Straight Out of Madchester: An Interview with the Doves
Doves talk to PopMatters about their development in the Manchester music world, the pressures of living up to their potential, and the new album Kingdom of Rust.
To record its new album, Doves had to learn how to fly all over again. Prior to its just-released record, Kingdom of Rust, the aurally adventuresome trio from Manchester had been lapping each album-tour cycle at a steady rate. After 2000’s audacious breakthrough, Lost Souls, and its two fine successors -- 2002’s The Last Broadcast and 2005’s Some Cities -- the indie band untied its laces for what was to have been a quick breather. A well-deserved one, too. In addition to achieving two nominations for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize for album of the year, Doves had landed several #1 albums and a couple of top 10 singles in the UK music charts.
Even though the unglamorous band lacks a single outsized personality, press and listeners alike embraced the band’s ouevre, a sweet-and-sour mix of melancholic desperation couched in danceable backbeats, swirling nebulas of electronica, vocal harmonies seemingly snatched from distant, barely tuned-in frequencies, and guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place inside a church spire. Having already supported the likes of U2 and Oasis in 2005, Doves seemed poised to expand its flock with its next album. But when the band reconvened to write new songs, its creative muscles had atrophied.
“It was difficult after 19 years together to find new ways to relate to each other, of navigating each other, of prizing new ideas out of each other. And respecting each others’ ideas and coaxing them and contributing to them,” admits Jimi Goodwin, the band’s singer and bassist, in a recent phone call from England. “It just took a little longer than anticipated.”
The trio that once wrote an ebullient single called “There Goes the Fear” suddenly found themselves facing overwhelming trepidation about whether they could still create dynamic music.
It wasn’t the first time that Goodwin and his bandmates, the brothers Jez and Andy Williams, had confronted a crisis of creativity. The previous such episode proved to be the defining moment in their career.
First, some background. Doves used to be an altogether different band --literally. The trio’s first incarnation, Sub Sub, formed in 1989 when Goodwin bumped into the Williams twins -- whom he known in high school -- at Manchester’s legendary Hacienda club, epicenter of the burgeoning “Madchester” scene with its Ecstasy-fueled Acid House raves.
“We literally did meet there one Wednesday night, four years after leaving school,” recalls Goodwin. “Like, ‘what are you doing here?’ We all got independently into Chicago house music, Detroit techno, and hip-hop.”
Success came quickly for Sub Sub. Signed by Rob Gretton, manager of Joy Division and, later, New Order, the band made inroads into the dance scene with its instrumental “Space Face" in 1991. (The song still makes occasional appearances in Doves’ live set.) Two years later, Sub Sub were at number three in Britain’s pop charts with “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Love)", a dub-heavy pop number fronted by since-forgotten soul singer Melanie Williams. If a Doves fan was to revisit Sub Sub’s earliest material, he’d need a stethoscope to detect Jez Williams's guitar beneath all the throbbing synths. Andy Williams’s drumming, on the other hand, has long been influenced by dance-floor rhythms.
“For a while, club music became the only thing that was kicking and live music took a back seat,” says Goodwin, who describes the Madchester scene as akin to “the feeling you get when you have butterflies in your stomach.” “It all seemed slightly manufactured, really. But underneath it was a genuine, exciting musical movement.”
When Sub Sub finally released its first album, Full Fathom Five, in 1994, the music scene had begun to change. Guitar-driven Britpop was in the ascendancy as the dance crowd began to cool its heels. Sub Sub’s album was roundly ignored. A later single, the catchy “This Time I’m Wrong” featuring New Order’s Bernard Summer, sounded at least five years out of date at the time of its release in 1997. The musical disparity between the three aforementioned singles suggests a musical schizophrenia rather than a sure sense of direction. Only “Past", a 1994 instrumental that still regularly pops up on compilations of ambient chill-out music, hinted at the widescreen textures that would become a hallmark of Doves.
“We were still finding our way as musicians,” reflects Goodwin. “We used to do it on a track-by-track basis. This week we’d want to do this, and that one was really easy to write. It was really fun. Still proud of it. It was a great time. But we were still confused ourselves.”
Uncertainty over the band’s direction coincided with a pivotal incident in 1996. The band’s studio, located in a rundown cotton mill, burned down after water seeped through the old walls and permeated the electrics. When the band arrived on scene, they found a fireman strumming an acoustic guitar saved from the smoking wreckage.
The disaster was a turning point. Goodwin and the Williams brothers had to decide whether to deep six Sub Sub or continue on. In the end, the three musicians settled on a third alternative: a complete rebirth. They turned up the guitars and changed the band’s name to Doves to reflect the musical metamorphosis. In truth, Goodwin says, the change was a long time coming.
“It’s too easy to say that overnight we went, ‘well, that’s it,’” he recalls. “We were already going down the live instrument route again, mixing it up with samples and stuff. I wanted to hang on to the name Sub Sub, just out of pride, I guess. I wanted to show you can change and you can morph and develop and not get pigeon-holed. Andy, I think, came up with the name Doves, and we just thought, ‘alright, maybe you’re right, maybe it is time to cut the chord here and just try and reinvent ourselves.’”
Doves’ debut, Lost Souls, seemed perfectly attuned to the musical zeitgeist. By 2000, the sort of millennial angst and complex anthems pioneered by Radiohead had largely displaced the care-free, four-chord rock of Oasis and Blur. Three albums later, Doves had firmly established themselves as a mid-level success, surpassing the sales of Manchester’s other notable post-rock band, Elbow. They also had the clout to recruit legendary music producer John Leckie (The Stone Roses, Verve, Muse) to helm the recording of album number four. Unfortunately, the trio -- long been accustomed to producing or co-producing themselves -- has a tendency to fuss over each and every molecule in their dense sound.
“It became apparent that we weren’t really going to let John just get on and do it,” says Goodwin. “We can’t help but tinker with it and mess with it. John was smart enough to say, ‘You know what? This is okay and all, but I don’t think I can do a whole record like this, because you won’t really let me do it the way I want to do it.’ We got on great. He was fascinating and we were friends. But I think we started to realize that it wasn’t going to work how we intended.”
The Leckie sessions did yield two cuts on the album, “Winter Hill", and “10:03". But further grinding writing sessions were slow to yield the caliber of material the band was striving for, even though the group explored numerous routes and detours. While Doves became entombed in the studio, the musicians’ old friends, Elbow, unexpectedly vaulted ahead into Britain’s super leagues with its fourth album, 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid. The music press began to wonder if Doves could make a similar leap with its fourth album. Pressure indeed.
“It was just this slow process of trying to get it down to the kind of songs that we sought,” says Goodwin. “You want it to stand up with everything you’ve done before.”
At the 11th hour, persistence won out.
“We got into a roll; about three or four songs in the last two or three months of the record,” recalls Goodwin.
One of the late bloomers was “The Greatest Denier", a contender for the album’s best track.
“Lyrically it’s about someone who’s been living a lie -- like someone who’s realized he’s a racist and that his views are redundant. It’s a character song, really, and it’s got menace,” says the frontman. “That was quite different for us as writers to do that. I’m pretty chuffed that we did it.”
Also new: The hive of synths in the Kraftwerk-like “Jetstream, which opens the album. “ ‘Jetstream” is about travel, like a Jetsons vision of the future,” Goodwin reveals. “I think of ‘50s crinoline dresses and American air stewardesses. Just that vision of the future that never quite turns out the way you thought it should.”
The album’s most dominant new feature, though, is the feint and parry of Goodwin’s bass. In the parabolic arrangement of “10:03", the seismic rumble at the midpoint threatens to split the song at its seams. By contrast, the bass line on “Compulsion", the most radical song on the record, is funk slowed down to moonwalk speed. The groove is reminiscent of that in The Rolling Stones’s “Miss You". “It’s been done before by plenty of people, but not us,” Goodwin comments.
For the most part, Kingdom of Rust is less wholesale reinvention than a consolidation of the band’s strengths. As such, it’s been widely hailed as the band’s best album to date. Will it emulate the success of Elbow’s recent breakthrough? Goodwin scoffs at such media-created comparisons.
“I think maybe for a couple of years, Elbow were probably asked the same question: When are you going to do a Doves? When are you going to reach your potential. Elbow have been making consistent records. Every album they’ve done, as far as I’m concerned,” he says.
For now, the band is concentrating on an imminent US tour more than anything. The prospect of live dates at least allows Goodwin to stave off the dreaded thought of returning to the studio.
“I think we might need to pursue some extracurricular projects before we reconvene, just to bring something back to us as a band,” Goodwin confesses. “I’m not talking about solo albums. Nothing like that. But maybe... we’ve always dreamed of doing a film score together. We’ve not been approached by anyone with the right thing.” Thinking aloud, the musician conjures up another idea to ward off a creative logjam. “I’d like to just do an album with a dream list of musicians and just give it away for nothing -- just for the sheer joy of making music with other people.”
Come album number five, Doves may have to learn to fly all over again.