Deacon Blue's Greame Kelling & Ewen Vernal
Guitarist December 1991
The story so far....An ex-pat Dundonian living in Glasgow with a passion for the Rolling Stones and a talent for songwriting makes a demo, forms a band.Later that same decade, Fellow Hoodlums Deacon Blue take to the stage in Brussels on the second night of their European tour......
"Bagpipes!" shouts Graeme Kelling, Deacon Blue's guitarist, who has by now
risen from his chair in order to emphasise his point. "That's your original
rock'n'roll instrument! None of yer namby-pamby guitar stuff can even begin
to compare." By now, the remaining clientele in the (very) late-night Brussels
bar have turned round to see what all the fuss is about. "Let's face it,
if you've got a guitar you can plink away in the middle of a roomful of people
glued to a television set watching 'Neighbours' and nobody will say a word
against you. BUT... you pick up a set of bagpipes and... talk about rebellion!
That's rock and roll." And with that he walks away, leaving behind a bemused
silence. Then, just as some semblance of conversation restarts, it's almost
immediately interrupted by a shout of "Didgeridoos..!" from the direction
of the bar: "One finger giving it some serious vibrato! Don't talk to me
about guitars... "
"So... where else is likely to be open at this time of night?" queries a voice from the small huddle of newly-ejected pop music people standing on a street in the old part of Brussels...
The rock'n'roll bagpipers that are Deacon Blue were formed in Glasgow in 1985, as a result of singer Ricky Ross getting a publishing deal for his songs with ATV music. Concentrating on his own material, Ross had attracted attention from London publishers, but then needed a band to promote and publicise the songs. After using various pick-up outfits gleaned from the ranks of local musicians, the band became more focused wIth the addition of Dougie Vipond on drums (classically trained, Vipond had worked with such Glasgow bands as The Big Dish, and The Painted Word) and keyboard player Jim Prime, who includes John Martyn and Altered Images amongst his credits. Deacon Blue settled as a five-piece at that time wIth the further addition of bass player Ewan Vernal, who'd previously played with Ross around Glasgow, in an outfit called Woza, and also with guitarist Graeme Kelling. In late 1986, Deacon Blue having already built up a strong local following, Muff Winwood was persuaded to listen to their demo tape. Winwood was particularly impressed by a track called Dignity which subsequently became their first single. As a result, Deacon Blue were signed to CBS... I put it to Kelling and Vernal that the band's confidence must have been boosted by Glasgow's existing, and exceptionally thriving music scene...
GrK That was a really exciting time to be in Glasgow, because it seemed
like everybody had a band. The figureheads, if you like, were the Blue Nile
and Orange Juice, and with everybody forming a new band every single week,
it was almost a cottage industry. Alan Horne in particular had a lot to do
with it. His Postcard record label, which was the media's darling at the
time, was organised and run from what he reckoned was a closet in his house.
That level of interest had never really happened before - certainly not to
the extent where newspapers were writing about it because people were getting
excited about it - and we all had the attitude that we could do something.
Everyone felt very involved in the scene because Alan really kept it all
happening closely around him and his label for as long as he could. It was
a good time, with that almost smug feeling you get when you know some secret
that everyone else wants to know, and we were part of something special that
Glasgow had to offer.
Around that time there were lots of festivals taking place in and around Glasgow; music fans really got the chance to see a variety ofdifferent bands, who in turn got the chance to go out and play and start to build some kind of following...
GrK That's true, plus I think that that kind of following was also helped by radio play generating interest in bands that people could go and see on their doorstep. John Peel was a fan of Glasgow bands like Altered Images and Orange Juice at the time. Radio Clyde also had a similarly positive policy of playing demos from local bands, through DJS like Mark Goodier, who's now with Radio I too.
EV Again, that was all part of the excitement. I remember the thrill of practising in some dingy little basement in Glasgow, and keeping the radio on because we knew Mark Goodier was going to be playing a couple of our tracks! When they came on we all just stopped rehearsing and sat down looking at the radio and listening! 'Unbelievable... that's us on the radio!'
Do you still get that thrill?
EV Errm, yes, but you get more paranoid about the mistakes that you know are on the track. Feel! That's what it is. Interpretation. Jazz scales...
Did you have an eye on Simple Minds, the major success story at the time? At least they proved there was a market for good music and good songs.
GrK Not so much, mainly because we couldn't relate to that level of success; Simple Minds were so big that their remit was far beyond the pale of what Postcard was trying to do. Looking back, I suppose the bigger picture was that local radio was pushing as many local groups as possible, from Simple Minds to Postcard bands, trying to build interest and momentum into something tangible, so that A&R men would get on a plane from London to come and check it out, and so on. Plus there was interest from bibles like the NME and Melody Maker, who were always looking for that week's trendy geographical location.
EV When you start off in a band it's difficult to have these sorts of aspirations. It's more of a stepladder, where the first rung is joining a band, next rung getting some songs together, then gigging, then the interest from other people...
Your situation with Deacon Blue was slightly different in that Ricky had all the songs and a publishing deal and needed a band to promote them...
EV I guess we were drafted in for that purpose originally. After Ricky had moved from Dundee to Glasgow, although he'd always written his own songs he wanted to get a band together to perform them, which he'd not been able to do previously. He'd come down to search out some local musicians for that purpose, and through a friend of a friend I joined the first band he had in Glasgow, called Woza, playing colleges and so on. Eventually we split up for a while, and during that time Ricky got his publishing deal. We got together a couple of years later, in '86, by which time Ricky had written most of the material that was on the first album, 'Raintown'.
Did Ricky have his eye on the bigger musical picture, so as to bypass
the accepted system of progress'?
EV I think so. The turning point for Ricky was when we, as Woza, supported the Waterboys for their first gig in Britain, in a horrible little dancehall in Wishaw. Ricky really liked what he saw with the Waterboys... It was an amazing gig, almost shambolic on stage, really loose, but held together by this charismatic frontman who had real presence and sang some great songs with real passion. So there was this band with so much ambition giving it everything they had in this little dive, in front of about thirty people. That freaked Ricky out to the point where he realised that there had to be a better way of doing it than spending the rest of your life going round places like that. If you were serious about it,then get serious!
It doesn't get much more serious than Muff Winwood coming along specifically to check out your band, so how did that come about?
GrK That particular day was complete mayhem! He turned up at one Glasgow studio in the morning to pick up a demo tape, and see a couple of bands later in the day, and whilst there he picked up a press release which had a photo of me and the guy I'd been recording with at the time, and a cassette that we'd done. Then he went off to see this showcase in the afternoon by The Painted Word, where Dougie was playing percussion and I was on guitar. In the evening, Deacon Blue were doing another showcase in the same club, and Muff turned up at that too, after having heard about us. Standing at the back, beside Gordon Charlton, CBS's A&R man, apparently he pointed at me and asked Gordon, 'Who the hell is that guy?!' He must've thought that there were only a few musicians in Glasgow, who changed their name and the band's name, put on a different jacket and went back on stage! Muff wasn't far wrong in my case, so it was really good for my health in particular, because I'd been playing in these three bands at the same time, rehearsing with one during the day, recording in the studio at night and gigging with Deacon Blue. Eventually it hit me as I fell over with exhaustion one day that I had to make a choice, assisted in no small way by the fact that shortly after that Deacon were signed to CBS!
EV I joined about a week after the band had been signed. Prior to that, every time I had met Dougie the drummer he was saying, "You've got to join,' and I kept saying, 'I'm not sure...'And then, after the word came out about the signing, I ended up chasing Dougie all over town: 'Dougie, I've thought about it and I'll join now... Dougie..?'
Presumably things then started to move quickly?
GrK Almost immediately we went into AIR Studios - that was around Christmas of 1986 - and it felt like our personal Christmas had arrived. This studio had all the equipment and facilities that we'd only dreamt about previously; it was right on Oxford Circus, with pigeons sitting on the window ledge, and we were totally wide-eyed about being in the heart of this action!
EV It was total opulence as far as we were concerned. The only other
studio I'd been in was an eight-track demo studio, and it was such a sudden
transformation. Not that we were starstruck or anything, but this was the
studio where Stevie Wonder had done 'Talking Book' 'And there's the piano
that he used,' etc... It was a real mix of apprehension and excitement, but
a real vibe nonetheless. Jon Kelly, the producer, was very good for us at
AIR, very down to earth, and helped us relax and feel that we were doing
what we wanted to do, and sounding as we wanted to sound.
Which isn't always as easy to achieve as it might seem, and doesn't necessarily get any easier as time goes on...
GrK True, but there's still the struggle between what you want to play in your head and your technical ability; you're constantly compromised and there's always going to be that frustrating 'gap' which some people have more success in dealing with than others.
EV Even supreme technical ability doesn't automatically mean that what comes out is what you want to hear. Inevitably you do things on the neck of a guitar that you don't anticipate in your head, and vice versa...
And Dignity was put out first as a single from those sessions...
GrK ...Stiffing horribly!
EV That was the first single, one of the main reasons we got signed, and I suppose it was the obvious standout track, with a purposeful intent about it - very linear, and easy to understand. Having said that, we didn't consciously put a single as such on the first album. That idea was an alien concept to us at that point, as we had all decided that we wanted an album where the listener could play side one, then turn over and listen to side two, enjoying it on its own merits, rather than listening to the 'hit' single and some other tracks. They were all just good songs as far as we were concerned.
GrK 'Raintown' was well received critically, but commercially slow. We just went out and gigged solidly, anywhere, everywhere, and built up a national following, which goes back to Ricky's revelation with the Waterboys.
(Around this time, because of Deacon Blue's growing popularity, American producer Bob Clearmountain Re-mixed the single Dignity, which was re- released to a more positive response. The first album 'Raintown' was then also re-released as a double-pack with 'Riches' which contained B-sides and some live material.)
EV Dignity was totally re-recorded, because after a year's worth of
touring it was thought that perhaps a fresh approach to the production might
generate some renewed interest in terms of airplay, and it was a moderate
hit in the charts. But that's always the thing with new bands: their strongest
song is their first single, it goes out and because nobody's ever heard of
them the single dies...
Your early singles are now very collectable...
EV They are for me; I don't actually have any of them!
Talking about the re-release of 'Raintown' as a double, some rock'n'roll marketing there?
EV There's no doubt that many people, most of them our friends, saw that as the transparent marketing ploy that it undoubtedly was! We got a lot of ear bending, because many of them had bought the album the first time and felt a bit cheated having to buy it again, just to hear a whole load of duff B-sides!
GrK The justification for it, if there is one, is that we were playing two and a half and three hour shows, and that uses up a lot of material, a lot of which didn't get to feature on 'Raintown'. That meant that we were doing these songs live, and although people knew them they didn't have them in their collection.
And all this new-found acclaim led to great things, such as your first
TV appearance on Wide Awake Club' on TV-AM!
EV A 5 o'clock call to hang out with some puppets and other bozos...
GrK The day before that we'd had a wee knockabout game of football with The Commotions, and Martin - Paddy McAloon's brother - broke his ankle. I sprained mine and had to get it all strapped up, couldn't move it, and played the Wide Awake gig rooted to the spot with a very painful, very swollen ankle, feeling absolutely hellish! It was the whole moody and grimacing guitarist bit, except for all the wrong reasons!
EV What was really good was that we played live on the show, which is a virtual non-starter nowadays, plus it was our first television appearance, which is always a big thrill, even at that time of the morning!
You had also toured with Sandie Shaw and Lone Justice by this time...
EV:Those were the first gigs that I'd played with the band, and it was a bit daunting. I didn't really know the band, apart from Ricky and Dougie, and the gigs were pretty high profile for me. The line-up was pretty much as now, because Lorraine had joined by this time.
Were you pleasantly surprised by how well the two vocals complemented each other?
EV 'Surprised' wouldn't be the right word but, like most things with Deacon Blue, it was more of a happy accident. It's quite easy to look back and make the plot sound planned, but it's just not like that. I do think it's good that the vocals don't work in the traditional way of singer and backing singer, so that's definitely to the advantage of the band - we try to avoid oohs and aaahs at all costs!
As in the case of the one that everybody hates you for Real Gone Kid.
Is that more of the soul influence with that sort of vocal counterpoint?
EV It becomes increasingly difficult to analyse what you're doing as it goes on. But it's actually more instinctive than that because, after all, we've got six people in the band, from different musical backgrounds, and so we should have a fair idea of what we're trying to do, and how we can best go about doing it, without having to justify everything. Fortunately, it's been right so far, with the good songs naturally suggesting themselves for inclusion on the albums.
How do Deacon Rive's songs develop nowadays? Obviously the earlier material was down to Ricky, but as you progress as a band, does the songwriting become more of a group effort?
EV I think Rickys ideas are always fairly well formed in his mind, especially with how he wants them to sound, but he only really brings a set of lyrics and chords to the band, and I suppose that takes shape as you begin to appreciate how each other's contributions will affect the song. It becomes easier to anticipate your own contribution to the song, making the whole process more productive in a shorter time.
Do the songs actually change much from the original ideas?
GrK Sometimes. A good example of that would be Closing Time from the new album; some of the songs were literally being written on the spot, and that particular one started off as usual with piano and vocal, but then the wah-wah pedal came out, and the Wurlitzers, and Dougie was messing about with the rhythm. Then there was the spark for the song as we realised that the influence and direction was Sly and the Family Stone's Family Affair. So we got Radio Clyde to send over a tape of that song's distinctive intro, and as we developed the song over that, playing over it, we decided to leave the loop in the mix. So that's an example of a song which changed radically from the original idea as the band worked on it.
EV Some songs don't really change much at all from the starting point, and you've got all the various stages in.between. But there's no set formula, so it keeps the whole process fresh for us.
Does your attitude to your songs change over a period of time? We've
all had favourite songs that we can't bear to listen to now.
GrK I think that affects everybody in some way. Some albums and songs I can't listen to on certain days and yet I know that I love them and wouldn't like to not have them available. You hear things differently on different days, depending on your mood.
Deacon Blue's song style has changed with each album. Has that had anything to do with that 'difficult third album'syndrome, which of course follows the 'difficult second album'etc..?
GrK I don't really know what that's about at all, that 'difficult album thing, I think at that stage it's got more to do with internal relationships than anything musical. I think musical creativity and contribution is more affected by the others around you as you learn to adjust and live with them, both personally and professionally. We're unusual in that we didn't all grow up together or go to school together, and there's obviously a period of acclimatisation which we've passed now. I'm sure that it shows on 'Fellow Hoodlums', where you can make a positive contribution to the song without having to be told precisely what that should be, to the point where you can interpret the lyrics to find the key to a good solo for the song. This was a really happy album to make, and I think it sounds that way.
What was the idea behind the Hal David / Burt Bacharach EP that you put out?
GrK We'd had to cancel a European tour because of illness, and so
we did it rather than sitting on our hands. We actually did a couple of their
songs live, featuring Lorraine on What Do You Get When You Fall In
Love et cetera, and so we thought we'd have a bash at putting them on record.
After a hectic touring schedule, which was by now worldwide, it was good
to be able to relax by going into a studio and doing the Bacharach/David
songs. We actually got a letter from him saying that he thought our versions
were really good.
How did you get on in America generally? How did the Americans react to Fergus singing the blues ?
GrK With complete apathy to begin with! The gigs themselves were really good, and we sold out clubs in San Francisco and LA, where it was all that 'sat.at-tables.with-cocktails' kind of thing. Then it was the 'Bottom Line' in New York... Two sets there - we were on at 8pm for an hour, turn the audience round and on again an hour later, and early to bed. But you'd have to spend an awful lot of time over there to make any sort of headway like that.
'Ooh Las Vegas'was a collection of B-sides, sessions and film tracks -
you couldn't have had very much left in the can after that...
GrK Nothingl We'd reckoned that 'When The World Knows Your Name' was the end of an era, of our first period of development, and we wanted to say to the fans, 'Right! You've got everything we've donel' For us it burned our bridges and forced us to move on to the next stage, to do something different. There was lots of agonising over that, but in the end we thought, 'Nah.., just put out the lotl' So that was that.
Your film tracks were particularly interesting. (The band had contributed four specially commissioned songs and incidental music for a BBC TV play, Dreaming, written by well-known Scottish author William Mcllvanney. The band also appeared as themselves in the play.)
GrK That was a strange remit for us because the lyrics were all written by William Mcllvanney, and it was the first time anyone else had done lyrics for us to put music around. So how successful it was I don't think we're the best qualified to say, but he was very happy with the songs. As for the acting.., the less said the better..!
Last night in Utrecht was the first night of this tour. Okay so far?
EV Surprisingly enough, yes, considering it's been about a year since we last toured. It all went off a lot smoother than we thought it would.
Did you rehearse a lot for it?
EV (sheepishly) Emmm.., no, not at all. In the past, like all fledgling bands, we used to rehearse so much, but as the years have gone by we've needed to actually practise less for tours. Obviously we don't need to learn the songs like we did. It should've been more this time but other things were happening which coincided with the start of the tour. For instance, four of us were across in America doing promotional work on various local radio stations and so on, leaving us very little time for actual rehearsal.
So effectively it was one day with the full PA to get all the problems sorted out...
EV Yeah, but it went okay. We're not using a monster PA rig or anything, because the majority of venues on this tour aren't going to be of the massive arena types; the biggest will be in Spain, and that's a four to five thousand capacity.
GrK That was a conscious decision on our part to scale it down so that we could take the same show with us wherever we were playing, as opposed to scaling it up for, say, Wembley. This time we said we'd rather do Hammersmith Odeon
because in terms of atmosphere and intimacy we feel that'll be a significant improvement over that 'big gesture' thing of playing a venue the size of Wembley.
EV Apart from the economic side, there's also the feeling of how you think your music will or won't connect in a certain situation. So another reason for the smaller venues is that the songs from the new album are more intimate and personal, whereas the second album that we did, 'When The World Knows Your Name', dealt with bigger issues and contained bigger lyrical statements, and as such the music made more sense in larger capacity arenas like the SECC or the NEC. This time, though, the lyrics and music can really only make sense on a smaller, more personal level, and it's important that people can hear them, relate to them, and understand their.
GrK We went to see Bonnie Raitt in Glasgow recently, and the PA was really small in terms of physical size, very transportable, looked like a hi-fi, but the sound was just great, and of course the playing was terrific.
Going back to the earlier times we spoke about, with that junk music enthusiasm where people realised you didn't need an 0-level in music to play guitar on stage, or a drama degree to front a band, there was a thriving Scottish music scene in the early eighties, with bands like Josef K, Fire Engines, and Orange Juice, What had influenced your own musical involvement?
EV I was more influenced by punk than the soul/blues thing that Glasgow is more associated with. When I was about 17, back in the late seventies, I started being interested in playing, and picked up an old acoustic with one string on it, progressing then into various ' embarrassing bands which I won't mention at this particular point...
GrK That pretty much sums up why I got into it as well - plus the desperation of seeing people that I knew in bands, and wanting to be in one as well! Alan Horne said every band in Glasgow at that time either wanted to be the Velvet Underground or Chic, which seemed to be the two major influences. Nowadays we've matured into serious musicians, so we're both into John Scofield - every Scofield note is a song from the angels..!
GrK For me it's nothing too ridiculous, because I don't want any onstage mayhem with the sound. Guitar-wise I'm using Levinson Blades, a Tele and a Strat, and a Yamaha 335- style semi, all played straight into a Fender Twin, and a Rivera amp which powers stereo effects from an Alesis Quadraverb to two Boogie cabs. I still don't feel that I've achieved the sound I want, though. The guitars are fine, the Blades can stand some punishment, and the Yam has a lovely fat, mellow tone. I used to have a Rickenbacker twelve, the one with the chequered binding; it was really nice, but too fragile, and so I swapped it in a New York music shop for the Yamaha and the Blade Tele. I was chasing after a Levinson deal from the importers but Gary Levinson blew that one when he heard about it and said,'Deacon who..?'
EV In the earlier days of Deacon Blue, my main bass was a lovely Fender Jazz which I used on 'Raintown' and 'When The World...' I've got quite small hands and the slim neck was ideal for me. But I had someone take the frets out for me and it's not been a good job, so that's spoiled a good bass really. on this tour I'm using two Warwicks - a Streamer and a 5-string Thumb - along with a Ken Smith 6-string. I've only had that six months, but it's turning out to have a good, even sound. At home I also have a Clevinger upright- style bass, and a Music Man 4-string which is really nice; I'd like to use that more, especially for recording. Like Graeme, my stage setup is quite straight forward. I use a Trace Elliot rig, the Trace head going into a 4 x 10 and a 1 x l5 cab, which I double up for bigger venues. From the guitar, the signal runs through a compressor, then into an Alesis Quad, and I also use an Octaver pedal occasionally. In terms of musical progress, the 6-string is doing me a lot of good. As I said, small hands mean that it's quite a stretch, but I enjoy the way that it plays, and being able to do chordal things whilst still thumbing the root bass note. I still have feelings of guilt though, because a six seems like such an extravagant instrument.....Gibson Keddie