With a new solo album featuring a wildly diverse cast of guest musicians—among them, Chris Spedding, the Jayhawks, and Jigsaw Seen—the younger Davies brother stakes out some seriously autobiographical turf.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Conversing by phone during a stopover in New York, Dave Davies sounds exactly as one might imagine. Speaking in a whispery working class English accent, he emits an unassuming air of casual confidence and unaffected charm. Then again, given his distinguished stature as the guitarist whose ragged ricochet riffs singlehandedly helped define a signature sound for punk, heavy metal and countless other rock ‘n’ roll hybrids that followed on the heels of the Kinks’ seminal hits “You Really Got Me” and All Day and All of the Night,” that unassuming style would appear to come naturally. He likely had little idea that when he started toying with his once neglected little green amp to discover what kind of distorted howl he could extract that one day, other guitarists would pick up on that noise and use it to define an irascible intensity of their own.
Consequently, if brother Ray provided the Kinks with its whimsical, carefully mannered observations of English mores and society, Dave was the visceral component of the band’s sound, an edgy yet exuberant champion of ready hooks and a fuzzy underbelly. Dave’s own songs came sporadically early on, but by the time the group had reached maturity, he could already claim a solo hit in “Death of a Clown,” and he had garnered enough acumen to encourage his record company to hammer him for an entire album. It never materialized (although its been cobbled together posthumously through various latter day compilations) and yet, Dave continued to offer the occasional gem to the Kinks katalogue via songs like “Susannah’s Still Alive,” “This Man He Weeps Tonight,” “Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “Funny Face,” “Love Me Til the Sun Shine,” “Strangers,” “This Time Tomorrow,” “Lincoln County” and numerous other tunes still much beloved by Kinks Kultists everywhere. Each offering was distinguished by his high pitched vocals, seemingly wailed out of a sense of sheer desperation, and a tuneful approach that was undeniably English in both its outlook and bearing.
Nevertheless, Dave’s first loyalty was always to the band, even despite the legendary rows that he and Dave engaged in both onstage and off. When the Kinks seemed to have run their course, he belatedly devoted himself to his solo fare, releasing a trio of albums in the early ‘80s (AFL1-3603, named for its RCA serial number, Glamour and Chosen People), before retreating from the spotlight for nearly twenty years prior to reemerging in the new millennium with Bug, Fractured Mindz, an unexpected documentary of spiritual discovery titled Mystical Journey, various live recordings and repeated compilations. A sudden stroke in 2004 threatened to waylay his career altogether, but fortunately he made a complete recovery and has been back on the road touring consistently ever since.
Davies’ current effort, the appropriately titled I Will Be Me may be his best work yet, a collection of songs that captures that unapologetic edge of his seminal work along with the precise imagery and courtly designs of his songs circa the mid to late ‘60s. Recorded with a diverse cast of guest musicians (including, oddly enough, Americana all stars the Jayhawks, legendary guitarist Chris Spedding and members of his touring band on loan from L.A. retro poppers the Jigsaw Seen), it’s also undeniably autobiographical, touting songs drawn from early experiences (“Little Green Amp,” “Livin’ in the Past”), memorable encounters (“Midnight in L.A.”) and his general outlook on life (“In the Mainframe,” “Remember the Future”). It’s nothing short of brilliant, a promise fulfilled that’s some 45 years in the making.
Consequently, our conversation with Mr. Davies went something like this:
BLURT: How are you, Dave?
DAVIES: Great! How are you?
We’re doing terrific. Congratulations on your brilliant new album.
Ah, you like it?
We love it!
What’s especially striking about the album is that it’s so dynamic and yet it also has that fanciful sound to it that was so much a part of your work back in the day. So tell us, Dave, how did this album come about? What inspired the songs?
I got together the first songs about two years ago and it so it took me about two years to get it all finished. The first year was writing and getting ideas together and the second year was the production and getting the people together. It took awhile really. I usually work a lot quicker. I was really happy with the way the songs came together though.
In the past, you never seemed in any particular hurry to release new albums. After your first aborted attempt at a solo album in ’67…
Yeah, way back. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that you made your first real solo ventures. And then it was a pretty long time until your next effort came out. Why was that?
No idea… (laughs) I tend to write when I’m inspired, ya know? I find it hard to make myself do it. It was good timing with these songs. Like the first one, which was “Living in the Past,” it gave me an idea for a character. So I could write about a certain individual, you know what I mean? Once you get one character established, the other ones tend to pop up. So it was getting started that was the problem. But once I did that, it helped develop the others really. It’s not a real theme, but it is about a kind of guy that talks about the past, looks into the future and what’s going to happen, and makes observations about what’s going on in the world around him.
It seems very autobiographical. Was that the intent?
Oh yeah, definitely. At least in the beginning, you tend to write about things you know about. So I thought “Little Green Amp” would be a fun thing to start with because it goes back to the beginning. It hits on the emotions and the things that I was going through at that time. I thought that was a good idea and it might be quite amazing.
The songs you wrote for the Kinks always stood out…
But were you kind of feeling like George Harrison with the Beatles, that you were always fighting to have your songs included on the albums?
Yeah, I suppose so. It’s funny, because I always had a lot of respect for George and there is some kind of parallel life thing going on (chuckles), but I was into the production and shaping the music and to me that was always as important as writing it… where things should go and where things shouldn’t go, so production’s always been a big thing as well, even with the Kinks’ songs. I’d always suggest where to put things, where not to put things, maybe we shouldn’t do that. The Kinks were always a collaborative thing anyway. But now, because all the essence of the work is mine, it’s different.
Speaking of collaborations, how did you gather this very disparate group of musicians to participate on this album? The Jayhawks? We never would have thought to have seen you paired with them.
(Laughs) Well, it went with the nature of the songs. I thought there were some songs that would work for them really well. They worked on a song called “Remember the Future.” I always loved their instrumentation and arrangements and vocals and harmonies and stuff, so I thought they did a great job on the song. I think it’s probably one of my favorite tracks from the album. It’s a great vocal thing for it.
So how did you happen to reach out to them in particular?
I got an A&R guy who works for the record company. Sweet guy — I’ve known him for years — and we started talking about so-and-so and what about, and we figured out who was available. So we found out the Jayhawks were interested and they were very excited. They wanted to do three or four tracks on the album, but obviously we wanted to get input from various people.
The duet with that singer Geri X on “When I First Met You” is lovely as well.
It came about because of the nature of the song. A guy who fancies this girl at a garden party and he falls in love with this younger girl after a little champagne. I wanted someone who had a different, sort of unique kind of voice. I think her voice is quite unusual and she was a good choice I think. I didn’t want someone who was too accomplished. I wanted someone slightly quirky.
That’s why this album is so reminiscent of your songs from back in the day. It’s got a kind of whimsical quality to it…
Oh good…That’s good right?
Of course. Those early songs of yours were so distinctive and so brilliant. They seemed so personal, and yet at the same time, they painted these charming little images.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I try to do when I write. I like to see if I can create a little cameo character like in a movie. Something cinematic. Because then you have room to develop a little plot or a story of people. I like working like that.
So why was it that back in ’67, after “Death of a Clown” became a hit, that the rumored solo album never materialized?
I think I was being pushed too much by the record company and I don’t think that at the time I was prepared to make a solo record. I didn’t feel like I had the material and they wanted it now, they wanted it straight away and I only had a few songs. I just sort of felt like there was too much pressure to do it. No matter what age you are, it can sometimes be self defeating. It’s good to have a deadline sometimes. That helps. But when people keep banging on the door, saying “Come on now, where is it?” it’s not quite the same thing.
But it seems like you had accumulated a good cache of songs.
Yeah, but I wasn’t sure about the means or manner. I didn’t even know if I liked them that much at the time. (chuckles) But when we got the compilation together that came out last year (Hidden Treasures) I thought, yeah, it’s not that bad.
Those songs are brilliant actually. “This Time Tomorrow” is one of those rare masterpieces that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
And “Strangers?” I get a lot of requests for that live.
Absolutely! Do you include the older material in your concerts these days?
Oh yeah! I try to mix it up, from “You Really Got Me” to “Strangers” to “Green Amp” and “Remember the Future.”
So what’s the status of the Kinks these days? Did the band ever officially break up or is it merely on hiatus?
Well, we’ve got a lot of contractual things and catalogue things that we have to deal with. It would be nice to do something with Ray, but I know he’s focused on the things he wants to do still. It’s up in the air a bit.
How is your relationship with Ray these days?
It’s not bad! We say hi. We email. (chuckle)
That’s good. That relationship is sort of legendary.
Yeah, it’s okay.
Before Pete Quaife passed away, there had been rumors about a reunion tour with the original foursome.
Oh yeah. But when Pete got very ill, that kind of put the kibosh on it. It upset everybody a lot more than they thought. The nucleus of the band was me, Pete and Ray. Without Pete, there probably wouldn’t be me and Ray either. He was very important in the beginning.
Yet, there were other musicians who were also part of the Kinks — (bassist) John Dalton and (keyboardist) Mick Gosling...
Oh yeah, they grew to be part of the Kinks, later in the years and so on. Yeah, a lot of musicians passed through.
So have you ever approached some of the later recruits and talked about reforming?
I’m not sure. I’ve been so focused on getting this record finished and now that it’s out, I’m excited about promoting the record. We’ll see…
You currently play with the Jigsaw Seen out of L.A….
Yeah, the guitar player and I have been friends for like ten years. He’s been working with me in other bands that I’ve had, and I’ve employed his rhythm section. It’s fun! It’s been quite good so far.
How is your health these days? Are you feeling good?
I feel great, yeah. I’m feeling good. Quite fit. If you’re feeling you want to do something, you gotta do it. It’s going well.
So at this point in your life, is there anything you feel you have yet to accomplish? Any goals left that remain undone?
I’d like to see how far I can push this record. I’m really excited about the material and the tracks. And then we’ll see what’s next.
Well, again, it’s a brilliant album.
Thank you. It is good, isn’t it?
Yes, and we suspect you’ll have a lot of luck with it.
Well let’s hope so.