Interview: Kevin Rowland from Wednesfield talks about his career

He's always been fighting for what he wants, but after many lessons learnt, Kevin Rowland's moving on and is all about the here and now.

Interview: Kevin Rowland from Wednesfield talks about his career

We warm up with a few minutes of Black Country schtick.

Kevin Rowland, the fearlessly creative founder of Dexys Midnight Runners, is shooting the breeze about a former life when Wolverhampton was a place called home. It's his equivalent of a pre-match warm-up, of kicking a few balls about the training pitch before the ref blows for kick off. It's #bantz; the chance for him to suss me out before the main event.

"Yeah," he says. "I was born in Wednesfield. The truth of it is I lived in Wolverhampton until I was 11 and then we moved to London.

"When I got to London I had this broad Wolverhampton accent. I'd lived in Park Street South, in Blakenhall. So when I got to London I had the 'p' taken out of me mercilessly. I had to learn to be a Cockney quickly to get by. I moved back to Birmingham when I was 20 and had a few months in Wolverhampton around that time too. We formed the band then, you know, in Birmingham. That's when Dexys started."

Kevin didn't lose his Wolverhampton connections: "I still supported the Wolves. I did for many years. I don't any more. I got p***** off with them, you know, about seven or eight years ago. I stopped then. Before that, it wasn't unusual for me to drive from my home in Brighton up to the Molineux to watch a game."

But enough with the parochial. Enough with shooting the breeze. Kevin is back with a new Dexys album, Let The Record Show Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul.

It's the band's fifth studio album and their first since 2012's critically-acclaimed comeback One Day I'm Going To Soar.

It was conceived 30-odd years ago, after Dexys had released their stunning debut, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, and the sublime and intoxicating follow-up, Too-Rye-Ay, which featured Come On Eileen, Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile) and The Celtic Soul Brothers, among others. By then, Dexys had been cast as the standard bearers for a new wave of blue-eyed soul. In an era that spawned The Specials and Two Tone, The Jam and Madness; Dexys more than held their own. They were the antidote to the vacuous poodle-permed rock, the all-style-no-substance New Romanticism of Duran Duran et al and the ultra-glossy, over-produced American disco that dominated the airwaves. They were, in a word, cool.

By the time Dexys were releasing their third album, 1985's Don't Stand Me Down, Kevin was already planning his next move.

"In the mid-1980s we started to get more interested in Irish culture. We went over there and listened to more Irish music. It seemed the most obvious thing in the world to do an album of Irish songs."

Kevin had been brought up surrounded by Irish music. During his formative years in Wolverhampton, his parents, who hailed from Crossmolina, in Co Mayo, played songs from their homeland. Sadly, Dexys didn't get round to making that album. They were usurped by new alternative acts like The Smiths and The Jesus and Mary Chain. They also refused to play the promo game, being wilfully obtuse. Their third album featured no singles and, therefore, no hits. It was the musical equivalent of stringing themselves up from the nearest tree.

Kevin Rowland with Dexy's on TOTP

"When we recorded Don't Stand Me Down, there were some Irish influences on it. But after that we drifted apart."

It's a classic Dexys tale. Kevin has always been one of the most uncompromising men in rock. He started his musical career in punk rock band The Killjoys before pioneering new musical styles and sartorial styles with Dexys. He plunged from celebrity to bankruptcy, via cross dressing, drug addiction, a failed solo career and bouts of depression. At the 1999 Reading Festival, he took to the stage in a white dress to sing Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love of All. As the wind billowed, his stockings were revealed. Boos and bottles reigned down. In a subsequent interview, he freely admitted: "I was nuts."

Today, he's in a feisty mood. "We always kind of had to fight to do what we wanted to do.

"We learned early on that it's good to have people around you but if you let them run your life they'll ruin it for you. When we recorded our first single, the session went well and I wanted to hear the mix before it was released. I was fobbed off and fobbed off and the next thing I knew they brought the test pressing round. He lied to me, telling me there hadn't been time to get the mix to me. I knew I was being lied to. The mix was nowhere near as good as it should have been. You know, that stuff happens. We learned early on."

Dexys kicked against the traces. They assumed control over their career and became the most important pop-soul band of the early 1980s. Searching For The Young Soul Rebels was a bold artistic statement that was recorded in 1980 and featured Geno and Dance Stance. Kevin had auditioned 40 people to join the band, before settling on a line-up of eight. By March, Dexys were number one and when Too-Ry-Aye was released in 1982, the band went to number one in the UK and USA with Eileen.

Not that Kevin dwells on those times. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. He's long since moved on. He no longer thinks about Soul Rebels or Too-Ry-Aye.

"I don't think about them now and I never listen to them. I don't look back. I'm totally proud of what I do now. You just have to follow your own heart. We knew we were good enough but we had to fight for it. Every band has to do that.

"You know, we could go and play Come on Eileen and Geno everywhere and people would have us. But there'd be a price to pay. If we did that, nobody would be interested in the new stuff and nobody would take us seriously. You know what, we're about the new, not the old.

"Everybody can find out about the old, it's all online. I need to evolve. Good luck to those people on the nostalgia circuit. It's better than sitting at home or going back to the factory or warehouse. Why not? But I would hate it, it would make me unhappy."

Dexys returned in 2012 with One Day I'm Going To Soar, their fourth studio album. It was enormously successful and peaked at 13 on the UK chart: not bad for a record that was 27 years in the making.

Kevin adds: "I try to be immersed in the present. If I do find myself thinking about the past, I pull myself out of it. I just see all of that time from 1985 until then as leading to One Day I'm Going to Soar.

"All of those failed attempts to try and do music, to make music and do demos, it was all meant to be. I used to be pulling my hair out, nothing was working, I wasn't happy.

"But now I'm glad. A lot of songs I was working on during that wilderness period ended up on One Day I'm Going To Soar, but in a better form. That felt like a first album, we had a lifetime to write it. I didn't maintain my self-belief all the time, there were times when I made the decision not to do the music any more. In the early 1990s, for instance, I wanted to get away from music then again I did in the early 2000s. I started to try and write scripts instead."

So what brought him back?

"I went to a school show one night because they wanted me to present a prize. It was just at some school and I did it. They were putting on a show and singing these songs and while I sat there I just thought 'music is the most powerful thing'. Music is the most powerful thing I can do."

And so Kevin teamed up with ex-Style Council musician Mick Talbot and plotted his comeback. He knew the record was good though was plagued with insecurity. "I always get insecure. You know, I do. But it was received incredibly well, it was just amazing, it was fantastic, it was great. When we were mixing, I thought it was going to be great. We captured something on all of the songs. It was special. We were blessed."

Kevin returned to the road, a happy-sad experience. "I find it difficult being on the road. I sing for over two hours a night so I have to live like a monk. It's all about preserving your voice, you avoid air conditioning and don't speak over loud music. But the performances went well. Birmingham was a bit overwhelming, it was billed as a homecoming, which it was, you know, but the first half of the show was playing the new album, you know what I mean, it wasn't a knees-up.

"If you're playing the old songs, you have to find a new connection to them otherwise you can't do them. You can't recreate the past. You can't look like you did when you were 25/6, or sound like you did. You can't do that unless you're willing to make a bit of a fool of yourself. We just can't do it."

The success of One Day I'm Going To Soar has led directly to Let The Record Show.

Kevin adds: "I do feel pretty blessed to be doing what we're doing now. The last album was well received and we're talking about touring. It's not easy, there's ten of us in the band so you have to pin everybody down to make it work."

And make it work he does. Kevin is one of rock's great mavericks. The man from The Emerald Express gave us some of pop's greatest moments, from his band's first two stellar albums to their neglected masterpiece, Don't Stand Me Down, through to One Day and Let The Record Show.

"I love making music, totally, totally. It's amazing. You know. The illusion is that it will completely fix your life and transform your life. I used to think that if I got on Top Of The Pops my life would be transformed. That's what I believed before I did all that. But then I found out it doesn't. I like Jim Carrey's quote: 'I wish everybody could be rich, famous and have all their dreams come true, so that they could find out that it's not the answer'. It doesn't make you happy. If you're feeling empty inside, you'll still feel empty inside. Fame is not a cure-all. That's the truth.

"Having said that, I'm aware that I still get slightly obsessed with the music. I still think that if we can make this great album it will be amazing and my life will be amazing."

His rollercoaster life may have been full of highlights and heartbreaks, of hang-ups and breakdowns; but the quality of his music has never wavered. Kevin's made great albums. Kevin's music has always been amazing.

Dexy's new album, Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul, is out now

By Andy Richardson

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