Dave Wakeling discusses all things past, present and future for The English Beat
Interview by Parisa Eshrati
Before he played The Rialto Theatre here in Tucson, I got the chance to sit down and chat with Dave Wakeling of The English Beat and General Public. We discussed The English Beat's upcoming 4th studio album, the benefits of listening to 2 Tone music, Spinal Tap moments, and much more.
Your upcoming 4th studio album, For Crying Out Loud, is unique in that it has been funded by a Pledge Music Drive. What made you decide to reach out to fans for this album instead of receiving funding from a record label?
I started off talking to record companies and was surprised that the record deals that people were offering were so bad that it wasn’t even worthwhile making the record. You couldn’t really make it properly with the money they were offering in advance, and they wanted the rights to all your children and grandchildren forever! I was disappointed and didn’t know what to do, so people started telling me about Pledge and Kickstarter and things like that, so I looked into and really liked the look of Pledge. They seemed to be really nice people and they thought I was a good candidate ‘cause we were college radio darlings thirty years ago, and quite a lot of those people have done quite good since then. It worked out true. We funded it fully and we’re at 120% now. We’re about to re-invigorate the pledge drive over the next few weeks by giving thirty second snippets of the songs to as teasers."
I saw that the people who pledge get to see live videos of the new material as well.
"We did a live concert at the studio as a party and they filmed it, so we’re releasing a song a day from that. People on Facebook will probably get to see some of those as well. For the new songs, though, only the pledgers will have the “pleadgure” of hearing it [laughs]. At the moment, there’s no bass guitar but I thought it would be kind of fun to give them little snippets of the songs as they’re growing up.
Do you think that you’ll be making music videos for this album in addition to these live concert videos?
Yes, I want to make a video. There’s this place up on the 5 Freeway, half-way between LA and San Francisco, where there are all these almond trees. In about six weeks from now, there are massive pink and white blossoms. I wanted to get the band in there as if we’re running through a maze of purple and pink flowers. We think we’ve changed the title of the album now, also. That was a good working title and it sort of got old, plus I found out someone else has already used it. We’re now going to call the record Here We Go, Love. It’s named after one of the songs on the record and the video might include me as Pierrot the Clown, full circle from Tears of a Clown. There might be clowns, zombies and monkeys chasing me through a forest of pink petals [laughs].
This album is giving part of the proceeds to Doctors Without Borders, and you’ve done other charitable album releases in the past as well. You’ve mentioned that besides the monetary aspect, music itself has healing qualities. In your opinion, how do you find that 2Tone music specifically can be therapeutic for people?
I’ve noticed for over thirty years now that a lot of people who were into 2Tone in the beginning have been able to keep their tolerance for other people intact. There were riots in England last year and lots of people my age started talking like how our parents used to…saying things like “Round ‘em up!” and “There’s no need for it, there’s no justifiable cause”. Well, 2Tone fans didn’t fall for that. There’s no smoke without fire. When there were riots in the 80s in England, the older generation said the same things. It comes from a lack of understanding. If someone burns a shop down, there must be some reason behind it.
On Facebook, I’ve become friends with people who have liked the music for thirty years. They generally seem to be a more tolerant and respectful crowd than other people’s vibes. It’s difficult in England at the moment. There is a lot of religious racism again. But 2Tone seems to have a calming effect on people. And music does sooth the heart anyway, but we were very lucky to have a period when it wasn’t banned or frowned upon to have social commentary in songs. It goes through phases, right now it’s not so prevalent. Music with a message does have an important role. Music with no music just for entertainment can also have an important role, I don’t want to diminish it because there’s all types of music for different reasons. Sometimes music is good for escapism and sometimes it’s good for finding a novel way to look at the current situation instead of reading about it in a newspaper. That’s one of the jobs of a troubadour, spread the news from village to village about what’s going on. I’ve continued this theme with the new songs. Some of them are about broken hearts, some of them about politics, and some of them you can’t really tell [laughs]. A bit of both.
I'm curious about the lyrical content for this new album, because you have been living in LA for almost 27 years now-
You’re a proper “dude” now!
Not like totally, but like, partially. Just a partial dude.
Well how has living in US for so many years now influenced your view on politics?
There are some poignant lyrics still – “turn on your TV/ see what they’ve done?/ they’ve made our culture look like a setting sun/but we’re better than that/because we know how/if killing worked it would have worked by now”. That’s going to be an anthem, that one. It’s coming out really well and I’m very pleased. When I was a kid and watching footage of war on black and white TV I thought, “I can’t wait until I’m grown up and they’ll have finished all this rubbish.” But it’s worse. That’s really embarrassing and shameful. You’d hope to have helped create a safe and better world for the next generation and it doesn’t appear that we have.
There are good intentions. The technology explosion has helped people connect, but it’s also helped connect people by making missiles that can come through your windows and kill your kids in the middle of the night. Sadly, it seems as though destroying each other has benefitted more from the technological expansion than being able to live with each other. On a sunny day, I try not to think about it but I find it despairing. But something about living in Los Angeles gives me hope. Every time a war breaks out, there’s at least usually a hundred thousand or a quarter of a million people from both sides in the war, like Iran/Iraq – there’s a least a quarter million of both - or Serbs and Croats. One thing that strikes me about Los Angeles is when a war kicks off, those populations don’t go at it. Why? There’s better things to do! Why do you need throw a hand grenade at somebody’s car when you’re taking your own kid to school so they can go to college? People are destroying other people’s territory and families where they’re from…but we’re too busy for that nonsense over here. There’s just better things to do.
Aside from your political views, how do you think that living in LA has influenced your musical approach?
I don’t know how it really has, but I’m sure it has. It has probably affected me in a way that I’m so close to it that I don’t see it. I would say if it’s anything, it is probably more exposure to soul and r&b music. It has changed our groove so that it’s reggae pop but with a soulful polish on it. It’s slightly different. It’s funny because people will come up after the concert and say, “Wow that’s amazing, that sounded just like the record.” Well, it doesn’t. It has the same intention, you know? It’s has the same intent as the record, the singer is the same and the words are the same. Everything else changes. It’s thirty years old and it’s a whole different set of people on a different continent. It’d be remarkably odd if it were exactly the same, you’d have to really try! [laughs] You’ve got to be true to your medium. I’m a bit stuck in my head with my poetry no matter where I am…looking for rhymes and funny alliterations…so sometimes I don’t even really notice where I am.
The politics, though, do start to get a bit wider on this album, it’s not so party political. Frankly, I’m pretty bored of the game left vs. right. It’s just got dull and it doesn’t treat anyone with respect or decency. I like common ground, common interest, common wealth, and common decency. It’s not so much “Stand Down Margaret” or “Stand Up This-One”, it’s become a wider issue about the politics that you see go through the decades of your life. You have a lot of people come in your life, leave your life, people die, you never get over missing them…that sort of thing. Certain things will always remain true – the love you give lasts forever, even when you’re gone. You know that you still love your mom even after she’s dead, you know what I mean? That gives you a sense of more determination and hope about things. Or at least it tries to, I can’t say I’m optimistic at the moment. I think we’re going to hell in a hand basket.
For example, the internet is supposed to bring us together but really a lot of the time you have people in the same room texting each other instead of talking. Somehow until you put a picture of yourself up on Facebook or Instagram it’s like you weren’t really there until you have double-figure “likes” of you being there or having this-and-that for breakfast. It’s kept us more disassociated…close but isolated. At the moment, the technology is better for monitoring and killing people than it is for bringing people together and living happy lives together. It’s a shame because you see people struggle. You see that people have big hearts, but they’re really struggling. It’s a shame because when America acts like a team, like in the Olympics or heaven forbid even soccer – I mean, they were better than England at the World Cup, c’mon! – that shows you what you can do with teamwork. Of course, when the American army acts like a team they tend to kick ass. It doesn’t tend to end anything, but they seem to be very good at kicking ass. They seem to supply more asses to kick than we seem to kick, and the more we kick the more there are. As they say, you can’t kill a terrorist that hasn’t been born yet but you can create them!
Since it has been almost three decades since The English Beat has put out an album, what were some of the main struggles and highlights going back into the studio after all this time?
There’s much more technology…or I should say the technology actually works now. They used to just sort of sell you things in the 80s and say, “Well, it should work” and you end up dancing around with a robot, it just wasn’t that good. Now you can do absolutely anything. You’ve got to be creative because you’ve got a whole shmorgishborg of options and can do whatever you want in the studio. You can make the music do whatever you like, so you have to find out what you want. I like the technology, and I also like organic instruments. We combine the two and made programmed frameworks like scaffolding the songs and played something inside that framework and then edited the two of them together until they became one. We finished one last night, and it took sixteen days more than I thought. We gently moved the machine feel and the live drumming feel towards each other until they hit the sweet spot.
Then there’s some trepidation at first when you then bring in my guitars and vocals because you have to find a way to make it all fit. It’s hard! And there are fractions, milliseconds you have to listen closely for. The chap in the studio is really great because you think you hear an instrument come in early, and he’ll say that it’s bang on in time but it’s another sound that’s coming in a bit late which is giving you the sense that that’s early. That is all really good to have. That’s the blessing and the curse of it. You can do anything you like now, so it’s helpful to know what you’re doing or what you’d like to do.
There are times when other people in the studio say that everything sounds great, but I say that the obo part doesn’t fit. They say, “obo part?!” I’ve got all these orchestras in my head while I’m sitting there but they just hear the three instruments and say it sounds alright. I think it’s a chop of hit songs really, apart from the fact that I don’t really know what a hit song is anymore. Do they even have that anymore? Friends will tell me, “This is going to be a big album then, Dave.” And I think “Yes, but they don’t sell albums anywhere except for second-hand ones.” I think if they came out at the time, these songs would be massive. I think they’re as good as, or up to par with, my satisfaction on the hits from The Beat and General Public. You get a chance to say something you really mean and get to say it in a cute way so everyone thinks it’s a happy thing.
The Beat are a few dates into the US tour now. When Dick Clark interviewed you on Bandstand back in ‘83, you said you only try to play in places where people dance. Was that still an important factor for consideration when planning this tour?
Yes it is, but it’s funny how time rolls! I’ll have fans come up at the end of the show and say, “Dave, I love you and everything, but I’m 54 years old. I don’t want to stand in a dark room that smells of urine for 4 ½ hours. My wife wants to go someplace different where I could take her to eat and have a cocktail.” So I have to compete with the romance and dating game now which doesn’t include standing up as much. Now we try to do these shows where you can have both. I’m okay with those venues where you have a dance pit and got booths and tables. You don’t have to stand, but it’s better for dancing if you do. I can’t insist. Every time you get irritated at a show, it’s exactly the wrong time.
We played in London and this guy is just leaning on the barricade. I mean, just leaning. He seemed like he was enjoying it well enough, but it looked like he was about to fall asleep any minute. I thought maybe I should say something, but no...just leave it. So I didn’t say anything, and after the show I went outside to have a cigarette. That guy and his wife came and said, “Sorry about dancing there, mate. I got arthritis in the spine. Twenty years of being a postman in London did my back in, but I wouldn’t miss this gig for the world!” I felt so awful! I was about to rant at him and it’s a good thing I didn’t [laughs], he turned out to be a very nice chap.
Well now you also have a lot of the older generation fans bringing their kids to the show too.
They do start to, but you know what it’s like to dance in the same room as your parents. Or even just watching your parents dance and interpreting what that might suggest [laughs]. But yes, you do start to get a lot of people in the early twenties who used to be strapped into the back of the car and had no choice but to listen to The Beat being played. They know all of the words and they get brought backstage. I always say the same thing every time to their parents. “Thank you very much indeed, I’ll make sure to take good care of ‘em and that they eat every day.” [laughs]
We’re just about one week into the New Year – did you make any resolutions?
I make one every year, and I didn’t make it this year to see if it comes true from not making it because it doesn’t come true when I have made it. I won’t let myself get to the edge of distraction over two things. Can you guess what they are? That’s right – women and money. I won’t let myself get to the pit of hell because of women or money. Usually by April, both have already gotten to me. So I haven’t said it for this New Year, but maybe it’ll just happen.
There is another resolution, though. There is something about having a crowd funded record. I mean you did already feel kind of weird when record companies gave you money but you’ve gotta pay it back anyway with interest. When your fans have given you money for a record, you really don’t want to screw up. You want to make it as good as you possibly can. It’s not going to be on time, no great record ever is, but the point is to make it as great as possible and thanking everyone. At this point around, you’d be getting a bit frosty with the record company. They always ask why the record is late, and it’s simply because it’s taking longer to do. We do have a few inquiries from fans wondering when they will get their record…well it’ll be when we put the vocals on the songs probably! I had a sense of commitment as a resolution and whatever else happened didn’t matter. I was going to finish this record for the people who pledged for it. That, I suppose, will make the album as good as it possibly can be. It’s a different feeling, because there are a lot of people that I’ve known for twenty or thirty years that know all these songs and they tell me which songs they like and their feelings about it. We’ve known each other for a long time, and even if we haven’t it feels like we have because they’ve been listening to the records all this time. It’s a different dynamic, and it makes me look at finishing the record and even how this year is going to go in a different way than if it were a commercially funded record.
It’s interesting how this album also really bridges the gap between you and the audience. Some of the perks for pledging included having dinner with you, or even going on tour with the band.
Yes, fans could come on tour with us for a few days! Or I’ve got something set up next week where people can come to sing on the chorus of a song. I told them straight up though, you’ll be as loud as your voice is good [laughs]. The song “If Killing Worked, It Would Have Worked By Now” is meant to sound like an anthem so I have people singing on that. For that song, I want the answering to be done by children’s voices in different languages. In all the countries where there is a bit of trouble, have the children’s voices come in and overlap until it becomes one big noise. It’s hard though, because not all the languages translate that phrase in the same way. We looked a translation in Russian and it just said, “If Killing Worked, You Would Be Dead” [laughs]. Very blunt.
Before I get into the next question I should ask, have you seen This is Spinal Tap?
Oh God, I’ve lived it! I’ve had the tour manager grab the VCR tape, go to the front of the bus, stop the driver, and throw it out as far as he could because it was getting out of hand. Those cricket bats showing up!
That’s hilarious, because I was going to ask – in all your years of being a musician, what have been some of your most This is Spinal Tap moments?
We did get taken all the way through the basements on our way to the stage before. We followed the signs and fell for it, which was pretty good. One time we did four nights in Los Angeles…it was General Public. It was the first time we had done a four night residency like this and they were all sold out. It was a tremendous success and it turned into a huge party, and the party made its way back to the hotel on Sunset Blvd. The party was in full swing and fantastic and then somebody says, “Well don’t forget, we have a gig tomorrow.” We were all like, “…what?” We had a show the next day at UCLA to play on the steps around lunch time. We thought, “Oh my God, that’s right! We do, don’t we? What time is it now?” Everybody started to look around because telephones didn’t have the time then, so everyone is looking around for a watch of a clock that was working. Then somebody opened the curtain and gasped, “It’s already tomorrow!” Oh my heavens, we screamed like vampires when we saw the sun was already up. We kept yelling, “It’s tomorrow, it’s tomorrow!!” The party was just so good that we didn’t realize it was already the next day. We had a concert tomorrow, which is now today…like in about 3 hours. There was nothing to be done. You can’t un-party, there’s only one thing to do. We gotta go for this. We gotta keep this party swinging! It turned out to be a wonderful show, well-revered. Jay, the guy who was running R&S Records, was in the crowd. It turned out to be fantastic, and I think we slept that night. Or at least I hope we did! [laughs] But that line really captures our most Spinal Tap moment…”it’s tomorrow!”
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