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South By Southwest is always a good time to try to catch up with some artists that have been a bit absent from the scene for a few years. This year was no exception, as David DeVoe got the chance to meet up with Rob Dickinson, erstwhile singer/guitarist for brilliant English band The Catherine Wheel. David and Rob sat down and discussed the current state of the musical world, and how each of them fit themselves into the puzzle.

Hybrid Magazine: How's the tour?

Rob Dickinson: It's good. We did the last show in Brooklyn on Friday of last week. It went really well. Some were better attended than others, but generally, it was really great.

HM: Is this the end of the tour?

RD: Yeah. I'm playing Coachella in… when is it? April or May. And then I may go back to Canada and do some more stuff in Canada and the west coast later on.

HM: I've been following everyone's reports of the tour from the Texture list. [editor's note: Texture is the Catherine Wheel fan list on Yahoo]

RD: Right! I've got to say that I don't have a computer that works, so I haven't been following any of it. I guess there's a bit more traffic on Texture than usual.

HM: As a result of the tour, yeah… there's been a lot of talk. A lot of chatter.

RD: Positive?

HM: Yeah, yeah. Everybody seems to be really impressed. There's been a lot of people saying, "I didn't know how I'd like it, just Rob and his acoustic guitar doing this stripped down deal". But everyone says it's been good and they really like it so far. Everybody's liked the set lists.

RD: That's encouraging. I've tried to keep people happy, you know, and do as many of the interesting old ones as possible.

HM: [laughter] The interesting old ones!

RD: Well, you know it's… I'm trying to play some of the old ones that we never really did with the band. I'll play "Eat My Dust…", I've played "The Nude", which was a song we never did live… So, yeah. It's been a bit challenging but interesting. A bit fucking scary, actually, going out there for an hour on your own.

HM: Does it feel good from your end? I mean, are you enjoying playing the shows? Do you feel the audience is receiving you well?

RD: Yeah. Absolutely. It's good, you know. It's been good reception for the new stuff, and obviously people still remember the old stuff, which is great… Yeah, it's been great.

HM: You still can't escape "Black Metallic"? You still have to play that.

RD: No… I dig it out. I don't play it every night. But I feel compelled to play it, you know, a little bit.

HM: But not quite the nine minute epic versions….

RD: No… I kick in a distortion box sometimes, so it gives it a grunt. It's good playing it again. I never really got bored playing it.

HM: Well, some of those songs are just really good songs. There's a reason that the critics loved the Catherine Wheel, and that the hardcore fans are still hardcore fans. Those are good songs.

RD: Yeah. And they take being stripped down reasonably well. None of them were studio creations, they were all kind of written in a bedroom basically on a guitar. So they take being brought back to their roots quite well. I think it's a sign of a reasonable song that you can busk it, basically.

HM: I would have to agree with that. So many bands manufacture things in the studio.

RD: Well, or their music relies on loops or sounds, more than on compelling lyrics or whatever. Yeah… it's funny. I don't own any of the records, so I've been having to borrow our records from friends so that I can work out the fucking songs. [laughter] I'm sitting in a room with a ghetto blaster trying to work out "The Nude".

HM: What's been the highlight of this tour? Does anything stand out?

RD: Just really good shows in Chicago and Boston and Toronto. They were great. Well, they've all been great. You know, I played to like 35 people in Montreal, but it was still a great show… and played to like 250 in Toronto. But they've all been good. Even when they haven't been that well attended, they've been pretty passionate people. So, nothing's really stood out. I've been driving myself around, doing it all on my own, generally, and that's been fun. I wasn't really looking forward to it, driving myself around, but driving around the country has actually been quite calming. You know, spending time with yourself, and listening to local radio stations, I've quite enjoyed that. And just being back doing it after 5 years is kind of weird, you know? Having not been in a club for 5 years, just been messing around doing other stuff, its been… I'm glad I haven't got all the bullshit that surrounds a band. Doing it on my own is great. I like spending time on my own, and having to be social with other people is becoming an increasing chore, I think. [laughter] Especially having to spend every day with them, you know. You get on a fucking bus with them… So actually, doing it on my own is rather enjoyable. I don't have to say hello to anyone in the morning.

HM: A little bit more freedom?

RD: Yeah. It's kind of liberating in its own way.

HM: You still talk to the guys, I assume…

RD: Yeah. Absolutely. Not regularly, but you know, we got to know each other so well and the band didn't break up under bad circumstances at all, you know. It was just we all thought we should call it a day. So, everyone's cool, and everyone's doing their own stuff, not necessarily so fussed about what each other are doing.

HM: Have you heard Brian and Neil's stuff? The 50 Foot Monster?

RD: Yeah, I've heard some of it. Brian sent me some stuff about 4 or 5 months ago. And I like it. It's good.

HM: Yeah, I mean, a great guitar player and a great drummer, what's going to be bad?

RD: Yeah. I know people are finding Brian's vocals a bit challenging, but I think that makes it interesting for me. Brian used to send me his song ideas and I had to take a leap of faith as to what the vocals could be. And I think it's good that he's singing. I'm glad they haven't gotten another singer in there.

HM: It's good to hear that stuff. And it's cool that they're confident enough to share it with everybody.

RD: Absolutely. The good thing about Brian is that he was never precious about any of the stuff. I mean, Brian could churn it out. And I was the one that was the filter. You know: yes, no, yes… no. Brian was always just: there's another one… there's another one… there's another one. I was always the anal one, you know. Brian was prolific with his ideas, and I think he's probably got so much stuff just stacked up that he's got to get rid of it… which is probably, I think, what he's done. He won't have slaved over it too long, which is good.

HM: So, what's next?

RD: Well, I'm trying to get another record deal… because the chances of this record really being successful on Sanctuary are limited. We're looking to maybe get the record re-released on another label. But, just continuing to play, really. I've got plenty of new stuff to potentially start thinking about another record, but I'm unlikely to do that quite yet. I don't think this one's been played out… This one hasn't stayed the course, I don't think, yet. Just more playing and trying to attract as much attention to the record as possible, by whatever means possible.

HM: When you play Coachella are you going to do that with a full band, or is it going to be just you?

RD: Just me.

HM: Nice… That should be terrifying.

RD: Well, it's 11 o'clock in the morning. I'll be playing to the insomniacs and the people who've stayed up drinking. I don't know much about Coachella. Is it just one stage, or are there a number of stages?

HM: I think… I've never been, but I believe there are 2 or 3. 3, I think. And I don't know exactly how they're arranged. I'm sure there's a main stage and then a couple side stages. And I think they try to always have something going on. That's my understanding at least. I'm not certain that is completely accurate.

RD: Well, it should be fun. I don't know anything about it. Just like, I've never been to South By Southwest before, either. This is a bit of an eye opener to me. I didn't really know what it was about.

HM: It's kind of nice if you have a couple of days here… to skip around and see a couple bands.

RD: Yeah. It's a bit of a rush. I mean, I'm leaving tomorrow morning, so I got to see a few bands last night, but…

HM: Anything notable? It's always interesting to hear about what other folks are seeing.

RD: Some band that sounded like Black Sabbath, from Australia… What are they called? Mother… something. They sounded like Black Sabbath. You know, which is entertaining for like ten minutes. [laughter] It was, actually. It was more entertaining than the band that sounded like Soft Cell that were playing next door. I don't know, I just find it overwhelming. I've stopped… I'm not a very good music listener. I don't listen to a lot of music, and I've got so much respect and admiration for people who can absorb so much fucking music, you know? I don't know how they do it. It's just like cacophony for me, and I don't… It's just rare to see something brilliant, and that's the problem. And I'm not sure if people really know when they're seeing something really good, because there isn't so much good stuff around, you know? Like a Jeff Buckley, or someone who's really great. Whether you like the genre or not, someone that's just fucking incredible. He's just a star, and he's gifted, and he writes great songs. But then again, there probably are people like that, but as I said I don't get out and see a lot of shows, so… I mean, thank God there are people that listen to music still. Because I mean, I make it, but I don't find myself listening to a lot of stuff. The last time I walked into a record store in LA about a year ago, and they had this guy, Devendra Banhart, and Rejoicing In The Hands… and I thought to myself, this is good. I should go up to the counter and buy the fucking record. And I thought I've got to attempt to make more of an effort to listen to music. Because when I do find stuff, I can still get into it, which is great. Because I tend to just go back to the old stuff, that I always listened to as a kid… that always met the classic standards. You know, 6 or 7 albums that I listen to when I'm in the mood to listen to music. But I got [Devendra's] record, and it was great. I think he's an outstanding talent and very original.

HM: Yeah, he's definitely got his own thing going on.

RD: For me, he's kind of got this cross between Jeff Buckley and Marc Bolan, but no… It's highly original. No retro-isms, no tipping of his hat to nostalgia… it's just like… him. Which is always the most exciting stuff, I think.

HM: It is hard to find. As I said, I hear so much new music, and so much of it either not good, or highly derivative. When you have something that comes through that actually stands out, you know, hopefully it stands out on an early enough track that I actually get to hear it. There's definitely been stuff that I've passed on, and then someone's talking to me about it a year later, and I'm like, "yeah yeah, I remember that record. It was horrible based on the three songs I listened to."

RD: Yeah. I think about my record, and hopefully my record's a solid record. Well, I made damn sure it was in my mind. And every song was a grade A song I'm thinking, 'well, who the fuck wades through albums these days?" I'm not sure anyone does. People come up to me at shows and mention a song that's deep into the album, like track 8 or 9, and I feel like kissing their feet. I thank God that someone actually listens all the way through. Because with iPods and such, it's just so easy not to.

HM: Yeah, you get the one song you've heard, or the two songs, and the rest of the record goes by the way side.

RD: Absolutely.

HM: But so much of today's music is geared towards that, I think.

RD: Well, yeah. I think it has to do with a whole generation of people making music - and a lot of them will be here this week - who've never had that moment where you put a piece of vinyl on a turntable and sit down for twenty minutes and then get up and turn it over and then sit down again. Back then, that was a big part of the ritual of listening to music. And in that forty minutes you read the fucking liner notes. And that doesn't happen anymore, you know? There was a certain amount of interaction involved in that. You had to actually get off your ass and go over to the record machine… And obviously that couldn't stay the same. Technology has to take over. What we still have is the concept of an album… a collection of songs and a sense of well, this is what you do in a band, you put out twelve songs. When actually, there was a reason it was only twelve songs. You could only fit twenty minutes of music on each side, so it was somewhere between eight and twelve songs. But then again, I find myself saying that and then I think about the band I saw last night that sounded like Black Sabbath, and they're like 21, 22 years old. They've probably got their Sabbath albums lined up at home, and their Zeppelin records? [laughter] Maybe their father introduced them to it… So you never know, maybe there are a bunch of new people who are literate in great albums. Which would be nice, if there were. Because there's something inarguably right, when it comes to rock and roll, about forty minutes. Forty minutes, for me, has always been a good length for a rock and roll set. I've never seen a band that hasn't bored me after a half hour. Our band used to play for fucking two and a half hours… God, I wouldn't have wanted to be in the audience. Playing it is fine, but… Jesus. Forty minutes is an important number in rock and roll, because it's the length of the great Neil Young records, Dark Side Of The Moon… It's just twenty minutes either side. It's almost like God deemed it to be so. A novel needs to be that long and a record needs to be forty minutes.

HM: I'm the same sort of person. Even though I have all these CDs coming through, I can't stand it when there's no liner notes. I need the liner notes. I need to see the artwork. And so much of that gets dismissed. As press, especially, we get advance copies where all you get is a track listing… and that's great, but I'm just going to have to go buy this record when it comes out, for the art… so I can understand more of it than simply the aural presentation.

RD: It's intrinsic, but it's become less important. It's natural. It had to happen. Someone had to invent something like the iPod, and there's no stopping it. It's pointless criticizing it, I'm not criticizing it, in my little moment in history right now, sitting in this room, I think we're in a very delicate time. Record companies are trying to figure out how to make technology work for them, and how we're going to sell music with new technology and the rest of it. I think we're at a pivotal moment in music, because, really, I don't know how technology can advance to make listening to or accessing music any easier. If a guitar still exists in a hundred years time, which of course they will, or some form of musical instrument… you've still got to listen to it with ears. So you still need speakers of some description… So obviously if you've got one foot in the old way like I have… I'm old enough to have experience of the old way; it's an interesting time. It just obviously had to happen. And if it had to happen and it's natural, it has to be good. So, I' certainly not criticizing it, I'm just thinking that in this changeover period, that it's interesting to see that there's a lot of embracing of nostalgia, and looking back. All of the hit bands that are happening now, and some of them are great, but they owe their sound totally to some other band. And I don't know why that is, really. I don't know if that's because we've run out of ideas or everyone sort of can't help listening to the great music of the past… and then consciously or subconsciously regurgitating it.

HM: It's an interesting phenomenon, at least in the entertainment industry. The same thing is going on with cinema. There are no new films coming out, everything is a rehashing of something that's already been done, right down to simply remaking a movie. It seems there's been a huge in-rush of that over the past five years or so, remaking the classic movies from the late 60's through the 80's.

RD: And the comic book movies… which I love. V For Vendetta. Have you seen that yet?

HM: Not yet.

RD: I was reading an interview in the New York Times with Alan… Moore? Is that the guy who wrote that? I was reading that he's totally disassociated himself from that. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all these movies that he feels Hollywood have hijacked and screwed up. No one's ever happy, are they?

HM: No, I suppose not. You either complain that no one reads your comic books, or you complain when they make it into a movie.

RD: Absolutely. While sitting in your castle in England… Bought from the millions of dollars… [laughter]

HM: It's an interesting industry. Obviously, it reflects the time and the culture that we live in. But I don't really understand where it comes from, either.

RD: We human beings, we like things to be familiar. You know, we like repetition and we like to hear things over again. We like to watch things over again, it's comforting… You know, music is simple. There are only a certain number of notes, and they're played in a certain way; and if a certain combination of notes and distortion and vocal attitude and lyrical attitude worked thirty years ago, it's going to work thirty years later, as well. And I think you can criticize it for being particularly unoriginal and lazy, or you can say, well, that's human nature. I mean, I'm a big car fan… a big car-head… and it's happening everywhere. It's happening with cars… I mean, we're sitting in chairs that wouldn't look out of place in a London apartment in 1969. It goes around and it comes around. Maybe it's just the intellectualizing of it that makes it criticizable. What's to criticize? It's what human beings do. Once they've gone through all the ideas, they go back and start again.

HM: Maybe that is it. Maybe it's a time of renewal. Maybe it's necessary to revisit successful things in order to start the next evolution… would certainly not be an out of line theory.

RD: It's easy to get pious and high-minded, but I find myself being guilty of it as well. It's hard to be original.

HM: How did you decide on covering "Mutineer"?

RD: I saw Warren Zevon do it on the David Letterman Show a couple months before he died, and he just played a very stripped down version on the piano. It just blew me away… the sentiment of it… the sense that his art was sincere. It was a part of him. And if you didn't listen to it under those auspices, then he'd rather you didn't listen to it. And I identified with that sentiment quite strongly through my record. I struggled for a while when thinking about making this record as to how I was going to make it different from The Catherine Wheel stuff. I came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to make music different from the Catherine Wheel stuff was to make music that was honest about where I was as an individual, and in the subject matter of the songs. Which is how I always wrote my contribution to the band. It was generally lyrical or musical, but the lyrical parts were sincere, you know? They were honest. They were honest thoughts about myself. And I thought, that's what's different from five years ago. I'm a different person, and this album should be a record of where I am at this time in my life… and that's what differentiates it from the Catherine Wheel stuff. So, stylistically, the music got whatever the song required, like it always did with the band. And that's kind of why I identified… there's a line in the song, "There ain't no room on board for the insincere." So, if you're not ready to embrace the truth, or to embrace this as my truth, then don't bother. I identified with that quite strongly. It's just a beautiful song, as well… and a very talented and unusual man who had kind of passed me by up to that point. I wasn't a Warren Zevon fan by any stretch of the imagination. Interestingly, having been blown away by that performance, which tells you an awful lot about me, it's not that I went back and voraciously discovered his back catalog… [laughter] I went and found that song, listened to that song, worked the chords out, and just did it. I didn't listen to any of his other stuff, which is odd, I suppose.

HM: I've always thought of him as a very impressive songwriter that no one listened to his full albums. They listen to his songs on the radio. They listen to "Werewolves Of London" and a couple more… "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" and whatever. But there is a lot of stuff buried in those records. And I think not listening to them is akin to not listening to Dylan records all the way through… to me.

RD: Absolutely. To me, too. And I think the time will come when I gravitate back to them… It's odd. When I listen to music… that correlates to the same mood I'm in to make music. I'll always put a cd in, I'll always pick up a guitar, and then the mood's gone and I'm off doing something else. So I find myself, when I'm in the mood to be musical, whether it's to listen or to play, I'll always take the option of playing. So I haven't listened to that much bloody music, but I should. And when I do, it's usually the stuff I'm familiar with.

HM: There's no crime in that.

RD: No. But there's a lot of stuff I'm missing and I know that. I just haven't got the energy to wade through it.

HM: Well, my brother and I have a fundamental difference on that level. I'm of the opinion that life is too short to not listen to everything, and he is of the opinion that life is too short to listen to everything.
So he's very particular, and he finds something he likes and he'll listen to it. Whereas, I want to know everything that's out there, because I want to be able to pick.

RD: Well, that's good. I mean, thank God for people like you. Because people like me wouldn't stand a chance without people like you. And that's what amazes me coming to places like this and meeting a lot of people who are just so different from me. They've got so much energy to seek out new stuff, and I think… well, where would I be, where would people like me be, without people like you… who actually sit down with a record for forty-five minutes and actually listen to the fucking thing. That's a lot to ask.

HM: Are you finding that the crowds [at shows] are mostly Catherine Wheel fans?

RD: Mostly. But a lot of people… well, not a lot of people, that's an exaggeration… [laughter] I'm talking to people every night who don't know anything about the band, who've heard "My Name Is Love" on the radio or someone gave them the record… a Catherine Wheel person gave them my record. So, yeah. There's some conquest sales going on.

HM: It's a great record.

RD: Well, thanks.

HM: It's one of my girlfriends favorite records. She's very excited to see you playing here at SXSW, she's been telling me how we have to see you play. So I figured I'd better set up an interview with you.

RD: Is she here with you this week?

HM: Yeah, she's out running around town, listening to music.

RD: Well, great. No… I'm very proud of it. It's certainly the best I could do. I walked out of a lot of those Catherine Wheel records always thinking it could have been better or we'd run out of time… but I really had time to do everything I wanted with this one. It really said all I wanted to say about stuff I wanted to say things about. [laughter] It was finished. I really felt that it couldn't have been any better, which is the first time… I've made a few records, and this is the first time that's happened.

HM: That's an accomplishment in itself, to actually feel good about the record and feel like you're done. Because Lord knows, I've never felt like that and I don't think a lot of guys ever do. You know, they listen to it after three months and wonder why did we even put this out… it's not done.

RD: Absolutely. And I think a lot of people were rather concerned that I would be fiddling with it for ages and I couldn't step away from it. But I knew intrinsically when it was done. Not that I had some kind of fabulous idea ahead of time as to what record I wanted to make… but it wasn't as if I was going to obsess over it. I certainly spent a long time fashioning it, but I knew when it was done. And I don't think I overcooked it. Some people criticize it for being overly polished, and there was no way around that really, because it was recorded in two or three different countries over three or four years. A lot of it was taken off my demos… we spent six months mixing the record, just to make it sound cohesive, because it was very much a technology record. Basically, it was me in a room on my own playing all the instruments or me with another guy playing instruments. There was no band really involved in any of the music, so it required a lot of postproduction to make it all coalesce and come together. So I think that in many ways, if it does sound rather produced, there weren't too many ways to avoid that. And I'm happy with the way it sounds. It sounds good.

HM: It does sound good. And it doesn't sound over produced in the way that most… I don't want to say educated, but in the way that most audiophiles understand over produced.

RD: No, it sounds good in headphones. [laughter]

HM: And there's not an extensive amount of processing on vocals, or…

RD: No. And the reason it took so long was… I mean, there are over 120 tracks of vocals on "My Name Is Love". It was just a question of carving sonics out so that you could actually hear everything. There's lots of midrange guitars, lots of strings, lots of vocals, and there's just a lot happening in that midrange that requires a lot of…

HM: The challenging frequencies.

RD: Yeah, just a lot of fader moving… to bring stuff up, bring stuff down, hear that, hear that, and then putting stuff further back in the speaker. So there wasn't a lot of it being brushed up and shined up to be shiny, there's a sense of, we need to hear this. There're lots of overdubs, but they were good overdubs and they needed to be heard, it was just a question of finding the space for them. I mean, "My Name Is Love" took three weeks to mix. That's one fucking song. It was a bit of a gargantuan task, but…

HM: It's your Roger Waters track. [laughter]

RD: Yeah.

HM: It's a good record, and I'd definitely be proud of it.

RD: Yes. I am.

HM: I was talking to one of the guys in my brother's band about this last night… we were talking about how he's like, I really liked Chrome. Chrome was a great record. And Adam And Eve was an amazing record, but that last record… blah blah. And the nice thing about your solo record coming out is that it's made a lot of people go back and listen to Wishville again. And people are discovering why Wishville is a great record.

RD: Yeah, I was finding myself in Boston the other night… a really good show in Boston and I was being rather self-deprecating about Wishville, because there's a song called "All Of That" which I think is probably one of the best songs I've written… and I was saying that no one liked this record, but I liked it. And everyone was saying, boo, it's a great record. And like seven people - I always try to meet people after the show - and all these people coming up to me, it's a fucking good record, man. It's a good record. And I can see, after Adam And Eve, people weren't such fans of it who were maybe into the earlier stuff. But there's some good songs on that record, you know? It's shorter and it's a little less self-important, I think, than Adam And Eve, which is pretty overblown and pretty ambitious really…

HM: That's the epic record.

RD: I think Wishville is a little bit more of an intellectual exercise in how we're going to move the game on. And up until that point, all the records had been very organic… we'd come off six months of touring and we'd want to sound different for ourselves, so we'd go in and make a very different naturally sounding record. When it came to Wishville, we had to sit down and consciously think about how we were going to move our game along. And Tim Friese-Greene had a lot to do with that… the guy that produced the first record. And it was fitting that he kind of produced the last record as well. And he said, look, if you're going to do this we've got to move the goalpost. You've got to change the way you attack writing songs, and he was very much into forcing us to do things differently for the sake of having a different result at the end. Musically changing the way that we wrote and he encouraged Neil to get into being creative with the drum kit… getting into looping and getting into recording his own drums and giving us drum tracks that were treated a certain way that, in turn, would make us think differently about guitar parts. So in many ways it was almost like a college experiment, a little bit. But it worked out… for me, "All Of That", which is one of the best songs on the record, grew out of a drum loop that Neil did… and if Neil hadn't been encouraged to do that, I wouldn't have written that song. Simple as that. So it's all valid, and there's some good songs on that record. It's a very different record to Adam And Eve, you know.

HM: It's just much more of a sleeper record. Every other record up to that point there were things that grabbed you immediately. But on that record, even "Sparks Are Gonna Fly", even stuff that kind of stands forward on the record, still takes a little while to get to you. And I think a lot of people didn't give it that chance.

RD: Yeah, I can see that. I mean, Merck, our manager, didn't like it at all.
Yeah. He couldn't really get his head around it. And I don't know whether his views on it have softened over the years…

HM: Some of my favorite records are that way. Where I've gotten a record because I knew that I liked the band, and I've been disappointed with the record the first time I listen to it.

RD: I think there are some records that were made to make sense a few years later… and I'm a big believer in that. Music shouldn't be deemed a failure simply because it doesn't get critical good news at the time that it was made. Sometimes things have to buried and discovered later on and they start to make sense in hindsight. Not that we consciously thought about that at the time, we obviously thought that we were making a good record that was going to be thought of as such at the time.

HM: Which, I think, is how you make records. If you are making records for some future goal, then your records not going to be good. Because you're not being true to what's going on. And a record should be an immediate thing, whether it gets credence later on or not, a record is an immediate thing, to me.

RD: Absolutely. I agree.

HM: And I think that's where my problem is with a lot of the new stuff that sounds like… old stuff. This isn't the immediate thing, is it? But maybe it is again, and I just don't get it. It wasn't all that immediate to me in 1979, why would it be now? It's been an interesting thing, the current state of music.

RD: There's always good music to be found, isn't there? There was always crap music… even in the heyday of the 60's there was always plenty of crap. Luckily, the cream just rose to the top, like it will from every other decade.

-David DeVoe

Rob Dickinson

Photo by Jim Narcy

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