Interview: Kevin Rowland of Dexys

Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Interview: Kevin Rowland of Dexys

Interview: Kevin Rowland of Dexys
By Will Harris

Although they’re unquestionably best known to US listeners for their classic 1982 single “Come On Eileen,” Dexys Midnight Runners – now known simply as Dexys, which is extremely exciting for journalists who’ve had to write out the entire name for the last 35 years, I can assure you – were a force to be reckoned with in the UK before they were singing about “poor old Johnny Ray,” thanks to their 1980 debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. Although Dexys dissolved in 1987 and remained that way for the better part of 15 years, they reunited to record a pair of new tracks for a best-of in 2003, remained on good terms, and in 2012 they released a new album, One Day I’m Going to Soar.

Now, Dexys is back again, this time with an effort entitled Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish And Country Soul, which features the band taking on a number of classic tracks and doing them up in full Dexys style. Frontman Kevin Rowland was kind enough to chat with Rhino about the release of the new album, its origins and its contents, the history of cover songs in Dexy’s back catalog, and his thoughts on the possibility of another album’s worth of original material in the future.

Rhino: I’ve had a chance to delve into the new album, and I have to say, it’s pretty great.

Kevin Rowland: Ah, I’m glad you like it!

I’ve also watched Let the Record Show, the documentary that was passed along to the press to kind of set the stage for the album, so my apologies for duplicating information that’s contained therein, but the readers won’t have seen it, so…

That’s true, that’s true, they won’t.

Can you talk a bit about the origins of the album? I know the concept had been under discussion for a possible fourth album way back when.

In the ’80s, yeah. It was a long time ago, but we thought about doing it. We just thought about it, though, and it didn’t work out. Then a few years ago we decided to do it after (One Day I’m Going To) Soar, but the idea had expanded and broadened out. I fleetingly thought to myself, “Okay, does this work, six Irish songs and six British and American songs?” And it was only, like, yesterday when I realized, “Well, of course it does, because…” [Hesitates.] Well, I knew that it worked. I always knew that it worked musically. I just trusted that it would. And when I got the track listing right, I just thought, “Okay, great, it flows as an album.” When we got the track listing right, I just thought, “That’s it!” And I trusted that. But somebody said – I don’t know who it was, but it was somebody I hadn’t met, because I heard it third-hand – “Oh, well, it’s strange he’s got six Irish and six non-Irish,” and that just made me think about it. And what just dawned me is that, no, it’s not strange at all. It’s roots. My parents are Irish, so that was a big influence, but I was born here, and I grew up with British and American music. So it’s roots!

You mentioned getting the track listing right. I presume you had a pretty substantial list of potential contenders.

Oh, yeah, I was actually meaning post-recording, when we decided which track running order of the songs. I should’ve had said. That’s what I was talking about. But we didn’t have a massive list, really. There was only one or two that didn’t make it.

Did you want to say what those are, or are you going to save them for Volume 2?

I think I might save them for Volume 2! [Laughs.] You never know!

When the time came to enter the studio, had you road-tested any of these songs live?

None of them. But the way we record is, we do two songs at a time. The whole thing took nearly a year. What we’d do… We started demoing these songs in 2012, Sean Read and I, and we had ‘em all, every one of those songs there. I had ‘em in my mind to do ‘em for years – all of ‘em, really – so we demoed them all, and then over the next two years we were tweaking. He’d send me something back, and I’d say, “Okay, that key’s not working, let me try a different key. And let’s change the high hat pattern on that. Let’s try that in 6/8 time.” Or whatever it was. And we just kept honing them until we were happy with them. And then we’d get the band ‘round to my flat, me and Sean, give them the demo of two songs and a chord chart, and say, “Okay, see you next week in the rehearsal studio, guys!”

We’d have a rehearsal and we’d try everything out. They would’ve learned it by the time they got to the studio, we would run the two songs and tape them just on a little phone recorder. And then we’d have two weeks, myself and Sean, listening back and deciding what’s working, what’s not working, probably getting together with the musicians again, or even phoning them and saying, “Okay, we like this, not sure about that, can we have more of this, please?” And then we’d have another rehearsal of the two songs, we’d tape it again, and we’d have another two-week break where we’d do the same thing again, over and over and over again, until we get the versions that we’re happy with. And then we do another two!

It sounds like you’re nothing if not a perfectionist.

[Dismissively.] Well, I dunno. I’m just trying to do good music!

Now, how did the idea of having the reunion with Helen O’Hara and the band come about?

Well, it was really interesting, because I hadn’t seen her for years. But I get in touch with her every five or ten years, and she gets in touch with me every five or ten years, or something like that. I think she texted me and said, “I’m in London next week. Want to have a cup of tea or something?” I said, “Okay.” We met, and when I’d spoken to her 10 or 15 years ago, I said, “Are you playing?” She said, “Nah, I’m not playing.” She was bringing up her children, so she said, “The only playing I’m doing is in the children’s school in the mornings. I play the piano for assembly. I sing the hymns.” I said, “Okay.”

Then she just mentioned to me, “I’m playing again!” I said, “Oh, that’s great! What are you doing?” She said, “I’m doing some gigs, I’m doing some sessions.” I said, “That’s great!” And then my mind started working, and I said, “Well, we’ve got ‘Women of Ireland’ coming up, you’ve always wanted to do that song, and we’re doing it.” But we’ve got a really good string arranger called Ben Trigg, so I said, “Look, as long as Ben’s happy, I’m happy.” So I phoned Ben, and I said, “Ben, I’d love Helen to do it, but if you feel she’s not right, she won’t do it. You two meet and see how you get on.” So they two both met, and he phoned me and said, “She’s fantastic!” I said, “I’m so happy!” I was so glad to have her there. So when I walked in the studio and I saw her there with the violin, it was just great. And she sounded great. She nailed that, didn’t she?

She did. And I loved being able to see footage of that in Let the Record Show.

Is that in there? Yeah, I guess there is a bit of it. I haven’t watched it in ages!

It must have been interesting for Lucy Morgan to meet someone who’d played on the original recording of the Dexys songs she’s been playing live.

Yeah, sure.

Did they get along relatively well? It seemed like they did from the interviews.

No, they hated each other.

Oh, really?

Yeah, they were looking at each other and… [Starts to laugh.] No, I’m only joking. Yeah, they did get along. They liked each other, yeah. They’re friends!

I was picturing two jungle cats, sizing each other up.

[Laughs.] Nah, they were great. You know, Helen helped also with the post-production, with the mixing. She was great on that. It just happened organically, because I always send versions to people. I ask people’s opinions before I make up my own mind, you know? And I’d always send versions to Helen. I sent them to all the band, but she would always be the first one back. “I think this, I think that, I like this version, I don’t like that version, I like this version because…” She gave me great detailed musical feedback. She’s very passionate about music. She’s real class. She’s great. But she’s behind the scenes, really. Lucy’s still our girl, you know? And I made that clear to Lucy!

In regards to the track listing, I was curious about your first exposure to some of the more traditional songs. For instance, “Women of Ireland,” I know Kate Bush has done a version of that track, but when did you first hear the song?

I think I probably first heard it about 1979 or 1980, maybe ’81. But it was the Chieftains’ version. That was the first version I heard. So it was amazing.

It’s funny that my first exposure to “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” was in an episode of Star Trek.

Wow. [Laughs.] Wow

It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that it was an Irish classic.

Well, an exiled Irish classic: it’s about a man whose wife is dying, and he’s taking her home to Ireland to die. It’s an incredible song.

With “40 Shades of Green,” are you an established Johnny Cash fan, or is that a one-off?

Yeah, I can’t say I listen to Johnny Cash records a lot, but I’ve got massive respect for him. Great songwriter and singer, and a great band. I love what Johnny Cash’s guitarist said. Did you hear that quote?

I don’t think so.

Somebody was interviewing him, and they said, “Why is it that most guitarists go [Imitates wild guitar noodling] but you go [Imitates the steady chug off ‘Folsom Prison Blues’]?” He said, “Because they’re looking. And I’ve found it.” [Laughs.] It’s true! Simplicity! But sometimes you have to go through complication – and I’m sure you find this in your writing – to get to simplicity. It’s the same with songwriting and recording. Somebody said to me that all art is editing.

I’ll buy that.

Yeah! And it’s the same with music.

With your picks for the album, were there any songs that you hesitated before taking the plunge? You’ve certainly got some unabashed classics in the mix.

I was nervous about “Carrickergus,” because a lot of people have done it. It’s a big song. It’s a big sing. It’s five and a half minutes. But something happened on that, and I’m really happy with the version I’ve got. Quite a few people have said – you know, I can think of three who’ve told me – that they’ve cried to it. And it’s only just gotten out there! You can’t get a better compliment than that. I’m really happy with it. I dunno, something happened that day when I did that. I just felt really in that song.

One of the most pleasant surprises for me was “How Do I Live,” although I suddenly had this vision of writing, “When Kevin was a young man growing up in London, listening to LeAnn Rimes…”

[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s got to be the latest one on there…but I was still growing up in the ‘90s, even though I was in my 40s!

What was it that appealed to you about the song?

I thought it was an amazing song. I just thought it was so pure. It’s such a great love song. That woman who wrote that song is an amazing writer.

Diane Warren.

[Sighs, but in a ‘be still my heart’ fashion.] I’ve never liked rock, really. A lot of people in England… It was very fashionable in the late ‘70s to say you never liked rock, and a lot of people lied. I actually never really did like rock. Not heavy rock. I just didn’t. Look, I liked “Paranoid,” by Black Sabbath, I thought “Whole Lotta Love” was pretty good, and I liked “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin. But, you know, a lot of rocky tracks I just never liked. Aerosmith never really appealed. But that song “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” I heard that, and I thought, “What an incredible love song!” And the same with “How Do I Live”: what an incredibly pure, straight-from-the-heart love song. The purity of it just rang out to me. And I had to do it. But I’m really glad we found a way of doing it.

It really is lovely.

Ah, thanks, man. I think it works. I really like it.

Yeah, when I saw the title before I saw the songwriting credits, I thought, “Is that…? Nah, can’t be!” But it was, and it was great.

Yeah, Pete Schwier said that in the film: “Why are they doing that song?” [Laughs.] A lot of people just think “cornball.” But I guess we did it in kind of a Sam & Dave kind style, me and Sean. Sean’s vocals are fucking good!

As far as cover songs go, Dexys certainly has a history of doing them that extends to way back when – you did Chuck Wood’s “Seven Days Too Long” on Searching for the Young Soul Rebels – but did it feel intimidating to do an entire album’s worth?

Maybe it would’ve if we’d done them all at once. But as I said, we did them two at a time, and we spent a lot of time working on them before we ever went into the studio. Those demos were a very clear picture of where the band should take the songs. They were very basic sometimes. They might not have a bass guitar on them, but they’d have a drum beat and a piano and a vocal, and it was obvious the direction that they could take that in. Sometimes they surprised us. Like with “Both Sides Now,” I didn’t imagine it quite so upbeat. I liked it that way! The band just played it that way, and I just went, “Okay, you’re hearing it that way, I like it!” It was like a happy surprise. But most of the others, the demo was very clear kind of what direction to take it in. So, no, it wasn’t really intimidating. But I’m always nervous recording and performing. [Hesitates.] You know, maybe some of them were. Like “The Town I Love So Well.”

You know, you get managers and record companies, they’ve heard the demos, and they go, “Oh, it’s gonna be great! It’s gonna be great!” And I go, “Hang on a minute, we haven’t even recorded it yet! It might not be great!” “Oh, it will be!” “You don’t know that! It could go wrong!” But it didn’t, thank god!

I’m sure critics will inevitably bring up My Beauty as a frame of reference to this one, but as I told you last time, I’m actually a huge fan of that album.

[Uncertainly.] Right, good to know.

I bring it up because that album had another instance where you sang a surprising song with such earnestness that it won me over: “The Greatest Love of All.” It’s a song that might otherwise be perceived as schmaltz, but you do it in an earnest way, and it works.

[Comprehending.] Okay, because we did it in an earnest way, it’s not schmaltzy. Is that what you’re saying?

Yeah. I myself am notoriously sentimental, and I don’t normally like schmaltz, but if it’s done in a way that I believe the person means it, then I can buy into it.

There you go: I’m exactly the same! A good luck story, I’m a sucker for it. It’ll make me cry. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But, yeah, if it’s schmaltz and it’s insincere, it’s horrible, I can’t stand it. But if it’s sincere, why not? I should say that I don’t constantly try to challenge people’s preconceptions…but it always seems to happen! [Laughs.]

I mentioned “Seven Days Too Long.” When the expanded version of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels was released for the 30th anniversary, you could almost have put out an entire covers album just from the songs you were recording for B-sides and radio sessions.

Yeah, um… I can’t even remember now! When was the 30th anniversary? 2010?

Exactly. But you guys did “Soul Finger,” “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and “Respect,” which is one that I would definitely think would be worrying to cover just because of the definitive nature of the original.

Yeah, I don’t know how we had the balls to do that, really. [Laughs.] And I can’t remember much about it, because I very rarely look back. But I remember when I listened to it in 2010, I wasn’t impressed with that version. Or “Hold On, I’m Coming.” But what it was… That was just the run-through. But the A&R guy said, “Can I hear all your songs? Go into the studio, and don’t record them like you’re trying to record or even like you’re making demos. I just want you to play all your songs, and we’ll record it, so I can hear all the songs you’ve got.” And we did every song. The drummer was playing some of them for the first time, because he’d only just joined the band! When we’d previously done “Hold On, I’m Coming,” he wasn’t even in the band! But when I said to the label, “These aren’t even demos, they shouldn’t come out,” you know, the trouble when the label owns all your music: they insisted. So we didn’t have any control over that.

Are there any covers that you’ve done in the past that you are particularly fond of, or that stand out for you?

Not really! I don’t really think about the past much. Somebody – a journalist – mentioned “Marguerita Time” to me this morning, and I thought, “Yeah, that was all right.”

What about “Jackie Wilson Said”?

Ah, I don’t know, really. It’s a bit of a sore spot, that one. I mean, it’s good, it’s all right, but I can’t believe that we followed “Come on Eileen” – in the UK, anyway – with that. It was the wrong choice for a follow-up single, really.

What would your preference have been?

Well, I didn’t have a preference, because the label wanted to release that before “Eileen.” I had to fight to get “Eileen” released. But luckily the plugger agreed with me that “Eileen” was stronger than “Jackie Wilson Said.” But the deal was, the A&R man wanted “Jackie Wilson Said,” so the compromise was “Jackie Wilson” after “Eileen.” But looking back, we’d had the biggest song of the summer, and then we followed it by covering someone else’s. I think it would’ve been better to release an original song, whether it be “Let’s Make This Precious,” “One Last Wild Waltz,” “Old,” or something.

Looking beyond this album, are there at least tentative discussions about doing another album of originals?

Not for me, really. I’m not sure, really. I don’t like to think in the future, either. I don’t like to look back. I’d like to just accept that I’m happy that we’ve done this now, and the future, whatever will be, will be. We might do another album, but I don’t know. I don’t like to plan it too much.

Presumably you’re doing some shows to support the album in the UK, but will you be doing any in the US?

I don’t know, actually. I don’t even know if we’re going to do them here! We might. It’s just a big effort to get going here. It’s, like, 10 in the band, so it’s expensive, you know? And we rehearse a lot…much to the chagrin of our accountant! We do a lot of rehearsal. Otherwise we don’t do shows, because there’s no point in doing them. We’ve got a good reputation here for doing shows. They’ve been really well received. So I wouldn’t want to go out and do shows that were half-baked, where we were under-rehearsed. So we’ll have to wait and see.

Oh, one thing I neglected to ask earlier: in terms of the distinct fashion choices for the album, the video, and the film, how did you go about selecting those?

Again, just intuition. It’s just, like, I like clothes, and I’m always dressing up when I get the chance. I just put my favorite clothes on, you know?

I mean this in a completely complimentary manner, but it feels like a fashion choice of a bygone era.

Yeah, it’s kind of retro-inspired rather than retro. It’s got a contemporary edge to it, with the way we wear them. But it’s kind of classical.

Lastly, just given the state of the music industry in general, when you release a new album such as this, do you have any particular commercial expectations?

I try not to. Or I try to keep my expectations leveled down. Obviously, you want it to do well, but…who knows? No one knows.