Meet: We chat with Jez Williams from Doves about Northern Soul, getting the band back together and the new album, plus we review ‘The Universal Want’

The new album from Doves, ‘The Universal Want’ is a blistering rebirth from the Mancunian band. It’s much more than a return to form – their previous albums were uniformly brilliant – but there is a sense of identifiable development and growth in the intervening eleven years since ‘Kingdom of Rust’ was released.

Songs such as ‘Prisoners’ , and the title track have a greater element of soul and dance music deeply infused in the music and there is a cohesion and brilliance across the entire album that confirms the band is back and better than before. The creative fires that have burned so brightly in this band have not dimmed.

The percussion is, as ever, a defining element, creating a contrapuntal rhythm to the indie chord progressions and singer/bass player Jimi Goodwin ‘s mournful, melancholic vocals. And even with those vocals, there is greater diversity and experimentation such as in ‘Mother Silverlake’ with his falsetto singing.

The hallmark ear for production is ever present. You can listen to each track over and over again and hear different elements that shimmer through the mix – samples of voices, sounds and noises that create a complex tapestry that swim underneath the lush waves of melody. This is an album to immerse yourselves in: it’s a reward that keeps on giving with its sweeping choruses and mesmerising soundscapes.

We have already had a taste of what’s to come (read our reviews of ‘Prisoners‘ and ‘Carousels’ ) and they are representative of the uniform high quality of the other tracks. ‘Prisoners’ has an acoustic base, a thundering pace and impassioned vocals:

Carousels is peak Doves with its complex rhythms, Jez Williams’s chiming guitars and haunting refrains:

The band has recently announced what must the most innovative promotion ever for the third single ‘Forest House’ so I won’t mention details about the track. The band has released the musical notation for the track and called on fans to interpret what they believe the song sounds like. Register here and you get access to the ‘leaked’ score, and publish your efforts using the tag #dovesleak. Brilliant.

It was a late frosty night in Hobart when I chatted with Jez Williams who was on a beach somewhere in Spain in the late morning. With a mix up in time – he was expecting my call hours later – we got round to speaking about the band and the album and the challenging times we live in.

Hi Jez. Thanks for your time.

I just had to reposition myself into a bit of shade! It’s fucking boiling. I’m good to do it now. Sorry for the mix up with times.  Can’t get the staff (laughs).

It’s about 2 degrees here in Hobart

Usually you’re the ones dealing with 40 Degrees heat! But then you’ve got a different weather system in Tasmania…

Congratulations on The Universal Want. How scary it is for you to approach a new album after such a long time considering the success of your previous albums? Was there a lot of pressure?

Yes – it’s funny that you should say pressure because I think, obviously we haven’t done anything for eleven years this is the first album for eleven years  and first of the requirements was that we wanted to really enjoy it – I know it sounds odd but the last album which was 2009, Kingdom of Rust, I wouldn’t say that was the happiest times that we made the album under. It was really an awful time for the band and I just think now it’s eleven years later that the understanding was, let’s just do two songs at a time and not get a heaviness, not try and sort of wade through this heaviness that we did previously.

It’s just the older you get you think, you know what? Life’s too short. Let’s try and enjoy it. So, we kind of went into it with a more positive outlook and not really feel the weight because, you know, almost the older you get, actually the less pressure there is. You know, believe it or not, one time we were a hip band but as soon as you go beyond forty, you’re just exclusively not going to be hip anymore (laughs). In a way it’s liberating – in a strange kind of way – it’s like ‘Yeah – we are not cool anymore but what we can do is try and be honest with ourselves and not worry about that crap anymore’.

It’s actual a nice therapeutic way of making this album without any pressure – there was no pressure. We just wanted to do what we wanted to do and without any of the external bullshit. That’s why it was such an easy album to make. It’s unusual!

I had to look twice when I realised Kingdom of Rust was eleven years ago – it feels like yesterday.

It’s like a whole decade! That’s what happens the older you get!

So, why the break and what brought you guys back together?

One of our last gigs ten years ago was actually in Manchester in a place called the Warehouse Project and we never outwardly said to each other even then that ‘that’s it’. We just had an understanding it was like ‘I’ll phone you back at some time, Jimi’, and then we never phoned each other. We’re mates, we love each other, we’re like family but it was an understanding for all that we were all ‘I’ll phone you back when I’m ready’, and that phone call never really came until 2017 (laughs).

So I hadn’t seen Jimi for seven years and Jimi did a solo project and I did a project with my brother, Andy, and it was called Black Rivers, so that kept us busy for a bit and I just think… and we just started thinking about Doves and a lot of people were telling us to get back together – we didn’t know if we were relevant or anything. Living in Manchester, a lot of people were talking about Doves as in the past – a part of history in a strange way and it made us feel a bit old, but the seeds were sown. Maybe after our solo projects – as good fun as they were – the time was starting to feel right…

There’s obviously some kind of chemistry between the three of you…

What we did was – first we had a curry and just talked about whether this felt right and then the next week we literally went ‘let’s try and remember some of the old songs’ and we just jumped in a studio and I think Andy had a toy kit for thirteen old and I had a really shit guitar going through a shit amp and Jimi borrowed this awful bass and had a microphone through an amp –  it was almost like we were teenagers again in a garage. We went ‘Do you remember that, and do you remember that one?’ and it just clicked back like a memory muscle even though it was a decade later.

It was a really nice day and we said – ‘You know what? We really do have something here’ – we kind of seemed to just fall back into the old music. And that’s what informed us that we might actually have another album in us because the hunger was still there. That was a memorable day.

It’s been quite a decade – the last couple of years in particular – has this impacted on the themes you deal with in your songs?

(Laughs) You can say that again. Yeah – we thought it was shit back in 2009 but that was paradise compared to now. It’s a fuckin shit show now, isn’t it? Who would have thought! It’s getting to apocalyptic levels now. It’s kind of strange really because a lot of the themes, I think, even before COVID arrived on the shores, it was getting pretty intense as it was so a lot of lyrical themes like ‘Prisoners’ strangely takes on a new meaning when in lockdown. I thought ‘The Universal Want’ summed up the album brilliantly – people wanting something better and it just has a ring to it that sums up the tracks on the album.

Along with ‘Cycle of Hurt’ – is there a pessimistic view of the human condition in ‘The Universal Want’ or do I detect a sense of hope?

Totally! I think the album is full of hope. For instance, ‘Prisoners’ it says we are all prisoners in this life, but it won’t be for long. You always need hope – without hope it’s pretty bleak. With ‘Cycle of Hurt’ it’s about someone being trapped in a repetitive pattern that many people go through when they go through life and they are interdependent on someone and they can’t get out of it. So, there’s a lot of self-help on the album (laughs).

I was surprised by Mother Silverlake and Jimi’s falsetto, which is quite a change from the usual style. There seems to be an element of Northern Soul across the album…

With this album we wanted to get into some grooves – we’ve always been big fans of Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and a lot of the seventies funk and soul movement. I feel that’s come out on the album. We’ve always liked Northern Soul and it came from a place near our doorstep, a place called Wigan, which is only 25 miles from the place we all lived. Even though that music came from Detroit and house music, northern soul, even though it was before our time, it had a massive impact on the pre-club culture for us and the number of amazing tunes there are.

We were obviously all brought up on The Smiths as well and New Order and they carried on the northern soul tradition for us – something with energy and up tempo. Especially some Smiths stuff – you could argue if you strip back the vocals you have Northern Soul tracks. For us, it’s always been there in our DNA, so things like ‘Prisoners’ is us doing Northern Soul – in our heads, anyway!

One of the things that have always made Doves stand out for me is the percussion: there has always been an afro/Caribbean flavour to it that creates this tension between the indie rock chord progression laid over the top.

We were into all sorts of music, growing up on a lot of – before we were even fifteen and sixteen – it was everything from Kraftwerk to Jimi Hendrix there was such a wide range of music and then obviously club culture hit Manchester in the late eighties and so we were going to dances – all the ingredients get thrown into a pot – for us it all feels natural, we didn’t think about it –  that’s what comes out. It’s organic and it took us a long time to let that happen without any preconceptions. If you think too hard about things it becomes too thought out.

The best thing with Doves is to get in a room and just try something and don’t think too hard. If you think too hard, you’re going down the wrong path. That’s always been our mantra.

How do you go about writing a song?

Well there isn’t a pattern and there never has been. So, Jimi could be at home and samples something – puts it into a sampler and loops it and then he writes something over the top of it. Same for me, I can pick up a guitar and start messing around with it like a sample or sound and that can inform something. Or we can just write together in a room, just the three of us and we’ve done this many a time.

A lot of this album is the three of us just opposite each other going ‘try this out’ with the microphone set up. The here and now: no preconceptions. Or we can bring demos and ideas to the band and it goes through the Doves filter as we call it – it’s like this big sort of machine (laughs) we put it through, and it comes out sounding completely different at the other end. So, no set formula.

Doves started out as Sub Sub – an electronic dance band – then your studio burnt down and you re-emerged as Doves – what happened?

What was happening at that time was strange because we were starting to change anyways, so it wasn’t as black and white as that. What happened was that everything got destroyed – literally everything – apart from a box of tapes which we released called the Delta Tapes, but after that we were faced with deciding whether we wanted to carry on or should we stop. It was like when you have too much junk you go minimalist – like a purge – you get rid of all everything, all possessions, it felt like that a cleansing – it was great, it was really good. We said ‘You know what? Jimi can sing, why don’t we go into that arena?’.

It slowly morphed from there. We were good friends with New Order, and they had got sick of being in their studio which was in a place called Cheetham Hill and they said to us ‘Do you want to get in there for a couple of years – it’s yours’. So, they kindly lent us their studio and that’s where we recorded our first album ‘Lost Souls’. We were thrown a lifeline, really.

Another big thing over the last decade is a dramatic change in the business model for musicians…

Oh, absolutely. It was really fucken shit in 2009 and we didn’t think it could get much worse but sure enough it has. Yeah, it’s all about streaming but thankfully records are coming back in vogue, so people miss the physical elements so I think there’s more of a connection with the band as soon as you have the vinyl in your hand and it’s like a passage through to the artist rather than just looking at a thumbnail on a phone.

But I get it! A thumbnail on the phone is good, like I say getting rid of all possessions is good – I understand both elements so that’s why I’m torn between the two. I like the connection to the band through vinyl, but the other way is handy, isn’t it? Press play and everything is a click away. I get it. You can’t rewind technology, it’s here to stay. The only thing we can do to pay the rent is by doing gigs, if we are clever with it. But I really do feel sorry for young bands, you know, it’s really tough out there.

I know I am getting reissues in vinyl of stuff I really like which was only released as a CD in the past

It’s amazing – if you really dig something – I think that’s what a lot of people want – the physical thing of the things that mean a lot to them and if you really dig something you want to hold it in your hands.

You’ve got gigs lined up next year in the UK…

Yeah, touch wood. I’m standing right next to a tree, so I’ll touch that (laughs)

Originally, before all this happened, when I was cutting the album in London and then literally the next day it was lockdown – nothing was happening. I thought it was ironic that it took us eleven years to finish a new album and then we finish the album and we couldn’t tour it. You’ve got to be kidding me!

Are you planning anything in the meantime?

We are hopefully going to do an album live streaming thing from our HQ. We’ve got the Doves studio in a place called Warrington and we are hoping to do a live stream there, but at the moment we have the gigs in March and that’s the third time we’ve had to reschedule the whole tour. No-one knows what will happen, but here’s hoping!

What music are you listening to at the moment?

When I get asked that, I always draw a blank! I’ve been listening to quite a bit. I particularly like The Comet is Coming, in fact we got them to do a remix for us which is fantastic – on ‘Carousels’ – so we love them. I really like Laura Marling  – her new one is really good. There are so many – I love an artist called Bibeo. Like with everything – there’s so much shit out there but there’s great stuff as well that’s not getting heard, so you really have to look for it these days.

Thanks for your time and apologies for disturbing your break.

Thank you, not at all and I hope it gets warmer for you!

The Universal Want is out on 11 September 2020 through Virgin/EMI – you can pre-order here.

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