The Popdose Interview: Kevin Rowland & Jim Paterson of Dexys (Midnight Runners)
Attention, America: you may not have been clamoring for a new album by Dexys Midnight Runners – or simply Dexys, as they go by now, hence the above parentheses – but one has arrived, and it is quite wonderful. It’s called One Day I’m Going to Soar, and it arrives in the States a mere 28 years after the band’s last full-length release, Don’t Stand Me Down, handily confirming that they are a band who takes care to only regroup when they truly have something onto which they feel comfortable stamping their name.
One Day I’m Going to Soar was released in the UK last year, where it earned considerable acclaim, and the live performances to support the record were received similarly rapturously…even on the night when they didn’t play “Come On Eileen.” (More on that in a bit.) Naturally, when Popdose was provided with the opportunity to chat with frontman Kevin Rowland and brassman Jim Paterson about the album getting a shot on these shores, we immediately jumped at the chance. (You’ll note that Paterson has a tendency to say a bit less than Rowland, but we’re presuming it’s just because he prefers to save his breath for his instrument.)
Popdose: I’ve been a fan since the heyday of Dexys Midnight Runners – well, your American heyday, anyway, so the Too-Rye-Ay album – so I was psyched to hear that you guys were finally releasing a new album…but, man, it’s been a long time coming! The talk of a doing another Dexys record started back in, what, 2005?
Kevin Rowland: Probably!
Jim Paterson: Maybe even 2004.
KR: Yeah, it probably was. So did you like the album, then?
I did! I was aware of it when it was released in the UK last year, but it’s great to finally get a chance to hear it here in the States. So what was it that finally provided you with the opportunity to make this record? You’d started toward it before, doing demos and what not, but what was it that finally brought it to fruition?
JP: I think divine intervention, really. [Laughs.]
KR: Yeah, I sort of think that the stars were aligned or something, because we’d been trying to do things for a long time, and things didn’t seem to be working for us, but all of a sudden everything just worked. I’d love to say it was one thing, but it was a series of things. We had some good help, and…it just felt right, y’know? And once we started, there was no stopping us, really.
Was there a particular song where, once you did it, you were, like, “Oh, we’re onto something here, it think we might be able to make this work”?
KR: I can’t remember! But we didn’t throw away any of the songs. Of all the songs we did, there was only one that didn’t make it onto the album…and it might be on the next one. We’ll probably re-record it. But when I said, “I don’t really want to put it on it,” it wasn’t because of the performance. It was… I thought, “I’m not sure that one really adds anything story-wise, and it doesn’t really quite fit,” so we left it off. But not one of the songs didn’t work. But, you know, that thing you’re talking about, that “oh!” moment? I had that. I can’t remember when, but I had it quite a lot. [Laughs.] I think we did two together. Yeah, we did two at a time, and after the first two, I thought, “Wow, they’ve gone well!” And then the next two went well. I was thinking in the studio, “You know what? If it carries on like these, we’re gonna do something very good!” It was like that. And it did. We rehearsed a lot before we went in the studio, and the songs, y’know, we re-demo’ed them maybe three times, we rearranged them slightly, and then we went in and got a performance of each song. We really captured something, I think. And we’re really happy with it.
What were those first two songs?
KR: Um…it was “Now,” the first song on the album, and “Thinking of You.” And then the second two, I think, were “She Got A Wiggle” and the one that we left off.
Looking at the band lineup for this record and seeing Mick Talbot’s name, my first instinct is always to think of him in terms of being in The Style Council. I didn’t even realize until recently that he’d been in Dexys in the early ‘80s.
KR: Yeah, he was in Dexys for a very short time. For about three months in 1980, ‘til the first lineup split up, I think, wasn’t it, Jim?
JP: Yeah, it was just the tail end before we went to Europe. That was the end of the first lineup, really.
Jim, what it’s like for you to be back in the band again?
JP: Pretty amazing, really. [Laughs.] I mean, we’re only just starting to go out and play a bit, and..it’s hard work, y’know? We’re very careful to practice, so it’s hard work, but I love it. Even at my age, I jump out of bed and can’t wait to get to rehearsals. I feel like I belong in Dexys. It’s the only band I can say that I feel 100% part of. So the years that I wasn’t in it…I mean, it was okay, but nothing was quite the same as playing in the band that started it all off for me.
I like to think that you got a call from Kevin one day, saying, “Mr. Paterson? We’re needed.”
JP: Kinda, yeah! I mean, the thing is, I wasn’t quite sure about it at first, but we met somewhere in West London, and Kevin came into the restaurant with a huge bag of clothes. I can remember sort of sitting there having lunch and trying on these clothes at the same time, in the middle of the restaurant. I think that’s what persuaded me. [Laughs.] Clothes are really important with Dexys. It’s a whole package, with the visuals and the songs.
How did you come up with the visuals for this particular album?
KR: Um…that’s a good question, but I don’t really know! [Laughs.] What happened was, we did some shows in 2003, which were the first Dexys shows since 1985. We just did a TV show, and for that, we went in to Mark Powell, the tailor, and he suggested these 1930s-inspired suits, so we started wearing them. And then simultaneously there was this thing happening in London – I think it probably happened in Los Angeles and New York at the same time, and maybe in Paris – where it was kind of like a burlesque revival, with lots of people wearing clothes from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s clothes, and a lot of them dancing to all kinds of different music and mixing it up, y’know? Taking those old ideas and using them for something new.
Around 2004 or 2005, I thought I’d go into this club in London called Lady Luck. It was a really good club. It was run by a guy called El Nino, or at least he was one of the main guys in it, and they just wore great clothes. And as I was wearing some of the clothes, anyway, I started doing that. I mean, these were just the clothes we’d wear! I’ve just been buying these clothes, and I wear ‘em. Not like an outfit. We were it all the time. This is how we dress. So it just took off, really. And I was explaining it to Jim, and then I showed Jim some clothes and said, “Well, what do you think about these? This is what we’re wearing.” And he said, “I love it!” And now he’s started as well. He’s gone off on his own, and he’s got loads of great things himself.
JP: It’s almost an obsession, really, isn’t? You start looking in every shop window. He thinks about it all the time.
KR: Yeah, I love clothes, y’know? [Laughs.] I love dressing up, man!
Well, it’s a great look. It certainly works well in the videos. And on that note, I don’t know how much of a budget you guys had to make those, but you certainly made the most of it, because they look fantastic.
KR: Oh, nice one! Well, you know what, Will? Look, you know how I said everything was working just right, right down the line? I meant it. We really have been blessed. Everybody really was willing this album to happen. Pete Schwier, our co-producer. The studio. Everybody went out of their way to make this album happen. And then when we got down to the record sleeve, a friend of mine, Chico, from the Lady Luck club, he just went to me, “Kevin, if you want someone to do your album, I’ll do it.” He said, “I’ll do some photos for your album.” And Chico’s a top photographer for Vogue in Europe. He travels all over the world, taking photos everywhere. He’s a top photographer. So I said, “Well, I don’t know if we’ll be able to afford you, mate!” He said, “Look, I normally charge eight grand, but I’ll do it for you for expenses. Just hire the room and let’s go.” I said, “You got it, man!” That was so fantastic.
And it was the same with the videos. There’s a barber in London that specializes in ‘40s and ‘50s haircuts called It’s Something Hell’s, and I went there and got talking to a guy who was having his hair cut, and he said, “Yeah, I direct videos!” And he does adverts as well, and he said, “Look, I make more money on those dozy things, but I’ll make yours for cheap. I’m into the music, and I’m glad to do it.” We just seemed to have loads of luck like that. You know how, with serendipity, when things go well for you, they go well for you…and when they’re not, they don’t. [Laughs.] And we’ve had plenty of times when they weren’t, y’know? It’s only joy now, though. For years, nothing seemed to work for me. I don’t know about you, Jim.
JP: No, I mean, I wasn’t doing anything, was I? I wasn’t even playing trombone for a good 16 years. That’s a shock, coming back from 16 years of nothing. I had to re-learn the trombone.
KR: That’s a long time, man.
JP: Yeah, my lips had forgotten everything. [Laughs.] It took awhile to get ‘em back into shape. I mean, you use your muscles, and you’ve got to get them back into top condition.
KR: Same with singing, Jim. Same with singing as well. I had to really work on my voice to get it back to where it was. But I had a really good singing coach. That helped. She’s a great teacher, Kim. She didn’t try to change me, y’know? She didn’t try to change my style. A couple of times she’d go, “Oh, I don’t like the pronunciation of that word…” I said, “No, no, no, it’s fine. I like it like that.” “Well, it’s not clear!” “I don’t care!” [Laughs.]
What’s Kim’s last name? Might as well give her a plug.
KR: Chandler. She teaches a lot of people in London, and she’s a singer in her own right as well, so she really understands. She’s very good.
I know what the American audience’s frame of reference is to Dexys, of course, but what’s your fanbase like in the UK? You had several hits there during the ‘80s. Are you able to get through live shows there without having people constantly shout out demands for specific songs?
JP: Yeah, we can, but…well, you take it, Kevin.
KR: Okay, well, what we did here – and it’s been amazing – was that we’ve played the whole new album from start to finish in our live show. And it is a show. We act out the songs on stage, kind of like a performance-art piece, and both the show and album are called One Day I’m Going to Soar. And how that came about was that after we finished the album… Our manager at the time, Tim Vigon, a really great guy who really believed in it and saw it through, he did this as a labor of love. He used to manage the Streets and the Zutons, who did really well here. I don’t know how they did in the States.
Anyway, Tim said to me, “So when you play, what are you gonna do in your shows?” I said, “Well, we’re gonna play a few from the new album and then some old stuff.” He said, “Why don’t you play the whole new album?” I said, “No way! When I used to go see Roxy Music, I didn’t want to see the whole new album!” He said, “Look, you haven’t made an album for 27 years. The people who come along to see you are going to be dying to hear new material.” The album wasn’t even out then! So then what it was, we had eight weeks of rehearsal as a full band, ten people, plus we had Madeleine Hyland, so we decided that, since the album has a narrative anyway, we decided to act ‘em out on stage as best we could. It’s still a gig, but one reviewer described it as “part West End show, part gig, part soul revue.” And I think that’s about all right.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, the first night we played Shepherds Bush Empire, and we got a standing ovation before we ever played an old song. They wouldn’t stop clapping after we played the new album. They were clapping for about three minutes. I had to signal the next song over their applause, because they just weren’t going to stop clapping. [Laughs.] So that’s how it is for us over here. We did nine nights at the Duke of York Theater in April, doing the whole album, and because that went so well, I said to the lads, “Look, the show’s going so well, when we do the tour, let’s just do the show again.” So they said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So now it’s an established show. And there is somebody who’s talking about bringing us over to put it on off-Broadway. That’s what he said, anyway. Now, whether that’s going to happen or not, I don’t know. We’re not counting our chickens before they’re hatched! But if it happens, it’ll be amazing.
By the way, when we did the Duke of York shows, we didn’t even do “Come On Eileen.” That was a statement. We’re grateful for that song, don’t worry, but that was a statement to say, “This is what we’re about.” And we didn’t have any problems. There wasn’t one bit of Twitter or one Facebook comment from anyone complaining. They were all just blown away, everybody who left that theater.
JP: Yeah, somebody said something like, “What, didn’t they play ‘Come On Eileen’? I didn’t even notice! It was that good!” We didn’t need it. And that was nice.
KR: Now, if we come there, we’ll play it. We’re not… [Starts to laugh.] We understand that that’s the only thing we’re known for over there. But it’s not like that here.
I’m glad to hear that. I’m someone who listens to albums from start to finish and digs deep into a band’s catalog, so it’s frustrating to go to a show and have to listen over people screaming for whatever their biggest hit was.
KR: Yeah. Honestly, though, it doesn’t happen over here. No, I will say that, at one festival in Australia, it happened, where someone was, like, “‘Come on Eileen’!” It just doesn’t happen, really. But, now, there’s a song we had which was a hit here in England, though not in America, called “Geno,” and sometimes you get chants for that. I think it’s more because it’s an easy chant. “Ge-NO! Ge-NO!” [Laughs.] Sometimes they just want to chant something.
JP: And it was a big single…
So when you dig into the back catalog after you’ve played the new album, how deep do you go? Do you go as far back as “Dance Stance?”
KR: We don’t play that. But, again, we don’t play a greatest-hits show. We do a Latin version of “Geno.” We play a song called “Listen to This” from Don’t Stand Me Down. We play a song called “The Waltz” off Don’t Stand Me Down. We play “Old” off Too-Rye-Ay quite often. We sometimes play “Liars A to E” off Too-Rye-Ay. We might play “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green” off the first album (Searching for the Young Soul Rebels). Whatever songs we feel like doing. We’ve really got to feel ‘em now, Will. And we reinterpret them and rearrange them. I mean, we can’t just… [Hesitates.] We didn’t wait 27 years to come back and go on a sell-out tour, y’know what I mean? When I say “sell out,” I don’t mean full. I mean selling our asses on a revival tour or on an ‘80s night. We didn’t do that. We waited. It means an awful lot to us, this. We’ve come back with possibly the best album of our career, if you can call it that. I don’t really like that word. But whatever you want to call it, there’s no way now that we’re gonna forsake that. The one thing we have got is integrity, I feel. You know, I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing on a trumpet, man, but…you can’t buy it, man.
JP: Yeah, I was gonna say the same thing as well, as far as why we’re doing it.
Just to start wrapping up, what would you say you’ve learned about making music between Don’t Stand Me Down and One Day I’m Going to Soar that you were able to bring to the new record?
JP: Wow. Did I actually learn anything, or did it just come from within? I don’t know. It’s quite a spiritual thing, really, as well as technical stuff. I couldn’t answer that one.
KR: Well, I think I can answer it. I mean, I think…I dunno about learning, but one thing I think I’ve brought to this album is experience. Like, life experience. There’s no way that I could’ve written these lyrics in 1986. In many ways, this is like a first album. I think one of the things I learned is that, after Don’t Stand Me Down, I think my confidence was low, because I worked so hard on that album, and it wasn’t incredibly well received at the time. I mean, there were a couple of good reviews, and retrospectively it’s been reappraised and it’s really got good press now, which is really nice, and loads of people come up to me and talk about it, which is really nice. But it wasn’t at the time. Particularly within the record company! They just didn’t get it, some of ‘em. And it seemed out of time, y’know? It’s, like, Live Aid had just happened, and it just seemed like we were in the wrong place. And I was overconfident with the album, and to cut a long story short, my confidence went for some time after that. But it was really heartening around ’93 or ’94, I was in rehab at the time, and I read this massive, long reappraisal of it in this free book that Melody Maker gave out. And I was, like, “Ah, this is great! I think I’ll read it to the counselor!” It was really nice.
One of the things that I did bring to this was that I felt, “You can only do it your own way.” We did two songs at a time…and when I say, “We did two songs at a time,” man, that’s what we did. Like, we would rehearse for a day, then we’d have a three week gap during which we’d listen to the tapes of the rehearsals, we’d make notes, go ‘round and see the musicians, and when we reconvened three weeks later, we’d say, “Please, can you do that instead?” Or, “More of that, please,” or whatever it was. And we’d change the arrangement of the songs, and then we’d have another three weeks during which we’d listen to the tapes of the same two songs. And then we’d have another rehearsal, we’d make more changes, we’d tape those rehearsals again, then we’d listen again for another three weeks…and then after that, we’d go in and record ‘em and make any final adjustments. And that’s how we did it. And the whole album took a year.
So there’s no question that this is the album you wanted to make.
KR: Totally. And everybody said, even our very supportive manager, “You won’t be able to do it that way. It won’t work.” But it did work. And I knew it was the only way we’d be able to do it, because I didn’t want to make an album that sounded… [Hesitates.] You know one of the things I learned? You can’t do it until you’re ready. And I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but…we weren’t ready. If we had made an album between now and then – and I’m so glad we didn’t – I don’t think it would’ve been what this album is. You can’t do it ‘til you’re ready. And I know 26 and a half years sounds like an awfully long time, but…we weren’t ready! I mean, I thought we were. Several times! But nothing seemed to work. And maybe deep down, I didn’t want to. I don’t know. I’m getting out of me depth now, Will.
Well, either way, the end result seems to have been worth the wait.
KR: Ah, thanks.
JP: Yeah, thanks!
Okay, just to close, Kevin, I have to tell you that I’m very fond of your solo album, My Beauty, because I picked it up while my wife and I were on our honeymoon in the UK.
Ah, nice one, man.
I actually went back and listened to your take on Squeeze’s “Labeled with Love” earlier today.
KR: Okay, uh, I’m not sure about that one. [Laughs.] Not sure about the lyric changes on that one. But things like “Rag Doll” and “The Greatest Love of All,” I think they work well, y’know? By the way, Jim produced that album with me!
Also, some kind soul has uploaded your version of “Thunder Road” to YouTube, so I’ve finally been able to hear that as well.
JP: That was a really good version.
KR: Now, if you should mention that in the interview…and I’m not saying you necessarily should, because that’s not where we’re at at the moment. We’re about the new album right now.
Duly noted, but I don’t think there’ll be any question that my focus here is on the new album.
KR: [Laughs.] All right, well, I just want to dispel a myth, and I just like doing it every chance I get. The word was that Springsteen refused permission. It’s not true. The truth is far more boring. The record company… Now, that album took about a year, didn’t it, Jim? Over a year, I think.
JP: Yeah, it did.
KR: Well, at the start of it, after we demo’ed “Thunder Road,” I said to the record company legal guy…well, not the legal guy, but…I don’t know what he was. Chief executive or whatever he was. Anyway, I said, “Look, we’re gonna do ‘Thunder Road,’ but I wanna do some lyric changes. Can you do me a favor? You need to talk to Springsteen. Don’t go talking to his lawyers. Talk to him and tell him this is a version from the heart, that I’ve changed it to fit my experience. I respect the song, but I had to make it me own. I couldn’t sing it otherwise. And they said, “Yeah, yeah, sure, we’ll do that.” And they didn’t.
And, like, three or four days before the album was due out, they sent off an email or a fax or whatever it was in those days, and they just sent it to Springsteen’s “people” with the new lyrics on it. And I’m told that they just refused it out of hand. He didn’t see it. They refused it out of hand ‘cause that’s what they always do. Like, if somebody goes and says, “I wanna use one of your songs in an advert,” and they want to change “Born to Run” for the product, they just say “no” out of hand, which is why they refused this out of hand as well.
Now, I read somewhere…and I can’t tell you where, and I should’ve wrote it down…that Springsteen heard it subsequently and said, “Pretty cool.” Now, I’m not saying you should write that, because I don’t know if that’s true, and I can’t tell you where to find it, but that’s what I read somewhere. I wish I could remember! I mean, I just read it late at night one night, when I was scouring through the internet. “Pretty cool” or “pretty neat,” something like that. Whichever it is, it’s not bad. [Laughs.]