INTERVIEW: KEVIN ROWLAND

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“There was lots of people that were living in my area of northwest London—their dads were also builders … So some of their dads would have companies, and they’d be making big money. But they weren’t as exacting about the detail of what they were doing as my dad. I worked for him, and I would see. Something you would think would be alright was not good enough for him. He wanted it really, really right, you know? I’m like that.”

Kevin Rowland at length about why it took 27 years to make a new Dexys album, the art of conversational songs, the “indefinable” element Big Jim Paterson brings to a band and why songwriting is “f*cking hard word.” Oh, and also why younger musicians need to learn to appreciate dynamics …

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PS: Well to jump right into it, I got an imported version of One Day I’m Going To Soar last year.

Kevin: You got it imported? Cool.

PS: So I’ve had a lot of time to get familiar with the album and I’m glad to see it finally got a U.S. release. Was it always the idea to get it put out over here eventually?

Kevin: Well, you know, I still don’t know too much about that, because managers being what they are, I’ve been kept in the dark about it. It was always the idea. I really wanted it to be released there. It can be quite frustrating, because managers told me that, “Yeah, yeah, it’s gonna be released in America. There’s this label, they’re really up for it. Yeah, we’re gonna do some shows …” In June I think it was, this year, we were supposed to do shows over there, or May. Then it was September. Then it was, “Oh, we’re not gonna be able to do shows, but the album’s coming out.” So I don’t really know what happened.

PS: Well at least it’s out. That’s one thing.

Kevin: It’s out. It’s out, mate. And we’re going to try to get over there if we can.

PS: It would be great. I know you’ve been doing the rounds. You guys made it to Australia earlier this year? Or was it last year?

Kevin: Late last year.

PS: I know the opportunity for travel’s out there, but I also know that for a band that size, it can be kind of expensive to organize a tour.

Kevin: Yeah. I mean I think what happened is they gave us a couple of festival shows and also three or four theater gigs. And I think the festival shows pay for the theater gigs. But I won’t go into that now. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. If we can get out there, we will and if we can’t, we won’t. But it’ll be alright. We’ve made a good album. I’m happy with it and that’s great.

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PS: Definitely. I wanted to ask you about how it came together. Because from what I understand, that last piece on the album, “It’s OK, John Joe,” it seemed like that defined the whole narrative of the album. But some of these songs have been around for quite sometime already, haven’t they?

Kevin: You know, I mean the way the album came together was yeah, a lot of songs have been around a long time. Loads of things. To be honest, years of hard work and then, in the end, loads of serendipity. Each one of those songs that I wrote came from the heart. For instance, “Incapable of Love,” I wrote that after I’d come out of a relationship. I just thought, “You know what? I think I’m actually incapable of love.” Then I wrote those lyrics. “John Joe,” I was writing that to somebody. It was an email. They were asking me, “Do you believe in love?” And it was originally called, “It’s OK, Johanna.” I wrote to this girl, Johanna, who I’d met in Sweden. I was like writing back to her, “Well I do believe in love, Johanna, but I don’t know anything about it.” I wrote this long email, and then I thought, “Actually, that’s quite an interesting thing I’ve just expressed there.” I thought to myself, “I didn’t even know I felt exactly like that myself.” I knew it was from the heart, so I thought, “I’ve got to put music to that.” It was literally, like writing it, “But it’s OK, Johanna …” It was like writing stuff like that. But the songs I just stuck together with a couple of friends—or a friend, finally. They came up with that music, that riff and that was it. Simple. So loads of serendipity. So what happened is all of them songs were written—some of them from painful stuff, from whatever was going on in my life at the time. Then about 3 or 4 years before we’d actually recorded the album, I had a thought. I just thought, “Hang on a minute. If we put these songs in a specific order, it’s going to have a narrative to it.” So once I’d made that decision, I started tweaking lyrics around. And then I made “Incapable of Love” into a duet, and “I’m Always Going To Love You” into a duet, whereas previously they’d just been love songs or falling out songs. That’s what happened. It just sort of came together in the last few years. So there’s a lot of years and a lot of time gone into that album. I don’t know if I’d be able to make another one like that, you know what I mean? It’s a one-off, really. It’s like a first album.

PS: It follows a really good narrative, because I can imagine—certainly I’ve been through that kind of situation before—it goes through the whole honeymoon period. Falling in love with someone, or maybe just falling in lust with someone …

Kevin: Exactly.

PS: But you’ve got the great period in the album of “She Got a Wiggle” and “You” where it’s just, “Oh I would give anything …” and then as soon as you get into things, you realize, “Oh wait, this isn’t the right fit.”

Kevin: I know.

PS: It’s very easily identifiable and universal.

Kevin: I think it is. I think it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it? It’s definitely been my experience. And not only is it my experience, it’s my experience so deeply and so often that I felt compelled to write about it. Do you know what I mean? I couldn’t write a lot of love songs without being more truthful, you know?

PS: And working with Mick Talbot on this album, what did he bring to the fold?

Kevin: Well, you know, he brought some confidence for me. Because when I played him the songs, he went, “Yeah. Great.” You know? And what he brought as well was a sounding board. I love to have a sounding board. And I need one. I get lost otherwise. Mick was a kind of sounding board where I’d go, “Mick, do you think I should have two verses of that? Or three verses of that before we get to the chorus? Do you like this riff on strings or do you think it’s gonna work better on brass?” He was always giving me his opinions. I always respected his opinion—I didn’t necessarily always go with his opinion, but I listened to it. From finding out what he thought, I got to whatever was right for me, you know?

PS: So you’ve got Big Jim [Paterson] involved and you’ve got Pete [Williams] involved again too. Mick was in an early iteration of Dexys too, so is it important to have those faces there to bring back the sense of community?

Kevin: Well I think if it was gonna be Dexys, it had to be Dexys. Dexys is a spirit in a way. And I tell you what, nobody extols that more than Big Jim, really. We did some shows in 2003, which was the first Dexys thing we’d done since 1985. It was good. You know, it was good, but I don’t know if it was out-and-out proper Dexys until Jim returned. Although he didn’t play much on the album, he was there. He co-wrote four of the songs. And especially live now, I don’t know, he just brings something to it that’s indefinable, really.

Credit: Levi Tecofsky

Credit: Levi Tecofsky

PS: It seemed like a long gestation process. I remember hearing stories about those shows. There’d always be that rumor, “The new Dexys album is underway …”

Kevin: Well I mean, to be honest, after that—2003—I thought, “Yeah, let’s make an album.” Some people were going to me, “Yeah, why don’t you make an album now?” Some of the fans I could see on the websites were going, “Yeah, why don’t Dexys make an album? They’ve blown the chance.” But we weren’t in a position to make an album. Not a good one, anyway. Do you know what I mean? We haven’t made an album for so long. It’s one thing doing a few shows and working a few old songs together and rearranging them. But to make an album that’s going to stand up, you know what I mean? It took a long time. I moved to London, I think, the end of 2006, beginning of 2007. And I started demoing all the songs. Re-demoing them with a guy called Andy Lewis—very good guy. Came ‘round my flat everyday. And we would just work and work and work. We re-demoed the whole album in sequence. So I had it on a CD in the order that is now, pretty much. I think I changed two tracks, switched two tracks. I think I moved where “Wiggle” was. But apart from that, it was exactly as you got it on the album, you know? And then again, we already had those songs, but this time we sort of learned more about the songs. Every time you’d go into them, you’d find out more about them, you know what I mean? You dig deeper and you get to the truth more. The truth of what the song really is, and you say, “Ah, hang on a minute. That lyric’s not really right there. I should have said this.” Or, “Mmmm, that bass is getting in the way of so and so. We need to change that.” All that stuff. So we got them to quite a good shape. Good enough as a draft to show the musicians. So then when Mick got involved, he was very good in that he helped me find the musicians. And then when we got to the studio, he was really good in that he was the link. We did a lot of rehearsing before we went in, and he was the link between me and the band. So as well as concentrating on my vocals, I didn’t have to go up to people and say, “You know that note on the end of chorus one? Can you play that a bit quieter?” You know what I mean? Or, “You know that lick that you do on the second verse? Can you also put that halfway through the fourth verse?” All that—I would just say to Mick and he would communicate it to the band. Mostly. Occasionally I would jump in, but that was a big pressure off me.

PS: You talked about the timing and the work and energy and effort it takes to make an album. I know that there have been pieces between Don’t Stand Me Down and One Day I’m Going To Soar. Obviously there was The Wanderer. There was My Beauty. But going back to Don’t Stand Me Down and the work that went into that, is that the standard that you judge things by? Thinking, “This is going to take a lot of my energy, a lot of effort to put this together, and dammit if I’m going to do this, I’m going to make sure I do it right”?

Kevin: I guess so. I think subconsciously that was it, but you know, I don’t think I was conscious of that until we finished this album. Then I think I realized that I was very conscious of Don’t Stand Me Down. I didn’t want to do anything that I didn’t think stood up against that. And also, after Don’t Stand Me Down, to be honest, I was quite disillusioned. That’s why I did The Wanderer. Again, it’s easy to look at with hindsight. I didn’t realize that at the time. But The Wanderer—to be honest, I didn’t know what to do after Don’t Stand Me Down. It was reasonably well-received in some of the reviews here, but it didn’t sell at all. I had people from the record company telling me it was no good. So, I think I doubted myself after that. And then I just wrote those songs. Also I didn’t want to go through that again. It had taken an awful lot out of me. Billy Adams said that to me—“I don’t think I can go through this again.” I said, “I know, Bill. I’m the same.” I think that’s why I wrote The Wanderer, which is really, really simple songs. Just so simple. It was very light, really. I didn’t put a lot of effort into that, really, and now I wouldn’t really want to listen to it. There are probably a couple of songs that are alright. Maybe “Young Man.” Maybe “Wanderer” is like a country thing, you know. I don’t know, really.

PS: Well listening to in terms of the overall narrative of your career—the stories of what was happening and when, it all makes sense.

Kevin: Yeah, I guess it makes sense. I don’t think it stands up as a really good piece of work, perhaps. That’s just where I was at that time. Kind of disillusioned, really.

PS: When Don’t Stand Me Down was reissued in that “Director’s Cut” edition, you had all these magazines coming out and saying, “Yes, this was their masterpiece. This was when Kevin really made his statement as a songwriter,” did that kind of help with the confidence building and set you back on track?

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Kevin: I think it did. I think it really did. And then we did My Beauty—that was me and Jim, really. Jim helped me demo all of those songs. You know, without going into detail—it was a long time ago—but that experience, after that, I didn’t really want to carry on again either, you know? Just the way that was received here [in the UK]. It wasn’t about the music, it was about what I was wearing. I’m sure you can say that was my own fault, my own making, or whatever. I’m sure it was. But I was still shocked about it. It was about the music. I was really happy with that album. I thought we got inside pretty much every song, really.

PS: The cover of “Rag Doll” was incredible.

Kevin: The cover of “Rag Doll”? Yeah, we should’ve released that as a single, probably. And “Greatest Love.”

PS: There were a lot of songs on there—as you said, if you just take it from a music perspective, it’s unbelievable. But I think the fact that, as you pointed out, there was all this hysteria about the artwork. I don’t know—you’ve always been very outspoken about style and very distinctive from one Dexys album to the next. Even with One Day I’m Going To Soar. I guess when the look gets tied into the music that’s one thing, but I don’t always get it. There were similar criticisms to Don’t Stand Me Down—“Why are they dressing like this?” To me, it’s what does it matter? It’s good music.

Kevin: Do you think the music didn’t fit with the look for My Beauty?

PS: I don’t think it was that as much as, to me, what happened was the press just picked up on the look. “Oh my God, look at this.” So this becomes the story, and that influences how everyone’s going to listen to it, how everyone’s going to look at the music video. Instead of just saying, “This is a good version of this song.”

Kevin: Yeah. I think we did quite a few good versions. I thought “Reflections of My Life” was really good. I was really happy, actually, recently I just happened to look it up on YouTube. And I saw that there was a comment from Junior Campbell, who was one of the songwriters of that song from Marmalade. And he really liked it. He was complimentary. It’s still on there, I’m sure. He said, “I really like this. They found a different take with it.” And that’s what I did with all of those, or tried to. My version of them, you know? What they meant to me.

PS: I remember reading an interview at the time where you talked about how you were identifying those songs with your life at that time.

Kevin: I was.

PS: Again, I don’t think that story or that narrative for that album became what it should’ve been. “These are the songs that Kevin Rowland was identifying with …” That wasn’t reported as strongly as, “Oh my God, look at the cover of this album.”

Kevin: Yeah, I agree. That was an afterthought, wasn’t it? The narrative. But you know what? It stands up as a piece of work. So that’s pretty good.

PS: It might be another thing like Don’t Stand Me Down where it takes time away and then you look back at it and go, “Damn, this is good.” As time moves on, nothing’s quite as shocking as it once seemed.

Kevin: I know, I know.

PS: To go back to Don’t Stand Me Down, too. I wanted to ask you about the songwriting process for that. I know there were stories about trying to make it work from a recording standpoint, but that one more than any other Dexys album seems very conversational. In addition to singing, there’s a lot of narration and back-and-forth happening in that. How do you go about writing songs under that dialogue?

Kevin: Under the dialogue?

PS: Well, maybe the music was already there, and it’s just putting the back-and-forth with Billy on that album on top of it. It’s always struck me as such an interesting way to write a song.

Kevin: I can’t remember, really. It’s so long ago. But I do remember feeling really excited when I’d got the idea of the conversation thing. And realizing, “OK, that’s where we’re going next. We’re going to have brass and strings. We’re going to have great playing on it. And we’re going to have conversations going over the music.” Because we’d always done it, but we’d done it more with, you know, singing. Look at the chorus of “Come On Eileen.” They’re talking to Eileen, the BV’s. [Sings] “Tell him yes …” That kind of thing. I liked that. I’d heard that on Elvis. [Sings] “Oh let me be—oh let him be—your teddy bear.” Backing vocals normally go with the singer. “Oh let me be,” and then the BV would normally go, “Oh let me be.” You know, echoing what the singer’s saying. But now, on “Teddy Bear,” they’re just supporting him, but talking to the person. They’re not being him. So I used that on “Eileen.” I do think, I can’t remember what other songs now, but we’ve had quite a lot of call and response. Especially live. I think we’d been doing that quite a lot live. A few things happened before that album. One of the things was I’d heard “Rave On John Donne” by Van [Morrison]. I thought that was great as a monologue. But I thought more than a monologue, let me do a conversational piece. We did this thing called “Reminisce Part One” which was a B-side of the reissue of “Celtic Soul Brothers” in ’83. That led the way to Don’t Stand Me Down. Talking and singing, and it was a conversation between me and the band. I was telling them the story and they were putting in little bits. So I realized that was the direction. It just inspired me, d’you know what I mean? I just thought, “OK, that’s where we’re going.” Because I’ve got to be inspired. I’ve got to be lit up. I’ve got to feel that we’re not just doing something that’s what everyone else is doing. I’ve always got to feel that we’re doing something that’s different. It’s gotta be. It has to be. On each of the albums. And I felt that with this album. You know, the way we presented this album, One Day I’m Going To Soar, was different. Even the sound of it. The way we presented it, I think, is different with me and Maddie [Hyland]. Those conversational things, I think they really work. Although the instrumentation is traditional, I think the liveliness of it stands out in today’s arena.

PS: Listening to it, the first thing that struck me was just how crisp the drums sound.

Kevin: Yeah.

PS: You get that driving rhythm right away when “Now” kicks in.

Kevin: Yeah, we wanted that. Because no offense, there are some really good records being made. But quite a lot of the music that I’m hearing now, it sounds sterile. And I’m not just saying that as an old guy. I have to be really careful when I say that, because I don’t want to sound like—I can’t stand it when I hear people of my age saying, “The music now is no good, our music was better.” I’m not saying that at all. I’m too old to get a lot of it with some of the young music. I like a lot of the songs I hear, but the production that I hear—I don’t like a lot of the production techniques. I think they just make them too level. There’s not enough dynamics. So we wanted to get that. And they told us when they tried to master it, “Well, your record’s going to be quieter than everybody else’s, because you want all these dynamics in it. The only way to get it loud is to lose some of the dynamics and smash it up so it’s really loud when people put it on.” And I said, “Well I don’t care. They can just turn the volume up.” Classical music—you don’t have that all at one level. It goes up and down, doesn’t it?

Photo credit: Matt Hass

Photo credit: Matt Hass

PS: Oh, absolutely. Even when you listen to Sinatra—especially the live recordings from the Sands. The dynamics there that you’re talking about. Listen to old soul music. There’s always the part where things get quieter, and it’s just because those musicians knew how to play quieter.

Kevin: I know. They really did. If you listen to some of those Al Green records, sometimes they’re playing so quietly. It’s so restrained. It’s amazing.

PS: Some of the early Curtis Mayfield stuff with the Impressions …

Kevin: Yeah. Great, isn’t it? It’s a real lesson. Because there’s often a thinking here that you go in the studio and you play as loud as you can. [Laughter] When it starts, you play loud and when it finishes, you stop. Anyway …

PS: Well let me ask you this. I remember watching a documentary on Dexys a while ago and I remember you saying something to the effect that you wish you’d been able to enjoy the success more in the days of Searching For the Young Soul Rebels and Too-Rye-Ay. Going out and touring now, do you feel like you’re allowing that? Because I know the way the show format is now, you play the album, then you come out and do some of the older songs like “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” and “This is What She’s Like.” Do you feel like you’re able to bask in the appreciation from the fans now?

Kevin: Yeah. I am. Sometimes. When it’s going well. You know what? I’m a craftsman. I’m an artist. I’m just like my dad. I was talking about my dad earlier today to somebody. He was a builder, but he never made a lot of money. There were guys who probably weren’t as good of builders as him, but they made a lot of money and did really well. He didn’t. But he did really good work. He did really good work. And that’s the only way he could do it. There was lots of guys—you know, because I come from an Irish background. There was lots of people that were living in my area of northwest London—their dads were also builders. Because all the Irish were doing the building in those days. So some of their dads would have companies, and they’d be making big money. But they weren’t as exacting about the detail of what they were doing as my dad. I worked for him, and I would see. Something you would think would be alright was not good enough for him. He wanted it really, really right, you know? I’m like that. So when it’s going really well on stage—you know, there was a moment when we did the Duke of York Theatre. We did “The Waltz” one night, off Don’t Stand Me Down. And Jim had rearranged it, the dynamics, and it was brilliant. And after that, I just went to the audience, I had a big smile on my face and I went, “We really fucking nailed that one.” So when it’s good like that, I get such a buzz off it. But I could never rest on my laurels and just do the old stuff. I could never do that. It’s not in my DNA. I could only do that stuff and get off on it having known that we’ve just done the album and we’ve had a standing ovation for the album and it’s gone down a storm and they’ve loved it. They’ve been gripped by it. Every now and again, I look out of the corner of my eye and I see that they’re gripped by the story, because we basically act it out on stage.

PS: To that idea of Dexys history and Dexys mythology, it might have been in that same documentary where you talked about how you wished the music had become legendary as opposed to some of the stuff around Dexys. Whether it’s getting into a punch-up over putting out a single from Don’t Stand Me Down or not doing interviews but doing full page statements instead. With hindsight being what it is now, and when you look at Dexys fans and the devotion that the band created and still holds, do you look back and feel like it worked out for the best?

Kevin: Well, you know, I try not to look back too much. When I do, I try to just accept things as they are, because you can’t change them. Look, the thing is this. We’re lucky to have been able to put records out. I could’ve ended up on a building site all my life. The best I could’ve hoped for would’ve been to work in a hairdresser’s if music hadn’t worked, but it worked. I was very lucky I met Kevin Archer when I did. He was a great talent. He wrote the music for “Geno” which gave us our first success. And from that we carried on, you know? It’s not been easy all the time. There’s been plenty of hard times. You know, it’s alright, really. You’ve just got to try—I try to enjoy it now. Sometimes I manage it, sometimes I don’t.

PS: Does it still make you want to continue doing this? I know you said you don’t think you could do another album like One Day I’m Going To Soar.

Kevin: Yeah, I want to continue.

PS: What are the plans looking forward?

Kevin: I don’t know. Like I say, we want to make another album. Whether we will or not, you know, fate really. We don’t take anything for granted. You know, I tried to make an album for years and nothing worked, but finally this one worked. This came together. Hopefully the next one will come together. But one thing’s for sure: I don’t want to knock out any old album. I want to make another good album. We’ve got some ideas, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before we do.

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PS: Is it easy to form ideas with the lineup that you have right now?

Kevin: It’s not as easy as I’d like. It’s not bad—I definitely want to record with this lineup, because they’re really good. But I’m very driven to write songs. And I’m more driven than everyone else in the band to do that, you know what I mean? No one’s beating my door down going, “Come on, let’s write, let’s write, let’s write.” You know when people get older, they’re not as driven. But I am. I’m the exception to that. Even Mick wasn’t that keen to write. When we write, it’s fucking hard work, you know? We slave over the details. To make good music doesn’t come that easy to me. It takes work to do it well. But it’s alright.

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