Kevin Rowland interview: Searching For The Young Soul Rebel
Ahead of his forthcoming appearances, including a slot at Festival No. 6, Marko Kutlesa caught up with Dexys Midnight Runners frontman Kevin Rowland to discuss his career, northern soul and British accents.
Last updated: 8th Jun 2017. Originally published: 7th Jun 2017
Though born in Wolverhampton to Irish parents, Kevin Rowland has spent time living in Ireland, Birmingham, where he formed the band Dexys Midnight Runners, and London where he now resides.
After singing with a couple of local bands he formed Dexys Midnight Runners in 1978, the band's name referring to Dexedrine, a drug popular with northern soul dancers at the time. Both the sound and title of their debut album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels also referenced a love of soul music and the second single released from it 'Geno', named after R&B singer Geno Washington, became a number one hit in the UK.
Their second album, recorded in 1982 added more strings and elements of folk music and produced two massively successful singles in 'Come On Eileen', a number one record in both the UK and America and 'Jackie Wilson Said (I'm in Heaven When You Smile)', a Van Morrison song.
Their challenging, inventive and quite brilliant third album Don't Stand Me Down failed to repeat the monstrous success of their second and shortly after the release of fine single 'Because Of You' (which was used as the theme to UK TV show Brush Strokes), the band split in early 1987 with Kevin Rowland embarking on a solo career.
Rowland's debut solo album was positively received by some critics but failed to sell in significant numbers causing Rowland to quit music. Almost a decade later, Rowland re-emerged by signing with Creation Records, home to Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Oasis. The label reissued Dexys' Don't Stand Me Down album, helping it become a cult classic, before issuing Rowland's second solo LP, My Beauty, an album of cover versions and a glorious achievement. Sadly, Creation Records soon folded and the album disappeared and so Rowland reformed Dexys in 2003 and the band have toured successfully since then. They have expanded their sound and released two albums, One Day I'm Going to Soar in 2012 and Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul in 2016.
With the band currently on hiatus, Kevin Rowland is embarking on several dates with his DJ show this summer, so we caught up with Kevin for a chat.
Dexys Midnight Runners were formed at the time of northern soul. How much of an influence did that scene have on you?
For me personally? None at all. I wasn't into it. I never saw it. None at all. I lived in London until 1973 and then I moved to Liverpool for a year and there wasn't any in Liverpool, which was a weird thing. They just didn't seem to be doing it there. They were doing it outside of Liverpool. Then I moved to Birmingham in 1974 and they also weren't doing it there, except on the outskirts and towards Wolverhampton. So, it was funk, really. I was 24 when we formed Dexys in 1978 so I was able to remember the 60s. The late 60s is when I first heard soul music, going to school in north-west London. Later on, people were calling very similar music northern soul, but we didn't want to be associated with that. There were some guys who would come to our gigs and say “you could be a northern soul band with a lot of your rhythms”. But we were just like (shrugs), you know, it was just not what we wanted. We didn't want to be in any bracket.
I ask because some of the clothes some of you were wearing at the time would have fitted into that scene, the baggier clothes, the braces...
To some extent. But we weren't really wearing that. That was just the fashion in the mid-70s. But we were 78/79, so we were wearing quite slim trousers then. We carried bags. That wasn't northern soul, there was a TV show when I was a kid called The Fugitive with David Janssen and he always carried a hold all with him and I thought it looked really good.
Had you always been a record collector since first hearing soul music?
Not really. I'm not even a record collector now. I don't just like one kind of music, I like it all. All sorts of things. It's just back then we decided to make our play with soul music. Since then we've done all kinds of styles. It's just that soul music was the first we used. It was quite a radical thing to say at the time, nobody in the NME was saying they were into soul music in 1979. I think we sounded fresh at that time. But I listen to all music.
How does that love of all music translate into your DJ sets?
Well, that's a good question and it's spot on. It does, I play all styles really. I play some soul, some funk, some reggae, I play two or three 60s rock tracks quite often, so there's a bit of everything there. With DJing it's not so much what you play, it's the order you play it in. The other thing about it is that it's not really a DJ set. It's a DJ show. It's called The Kevin Rowland DJ Show. I sing along with a few of the tracks, so there are live vocals.
I've heard you do it. You played Night & Day in Manchester a couple of weeks ago.
Were you there? We had some awful sound issues that night, I couldn't hear myself at all, so I was giving a bit of grief to Fergal and his mates. The sound engineer was meant to stick around but he just disappeared, went home. I was singing along to a Teddy Pendergrass track and all I could hear was the drums.
They always do that Kevin, sound engineers just disappear. First ones out of the door. Well, it sounded alright from the crowd, you saw how everyone responded, everyone had a good time.
Well, there you go. It was a real mixture of styles that night, everything from reggae to rock. It all somehow works together.
Where did you get the idea from for singing over the tracks? I don't really know anyone else who does that.
I went to this club about 10 years ago in Stockholm and there was this band called Club Killers and they were great. They played proper skinhead 1969/1970 reggae. They're not skinheads but they play that music and they play it really well. After their live set, they did a DJ set but they always have a mic, so they freestyle over the tunes and that's what they do. So, I got the idea from them, but now I've developed it. I've got backing tracks where I do pretty much the full vocal.
So that you're actually performing the song rather than singing over one?
On some of them. There's about three where I do the full vocal, like 'The Love I Lost' by Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes, sung by Teddy Pendergrass. I play their version first and then I've got the Tom Moulton mix, which has got long instrumental sections in it. So I always pay respect to the original and then tag on an instrumental version and sing over it. It works.
If you could change your voice so that you sounded like one of your favourite soul singers, which singer would you choose?
Yeah, I don't really think like that. It wouldn't occur to me. Maybe when I was younger I might have thought like that but I just don't now. I'm actually happy with my voice now, over the last few albums, especially the last album, Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul. That's the best singing I've ever done, I'm really happy with it. I feel I've found my voice more than anything. I never really was trying to be anybody, I was always trying to be original. I took bits from other singers, but that was way back, I don't even think about that now. Now it's more visceral.
Where did the idea come from to do an Irish and country soul album?
I'd had the idea to do an Irish album back in the 80s and we were supposed to do it then, before Dexys broke up in 1986, but we just didn't get round to it. But the idea was on the back-burner. But then I decided there were other songs I wanted to do and most of them fitted into the country bracket. We just called it that, probably Dexys Do Irish and Country would've been more appropriate.
Where did you develop a love for Irish and country music?
Just hearing it in Ireland, from parents, growing up. I've always been a bit sentimental really. I like a sad song, you know? They're the songs that reach me. Music's so powerful. Such a powerful form. It lives inside you. Sometimes you don't even need to hear the record, it just lives in your head. Amazing.
So your parents are Irish? I always had Rowland, certainly Rowlands, down as a Welsh name. But it's Irish as well?
Well, I don't know. I got told it was French originally. That was one story, but I met this other bloke and he was very much into Irish history and he reckons it's a south Armagh name. But who knows? We're all mongrels. Look at me! A lot of people wouldn't take me for being Irish, but around Galway, west coast of Ireland where my folks are from, there's a lot of Spanish looking people around there.
I wanted to ask you about a track you wrote before the last two albums, the track 'My Life In England'. I wanted to ask how attached you feel to England and how you feel about the country now in comparison to when you first started writing songs?
Bloody hell. That's a deep question for a Thursday morning, sitting on my balcony. How do I feel about England? I like it. I'm very grateful to it. I was born here so I don't see myself as Irish, you know what I mean? I suppose I do in my heart. But I'm second generation Irish. There are a lot of second generation Irish musicians around, our fathers were Irish and working on building sites. John Lydon, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Boy George, Siobhan Fahey, Shane MacGowan, the Oasis brothers. So, I feel a sort of kinship with them. Second generation Irish was almost a separate social class when you were growing up because you weren't really English but you lived a life outside just like all the other English kids, then once you were back home it was a different reality.
And what are your thoughts about how England is progressing? We've got an election very soon, we're leaving the EU...?
Well, leaving the European Union, I don't really know but I suspect it's a bad thing. I voted to remain. If a lot of the right wing Tories voted for it, it can't be a good thing. Although Jeremy Corbyn wanted to remain, I think he wanted to remain but reform it. But I like him a lot. I think it's really exciting. He's got me interested in politics again. I was bored of it. I'd always vote Labour, but he's enthused me. I think he's the best thing to happen to British politics in decades.
I've heard so many people say that. Northerners, young people. So many.
It's amazing. I've phoned up to volunteer, I want to do the phone lines. I'll do anything I can. The guy's genuine. The right wing's going to pull out all the stops, it could get rocky in this last week. They've tried to hit him with everything.
You haven't toured the last Dexys album as much as you did the previous one. Do you have any plans to?
I think it's probably a bit late now. I would have liked to and looking back we probably should have done. But it just didn't feel the right thing to do at the time, there were a few other things going on in my life at that time. I wanted to, but by the the time I realised, we should be out there doing shows, it was almost too late.
So in regards to songwriting and plans for live music in the future, where are you at now?
I'm not. I'm just trying to take a break. I've worked really hard the past 4 or 5 years on those last two albums, it was relentless. It never stops. We were doing gigs, writing or recording, promoting, there was always something. I'm just taking stock at the moment. I'm enjoying DJing and I'm doing a couple of other things, family things I have to deal with. We'll just see what the future holds.
So, what about your immediate plans as a DJ? Do you have any gigs or festivals coming up that you're really looking forward to?
There's quite a few. I'm looking forward to doing Loop in Blackburn on 9 June. I love that accent, “Blackburn Roe-vers”
You got that spot on!
I've got an ear for accents. If I'm around them for any length of time I pick them up. Was that Blackburn or was it more Bolton?
No, it was definitely Blackburn. Maybe even a bit Darwen, which is just outside. I have cousins who lived there and you sounded like one of them.
It's so different to the Manchester accent, isn't it?
It is. But that's what it's like up here, you can go 20 minutes down the road in any direction and the accent's totally different. I love that.
That's one of the things I love about England, the accents. It's the same in Birmingham. Like, the real Birmingham accent is Ozzy Osbourne, but down the road it's different. Like, in Dudley “Dud-lie”, they don't say it like that there. The only people who really say “Dud-lie” are Brummies. Brummies do that “i” thing, that upturn. But Dudley's in the Black Country so they don't.
You're also playing at The Golden Lion in Todmorden on the 8 July and on 22 July you're doing the Jerk Jam Festival in Fareham. Todmorden's a lovely place, you'll enjoy that one. And I believe that you're doing that night after an in conversation session you're doing in Leeds. What do you expect to be discussing there?
Yeah, it's a Chinwag thing. God knows what I'm going to be talking about, I don't know what the questions are going to be. You know what? That's not my favourite kind of thing. I wouldn't choose to do an interview, I'm not that kind of guy. But it's for a good cause. And I get to stay up there for a couple of days and enjoy it. I'm looking forward to it, should be a nice little trip.
And as for the Jerk Jam, I think you can expect a lot of excellent Caribbean food at that one. Are you a fan?
I like African food but I think Caribbean is different. But I'm pretty much vegan. I don't eat any meat or fish. I like sweet potatoes!
Kevin Rowland will play a number of dates this summer, you can get tickets below.