You wait over ten years for a new Deacon Blue album and six years for a tour and both come along at once. Yes you heard correctly the iconic 80s band that gave us such fantastic songs as Real Gone Kid, Dignity and Chocolate Girl are back with a new album called The Hipsters (out Sept 24) and are touring the UK later in the year as part of a 25 Anniversary celebration. The band have been working on a part time basis since they reformed in 1999. I spoke to the bands front man Ricky Ross to ask him what on earth took them so long to get back in the studio!
“We didn’t have any plans to go in there (the studio). It wasn’t that we were putting anything off, we were kind of just happy playing gigs occasionally.” Whilst they were happy playing live the band was finding its feet again in terms of its line up after reforming. Original bass player Ewen Vernal left in 1994 and sadly guitarist Graeme Kelling passed away in 2004. Having gone through various session players since then, it seems that Ross has found some good 'helpers'. “Two new players (Gregor Philip on guitar and Lewis Gordon on bass) came in and made a big big difference at the time and we started to really enjoy playing live. Then we thought, wouldn't be great to get these two in the studio. It was a chain of events really.”
That chain of events has led to The Hipsters, their brand new studio album which has been a labour of love for Ricky for a year and a half. The album was recorded in the organic old fashioned way as if the band were playing live. “I think if you are in a band you have to be a band. It's got to feel like a group and not something that's programmed and could have been done anywhere.” The practice of just mixing demos is all too common nowadays and takes away the creative freedom and enjoyment of working on a project. Ricky says that to make the album that way “would have been depressing” He tells me about a producer who wanted to make the record in that soulless way, his objection to it is clear. “I wanted to record these from scratch. That's the whole joy... that's what this project is about.Homesick (their last album a decade ago) was a bit of a burden and it wasn't a good record to make, it wasn't right. This one felt different.”
Ricky has always had a great affinity with music from a young age, from singing Beatles songs and pretending to be one of the Fab Four to being gripped by the witty lyrics of the late Hal David at a young age. “The reason I'm such a big fan of Hal is that I have a memory of walking down the road in Dundee with my sister who was going on about what a brilliant song that was (I'll never fall in love again) and her quoting the lyrics 'you get enough germs to catch pneumonia,' I remember thinking that's clever, and it must have stuck.” Has this experience as a young lad influenced his writing? “I'd love to think so. I'm not sure I ever got as economical an idea as Hal. I don't write like that. I wish I could.” He reflects on the question not wanting to box himself into a corner. “I'm probably more like Neil Young where I'm just trying to articulate something.”
It was this gift of articulating 'something' that led to his love of song writing. “All that I ever felt was that I had this bug about writing songs. I was just trying to write songs and be a recording artist, that was what motivated me.” Fate took a turn when he actually did become a songwriter. He was told that his songs were good, but unless he knew who would record them they had little market. The answer was simple, he would record them.
What finally came of his endeavours as a singer/songwriter wasRaintown. Deacon Blue's début album thatpropelled the band into the public eye, and Ricky into the world of professional songwriter. The album is full of meaningful and thoughtful songs about struggle and hope, something that resonated with the public at the time. Ironically now 25 years on those songs of unemployment and struggle are still so true today. Also the struggle as a musician to break through into the big time Ricky feels is a lot harder now than it was all those years ago.“Back then it seemed so straight forward we got a band, phoned round record companies and told them to come and see us and it emerged that we got a record deal and on it went. Now it seems a lot more difficult, how do you make any money when nobody buys any records. It's not a problem I have to face. I'm grateful for that.” He goes on to talk about the irony of being put in a situation where he had to record his own material to have any chance of success, to going back to being a songwriter for others. “It's weird because my life’s gone full circle in the last 10 years since I've been writing stuff for other people.”
This is something that he has head a lot of success with during Deacon Blue’s hiatus. “I was really chuffed to work with Nancy Griffith, I've been a big fan of hers. I wrote a song with Nanci (Still Life about her anger with George W Bush's administration) and Jamie Cullum because he's such a great musician... It's always a challenge to work with someone whose really talented in their own field.” But it was the song High which he co wrote with James Blunt, with which he has had the most success. The song was released as a single and was a track on the album Back To Bedlam; an album that went on to be the biggest selling album of the 00's decade selling 3.2 million copies! The albums runaway success was a little unexpected, Ross explains. “It was was amazing, at a time when you're thinking when am I going to get a good cut and suddenly I got that one and no-one really thought it was going to go anywhere and it turned out it was the biggest selling album in the world at the time. You put heart and soul into other songs and spend hours on the demo’s and not much happens to them, it's funny.”
With the success of that record firmly under his belt, he went on to work with his fellow band member and wife Lorraine. The project entitled McIntosh/Ross, led to an album and tour in 2009.
“It gave her a chance to write and do lead vocal... It was a 50/50 project that was the way we wanted to do it, it was great fun.” Lorraine also co-wrote the ballad Is There No Way Back to You on the new album. Will we see any more of their collaboration? “We were going to do another one and this project (The Hipsters) took up so much energy and time... I think we'll come back and do it. I don't know when, but I'm sure it will happen.” And he also has a new solo project ready to roll in the near future!
In this 25 anniversary year not only is their new album out, but also a reissue of their entire back catalogue as well as their tour which kicks off in October starting in Ross' home town of Dundee and finishes at London's Roundhouse. I am sure that even though this tour is primarily an anniversary tour we will be able to hear some of the new songs. The pending release of The Hipsters is also in part what prompted a tour. “It wouldn't be possible to go out and play again without having some new material to play. It's great to play the new stuff, but also the new stuff makes the old stuff sound different, so there’s a nice pay off there.” So will there be any changes to the way the old stuff sounds, will they change it live? “Sometimes we do, sometimes it's just with a piano and vocal. I'm torn.... I think there's something good about the Roy Orbison method, just playing the songs the way people hear them on the record and then I like the Bob Dylan method too where you rip them apart.”
'What's next for Deacon Blue?' I hear you cry, will we see more of them after the tour is over? I ask Ricky. “I would like to think so... By the time people get to hear about the new Deacon Blue record and think 'oh great we'll go and see them', the tickets are gone. I'd like to think we can come back and do more stuff.” I really do hope so, they are worth waiting for. Just don't leave it so long next time!