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Interview: Kevin Rowland (Dexys)

28 July 2023

Photo by Sandra Vijandi

Not too many bands can claim to have a multi-generational hit and most would take that even if it meant being labeled as a “one-hit wonder.” You’d be hard pressed to find even the most casual music listener who hasn’t heard, and sung along with, Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1982 international chart-topper “Come On Eileen” from the Too Rye Ay album. When I tell founding member and lead singer Kevin Rowland that not only is the song one of my favorites, but also a favorite of my mom, my wife, and my kids, he rightfully asks, “Is that the only Dexys song you know?” Were it not for streaming services like Spotify and YouTube, I may have answered “Yes,” but, thankfully, all of Rowland’s recorded history – from Dexys Midnight Runners to the shortened Dexys to his solo material – is readily available and worth exploring if you only know the hit. While nothing will ever come close to matching the success of “Come On Eileen,” albums like Dexys Midnight Runners’ 1995’s Don’t Stand Me Down and Rowland’s 1999 My Beauty contain some treats.

The first collection of new Dexys songs since 2012’s One Day I’m Going to Soar has just been released. The Feminine Divine is a personal narrative for Rowland, one that tells the story of a man who grew up embossed in a masculinity culture that believed it was a man’s job to protect women only to discover, later in life, that women can protect themselves and don’t benefit from a machismo attitude. By the end of Rowland’s journey, he drops the tough guy persona and comes to realize that women are goddesses that he can submit to and learn from.

The Dexys name seems to be out there a lot surrounding the release of this album. Is that something that you’re noticing?

KEVIN: I think the label is doing a really good job, I have to say. They’re really pushing the album. They’re working it, they believe in it. I’m very happy about that. I think there seems to be a buzz.

With the new album, lyrically, you tackle a lot, but the first time I listened to it, the first couple songs really made me a smile. There’s a very bright sound to the music. And the second half of the album is just a little bit darker. It’s almost like the first half is daytime, the second half is nighttime.

KEVIN: I’ve never thought about that. That’s so good to hear because I’m a massive Beach Boys fan and I always loved how their songs sounded so sunny. I feel “Eileen” did sound quite sunny. And we’ve always sort of wanted to do that, really have songs that sound good in the summer.

So was the plan always to put it out in the summer?

KEVIN: No, it just happened that way. These things take so long now. We delivered the album, I think, at Christmas or the beginning of January, it and I said to them, “When are you going to put it out?” and they went, “Late July.” “What?!? It takes six months?” Back in the ’80s, you’d finish an album, five or six weeks later, it was out.

I said to the label, when you go to radio stations to ask them to add songs to their playlist, do it on a hot day because it does sound good when the sun’s shining.

You’ve had this lifetime of experiences that kind of informed the lyrics. You’re not just writing about turning on the news today. Was it these experiences, like firsthand experiences, that led you to the lyrics and the songs? Or when you were thinking that you were due for a new record, did you have to go back and think, “What can I write about for this record?”

KEVIN: No. You know, it’s got a narrative to it. It tells the story of the character from the beginning where he’s quite macho, and then he admits that’s not really who he is, and then he looks at his relationships with women, and then he gets into a relationship in a whole different way.

I didn’t feel like doing music for a few years and then 2021, I just thought, “You know what? I really want to do something now.” And I didn’t know what. I said to (original Dexy’s member/trombonist) Jim Patterson, my songwriting partner – he keeps everything, I keep nothing – “What songs have we got? What have we got lying around?” And he sent me he sent me one. I went, “Okay. ‘The One That Loves You,’ we can definitely use that. “Coming Home,” that was also written. Three out of the first four were written in the ’90s. And the first song, “The One That Loves You,” was my stance at that time when I wrote that. It’s basically saying, “If you touch my girlfriend, it’s going to mean a fight.” And that was my outlook at that point. It’s not my outlook now, obviously, but I thought, that is a good song. So we started to demo them and we started to work on them.

One night, I just wrote down the words to “The Feminine Divine.” It all came out in one hit. I didn’t have to stop, I just wrote it, wrote it, wrote it. And I barely had to edit it, juggle it. It just all came out. I didn’t know that was coming. I wasn’t like, “What do I write about it?” It just came out. I wrote the music of that with Sean (Read), and then Mike (Timothy) came up with the riffs for “My Goddess Is” and “Goddess Rules” and he was like, “I don’t think these would be suitable for Dexys.” I went, “I like them.” And then I just had a list of the songs. And then I thought, “Hang on a minute. If we put ‘The One That Loves You’ first and then put the songs about the relationship after that, this album tells a story.” It was serendipity. It wasn’t design.

Your name is mentioned in the some of the lyrics. When you’re writing these songs, is it a character named Kevin that you’re writing about or is it you that you’re writing about?

KEVIN: That’s a really good question and one I’ve never thought about before. I try to make it real, but it’s a bit of a character, as know. You know, actually thinking about it, it’s really me. I never write in character. I mean, “Eileen” was a composite of Irish Catholic girls, there’s no Eileen. But it’s always me. It’s always me, really. I don’t write as a character. How I answered that, I was thinking, “Is it completely me, or is there a bit of fantasy thrown in?” I don’t know. Not intentionally, but, I mean, if you listen to those lyrics, they’re pretty raw, especially “It’s All Right Kevin.”

I love that song. There’s talking at the start and I was wondering if maybe I had been sent an unfinished demo. But it all plays so well. I love the record because it’s got a very musical theater quality to it. So, it makes total sense to include some spoken dialogue rather than make a standard pop song you might hear on the radio.

KEVIN: Absolutely. You can say a lot more in a song than just one guy singing, “And I love you, baby,” which is great, but you can do other things, other colors. Talking is just another color.

“Goddess Rules” is sort of sleazy funk and it’s different than the rest of the album. And the song that follows, “My Submission,” is this beautiful piano ballad. When you were sequencing the record, did you want to have two songs that contrasted each other so dramatically back to back?

KEVIN: Totally. I knew the sequence of the record before we finished it. I knew the order of the songs quite a while before we finished the album because it was when I realized that this thing tells a story, all I had to do was put them in the right order. Once I knew that, we worked with it, like we joined up “Goddess Rules” with “My Submission.” We put the bit of conversation after “The One That Loves You” and before “It’s All Right Kevin.”

What was the thinking behind going from sleazy fun electro-music to the piano ballad?

KEVIN: Well, it’s the lyrical concept. She’s saying to the guy, “Are you ready to surrender? Show me. Let me know.” And he says, “Okay.” “My Submission” is him surrendering to her.

I was also thinking that “I’m Going to Get Free,” in a perfect world, would be a chart-topping international hit. It sounds so radio friendly. And the video is fantastic, from what you’re wearing to just even how you present the scene as you walking around.

KEVIN: I think “Coming Home” is the one they’re presenting to radio. We’re getting some airplay here and there. I think the label felt that one was stronger, so we went with that one. But, I know what you mean about “I’m Going to Get Free.”

You’re a very fashionable gentleman. Did your music career help you get free clothes? Was that a perk when you were starting out?

KEVIN: Not really, but I do find it to be a perk more these days. I’m sort of known as somebody who wears clothes and is into clothes, and very fortunately, there’s a guy from LVC called Paul O’Neill. He’s a really nice guy, and he likes Dexys. When I went over there to California last time, he just met me and took me to LVC, which is Levi’s vintage company, all the really old reproductions, but they’re so well made, and he just went, “Would you like this? Would you like this?”

You’ve mentioned that you’re not interested in being part of any ’80s nostalgia touring package, that you’re going to headline and put on performances, not just concerts.

KEVIN: We’re going to do theatres and the show will be in two parts. First, it’s going to be The Feminine Divine performed live in sequence, the whole album. We’re going to perform it theatrically. We’re going to act the songs out. We’ve got a goddess called Claudia Chopek playing the female protagonist. She’s from New York, actually. She’s coming over in a couple of weeks. We start rehearsals and then there’s going to be an intermission and when people come back, we do the old stuff.

Do you get just as jazzed about the old stuff as you do the new stuff?

KEVIN: No, but I don’t hate it either, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I would never do a show with just the old stuff. Never.

I appreciate that you’re interested in making new music and going out and playing it rather than just playing the stuff from the ’80s.

KEVIN: It’s all about the new stuff. I mean, we’re happy to play the old stuff, otherwise we wouldn’t play it. But it’s really all about the new stuff. Sometimes fans want to just relive 1980 or 1981 or 1982, and that’s not what we’re about. They don’t get it. But I understand they probably had some great time around then. It was a free time in their lives or whatever, but our job is to keep moving forward. You can’t recreate the past anyway, so why try?

Even the old ones, the way we’ll be performing them is Dexys, as we are now, performing the old stuff. We’re not trying to recreate 1982. We might change tempo a little bit, or few bits and pieces, lyrics, but we realize that, at the same time, people like those songs and they want to hear them, so we don’t massively change them too much.

You mentioned a few people earlier, Sean and MIke. Do you consider them permanent members of Dexys or are they guys that just help you out in the studio?

KEVIN: They’re permanent. They’re in Dexys. They’re financially involved, they’re part of the team. They do other stuff as well but Dexys is their priority. They’re in the band photos. They are financially incentivized in that they’re on a cut of the profits and all that kind of stuff. They’re properly involved.

I’m going to guess that you’re very involved in the entire package, the entire presentation of the band, that you either design all the album artwork or are, at least, very heavily involved.

KEVIN: Anything that goes out with Dexys name on it, I’m involved in.

Has that always been the case or did you let record companies or other people handle that stuff in the past?

KEVIN: It’s always been the case. We’re very lucky. It seemed like bad luck at the time but the first single, we got kind of conned by the guy who signed us to this small label. He said, “We’ll record the first single.” And the recording went well. He knew it sounded good, everybody was happy, and we kept phoning him up. “When are we going to mix it?” He goes, “Soon.” And then my our manager turned up at my place with a test pressing, and I knew, even at that stage, that it takes about two weeks from the tape to get to the test pressing stage in those days. And they’d mixed the song without our input and they’d made a travesty of it. They’d really messed it up. And we were told all these lies. We were only on a two single deal. If the next one flopped, that was the end of it. So we had to take control, and even if we’re going to be wrong, we better be wrong by our own hand than somebody else’s. So we just took control from that point, and we had to fight for it.

Bands used to say to us in the ’80s, “You’re lucky you’ve got control.” But we took it. We had to fight for it. They didn’t just give it to us. When we were doing a video, the first real video for “Geno,” we had an idea. We said, “We want to do walking in the street and walking from the train station carrying our bags. Want to do it in a boxing gym.” And they were like, “Oh, yeah, okay, we might do that later if we’ve got time, but we want to film you performing in this ballroom.” And we said, “Okay.” But what we did, we decided to do the verses only in the ballroom. And then when it came to the choruses, we just stopped playing. We just stopped so that we could put other stuff in there. They had to stop filming. That’s how artists were treated in those days.

We just wanted to do things our way. We knew that the way we looked was all right, and our ideas were at least as good as the ones we were being presented with. So sometimes maybe we had too much control. I’m trying to let go a bit.

What gave you the idea to take control? You must know a lot of other artists who got screwed over by labels or who signed away publishing deals.

KEVIN: Well, hang on. We signed an awful publishing deal. 50/50. They get 50% just for the songs forever and it never stops. I’m told if it was one point less, it would have been illegal. We couldn’t afford a lawyer. I don’t think we even knew one. It was a 50-page contract for the record deal. I started to read it. “Thereafter … herein … the forementioned …” After about two pages, I said, “Just give me a pen” and I signed it.

50% is better than nothing, right?

KEVIN: Exactly. It’s either back to Birmingham or you can be a pop singer. What are you going to choose? And I signed it, so I can’t complain. Nobody held a gun to my head, but nowadays, I think they have to give you money for a lawyer. I think that seems to be what’s happening. They have to recommend you get legal advice but that didn’t happen then. It’s okay.

*********

Dexys’ first U.S. tour dates since 1983

Thu, October 26, 2023 – Los Angeles, CA – The Theatre at Ace Hotel
Fri, October 27, 2023 – San Francisco, CA – Palace of Fine Arts
Sun, October 29, 2023 – Portland, OR – Aladdin Theater
Mon, October 30, 2023 – Vancouver, BC – Vogue Theatre
Wed, November 1, 2023 – Salt Lake City, UT – The Union
Thu, November 2, 2023 – Denver, CO – Paramount Theatre
Sat, November 4, 2023 – St. Paul, MN – Palace Theatre
Mon, November 6, 2023 – Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
Wed, November 8, 2023 – Toronto, ON – Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Fri, November 10, 2023 – Patchogue, NY – Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts
Sat, November 11, 2023 – Boston, MA – Emerson Colonial Theatre
Mon, November 13, 2023 – New York, NY – The Town Hall
Tue, November 14, 2023 – New Haven, CT – College Street Music Hall
Wed, November 15, 2023 – Glenside, PA – Keswick Theatre