27 September 2011
Despite his boyish good looks and tender age (he turned 32 the day we did this interview), Sheffield's own Dave Woodcock might actually be one of the very last blue collared poets around these days. Caught somewhere between damnation and the next round of drinks, Dave Woodcock and his loyal band of brothers, The Dead Comedians, play the sort of songs that will have you longing for the days of Strumner and late 70's Springsteen. In this interview, we speak to Dave about his new album, Poisoned Nights & Bar Room Lights, the joys of growing old and why what he does could easily end up killing him.
Hi Dave. The last time we spoke - right after Omaha High Low came out a couple of years ago - you had only recently discovered The Hold Steady. Did they have any sort of influence on this new record?
Not really. What they did do was wake me up to the possibility of a hard rocking bar band who also write intricate and inspirational songs after spending way too long in the acoustic guitar troubadour mould. I definitely wanted more guitar riffs and more lyrics on this new album and The Hold Steady might've had a hand in that.
Good point. But it's usually the other way around, isn't it? Rocking hard for the most of your life, and then suddenly - with age - realizing that all you basically need is an acoustic guitar and a song about staring death in its eyes? Did doing the acoustic troubadour thing fundamentally bore you?
Well I had 4 years fronting Taste Of Shotgun before I went solo and we made a glorious racket back in the day. I did my introspective solo acoustic album soon after we split and like anything you get tired if you stay in one place too long. 'Omaha High Low' gave me a taste of working with a band again and I wanted to develop that more on the new album.
Omaha High Low was inspired by a break-up you went through. Where does that leave this new record? Is this the "I'm over you, and please give me back my Gaslight Anthem records, you insane woman!" record?
No, this is the post-breakup single life album i'm talking about. The whole album takes place during one night out, with some songs acting as flashbacks to previous relationships. And some kind of redemption at the end. It was a tough one to write but I'm glad it's out of my system.
Is that basically your approach to songwriting in a nutshell? Writing songs to get it out of your system?
Yeah absolutely. I don't know any other way of doing it. I've tried in the distant past to come up with stories and characters and narrative arcs and stuff like that but it just sounds phony. My stuff only really works - to my ears- when i really know what I'm singing about.
On the same note, I remember you telling me that most of the songs from Omaha High Low were written in - or in the vicinity of a bar. But somehow this record sounds more focused, more clear-sighted. Is that the case from your perspective?
I definitely spent longer writing this than anything I've ever done. it's much more intricate. The songs speak to each other, there are references to certain key things in various songs. It was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle to put together but i definitely wanted to write something that was more than the sum of it's parts.
There are a lot of similarities between you, Springsteen and other so-called blue collar singers. How much do you think Sheffield's history as a worker's town has formed your artistic voice?
I'm not too sure it has. I grew up in Rotherham which is just on the outskirts of Sheffield but it's a factory and mining town too - Steel and Coal - at least it *was*. There's a strong drinking culture there like there is any where. I remember being in pubs a lot growing up. There's a romance to the lifestyle I never quite shook from my system.
But this is a dangerous way of going about songwriting and living the life of an artist, isn't it? Could you still do what you do if, say, your doctor told you never to go near a bar again?
Ha ha. Of course! I mean, the songs aren't "about" drinking in the same way that Easy Rider isn't a film about bikes. That's just the mise-en-scene - to use a term from my film studies days. If I was a strict teetotaller who went to church every sunday and had a mortgage and two cars I'd probably be singing the same kinds of songs against that backdrop.
It just occurred to me - your playing has improved on this record, hasn't it?
Has it? I hope so. If it had become worse or just stagnated that would be terrible. Gotta keep moving forward.
Today is your birthday. I know it's rude asking how old you are, but if anything, what have you learned with age, not only about yourself but also about doing what you do?
I'm 32. When i first starting playing and singing my own songs I was 23. So that's nearly a decade I've been doing this. And to go back to your previous question the only thing i have really learned is that you have to strive to be better. You're only as good as your last gig, after all.
You share your birthdate with none other than George Cash. And eight years ago today, Johnny Cash died. So here's my question. If you could be a country legend for just one day, who would you be and why?
Gotta be Hank hasn't it? The reason? the only one there is - those songs.
... and not because you have this secretly morbid wish of dying on the backseat of a van somewhere on the M1?
No, who would want that? Interestingly though we touch on Hank's demise on the album when I'm singing about the death of Jean Seberg. She went the same way you know?
Could you tell me about the recording of this record?
Well we recorded it in Club 60 in Sheffield. That's a legendary underground blues and jazz club from the 1960s where guys like John Lee Hooker used to play. It was recorded over 3 very long weekends by Paul Blakeman who has done a lot of work with guys like Reverend & The Makers and Paolo Nuitini. It was a great place to record and a pretty painless experience all told. Three or four takes of each song - except for Bar Room Lights which took ages to nail. But we pretty much had the songs down through about a year of rehearsing and gigging them so it was pretty easy to get in there and knock them out. I'm dead proud of this one.
To be honest, I mention this in almost every single interview I do these days, but there are a lot of exciting things happening on the UK americana scene. Do you think you fit in with this scene?
To an extent. I'm a fan, you know? Because of the music I've made in the past it's been easy - and justified- to label it Americana and I don't have a problem with that. I draw a huge amount of inspiration from American roots music but just as much from rock n roll and punk. But its all intertwined anyway. I got into country music through The Clash, after all.
Poisoned Nights & Bar Room Lights is out now. For more on Dave Woodcock & The Dead Comedians, go to Davewoodcock.net