“I went for a walk this morning and found this incredible deli that was open, serving food outside, and couldn’t resist buying some ridiculously-overpriced pizza pie. So my son and I could eat this delicious kind of apocalypse meal. We’ve been living on my cooking for three weeks.
“It was so incredible. I got my timing wrong, but I couldn’t eat the pie and talk to you at the same time.”
That’s Baxter Dury apologising – after a fashion – for telling me to try him again in half an hour when I initially called him bang on two o’clock, as per our arrangement, just as he was tucking into his dinner. It wasn’t a problem though. I got another chance to listen to a new LP called The Night Chancers, one I’d barely stopped playing in a week. Sound familiar?
“I’ve heard about that, yeah. By an interesting character.”
The Night Chancers is West London-based Baxter’s sixth album in 18 years, and it’s a cracking record, building nicely on the last released under his own name, 2017’s acclaimed Prince of Tears. Is he pleased with the early reaction?
“Yeah, I am. It’s been a strange time, but the feedback seems mostly positive. I’ve had a lot of time to actually read my reviews, thinking, ‘Fuck it, I will!’ this time. And luckily they’ve mostly been good.”
The new LP was released on March 20th through Heavenly Recordings, co-produced by Baxter and long-time collaborator Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, John Grant, Arctic Monkeys), recorded at not so far away Hoxa studios in West Hampstead last May.
I’m guessing he’d have been deep into rehearsals by then for what was shaping up to be his biggest UK tour so far, now postponed until – in theory – autumn.
“Yeah, all that sort of stuff. But that’s just the way it is. I’m quite philosophical about it. I just volunteered actually – I signed up. When they asked me my skillset, I realised I had absolutely zero! I could talk about having a famous father, tell them I’m really good at interview techniques, or I could teach old people how to Instagram. Ha! Bleedin’ useless.”
“Yeah, around the corner.”
That took us on to an interview I did a short while before with Paul Cook, the drummer of the Sex Pistols and the band that followed in their wake, The Professionals, letting on to Baxter how Paul was an apprentice electrician at the Mortlake Brewery site of Watney’s (home of the dreaded Red Barrel) before he gave it all up to try his luck with a certain infamous punk band. Which I guess if Paul was to sign up to volunteer right now would give him a slightly different skillset to Baxter. Anyway, how’s Baxter’s neighbourhood coping right now, with all that’s going on?
“Well, I live on the river, so you’ve got a point of convergence where everybody who wants to go for their daily walk comes here, so you’d never notice there was any difference – there’s so many people around.”
Less traffic though, I guess?
“Well, there’s less traffic ‘cos the bridge is closed. I guess there’s less air noise … and there’s not a lot of toffs rowing in the river. They’re quite loud, usually. But that’s about it. We’re quite lucky to live here really.”
Back to The Night Chancers, and it’s a very accomplished record, and somewhat multi-faceted, with opening track, ‘I’m Not Your Dog’ seemingly carrying on where he left off with the European disco vibe heard on tracks like ‘Tais Toi’ on the BED (Baxter alongside Étienne de Crécy and Delilah Holliday, who also features for London punks Skinny Girl Diet) collaboration. Was that where you were at when you came to this album?
“Sort of, but that collaboration was done not really thinking about much. There wasn’t too much effort put into that. But I guess so. I’m always more into soul music and dance. I’m more that way orientated than indie music. There’s always that thread going through.”
I see Delilah provides one of those voices on this record too, along with (a more prominent) Madeline Hart and Rose Elinor Dougall. When did that link come along? There’s a French theme in places here too. Do you spend a lot of time between London and Paris, pandemics aside?
“The B.E.D. thing is not that relevant. I spent a week doing it, and to be honest it wasn’t that enjoyable – everyone argued. So I kind of forget about that.”
“Yeah, it’s a continuation, but you try and do something different.”
Comparing his celebrated last LP with this, we’re told Prince Of Tears was ‘a cinematic confessional trying to stay afloat on the seas of relationship failure,’ while The Night Chancers ‘finds the songwriter adopting a more directorial approach to his tracks, sketching out people and situations as he initially dives deep into the darkness before reaching an emotional dawn’.
The man himself adds of the conscious progression across the album, “It’s meant to be a bit Kubrick-y, a psychological journey through the maze bit in The Shining. So they’re not all confessional, it’s more of a feeling projected into a filmic narrative. On some of the tracks different characters appear.”
And if Baxter isn’t always coming from a personal point of view on every song – and there are still plenty of moments where he lays his life out lyrically – he is speaking from candid, first-hand experience. From thrilling affairs that dissolve into sweaty desperation (‘The Night Chancers’) to the absurd bloggers fruitlessly clinging to the fag ends of the fashion set (‘Sleep People’), via soiled real life (‘Slumlord’), social media-enable stalkers (‘I’m Not Your Dog’) and new day, sleep-deprived optimism (‘Daylight’), its finely-drawn vignettes are supposedly ‘all based on the corners of a world Dury has visited’.
“They are things I’ve experienced or seen. That explorative period after being in a long relationship – you find yourself in situations where your bravado about what’s happened and the reality are two different things.”
The title track and centrepiece defines that spirit, a brutal self-satire on an evening spent in a Paris hotel. He explains, “‘The Night Chancers‘ is about being caught out in your attempt at being free. It’s about someone leaving a hotel room at three in the morning. You’re in a posh room with big Roman taps and all that, but after they go suddenly all you can hear is the taps dripping and all you can see the debris of the night is all around you. Then suddenly a massive party erupts in the room next door. This happened to me and all I could hear was the night chancers, the hotel ravers.
“Nothing compounds your loneliness more than then you’ve got crumbs stuck to your face, the girl’s left and there’s a party next door. What do you do? You try to bring the person back and you lose all of your dignity by showing your vulnerability. It’s all a bit of a theatrical scream into the night. There are these moments and characters across the album – it’s quite a diss-y record, but most of the disses are inspired by insecurities. The characters are very flawed. It’s cocky but it’s really vulnerable.”
The result is impressive, Baxter writing a soundtrack infused with classic disco, Italian pop, ’80s hip-hop beats and strings, each micro-narrative key to a wider mood across the album.
“Musically I’ve pushed on,” he suggests, its 10 tracks written over four months in the first half of 2019, then recorded over three weeks. “I had a formula for the previous records but now that’s done. Everything was leading up to the full sound I had on Prince Of Tears, so I don’t need to do another one of those. I’ve done something different, something new, with this one, and it’s been fun – although the orchestra was fucking expensive!”
Those differences include his vocal contributions, his charming yet brutal monologues underpinning the uniqueness, but with different inflections and voices – veering from his usual dispassionate cool, through rage, foppish injury and twisted documentarian.
“I recorded all the vocals alone. It’s what I call faux Chiswick Urban. It always goes back to Chiswick, because it’s a stable reference point for me. I wasn’t brought up there, but it represents the insulated safety of middle-class London yet has a sort of real undercurrent to it, it’s quite tough. So I did these faux accents on the record, inspired by a lot of real people who I’ll never namecheck.”
And with a different take on that earlier mention of skillsets, he tells us, “The only skill I’ve got is being honest. I’ve got a tiny bit of melody and a lot of honesty, and the latter is really my only facet. I’m not even sure it’s a skill, it’s more like being in a freak-show. I’m honest about my successes and failures, which sometimes can sound arrogant while other times I’m alarmingly, disarmingly honest.”
You describe the new LP as ‘a 10-song gaze into the black hours and characters and behaviours that swirl around within them’. It’s a dark and gritty LP, but you pull it off. It’s almost a 21st century take on Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours in that sense.
“Yeah, that’s good. I like that, totally! But it’s just what it is. Information sourced locally from what I’m experiencing at the time. It’s not a concept album. It’s just micro-details about one’s life.”
He’s described the period after Prince Of Tears as ‘halfway between heartbreak and getting back on your feet, when you’re rebuilding – not necessarily successfully – your outlook on life’ and ‘trying to fit into the modern world, avoiding the barbed wire between youth and maturity’. And I don’t think it’s just the case that Jason Williamson guested on that last LP that makes me think track two on this one, ‘Slumlord’, carries an air of his work with Sleaford Mods, or at least that coupled with a Blockheads vibe.
“Oh, maybe, yeah. It’s good if people’s imaginations respond in such a way. It wasn’t intentional.”
“Completely, yeah. Absolutely.”
Who’s in the band on this record? And will it be the same live when you finally get out there?
“I can’t remember who we played with, but there’s a slight difference with some personnel shared between. Who knows with the live one, particularly as we don’t know when it will happen. Musicians are scrabbling to confirm any dates they can with any band they can, so it’s very hard, although we’ve put some theoretical dates in.“
I spotted those, aiming for the last week of September and into October. Although as you say, it’s theoretical for now. Besides, it seems that the world and his wife will be out on tour around then.
“There’ll be a big traffic jam of all the tour buses!”
You clearly work well with Craig Silvey.
“Yeah, we’re really good mates. The best of mates, and we have been for years and years.”
How did that partnership come about?
“I really can’t remember, but the very first album he worked on. And there was no real point not to work with him ever since. Consequently, he’s one of the biggest mixers in the world now, and we’ve just got good vibes.”
Guitarist and writing partner Shaun Paterson is a more recent addition though.
“Yeah, he joined the band about a year or two ago. He’s been great though.”
The previous weekend marked the 20th anniversary of Baxter’s father Ian Dury’s passing, far too young at 57. And I’m intrigued that the tour finale at The Forum in Kentish Town is now pencilled in for October 5th, 30 years – give or take 10 days- after I first caught Ian Dury and The Blockheads live, at the very same Kentish Town venue, then trading as the Town and Country Club. That was a benefit show – bass legend Norman Watt-Roy featuring for Wilko Johnson’s support band too – for Blockheads drummer Charley Charles, less than three weeks after he passed away.
“Oh, right. Weird, yeah. OK, that’ll be good. Charley was a good guy.”
I’m guessing you knew The Blockheads well, even around then.
“Yeah, especially Charley. He was one of my favourites, to be honest, very friendly if you were a young person. He was great.”
It’s all too easy to make comparisons between Baxter and his Dad, not least when they clearly share that love for words and wordplay and crafting them. There are many great examples on this record, not least ‘Carla’s Got a New Boyfriend’, part poetic, part-funny, yet somewhat chilling. Something his old man could definitely do. I tried my best not to talk too much about Ian though, realising all too well he’s his own man, as proved throughout his impressive career so far. How would he say his own work has progressed – album by album – since 2002 debut, Les Parrot’s Memorial Lift?
“I’m not sure. I just try and do something different. I’m not sure if you progress. Music’s inherently in people from the point you start wanting to do it. It doesn’t always get better or worse, it just changes. You can play the guitar a bit quicker, maybe, but that’s about it. You learn lots of unnecessary skills. But it’s all quite natural – lying there within people, and just has to be reared out.”
You mentioned your lad, Kosmo, who arrived on the scene around the time of your debut LP (and I am after all talking to an artist who appeared alongside his own father on the front cover of wondrous first album, New Boots and Panties). Has he followed your lead and got involved in music too?
“He has, yeah, and that’s how he’s surviving this apocalypse – writing songs. He’s good. He’s brilliant.”
Joining the family trade, yeah?
“Well, I’m trying to dis-encourage him from emulating it, doing his own thing instead, standing on his own feet.”
By rights, you should be just a fortnight from hitting the UK circuit again, touring the new record, starting with a first night in Leeds. But that’s not happening now, and I guess we’ve all got to just pull together to get through this now.
“You feel what you feel. You’ve got to work out another agenda really. Otherwise you’ll eat yourself up. There’s no point fighting it. It’s not like it’s just you and your street – it’s the whole world. You’ve got to sit back on this one, let it have its day. It’s pretty grotesquely massive, and I think if you’re in good health, credit yourself for that and be as positive as you can really.”
Not a bad philosophy for life itself.
You started out at the turn of the century with Rough Trade, but these days you’re on board with Heavenly Recordings. Did that mean a big change for you, dependent on who’s putting your records out?
“Well, I’ve been through a few labels, and it depends how good the people are. And Heavenly are really nice, so I can’t complain, y’know. They’re all owned by more darker, cynical people in the background, and you need a few of those in the business, but Heavenly themselves are an amazing label, and they’re my friends, so it seems appropriate.”
Time was running out on me now, so I decided to go for a harder-hitting question – whose dog is that barking on the title track?
“Ah … the first one I could find on a Google search.”
Ah, he spoiled the image now. I wanted to hear that it was his, it belonged to someone at the studio, or was the son or grandson of the boxer dog on the front of his Dad’s final LP, the terrific Mr Love Pants.
“Nah, I just liked it and nicked it! I typed in ‘dog sounds’ and that was literally the first I found. I taped it randomly and whacked it on there!”
Ah well. And if there’s an over-riding message to this album, is it that ‘Baxter loves you’, as we hear from the girls on the play-out of album finale, ‘Say Nothing’? And is that your modern take on Clive Dunn’s iconic late 1970 UK No.1, ‘Grandad’?
“Well, it’s sort of an answer to the beginning of the record, where I’m a bit more dismissive. It’s a bit like The Shining. It’s sort of, ‘Baxter loves you … but I might stick an axe in your neck’.”
Fair enough. and with that I felt I better leave him to it. So he could get back to his riverside self-isolation with Kosmo.
Meanwhile, to check out Really Glad You Came – this website’s re-appraisal of the Ian Dury record collection, from late October 2014, head here.
You can also check out February 2019’s interview with Blockheads and Wilko Johnson’s bass-playing legend Norman Watt-Roy, and a WriteWyattUK review of The Blockheads at Preston’s 53 Degrees in March 2013 here.
Then there’s Still Stiff After All These Years, a November 2014 interview with Richard Balls, author of Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – the Life of Ian Dury, and Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story, via this link.