Dave Wakeling of The English Beat Discusses First Album in 36 Years
By Lauren Johnson
Dave Wakeling just oozes charm and charisma. On a sweltering summer day, I strolled into a midtown Manhattan cafe to find the lead singer of The English Beat seated at a table, his guitar lazily propped up on the cushioned bench next to him. When interviewing longstanding legends of the music industry such as Dave Wakeling, more often than not I expect to jump straight into the interview and hammer it out so that the artist can keep to his busy schedule – but not today. Today, Dave invited me to sit and started asking questions of me – how long I’ve been writing, what Hedonist/Shedonist is all about, and the steps required to “make it” as a music journalist. It seemed like this interview was working in reverse with a slight turn of the tables, but in fact, what ended up happening was a genuine, thoroughly enjoyable conversation. Over a hot Americano, and just off of a successful show at The Bell House in Brooklyn’s, Dave Wakeling was only too happy to discuss crowd funding, “swear words,” and his newest album Here We Go Love – released over 35 years after The English Beat’s last album dropped.
Q: So tell me how the show was last night.
Dave Wakeling: It was fantastic, I think it’s my favorite venue in the city. It’s been a little while since I was there, so I was thrilled to be back. It was sold out, people were really friendly and really happy. I like it because it doesn’t seem like you’re in the New York area, it seems like you’re in a kind of local neighborhood area, which I suppose you are, but people from Manhattan like to go to that show because of it, you know? It’s not so arms-folded-and-at-a-distance, it seems more convivial. So we enjoy playing that place, it reminds me of the Belly Up in San Diego, which is one of our favorite venues, so I was really glad to be back in that room last night.
Q: How was fan reception to the new album?
Dave Wakeling: Fantastic! People are loving the new album, we played three new songs, they all went down great, people sang along with the words, and then spent some time afterward telling us what other songs on the album they really like. So it’s lovely that people have got three or four favorites, it was like…”Wow, I was hoping they’d have one, you know, one would’ve done me,” [laughs]. So four favorites is great. It looks as though the record might have legs, it might go on for a few weeks or months, which is lovely.
Q: Have you found that you’ve had a lot of new fans come in because of the album?
Dave Wakeling: Not yet, but I mean this is the first weekend of shows. But I think we will, in England we did, in England we had some people go “Oh, I had no idea you were still going…” Thanks, thanks a lot, I didn’t know you were still going either! [laughs]. But hopefully we will, we did some kind of 80s festival type shows to try and draw more people in, and we found that we go down well with other 80s groups, people go “Oh I always liked these, I remember these,” so we did some of that last summer and I’m hoping that will draw more people in.
Q: I feel like festivals are a great way to do that, people are kinda bopping around to different stages, etc.
Dave Wakeling: Yeah, they’re in the mood anyway, if you nail a good 30-40 minute set you can really make a mark on people.
Q: What’s it like to be back on tour?
Dave Wakeling: Well, I’m never off tour, I’m never off tour to be honest. We do 160 shows a year, and we’ve done that for about 10 years now. It’s probably too much, but it’s manageable. The only time we get in trouble is when we start doing tours abroad as well, and then they run straight into each other, and we’re on the road for two or three months, and that’s a bit much. So we like to be on tour for a month, then home for a month, playing weekends, and then on tour for another month, that way we get to do 20 shows one month, 8 shows the next month, and it adds up over the year to over 150 shows, so it’s pretty good, and yet most of the band are home a lot of the time so as that their families don’t miss ‘em, the kids remember their names…[laughs].
Q: Sounds like a good balance.
Dave Wakeling: Yes, you have to find the right balance, cause if you stay on the road too long, then it gets boring doing the songs, but if you don’t do it enough, you don’t really build up a head of steam, and you don’t get to visit as many places as you should.
Q: The English Beat formed in 1979, and then you guys released 3 albums, the last one over 35 years ago…I’m sure a lot has changed over the last 35 years.
Dave Wakeling: Well you’ve arrived since then, I think. The world was very different, very very different, but since you’ve arrived, it’s all started to fall into place [laughs].
Q: At least you didn’t say fall apart!
Dave Wakeling: Yes, that would make sense, I get it now [laughs]. But yes, it’s a long time between records, there’ve been some General Public records in between, but we started playing as The Beat 10 years ago, and that was kinda by default. Whatever I called myself, they just called it The English Beat anyways, so I was just like, alight, after 30 years, you don’t get to name yourself anymore [laughs]. And we were playing English Beat songs, so you could hardly complain, and I liked the name. But then, making a record as The English Beat, it seemed like a natural progression, but once we started making the record it was obviously a bit more serious, that you were making a definitive statement, not just making a record, so that made it take a bit longer than expected, to make sure we were making the right statement. But it worked out very well, we took our time with it, but we didn’t overwork it, we’d work on a song and then we’d leave it for a while, and come back to it when we were fresh. So nothing got labored, over-worked. It’s a bit like bread dough, you can take all the air out of it trying to make it perfect, and then you end up with a perfect blueprint of a record, but it doesn’t make you feel alive, so we were very careful about that, to try and keep the effusive nature of it, and so the songs would still have life in them. And we managed it. At NRG studios in North Hollywood, they had a collection of some of the finest instruments and guitars and microphones from the 70s, like a museum of the finest pieces available, all kept in great condition, and you get to use them as part of the studio, it’s really great. I had my own favorite guitar, that I’ve had since 1979, and I was ready to use that, and they said “Ooh, would you like to try our telecaster?” and I said “Well, no, I love mine,” and they went “Well, would you just like to play it, just for a second, to have a listen?” and I was like “Well alright, I suppose I could,” and they brought this thing in, this 1959 telecaster, and I played it, and the whole room vibrated and I thought “Oh my god it’s the best guitar in the world!” [laughs]. And they said, “Well, it’s worth over $35,000, we thought you might want to have a strum on it.” I played it the whole record, my guitar didn’t have a look-in [laughs].
Q: Can you explain the timing behind the decision to release a new album now?
Dave Wakeling: Well it was odd, the timing, really. I put some new songs in the set, just to stop me from getting bored, no real intention of becoming a record at all at that point. So I stuck two or three new songs in the actual set, because I felt like the band was getting a little complacent, like they knew the set like the back of their hand. You put new songs in and you stand on edge you know? So that really sparked things up, but then we started getting people saying “Oh, I’d like to buy the CD that’s got the new song you played.” And we were like “Oh, right, uh, quick! Better find out how you make a record nowadays! And so that’s where PledgeMusic came in, and we fundraised for a few months, made the money to make the record, and started about three years ago. And then we worked every other month, so I’d go on tour for a month, and then when I was home, I’d work Monday through Thursday and then do gigs at the weekend. It was actually sometimes a nightmare because there were no days off, I’d work Sunday at the studio sometimes to fill in the time if I wanted to get things done, but for about eight weeks I didn’t have a day off, and eventually I had to say, “You know what, I need a day off; I don’t like music, I don’t like myself [laughs], I need a day off.” So we managed to balance that out, and the studio gave me the deal of the century – whenever there was an empty room, I was free to use it, and just pay the engineer, so that was great. In the winter the studio is quieter, in the summers it was packed, so in the winter I got to do a load of work in there, and it was fantastic to get set up with a string section or a brass section, jump in, get it done, get out,. It was really lovely.
Q: Tell me about Here We Go Love, what do you hope fans will take away from the new album?
Dave Wakeling: Well I’m getting a sense of it now, that they like that it seems like a balanced set of songs, that it tells a story, not literally, but it feels like it takes you on a journey from one place to another and it’s a complete tale. I really like that people are Facebooking us what their four and five favorite songs are, which is lovely, because sometimes you’re hoping they’ll mention one. Some people like the title track “Here We Go Love” as their favorite song, some people are absolutely horrified because of the swear words in it. Who would’ve thought, somebody in their 60s using ripe language [laughs]. And that’s a problem, because some people now, they want to play the record with the kids, they might have young kids. And I appreciate that, and I’m sorry about that, but they might have to skip that track, cause it’s got a lot of swear words. And the swear words are on purpose, because it’s about an old man swearing! But it’s an awkward feeling, it’s like “Well, I’m not gonna play that one for the kids.” Well…you’re not meant to, it’s about adult subjects, it’s like, not all of it’s meant to be shared with your children, they’re not your buddies, they’re your kids. You probably don’t have them in the bedroom when you’re having sex either, one would hope [laughs]. So it’s a bit awkward, you know. But yet for other people it’s their favorite song. It’s meant to be a little tongue in cheek, that track, it’s me cast in the role of the old guy in the nightclub who doesn’t realize he’s twice the age of everybody else, with the security looking at him sideways wondering if he’s here to pick up his daughter, you know, “We usually ask the parents to stand outside,” [laughs]. It’s the old lion that keeps trying to sit under the tree and the young lions keep trying to scratch it’s ass. “Why do they keep picking on me?!” “Cause you’re done, that’s why – cause you’re DONE.” [laughs]. So that’s a sad one. More than anything else it was trying to find an order for the songs cause there’s quite a different range of emotions and moods, and it was actually the seventh time we tried a running order. We got very close on number 6, but there was one place it didn’t work, it was like “Oh, that sounds like a car wreck there, that one song leading into another,” and then we moved two songs and all of the sudden it was like “Let’s try that“ and oh my god it sounds like a story, it sounded like it flowed properly. So we were quite pleased with that, but I think it was probably the most difficult part of it, really.
Q: And you said it took about three years to put together, right?
Dave Wakeling: Yeah, it had gone on for so long. And even though it was three years on and off, it was on your mind all the time, you don’t want to let your pledges down. That was a new pressure…this was pledge’s money, the people who bought your records for 30 years, come to all your shows, they put their money down, and you felt a huge responsibility to not ruin it or not spoil it for them. And they were already mad enough, “Where’s this record? I paid for this two years ago!” and it’s like “How long did YOUR album take, how long did the Sistine Chapel take?” I don’t know, but it’s worth waiting for.