“We’ll wear great clothes and make soulful music.”
That was the promise Kevin Rowland made to the first line-up of Dexys Midnight Runners when he formed the group in 1978.
The pledge held true through Dexys’ audacious and powerful live performances, seven Top Twenty hits (including the Number Ones Geno and Come On Eileen) and the landmark albums Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, Too-Rye-Ay and Don’t Stand Me Down.
And style, soulfulness and emotional honesty remain Dexys’ hallmarks as spring 2012 witnesses the group’s return with stupendous new album One Day I’m Going To Soar and a series of hotly-awaited shows.
With the name streamlined from Dexys Midnight Runners to Dexys, the genesis of the reinvention lies in the period following the group’s acclaimed live performances of 2003. “I’d already been working on some of these songs and started to revamp them five or six years ago, - a few of them had been written with Jim, Paterson a couple alone and the rest with various people” says Rowland. “The plan was to do an album at that time, but it didn’t happen. I’m glad. If it had happened then, it wouldn’t be as good as it is now.”
An important breakthrough was Rowland’s decision to collaborate with keyboard player Mick Talbot; the former Style Council founder had also played on the 2003 dates and briefly been a member of the Dexys’ line-up way back in 1980.
“About four years ago I’d already visualised the album pretty much in the running order its in now, but was struggling to take it forward,” says Rowland. “One day I met a friend who also knows Mick. She mentioned him. Later that day I realised Mick was what I needed: a proper heavyweight collaborator. We arranged to meet for a cuppa and as soon as I saw him I knew it was going to work – he was wearing 40s clothes. That was a sign that we were in tune.
With Pete Schwier and Rowland, Talbot is the album co-producer. “Mick has given his all to Dexys,” says Rowland. “I’ve been very impressed by his care, attention and commitment.”
As the songs took shape, Rowland and Talbot gathered together the team of contributors who now constitute Dexys 2012.
These include such stalwarts of earlier line-ups as co-writer/horn player Jim Paterson, bass-player and singer Pete Williams and violinist Lucy Morgan (the latter two also participated in the 2003 live dates). It was Lucy who suggested the band use string arranger Ben Trigg for the album.
With a new look which brings ideas originally inspired by noir-ish 30s and 40s style classicism into the 21st Century, the group’s dynamic has been upped by the presence of actress/singer Madeleine Hyland as co-vocalist on dialogue-driven duets such as the thematically-linked I’m Always Going To Love You and Incapable Of Love.
“I was looking for the right person for those songs for years,” says Rowland, who scoured London’s Burlesque scene and retro clubs. It felt like the search for Scarlett O Hara in Gone With The Wind. “I tried out loads; some were great vocalists but weren’t convincing on the speaking parts, and vice versa. Then I met Maddy at Brick Lane Art Car Boot Fair last year; we were introduced by my friend Phil Dirtbox, who mentioned she was a singer. I thought Maddy looked right and asked her to try out some demos at my place, recording her on my iPhone. She nailed it and, when I played it to Mick, he agreed she was the one.”
One Day I’m Going To Soar was made over a period of months at The Premises in Rowland’s east London neighbourhood.
“I liked the fact it was walking distance from where I live,” he said. “That way there wasn’t the hassle of going into a huge studio where the expectations are massive before you even start. I wanted to keep everything relaxed.”
After intensive pre-production (“just me and Mick. He would come round to my place and we’d take the songs apart and put them back together again”) the album was recorded two tracks at a time. “In my experience that’s the best way to avoid a record sounding like the result of a production line, you stop the music being linear,” says Rowland.
“Before we went in each time, Mick and I and the guys were meticulous in our preparation - ironing out the details. By making sure we were absolutely prepared, we could be more spontaneous and in the actual process. And also, because I was co producing, I wanted to get the bands music out of the way, so that when it came to recording, id be able to concentrate more on my singing.
Rowland adopted certain method acting techniques to enhance his performance, taking photographs of the songs subjects, or artefacts that would help him access the relevant emotion, while he, Talbot and Williams - all natty dressers – competed with each other in wearing stylish clothes.
“Everyone was dressed interestingly; it made us all step up,” says Rowland, who understands like few others the importance of visuals in popular music.
The association with highly respected fashion photographer Chiko Ohayon is particularly interesting. Rowland was introduced to Ohayon at the retro club-night Lady Luck by DJ El Nino.
“Chiko’s on the scene and dresses very well himself, so he totally gets it,” says Rowland. “The shoot and all the pre production, was enlightening. Chiko is a real artist and he taught me one or two general creative principles. He was perfect for the album cover. And he just seemed to turn up at exactly the right time, as has been the case with just about everyone accosiated with this album”
Ohayon’s cover image communicates the sophistication, style and substance of One Day I’m Going To Soar with ease.
Decades after Rowland’s original pronouncement, Dexys are still wearing great clothes and producing soulful music without peer.