Music interview '“ Dubstar: '˜We're just people watchers'

Nearly 20 years after their split, Dubstar's Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie have a new album out. Duncan Seaman reports.

Friday, 28th September 2018, 9:00 am
Dubstar are about to release their first album in 18 years.
Dubstar are about to release their first album in 18 years.

In an era when guitars were king, and Blur were facing off against Oasis, the bittersweet electronic pop tones of Dubstar always seemed a little out of sync with the times.

Yet popular they were in the 1990s for two albums and a string of top 40 singles, including the fondly remembered Not So Manic Now and Stars.

The band split up in the year 2000, shortly after the release of their third album, Make It Better, but after 18 years singer Sarah Blackwood and songwriter Chris Wilkie are finally back with a new record, simply titled One.

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Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie of Dubstar

“Dubstar sort of came to an end after Make It Better, which appeared to make it all worse,” says Halifax-born Blackwood, filling in the backstory. “And then Chris did some work with Mark Owen and I went on tour with Depeche Mode – which is quite possibly the most exciting thing that ever happened to me – and then I formed [the synth-pop group] Client after that [with Kate Holmes]. That started to unravel a bit and Chris got back in touch.

“It was actually Miles from [Dubstar’s first label] Food Records 40th birthday and we were a very special band for him and he said ‘Would you reform for my birthday?’ So we did, and then after that it just became apparent that Chris and I wanted to write.”

Life may have “got in the way” when Wilkie had two children but he began writing songs again in the daytime when they went to school. “We didn’t know whether we were going to do Dubstar or not,” says Blackwood, “and because of that Chris felt liberated, when it was just this unspecified thing that freed his wings a little bit.”

Soon the pair were exchanging song ideas via email (“I had to get over my diva-ness and learn how to use the computer,” Blackwood jokes) and 18 months later they felt they had enough material for an album. Blackwood then “plucked up the courage” to ask Martin Glover, aka Youth, if he would produce it. “He said come and see me in April, so I went to see him and played him three songs and he went ‘Well, it sounds like Dubstar to me’. Then we went, ‘Shall we do it?’ and I went ‘Yeah, all right’, so we scheduled some time that August and that it was it, really.”

The pathos at the heart of songs such as Waltz No 9 and You Were Never in Love show that Dubstar retain a distinctively Northern outlook on life. Blackwood says it took her “a very long time” to get used to living in London. “I hated it with a passion; I moved there with the sense that ‘I’ll move when I’ve sorted my life out’ but I ended up living there getting on for 20 years.” She found herself hankering for her Yorkshire roots. “All the neighbours think I’m nuts when I come up to my mum and dad’s because I just open the door and stand and sniff the air. They’re like ‘There’s Sarah in the garden again sniffing the air’. Where my mum and dad are they’re really high up. My dad says ‘Only sheep should live at this altitude’.”

In true Northern songwriting tradition, she and Wilkie – who is from Newcastle – are “just people watchers”. “We’re just nosy people, and there’s a lot of anxiety and paranoia that goes on in our lives as well,” says Blackwood. “Chris says ‘If it wasn’t for somebody kicking our a***es this probably wouldn’t have happened’, because Chris has days when he doesn’t want to leave the house, me neither. In fact many of the demo vocals I did in bed.”

The pop world might have changed “beyond all recognition” since Dubstar’s original flush of fame in the 90s, but hopefully the band will find their niche again. Blackwood sounds phlegmatic. “My mum’s like, ‘How’s the record doing?’ I’m like ‘I’ve got no idea’. You haven’t still got that excitement of the charts any more.

“Client was a very DIY thing and it taught me to appreciate the little victories. It felt like Client was paying my dues for all the success I had in Dubstar. This time has just been fascinating.

“I’ve got no idea [where we fit in today]. We always were uncomfortably on the periphery. We went to a lot of the same parties but I was always a complete wallflower, feeling like I had the wrong clothes on at Britpop parties. I think trying to find your place is a big, scary thing. All you can hope is people appreciate it for the art. We’re just normal people trying to create some art. It has been a hell of struggle, but the struggles have been day to day dramas.”

It’s made her appreciate things more, though. “In the 90s you were swept up with ‘Oh my God, it’s life or death to get on’. Now you realise what life and death is and this is just a record and it’s something that you do and who you are.”

And Blackwood is heartened by the cultural revival of her old home town, Halifax – one national newspaper even described it as ‘the Shoreditch of the North’.

“There’s a real vibe going on and it’s so good,” she says. “There is nowhere else that has a Piece Hall.

“It feels like home when I go there. I’m a terrible driver so I usually go up by train and as you come in you see everything change and I just relax. You see the rolling hills and it is so beautiful, the countryside around is just stunning. You’ve got Hebden Bridge, Hardcastle Crags. Where my mum and dad live, it’s not quite on the tops but they live just below Queensbury, I used to go running and I’d go to the steepest bit and stand at the top and you could see Bradford over one way, Halifax over the other, then Ogden Water and the moorland and Keighley and Haworth the other way – it’s pretty special.”

One is out on October 12.