Interview 21st August 1989
By Clive Young
OK. Where did you get the name Deacon Blue?
Well, it was just a... I actually chose the name before the band formed, thinking that if you get a whole lot of people and have a discussion of the name, it will take four months to decide, so that was the first thing. It's wasn't a democratic decision, so it's my fault! [laughs] It was a Steely Dan song, and I just liked the sound of the name. I just, for some reason, thought, 'Ah, I like that.' That'll do fine, right, I can live with that one.
So then how did you get together?
Well, it took about a year, because what I was doing, I decided to be a songwriter and form a band and try and work it around that. Then I thought, 'well, do it under the name of a band because it's going to be better. The musicians that are involved are going to feel more involved with that.' But four of us got together originally, and the only two remaining people are Dougie [Douglas Vipond], the drummer, and myself. Over the next year, and this was '85-'86, we tried to recruit musicians, which literally took a year until we finally found Ewen [Vernal], who I knew a long time before hand. It was one person every couple of months, til six people were there.
So you were writing then before that?
Yeah, I was in another band and I wrote myself and I did a small independent thing on my own.
This album's certainly a lot different than the first one; it's a lot
more rock. Is there anything that you think caused that?
Well, we used to go out and do gigs, and people used to say to us afterwards, 'I didn't really expect that,' you know. Did you see us the other night?
Yeah, I saw you at the Bottom Line.
Right, well, we did gigs kind of like the Bottom Line before. And of course, you know what it's like when you're a young band and you've writing your first album--you start writing new songs and some new songs came along, songs like 'Real Gone Kid' and stuff. And a few others. A lot of the rockier stuff was kind of put aside on the first album, because...well, first it was an attempt to make the record work as an album. Just beginning to end, make it work.
So we kind of threw off tracks that were commercially almost stronger songs. I don't mean singles, but they weren't going to work on the record. Also the production was mellower, and just the way things worked out, people said, 'well... Our agent summed it up, our live agent in the U.K. I was talking to him on the phone after we made the record and he'd got it, he said, 'After the first record, its funny. I used to see so many gigs that you guys have done and then come home and played the record. I'd go, 'It's the same song, but it doesn't sound like the same band.'' We were playing them differently. So we made a decision that we wanted to get some of whatever happened live happening on the record. And that wasn't because the first record was recorded live, it wasn't because of that. This record we actually took longer about things. We wanted someone who was going to produce it and make it sound a little edgy in places.
You worked with a lot of different producers on this one, right?
Well, we meant to. That was the original...
[A burp goes up his nose and he makes a wincing face]
Coca-Cola! [laughs] We meant to originally work with three and then get someone to mix it all, but in fact, Warne [Livesy] produced 90 percent of it and then it was mixed by Bob Clearmountain. But Warne produced all but two tracks, one which we recorded over here in Los Angeles and one we did ourselves.
How did you end up producing yourselves on 'Orphans?'
Accident really. I went in myself to do some demos originally of some things I'd written and I phoned up Ewen; I said, 'Look, I've got a bunch of ideas, why don't you come in and help out on this?' And we demoed a song called 'Silhouette' which we ended up re-recording, and the drum machine was running and Ewen started playing... We never write songs like this! This shows you can never predict how you get it. He started playing the bass with the drum machine which was still running. And I thought, 'Oh, that's good; come on, let's keep going with this.' So we just ended up using the same drum machine part for the next track and then writing the song. The first vocal take was the one that we kept. I'd written the lyrics, went behind the mic, sang it and put the keyboards down, put the bass down, we re-did some of the percussion. Got Dougie to play real instruments. Lorraine [McIntosh] came in, we put on guitar and that was it. If you call that production, that fair enough! [laughs]
I read that you consider that song more like an unofficial national anthem
So you wrote that on the spot and decided this was an anthem?
Well, what actually happened is that a friend of mine, who's a songwriter from Dundee where I come from, wrote this brilliant song, which is pretty hard to translate into an American patois, but the song was called 'Hermless' which means 'Harmless.' And he wrote it kind of as an attempt to write a Scottish national anthem. Within the song, the song's brilliant, it sums up Scottish national character a lot, and I kind of followed on a little bit from that, just trying to find an image which suited what was happening in Scotland at the time. Orphans, to me, the kind of image of the dispossessed, was a particularly sad, but particularly apt, image of what was going on at the time.
How would you compare the two albums then, because it seems that the
first album, there was a centering theme of urban living, whereas this seems
to have more of an epic scale feel to it.
It does and it doesn't, you know. I think it's city-based, but I think it got a lot of Scottish things in it. It's kind of like the thing that happens to you leave your home for the first time and you leave for a while. When you come home, it kind of hits you with a new force that you haven't really.... It's like when leave your home and you go back six years later--you go, 'I never noticed that before.' But maybe it's been there for 500 years, you've never taken it in. And the same thing happened for us, I think. When we traveled and toured for the first time, we came back and the contradictions and everything just kind of come at you in a new way because you've been all over Europe or over here or where ever. And it refreshes you a little bit.
So in some ways, the subject matter stays the same; it's maybe just that you can stand back from it a little more and maybe on this record, that's more what happened.
So it gave you a different perspective.
Yeah, in some ways. And other songs were really just written very much as the first ones were written: Story songs which revolve around characters, and many of them are still characters. You have 'Silhouette,' 'Queen of the New Year,' 'Love and Regret,' 'Wages Day'--they've all still got characters in them. I think that if you can get a character that's a believable character--it's kind of like writing a play or film or something like that--if you can write a believable character, then the song will take care of itself.
Do you think the songs translate well to a U.S. audience or perhaps it
takes a bit of reaching?
It never worries me about that, because... I was talking about this with someone else, probably because I've had seven interviews today [laughs]. I don't expect Americans to release British versions of their songs. I liked Chuck Berry long before I ever came to America. And the other day, we were looking at the map and I started thinking about my Chuck Berry songs--and I was, "All right! Those actually make logical sense. You're born in Norfolk, Virginia, then you go to Raleigh, then you go to here, then you end up in St. Louis. All these things, I didn't actually know that before. I didn't go through the geography, but to Americans who live in that Southeast area, it makes sense.
We didn't actually need to know it though, because the spirit of the song is such that it's universal things, you know, that Chuck Berry's talking about. And I kind of hope that people see us kind of in the same light. I wouldn't expect people to get all the references, like the Campsies over Christmas--people don't know what that is until they come to Glasgow. Nevertheless, there are things which people... Like 'Dignity,' anyone can experience being ground down at their work, and everyone can experience escaping from their work and keeping dreams alive. These are things that don't lose in the translation, I don't think.
When you usually sit down to write a song, do you come up with words
first or find a melody?
It used to be a case where I would always write on a piano and write music and words at the same time. So it all came together at the same time but over the last two years, I've just thrown the rule book away, and songs, like discovering 'Orphans' was probably the most backwards way to come up with a song that I've come across. I just think that you have to seize the moment and if it happens, then do it.
How do you go about choosing your singles?
I don't! [laughs] Really--I'll let the record company decide because if they are good at their job and they're getting paid a lot of money to be doing their job, then they should know really what is going to make the single. We present them a record that's an album, and if we're happy with the album, then obviously any song.... If they say, 'we want to lift 'This Changing Light' as a single,' fine. If you think you can do it, fine. I don't know and I'm not an expert on radio and stuff, so I'll let them do that.
Did the late success of Raintown catch you off-guard?
A little bit. It threw us a little bit because it meant the time difference was weird. We were going around and last year, we did two major tours of the U.K. where we really had to play Raintown because that's all people knew. And yet, we were literally halfway through a new album that we'd recorded. At the time we were playing, we'd recorded what we thought was half the record. As it happened, we went in and recorded much more, but we were just basically just getting not tired of the songs, but frustrated because you can only play so much material that people know, and it caught us off-guard in that sense. It was an advantage in another way in that I think we could have maybe made a quicker second album which wouldn't have been as good if it happened first time around. But it almost succeeded a year after it should have done. It was weird.
With your live shows, you have a very aggressive way of being on stage.
Was the band always like that?
When you say 'aggressive,' what do you mean?
Well, very few bands would just be all over the place and such like you
were in such a small club...
...so has it always been like that?
[laughs] Which show were you at? Were you at the second one?
I was at the first one.
Ahh, the second one was even wilder! [laughs] No, that's just the way we are. I don't know, it's just how things evolved. I hope it's not aggressive in a sense of being unfriendly; I wouldn't like it to be that. I just.... We just developed that we played shows and enjoyed them. To me, a show, we've always played reasonably long sets. We're probably playing shorter ones in America because the band's new and you can't wear people out really. But I've always hoped that within the set, there's space to do the kind of smaller, more intimate, quieter songs, and at the end, still have a lot of fun and send people home feeling uplifted in some kind of way. So all these little moods that are in the set are important to me, as well as... You can't just run through a set and just play just rock and roll all the time.
How do you feel touring then?
You've got to enjoy it. You've got to want to do it, and if you don't want to do it, then you're going to kind of start making short cuts, going "oh tonight, maybe we shouldn't bother.' The hardest part of touring is probably when you get to well, we were in Australia touring. We played one or two gigs which were just out in the sticks [laughs] and you look around and think, 'We could play the best gig of our lives here, but no one would ever know!'
And if you get into that attitude--well, one night, I did. My voice was really tired, and I was just in a bad mood, and it was a weird gig 'cause we were playing in a big disco and there was hardly anyone there. And afterwards, I was really disappointed in myself, because I just thought, 'That might be the one time in life people see this band, and I'd have hated to see that show myself.' And I always think that with most acts I've ever seen, I've only ever seen them once and that one show can been really important to you. So it doesn't matter where the show is, it's got to be good and it's got to be special. Something has to happen that night that hasn't happened anywhere else. You've just got to be open enough and in the spirit of the thing to be able to do it. And if you don't do that, you end up putting on a show that's kind of like what the Pet Shop Boys' show sounded like: It could be a film really. Here comes the food!
[The publicist brings in a take-out lunch for Ross]
It looks mighty! Two of these.
Everything I've read about you, they always compare you to Prefab Sprout.
[He laughs] How do you feel about that, because it's uncanny--every single
Where'd you see that, the British press and stuff like that? [laughs]
Yeah, and I played the record for my editor for my editor because we
were debating on do we do the interview or not, and the first words out of
his mouth were "Prefab Sprout."
Is that right? Well, that was Raintown right, or the new one?
The new one.
Really?! The new one doesn't sound like Prefab Sprout to me at all. You've just got to let people make up their own minds. They'll do that, they'll always take a new thing and compare it to something past; it doesn't matter what it is. I thought that stopped about a year ago; I haven't heard that one in a long time. Because of that, then I think it will pass, whatever happen. Fine. It could be a lot worse. I like some of Prefab Sprout's records; the first two I really love. I'm not crazy about the last one, but fine. It could be Foreigner! Haaaa!
Well, I expect you won't find that in the U.S...
Yeah, it'll be Guns N' Roses [we laugh]
Now, I read that you had written a play or a sketch or
Well, I got involved in writing a very small play, something like 10 writers involved in writing for this theater company, and they asked me to write for some reason--saw an interview that I'd done! [laughs] Kinda frightening, and they asked me to for them which was a night of new Scottish writers and they had a cast of four and they all did different parts.
Can you tell me what it was about?
Well, the theme of the evening was originally, we were going to be like, the commission was Scottish stories that are contemporary Scottish stories. So my input was a song that I'd written actually, a story song about a lot of people that I knew from Scotland that had to move, in fact everyone in the town, everything had closed down, and the only option for the guy who worked in the factory was to move to Wales--Wales in our town is quite a long way away, and emotionally it's quite a long way away. So they did it, and the play, if you want to call it that, is set on a bus, so then traveling down to start work there. The night at the theater was actually great.
Do you see yourself doing anything like that in the future?
It's not something...it was weird because most things that I ever do in my life, I'm pretty self-determined person. When I decide to do something, I will do it, but I don't really where I've got to ask normally. 'Cause a musician, if you're going to wait for people to ask you, they'll never ask you. No one comes around and says, 'Do you want to make a record,' you know? [laughs] Well, this one I did it, and I can stay in touch with the company and stuff, but I have so many things I want to do in terms of the band and stuff that I don't really have time to do anything at the moment. But I would be open enough to do things.
One odd-ball question for you, and I know it's silly but I've got to
ask you anyway since you're all from Glasgow and all... Reading the lyrics
to 'Fergus Sings The Blues,' you mention two people, James and Bobby, and
I was curious if that was a reference to Love and Money...
[He cracks up] That's the line "James and Bobby purify"--the soul singers of the '60s. But I also wrote that to read as a sentence: James and Bobby purify. And I always wondered if they'd thought that, funnily enough, because some of our crew work for Love and Money as well, and one of the crew said to me the other day, 'You know, Fergus Sings The Blues? That wasn't James and Bobby from....' And no, it wasn't. It was just quite funny though, with these two being in a band which has soul connections as well.
During the 1980s, there's been so many bands coming out of Glasgow. Did
you find yourself trying to separate yourself from trends or a scene?
At the time that we were coming up, it was in fact Love and Money's kind of era. They were starting off and they were getting a lot of press and a lot of support locally. They were doing quite well for themselves at the time. And they kind of, the music was all kind of dance-influenced and black in points music. And what we were doing was a little bit out of step with that. So it's never really been a bother to us; we never really fit into the scene very much, which I quite. Well, it's handy if you do something and it's sometimes even more important not to. So we didn't and it didn't do us any harm. But we weren't particularly part of the scene as such.
Touring around here now, have you found any differences between the U.S.
audiences and your 'home' audiences?
I think one of the things we've been allowed to do is go out and do our own thing. We didn't support many people when we started, and again we're playing clubs here and there's been a bit of kind of grassroots following at the clubs, which means the gigs kind of go into a typical kind of swing that would happen in the U.K. as well. There hasn't really been any surprises actually, other than that the reaction was really good.
Have you found that people know the songs?
Again, playing the summer, there's a lot of Scottish and Irish folks in anyway, so they kind of make an impression. In Glasgow, when we play, you can pull out a lot more surprising stuff, a lot of old B-sides and stuff, and people know them as well as the A-sides. I mean, we toured last spring and the final two nights were in Glasgow. And we played 'Circus Lights,' which is off the new album; at that time, we hadn't done it very much, but we'd done it on a TV show at Christmas-time before, and the whole audience knew all the words to the song! [laughs] We hadn't even released the song yet on record and it wasn't going to come out for another nine months--a year in fact--and the whole audience so kind of sussed it, because it built like fire, like crazy in Glasgow, that everyone knew the words to the song. In Scotland, you tend to get people who want obscure stuff, 'oh the third track of the 12-inch, do that one.'
How do you feel about bootlegs and that sort of thing?
Doesn't worry me. No one... See, people get in a kind of pickle about bootlegs because bootlegs, people who buy bootlegs, they're buying them because they bought the album and they want more. What worries me is that people spend a lot of money on them and they're awful quality, and some of them are really, really bad quality. Someone standing there with a walkman and they're terrible. Occasionally there's amusingly good ones that are put together. Most of them are straight lifts off gigs. I would like to see people, if there were bootlegs, coming out with a bit more interesting stuff. We did have one, before we did the last recording, we went out and played a whole bunch of songs live before the last part of the album, in a club one night in Glasgow. The bootleg of that was circulating [laughs], and that was a bit worrying because people were coming up to us and saying, 'Such and such a song is good,' and it's 'where'd you hear that?'
Do you think recording in Los Angeles changed the way the songs you recorded
It's difficult to separate the place and the recording and the people that you're working with and stuff. The overall thing just wasn't right, for some reason. I don't think that has to do with the place. I think you can record different places but maybe the timing was wrong or it was something we should have done later on. But it didn't work out.
Before, you mentioned that there were some songs you didn't use on the
first album; are any of those on the second one?
No. We attempted a few as B-sides. It's very hard to pull a song out three years later and still believe in it, partly because you've bored yourself with it. I forget my songs as well, I completely forget about them, and then it's, 'Oh yeah...' I did find one that I wrote four years ago, recently, and I suddenly thought, 'I'd really like to record that,' so occasionally that happens. But usually by the point you've gotten through with it, you're on to other songs and stuff.
How long have you been writing songs?
I suppose over 10 years--long time. Maybe longer, don't want to think about it.
Have you always just played piano, or did you know you wanted to front
No, I just wanted to be a songwriter. When I started doing this seriously, I went around to music publishing companies and said, 'Look, I really want to be a songwriter and I quite fancy being a house songwriter.'--just writing for other people. And they said, 'well, realistically, there aren't that many people that can cover other people's songs; think about performing yourself.' And that's what got me into it. And at the time I did it, I don't know if you know this, but I didn't want to play live at all; I just wanted to play in the studio. I didn't enjoy playing live, so a lot of things changed for me in time.
So it started as a pick-up band then.
Yeah, for a while, I picked up bands to kind of establish myself, and eventually I decided that I should form a permanent band.
You said you put out a small independent thing, what was the name of
It was a cassette album and we did originally did about 200 copies off. Some of which are in people's lofts by now. It was called So Long Ago. We did the whole thing for about 400 Pounds, which is including tape copying and all.
Wow, that's cheap.
Yeah, it was great. Do you know the Scottish music scene--you know of Love and Money, do you?
Most of the bands I listen to seem to come from England; there's nothing
really over here that's all that interesting.
How do you see yourselves faring in the American music arena, when you
compare--for instance, you mentioned Guns N' Roses, which is huge here; how
do you'll be able to fare against something like that?
I just think that every band, whether they're from America or Britain, they must see it as an enormous leap to kind of try and break America, whatever that means, try and get to the big level. But everyone does that. No one's ever come out and said, 'Here's a superstar.' Even Michael Jackson...it wasn't something that was decreed that this must be the way of things. And usually it can be surprising. Who'd have thought that U2 would have been that big? Who would have thought a few months ago that Cowboy Junkies would have a rather successful album over here? It just defies all logic. And that's a great thing--pop music throws up all these contradictions. So, I think the only thing is, you don't get dispirited by the size of it; you just have got to work away at the level that you're on and build it and be going somewhere with it.
Would you define yourselves as pop or rock or...?
I...I don't care really. Rock band is fine by me. Pop group, I don't mind too.
Any idea, way off in the future, when we're going to hear the next one--I
mean, this one's just out, so I'm sure it's a ways away.
[He laughs] It'll be a while, because we need to do a lot of touring on this record, so we don't really have the time to go in and even demo some new stuff. I'm wanting to concentrate on really getting this one through. Usually two years is a good time; if you can do it within two years, that's great.
Do you end up writing songs on tour?
A little bit. There's been a little bit more of it that we used to recently, because we're doing a lot of kind of acoustic stuff, and on the last tour we did an acoustic session, with accordions and acoustic guitars and stuff, so we're playing around with that. But, it's really hard. When we have a soundcheck, we all seem to have so much that we have to do during the soundcheck that we don't have time to muck about really. In Britain, it was easier last time around; we didn't have a support band, we were just sort of doing it ourselves, but it's..uh...yeah. You always think you'll have time at soundchecks and you never do, and then your instruments get packed away. I do a bit of lyric-writing ; when we were in Australia, I finished off a lot of lyrics to songs that had been sitting around, so I do a bit
Do you try out songs on tour?
We normally...On the last album, most of the songs we did live before we played them [in the studio]. We wouldn't do them all at the same time, but we do a period of working through songs, things that work and that don't work. Like 'Circus Lights' and 'Real Gone Kid,' we did a lot. And then we did a tour in the middle of making the album, and we did 'Wages Day' for the first time. We put it right in the set where it is now, right before 'Dignity,' which is like a pretty weird thing, right at the end of the set, a new song, and it was going down well. So we thought, 'Ah well, that's that indication.'