I thought I had done something. I couldn’t breathe, but it passed quite quickly. Then four days later on New Year’s Eve I went to blow my nose and literally felt my whole side go out and it was rib. It had come off round about here (pointing again to his chest) and it had come away from the cartridge. It was horrendous.
Ok so back to the weather and tonight’s sold out gig. Swansea city itself seems to be getting battered by a gusty wind, but a flurry of snow. So the gig is going ahead. Unfortunately for a strong Cardiff contingent whose trains are already cancelled, and myself who lives up an increasingly snow covered mountain, the prospect of getting stuck in Swansea overnight is not a great prospect and I duck out of the gig after three songs.
From what I saw, Dawson is a singer, writer and musician who is absolutely captivating and is currently one of the most exciting live acts around. Don’t be fooled by his awkward, shuffling presence onstage. This is a man on top of his game and he has the whole audience in the palm of his hands. His between song banter is self-deprecating, wry and hilarious. He takes the piss out of the pop music that seems to be bleeding through the PA system of the venue. He picks up the mic to start a song, then just holds it by his side and blasts out ‘A Shepard’s Song’. The audience are struck dumb at the beauty of the vocal performance.
He then straps on his guitar and launches into ‘Soldier’ from Peasant with which he stays true to the structure of the original LP version, yet it is completely transformed with Dawson’s loud delivery and the attacking nature of his guitar work. His stage presence does not compute with the sound coming from the PA system.
Follow up is the instrumental opener ‘Judas Iscariot’ from his 2014 LP release ‘Nothing Important’. The shapes Dawson pulls whilst wrestling with the chord changes, harmonics, riffs, runs, scales and absolute disregard for any structure is spellbinding. This one track shows the true extent of Dawson’s virtuoso guitar prowess, and his ability to engage with his audience with minimal interaction.
And with that, it was over for me. My girlfriend was sending five minute weather warnings that I couldn’t ignore. Not even for Richard Dawson. I ventured into the storm and got home safe. Just… Apparently the rest of the gig was an absolute triumph and further video evidence will be uploaded in due course.
Richard has promised to return to Swansea in the near future, so beasts and storms permitting, we can all get to properly experience the genius troubadour that is Richard Dawson.