It’s the risk-taking for which Kevin Rowland is known. For that and the breadth of his artistic expression which has seen him spearhead Dexys Midnight Runners (or today better known as Dexys) – one of the most charismatic and inspiring bands to come out of Britain – and make his way through a solo career for which he has few peers.
Indefatigable and forever immersed in reinvention, he remains the free spirit whose musical output since 1980 has kept adepts of British popular culture enthralled, and for all the right reasons. He’s a man who has always followed his intuition, never having done anything that he hasn’t believed in. And right now he’s DJing.
“I’m putting a lot into it and am getting a lot out,” he says, “and with no disrespect to any DJs – or musicians who are working as DJs – what I do is not strictly DJing. What I do now is the ‘Kevin Rowland DJ Show’, because that’s exactly what it is. I’m not behind the booth playing my favourite records. It’s something entirely different.” This is where it gets interesting. “I have the decks at waist height and I’m on stage. So it’s a performance that goes on for about 75 minutes, sometimes 90.
“I’m doing, at least, about two or three vocal performances. I’ve had instrumentals edited in and I sing with those. When I DJ’d in Stockholm the other week I did four songs.” As a break from the norm, this is intuitive work evincing a creative restlessness. It is something, no doubt, that will prove to be creatively astute. “You’ll hear the songs originally first on the decks, then there’s a rewind and I’ll do my version. So, strictly speaking, it ain’t a DJ show. It’s something that can be developed upon. And when you think about it, how many DJs sing?”
The three albums Dexys made in the 1980s elevated Kevin Rowland to a position that saw both blandishments and the occasional brick bat come his way, but he barely flinched from the attention. “We made one LP in 1980 (Searching For The Young Soul Rebels), one in 1982 (Too-Rye-Ay) and one in 1985 (Don’t Stand Me Down; the band’s neglected masterpiece).” And with each album came a new image. “Then we didn’t make another album until 2012 (One Day I’m Going To Soar) followed by Let The Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul (2016). So there was a big gap.
“For me, nothing was ever planned. I did a couple of solo albums in that interim period, but then suddenly things started to flow. Mick Talbot was a big part of that, he got me going again. I was up and running. But I don’t doubt that – had we been making an album every two or three years, from 1985 to 2012 – the quality would not have been as good. All the albums have been exactly what we wanted to do and no one was telling us what to do. And for sure [the music business] can be a treadmill, but I stepped off it and did something else.”
As an artist, how far ahead does he look? “To about lunchtime.” He lives in central London and cites his move back to the capital from Brighton 10 years ago as one of the best things he’s done. “Living in London got me working again. It stimulated me. I started working harder. And the future? I don’t know. I’ve got to live in the present, and it’s still something i’m trying to learn. I mean, what can you do about the future and the past? Fuck all.”
He keeps his creative blade sharp and stands tall in the crowd. “I got the DJ show idea from Club Killers who are a Stockholm band who play a Rocksteady-style of music, their sound from circa 1968-72, and they do it really well. After the gig, they were DJing and freestyling over the tracks. I started doing it about nine or 10 years ago and it’s just developed. When Mark Kermode interviewed me in 2012, he asked if my DJing had influenced the music we made with Dexys and I realised it had. DJing makes you very conscious of grooves and how they will work.”
Proof of Kevin Rowland’s ability to position himself on a higher, more compelling musical rung, his talent undiminished by the years, can be heard in the song ‘She’s Got A Wiggle’ from Dexys’ album One Day I’m Going To Soar (2012) which is an effortless example of Rowland’s capability. He knows, it would seem, just when his muse has returned and does well to give her full rein, all his work standing testament to an unwillingness to compromise which has proved to be a key strength.
“I look at my DJing show as I do with anything else. It’s a performance. I take three or four outfits with me and decide on the night what to wear. It’s just like I’m doing a gig.”
Of today’s corporatised music world, he says: “Things started getting very corporate in the 1980s. There was a lot of money to be made and people, who weren’t so much about music but were about business, started to move in. But I don’t get involved in that. I’m not ‘in the business’ and I’m not thinking about that side of it. And to be honest, I don’t want to. You’ll give yourself a headache thinking about the business.
“I’m developing as a person and I’ve never been that kind of person who will just make music all the time. It’s just not me. I’m just not that kind of guy. I worked very hard over the past seven or eight years and I am massively proud of Dexys’ last two albums. Every note on those two albums I am happy about. I feel we got them right and did something good. And those albums are appreciated. It’s about the art for me. It’s about the photographs, it’s about the cover. It’s about the performance, the visuals, the videos, the way we present ourselves. It’s about the music. It’s always been like that. And the DJing is no different. And, hopefully, it’s about moving people. That’s all I’m interested in. The rest of it is outside my control.”
He tells me that Elvis was the first person who turned him onto music. “Then came Billy Fury and all the rest. It seemed like a magical world. And it still is. You know when we write a song? I don’t how it happens. When I sit down to do it, I don’t know what to do or how it happens. There’s a lot of work involved, yes, but after it’s happened and a song has arrived, I think to myself ‘How the fuck did that happen?’ And once that’s done, I have absolutely no idea how the next one is going to come. But I’ve never worried about it. The point is, it’s magic. So how can I take credit for it? You have to put some work in if you want it to be any good, but when you really look at it… it just comes through you. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have some good ones come through you. But it’s not me doing it… I’m just channeling it.”
You can catch Kevin Rowland DJing at Festival No.6 7-10 September.
Photo Credit: The Telegraph