28 Aug Ask The Artist: Dave Wakeling (The English Beat)
The Beat (known in North America as The English Beat and in Australia as The British Beat) are a band founded in Birmingham, England, in 1978. Their music fuses ska, pop, soul, reggae and punk rock. Their lead man, Dave Wakeling is a hell of a nice guy! Dave loves to tell you the stories behind his songs, either from stage or after the show. Ask any of the thousands of fans who have met him over the years and that’s what you’ll hear. Never mind that Dave is the singer/songwriter from the two of the most popular bands of the end of the millennium, The English Beat and General Public.
Notable singles from the first album included “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”, “Mirror In the Bathroom”, “Hands Off She’s Mine” and “Best Friend”. The second Beat album, Wha’ppen? was supported by extensive touring, including a US tour with The Pretenders and Talking Heads. The album yielded more UK hits, with “All Out to Get You,” “Drowning” and “Doors of Your Heart”, all of which broke into the Top 40 of the UK Singles Chart. We’ve been huge fans of them ever since their first record and were extremely excited to work with Dave. We invited him in Studio A to talk about his legacy and his current project that he’s finishing up as we speak. It’s been a pleasure having him at the studio and we’re thrilled to share this exclusive interview with you today.
How did you get started in music?
My dad gave me a guitar when I was 12. A band called the rocking-berries in Birmingham hadn’t their tour manager and my dad said that a guy was selling gear out of the back of his van at a pub. So he bought this acoustic guitar and gave it to me. Neither of us knew what to do with it. I picked it up and I thought the difficult bit was on your right hand and the easy bit was the strumming bit, so I started learning the guitar upside down, the wrong way round. I couldn’t get it to work, got some books on it, none of the chords worked so I gave up. I tuned it to my own chords and sound and started writing songs, which was the start of it.
I met a kid at a college, he played guitar as well we both found out. We said that we should bring in our guitars to school one day at lunchtime. We got our guitars out and I said, haha you’re playing that the wrong way around you know! That was Andy from The Beat, and we started The Beat in 1979 a couple of years later. We thought we had something brand new mixing punk and reggae together. The energy of punk and the sinuous backbeat of reggae. We saw the specials in a melody maker in my car, somebody else had done it. We nearly gave up, but we gave it a go and we’re still doing it 30 years later. So thanks to the rocking-berries guitar!
Can you share any fun memories with The Beat?
My favorite memory was David Bowie coming in our dressing room. We had been the opening band at Milton Keynes for two nights. He came in before we went on, to say how much he had enjoyed it and was everything okay. Saxer our Jamaican saxophone player who was in his 60’s then. Piped up and said “come with me sonny boy”, put his arm around David Bowie and dragged him to the refrigerator. We were shocked! He opens the door and says: “Can you see any red stripe in there?”, which David Bowie replied to: “no”. He closed the door and David Bowie went off. He came back 15 minutes later with two six packs of red stripe. Saxer was all happy and said: “Nice boy that is, who that anyway? What him doing in the dressing room?”. I said “Oh that’s David Bowie”, “Bloody Hell I thought he was a waiter!”. He had his little black and white tuxedo suit on and Sax thought he was a waiter, sent him out for some beer and he did. So I think that that’s my favorite memory of The English Beat.
Can you give us a brief overview of The Beat?
The English Beat made 3 albums with the original album and the first album came out big with 5 hit singles of the first one. Then when the band split up they brought out “Can’t get used to losing you”, the Andy Williams song. It was on the first album, which was a hit as well. That made the album have 6 hit singles, which is one more than Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Didn’t stay for that long. Anyway by the third album we were starting to get big hits in America and not so much in England. Some of the band felt quite sad about that. Somebody actually said to me “But Dave we’re just playing stadiums of 10,000 people every night” and I said, “Yes, and your point would be?”. So we packed that in and then we did General Public, me and Roger. We had quite a few hits in America, more in America than in England. “Tenderness” was a hit, “Have you done that” was a hit, and our version of “I’ll take you there”, which went number 1 on the dance charts. I couldn’t dance to any of the mixes, I thought they were for robots! But it went number one anyway. Then Bill Clinton used the song in his campaign, which he won. Then Obama used it in his campaign, twice and he won! And I still never got invited to the white house!
What’s your favorite song to perform?
I like to perform “Save It For Later”, that’s my favorite because it’s only 3 chords and it doesn’t change, it just gets louder or softer. You don’t have to look at your guitar for that one, so it’s dead easy. It’s very hypnotic, it’s one of our favorites, the crowd always likes it and it’s one of the easiest to do so that’s perfect. The crowd goes nuts and you don’t have to do much at all.
What’s your favorite guitar?
Vox Teardrop guitar, or copies I’ve had made of the Vox Teardrop. Bryan Jones had one and he was my favorite Rolling Stone and I wanted to be him until he died, or he was murdered by the Rolling Stones. I do get warned by that, I could’ve been the Bryan Jones of The Beat. I wanted to be him and I used to play my cricket bat or my tennis racket and pretend it was a teardrop in the mirror when my mom had gone out shopping. I even bought a blond wig from a second-hand shop and I cut it out into a bob. As soon as I heard the front door I would think “Great, she’s gone”. I would take out the wig, the cricket back and play in front of the mirror.
In regards to your current project, how is it different than projects you have completed in the past?
Most times when you’re doing an album you do it all in one huge block. I’ve been touring in between, working here at NRG and working at home sometimes, so it’s been going on for a lot longer than usual, which is really fantastic because you don’t get sick of it by the time you come to mix it. So it’s been great to be able to sit and listen to it and instead of making drastic moves to try and make something right, It’s just like “I know what it is!”. Sometimes that takes a few days, a few listeners. Or if it is something drastic and you listen to it plenty of times and go “Nah, we have to do that again or something has to be replaced”. So it’s been fantastic for that! It takes an enormous amount of work to make something appear effortless. When I first showed up, Jay said that you can make it almost perfect if you’re willing to put the work in nowadays. With the combination of the wonderful classic gear plus all the computer technology on top of it. About 2 million work hours later from me and Kyle, it’s proved right. You can get it to sound like the orchestra in your head and the song just sounds like you want it to sound.
What is your favorite processing technique?
My favorite processing technique is sitting back and watching the likes of Kyle and Jay do it properly. I like echoes, reverbs and repeats. We’re getting to the point on some of the mixes now on the songs where we get to do some dubs. There are these little dub sections where the drums will start repeating and stuff and I kind of like doing that.
What do you like most about working at NRG Recording Studios?
The great thing about NRG and the same about any other great studio is that there’s a sense of reverence of what’s going on. Not so much me, but anybody coming in at the height of their career and quite big pop stars and that. A lot of us are writing from the dark edges of our lives, the ones that get your really emotional and make you run and write it down and that sort of thing. Often the subject matter of songs is very heavily loaded and it doesn’t take much for somebody like that to get easily spooked. It’s not quite like a church it’s more like a stable with really good thorough bred horse carers. So you can get them in, get them to perform and feel comfortable and feel contempt like they have the orchestra in their head out and get them out before they start tearing the place to bits, or tear themselves to bits. It can get really close, anybody who’s been around studios for years has seen some really funny stuff happen.
What is your favorite piece of gear at NRG?
My favorite gear has been the classic amplifiers and one classic Telecaster guitar. I have a Telecaster, a 1979 that I got on the day of my first record deal. It’s a big deal to me, I’ve taken it to every gig, I think it sounds best even better than the teardrop guitars. I’m quite proud of it and I expected to play that on this record. I came in, I tried it and Kyle EQ’d it and it sounded lovely, I’m ready to go and Kyle said: ”Before you start, why don’t you try our Telecaster out, just give it a go”. I did and I’ve never wanted to play my Telecaster since this thing sounded like a bell. A bell from the late 1950’s, the difference was amazing. I thought my guitar was well set up, but this thing sounded so lovely and played so well that I think I ended up using it on almost every song on the record.
Are there currently any artists that you listen to?
I think the last group that I listened to that I really liked was Foster The People. I like their sounds and their sardonic lyrics, I like sardonic lyrics. I like lyrics that sound simple from a distance and then you go “did he just say that”, yes he did!
How was it growing up in the United Kingdom? When did you move to the United States?
Halfway through my life as it is now, I moved here when I was 30. So I had 30 years in England and 30 years in America and it probably looks like another 30 in America. It’s very different, some good and some bad. Growing up in England with a national Health system, National Welfare system and free University education you had the sense as a kid growing up that the people in the streets had your back. I don’t think that that’s necessarily true in England now, but it was then as I was growing up. Even at the time when I left England, there was a sense that everybody had everybody else’s back. You don’t get that sense in America. Everybody has got to take care of themselves, we pride ourselves on our individual freedom instead of our collective freedom. Unless it’s the Olympics or the armed forces, apart from that it’s every man for himself. Sometimes I miss that, but it’s like that in England now as well.
What advice would you give future generations who are interested in the music industry?
I think my advice would be to meditate 5 minutes longer every day than you masturbate. It doesn’t really matter then how much you masturbate, as long as you meditate 5 minutes more. Then that should keep an even balance on things. There’s a lot of tension in this game, it’s got to come out somewhere. I think that will keep an even balance. People are more pragmatic about it now. When I wanted to join a group it was because I didn’t want a job and there were tons of jobs about that I didn’t want. I thought that if it doesn’t work out being in a group I’ll just get a job I suppose. So it wasn’t really a leap of huge faith. But now I see people going into the industry with a couple of irons in the fire. So they’ll play a couple of instruments or they write a couple of songs and or they engineer and follow a few different tracks. Anything that you love, follow that. Because if you can’t do what you want to do, you might end up doing what you do really well. Which is a great second prize isn’t it. The worst thing would be to just go out and get a job. THat’s what I would say, be diverse. And if you’re going down the road of writing songs, don’t even bother leaving the house if it doesn’t leave the hairs to go up on the back of your neck or if you cried a bit once writing it. If you didn’t, you didn’t mean it and it’s not going to affect anybody else. You have all of this stuff and you can polish shit, but you can’t polish intent. If a song is going to connect with somebody, it’s got to come from some kind of grimy place in your own dark heart. Everybody can write a song nowadays, that doesn’t mean everybody should.
We want to thank Dave for taking the time and sharing some of memories and experiences over the years. We’ve been a fan of The English Beat since they first started and it’s been great to see Dave’s music progress to what it has become today. It’s been a fantastic experience working with him at NRG. If you like these interviews and would like to see us doing more of them, let us know who we should interview next.