Louder Than War Interviews Dexys Kevin Rowland & Big Jim Paterson about the band’s latest release, how they feel Dexys have “…come back in a way that has integrity” & what the future holds in store for the band. Live pics © Levi Tecofsky.
Note to self. When it’s your first interview of note and you’re sat next to one of the most charismatic and enigmatic British pop stars, who has a rather coloured history with the press, it’s probably not a good idea to begin the interview with a question about bunking on trains in the late 1970’s.
A schoolboy error really and one mistake I won’t be making again. Kevin Rowland stares calmly ahead for a moment and then with a withering glance in my direction says “You know, we’ve just done a new album, just done shows and we’re interested in that. That was someone else – so long ago.”
I’m already nervous at meeting a man who’s been an inspiration to me over the years for his unique style and unerring determination to exact creative control over his band. Being put in my place so early in the interview is a chastening experience and so I apologise and hastily refer to my notes for something more suitable.
My first experience of Dexys Midnight Runners, as they were known back then, was their classic No.1 single Geno. I remember quite distinctly the blueish centre of the 7” single released on the Late Night Feelings label which I would play to death on my neighbours Dansette record player.
It was the first record that ever truly connected with me. Nowadays I know exactly who Geno Washington is and have even seen him tear up the stage at the Hare & Hounds in Birmingham only last year. Back then though I hadn’t a clue. But it didn’t matter because what made that connection so deep was the attitude and unashamed soul of a record that to this day still sounds as fresh as it did when hit the top spot back in May 1980.
After saying last year that “I’m not feeling it at the moment”, Kevin and the band were asked to perform the song for Jools Annual Hootenany. Kevin had half an idea to do it as a ballad, however his long time cohort Big Jim Paterson, who is also with us today, had another idea which proved to be better. Changing the tempo to adopt a Latin style has re-energised the song and it now sits well with their current style.
And here lies the key to the success they are currently enjoying. After so long in the business with enough highs and lows that would have destroyed lesser bands they stand confident, proud and, in Kevin’s own words, vindicated. The belief they have in themselves and this stunning record is palpable and which is why my opening question is so rightly a churlish one.
Released in June last year, One Day I’m Going to Soar was received to great acclaim by public and critics alike. As the waitress brings another tea bag for Kevin’s tea (not strong enough you see) I ask about the casting of Madeleine Hyland who plays the love interest on the record and Kevin confesses that studio time had been booked for the last two songs to be recorded but they hadn’t got a singer.
A chance meeting with Maddy at an art car boot sale and an introduction from London club legend Phil Dirtbox brought them swiftly together in the studio. Kevin is at pains to point out that she has added so much to songs that had been written some time before. Casting an actress who sings with a raw quality has given Kevin a strong focus for his personal creativity.
Since joining the band Maddy has also made telling suggestions in rehearsals that have helped to create a show that is so much more than just a gig but more like a testament to this most personal of releases. Her influence can perhaps be felt most on standout tracks I’m Always Going to Love You and Incapable of Love. Along with Free and Thinking of You they showcase the depth of personal feelings that have gone into this record.
As Kevin says “We’d ask her, does that work? And she’d say ‘try this”. “Incapable of Love” he confides “is a range jump for me, we couldn’t change the key so we had to have someone who could sing in that key”.
As we walked to the café on Kingly Street a little earlier, a young Modish lad said to Kevin in passing “Thanks for all the great music”. It seems that even though Dexys are all about where they are now, people still cherish the body of work they have produced that harks back as far as 1978.
Taking another sip of his tea and reflecting on the young Mod’s comment Kevin says “I can’t even remember the past. That was someone else. We were doing our very best then and we’re doing our very best now and there’s no greater feeling in the world”.
I venture that this album feels like a very personal record and did he pour everything into it in the same way as he had with the much maligned classic Don’t Stand Me Down released in 1997? Big Jim offers that Don’t Stand Me Down was more of a political record and ‘One Day’ is more about personal relationships.
So how do they feel about their 3 previous albums compared to their current release?
Kevin: “The first album I felt we’d done as good as we could, so much so we took the tapes home with us! The second album, I didn’t think we got that quite right. I felt we didn’t do those songs justice. They were difficult times and I don’t think the production was right on it. The third album, I think we nailed that and this one we nailed as well. We nailed three out of four”.
Does he read his own press these days?
Kevin: “I do but I probably shouldn’t as I often regret it. It would make my life more pleasant if I didn’t care so much. Life could be easier’.
Is it still Life or Death as they used to maintain back in the day?
Jim: “Pretty close. You go through every emotion – angry, happy, sad.”
Kevin: “Yeah, I come off stage and the odd little thing that didn’t go right annoys me.”
Jim: “I get upset about it and it takes me a while to get over it and then you look forward to the next one.”
Kevin: “…and they’ve been special shows and really well received. Every night when we do the whole album we get a standing ovation. And the old songs? Tell Me When My Light Turns Green – they won’t stop clapping some nights. That was something written in my flat 35 years ago and they’re still digging it now. We’re not doing a faithful 1980 version. We’re doing versions that feel right for us now and when we do that we keep our integrity. We do what we feel is right and when the audience respond to that there’s no better, purer feeling. It’s hard work getting to that level, that level of detail.”
Jim: “We don’t leave it to chance. We know what’s going to happen.”
Kevin: “…and you get that magic on top of it.”
And what does it mean to Big Jim to be back sharing a stage with his long time Soul Brother?
Jim: “He’s Kevin Rowland. That sums him up really. He’s a famous man. That’s a stupid thing to say. This is Kevin Rowland, he’s my band mate, my best mate, soul brother and partners forever. I’ve known him for so long I couldn’t think of him in any other way. It’s comfortable now, it never used to be, not in the 80’s. So much conflict and testosterone flying around. Egos, but it worked in our favour. We’re older and wiser now. We appreciate things more – the music, the audiences.”
Kevin: “It’s still a hard course to negotiate but we do take time to enjoy it. Savour it. Now we’ve got the opportunity to do it we’re not going to half do it. The only thing that’s given me real satisfaction in the past is doing things well.”
So what’s the difference between then and now?
Kevin: “I feel vindicated. I feel all the struggle and conflict has been worth it. At the end of the day, every decision we make, every conversation we have in that rehearsal room and sometimes how forceful or determined we get, it’s all to make the music better. No-one likes to admit they are wrong and I probably don’t. You wanna be right, everyone’s human. In this band we’re trying to make it as good as we possibly can. We’re trying to make it fucking great. That’s all we’re trying to do. Nothing more than that. You know what? It’s fucking working!”
His voice sounds better than ever these days. Does he have a voice coach?
“It’s all about the show. I live like a monk on tour – I don’t speak. I’ve worked hard on my voice. I’ve got a very good singing coach in Kim Chandler.”
The band has always had a definite style for each record. Does he have a stylist?
Kevin: “Oh yeah, we go to Dolce & Gabbana every morning for our clothes and then down to Gucci for our shoes! Course we haven’t got a stylist! Having said that we had a stylist for the album cover, Jason Jules, he writes a really good blog called Garmsville. A really interesting blog. He’s a friend and really gets us in every way, musically and stylistically. But we’re always looking y’know.”
Is every look key to each record or is it just where you are that time?
Kevin: “I think it’s where we are at that moment in time. We’re always looking fashion-wise. I’ve probably had a few different looks in the last 15 years and this is where we are now. But I’m very comfortable with this. It feels good and I tell you what’s good about it. It’s good for a man of any age, you know what I mean? It’s not like the Mod look for instance, which I think looks good on a younger man.”
And where does the band go from here? Another album perhaps, more shows?
Kevin: “The band is really good now. We’ve two new members who’ve settled in well. So while it’s this good we want to utilise it and take it forward. It’s took us a while to get to this stage – two years. It’s great now. Every department is really cooking, visually strong, really happening. It’s in the hands of the gods. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We didn’t even know we were going to make an album. We didn’t know if it was going to work or not. It did work.”
Jim: “We hope there’s another album but we don’t know. We’re not thinking about it right now, we’re thinking about these shows and improving them. Our audience don’t want to sit down. They stand up, carry on and enjoy the rest of the evening. It’s hard work but it rubs off on them.”
And suddenly the interview is at its end. It’s been an incredible experience listening to these two men and to feel the passion that they have for this band that means so much to so many people out there. As we finish up our tea and they sign my copy of the album for me Kevin says:
“I don’t know how long this will last. Next year it could be gone. Who knows, we might sell out, go on the 80’s circuit, become a Dexys tribute band and make more money! Seriously, this band – it means so much to me, it means so much to Jim, means so much to the band and the audiences. Do you know what? We’re doing it. We’ve come back in a way that has integrity. We’ve got integrity. We’re not trading on the past, that’s why we’re not interested in talking about the past. It’s not a fucking cash in tour. If we’d have done a greatest hits show we could make more money. But we’ve got something money can’t buy. We’ve got fucking self respect. We can hold our heads up high and we know that we’re doing our best every night.”
It might be 35 years ago since they brought us a new soul vision but the belief, the passion and the fire is still there. There’s no use searching for the young soul rebels any more because they are here, they are now and they are soaring higher than they ever have before.
All words by Martin Copland-Gray & live pics © Levi Tecofsky. More work by Martin on Louder Than War can be found here.