Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: An Interview With Dave Stewart

With his new memoir Sweet Dreams Are Made of This in mind, Stewart joins PopMatters for an in-depth discussion about his new book and his influential catalog of music.

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“The Loneliest Man in the World”

“The Loneliest Man in the World!” [laughs] They were very eerie kind of foreboding songs that Peet would write. So, In the Garden is where Annie and I -- when we wrote those songs -- they were a bit eerie and foreboding.

Yeah, that album I’ve always liked, and I don’t think that casual fans may be familiar with it, but it always struck me that it doesn’t really sound like any other Eurythmics album. It has this almost psychedelic rock kinda vibe to it, very dreamy. What are your thoughts on that album, looking back on it?

Well, the thing is, that was our big learning curve, because we went to Germany and we worked with an amazing guy called Conny Plank who produced Kraftwerk and Devo and lots of odd bands. He showed me how to record, and how to ignore everything everybody says about the rules of recording, and if I want to distort the bass drum I can, and if we want to record out in a field and mix in the sound of banging a big tom-tom drum in an empty cavern, we can.

This blew my mind and opened up my whole world, and that led to me and Annie wanting to get our own equipment. That was the beginning of borrowing £5,000 from a bank manager and buying the equipment to make Sweet Dreams. A TEAC eight track, we mixed it all onto an old ReVox, we had an old Klark Teknik Spring Reverb -- we bought all this second-hand equipment and made the whole Sweet Dreams album on it.

A great guy, Adam Williams, helped us and taught me how to use it and helped me get the equipment. In the middle of all that we started to understand our world and we wrote a manifesto, and it was weird, it said things like, you know, “Likes -- 1 to 10”, it would be like “Motown”, and then it would say “Andy Warhol” [laughs], and then it would say “Gilbert & George”, and then it would say “Stax R&B” and it would say “electro”. If you look at it now and listen to the album, it sounds and is like all those things.

Yeah, it does. I mean, you’ve got “Wrap it Up” which is kind of an old R&B song…

Well, we just… our version of soul was pretty weird because we were using electronic, but songs like “The Walk” and things like that could be like an old Motown bass line, but on top of it is all this strange other stuff. That experimentation, obviously, was successful when “Sweet Dreams” just blew up everywhere, and then followed up by “Love is a Stranger”. That gave us enough money to buy the little -- well, not little, the huge Church that actually Paul Epworth just recently acquired. It’s where Adele recorded, and all sorts of people.

We made that into a little more like a studio and upped to a 24-track tape recorder and a Soundcraft desk, but mainly the album Touch, and that’s where we recorded “Here Comes the Rain Again” and “Who’s That Girl?” and all that stuff. Instead of scaling up, we then went back to using the eight track on our next album, in Paris, and hired a youth club and recorded Be Yourself Tonight which is “Would I Lie to You?” and all those tracks, back on the eight track.

One of the things that was always interesting to me, thinking about “Sweet Dreams” -- and I read the part where you found out that it was a #1 single -- you were in San Francisco and you were all excited. Such an unusual song, I mean you don’t hear it and think, “Oh, this is a Top 40 hit”. Were you surprised by that?

Well, you know, Annie and I always had this feeling as soon as we recorded it, like, god, this has hit the nail on the head of exactly what we’re trying to do. We didn’t know how to describe it. Then we would play it to people, and people in the music world, you know, like the publisher or record label, just didn’t understand it. They were saying, “Well we don’t really get it, like, where’s the chorus?” But then we always noticed that everybody would walk around and couldn’t stop singing it. We just decided, well, we don’t care where the chorus is or what the structure is, it’s just this thing from the second it starts.

Then I wrote the storyboard for a video, and it sort of starts with the fist hitting the table. We made this kind of surreal, weird video -- I stole from all the French surrealist filmmakers. There’s a cow inside of a board room, we’re in a field with a computer, it’s all very odd. We didn’t know, really, all the time what we were doing when we made our first videos -- there was no MTV that we knew of.

Then, when MTV happened we realized, oh, we’ve made all these films! Give ‘em to them! [laughs] Then they [MTV] started playing them and much to our surprise in America, “Sweet Dreams” became this incredibly popular video. [laughs]

That image of Annie with the orange flat-top and, you know, pounding her fist on the board-room table, and you’re there with the drum machine…It’s one of the more iconic videos of the decade, really.

Yeah, it definitely had a few people wondering and guessing what the hell was going on. [laughs]

I realized “Sweet Dreams” hit #1 in the United States in September of 1983 and by that time you had already released “Who’s That Girl?” You were already starting to promote your next album. That must have been kind of odd.

Well yeah, we were, if you think about people being prolific, I think in our nine years we made nine albums. We also toured the world constantly. But we didn’t think anything of it at the time. You know, we would write the songs and record the album in three weeks. So it would be written, and recorded, and done and mixed, and we’re back on tour.

I think because we did that we didn’t go through that thing that bands do with their third successful album or something and you go, oh shit, and take two years and really start doubting or second-guessing yourself. Bands often start to flounder about then. We just went plowing through them all, all nine in a row.

Yeah, and you had Sweet Dreams and Touch both came out in 1983, and in 1984 you had the 1984 soundtrack, and then Be Yourself Tonight in 1985, it was just boom, boom, boom.

Yeah, and then Revenge in 1986, Savage, We Too Are One. So they all came one after the other. So, In the Garden, Sweet Dreams, Touch, Be Yourself Tonight, 1984, Savage, Revenge.... no, Revenge then Savage...

Right, Revenge, Savage then We Too Are One.

Yeah, then the live album at the end.

That’s like an eight-year period, which is pretty amazing.

[laughs] Yeah, and what was interesting is that even our weirdest and most experimental stuff back then sold, you know, two to three million albums. Our less experimental stuff sold six to seven million albums.

Well, you know, even the songs that did really well on the charts, like “Sweet Dreams” or “Love is a Stranger”, “Missionary Man” or “Here Comes the Rain Again”, none of them were the sorts of songs that you would say that’s a commercial Top 40 pop hit. I mean, you were doing...

They were all over the different parts of the charts. One minute we would be winning a Grammy for Best Rock Group Performance, for “Missionary Man”, and before that everybody was saying we were an electronic duo. [laughs] And now, hang on, we’ve just won a rock performance and then, yeah, we came at it from all sides. We’d be like #1 on the dance chart, then we’d have a Stax R&B “Would I Lie to You?” riff come out with horns and everything.

We could never be categorized, really, and of course we had this between us, we played with the idea that Annie could be many different chameleon-type characters... and we could make videos… if we weren’t like, oh we’re in a band so everybody in the band has to be in the video, and then the video would be the band on the roof, or a band in a car. We were like, no, we’re weird. A weird duo, and it’s Annie in the desert with a neon sign on her hand.

I love that. I mean, “Beethoven”...

“Beethoven” was mad! [laughs]

Nobody was putting out videos like that.

“Beethoven” is still mad to this day. It’s like woman under the influence meets Diplo or something, I don’t know. [laughs]

It’s amazing. But, did you approach each album like, okay, this is going to be a rock album, or we’re gonna go back to an electronic vibe on Savage?

We kind of did in a way, like on Revenge we wanted to make -- cause we’d already by then started to play big arenas and outside stadium type situations -- and we wanted to make an album that we felt that we could just strut on to the stage and play, and we made that with Revenge. As soon as we did that, we said no, now we want to make an album that is really fucking weird which was Savage. That’s right, Savage with “Beethoven”, and “You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart”, and they’re all electronic. Actually they’re all done on this very cumbersome synclavier that I bought from the composer… what’s he called again, he did loads of film scores, was married to Buffy Sainte-Marie… can’t remember his name. [Jack Nitzsche]

That album, it’s got a very distinct sound, just the electronic beat to it, there’s nothing really that sounds like it.

I think partly that’s the synclavier and working with our drummer, Olle Romo, who was the only person who could work out how to use the bloody thing. Annie and I had rented a château a hundred miles outside of Paris in Normandy where we were in the fumoir, the smoking room, with this big synclavier. Just for three months and it was cheaper than a studio, but it had like 28 bedrooms, and it was owned by Napoleon’s political advisor. [laughs] Yeah, we always did things in an odd way like that.

I used to ride around the château on a bicycle and have the window open in the fumoir so I could hear Olle trying to work out how to make the synclavier work, and every now and then it was like an old engine trying to start up, and it would suddenly go dit-do-doon, dit-do-doon. Oh, something is going on in there, I’d run into the house. [laughs]

I know a lot of fans consider that their favorite album, even thought it didn’t do as well commercially at the time

It’s funny because, you see, that was one album where Annie didn’t really come out to the château much, she was in Paris, and so I was kinda making all the tracks myself with Olle and the synclavier, and it wasn’t until the very end when we moved back to Paris -- cause Annie was not keen, she didn’t quite like them [the songs] -- and then when we went to Paris with the tracks and she started think about doing vocals, she suddenly started to really love [the songs], and then it became her favorite album.

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