King of America: An Interview with Dave Stewart

Dave Stewart
Lucky Numbers
Kobalt Label Services

Despite being over 35 years into his recording career, there are still few musicians — certainly British musicians — that can match Dave Stewart for either restless creativity or enthusiasm for their craft.

From the Eurythmics’ early electronic work, to his recent, to be fair, hit-and-miss, pop-reggae supergroup SuperHeavy, he is an artist who clearly thrives on having the freedom to go wherever his muse takes him. His ear meanwhile is second to none, with its owner possibly only matched by McCartney himself in his ability (say, with the Eurythmics’ gorgeous, soulful “There Must Be an Angel”) to make someone else’s idiom his own.

Stewart’s latest project is Lucky Numbers, the third of a very serviceable trilogy of recent albums informed by an obvious love of Americana. Like The Blackbird Diaries and The Ringmaster General, it was recorded in part in Nashville (with other sessions, pleasingly — and apropos of apparently nothing other than a good time — taking place on a boat on the South Pacific). It includes vocal guest performances from Karen Elson, Vanessa Amorosi and Martina McBride, alongside turns from a group of crack Music City session musicians.

Dave and I spoke over a crackly transatlantic phone line, a conversation that wound up being twice the length of my original allotted time. I took this as a good sign — not only that we got on, but also that he took my comparison of the record to the Traveling Wilburys as the compliment it was.

* * *

Given how introspective the album is in places, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that a lot of it was recorded during two-week floating party…

There are definitely some tortured moments on there, but I don’t think you necessarily have to be going through a tortured time right now to write that kind of material. I’m more concerned, certainly on this one, about getting the atmosphere around the recording and making sure that the musicians are tuned into it. That’s what the boat was about. It was like a madhouse, basically.

So it was quite a spontaneous atmosphere?

It was really spontaneous. I pretty much just stood in front of the band, sang the first thing that came out of my mouth, and if it was the right thing they picked up on it. I didn’t set out to try write a song about this or that before time, because I don’t think that works.

In terms of atmosphere, what’s on the record probably depends on what time of day we did it, how many martinis we’d drunk, and what type of mood I was trying to tap into at the time. Going into my virtual diary, if you know what I mean.

There seems to be certain themes running through the record. Is it a concept album?

The album’s a movie script — it’s a musical set in Las Vegas, based around me trying to win back this girl that I’m madly in love with.

In the story, I’m being fed these lucky numbers to gamble with, all of which are divisible by three. That’s what the cover’s about. It’s a metaphor for gambling with life. I’m thinking of it like Help! or Purple Rain. It’s supposed to be like the Beatles meets David Lynch.

The press release says that Lucky Numbers was informed by your ‘60s British rock sensibilities. How does that come out on the record?

I think there was often a much freer vibe if you were recording back then, which is what I hope we’ve captured. We set it up so that we were playing as a band, feeling the way that the songs were going — we’re building up here, now you do your thing, and now we all land here.

When we made Greetings from the Gutter we had a similar thing but in Electric Lady in New York. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson would wander in; Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite would drop by because she lived across the street. It’s becomes a family affair. I like that.

With that in mind, Why Can’t We Be Friends has a real Voodoo Chile feel to it. Who was in the audience?

That was recorded on the boat. A load of people just piled in to watch — my daughters, the crew… I came up with the first line and the band just joined in. Caitlin Evanson [Taylor Swift’s violinist] has a fantastic fiddle solo on that song. She was moving around on her knees playing like a rock musician. It was great.

How would say your Englishness comes out on the record given how American it sounds?

No matter what I play I’m always going to sound British [Stewart’s originally from Sunderland], so there’s bound to be a little bit of a culture clash. It comes out in my lyrics I think, which are a little quirkier than a group of guys from Nashville would probably be used to. I also tend to include melodies and changes that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the backing. I like to throw in what George Harrison used to call “the naughty chord”.

I think it does you good not to know what’s coming next sometimes. Fleetwood Mac does a similar thing but the other way around, with American voices and melody against a British backing.

This is the third album that, as well as floating across the Pacific, you’ve recorded in Nashville. What do Music City musicians bring that other players don’t?

As Dylan found out when he recorded Blonde on Blonde, they’re just amazingly good. The town’s obviously built on music, so there’s a tremendous amount of competition when it comes to working musicians. There’s also a particular way of cutting records there, which goes back to the old country way of doing things — get it right first time or you’re out. You come in, get given your notes, and the producer says 1,2,3, go…

If I said to them — which, to be fair, I did — we’re going to play a gig tomorrow, they’d just be able to do it. They played something 16 songs without making one mistake. With a normal band, you’d be practicing for about three weeks.

There are a lot of duets with female vocalists on the record. Thinking of your work with Annie Lennox, is that a dynamic you’re particularly comfortable with?

I think having a female voice alongside mine definitely suits the way I sing. There’s a particular kind of energy in that sort of duet as well, which is difficult to put your finger on. Regarding the Eurythmics, it’s not quite the same because Annie sang on everything, whereas I would just occasionally pop up in the chorus.

I’m a big fan of anything to do with P Funk, so it was great to hear [ex-Bride of Funkenstein] Lynn Mabry on the record…

Lynn’s an amazing singer and a great choirmaster. She conducts the gospel choir on a couple of tracks. I’ve known her for years, since her days singing with Talking Heads.

Thinking of the women you worked with on the record — and, of course Annie’s recent comments on the subject — do you have an opinion on the way female pop stars are being currently represented by the industry?

I think there is a difference nowadays, yeah. Back when we were first starting, there were plenty of women who were clearly very confident in their sexuality and also quite controversial: Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Wendy O. Williams, if you ever saw her. That’s one reason a lot of them became iconic in the way that they did.

The difference now is that there’s not the feeling that some female artists today are in control in quite the same way. Wendy used to put gaffer tape over her nipples and blow up cars and all that, but there was always a sense that she was very conscious of what she was doing as a woman. She wasn’t just being lusted after.

Everyone thinks that Miley’s outrageous, but they should watch Wendy and the Plasmatics at Pier 62 in New York in 1980.