TALES FROM THE SHADOWLANDS
It's the middle of February on a horribly cold and rainy night in Leeds when I catch up with Dean White, sitting at the bar of his local with a pint of Guinness in hand. He laughed on the phone when asked for an interview - "Yeah, right... Why would anyone want to read an article about a keyboard player? Besides, I have it on authority that I don't actually exist ..." Well, he does and that's the point isn't it. He's been playing with the band for over four years now and still no interview, so maybe it's about time.
He says he has an unshakeable belief in the divinity of music, a sense of humour that remains "intact, perhaps, for longer than most people would like it too...", and a degree in Economic and Social History which was, he maintains, a pretty pointless exercise in bloody-mindedness... This, he says, is about as much as you need to know about him, apart from the unbelievable misfortune of being born in Coventry and therefore being a devoted follower of Coventry City FC - "which makes me an eternal and incurable romantic... Still, it reduced the Italians to laughter, which was something I suppose..."
NL: So how and when did you join New Model Army?
DW: I was lying on the lounge floor a bottle and a half of some terrible cheap red wine to the good, when I received the call at the end of 1994. A mutual friend, Spot, rang me at about one in the morning and mentioned that Justin was in need of a keyboard player - would I care to go for it? This was on the Wednesday. On Saturday I ended up in Justin's kitchen terrified and with a ridiculous hangover induced by one of those wonderful nights that spontaneously combust into mayhem at about seven o'clock and by twelve leaves you hanging onto sobriety with a weakening fingernail. Fortunately, my audition consisted of three minutes around the piano with Justin going "well, it goes like this... Yeah, that's right... And then there's this bit... Yeah, good... I'll do you a tape." It was all a bit bemusing really. Of course, no one happened to mention that the first gig was two weeks away until a week later, but then they wouldn't would they. I'd only played with the full band five times before I played The Riverside in Newcastle. That was truly terrifying...
NL: How come?
DW: Well, I was an outsider. Everyone seemed to be reminiscing about past tours, exchanging gossip and numbers etc. and I wasn't a part of that, how could I be? The worst thing about it was that because of the size of the stage I was exactly four feet from the front row of this sweaty bunch of screaming maniacs, most of which were grinning inanely at me probably wondering who the hell I was...
NL: Were you in a band before you joined?
DW: Not really. I had a working relationship with a mate, James, who makes Nick Cave seem a lightweight. Before that I was playing guitar with a band called Honeyfungus, but nothing major, just playing the pubs in and around Leeds. Other than that I was working on the stage crew at the Town and Country Club, the University and whatever - paying the rent.
NL: What's it like being in New Model Army?
DW: Well, I'm told we're not like other bands. We don't go in for that "Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n' Roll" thing. Most of us like a drink, a couple of us have been caught smoking behind the bike sheds after school, but that's it really. Everyone says we're very nice and make it sound like it's something we're not supposed to be. I don't get it, I mean what is it about relatively sane people (usually male it has to be said) who turn into really irritating wankers as soon as they get near a tour bus? Being in a band is not a short cut to ignorance and childishness, no matter how many times Liam Gallager pretends it is. The sad truth is that the more I see of the business the more I realise that Spinal Tap was just too tame.
NL: So when you're not on tour what happens?
DW: I sit at home and get bored!
NL: Is that it?
DW: Well, we don't really socialise with each other, if that's what you mean. We are all very different people, and for a start off we live in different parts of the country - Dave's in Maidenhead, Nelson lives in Colchester, I'm in Leeds, and Justin and Michael are in Bradford. Occasionally, very occasionally, two or three of us happen to be in the same bar at the same time, but that's it. Everything depends on whether there's a gig coming up or there's a new song on the go. Apart from that life in a band is just one long line of cocktail parties, gallery openings and dinner invitations from all our fabulous famous friends... No, I'm not telling the truth, yes, I am available for dinner!
NL: What about the last album, Strange Brotherhood - what are your memories about the recording of it?
DW: Vague. It's kind of similar to being on tour in that after the first couple of weeks the fascination of it diminishes rapidly. It's a process that seems to take forever and then some. Playing the same song over and over again, for up to forty takes a day, until you get it just so, is excruciatingly dull. See, this is the real side of the glamour. We all like to buy into the myth of Rock ‘n' Roll, and I'm as guilty as everyone else in that I'm still hopeful that Keith Richards will puke in my bathroom, but the truth, which no one wants to know about, is that it really is far too much like having a job. Potentially better paid and you do get to drink on the job, but the hours are lousy and you spend months away from your family and friends, who disappear, go their separate ways or change in ways you haven't. Actually, the main problem about being in a band is maintaining any sort of relationship, because your loved ones have that same sense of glamour and really do want to believe the worst stories of excess as de rigour, because it's partly what drew them to you in the first place - being in a band; and when you're away I guess it drives them mad not knowing what you're up too, and perhaps more importantly, who with. There is a large gap between the glamour and reality of going out with a musician. Sadly.
I remember playing the clarinet on Headlights after a night on the razz in Monmouth. I hadn't played for ten years or so, but liberal helpings of alcohol helped rekindle the memory - so much so, that most of what I recorded wasn't included in the final mix. Guess that says something... I also played guitar on Over The Wire when we put the drums down, but that was later overdubbed by Robert. Such is life I'm afraid. Like I say, the memories are vague because of the nature of the process. Bizarrely, I can tell you more about the films I saw at various studios than about the recording of the album...
NL: Do you have a favourite song on the album?
DW: To be honest I've only listened to it maybe twice. You hear it so many times when you're recording it the last thing you want to do is sit and listen to it for hours on end. Anyway, I get to play most of the album with the band, which is much more fun!
NL: So you don't have a favourite song off the album then?
DW: Oh, I don't know - Headlights probably.
DW: Ha! Because it's nice and easy to play in a gig... (laughs). Most of the time playing with the band is pretty intense, you have to concentrate all the time, so when we play headlights it's one song I can just enjoy. It's uncomplicated.
NL: Anyway, how is Robert?
DW: Fine, I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago and he seemed in very good health.
NL: Is it different playing with Michael as opposed to playing with Robert?
DW: Well, they are different drummers, but to be honest after a couple of days Michael was pretty much there. I think the band were fortunate to have Michael around, he's fitted in almost seamlessly. Let's face it, playing drums for New Model Army isn't an easy gig, especially when we played two sets a night. You should have see the mess it made of his hands - we've all got photos of them because they were so knackered. There were nights he'd come off stage literally bleeding and then go on to do two sets of encores, sometimes three!
NL: What was the tour like?
DW: Tiring and dark! (laughs)
DW: Well, I live in the shadowlands on stage. Often, I'm the one you can't see. C'est la vie. It doesn't bother me that much - being bathed in light doesn't interest me a whole lot, unless it's too dark to see anything at all. Playing in Braille is not much fun, especially when the parts are complicated. The tour itself was just plain hard work. It just didn't seem to end.
NL: So want were the high and low points?
DW: Oh, I don't know. The day trip to Auschwitz was pretty bad for everyone. I found it more surreal than horrifying, although I know that Justin, Joolz and Brett had a particularly bad time with it. We'd just played two great gigs in Poland to fantastic audiences, and the morning itself was so beautiful - it was like, misty and cold, with the sun just coming up... There was a school party there at the same time - they were being given a guided tour, which was a little strange.. Jesus, can you imagine that? In England you get to go to Ironbridge, maybe, to check out a couple of museums about the Industrial Revolution, or the Natural History Museum in London. In Poland it is apparently obligatory for all schoolchildren to visit Auschwitz. Makes you realise how sheltered your life is. Walking through those wrought iron gates beneath the legend "Albeit Mach Frei" is horrible, but I think the worst bit... (pauses) oh, I don't want to talk about this... It's the strangest thing... it didn't bother me that much at the time. You know, I've studied history and all - I got a degree in that for my troubles, so it was like, oh right, this is where it happened, okay, fine. It wasn't a problem, but it just sort of permeates your mind. Every now and again you just drift back to it, you find yourself having spent twenty minutes thinking about it, and every time you go back to thinking about it the more horrific it gets. Maybe it's just the shock of actually being there that makes you numb and afterwards the imagination takes over. And that's the thing isn't it, it doesn't matter how good your imagination is you just know that that place was worse...
I got my photos back the other week and a friend was looking through them. He pointed to this one shot of a deserted street bathed in mist and sunshine and commented on how beautiful the picture was. He went pale when I told he where it was taken.
NL: So what were the high points?
DW: Karlsruhe.[Das Fest - 25th July 1998 - 72,000 people. WM] Playing in front of that many people was ridiculous- there was over seventy thousand. It was a sea of people everywhere you looked. I spent the first twenty minutes scared shitless, then the keyboards crashed, and I spent the next hour laughing at the keyboards and then at the spectacle. It was such a great day... We did this in store promo which was weird. I made my guitar debut. Ha! Ha! We did a version of Queen Of My Heart, but we didn't have the keyboards at the store, so I ended up playing the violin part on Dave's guitar. Which was nice...
NL: So what is your all time favourite New Model Army track?
DW: Erm... Probably Vengeance, or maybe Liberal Education from the first album.
DW: Well, I guess it's because I bought Vengeance the first week it was out in the shops. I had a mate, Max, who worked in a local record store so I'd go and hang out there sometimes on Saturdays. Anyway, he plays this new record that's just come out, and it got to the first chorus of Vengeance and I just bought it there and then - I was a teenager, and as far as I was concerned, anyone screaming "bastards" repeatedly on record was cool. You have to remember that this was during the time of Wham and that other sterile, soul-less, fashion led shit that dominated my teen years and ensured I never got laid: punk had basically been dead and buried for several years and all that was left was Motorhead for that teenage rebellion kinda thing, and my parents truly hated Motorhead. Strangely, they thought New Model Army were okay until they heard Vengeance - then they went a little pale... When I got the gig, my mother was happy at first, and then remembered and went rather quiet. Nowadays she maintains Justin sounds like Perry Como! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Whenever there's a new set of gigs coming up and we get together to rehearse I always suggest Lib Ed, but they never seem to want to play it. The most I've ever heard was Justin strumming the opening chords and humming once. It's a shame we don't play any more songs from the first album - I quite like the idea, but I'm probably I'm in a minority of one.
NL: Why is that?
DW: It's just something they don't play at the moment. I mean, there's only so many songs you can play in an evening, and also only a certain number of songs you can have practised up at any one time and maintain sanity. I mean we could probably play around sixty songs at the moment without thinking about it and you have to remember there are people in the band that have never played certain songs at all. The thing about the Army's songs, and the thing that makes them interesting, is that they are often unusual in their construction, if you compare them to a lot of other bands songs. They often fail to follow the verse chorus, verse chorus, lead break, chorus classic rock format, and even when they sound simple there's usually more notes than you think... For that reason you just can't remember everything. Apparently there was a poll done recently of fans favourite songs, and with people only choosing three each nearly every song was mentioned. I think that's fairly unique. How many other bands are there that touch so many different people or emotions that nearly all their output is liked by so many people? And so diversely liked? We simply couldn't physically play everything recorded - Michael would need a heart massage and hand transplants... So I guess you can't please all the keyboardists all the time. But we do play nearly two hours a night, three hours sometimes more when we played two sets, and to be honest that's hard work. Sometimes Michael's so knackered he can hardly move... That's something I\ve always admired about New Model Army - the commitment given at gigs. I remember seeing The Happy Mondays at the University in Leeds and Shaun Rider was so stoned he had to sit down in the second song, and they only played thirty-five minutes or something. I think that's a con. If I pay a tenner to see a band I want them to at least try, y'know?
NL: So who are you favourite bands then?
DW: Jesus, there's loads. I suppose the bands I listen to the most are the Beatles and Can. I think there was something truly fantastic about the Beatles that cannot be denied. As for Can, there's just so much invention and insanity that I love them. As a rule I tend to listen to bands from the late sixties and early seventies, and mainly strange psychedelic music (or Psychoderek as Dave likes to call it). I particularly love the garage punk from the mid sixties which has a certain kind of honesty and naivety to it. I also listen to a lot of classical music, mainly to rest my ears - light stuff like Schumann or Mozarts Clarinet Quintet which is sublime. I listen to a lot of the new stuff that's out but I don't hear that much originality or inspiration - though I am currently hooked on Elliot Smith, who I think is excellent, although I know exactly nothing about him. I got into him from watching some film or other, and for the only time in my life actually took note of who wrote one of the songs in it, and I'm extremely glad I took a chance and bought the CD - it was one of those life enhancing moments... Which was nice...
There's a wide variation of influences within the band, to the extent we cannot agree on any one album. I think the closest we come to a consensus at the moment is with The Who - Live At Leeds, and even then Nelson's not convinced, and Justin prefers Quadrophenia. Sitting on the bus listening to music is an eclectic experience, and often open CD warfare ensues - and this is before the crew even get involved.
NL: Who wins?
DW: Paul our sound man.
NL: How come?
DW: He plays rugby, and we don't argue...
Everyone is actually quite tolerant of everyone else's taste, but then we don't listen to that much music on the bus. At least, not communally - everyone wanders off to various parts of the bus with personal stereos and curl up into their own worlds for a while if they want to listen to anything. When you play loud music for a living often it's the last thing you want to listen to at the end of a day. Also when you're cooped up on a bus for a couple of months, putting on a set of headphones is perhaps the only way of getting some time and space of your own. That's something else they don't tell you when you buy into the Rock ‘n' Roll myth, the loss of personal space.
NL: Was there any one event or one record that made you want to become a musician?
DW: No, not really, it's something I've always been, though seeing a documentary about Hendrix when I was about thirteen made me want to pick up a guitar and set fire to it - and they say that TV has a detrimental effect on behaviour! It's not like I had a calling or anything, it's just something I do, and have always done. I played Recorders when I was about six, then I moved on to playing Clarinet, then the Organ, and then guitar when I was fifteen. I used to have to sing in the school choir as well, but I hated that.
DW: Well, it was one of those growing up things. I was ridiculed for playing instruments more than you could ever believe - it just wasn't done where I come from, and Jesus, singing in the choir just proved that I was a puff to all the lads in the school, so in the end I stopped doing it. There were only so many kickings you can endure... I still find it very difficult to sing when there are people in the same room with me. I'm extremely self-conscious about doing that, though I did end up singing backing vocals on Brother one evening with Nel, but that had more to do with Dutch courage than enthusiasm...
NL: Is that why you don't sing live?
DW: Not really. I can actually sing - I'm not fantastic or anything, but I can hold a tune, it's just that on stage things are generally too complicated for me to be able to concentrate on singing. The keyboards tend to be a real pain, mainly because they are more prone to power supply problems than other instruments, and also they are computer driven and therefore, by definition, have an attitude problem... There are a lot of venues in Europe that have an avant-garde view to their electric current, and being temperamental, the keyboards consequently tend to crash when the current drops. A voltage regulator would help I suppose, but that's way down the list of priorities on the cash front. Then there's the problems of heat - at sweaty and humid gigs they just love to crash. There's also the problems of just being bloody minded and refusing to work for no real reason other than because they decided not to. Basically, there's a war of attrition between me and those bloody keyboards. Anyway, this makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Also, I'm nearly always far too near Nelson's amp, which is extremely loud, and close enough to the drum kit to know true fear... For me to even hear the keyboards is often a small battle - one played out daily.
NL: Well, isn't that why you have monitors, so that you can hear yourself singing?
DW: In theory. But of course, with the volume of the bass amp and the drum kit, coupled with the guitars and vocals already in my monitors, it's usually too loud to even think where I am on stage - which makes the whole live experience such fun...
NL: So you don't like playing gigs...
DW: I love it. I can't think of anything else that is more emotionally intense and draining. Playing a great gig is better than any drug or any sex you've ever had, it just can't be beat. There are many musicians in this world who do it solely because they want to be famous, they want to get laid, or they want to be rich, and if that's all they do it for then I pity them, because there's so much pleasure to be had from simply playing music. It's the best form of communication between people ever devised. What else can reduce you to tears, make you dance, make you scream with enjoyment. What was it that Nietzsche wrote - "By the means of music the passions enjoy themselves." Name something that has as much power as music has over people, I defy you. Name something that is as universally understood as music - Muddy Waters howls the blues in Chicago and they understand the pain in China. I feel most comfortable playing music, it makes sense to me - when everything else turns to shit there is always music. I think that the definition of Hell is silence: I could endure anything as long as there was music to listen to.
NL: Even Steps?
DW: I said as long as there was music... No, I take it back, Pete Waterman is Satan, and Steps are his diabolical plan to destroy the human soul. It's true - I firmly believe that Pete Waterman has single handedly done more to destroy music in this country than anyone else. Everything he has produced has been utterly soulless. The most remarkable thing, however, is that so many people have bought that trash. I just don't get it. Why do people honestly buy that crap when they could listen to Aretha Franklin or Robert Johnson, or anything on Motown? Do they care that they are being conned into listening to talentless morons in so-called fashionable clothes for the benefit of one mans bank account? It's not as though there was any kitsch value in it - I mean, this is the guy that admitted he produced throw-away music after all - what's that say about him? But I guess there's no accounting for taste... Actually, there's a lot to admire about the man - he'll surely go down in history as one of the greatest ever confidence tricksters. What's that old saying, society gets the criminals it deserves? Maybe society gets the music it deserves as well - I can't think of anything else that recalls Thatcher's Britain as well as that awful crap we had to endure in the eighties - shallow, banal, image led mediocrity, and to cap it all he's started producing hits again... It beggars belief!
But I guess he gets the last laugh: who has the swimming pool, and who has damp in his rented bedroom? An interesting question isn't it. Maybe I should sell my soul to Pete Waterman...
The Man in Black, February 1999.
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