Drowned In Sound Interview

Dom Gourlay, March 19th, 2009 Interview link

It’s late afternoon on St Patrick’s Day, and across the road revellers in emerald green fuzzy felt-top hats are already spilling out onto the street, Guinness in hand, singing ‘Danny Boy’ merrily to anyone that wishes to listen. This wasn’t the soundcheck we’d planned for.

Across the way, in Coventry’s compact little Kasbah venue, mercurial Mancunians Doves are preparing for the fourth show of a low-key comeback tour that’s taken them around a clutch of intimate venues, several in towns and cities where they’d never previously performed. Initially arranged to road-test new material prior to next month’s long-awaited fourth album Kingdon Of Rust, it’s a situation that fits well with Doves’ musings on smalltown hostilities and outsider mentality.

During the soundcheck, singer Jimi Goodwin jokes about a sign on the bar wall that says ‘Please ensure no beer goes on the dancefloor’. “How are they supposed to control that?” he asks, “When the dancefloor is the size of a bloody postage stamp. I ask you…“. He’s also suffering from a heavy bout of ‘flu, and between cups of tea and Lemsip, asks us if we don’t mind him going to a local sauna to “sweat [it] out” and offers his mobile phone number in case we need to discuss anything later.

His bandmates (brothers Jez and Andy Williams) answer back knowingly, in half-joking fashion, that “What we can’t tell you about the new record isn’t worth knowing!“. 45 minutes or so later, via a debate about the best curry house in Manchester (Coriander in Chorlton vs Tabac in Rusholme), we’re in full agreement.—

What’s it been like playing small venues again after all this time?

Jez Williams: It feels like we’re pulling the world apart all over again! No, in all honesty, we’re chuffed to bits at how this tour’s panned out so far, particularly the response we’ve had to the new songs, especially as most people won’t have heard any of them before bar the single.
Andy Williams: It was just nice to get back playing again, and it seemed appropriate that we should go back to smaller venues. We also tried to go to as many places where we hadn’t been before.
JW: It’s like here in Coventry. We’ve only played here as Sub Sub – at The Eclipse, an old rave venue years ago, but never as Doves.
AW: The first date on the tour, Warrington, was pretty good, if a little rough around the edges…

In what way?

AW: Well, it’s the first time I’ve ever played a show – or even been at a show for that matter – where we had to stop a song halfway through because two girls were fighting in the audience! JW: I guess that was our ‘Welcome back’ moment….

It has been a long time, four years in fact since your last record, Some Cities in 2005. What have you been up to since then?

AW: The first year of that period was spent touring Some Cities, and then the three years since we have been working really hard towards making the next record. The biggest problem we had was writing a set of songs that we were entirely happy with.
JW: We always try and set ourselves a benchmark that each record has to be better than the last one.

I read somewhere that you initially had around forty songs demoed for this album. How did you manage to whittle that down to the eleven that made the final cut on Kingdom Of Rust?

JW: We always knew in the back of our minds what we wanted this record to sound like. It was always going to be a schizophrenic kind of album in that it was never meant to be cohesive or flow in the traditional sense of an album, but at the same time we wanted it to have our stamp on it. It was our main intention to venture down avenues we’d never gone down before. AW: It probably sounds cliched, but we still get a buzz out of trying to excite ourselves musically even after all these years. We actually had a lot of songs in 2007 but the general consensus among the three of us was that they weren’t really pushing the band out of our comfort zone into new territories.—
Video: Doves ‘Kingdom Of Rust’

Have any of the songs from that period made it onto Kingdom Of Rust?

JW: Not in their original state, no. ’10:03′ for example, was one of the earliest songs we wrote and recorded from the most recent batch of songs, and that went under so many different transformations – five attempts in all – that it is literally unrecognisable from its initial demo.
AW: That’s right. We recorded it, then completely stripped it down and rebuilt it, recorded it again, broke it down and changed it again, and repeated this process for a good eighteen months or so until we felt it sounded right.
JW: It went through so many filters – we always believed that it was a great song – that we felt it was our duty to try and push it as far away from what we would expect or our audience would expect of us as possible.

Doves are one of those bands who always give the impression on the surface that they’re not affected by pressure in any way. Do you ever feel trapped under the weight of expectation?

JW: [Laughs] Well, apart from our management and some of the people at the record label constantly asking us for the last four years “When the fuck is your new album coming out?“!
AW: It’s true. We’d be in the studio and every so often someone would drop by and ask if the record was ready yet, and we’d be like ‘No, not yet…’ – bear in mind this is probably around 2007 – and we’ve had people asking us on a regular basis ever since.
JW: To be fair, Jeff Barrett and Martin Kelly from Heavenly Records have been very supportive of what we’ve been doing. They’re what I’d call ‘real music people’, in that they formed Heavenly more as a labour of love than a business venture…
AW: …yeah but even they got to a point where they’d say “Fucking hell lads, for the sake of your own sanity you really need to finish this record!

Kingdom Of Rust seems to be a mixed bag of emotions compared to say, Lost Souls, which seemed to deal with darker subjects…

JW: Again I’d say its all about transformations really. I mean, we had some dark periods during the making of this album too.
AW: It’s almost like a recorded chapter and verse of three peoples’ lives. Bearing in mind it took three to four years to make, you can imagine we had a succession of highs and lows to deal with, both individually and as a group, over that time.
JW: When shit happens it can affect the way we work together and ultimately reflect on the overall output we produce, and of course the songs themselves. The way I see it, every album should be a mark of where your heads were at at the time.

Early reviews of the record have gone on to say that it is arguably your best record to date. Did it ever worry you that the band might not be seen as being relevant in 2009?

JW: All I can say is that we put a lot of hard work into what we do and we’ve never really given up trying to take the next record a step further. There have been times where we’ve come close to throwing the towel in altogether, but I guess over time we’ve developed extra resilient survival techniques. To be honest, making music is all I can do. If I wasn’t doing this I’d probably be flipping burgers somewhere…—
Video: Doves ‘Here It Comes’

One of my own personal favourites on the new record is ‘House Of Mirrors’, which almost sounds like a natural successor to ‘Pounding’. What inspired the song?

JW: The lyrics are inspired by a haunted house really. The song itself though is us trying to write a classic garage rock song.
AW: We’re all really big fans of the whole Nuggets and Pebbles compilations that Lenny Kaye and co. put together from the 60s.
JW: I guess the main inspiration behind that song was rawness. We actually wanted it to sound like it was recorded on a tape recorder, so that’s what we did! We managed to get hold of this authentic 1970s tape recorder and the song was recorded entirely on that piece of equipment.
AW: We’d never done that before… I mean, you mention ‘Pounding’, and it does have a similar beat, but in terms of its stripped down qualities and the actual darkness of the song itself its probably as far removed from ‘Pounding’ in that aspect as we’re likely to get.
JW: To me its also reminiscent of heavier elements of Northern Soul. R Dean Taylor’s ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ is one of my favourite songs of all time and to me it’s kind of our take on that.
AW: It’s funny looking back on ‘House Of Mirrors’ now, as it almost didn’t make the final selection on Kingdom Of Rust. It was that close to getting binned.
JW: Again, we literally stripped it bare, started again, then re-built it. It was one of those we had to wrestle to the ground, literally beat the living daylights out of it!

Another song on the album which stands out for me, and is a major departure from anything Doves have previously recorded, is the record’s opener ‘Jetstream’. I get the impression you must have been listening to a lot of old Krautrock at the time you were writing this?

AW: Krautrock is definitely something that we all agree on, and have been fans of for a long time. I’d say Kraftwerk as well. Man Machine is one of those records that I keep going back to over and over again since I can remember.
JW: We’ve always had those influences even on the first record, it’s just that back then it probably didn’t come across as obvious as it does on tracks like ‘Jetstream’.

The two songs you recorded with John Leckie – ’10:03′, which we’ve already talked about, and ‘Winter Hill’ – definitely come across as the most traditional Doves sounding songs on the record where the rest of the album does have a more experimental feel about it…

JW: The thing with John Leckie was that we’d never intended to do the whole album with him. It was always a case of doing a couple of songs and seeing how things turned out. We knew that he was recording Baaba Maal at the time so he’d be really busy on that project as well. Also, we were really into the whole concept of deconstructing and rebuilding songs where as John is more about capturing the moment in as few takes as possible then moving on to the next one, which we’ve sometimes done in the past but hadn’t planned with this record.
AW: Looking back, I see Kingdom Of Rust as us performing open heart surgery on ourselves in some ways!
JW: I think as well that we wanted more control on the production side in the same way we did with the first album. So many people were saying “You should do it yourselves” that we all sat down one day and said to each other that maybe there was something in that…—
Video: Doves ‘The Cedar Room’

In terms of producers, do you have a wishlist of people you want to work with or do you get given a list of people who want to work with Doves?

AW: Both really. It’s a two-way decision – I suppose it has to be for the benefit of all parties.
JW: I mean, Slipknot’s producer Ross Robinson was eager to come and work with us on this record and at the time our heads were in a totally different place that we couldn’t imagine what the results would sound like. In hindsight, it probably would have been great.
AW: It’s like when we started Some Cities with William Orbit. We all really tried to make that work but something didn’t seem right so we aborted the whole thing.

What happens when you get so far into a recording and then suddenly decide it’s not right at that moment in time?

AW: We scrap it. All of it.
JW: You soon realise from an early stage if things aren’t working out. I mean, William is a lovely guy and extremely talented at what he does. _13_ by Blur, for example, is an incredible record that he worked on, but I guess we’re also quite specific in what we want where production is concerned and when you’ve got a room full of strong characters the decision is usually going to go the way of the majority.

In terms of the balance of power within the band, you two being brothers puts you in the majority. Does that give you the upper hand on important decisions affecting the band?

AW: [Laughs] Two against one, we win every time! No, seriously we’re not like that at all. To be honest, when you’re in a band with the same two people for more than ten years – forgive me for sounding cliched – but it does feel as though all three of us are brothers in some way.
JW: There are some occasions where it gets tense – for example if one person really likes a song but the other two don’t – and that can be any one of us, not necessarily me and Andy because we’re siblings – it can be frustrating but it’s something we’ve learned to deal with, and I guess in some ways you could even say it’s why we’re still making records today – we’re ardent perfectionists in that sense.

On the video for the current single ‘Kingdom Of Rust’, whose ashes get scattered and what was the significance behind that part of the film?

JW: The video was solely down to the director, China Moo-Young. We weren’t actually there on the day it was filmed!
AW: I don’t know to be honest, but I think she did a great job. It was just meant to be about being constantly on the move and it mentions Preston and Blackpool in there…I’m not sure about the ashes though…probably a collection of heavily smoked Marlboro Lights!

You’ve influenced a lot of other bands and musicians along the way. Are there any that you’re particularly fond of?

JW: I don’t know really. I mean, it’s quite flattering that other artists cite Doves as an influence but I tend to like bands that sound absolutely nothing like us at all if I’m honest!
AW: I’m actually quite unaware of many new bands because I’ve been concentrating on putting this record together. I still check stuff out every now and then but I’m not going into Manchester every other evening watching gigs like I would’ve done a few years back, especially since the birth of my baby daughter Alice, so in some ways I suppose you could say I’m a little out of touch. I did like the new Animal Collective album though, and it was good to see Fleet Foxes finally get some well-deserved recognition last year.
JW: I quite enjoy Parts & Labor. They’re pretty full on, really intense.

Are you confirmed to play any festivals this summer?

JW: We’re definitely playing Glastonbury and Bestival on the Isle Of Wight.
AW: We’ve got an outdoor show planned for Delamere Forest in Cheshire in June as well.
JW: I’m sure there’ll be more confirmed in the coming weeks as well.—
Video: Doves ‘Black And White Town’

Finally, what are the hardest lessons you’ve learnt as a band from starting out to the present?

JW: I don’t know really. Having our studio burn down while we were still Sub Sub was hard to deal with back then, but now I see that as a form of liberation. We wouldn’t have achieved what we have done if that hadn’t happened.
AW: That’s right. It was like we’d reached rock bottom, and nothing else could possibly go wrong or be worse than that, so everything else that was going to happen since would have to be a positive step forward.
JW: I think being in the band has been the one steady factor throughout all the turbulence of our day-to-day lives, and its almost like a form of reassurance that no matter what is happening elsewhere, we’ve always got this.