Barking Mad: An Interview with Dogs

An earlier version of this feature originally appeared in British music magazine Playmusic. eared in British music magazine Playmusic.

“We got a call from Roger Daltrey!” beams Dogs’ singer and songwriter Johnny Cooke in between sips of lager. “Well, we didn’t. We got a call from Roger Daltrey’s management. Roger Daltrey was in their office and said ‘I love this band Dogs. I would love them to play the Teenage Cancer Trust Gig at the Albert Hall in March’. So their management rung us and said ‘Would you like to play with the Who?'”

Johnny and Argentinean-born guitarist Luciano Vargas are sitting in a Camden pub grinning like a pair of cats who just snaffled the acid-infused cream. Because Dogs have just secured two of the best gigs available to a new band: a slot with the Who at the Albert Hall and the main support act for the forthcoming Paul Weller tour.

“Fucking Weller was pissed off his tits in Amsterdam singing ‘Tuned To A Different Station’,” explains Johnny, whose general demeanour and non-stop swearing bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Peter Cook in Derek and Clive mode. “Weller loves the album so he does the same thing. His management got in touch with our management and offered us the support slot on his tour.”

“We ended up getting half the tour,” adds Luciano, “The Ordinary Boys are doing the other half and they’re a lot bigger than us. For us to get main support for the other half is fantastic. But then, we are wicked.”

“Isn’t that nice though,” smiles Johnny. “To have two fans like that?”

“It’s the old gents looking after the new breed,” agrees Luciano. “When I was thirteen I was a huge Who fan.”

“And I was an enormous Jam fan,” adds Johnny. “I’m not a big Who fan, but you can’t fuck with ‘My Generation’. I’m trying to make proper sense out of it really. It’s hard to step over that line from fan to contemporary. When I meet Weller it’s going to be a bit bloody odd, because the first single I ever bought was ‘Start’. I wanted to buy In the City as my first album but I couldn’t pronounce ‘city’. I’d say ‘kitty’. I felt stupid so I bought Zenyatta Mondatta by the Police.

“Jonathon Ross wants us to come on his radio show!” continues Johnny, who’s virtually impossible to stop once he’s on a roll. “So do fucking Jo Whiley and Zane Lowe.”

“Zane fucking loves us,” clarifies Luciano. “Which is a mark above really liking us. He likes everyone but he fucking loves us.”

“We get dissed,” admits Johnny. “Who doesn’t? Once in a while we get dissed on the Internet by some faceless, nameless wankers. But we get absolutely lauded by people that are really respected. From now on I don’t give a fuck who doesn’t like it. Weller likes it, so I’m fucking happy.”

If Dogs are bordering on the arrogant, it’s because they’re finally riding the crest of a wave that’s taken years of paddling to reach. Debut album Turn Against This Land is the probably the most musically advanced and eloquent punk rock record to come out of London for years, but it didn’t emerge from a vacuum. This is a band with history. A long, messy history.

“We were all in bands in Cambridge when we were thirteen,” explains Luciano. “But it wasn’t until we came to London that we got a proper band together.”

“I could see the end of the road in Cambridge and I didn’t want to go down there,” growls Johnny. “We split our bands up when we were fifteen, started getting into the rave thing and went totally off the rails. There were casualties left, right, and center, but thankfully we survived and found ourselves in London. Somehow I’d got myself to college but I was just fucking miserable. A girlfriend said, ‘When were you happy?’ I said, ‘When I was in my band’. So she said, ‘Start a fucking band then!'”

Which is exactly what they did. Recruiting old bass-playing Cambridge friend Duncan Timms, Luciano sang, Johnny drummed, and a band called Boca emerged searching for glory.

“We went to Rock University where you learn and make big mistakes,” explains Luciano. “Good things happen. Bad things happen.”

“We were fucking good,” starts Johnny.

“No we weren’t!” snaps Luciano. “We thought we were much better than we were. We had a stroppy kid on guitar. He was a great guitarist but he wouldn’t play a chord for love nor money, and he’d throw a strop if you asked him to.”

“He wouldn’t fucking play our songs,” laughs Johnny. “He wanted to do his songs. But his songs were fucking dreadful. Still, we thought ‘We’re the new Oasis. We’re going all the way.'”

Recruiting guitarist Rikki Mehta was the first step towards what turned out to be Dogs, but the genuine breakthrough only happened when Luciano realized he perhaps wasn’t the great frontman he had first believed.

“I was reluctant to give up the singing,” he explains, “because I didn’t see a future for me doing anything else.”

“Because you were shit at guitar!” cackles Johnny. “I said ‘Get bloody learning it! We’ll just turn your amp down until you’re good enough.'”

“I borrowed an amp from the rehearsal studio,” recalls Luciano. “And to everyone’s relief I was a lot better than I thought I was. Especially with my big sausage fingers. Then we started auditioning singers.”

“Oh my fucking Christ,” exhales Johnny.

“The more people we auditioned,” offers the slightly more diplomatic Luciano, “the more it became obvious that they didn’t get it.”

“I’d have to yell from my drums to bring the mic over and go ‘It’s more like this,'” explains Johnny. “One day everyone went ‘Johnny, you fucking sing. You’re the only one who can fucking do it.’ I was happy hiding behind the drums but I realised I had to bite the bullet. There was no future for the band if I didn’t. I started off just shouting. You might say I still do that. We played our first gig three weeks after we got a new drummer and I was shitting myself, but we had some proper punks going mental. It was a much better vibe than any of our gigs in our previous format. You could tell instantly that we were onto something.”

It was at this point that Boca turned into Dogs and things started happening. They picked up management, wowed the MD of Island Records and toured with bands of the caliber of Razorlight. At this point many bands think they’ve made it and take their foot off the pedal. For Dogs though, this was when the hard work really began.

“We’d rehearse about four times a week,” promises Luciano. “In the evenings and at weekends.”

“Girlfriends didn’t like it very much,” notes Johnny.

“All your friends from work would be going down the pub or going home to chill in front of the telly,” continues Luciano. “They didn’t understand that we’d be going to spend four hours in a sweaty rehearsal room, getting home at one in the morning and going to work the next day.

“People would say, ‘Why don’t you take a night off?'” remembers Johnny. “We were like, ‘No we fucking can’t.’ We deferred our gratification. We worked fucking hard and we still do. We’ve come straight from rehearsal today. We go down to Bethnal Green and bang away as much as we possibly can. We only let ourselves have one day off a week.”

“Every band pays its dues,” agrees Luciano. “Some bands don’t, but do they have any lasting power? Any band worth anything has to pay its dues at some point.”

“The Beatles were playing Hamburg every fucking day,” points out Johnny. “You have to put the hours in.”

The result is an album that can stand alongside any British debut this decade. It’s a cutting reflection of London life in 2005, proud of its raw musicianship yet full of tunes that suggest that Johnny could very well turn into a classic songwriter somewhere down the line. The album’s one weakness, if you could call it that, is that it can’t be lumped into any current music scene. Every band claim to be outsiders, but Dogs really set themselves apart.

“Everything’s transient these days,” insists Johnny. “Everything’s fleeting fluxing fucking nonsense. We’ve really tried to position ourselves outside that. We’ve tried to follow the model of the old school rock and roll bands that start at the start and make the proper progression. I wanted the album to be an honest representation of an angry fucking five-piece band spitting out what they’ve got to spit out. You can’t start with The Joshua Tree can you? You start with fucking Boy. We’ve got an idea about where we want to go and how we’re going to grow. This is a long-term plan. We’re not here to please the public or the label or anyone else but ourselves. We’ll grow on our own terms. If we’re lucky. That’s the risk we’ve got to take for upholding our principles. We’re glad we’ve stuck to our guns, but we’ve not made it easy on ourselves for commercial success. I fucking love the album. It should be number one all over the world. I should be on MTV fucking taking you round my mansion. But we’ve not compromised and we won’t either.”

This is why you should embrace Dogs. They’re talented, angry, and funny, and they’re not content to simply fill a slot in the British indie rock market. They’re trying to make a difference. It was never going to be easy.

“Everyone wants to minimize the risk and make fucking money,” rages Johnny, “and you end up with nothing but bland crap. And there’s so much of it about. Fortunately British music is turning around. There are some great fucking bands out there now. And we’re one of those. It might sound like we’re jaded and a bit moany but that’s because we’re skint.”

Money comes and goes for bands on the edge, but for Dogs the knowledge that they’re out there changing lives is a far more important reward than any record company cheque.

“An old Jam fan gave me his ‘Start’ badge,” boasts Johnny. “He said we were the first band that’s done it for him since then. I said I couldn’t but he insisted I had it. And I’ve still got it.”

A slow, sad realization spreads across Johnny’s face.

“I’ve just lost my coat so I think I might have lost it. I fucking hope not.”

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