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Issue 1101

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Kevin Rowland: Cleared For Take Off

Dexys' Kevin Rowland Credit: The Queens Hall Edinburgh
Dexys' Kevin Rowland Credit: The Queens Hall Edinburgh Dexys' Kevin Rowland Credit:The Queens Hall Edinburgh Dexys' Kevin Rowland and Pete Williams Dexys' Kevin Rowland & Pete Williams - Photo credit: The Queen's Hall Edinburgh

Kevin Rowland had been threatening a new Dexys album since their brief reformation for a tour in 2003. It never materialised. Fast forward to 2010, and he is sat in a tranquil Ayurvedic garden in India supping herbal tree bark drinks which are meant to heal all your ills.

He spent five weeks kind of finding himself in India, and visited that garden almost every day, sat contemplating his life thus far and perhaps looking for inspiration. He found it. On his return to the UK, he called his manager and excitedly told him: “Book the fucking studio, get the musicians, I’m ready.”

Despite many false starts over a few years, where studio and players were booked but he had decided, sometimes even on the day, that he did not fancy it and the muse had deserted him, this time he was deadly serious. So serious, he found himself a singing teacher to get his vocals into shape for a come-back album. In 2012, that album, “One Day I’m Going To Soar,” dropped and was a huge success, peaking at number 13 in the UK charts and winning widespread critical acclaim. So Homer Simpson’s predictions were spot on, when he uttered the immortal words: "You haven't heard the last of Dexys Midnight Runners." It’s Dexys now though, Homer. Doh!

A UK tour in sold-out venues won much praise for Rowland and Dexys - Kevin joined by two original members “Big” Jim Paterson and Pete Williams, with Lucy Morgan on the team too, who was on the 2003 tour - with the new shortened name and his new lease of creative life. Ex-Style Council member Mick Talbot was on board for the tour and album too, but no longer in the band today. Since then, Dexys sold out a season of triumphant gigs at a West End theatre and about to head to Glastonbury for the very first time in the band’s history. There’s also a show at London’s Roundhouse, and the two smaller club gigs in Norwich and his old stomping ground of Coventry.

Kevin, 61 in August this year, was born in Wolverhampton and lived there until he was 11, moving to London. He formed the band in Birmingham in 1978 with his mates Kevin “Al” Archer, “Big” Jim Paterson, Geoff “JB” Blythe, Steve “Babyface” Spooner, Pete Saunders, Pete Williams and Bobby “Jnr” Ward. They released their debut single, “Dance Stance,” on their own label Oddball Records, which peaked at # 40 in the singles chart in 1979.They went on to have seven top twenty hits (including the number ones “Geno,” and “Come On Eileen,” and Van Morrison’s great song, “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In heaven When You Smile,” where they famously appeared on Top Of The Pops in front of a giant picture of darts ace Jocky Wilson! They delivered the landmark albums “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels,” (1980) and reached # 6 in the chart, “Too-Rye-Ay” (1982) and # 2, “Don’t Stand Me Down,” (1985), selling millions of units and winning silver, gold and platinum discs.

The group disbanded in 1986, reuniting for a tour 17 years later with just Rowland and Pete Williams as original members. They packed it in again soon after, with Kevin releasing three solo albums. “One Day I’m Going To Soar,” is the first Dexys album for 27 years. Speaking to him on the ‘phone at his London home, the chat starts off with a few aborted calls on his mobile and landline, while he deals with domestic issues and tradesmen at his new home. Then when we do get to speak, he is fairly prickly to start with and not that happy with my first question.”Tell me the difference between Dexys Midnight Runners and Dexys of today?” Harmless enough, right?

I’d already been advised he was “not keen” on talking about the past and wanted to focus on the current day band and the latest album. Not being one to be told what I can and cannot ask in interviews, after 36 years of doing ‘em, my view is if anyone does not wish to talk about something I ask, they have a right to tell me that. But no topic is off limits for me to ask about. It’s my job and I have no wish to be churning out advertising copy and writing stuff already out there from a press release.

A mildly "snarling" Kevin: “I dunno, what do you think? I don’t really think about that stuff, that’s intuitive. It’s for an audience to say or for a journalist to say. If you want me to do your job, I’ll charge you. Have you heard the new album?” I tell Kevin I have indeed heard the new album and I found it to be built upon a theatrical core, relevant to today with a nod to yesterday. You can hear the Celtic and soul influences they are famous for, but it is far more than that and in no way treading old ground. Dexys have grown up and this is a very mature album, with some great ideas within it. It’s basically Kev doing just what he wants to do, without having the pressure of having to chase singles radio plays. “That’s exactly what it was,” he says. So he’s a bit calmer now and we carry on…………….

With the album being two years old now, he tells me while they are “thinking about other things,” they are not ready for that yet. Still working this one. He speaks about how the live show was centred around that album and has taken on a life of its own. With the album being a narrative, they decided to do the show as a narrative too. Singer and actress Madeleine Hyland usually takes the female role, but she is unable to do the upcoming gigs, due to a three month run in a Shakespeare play in the West End. So ex-Bananarama member Siobhan Fahey has stepped in for these four gigs.

Is he looking forward to the Glastonbury debut or the first gig in Coventry for over 30 years? “No not really. I don’t really look forward to shows, you know. No. No. Not really…..erm, no not really. I just try to be in the moment and be in the present.” So Coventry was where Dexys used to knock about with The Specials and all those Two Tone guys back in the late 70s. Dexys back there on Weds 25th June at the Kasbah club, for a show jointly promoted by Kasbah Coventry and ambitious outfit Birmingham Promoters. “I was born in Wolverhampton and lived there until I was 11, and then moved to London for the second half of my childhood. We happened to be formed in Birmingham, but never really felt this big Birmingham thing. We were never really, you know, patriotic if that’s the right word, about Birmingham and the West Midlands. I like it and it’s been good to us, but I don’t think we were ever about Birmingham.

“Even from the off, we saw ourselves as being different to that. We didn’t really want to be bracketed in that way. We didn’t fit in and we didn’t really want to fit in with the local music scene. We were different and we wanted to be different from the off. We set ourselves apart and we were quite happy about that really. But Birmingham was great for us and the perfect place to form the band.”

Kevin reveals the summer shows will be a festival set format, an edited version of the “One Day I’m Going To Soar” album set and a few Dexy’s favourites, some of which will be newer arrangements.

The band has always made almost as much effort with their appearance as their music – with the various looks over the years of dungarees, donkey jacket and woolly hats, and even boxing boots and pony tails. That has not changed. There’s a new slick and retro look, which fits in perfectly with today’s fashion trends but takes a little of 30s, 40s and 50s styling, and some of Kevin and the band’s own ideas, mixing it all up into a really good look.

Their album cover shot of the group would not look out of place across a double page spread in Vogue or GQ. So, describe that look? “It’s very hard to describe a look. I hate to describe music and I hate to describe a look. It’s kind of retro inspired and a mixture of lots of things really. 30s, 40s, 50s. We take some of those things and exaggerate them and get stuff made a bit different, or mix it up in a way that makes it a bit different. “The fashion side and the look are as important as the music, but not as much work. The music is more work and the music has more depth to it. The music is a lot harder to do, to make good music. Clothes are the fun but, but they are important. I love that side of it.

“People who say it is only about the music, to me that is only half of it. I loved Roxy Music when I was 18, 19 and thought they looked amazing. It’s daft not to use that side of it. Your album cover; you may as well make that really good, why not? To cut off a dimension, I don’t understand that, it’s not an option for me. All the soul singers always used to look great.”

Talking of soul, in 1978 Kevin told his mates “We’ll wear great clothes and make soulful music.” He did just that and is still doing so today. There’s a resurgence of interest in retro soul, with the likes of Fitz and The Tantrums, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and even Paloma Faith doing what some of what Dexys were doing three decades ago. What are his thoughts on that? “I haven’t really got any thoughts on it. I just like good music man, if they are making good music, great. I listen to anything. If there’s something up on Facebook and someone I like and respect, I’ll listen to it. I listen to all kinds of stuff, any sort of music, not just soul music. All good music has got soul, hasn’t it? All good music, not all music. Country, jazz, whatever; it is has got soul. Even good pop music.”

Kevin has always had a reputation for “kicking off” if he doesn't like something or somebody. He’s been in a fair few fights, physical and verbal over the years and used to be the scourge of his record label’s life back in Dexys' prime. He is infamous for giving journalists a hard time - the band famously refused to do press interviews when they were high in the charts and took out full page adverts in the music press instead, to state their case - and is said to have come to blows with at least one hack years ago. He’s seemingly mellowed these days and when he’s got an album or a tour to sell, will speak to select media peeps like me. But he’s still got that prickly “don’t ask me stupid shit” defensive attitude until you find that “in.”

Back in the day, he always liked to get his own way, and that is not meant as a slight. Far from it, his “way” was the main vision and creative drive of what made Dexys Midnight Runners what they were. That brings me neatly on to the topic of the biggest lesson he thinks he has learned during his career. “Do it your own way. It’s the only way. We did have to fight for our freedom. Other bands used to say to us; it’s alright for you, you have got creative control, but we fought for it tooth and nail. The record label people would say no, no, no, you are not doing that. We want you to do this and this, and we’d say no, we are not doing that, we are doing this and doing it like this. “They’d say, you can’t do that, and we’d say yeah we’re doing it. We had to fight for it.” Dexys had their own label Oddball Records, and a partnership with giants EMI. “We didn’t always get it right. Sometimes I did compromise, sometimes I did listen. You have got producers telling you do it this way, it’ll be better and you’ll sell more records and things like that.

“But there was never a time when I didn’t regret listening to somebody and went against what I felt in my heart.” So today you do it your way or not at all? “Yeah, we mostly did it our way in the 80s, but occasionally we would compromise and I am still haunted by little things like that. Ohh, that could have been better if I’d have not listened to so and so. It is totally our way today and it is just not worth doing it any other way.

“You know what, the audience always get it; Do it your way, people connect with it. That’s what I have found. Stay true to your vision. Any young artist will find that hard because at every turn, people will be trying to get you to do it their way. To compromise and to be like the current big thing. Oh, so and so is really big, be like them, so go sound like them. I know when you are true to your own vision, people get it. Get it past the record people or whoever, people get it. Even if it hasn’t sold or played on the radio, someone will come up to you in the street and you’ll know they have heard that and they’ve totally got it. Connected it in the way you meant it. That’s priceless really. Makes it all the more worthwhile. You’ll never do any good trying to do somebody else’s thing. It’s so fucking hard for a young band in the music business, coz (sic) they are offered fame and stardom.”

Stardom didn’t sit easily on Kevin’s shoulders when it came calling. He is getting more used to it today perhaps, but it took its toll on him back in the day. Back in 2010 he was on record as saying: “I never did feel like a star. I was always uptight about something and uncomfortable and not very good. I felt weighed down by it, the pressure. It's terrible I should have enjoyed it but I didn't; I was thinking about what we should do all the time, I wasn't able to run with it.” I ask if he still feels like that? “Sometimes, sometimes. I’m really working hard at not being like that. Trying to be in the moment, trying to take it on and enjoy it more, you know. “

But you ARE a star and have earned that title with what you have achieved with your music, haven’t you? “It’s just that word, a star. It’s not good for the ego. On the one hand I felt like that deep down and on the other hand I was very egotistical at the time. It’s two sides of the same coin really. I know I am somewhat well known and I get recognised a fair amount. Most don’t know who I am, but a fair few who do. It’s kind of a comfortable place now really, and I do quite enjoy it. I feel alright really, generally."

At the height of his fame he used to hide under a hat and dark glasses, but says he would always sign autographs if he was spotted. But he hated it. “I was getting to the stage where I just didn't want to be seen. I felt so conscious about people looking at me all the time, it just did me (sic) head in because I wasn’t feeling good about myself. When people are looking at you and staring at you, you think; what are you staring at, and it was doing my head in.

“To be quite honest with you, if somebody comes up to me and says I remember you, I got your record in 1978, I say thanks mate. But it doesn’t mean a lot to be honest with you. If someone comes up and says, I love the new album; now that’s great. Some guy came up to me last week and said, mate that was the album of the year for me. I said God bless you. Another bloke came up to me when I was out for a meal with family last week, and I went to the toilet. He was staring at me, and I knew what was coming and he said, it is you isn’t it? I said, probably.

“He went; you want to get on these revival tours mate, like all the others. Are you gonna do them like all the others? I said, no mate. He said, you want to. When they start giving you advice, you just want to get away, you know.” Those “revival tours” the toilet pest referred to, are the nostalgia package tours where several of yesterday's bands are on the same bill, sometimes without any original member in the line-up of today, churning out the hits to a sea of grey hair and blood pressure tablets. I guess Kevin would rather eat his own testicles washed down with bat urine than end up on those bills, but he has no issue with anyone who does them for the cash. Would he ever consider it, if things don't work out as planned? “If I’d lost me (sic) integrity, yeah. If I was completely skint and in the gutter.” I cannot see that happening just yet, can you Kevin? “You never fucking know mate. I don't take anything for granted. I’m not judging them (sic) who do it and good luck to them, but for me; Oh man……you see, I don’t think you can make an album and expect to be taken seriously and go on those circuits as well.”

So it is all about today, not yesterday then? “Totally mate, totally. Even if we do the old songs, and we do some of them, we change them to make them relevant to us now and our audience gets it. They get it. Not just because we are bored and think, let’s just change it and play this. Everyone has a scripted part. They improvise, but we have carefully thought it all out. Add a new section, change the tempo…. Keep it fresh. It’s all about today really. Even the lyrics; In ‘Too-Rye-Ay,’ there’s a lyric about old people and we change it and talk about ourselves getting old in that song now.” So was the name change to Dexys to show you are not wishing to bask in past glories? “Definitely. That was us saying its’ us, but we are different now. We are not like we were and not trying to trade on our past. We are us and we can’t deny who we are. We are Dexys, but it’s different now."

Kevin Rowland: Music legend and fashion icon: “Do you know something; I don’t really see myself as either. I am just a guy who is trying to do his best, and lately getting it right. I don’t really know why that is, you know. For years nothing seemed to be working for us and now everything seems to be going pretty well really. Creatively at least.” So tell me about your new found motivation and inspiration after this trip to India: “I did go to India and do this Ayurvedic thing, where I sat in this Ayurvedic garden for about five weeks and drank all these herbs, which were made from tree bark and plants. That was in 2010. I think that gave me an awful lot of drive……I’d been fucking around booking studios and cancelling them. Postponing, getting the musicians ready and then saying no, no, no, I’m not ready. My singing voice wasn’t really up to it I didn’t feel, deep down. But also, I just wasn’t ready to make this album.

“While I was there in that garden. I thought to myself; I really want to make this album. When I got back, I spoke to my manager and said, book the studio, book the musicians, book it, get it done. Just fucking do it. He told me after we’d done it - he’d been managing me, in inverted commas, and Dexys for five years before that and nothing had happened - he thought this guy is never going to make an album. It’s actually never going to happen. All of a sudden, it shifted and I said let’s go. From then on, we’ve never really looked back."

You said you were not happy with your vocal. But on the new album, you sound very natural and the most relaxed I have heard you on a recording. So what’s the issue? “To be honest with you, the first album. I was happy with that. The second album, I was happy with some of it. ‘Come On Eileen,’ was good, ‘Celtic Soul Brothers’ was good, ‘The Waltz.’ was good. But some of them I wasn’t happy with the mixing or my vocals. The third album, I was happy with. ‘Don’t Stand Me Down,’ very happy with it. After the success of ‘Too-Rye-Ay,’ I really wanted to do something I was really happy with. But through all of that, I never really felt confident about my vocals, and I was never really sure of my vocals, you know. Deep down. I really worked on my singing this time. When I came back from India, the first thing I did was got with a good singing teacher. A good singing coach, Kim Chandler. She doesn’t get you to compromise your style. She’s very good, but she works with it. Having taken so long off, apart from the shows in 2003, I’d had 25 years away from it. No way I could have just cruised back into it, and done a good job. It was really starting all over again. I feel I am developing and quite looking forward to the next album, and hopefully sing better. I am carrying on with the lessons; I am really pleased about it. That is helping me so much. I took every song to her on the last album, and we went through it and she’d give me notes on it and I’d go home and practice.

“It gave me confidence when I was going into the studio, because I was nervous, I hadn’t recorded for however many years. 26 years between albums.” Kevin seems to be a fairly complex guy. One minute uber defensive and ready to verbally slap you down, and the next ultra revealing, brutally honest, baring his soul and pretty vulnerable. I think maybe he is much misunderstood and just wants to make good music, have the support to do it his way, and above all else; to be taken seriously and focus on today and not be thought of yesterday’s man. He is not that at all. I doubt his brain ever switches off and that maybe contributes to him being frustrated at not being able to do every thing he wants to do, and EXACTLY the way he hears this glorious music in his head.

It’s perhaps telling when you consider the answers to asking him to sum up himself and Dexys in just the one word. On Kevin: “Trying.” On Dexys: “Powerful.” A psychologist would have a field day with that; trying. No ego there folks. There’s a new documentary about the band coming out soon. “Nowhere Is Home,” filmed on tour in 2012. Probably destined for a cinema and DVD release, and due to be premiered at London’s NFT on 9th May. There are plans for more shows later in the year too, if the film is well received.

Kevin has had his share of troubles over the years, from cocaine addiction, going skint, losing his home, punch ups and various line-ups of the band jacking it in. But it seems he is far more settled, calm and content in his own skin today. Ready to make more good music, but on his own terms. I think he still has much to offer and there are many people who will want to listen. Yes, one day he probably WILL get to soar. He’s definitely been cleared for take off………..

Tuesday 24 June 2014
Waterfront, Norwich

Wednesday 25 June 2014
Kasbah, Coventry

Friday 27 June 2014
Roundhouse, London

Saturday 28 June 2014
Glastonbury Festival

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