Long standing fans who loved the long playing trilogy of ‘Disgraceful’, ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ have had nothing but praise for ‘One’, produced by Youth whose credits include CROWDED HOUSE and THE VERVE.
Despite sitting on the bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia in their heyday, DUBSTAR’s appeal has always been via their down-to-earth kitchen sink dramas. There is certainly no shortage of those on ‘One’ which has been well worth the wait, as a work following the conflicts of an aborted reunion which was unable to be sustained despite live performances in 2013.
Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie kindly chatted to The Electricity Club over their usual cup of tea about how the two of them became ‘One’…
Chris: It’s been easier than as a trio *laughs*
The funny thing is though, it was never just a trio anyway, we’ve always had outside collaborators whether it was our live rhythm section, Stephen Hague or whoever, and Youth has felt like a member in lots of ways this time around.
So it’s rarely just me and Sarah in a vacuum. You don’t have to compromise as much, especially from my perspective as the instrumentalist. In the past, I was often having to field ideas that I didn’t like so much. Now, I get a feeling for how it should be and just do it.
Sarah: It seemed to go a lot more smoothly, Chris would send it to me, I’d sing it and anything he didn’t like, he just didn’t put in the final mix, so that was fine! Subtle enough to not hurt my feelings or anything like that *laughs*
So no writing songs in weird keys for you?
Sarah: Do you remember that Chris? – “Can you reach that note right at the top of the piano Sarah?”… I can with an “aaah” but it’s a whole different story with a word! *laughs*
So was working with Youth on ‘One’ a natural choice as I know Sarah, he had previously worked with you in your previous band?
Sarah: Chris and I have always been fans of his work on things like CROWDED HOUSE’s ‘Together Alone’ album.
Chris: After the adjustment in personnel within the group, we were closely in touch with Stephen Hague, but worried that we’d be putting him in an uncomfortable position by asking him to do it, so after a lot of head-scratching, Me and Sarah made a wish-list of who we’d like to work with, especially the ones whose phone numbers we had, and whittled it down *laughs*
We didn’t have a label at this point, but Youth tackled the situation by adopting an early-60s approach, doing what people like George Martin used to do, and became the A&R guy as well as the producer.
We had around 30 tracks demoed, and made regular visits to his house for several weeks, working to get them down to a collection of songs which felt meaningful together, before the official production dates began.
‘One’ does come across like a proper album in that respect, perhaps more than our previous records, despite the style of the tracks being more diverse.
‘One’ has a much more live sounding feel than previous albums although it is still classic DUBSTAR, had that been a conscious move ?
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely something I was after. Wherever you had programmed elements, I wanted them to feel like they were in the room. Even with a Moog bass or Solina Strings part, I wanted to be able to visualise the space it was in. Youth and his engineer have this down to a fine art. I think they got the best acoustic guitar sound I’ve ever had for instance, because they understand the environment it’s being recorded in so well.
Is the software and tech available now more straightforward to use and to get that organic feel within the budget constraints?
Chris: Very much so. Plug-ins have come so far that it’s difficult to spot the difference most of the time. I would do a lot of the programming, and even record a lot of the guitars at home, but when we got to Youth’s place, we’d have to make a decision about which bits could be improved by reworking in a proper acoustic environment, or would benefit from being left alone. Recording is so much more expeditious now, you could potentially make a whole album on your laptop and most people won’t be able to detect the short-cuts, but I do appreciate a lot of these developments, because back in the 90s we’d be going into a residential studio like Real World and spending four grand a day just to try and get a decent drum sound! *laughs*
That’s good because a lot of modern purely electronic recordings lack air…
Chris: Thanks, on tracks like ‘Locked Inside’ which is one of the most electronic ones on the album, we were really trying to approach it like JON & VANGELIS or the early GARY NUMAN tracks where you can really feel the air moving around the equipment; it might be a machine but you can sense the human being using it.
Chris: Ooooh! There’s a question! *laughs*
I don’t know if I should say, but it is a sample from ‘Shout’. It was something that Youth did to see if we’d spot it… we’d been talking affectionately about TEARS FOR FEARS a lot, and he added it between sessions when we weren’t in the room! When we came back, he had this cheeky look on his face and I went “that’s from ‘Shout’ that is!”
After you’ve heard it for a while you miss it when it’s not there, it’s become part of it! So you have to run the risk of keeping the sample, but if Roland and Curt are reading this, please don’t give us a hard time! It was done with love *laughs*
Sarah: Yes, please don’t! It was Youth’s fault, and we want to be able to afford to make another album! *laughs*
So Sarah, is the tech and software making things more straightforward for you now vocally?
Sarah: A bit, I had a lot of throat problems in DUBSTAR before because I’ve got a really fragile voice. I have a narrow neck, tiny ears and even though my nose is big, I’ve had tubes shoved up there to investigate what was going on and they said there wasn’t a lot of room, so I really suffer, I only have to go to a restaurant and talk too much and my throat is inflamed! This is why the performance thing caused me so much anxiety and stress, which made things even worse.
So I had to find ways to manage that, I’ve got really into pilates which has taught me to expand my rib cage properly and I’m learning to feel space in my head, but I’m still a work in progress. When Youth’s engineer Michael Rendall recorded me, he managed to get a really good sound in my headphones which meant I could sing higher with not much power, I didn’t really have to push for it. On ‘Love Comes Late’, he asked me to go an octave up and I instinctively went “no”! He just stuck the headphones on and said “you can now!” *laughs*
Chris: I think you’re a lot stronger and more proficient; your voice seems to work better than it ever did. I find you can do stuff now that you’d have never been able to do in the 90s and effortlessly. For me, as someone who worked with Sarah years ago, to come back with her operating at a higher level is quite thrilling. It’s great when you’re writing, knowing that whatever you write, she’s going to be able to do it.
Do either of you have any thoughts about the use of vocal effects in modern music? Are you in the mindset that you are making a record as opposed to recreating a live performance?
Sarah: I feel like I’m cheating, I’m remember the first time I went in a studio doing the first DUBSTAR album and the vocals were comped, I thought “that’s not right” but Andy Ross of Food Records just went “everybody else does it, and if you don’t want to sound as good as everybody else, then don’t do it”.
I would say Ella Fitzgerald doesn’t do it! But Andy would reply “Ella Fitzgerald sings those songs night after night after night and she gets muscle memory, she can do it perfect with her eyes shut. You’ve only sung those songs five times, you haven’t toured them, you haven’t explored them in your own voice” – and when you think about it, musicians in the old days would get their material together and take it on tour, get spotted and then go in the studio to record those songs, so it was different. But when you do your new songs, you’ve only sung them a handful of times before you record them, and then you’d take them out on the road, so that’s kind of interesting.
Chris: I understand what you mean, I used to think it was cheating to comp the guitars, and complain to Stephen Hague that I wanted to do it again from the top, worried that people would think I was a sample. I suppose you can improve as a result of being neurotic, though.
Sarah: Yeah, it feels wrong and that you’re compromising your artistic integrity, BUT what we make a point of doing is we try and do one take, and then drop tiny little bits in that are really offensive. But sometimes mistakes keep things authentic… there’s a horrible brown note on ‘Stars’ which Stephen Hague left in because he liked it.
Chris: Another thing about the ‘one take’ thing Sarah, even people who have never worked in studios can pick up on the way someone is breathing when it’s sung from the top to the bottom, you can feel it even if you don’t necessarily know why. So by retaining that element of performance, it makes it feel like Sarah’s in the room singing the song to you more.
To go back to your point about the use of effect, apart from the end of ‘Love Comes Late’ where you have a flanger treatment going on to create a different colour and distinguish from the other sung part, it’s true that Sarah does prefer a natural vocal…if you have too much effect going on, you lose that intimacy.
When you have a ‘character’ singer, like Sarah is, you want to feel her humanity, as if she’s in your ear and telling you something.
Sarah: It doesn’t distract from the words as well, if there’s lots of effects on it, you don’t listen to the words.
Chris: A well-known example of the software performing the song more than the singer must be CHER with ‘Believe’ and the autotune thing, which was still new then, but of course she didn’t have to prove anything. It is a shame these days when the autotune is singing the song and you suspect that they probably only performed it on one note and just dialled it in! *laughs*
Sarah: It does make it unlistenable when it’s overdone. When it’s someone like ALISON MOYET, its ok, because you know she’s an awesome singer, she’s got nothing to prove, so playing around with the vocal adds another dimension to the track. It’s how you use it I guess.
Chris: KATE BUSH creates different vocal sounds just with her delivery or the way she’s tracked it. She becomes something else…
Sarah: …yes, like those backing vocals on PETER GABRIEL’s ‘No Self Control’, I’d love to be a bit more experimental but I don’t know if I’ve got the courage.
Chris: The song suggests what you’re going to do.
There’s less of the ‘dub’ in DUBSTAR on ‘One’?
Chris: When we first started, we really loved ONE DOVE, and they had some great tracks remixed by people like William Orbit and Andrew Weatherall. There was something they were doing at the time which leaned heavily on dub in the bass especially, which was just incredible and the sound of it was something we aspired to do.
Having said that, even in the early 90s, the word “dub” had become a little bit hackneyed in pop music, I was sick of the sound of the word. I hadn’t really thought much about the dub element in our group, until our then-manager Graeme Robinson came to visit, saying “It looks like I’ve got you a record contract but the catch is, you’re called DUBSTAR!”, which he’d suggested to Food Records without consulting us, thinking it was a good idea.
I remember at the first meeting, Andy Ross said “that will be a great name because of the dub element”, but my heart sank because I thought “so do we have to keep doing those bass lines in perpetuity then?” The name was now part of the intended marketing, which felt like the tail was wagging the dog, and I found that really depressing! *laughs*
If you listen to the first three albums, by the time ‘Make It Better’ comes along, there’s not much trace of it left, but by then, you’ve become the name and vice versa.
Youth was a bit disappointed that we weren’t up for revisiting some of that dub flavour, since it’s a musical comfort zone for him, so maybe on the next one we will. ‘Two’ could be like ‘Disgraceful 2’!
Sarah: It’s quite surprising isn’t it, that got omitted from this album working with Youth. You’d have thought that’s one of first things he’d have got in.
Chris: It makes sense, because what he did back then was informing a lot of what was going on at the time. In some ways, he would have been a very sensible choice as producer for ‘Disgraceful’.
Sarah: Wasn’t his band BRILLIANT Food 1 by catalogue number??
Chris: Yes, that’s correct… I suppose there is some weird synchronicity going on in the Youth and DUBSTAR story, so it’s not really that surprising we ended up doing something together.
So is this DUBSTAR return a conscious reboot or more of a “suck it and see” approach?
Chris: It sort of crept up on us, we’d been spending time together from 2013 and we’d done some one-off performances. We knew we wanted to do something, I was enjoying having Sarah back in my life on a day-to-day basis, since I hadn’t for a few years, whereas we used to actually live together at one point.
I was really enjoying her singing again, so we started what I thought might have been a Sarah solo record; that was very liberating originally because it meant I didn’t have to think about it in the context of a new DUBSTAR record, and the ideas started flowing in a totally uninhibited way.
So when the likes of Youth started saying “this is essentially a DUBSTAR record isn’t it, so you might as well have the advantage of calling it that”, it obviously made sense and became quite exciting. But it was a pressure-free initiation stage.
How do you feel about today’s music business landscape, like with the current formats, you’re not under pressure to churn out B-sides and covers like in the past, it’s just “the album” now isn’t it?
Chris: Yeah, that’s right but also, the album has a different character now as a format because any one of the songs can effectively be the single, just according to how it’s received. You can still do what you used to do and nominate whichever one of the songs you feel best sums up what the album is about, and throw some money behind plugging it for radio or making a nice video.
We had two chosen singles off this current album: ‘Love Comes Late’ and ‘You Were Never In Love’, but you had ‘Waltz No.9’ and ‘Why Don’t You Kiss Me?’ being received as singles by the listeners, and they’ve subsequently become flagship tunes for us now, but it happens organically. So as an artist, you have to accept that you’ve lost control a bit, but that can be a good thing, it’s nice.
Sarah: I just get a bit confused because I sit there with my iPhone and I’ve got EVERYTHING in the world, what do I want to listen to? And that’s why it’s important that I go to The Electricity Club and go “oh what have you been writing about lately?” *laughs*
There’s no central filter, in some ways it’s brilliant because you have the whole world at your fingertips, but that has its drawbacks as well… I’m the sort of person that likes a little boundary because it gives me a bit of comfort.
Sarah: Yeah! You know what? I’m guilty of that! It makes you wonder how albums like ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ would fare now, that’s an epic… are we going to have our epics anymore or is everything going to be digested in nice little bits?
Chris: It’s very much directed by playlist culture as well. You can have a track that your fans might not think is terribly important, but if it’s turned up on a certain playlist somewhere which has a lot of traffic, you look on Spotify and it suddenly appears to be your most popular song! So somebody who’s investigating the group and never heard you before listens to that one first. It might be something that’s not representative of the band at all, but if they don’t like it, they miss the entire canon of work after hearing the first 30 seconds! *laughs*
Did ‘Love Gathers’ with its lesbian affair on the school run narrative emerge from real life events and gossip from the playground?
Chris: I can’t go into too much detail because it doesn’t really help. The thing is, when you have children, you inevitably find yourself going back to school. And for a lot of people, spending more time at school, even though it’s only at the beginning and end of the day, is a welcome return.
I didn’t like school, and it took me years outside of school to rebuild myself as a person, so when I got there as a parent, all the old anxieties crept in. I noticed how for a lot of other parents, they had been waiting for that moment to return, and were visibly in their element! It was like they had children so they could go back to school! All these old categories returned, you could see who the bullies were and who the nerds were, and I was definitely in the latter *laughs*
So revisiting that school environment, I remembered why I had so much anxiety as a child myself because of this micro-community, and the way little things become big things. So if you fall out with somebody, everything becomes a much bigger deal. That story in ‘Love Gathers’ was based on stuff that was going on when I wrote it, but in order to make it ‘happen’ as a song, everything has to be as inflated to the scale it was felt in the yard… anyway, I hope that covers it *laughs*
Sarah: I loved singing that song because it’s a real story and the words are just fantastic to get your mouth around.
Sarah: Yes, my voice doesn’t lend itself to drivel, some people can sing anything and it sounds awesome… my voice has to have something to say.
Chris: I think you’ve made a good point, because even though we didn’t want to do cover versions when we did the first album, ‘Not So Manic Now’ is on there because it said something about our ethos more effectively than anything we had of our own at that time.
But that’s a story song. I heard it on the radio a little while ago and I realised why people like it, there’s something about the way Sarah’s voice depicts the character in that story.
So much so that when ‘Stars’ was released the second time, and people finally got it, it was more interesting in the context of ‘Not So Manic Now’, because that character with the cup of tea in the tower block was suddenly underneath the firmament, singing this beautiful torch song, and it benefitted from the context.
You now virtually do own ‘Not So Manic Now’ and there are people who are still discovering that it’s a cover…
Chris: …although strictly speaking, it’s not so much a cover as what they used to call a ’cut’, like when Elvis would cut a song, as in the first recorded version people heard. When BRICK SUPPLY did ‘Not So Manic Now’, we were given what was basically a demo tape, so it wasn’t like a release which people were already familiar with. I always compare ‘Not So Manic Now’ to ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by SIMPLE MINDS, because that’s the song which defines them for the majority of people, despite not being self-penned. But you’re lucky if you’ve got one of those.
‘Please Stop Leaving Me Alone’ is such a DUBSTAR title…
Chris: Thanks, that one is connected slightly to ‘Love Gathers’ since it relates again to encounters in the school environment and the small village where I live. One of the parent couples were going through a divorce, and the effect this had on the community was like a tidal wave flushing through the village, because it’s a small place and other people seemed to begin having problems in their own relationships, like a domino effect.
I was close friends with one of them, and that legalese jargon was around a lot at the time. I noticed how you could get into a situation where you’re already spending money on lawyers, momentum has built, but you’ve gone so far down the road that you can’t turn around, even if you start having second thoughts.
It kind of wrote itself, there was a lot of unhappiness around, and if you listen to the electric guitar part at the end of the track, that take was recorded on the afternoon that I wrote it, so you can hear the frustration. I like the idea of having a shorter distance between the thought, expression, and what the listener gets in their headphones or speakers at home.
Sarah: I think that’s quite a Youth thing, even at proper production stage, we had little time to do the actual recording so decisions were made and often they were the first decision, so we didn’t dither around. It was all “we’ll go for this, is everyone happy?” which gave it a kind of immediacy that is prevalent throughout the album.
Chris: That’s why Youth prioritised many of the guitar takes I’d done at writing stage, even though I assumed that they would be replaced. There’s a lot of guitars on the record which I’d done on the day it was written at home, and they retain an urgency that you wouldn’t get when you’ve done it 25 times in the studio.
‘You Were Never In Love’ is classic DUBSTAR, how did that come together?
Chris: It came from that earlier period where me and Sarah were hanging out with Youth round at his house a lot. We’d developed a good relationship by then, and we were talking about the sort of records we liked, the producers we were into, the sound of record we wanted to make..
I was really wanting to impress him because he can be quite a fierce critic, but in a constructive way. There was a certain type of song we didn’t have which was closer to what we had been talking about in our conversations, so I really wanted to go back to him, and for him to say “yes, that’s what we’re missing”!
So I had a sound in my head, and visual image of Sarah looking like Virginia Madsen at the start of ‘Dune’, with her head in the stars, imparting benevolent advice about where you’d gone wrong. At the time, I was seeking some kind of celestial advice myself. I wanted it to be more electronic sounding and dreamy, and it seemed to write itself.
Sarah: I remember you sent me this really rough demo, you said “It’s a bit patchy, I’m not sure, I think I’m going to bin it…” and I was “NO! NO! NO! That’s got legs, we’ve got to keep going with this one, it’s awesome”.
What’s coming across in your relationship with Youth is its sounding like what DAF had with Conny Plank, in that its homely and encouraging. I know you’re friends with Stephen Hague but the impression from what I’ve read is he can be a bit school teacher type of character? Please enlighten me…
Chris: He has a reputation for formality, but he’s always very down-to-earth and fun-to-be-with, I’ve found, we always had a laugh.
He can be very disarming and genuinely hilarious when the mood takes him. And he’s a lot more experimental in the studio than he gets credit for. I’ve burned a lot of midnight oil with him, exploring the unexpected.
Sarah: He always seemed to literally weep with laughter when he was out with us!
Chris: I guess he has the image of a fastened-top-button sort of guy, but maybe that’s been projected onto him, because some his best known records feel so pristine, but that perfection makes them endure. He’s very thorough.
With Youth, as much as I loved his records and was really excited about working with him, I wasn’t in a good place in my own head when we met, and I was paranoid that he was going to be this ‘rock star producer’ who was going to throw his ego around and impose his will excessively onto everything we’d been working on. But it was the total opposite, I have to say; it was me who went in with bad attitude, and he’s actually very ego-less and generous in his spirit.
Although he can be a merciless critic, it’s usually for the greater good and to your benefit, I think. So we did some gentle sparring initially, but I really love the guy because he gave me something which no-one else has been able to give me, and we’ve made the record which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I’ll always be really grateful to him for helping us to do that. We’ve been extremely lucky to have producers like Stephen Hague and Youth, and have learned so much from them.
Chris: That one started off as quite a mellifluous, dreamy-sounding thing, but Youth’s engineer Michael is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and one day we were just throwing ideas around and then Michael opens a drawer, produces a trumpet and starts playing it! *laughs*
I had mixed feelings initially, but it did make sense in that Northern soul, Dexys way… it made the track more robust than it had been, and you could see its pop potential, whereas it had felt more apologetic in the way we’d been delivering it. So it was a happy studio day.
Sarah: It was weird because when we were doing the demo, I was like “yeah, these words, they’re great, they’re about an abusive relationship”, and when I was singing it in the studio, I was “Oh my god! It’s me that’s the bunny boiler in this song, I AM ONE!”, all this stuff about “restricting your movements”! It’s so sinister man! *laughs*
Chris: But it’s nice that it’s so happy! *laughs*
‘Mantra’ is very Beatles-esque and has that lush vocal ending…
Chris: During the pre-production hang-out with Youth, he had expressed a desire to co-write with us. Right at the end of those sessions, I had this idea for the verse and was visualising it as a three part harmony, sounding like Karen Carpenter. I was really happy with the verses, which emerged like the ‘stream of consciousness’ lyrics in ‘Waltz No.9’ but I wasn’t completely sure what it was about yet.
When we were doing the demo for ‘Mantra’, Sarah would do this lyric-less part sometimes, and it seemed to be heading that way. My working title was ‘You Are Gone’. But after Sarah was doing that ‘wobbly’ stuff, I started calling it ‘Mantra’ because it felt like one.
We’d just had dinner with Youth and there was this strange atmosphere in the room. There was a palpable charge in the air, like static, and I noticed his breathing had changed a bit. He announced that we should try “the Mantra one”, so I asked if he had anything for the chorus section, and he immediately started singing it. We worked through the night and by dawn it was finished. It’s a good one for the end of the album.
Sarah: Youth was playing me like a Theremin, he made me open my mouth, moved his hands up in the air and my voice went up and then a little higher and then my voice followed his hands DOWN! It was like he was conducting me. That was quite a moment actually.
Chris: We have been asked a lot, and we’ve tried to avoid the nostalgia circuit up to this point, because we wanted this to be an artistic endeavour rather than ‘making hay’ just because people are interested in the 90s again. It saddened me a bit that it took us so long to get it together, and by the time we got round to doing it, this 90s trip was already on, but I’m glad we at least beat SLEEPER to the post! *laughs*
Sarah: We’re just masters of cr*p timing!
Chris: It would be nice to do some live appearances in 2019, but rather than a tour, I’d prefer to do a number of small live events, or maybe a significant one-off. I like the idea of doing an acoustic thing. Sarah and I have done this in the past where it’s just the two of us and there’s an intimacy that I really like. When I’ve seen other artists do it, it’s like you’ve hung out with them for the night…
Sarah: It’s so honest isn’t it? There’s no hiding, your songs have to be good, the performance has to be good and it’s bloody nerve racking as well! With regards having a talk format, I don’t think I could multitask, I have to concentrate on singing… women are supposed to be good at multi-tasking but I’m utterly sh*te.
Chris: I went to see CHINA CRISIS at The Sage in Gateshead before Christmas and they did that particularly well, I thought. It was pretty much 40% chat and 60% music, but at the end of the night, you felt like you knew who they were.
Sarah: Miles Hunt from THE WONDER STUFF is like that too. About 10 years ago, he did these acoustic shows and would tell such entertaining nuggets about what the songs meant to him or how the songs came about… I remember there was one about him and David Gedge of THE WEDDING PRESENT having w*nking competitions so he wrote this guitar line that emulated his forearm whilst in the act called ‘Angelica Maybe’… it’s one of my favourite Miles songs.
I remember when DUBSTAR covered ‘Every Day I Die’ for the Numan tribute album ‘Random’, Gary did ask me if I was aware of what I was singing… I smiled sweetly as I said yes *laughs*
Chris: We were already writing the next record as we completed the last, and we’ve got enough to do another quite quickly now, but I don’t know if it’s exactly what we need yet.
Some of it is like the poppiest material we’ve ever done, while conversely, there’s some of the most inscrutable stuff as well.
So I imagine we ought to do what we did last time and hang out with Youth for a bit, to get that third party perspective where a producer can hear it more clearly than you can. I’m hoping we can do as much of that this year as possible.
Sarah: Same for me as well.
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
12th January 2019