Music interview: Kevin Rowland, on Dexys, DJ-ing and ‘not doing the same thing again’

Kevin Rowland of Dexys
Kevin Rowland of Dexys
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Kevin Rowland’s musical path has been one of the most varied and intriguing in all of British pop over the last 40 years.

From youthful punk rocker with The Killjoys to the many incarnations of Dexys – the Young Soul Rebel in his leather jacket and docker’s hat, the Celtic Soul Brother in dungarees and neckerchief, the Ivy League look for Don’t Stand Me Down and latterly in zoot suit, spats and fedora for the more theatrical One Day I’m Going To Soar – the singer and songwriter has always preferred his own route to any prevailing trends.

Latterly he has also developed an interest in DJ-ing, and has a show coming up in West Yorkshire next month. “I’ve always liked music and dancing and all that stuff and I’ve just always wanted to do it but I never really got round to it,” the 63-year-old says of his sideline. “Then when I was in Brighton about ten years ago a friend showed me how to do it, I got myself some decks and off I went.

“We now call it the Kevin Rowland DJ Show because that’s what it is. It’s quite visual what I do, I also sing along with a couple of the tracks, it’s a bit of a performance, really, but people dance. I learned a lot from Dexys about how to pace a set. It’s different when people are dancing. Dexys normally play in theatres by preference because it’s a very visual, theatrical show, but this is different.

“My aim is to get people on the floor, entertain them but keep them dancing and you have to play a mixture of styles, you can’t stay in the same groove all night and you have to shock the audience a little bit so I might play some soul, a bit of reggae, a bit of funk, a bit of sexy rock, a disco track – kind of a real mixture. It’s not really what you play, it’s the order you play them in, that’s what makes a difference.”

Two nights earlier, Rowland will be in Leeds, talking to Chris Madden for one of his Chinwag events at Outlaws Yacht Club on New York Street. The singer says “the simple fact that it’s for charity” persuaded him to do it. “I wouldn’t choose to go and talk in front of people. I’ll sing in front of them, DJ in front of them, but talk in front of them? Nah.

Kevin Rowland will be talking at the Chinwag charity event in Leeds.

Kevin Rowland will be talking at the Chinwag charity event in Leeds.

“I’m quite a private guy. But I know when I do things for charity or try to do things for other people the irony is that it helps the person who’s doing it, it helps me.”

Dexys’ singular history has been characterised by constant changes between records. “We just follow our instincts, really,” Rowland says. “I don’t know about restless – possibly – but once you’ve done something I absolutely don’t see the point and have no interest in doing the same thing again. It’s like I can’t do it, once it’s done it’s done, I just lose interest in it. It’s inherent in me. Not like I think ‘I’ve done that, let’s do something else now, that will be interesting’. It’s not even like that. I can’t do the same thing again, I’ve got no inspiration to do it.”

The one common thread is the passion and commitment behind each record. He’s reluctant to pinpoint what fuelled them, explaining: “Once you sort of label something or bracket something or title it or give it some kind of reference you sort of kill it a way. Music is magic, really. I don’t want to sound too pretentious but it actually is. It’s like when we’ve written something I just think, ‘Where did that come from? How did that happen?’ It’s a miracle and I’ve absolutely no idea how the next one’s going to come and that’s what it’s like.”

On the strongly defined look that has accompanied each phase of Dexys, Rowland does admit to having spent “a fair amount” of time thinking about how he wanted to present each record to the world. “We evolve all the time. It’s an interest for me, it’s something that I really enjoy – clothes – and for me it’s the icing on the cake. Sometimes the music can be quite hard work, the clothes are kind of fun. The music can be enjoyable but I find it quite hard work, I put an awful lot into the music. It’s a big undertaking to do an album – you’re talking about a couple of years the way we do them, the last two between all the demo-ing and the writing and the arranging and the honing down the arrangements, finding the right players, all of that stuff, then honing the arrangements again. It’s like sculpting or something. It’s a similar process I suppose with the clothes, but I don’t know, I enjoy the clothes thing more than the music.”

Music is magic, really. I don’t want to sound too pretentious but it actually is. It’s like when we’ve written something I just think, ‘Where did that come from? How did that happen?’ It’s a miracle and I’ve absolutely no idea how the next one’s going to come.

Kevin Rowland

Following the commercial failure of Dexys’ masterpiece Don’t Stand Me Down, Rowland said he was “completely disillusioned” with the music business. Its subsequent acclaim, when it was reissued by Creation 15 years later, was, he feels, a vindication.

“I don’t know if I was disillusioned, I probably was, I’m not sure. I probably said that but I don’t know if that’s really the truth. I think that what it was I was absolutely exhausted after Don’t Stand Me Down and when it was clear that it was over, that it wasn’t going to do any good commercially, I actually breathed a sigh of relief. The journey that I’d been on since, say, ’79, being a hard working professional musician, singer, recording artist, touring, writing, I’d never really stopped for over five years. It was over for a period.

“For better or for worse Searching For The Young Soul Rebels and Too Rye Ay were both successful in their own way. Too Rye Ay was much more successful worldwide but Searching For The Young Soul Rebels was a top ten album, very well received, a rated album, and the fact that it was almost like ‘I’m out of it now, I’m back to being before I was a professional musician’ it was like a relief, to be honest.”

Rowland went on two make two solo albums. The second of them, My Beauty, attracted controversy when the singer appeared on its cover in a dress. A subsequent appearance in similar garb at Reading Festival went down in music folklore for the audience’s supposedly unfavourable reaction. From 18 years distance, Rowland views it now as “tedious” but wants to set the record straight.

“Just very square people. Supposedly some of them would probably class themselves as liberal, with a small ‘l’, open-minded, perhaps leaning to the left politically and yet they seemed so threatened by this thing. I spoke to somebody who is a highly qualified psychotherapist, really at the top of their tree, and they said, ‘Look, this has got nothing to do with you, this is about their stuff’.

“The Reading thing is an absolute myth, we didn’t get bottled off, one journalist wrote that and someone else [picked it up]. In fact we did three songs. Maybe the fact that we were only going to do three songs foxed some people but we were only ever booked to do three, that was the show. I stopped at the end of the third song and there were people throwing bottles, a few probably, and I just said, ‘Look, I’m doing my best here. If anybody next to you is throwing a bottle stop them, please’ and there was a big applause from the crowd. That was the last song, we finished the song and we got a lot of applause as we went off and I remember I waved my arm in the air, we went off victorious, so what can you do about those kind of myths that get blown up?

“The other thing [that was claimed] was that it sold 500 copies – it didn’t, it sold 2,500. All right, not an awful lot, but it’s not 500.”

After more than a decade in the wilderness, Dexys made a triumphant return in 2012 with the album One Day I’m Going To Soar. Rowland says the warm reception for that record was “brilliant”.

“And the shows, unbelievable,” he adds, “because we played the whole new album on every show we did and we’d get a standing ovation every night before we played a note of old music and, to be honest, oftentimes they wouldn’t stop applauding. I think it was at Shepherds Bush it was about three minutes and they just kept on applauding and in the end I had to start the next song over the applause because it didn’t seem like they were going to stop. That was pretty overwhelming and the reviews were ridiculously good for the album and the shows. It was great, but to be honest I’ve done good work before and it hasn’t been well received, like Don’t Stand Me Down. It was nice, you can’t take it for granted, at the same time I was really happy with those shows and that album. We put a lot of work into them but that doesn’t mean to say you’re going to do well, just because you do good work. But it was nice to see that.”

Last year Dexys released Let The Record Show, an album of covers which took Rowland back to his Irish roots. It was, he says, the realisation of a long-held ambition. “Even when I was driving along the road and I’d think ‘If I did Carrickfergus maybe I’d do it with this rhythm’, that kind of thing. I was always making little notes because it was always in my mind to do that album, it never really went away. It was originally going to be an Irish album in the 80s, it was going to be the album that followed Don’t Stand Me Down but, like I said, I kind of wanted to get away from Dexys after Don’t Stand Me Down. If Don’t Stand Me Down had been a success obviously I would have carried on, probably my life would have been very different...it’s interesting, really, who knows? But anyway over the years I’d think ‘I really want to sing that song, I really want to do Grazing In The Grass’ so I just did all the songs that I wanted to do.”

As to where Dexys might go next, Rowland seems less sure. “I’ve got some ideas but I don’t know when or how at the moment,” he says.

Kevin Rowland is at Chinwag at Outlaws Yacht Club on July 6 and he will be DJ-ing at the Golden Lion, Todmorden on July 8. For details visit http://outlawsyachtclub.bigcartel.com/product/chinwag-with-kevin-rowland and https://www.facebook.com/events/224530651347434/. Proceeds from the Chinwag event will go to MAP, a Leeds-based charity who run arts and music courses for young people at risk of exclusion from mainstream education (http://musicandartsproduction.org)