Searching For the Old(er) Soul Rebel: An Interview with Dexys' Kevin Rowland
Following the US release of new Dexys album One Day I'm Going to Soar, Kevin Rowland talks about why it took so long to get back in the studio, the benefits of meditation, and why he's not your friend.
"Working in the way we do, the honesty of it -- it's something that I've done my whole career," says Kevin Rowland. "It might not always have worked as well as it could have, but it's something we've always aimed for."
Of all the assignments for a British music writer, one of the most potentially high-anxiety has to be an interview with the afore-quoted creative force behind Dexys (or, as they used to be known before a symbolic re-brand in 2003, Dexys Midnight Runners).
He is, after all, (and this isn't just Brit fan-boy full disclosure) a genius -- a rock 'n roll one-off whose frequently monomaniacal pursuit of his muse has resulted in some of the greatest music of the post-punk era (with Dexys’ pure-as-gold Celtic soul mission statement, Don’t Stand Me Down, possibly the greatest music of the post-punk era ).
He also -- and this is no exaggeration either -- possesses a famously jaundiced attitude to the press. In his time, he has physically attacked writers, as with one unfortunate from the Melody Maker who Rowland put on his arse after being misquoted. As (relatively) recently as the promotion for his solo album My Beauty meanwhile he apparently ran auditions for journos vying for the pleasure of talking to him.
The latest (not quite classic, but still excellent) Dexy's record One Day I'm Going to Soar also offers an interviewer pause, in that -- at least in some regards -- it doesn't actually leave that many questions to answer.
Recorded after 28 years of band near-silence, it finds Rowland confronting with absolute honesty the things that have kept him seemingly so unhappy, and so driven, for so long. With its resolutely-explored themes of insecurity and self-willed isolation (one number's called "Incapable of Love"), by the record's end we're clear that this is a rock star with a richer understanding than most about the dangers of rampant egotism.
By the climactic, quite extraordinarily self-involved "It's O.K. John Joe", we find nothing less than a successor to the more emotionally-exposed moments of Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Only here, instead of calling-out an estranged ex-wife, the narrator's imaginary dialogue is with himself about his own character flaws.
As it turns out, the interview (despite the advance warning from his PR to drastically limit questions about Dexys' past) is perfectly cordial. Kevin is, if not exactly warm, then certainly friendly and polite, and as absolutely honest as you'd expect him to be. At one point -- in quite possibly the most uncomfortable moment I've ever had while interviewing someone -- he even tells me a joke.
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One Day I'm Going to Soar seems to be a massively confessional album. What -- if anything -- did you hold back?
Nothing. I didn't edit anything. I did wonder a couple of times, "God, will people really want to hear this?" But I talked to the other guys and they said "Yeah, they will." I live through my music. It's the main thing in my life. It comes before relationships and all that sort of stuff, for better or worse. Sometimes for worse.
I wondered a few times on the album how much of it's you and how much is a character ...
It's all me. There are things about my life that I haven't put in obviously, but only because they probably weren't relevant to what we were doing. It's kind of a diary from a few years ago. The personal stuff that wasn't on the record, possibly because it was a bit too strong, might end up on another album -- there are things I'm thinking about for the future. You've helped me with that question.
Have I? What kind of things?
I'm not saying. I'm just acknowledging it to myself.
It's been nearly 15 years since your covers album My Beauty and 28 since Don't Stand Me Down. Why now?
I think it's just a confidence thing, which is something that's grown since making the record as well. Knowing I can go back in a studio has been huge. Being able to play live has been a fucking big thing too -- I'd look at bands on TV and think, I could do better than that. It'd been haunting me for years.
If I'm being honest, a major factor was doing the Ayurvedic thing in India. That really sorted me out. You're out there for about five weeks, stripped of all the things you fix on -- sugar, telephone, contact with your mates. I remember very clearly thinking, "I really want to make this album.'
So there's a spiritual element to this?
It's kind of spiritual, yeah. It's an ancient Indian healing technique -- it goes with yoga and all that. I believe in all that stuff. What the hell's life about otherwise?
A lot of the early band is back together for the new album [including "Big" Jimmy Paterson and Mick Talbert, alongside guest vocalist Madeleine Hyland who duets/argues with Rowland on "I'm Always Going to Love You"]. Were the recording sessions less fraught than Don't Stand Me Down?
Don't Stand Me Down was so long ago, I can barely even remember it. I was very nervous about these sessions though, definitely. There were days I was phoning the manager saying, "I fucking can't do it." But we got through it. It's a big achievement for me, doing this.
I remember seeing an interview with you from a while ago where you said that at the beginning of Dexys it was life and death. Are you enjoying it more this time?
A lot more, definitely. I'm happy with every song -- the album completely exceeded my expectations. All the stars were aligned, I think.
So no Raging Bull moments?
It can still be that way yeah, to my detriment usually. I can certainly get obsessed, and I can get really pissed off if the music's not going right or it's not being appreciated right. I try and temper it now, because that passion, driven-ness or whatever you want to call it completely burned me out.
Are you more successful in that?
I've never even knew I was doing it before. That was the problem -- I thought you had to be like that.
When you're focused in that way, you're not going to perform your best. If you're lucky enough to be open to it, music comes through you. Then after you've been inspired, it has to be arranged and all that. That takes time, care, love and patience.
One thing I've noticed that seems to link the last two Dexys albums is how much the songs are like conversations, either with yourself or someone else. Is there a reason for that?
In some ways, that's just me striving to do something different. The idea of a conversation in a song is interesting to me.
I've always thought -- on something like "This is What's She's Like" in particular -- that the subtext was how difficult it is to say where you actually mean in words. That meaning can only ever be momentarily agreed upon by the people that are speaking ...
I don't know about that. I'm far more comfortable talking during songs though, definitely. If you look at someone like Van [Morrison], who I love, he doesn't feel the need to talk because he knows he's communicating on a higher level in the songs. His stuff's pure, like all good music.
I definitely don't like talking to the audience and I don't like it when other people do it either. I think it's patronising, and it breaks the spell, if you know what I mean. I'm not there to be everybody's mate. When I was in my brother's band in the '70s, he'd tell jokes. I can't do that. I tried to one night.
Yeah -- the area I live in is so rough, the policemen walk around in twos. And that's inside the police station.
And that didn't get a laugh?
Not at all. There was stony silence. They just stared at me. I didn't tell anymore jokes after that.
Do you still aim to create the same kind of edge live that Dexys was always known for? I saw you last year, and there was definitely a restlessness in the audience -- particularly in the first part of the show when you were playing the new album song-for-song.
I don't know, you know. We just do it. It wouldn't serve me to think about it because it's difficult enough as it is.
How do you get through that difficulty?
I have a two-hour routine before every show -- warming up, stretching, meditating. I went on a method acting course, which really helped. I'll use tricks to get me into the place I need to be to sing some of these songs -- looking at certain photographs to evoke feelings, that kind of thing.
The idea is to capture the emotion; the moment. You have to tread the line all the time between being corny and being over-the-top. If you're going to bear your soul, you've got to do it right.