South by Southwest Keynote Speaker, Ray Davies
"There's Lennon, there's Dylan, and there's Davies." That's rock & roll's songwriting pantheon according to Kevin Carney of Austin's Wannabes, who like a gaggle of local musicians, is ecstatic that Ray Davies will be delivering this year's South by Southwest keynote address. When Carney learns I've been assigned to interview the Kinks icon, his joy morphs into rapture and then, slowly, into something between reverence and mortification: "What ... are you going to ask him?"
Precisely. What does one ask Ray Davies, a songwriter whose work is more accessible broken down into decades rather than albums? In the mid-Sixties, the Kinks shared stages with the fabbest of the fab and scored major hits with "You Really Got Me," "All Day and All of the Night," and "Waterloo Sunset." The Seventies opened with the group's biggest single "Lola," but spun off into hitless concept albums like the two volumes of Preservation, while the Eighties found the group returning to radio prominence with "Predictable," "Come Dancing," and "Destroyer." The Nineties had Davies focusing on his solo career as The Storyteller and author of a book of short stories and his "unauthorized" autobiography, X-Ray.
Along the way, he married Pretender Chrissie Hynde, brawled continually with his lead guitarist and brother, Dave, and always cut an ever-dashing and wordly figure. Where does one begin with a life such as this? The music, of course, and the most obvious evidence of Davies' seminal influence on rock & roll is reflected in the range of artists who have covered Kinks songs: Marianne Faithfull, Iggy Pop, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, Van Halen, Elvis Costello, Big Star, Yo La Tengo, Green Day. And that's the short list. Later this year, This Is Where I Belong: The Songs of Ray Davies & the Kinks, featuring Bebel Gilberto, Matthew Sweet, Jonathan Richman, Lambchop, Queens of the Stone Age, and Austin's Fastball, makes its debut.
So what questions does one ask such a man? According to legend, Davies is cagey, brash, and brilliant, virtually pulsating with contempt for a music industry that has continually screwed him; case in point was the Velvel label's deluxe reissuing of the Kinks catalog a couple years ago. No sooner were they done than the label went under. This is what Davies, more often than not, has been subject to. As his inquisitor, I will embody that evil. He will eviscerate me.
Perhaps, though, he won't eat his own kind. Inspired by Carney's enthusiasm, I hit up local musicians for questions to offer up as sacrifices at the Davies/Kinks' altar. As a mere messenger, I cannot be shot.
The day after opening his UK tour in Coventry, Davies speaks to me from his hotel in Leicester. Distracted by technical glitches concerning that evening's gig, he sounds apologetic and weary, but gains momentum as we discuss his songwriting, person, and future. Only once do I fear he wants me for lunch.
Austin Chronicle: Is SXSW the primary reason you're coming over to the States?
Ray Davies: Yeah, yeah. I agreed to do it when the tour dates were not finalized, but it just so happens that there's a little break so I can get back and forth easily.
AC: How were you persuaded to do that?
RD: Huh? To do what?
AC: To come over for SXSW?
RD: They very kindly asked me to do it. And I'd heard about it. I actually wanted to come in the past, just as an interested spectator.
AC: You're aren't going to have time to see shows, though? You're just going to pop in and out, or ...
RD: Yeah, well, there was talk of doing a date, but because of the shortness of time, I'm just going to pop in and do the thing, do a press conference, and meet a few people. There's a few people I'm looking forward to seeing there.
AC: Kiss a few babies, that sort of thing? Shake a few hands?
RD: Kiss a few babies? [laughs] No, I don't think so. I will if there are some there, of course. I'll kiss a baby's head.
AC: Will you be bringing your guitar, or will you just be speaking?
RD: Well, I'm sure they have other ones in Austin.
AC: That's the national instrument of Texas. Pretty much every citizen carries one everywhere they go.
RD: I remember when I did my show there -- I forget the name of the club [La Zona Rosa] -- it was a really good gig.
AC: Is the UK tour you're on now in support of something?
RD: Basically my Storytellers show that I toured with here was very successful. And it's just a callback. They want me to go and do it again for some reason.
AC: Well, because everyone was really into it.
RD: It was good, yeah. And some places I hadn't played before.
AC: Did your manager tell you that my musician friends were swarming me with questions they would ask you? -- to sort of abdicate my journalistic responsibilities, I thought it would be a much better idea ...
RD: I won't tell anybody.
AC: Well, you know, it's a music business conference. And editors always want to know things about labels and stuff like that [see intro]. I knew my musician friends would come through with flying colors and ask stuff I wanted to know.
But first I'm going to cut in line. I read your autobiography, X-Ray, last week, which I had avoided, because I try not to read what musicians say about their songs, especially when I'm really into them. I wasn't prepared for you to dismiss "Waterloo Sunset" as some sort of off-handed tripe.
RD: I don't think the book was written to justify my music. It kind of sets up a time and a place, and what it was like.
AC: I thought you were really affectionate toward that song.
RD: I am. I am. I forget how I talk about it in the book.
AC: You provide a nice context. It's not like John Lennon, who had a habit of dismissing songs that are really important to people. You, on the other hand, don't destroy the listener's relationship with the songs.
RD: Well, I think songs have a right to be as important to the person who buys the record almost as much as to the person who wrote it. You know, when I like certain records, I don't want to have my illusions shattered. I don't think I'm out to shatter people's illusions about my songs.
Sometimes the most beautiful piece of work can be done, whether it's music or art, or a literary work, at times of complete crisis. Somehow, that's the only thing that shines through at the end of it. Sometimes musicians go through that, I suppose, like any other artist, and perhaps their memories aren't fond about the things they were going through at the time. The important thing is that the work comes out well.
I think with "Waterloo Sunset," I was in the midst of a big legal dispute over things, and the band wasn't touring America, and my career was in complete chaos. But, you know, the music endures. I don't put the work down. I just know what I was living through.
AC: It's was interesting that these songwriters I talked to -- you know, who often claim the song should speak for itself -- all had a favorite Kinks song they wanted you to explain or put in context. The Village Green record came up a lot. One musician in particular wanted to know how it's held up for you over time, and if were you undergoing a shift in how you were writing at the time.
RD: What, the song or the album?
AC: The album.
RD: Preservation Society ...
AC: It's treated pretty sparsely in your book.
RD: Yeah, again, I think the book is not a definitive parallel: "This is my life, this is the way I was working." I suppose it's about someone going through a really bad time as a teenager.
That album was written when I was in my early 20s. It was a time when I couldn't come to America, and I kind of withdrew into my own world, in a sense. It was a world that I wanted to exist, and we didn't care how many records we sold. It didn't matter to us. It certainly didn't matter to me. The songs are just sketches, really. I always feel with that album -- it's not an album to be played on the radio. It's songs for friends to get together and listen to.
AC: My last question from a writer's perspective is about your book. I was interested in the conceit of the dying Ray Davies character. He's sort of the quintessential unreliable narrator. Did you do that intentionally to not be accountable to facts?
RD: No, I think people think of musicians as being unreliable, in the sort of straight world, I suppose. I think musicians have a certain code of honor. I dunno. I don't really think of myself as a musician.
AC: What do you think of yourself as?
RD: A writer and a performer. But I don't really think of myself as a musician. I don't really get into fuzz boxes, myself. I keep with very straight sounds. I like playing around with technology, but I don't think of myself as a musician. Perhaps a composer. It may sound a bit grand, but, you know, hey.
AC: Your book really permeates the reader's subconscious. For me, anyway, you enter into that little researcher's head. You start dreaming about your life as well. You do a good job of capturing the emotional tones. I didn't think it would work at first -- the story within a story. But it was far more affecting than just a litany of rock facts: and then who did you sleep with, blah, blah.
RD: No, I couldn't do that kind of book. I think that's the book they wanted. You know, if I could write that kind of book, I'd probably be on my third bestseller by now.
AC: When you were saying you don't envision yourself as a musician, that's related to another musician question -- your forays into the realm of the musical. The King Arthur record, for instance, that preceded the Who's rock operas. Why haven't you done a musical?
RD: Well I did a musical out in La Jolla about 10 years ago. It was a musical about Jules Verne. And I'm just finishing a musical now called Come Dancing.
AC: Yeah, I read something about that. For the National Theatre in London?
RD: Yeah, yeah. That might be produced next year. It's a very strange form, the musical. It's really an American thing, you know. The music serves a different purpose, or the songs do anyway. They're supposed to carry the plot, or take the narrative on and all that.
So, I think I like it because of the challenge of construction, because sometimes creating -- not music so much as composing a moment with music -- is like working with a giant Lego set. It's a bit like that, building a building. And putting the bricks in one by one, and then knocking it all down again. It's an art of construction.
AC: What's the premise of Come Dancing, the musical?
RD: It's about a family that lived near a ballroom in London. It's a time when the big bands are just phasing out and rock music's coming in. It's about this girl and her brother growing up and wanting to achieve things, like all kids who are around 17.
AC: Is it based on your own sisters?
RD: A cumulative version, yeah.
AC: Paul McCartney has a song called "Ballroom Dancing" with a similar time and place reference. Is that a reference that has a sort of romance to musicians of your time or ilk?
RD: Not really, no. When we came along, we were the people responsible for finally closing the ballrooms down, in a sense, because we came along with guitars and blew off all the horn players and big bands.
AC: You seem to have a reverence for that kind of song construction -- unless I'm just mixing times and genres together incorrectly.
RD: What song construction?
AC: The sort of traditional, music-hall ...
RD: I think you have it in American music, too, although it didn't endure as long as it did in Britain. You certainly had variety in America -- I think during the Depression you had it. But in England, it does go back a little bit more into our Victorian tradition. I understand Victorian music hall was the place to go, you know, it was the entertainment palace. It was the Sony multiplex of its time.
AC: I interviewed Robyn Hitchock yesterday, and he reckons a performer should be able to do it all -- songwriting, comedy, storytelling, etc. He tells these bizarre little tangential stories between his songs, sort of like your Storyteller show. I wonder if it's a British thing ...
RD: No, Will Rogers did it. He was an American.
AC: Yeah, Bob Dylan too, I guess.
RD: I think the difference with me is that my narrative floats outside the music as well as resonating within it. I approach the Storyteller show like a musical, in a sense, in how I construct it.
AC: How do you mean?
RD: I think as the show exists now, it's evolving into one big narrative, rather than lots of little narratives hooked up with a piece of chat in between. I don't want to be that trite with it. The evening has an intermission, and people go with an expectancy of what's going to happen in the second half.
AC: So how are you culling the songs to form that narrative?
RD: I don't know if you saw the last show. It's different from the thing I did on VH1, which as you know, probably started that whole [Storytellers] series, or helped create that series. The show I do starts off as a journey with somebody, and it's about me sort of finding my band, but it's also about any young person trying to find an identity. That's what I hope the show is going to do.
I think the best thing about the best bands and musicians that come along, is that they influence other musicians who go on and make their career. I think that's the important thing. When I wrote "You Really Got Me," for example, as I explain in the show -- well, I don't explain anything, really. I like to think the show works and people get the impression of what I'm saying, rather than sitting down and saying, "Now when I did this, I was doing it for this reason." It's a process of discovery.
When I wrote "You Really Got Me," I wanted it to be a blues song. Like a Leadbelly or a Broonzy song. But because I was a white kid from North London, I put in certain musical shifts that made it unique to what I did. And someone influenced by "You Really Got Me" would make it a different way. Like Van Halen wanted it more metal, and they took it up a tone. Everybody's got their own way of doing the same thing.
AC: One musician had read somewhere that you preferred the Van Halen version to your own. Is that out of context?
RD: Because they changed the key, it was, in a sense, more ... I don't prefer it to our version. I think our version is probably the best. But I like the way they ... It's a very American version. They Americanized it. They gave it their own signature.
AC: What do you mean, Americanized it?
RD: I think because they put it in three sharps.
AC: That's the American key?
RD: Yeah. It sharpened it. It tightened it up. It's very -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- catenated. Whereas our version is laid back, in a sense.
AC: Actually, in talking about that song ... One musician wanted to know if you agree with the modern contention that the Kinks invented the power chord.
RD: I think certainly "All Day and All of the Night" was the one of the first songs with power chords. I dunno. Maybe a kid was doing it somewhere in a garage, but didn't actually get a record made. But to actually put it on a record and have a hit with it. I guess you could say, yeah.
AC: When you were talking about a song dictating a narrative, I was reminded of Rushmore. Have you seen it?
RD: I've seen the film. They used one of our songs.
AC: The scene in which they used it is so brilliant. And there's no dialogue -- just Bill Murray and "Nothin' in this World to Stop Me Worryin' About That Girl," which completely creates a background for this character within two or three minutes. How did you feel about them using that in the film?
RD: I didn't know it was in. I went to see the film 'cause I fancied seeing the film. For a moment I was shocked, too shocked to actually judge what the song was doing.
AC: Really? You didn't even know?
RD: I was trying to work out why they used it. I was trying to remember the song as well, then. I guess when you think about it, it's by the swimming pool. He's fallen in love with the teacher, and she's having a fling with Bill Murray, isn't it, if you analyze it like that.
AC: You have this miserable guy, and you don't know why. In the scene, as he's tossing the golf balls in the pool, you realize his wife is obviously sleeping around. I wouldn't say it's a literal re-creation of the song ...
RD: No, but you don't have to be literal. It's like I was saying earlier, you don't want to sit down and say, "This is what I think, ladies and gentlemen." You want people to be seduced by the overall impact of the vision, the action, and the music, all making everything move along together.
AC: Did you know the director wanted to score the whole thing with Kinks songs?
RD: Yeah, I heard about that. Brave man.
AC: There were a lot of questions about production. Something Else was, according to one of these musicians, the last record produced by your first producer Shel Talmy. Is that right?
RD: Something Else? No, no, I produced that.
AC: Oh, it's credited to him on the record.
RD: That's a contractual thing.
AC: Oh really? Because "Waterloo Sunset" is the only track attributed to you.
RD: I did "Waterloo Sunset" as the first song for that album, and then I did all the others. Yeah, that was a contract thing. And we didn't have a contract with him; he was contracted by the record company. It was all very strange. I said, aw, no, we better put his name on it. He got a royalty I think, as well.
AC: Huh. So you did the whole thing then?
RD: The last one he did was Face to Face. No, the last one he did, when we decided that he had to go, was Live at Kelvin Hall. I think that was the one.
AC: Why did you decide he had to go?
RD: Well, I dunno, it's like ...
AC: Was he kind of a hired hand?
RD: No, he wasn't a hired hand. He was very much part of us. It just took off in its own direction. These things happen. You make a few good records together and then people get other ideas.
AC: Do you like producing your own stuff?
RD: No, I like working with people. One of the reasons I'm coming [to SXSW] is to see what other producers are out there. I think there's a whole new talented breed of engineer/ producers out there.
AC: What do you look for in a producer?
RD: I think they should know a little bit about how songs are constructed, but also someone with an overview, who knows the big picture. I don't want someone to come in to a record and say, "Ohhh, I like that track and that track" -- like one of those star producers -- "I'll do those, and if that works out I'll maybe do the rest of the album." I'd like someone to be part of the project. I like working in a group team.
RD: Yep. When it comes to that sort of thing.
AC: Have you co-written with people?
RD: I've tried, yeah.
AC: No go?
RD: I'm amazingly flexible when it comes to collaborating. You know, doing musicals, for example, you have to collaborate, even if you write the words and the music, which I tend to do. You work with the book writer, director, scenery -- everything has an impact.
AC: The boys are going to be really upset with me if I don't ask any craft-related questions. Don't you do some songwriting workshops in the UK?
RD: I've done that every year for the last nine years.
AC: How do you approach that situation?
RD: I don't have any pre-conceived plans. I try to find out ways of making them improve and see what problems they have and if I can help. I can hear maybe one or two songs, and you've probably got the same problem in every song. It's just a question of curing it. Or, if you can't cure it, develop it and use it as one of your tools rather than say it's a bad thing and cut it out.
AC: So you never have to say, "Oh, there's no hope here."
RD: No. I think the good thing about songwriting, and why so many people still want to do it, and the reason you still keep getting bands springing up, is because there are no definitive ... You know, there's one way how to work a computer, one way to do it and you have to learn how to do it that way. That's the way most things are in the world. There's one way to drive a car. Fly a rocketship.
But with songwriting, there are so many different ways you can use what abilities you have to the greatest advantage possible and turn out a great piece of work eventually, and it's come from you. That's why the individuals are important. I suppose if you're really a computer whiz, you can be an individual with it, but basically you have to go through these learning channels to actually become good at it. That's what I call the mechanical world.
The world of songwriting is part of ... what will I call it ... kind of the intuitive world. The people that still want to -- you know, your character in Rushmore, for example, finds his way through life. Everybody finds their own way through life. And I think songwriting helps a lot of people -- frustrates the hell out of a lot of other people.
And also, to get signed to a major label now you've got to be a certain type of artist. You've got to learn how to smile at the right time, look the right way, come up with the right goods, be there on time. And they try to train people to be in pop groups now.
AC: Actually, one of the musicians that I talked to had one of those heavy-MTV-rotation hits recently called "The Way," and ...
RD: "The Way"?
AC: I don't know how well it did in the UK.
RD: [He asks his publicist if she knows the song. She doesn't know, so he barks at me.] Right, how does it go? Sing it.
AC: Ahhhh ... [This had to come, of course -- the moment of abject humiliation. Inexplicably, I follow orders.] Well, the verse goes [singing]: "They made up their minds and they started packing ..." but, well, maybe the chorus is more memorable: "Anyone can see the road that they walked on was paved in gold. It's always summer they'll never grow old ..." It's a real vertical melody ...
RD: [Devilishly imitating Hannibal Lecter] You have a lovely singing voice.
AC: Oh, thank you. That's how I was going to woo you. But my point was not to sing ...
RD: [To publicist] Was it Milly? Mindy.
AC: It's all right. It's a phoner, you don't have to remember my name.
RD: I nearly called you Clarice.
AC: My point was, Miles Zuniga, who had the big hit, had a question which was far more big-picture oriented than most: What do you think of the industry right now? Do you see similarities from when you were making music in 1964?
RD: You know, the problem now, if you want to talk about the conventional music industry, is that there are only three or four labels to go to now. Well, the Kinks were turned down by everybody. We really were. Everybody. Back then I guess there were about eight labels you could go to in the UK. Then it went through a phase of being very big, lots of labels.
The problem now is the big labels can only sell no records or 10 million. I probably had one of the first indie labels, I guess, in this modern age, a label called Konk in the Seventies. I tried to say to the distributors, who were then ABC Records and have now gone out of business or were sold to somebody, "With the bands I've got, please don't make these people make an album that's going to sell more than 20,000 units first time out in the UK. Think of your label as being a football team that's going to have a first team, and you're bringing along the youth team as well."
I put it that way because the head of the company at that time used the sports ethic whenever records went in the charts. He'd ring a bell and everybody'd sort of have a party.
Nowadays, they just don't want that. You've gotta go in there and sell 10 million or you've failed. And I think the Kinks were a bit like that. We'd make a great album and sell a lot of records, then we'd frustrate the hell out of our label by making something like Village Green Preservation Society, which like I said earlier, should have a sticker on it saying, "Not for airplay. To be played among friends." That's what I wanted to do with it.
AC: So, you got grief for that ...
RD: Generally I think it's become more focused on -- because time is money -- these people having all these expense accounts, their limos. They all fly in front of the curtain. You've got fewer and fewer labels, but the people are still getting lots of money. It hasn't changed in its cynical approach towards music. It still amazes me, the amount of people that run big companies that don't understand the music.
But then that's, I suppose, the way it is. And it will always be that way. You get people that like music because they see it as a piece of merchandise. But I'm still coming from it as an artist, which is kind of one-sided, I suppose.
It's just got much, much bigger. You've got all these funny little companies buying up catalogs and saying, "Right, we're going to be a major," and they don't know how to make new, interesting music, 'cause all they can do is follow what's in the charts.
AC: But that's not different, is it?
RD: [Wound up and steamrolling right on] You know, I could be wrong, but the whole thing about independent labels is that the people that make the music should be responsible for that and put out the records they like.
AC: Should run the labels?
RD: No, you see, you've got to have your Grey Meanies.
AC: The Grey Meanies?
RD: I'm using the Yellow Submarine --
AC: I know, but I thought they were blue.
RD: Well I call them the Grey Meanies. I made that one up.
AC: Are you taking the piss out of the Beatles again, Mr. Davies?
RD: No, not again. I always do. No, you've got to have the Meanies to make the good guys stand out. I just think it's got even more focused on the cheap. They package music like movies, because there's so much at stake now.
I'm not going to put down major labels, because they have a place. I don't know where it is, probably somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. I've been with a few. I haven't gotten along with major people since I had to go for an interview to get a grant -- that's a subsidy for education. I had to go in front of a big committee in London. Every time I go in front of a board of people at a major label, I think back to that time I had to get monies to get my college paid for. I think back to that, and it's the same sort of thing. They have the power.
AC: What happened, speaking of labels, with Velvel? They were releasing the Kinks catalog a couple of years ago, then went under.
RD: Yeah, but you know, the only smart way to do that -- 'cause I can't tour with that -- I told them to form a Kinks look-alike band and tour with that. Unless you have a real meaning for doing a show ... If you're doing a show to reappraise Muswell Hillbillies -- hopefully not Soap Opera -- but have an evening of those things, then that makes sense to play that work. But doing it for the sake of launching a new label ... they're interested in launching the label and not the act.
AC: Was that the case?
RD: I don't know what that was. I don't actually think they had the money to begin with. I don't really know too much about that, so I'm not going to comment on it.
AC: That's interesting you say that, because Robyn Hitchcock, who I mentioned earlier, is playing at the conference with his old band from the late Seventies, the Soft Boys, and they're re-releasing Underwater Moonlight, which is sort of their seminal record. He kept stressing, this isn't a reunion, they're coming to celebrate that record specifically. He'll be happy to know that you've just validated that concept. That's Saturday at SXSW.
RD: Picasso will be performing his Blue Period.
AC: So you're just here on Wednesday, then?
RD: I'm there for a few days, yeah. You know, I'm sorry if I seem somewhat detached.
AC: You don't seem -- why are you sorry?
RD: I'm in the midst of a few little problems with my gig. The problem with me is that the gig tonight is the most important thing in my life professionally. I'm not devaluing anything I'm doing in Austin. I think I want to do as well as I can tonight. There's just some little technical hitches at sound check. I'm trying to work out stuff like that. It's really boring stuff.
AC: Why is this gig such a big deal?
RD: Because I'm playing there tonight. Tomorrow's gig will be the most important thing tomorrow.
AC: You're obviously a consummate professional, because you gave me plenty of stuff I can use. I really appreciate you taking you time out. So, have a good gig then.
AC: Oh. Bye.
In my rush not to be too clingy, I abruptly hang up. Davies is very gentlemanly in exiting the interview, having stayed on the phone a good 40 minutes -- more than twice the time of a typical phone interview for someone of his magnitude and my insignificance.
Upon reflection, and self-castigation, I conclude that he was irritated that I had missed his cues to conclude the conversation. Fast-forwarding the tape to the very end, I hear something I missed in the time it took to whip the receiver from my ear to the cradle: the small, kind voice of Mr. Davies: