Interview: Dr. Robert


Photography copyright Michele Seidner

Ahead of a date at Edinburgh’s Electric Circus, The Blow Monkeys’ Dr. Robert calls 17 Seconds to discuss working with the legendary Curtis Mayfield, his Scottish roots and how he really felt the day after Margaret Thatcher died.

It’s quite exciting to get a phonecall from a bone fide music legend at home. Dr. Robert is about to head off on tour in the UK promoting the Blow Monkeys’ third album since reforming in 2007, Feels Like A New Morning. I start of by asking him how it feels, six years down the line from reforming.

‘It feels good,’ he tells me, ‘feels like we’re on a bit of a roll.’ Coming on the heels of Devil’s Tavern and Staring At The Sea, he says that the new album is the best of the three and quite seriously considers that it may be a contender for their best album. The album, I tell him, is like being given a nice warm hug. It was recorded in Bangor, wales, at a friend’s studio, amazingly mixed and recorded in just eight days.

Not that he has left his solo career behind. I ask him how he decides whether or not a song should be a solo song or a Blow Monkeys song. ‘I wrote with the band in mind,’ he explains ‘and on my own I go a bit more leftfield.’ Thirty years into his career, he is not worrying about whether a song will get played on the radio or not.

The Blow Monkeys certainly had big chart hits in the eighties, but some songs fell foul of the BBC. Not least when they released ‘Celebrate (The Day After You)’ around the time of the 1987 General Election. I ask him how he felt the day after Margaret Thatcher died this year.

‘It wasn’t just about one person,’ he tells me down the ‘phone from Spain, where he now lives with his young family. ‘It was about the Philosophy that she and Regan put forward, and then Blair put forward. In the eighties, it was important to say where you stood,’ he adds. Certainly he and the Blow Monkeys were quite clear on this – the parent album was bluntly and wonderfully entitled She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter. Another track was entitled ‘The Grantham Grizzler.’ However, he does tell me that he didn’t have a euphoric rush on hearing about her death.

The song featured the legendary Curtis Mayfield. I ask how this collaboration happened. ‘He was playing at Dingwalls {legendary venue in London’s Camden Town],’ he remembers. ‘I went to his hotel, gave him a cassette and met him at the studio.’ ‘I didn’t let him overawe me…I’m glad we met.’

Dr. Robert and the Blow Monkeys might be portrayed in the eighties slick soul category, but as well as working with Mayfield, they also had an eye on what was going on in the dance scene. A solo single -credited to Dr. Robert and Kym Mazelle -called ‘Wait’ was a hit in early 1989. This was what was being touted as ‘deep house’ at the time when ‘acid house’ went out of fashion, having gone overground. I ask him how this collaboration came about.

‘At the time I was living in Brixton with a DJ friend. I heard her on a Marshall Jefferson record.’ It’s hard to imagine the song -which has aged spectacularly well, by the way, without Mazelle’s vocal, but it transpires she hadn’t been the first choice. A version had been recorded featuring Sam Brown. ‘I got her in after Sam Brown’s record company pulled it!’ he laughs, wondering whether with her about to have a hit with ‘Stop’ it was a bit much to have her featuring on a single called ‘Wait.’

Brixton is just one of the places where he has lived. He spent much of his early life in Australia, but tells me ‘I still feel Scottish,’ explaining that he was born in Haddington and has family from Leith, though he left when he was three. These days he’s based in Spain, not an unconscious decision, it turns out. ‘I love the weather, he says, matter of factly. ‘I found it harder to deal with the weather [in Britain].’

Thankfully for us, though, he still comes back here. There’s the tour this month, and the band are signed to long-running British indie Cherry Red, who he ‘enjoys’ being with. Next year the band plan to hit the festival circuit, before starting work on their new album in the autumn of 2014.

Celebrate the days with them.

Feels Like A New Morning is out now on Cherry Red. The Blow Monkeys play Edinburgh’s Electric Circus on November 17.

Album Review: Dead Flowers

Dead Flowers

Dead Flowers -‘Midnight At the Wheel Club.’ (Hee Haw)

I think most people would agree that there are songs that make you want to cry, and songs that make you want to dance. But the opening track on Dead Flowers’ debut album ‘Make It Bright’ makes me want to do both of those. And I think that’s got to be a first.

Based around the songs of Ian Williams, this is far from another British band playing Americana. Williams’ voice has – rightly – drawn comparisons of Bill Callahan, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. A bold claim, perhaps, until you hear the album. He’s got one of the deepest, gruffest voices on record. And to paraphrase Wilco, it sounds like he really is trying to break your heart.

These eight songs hang together like a journey – no surprise, then, to discover that he wrote these songs on a trip up America’s East Coast, from Coney Island to Montreal. It’s like taking a journey at sunset to a gorgeously sad, ultra-melancholic (I don’t know if that’s a word but it should be) soundtrack. It’s dark, but there’s a beauty here. Heck, if this was a classical work it would be a requiem.

There are fiddles and pump organs, songs that sound like hymns and a piece of work that were it any longer than 34 minutes might be too much to bear. If there’s any justice, this record will come to rank alongside the likes of Things We Lost In The Fire, The Boatman’s Call and Third/Sister Lovers.

Truly, truly exceptional.


Midnight At The Wheel Club is released on Hee Haw on November 11.

Album Review: Paul Haig

Paul Haig Kube

Paul Haig -‘Kube’ (Rhythm Of Life)

Paul Haig first made his name as lead singer of Josef K, rightly acknowledged as one of the most influential bands in Britain. That was the early 1980s; he has had a successful solo career, of which Kube is his twelfth album.

Interviewing him about this album*, he told me that he feels he’s found his voice – finally! -with this album. Kube is perhaps the most experimental records that he has made in his decades-long career. So it’s not about anthems in the vein of Josef K singles like ‘It’s Kinda Funny’ or ‘Sorry For Laughing’ or ‘Trip Out The Rider’ from his last album, Relive.

It may not be as immediate as some of his other work, but what we have here is a record that on each successive play reveals something else. He’s been playing around with new technology, and the end result is an extremely cohesive exploration of technology married with his ability to write brilliant songs.

Produced, written and played entirely by himself, here is twenty-first century pop music that’s not looking back. First single ‘UW2B’/’Red Rocks’ gives you an idea of what you might expect but don’t deny yourself: take the time to check out one of the most exciting and unusual albums you may hear this year.


Kube is out now on Rhythm Of Life

*my new interview with Paul Haig will appear here shortly. In the meantime, here is a link to the interview I did in 2009 when Relive came out.