Sean Dickson aka HiFi Sean: Louder Than War interview
Sean Dickson was the lead singer of well-known Scottish rockers Soup Dragons. After scoring a worldwide hit with a cover of Jagger/Richards composition I’m Free the band split and Sean went into hiding. With his current guise of HiFi Sean he is currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Matt Mead interviews Sean exclusively for Louder Than War.
LTW: Hi Sean, can you go into some of your upbringing and your first memories as a child?
Sean: I come from Bellshill which is a satellite town in Glasgow. My first musical memories were of me playing with my parents 45’s on sticks and stones on the back step of our garden thinking it would make the same noise as I heard when they played them on that thing that sat in the living room. So quite early on around the age of 5 they bought me my first record player to stop me destroying their collection. I was obsessed with any records I could get my hands on and would get lost in all different kinds of worlds in the privacy of my bedroom on random music I got from brothers, aunts, uncles you name it.
What was the first music you can remember listening to?
I clearly remember hearing T-Rex Get It On as a kid. Obviously many years after it came out but there was and still is something magical about that record that fills so many voids for me and still ticks so many boxes. It was something you could move to, it was joyous but yet slightly melancholy to me which I realize now as being the string section and I was hooked into that sound and production values which I still am to this very day. Little did that young boy know that he would eventually work with Micky Finn from T-Rex who knew it was one of my all-time favourite records and he gave me his actual 7” copy which was 2nd off the press after Marc’s. The night Micky died we played that very copy at the club night I was co-running at the time at Glasgow Art School called Record Playerz and we all had a dance and a tear in his memory.
What was the first serious music you can remember hearing?
I suppose if you mean music that changed the way I thought about music then likely as a teenager when Human League Unlimited Orchestra album came out. At that point this 12 year old did not know what dub meant or even an extended version but suddenly to be presented with a collection of my favourite songs at that period, that sounded like they were re-made on the moon, completely blew my mind to how sound could be manipulated. I still to this day think Martin Rushent was a genius. I mean listen to his Linn Drum programming and you can clearly hear that Prince was influenced by it. I spoke to Martin a few times and had a chance to tell him how much I loved his work and was hoping to work with him but sadly he passed away before I ever got the chance to. Those records including many others he made set me on the path of production ideas as I would sit with a double tape recorder, a Drumatix 626 drum machine and a Roland SH101 making little albums on c-60’s one which I still have with a cover of Crow & A Baby by the Human League and also my attempt at age 14 of trying to make a dub by rewinding the cassette back and recording over bits like an echo loop.
Who influenced you to start singing?
Well the thing is I never really planned to be a singer just like I never really planned to be a DJ, it kind of happened! I wrote some garage punk 2-3 minute pop songs and put a band together. At rehearsals I would not sing that loud and would shy away from it till about 2-3 weeks in our bands existence we got our first gig supporting Primal Scream at the infamous Splash One club. I had to sing out properly loud down the mic for the first time ever and there was no going back from there really.
When did you start writing songs? Who influenced you to start writing songs?
I think I realized at a young age I had the capability of imagining finished music in my head , kind of daydreaming melodies, little worlds I would create and then learning to play guitar (badly) I would transpose those ideas and take it from there. I was always pushing for new things, never happy staying on one place. I suppose I am still like that to be honest.
Picture by Steve Double
Were you in many bands before the Soup Dragons?
Myself and Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) and Dulgas Stewart (BMX Bandits) all hung about and grew up together. We used to create bands all the time, I even remember we created a band called The Child Molesters and got a gig at my school just so we could get banned by putting the posters about Bellshill, but here is the thing, we didn’t and we had to play, we even did covers of Velvet Underground and Throbbing Gristle to my school teachers, the more I remember this the more I am insanely proud of us.
How did the Soup Dragons form, I understand this was back in 1985?
1985 yeah. We were literally together a few weeks when we made the first single, a flexi disc that was free with the Pure Popcorn fanzine and next thing we knew that flexi got single of the week in NME. Next thing we know they gave us a 3 page article and I’m sitting at home with my parents where I still lived. The phone rang and my Mum said someone called John Peel is on phone, it was the BBC wanting us to do a Peel session! I said we don’t have any money to come to London, his assistant said we could meet John next Saturday at Glasgow Queen Margaret Union which I did. I went up to him where he was DJ’ing and he gave me a hug and said ‘here’ and pulled about £100 out his own pocket and said ‘will this get you down to London?’ We became good friends over the years right up till he passed away. I loved John. He was someone I looked up to. I always tried to give him the £100 back even leaving it lying on his car seat one day but he would not have it.
He did say to me the best thing that anyone has ever said about music which blew my mind and I think of nearly every day, I asked him at his kitchen table one day ‘how do you keep doing this?’ as he was making piles out the tapes he had just been delivered by postman, he looked me straight in the eye and said ‘Sean the next record I hear may be the best record I have ever heard…’
How did the songs form within the band in the early days? Was there any element of jamming or were the songs all formed by individual members?
To be honest I wrote them all apart from one or two. When I think back to it, it was not about me hogging the limelight or anything planned like that. It was just my mind was running at 100mph all the time, these songs were just appearing from nowhere out my head. We of course jammed the songs. I would bring to the rehearsals with everyone adding to the sound we had. I look back on it now and wish we did write more together but it was just the way it was at that point.
You were inspired by Punk in the early days. Who were your influences at this time?
I would not say punk as such but more punk attitude and aesthetic. From 60’s garage punk, psychedelia to electronic artists with underground attitudes too. It was not like I had an A-Z what I only listened to. I was listening to everything and anything a bit like John Peel show was, randomly all over the place, ethically all the same attitude. That is what it was all about, we all connected on the same zeitgeist and attitude. To me Soft Cell and The Stooges were not that far apart in my books.
How did it feel to be able to physically release your own material? The Soup Dragons first release was a demo You Have Some Too follows by a flexi disc If you Were The Only Girl In The World.
No the demo tape became one of those things four of us had which seemed to be copied tape to tape and end up everyone having. I even remember seeing it at record fairs and likely still is, but it was originally only 4 copies, the first proper release was the flexi disc I spoke of previously.
Are there any demos and archive material available?
I’ve got tons and I mean tons of cassettes and DAT tapes which are likely full of stuff. I wrote a lot of songs we never ever recorded properly.
You were singed by Former Wham! manager Jazz Summers. Any interesting stories of being in and around Jazz?
Yes Jazz Summers & Tim Parry from Big Life called us one of the times we were down recording Peel session and we went to their offices. It was insane that a former co-manager of Wham (and once a drummer with the Kinks too which kind of swayed it for us) wanted to get involved. We thought ‘why not!?’ as his and Tim’s enthusiasm was so refreshing in a world of labels chasing us trying to impress us. I still to this day work with Big Life and with Tim (sadly we lost Jazz a few years ago). The trust I have with Tim over the years is like having a family member I can turn to when I need. I have made it quite clear what my feelings are about 90% of the music industry and why I stopped for 15 years making records. Tim helps me fish out the shit and keeps an eye out for me basically. That I am truly grateful.
The band’s first album was This Is Our Art. Listening back to the record now what are your feelings about it? Do you have any favourite songs?
Weird thing was we signed to Sire Records before this and they compiled our first few singles for release in the USA plus released the Hang Ten album. I swear up, to them I did not even think or realize the concept of making an album. It was all just little 7” and 12” EP singles for me and then it was like ‘oh shit I got put the idea of an album together’ which was kind of written over a few years and too many ideas got involved and kind of meant the album was like 3 different albums in one. I remember the day it came out. It still felt like a compilation of previous singles and really confused me. To be honest the first proper album conceptual and song writing wise was Lovegod.
There were then a few line-up changes within the band, can you go into details the reasons behind this?
There was only one line up change. Ross our drummer had taken a few years out from his course at Glasgow Art School to do the band and was given the chance to finish it so he chose to do that. I am glad he did as he is now a very respected artist and professor too. I have so much respect for that man and love him for the days and laughs we had. This was towards the end of 1988. Technology in music started to become more affordable with samplers and drum machines appearing. I was not a stranger to drum machines and synths as I had both since I was about 15 years old but a sampler was like a mind explosion for me. This machine took me to all that psychedelic day dream shit going on in my head and I could suddenly create these little tunes that sounded like they were made on the moon, like Martin Rushent used to do too. I came up with the concept of making a rock n roll album with technology and beats like a cross between those crazy punk aesthetic acid house records that were appearing but with the acid garage rock we used to play. The first track I wrote like that was Backwards Dog which was essentially me thinking if Salt N Pepa made Push It with Sonic Youth as a backing band how would it sound? I even cheekily sampled Thurston in the album version doing the ‘its funky fish y’know’ rap.
How were gigs in the early days? Did you support any well-known bands or play any interesting venues?
We supported Jesus and Mary Chain a good few times who I adored and still do. A huge influence on me, also we did a 3-4 month tour of USA in 1990 supporting INXS and became really good friend with Michael Hutchence who was an absolute gem of a man. We had so many laughs with him.
Your sound then changed due to not having a drummer for a while in the build up to Lovegod being released. Can you go into some details as to why there was this change in sound?
As I said above drum machines and samplers took over. I took charge of that and I suppose I became the producer I am now. I was doing things which to be honest I have never been given the credit of doing first. Like taking famous drum breaks, time stretching them to half the speed which became a trip hop trick many years later. Also we were the first band to be coined as indie dance then as the music papers were kind of trying to put us down as not being dancey enough to be dance or indie enough to be indie. It was a put down really and then all these years later look at how on every single music download site indie dance is a well-respected genre that also mutated into Nu Disco.
Picture by Fox Photography
Were you influenced by the acid house scene and the electro music of the time?
Big influence was those Phuture acid tracks appearing in 23rd precinct records which I started to shop in. They started to get to know me and gave me white labels of stuff to listen to. I was sampling breaks and noises, layering them with garage punk pop songs on top and having a complete high on making music that sounded like the stuff I was dreaming about in my head but never could do with a 4 piece guitar band.
Were drugs an influence?
Sure there was drugs involved at various times during the life of the band more so around 89 onwards, especially for myself and the clubbing I did. Yes it influenced the aesthetic to the music then, a capture of UK youth at the time and what a great way to have a period of your records which were an honest snap shot of the punk aesthetic and DIY attitude of the acid house era but coming from the minds of an indie guitar band .
You recorded the now well-known Rolling Stones track I’m Free. Can you tell us what the reason was for recording this track? Was it a ploy to get some air play and get the band more well-known? What was it like recording with Junior Reid?
It is such a story that whole record as it kind of appeared and made itself in one week
One minute we were watching The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park late one night on TV next day talking about it when we were all together and jamming I’m Free. Next minute in the studio we had some free time at the end of a session which I can’t remember what for. I decided ‘hey I got an idea how to do I’m Free’. You have to remember that this was pre internet days so there was no access to the lyrics or the actual music at hand in the studio so I made it up with the chord structure and lyrics to what I remembered and completely re-arranged the track to turn it into a 8minute kind of 3 part epic. The 12” is actually how it was recorded as I had no concept that I could have actually produced it as a 3 min song and extended it.
I did it the other way around, that first night of recording it we all went to a party of one of the staff at Big Life and was sitting getting stoned with friends and Junior Reid walks in, who was also on Big Life. We share a joint with him and I told him what we were doing in studio. He loved the whole concept so I said ‘hey come down and hang out and maybe record some stuff’. So I decided ok that section in the middle was for Junior, he turned up and I said did you see outside on the studio car park wall someone graffiti’d ‘Don’t be afraid of your freedom’ can you shout that at the top of the track , which he did. The graffiti was actually regarding the poll tax riots which were actually going on at the time, next day I got the yellow pages phone directory and decided let’s ask a gospel choir to sing on it and phoned up a few local ones. That afternoon luckily one close by had a prayer meeting and all came down to sing on it, around 35 people if I remember right, that is how the gospel section happened. On the 4th day I mixed it down and on the 5th day played it to Big Life. I remember the women we played it to broke down crying as she was so moved by it, that is when I was like ‘uh oh what have we just done here’.
The record came out and just exploded really quick. Next your on Top Of The Pops, travelling all over the world basically from a track that started a week as an idea based on watching late night TV and ended up being a worldwide hit .
Listening back to Lovegod now are you pleased with the record?
Very much and very much a misunderstood album too. We got lumped in musically with the whole Madchester thing. That album sounds nothing like any of those bands!
Yes, around that period I was influenced by acid house and clubland as it was way more exciting than the boring indie scene at that time which had lost its edge and drive. It has more influences of garage punk, fuzz bands with electronica and slow motion break beats with lyrics citing John Waters movies like Beauty Freak, wearing influences on its sleeve like Dream E Forever and its Suicide / Alan Vega vibes. Charles Manson sampled singing at the end of the album and most of the songs about being disillusioned with religion and trying to find yourself or take the option to kill yourself. Did any of that ever get taken into account? Of course not as I’m Free eclipsed everything in journalists’ eyes. They never ever listened to the album as a whole piece of work. Our fans got it and it had more parallels to someone like The Jesus and Mary Chain than like The Stone Roses or The Charlatans or Inspiral Carpets etc. It was my electronic take on euphoric fuzzed up garage rock with tons of psychedelic vibes poured all over it with samples from all kinds of influences.
The things we did were all my ideas and concepts; even the record sleeve, which was based on a design by mathematician Dr. Benoit Mandlebrot, known for his fractal theories. I contacted him via the London Science Museum, and he even gave me access to his movies of his fractals to use in the video to Mother Universe. And then BOOM, within three months of us releasing the album and the video, those fractals became the psychedelic look of acid house. And, guess what, we were suddenly jumping on someone else’s bandwagon for something that we did in the first place. It was so frustrating both musically and aesthetically as you thought you were really doing something unique and in your own world which is totally what I am to do especially these days. To be knocked down due to the lack of anyone actually noticing the timeline that we did do a lot of this on our own merit and before others too.
What are your memories of recording the album?
Experimenting with technology that was mind blowing and having fun with drum machines, samplers, FX and guitars etc, it felt like the album I always wanted to make.
I did a lot of techniques that were quite ahead of its time on that album which hopefully through the timeline of music history will eventually be granted its place.
You went on tour of support of the album and played all over the world. What are your memories, if you have any, of playing live at this time?
The INXS tour in USA was kind of insane playing to 30,000 people a night for 3-4 months. It’s funny how it all came about and a great story.
I was never really a fan of INXS to be honest and when we were asked it, it was an easy way to play 2 gigs to 60,000 people in Florida as opposed to spending a month playing every backwater venue in the state. Hutchence was a fan and asked us to do those 2 shows in Florida which we agreed to and flew out for what we thought was a few days. So you bring a change of clothes for that, basically back pack material. First night we went on stage to 30,000 people in this huge arena which was terrifying but also a huge buzz. He ran into our dressing room and said ‘hey’ we want you to do the whole tour I was watching you at side of stage’. I said thanks how long is the tour and he said at moment 2-3 months, I was like ‘eh I not got any clean clothes’, he disappeared and next minute his tour manager came back with a blank cheque to buy anything we wanted, so there you go we went shopping and did the INXS 1990 tour of America which was a bizarre experience. Watching a band and that massive stage in their career. Hutchence was having more fun hanging with us telling me I wish I was in your band as it looks way more fun than mine now. All I can say is he was one of the nicest most genuine and lovely guys I have ever met even to this day in the big bad music industry, we had a good laugh every time we connected even after that.
You began to get quite a following in the states, even rivalling Nirvana for best video by MTV. Did you tour and visit the states frequently at this time? Did you ever meet Nirvana?
Yes, that MTV nomination category was insane. Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Pearl Jam and us. I never met Kurt and the boys but think I met Courtney briefly. The thing I am most proud of the video that was nominated Divine Thing is the fact it was shot in 90’s downtown NYC meat packing district. Klub kids from Alig’s party scene & Jackie 60’s like the infamous party girl Connie Girl (Connie Fleming). The first ever video to have full daytime rotation on there with trans-stars from the LGBT club scene, very proud we caught this period of NY that no longer exists. The lyrics were based on John Waters multiple maniacs. John later gave me a signed can of hairspray as thank you, special moment in the bands history, I miss 90’s NYC.
Following this hive of activity the band disbanded in 1995. Can you go into some details why the band broke up?
Basically because of one bad apple rotted the core after the period. Ross the original member left as I said above I took over programming the drums but we got in a drummer for live situation. We signed him to the contract and 3 years later split up. The original 3 people who had been together right from the start, simple as that. Sometimes I think we would have gone on to do more exciting and wonderful pastures and might be still around today recording and touring. If that situation would have not happened, but then again I would not be making the music I am truly happy and proud of that I am making at the moment.
What have you been up to since the breakup of the band?
I had a band called The High Fidelity. I am so proud of that band. That’s where the DJ name came from Hifi Sean. Bollywood Orchestras, electronic meanderings, garage punk aesthetics, lo-fi and hi-fi flip sides on singles. Those two albums are something that mean a lot to me. I love those three other guys [bandmates Adrian Barry, Paul Dallaway and Ross McFarlane]. We should have been bigger than The Beatles end of. But I fucked it up completely by coming out as gay and totally nose-diving into a world of depression and self-loathing. I didn’t make records for 15 years till I made the album Ft. a few years ago, a concept album curating my own musical path working with artists who inspired me .
You are currently known as HiFi Sean. Can you go into some details as to what you are currently up to?
I have a few more club based singles coming out next few months. Love Is On The House is an electronic based late night jam with gospel influences which sounds like a weird hybrid of Patrick Cowley producing Ike & Tina Turner in late 80’s Chicago. ‘Love is on the house if you want it to be’. Kind of solves the world’s problems right?
I have also been working on a very special album over the last year with David McAlmont (McAlmont & Butler). We have become a team and are writing a beautiful soulful psychedelic journey of music with an orchestra and electronic meanderings. Touch down will be 2020. I would say quite easily hands down the best music I have ever been involved in.
Will see ever see Soup Dragons reform?
As the original line up who knows? As the line up from 1990 onwards …. Never.
Lastly, what’s on your turntable at present?
Tame Impala new single is gorgeous. In clubland terms loving a new electronic producer called Demi Riquismo whose last two 12”s are best thing ever and always a big heart for In Flagranti and what they are up to at the moment.
All words by Matt Mead. Further articles by Matt can be found via the Louder Than War author archive pages.
Lead photo © Paul Grace.