Dexys Midnight Runners have a new album out: Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish Country & Soul. In 2012, I chatted to Kevin Rowland at the time of the release of their previous album, One Day I’m Going to Soar
“Everyone wants to talk about the past,” says Kevin Rowland with a sigh. “That drags me down.” A pain, perhaps, but hardly a surprise. Fully 27 years elapsed between the third Dexys Midnight Runners album, Don’t Stand Me Down, and the fourth, One Day I’m Going to Soar, released in June. When the former came out Rowland was 32. Next year he’ll be 60. Until the release of One Day I’m Going to Soar, for most Dexys fans the past was pretty much all they had.
For Rowland, of course, life rolled on. In that time he released two solo albums, had a bruising brush with cocaine, became a squatter, sang The Greatest Love of All at the 1999 Reading Festival wearing a dress and a pair of stockings, reformed his old band for a few shows in 2003, and moved back to London from Brighton. There have been false starts, prolonged silences and plenty of rumours, but until this year no new album. “I just wasn’t confident enough,” he explains. “That’s a fact. Nowhere near confident enough in my voice and my songs, and I sort of knew that, so I didn’t try really hard. Music comes through you. Some people are lucky and have it coming through them all the time, but that’s not been me.”
There are those for whom Rowland is simply the singer of Come On Eileen and Geno, a relic from the early 80s last seen emoting in front of a vast back-projection of darts player Jocky Wilson on Top of the Pops in 1982. For others, he is a wayward genius whose emergence from the margins has something of the return of the prodigal about it.
Back in Dexys’ heyday he gained a reputation for being difficult: punching journalists, wrestling with record companies, haunted by a kind of puritanical perfectionism. He seems calmer these days – “I live like a monk on tour” – yet still driven by some highly combustible internal force. Even the way his accent alternates between chirpy London and his doleful native Brummie suggests the mood swings may be rather pronounced.
Like most mavericks, Rowland entirely lacks the nostalgia gene when it comes to his work. “We definitely don’t do a greatest hits show,” he says more than once. “I didn’t wait this long to come back to be a human jukebox for people’s memories. No offence to anybody but that’s not what we do. I have to be able to stand on the stage and relate to a lyric now. Before I sing I’m thinking, What am I saying and who am I singing this to? To get the best performance I have to be in the song. It’s exhausting, but not connecting to the song, that would be worse.”
It means that although he has finally found a satisfactory live arrangement for Come On Eileen – an albatross-cum-golden goose about which he has always felt ambivalent – there are many other songs from the Dexys catalogue, including Geno, that no longer fit. “In any given year there are only about nine old songs that I can relate to,” he says. “Me and Mick [Talbot, Dexys keyboardist] sat down and I said, ‘I can’t sing that, I can’t sing that, I can’t sing that… I think I could sing that but I need to change that lyric or tweak the rhythm.’ It was 30 years ago, and I feel like somebody else now.”
To underscore the fact that he is “completely focused on looking forward”, the opening hour of the Dexys live set on their current tour features One Day I’m Going to Soar performed in its entirety. It’s a highly theatrical affair. “There’s a lot to this show,” he agrees. “It’s quite dramatic.” On several songs Rowland spars with Madeleine Hyland, a singer he only met six weeks before the album was recorded. “Finding her really was like the search for Scarlett O’Hara,” he says. “It took at least five years.” As their two-hander unfolds Rowland woos her, wins her, then walks away, because he is, as one song title baldly states, Incapable of Love.
The songs highlight a clear conflict between the performer and the private man. In person Rowland bristles at the slightest sign of intrusion – “I don’t like being asked personal questions. ‘How’s your private life?’ Like I’m going to talk about it in a newspaper!” – and yet in common with much of his past work, One Day I’m Going to Soar is a devastatingly frank account of intimate insecurities. The album is funny at times, but at heart it’s a quite remarkable litany of fear and self-loathing. “Sometimes I think, fucking hell, this is a bit close to the bone, but you know what? Music is kind of sacred to me. It really is like a higher thing, and when I get a bolt of inspiration, no matter what it is – wear this, do that, sing that, write that lyric – if it comes clear and pure I go with it. I don’t question it.”
Rowland admits that in the 80s he was far too uptight to enjoy success. Even today, he struggles to get genuine satisfaction from the acclaim that has surrounded the return of Dexys. “I’d love to say I was having a fucking great time, but I’m not,” he says. “I’m not having a terrible time, I don’t want to sound self-pitying. We got the record out the way we wanted, it turned out better than I could have hoped for, but maybe because I haven’t done this for a long time going back to it is always a source of anxiety. Some days I feel optimistic, but most days I’m thinking, I must remember to do this, I need to make a list of that, does so-and-so know we need to do that? That’s how my brain is. I’m prone to anxiety but I work hard at it, and it’s working a whole lot better.”
When the wonderful Don’t Stand Me Down album stiffed in 1985, Rowland slowly dropped off the mainstream radar, almost as though its poor reception knocked the fight out of him. It’s good to have him back, positive and energised, yet four albums in 30-odd years remains a slight return for his talents. Does he feel there should have been more music? “There probably could have been, but who cares?” he shrugs. “I’d rather have made four good albums than 14 albums and six of them are shit.” The downbeat Brummie cedes the floor to the upbeat barrow boy. “’Cos it’s a good record, isn’t it? They’re all pretty good, aren’t they?”