dimanche, février 13, 2005

Doves and the devil

You're doomy. You're cool. Your record company reckons you're the next Coldplay. Trouble is - hell's bells! - you're the Doves and you just don't do that kind of thing. Nick Duerden goes on set and gets down to brass tacks and face fungus...

Published : 13 February 2005

The tedium of the TV studio is not, it must be said, easily diminished, but Doves give it a go nevertheless. In a green room within the bowels of Channel 4, while waiting to film a 30-minute T4 special on the band, the interminable small talk presently turns to the significance of colour in olives. If, goes the logic of frontman Jimi Goodwin, the young ones are green and the old ones black, then what do the pink and purple ones denote? And what about the altogether rarer yellow ones? Do they even exist at all, he wonders, or are they just urban myth? His bandmates, unidentical twin brothers Jez and Andy Williams (guitarist and drummer respectively), exchange glances, yawn laboriously and shrug shoulders. It is now four o'clock in the afternoon. They have been here since 11, and will be here for another three hours yet. They are restless and hungry. The mini- fridge has been liberated of its alcohol content, and packets of crisps have been consumed. Goodwin, who is suffering from flu, chainsmokes incessantly and scowls, his misery palpable. Only Andy Williams, by far the most ebullient of the three, makes any discernible effort at raising spirits. "Hey," he says, "you know, needs must..."

Needs must indeed. Doves have a new album out, Some Cities, and it requires promoting. T4 is a regular stop on the campaign trail for pop acts, and this particular studio has been visited in the past few weeks by the likes of McFly, Rooster and Westlife. Doves' presence is actually rather incongruous because, strictly speaking, beards don't go down well on a show whose core audience is 14 year-old girls. But this half-hour special is testament to the band's critical standing these days. Like its predecessors, Some Cities is a dense, richly rewarding record, an album still beleaguered with their trademark melancholy but infused, this time, with an optimism that is quite thrilling. The suggestion, then, is that Doves are about to do a Coldplay, or at the very least a Snow Patrol, and finally transform cult acclaim into hard sales and proper fame.

The deal today, Channel 4 tell them, is this: four songs, which they will be permitted to play live (an honour not bestowed upon McFly), and an interview on the sofa with presenter Edith Bowman. Given the band's general stance on promotion - they hate it - their record company has very strongly urged them to comply, explaining that the live performance will subsequently be shown throughout Europe. After some thinning of lips, they grudgingly consent.

The songs, including new single "Black And White Town" and 2002's "There Goes The Fear", are great, both dispatched with a bruising belligerence, Goodwin sounding like rock's own chief Womble, a Great Uncle Bulgaria figure whose lugubrious croak sounds ancient and, therefore, imbued with all kinds of wisdom.

But then it's time for the interview, and the interview proves agonising.

Bowman greets them noddingly, the best way to greet a band as serious as Doves, and laughs much less than she would with, say, Natasha Bedingfield. She asks about their creative process, the songs on the new album, and the fact that they recorded the mis-spelled "Snowden" in the shadow of Snowdon, and "Ambition" in a disused monastery. But while she does her best to put them at ease, Doves, a band with no discernible image and no desire to procure one, thrum with anxiety. Each member fidgets incessantly, and rarely is an answer proffered without a sweaty hand passing first across the jaw, then eyes, then hair (and Jimi Goodwin has an awful lot of hair). Their responses are stuttered, strictly unilluminating and so, soon, Bowman is struggling. In between takes, Goodwin runs back to the green room to smoke a very necessary cigarette, and neck another beer. A vein pulses in his right temple.

The following day, at an upmarket restaurant in west London, he groans at the recollection.

"There was an awful lot of hand-wringing, wasn't there?" he concedes. "I just couldn't get to grips with it, probably because of the flu rather than nerves. I was completely spaced out. But," he says, optimism rising, "we got better as we went along, didn't we?"

Not particularly, I tell him, no.

"Oh, oh. Well, never mind. We've always been portrayed as miserable bastards, so I guess that won't change in a hurry. And that's fine by us, because we don't do gimmicks, unless you count the music as a gimmick, and to be honest, I'd rather you didn't."

A waiter arrives. "Another beer?" he asks.

Goodwin smiles, relieved. "Good idea."

Though they have been making music together for close on 20 years now, Some Cities is only Doves' third album. They have been critical darlings since the release of 2000's Lost Souls, while 2002's The Last Broadcast, a hugely evocative slice of northern melancholy that Ken Loach could well have turned into a film, confirmed them as one of the country's more intriguing guitar bands. In their hands, misery sounds quietly wondrous, their every melody aching with some unspecified pain and an overriding sense of sadness. Goodwin, however, remains adamant that his songs are ultimately optimistic, even when dealing with depression and alcoholism and death.

After much pressing, the 34-year-old will concede that if they do deal in the maudlin, there may just be a reason. Trouble is, he is loath to draw further attention to it.

"We have had ups and downs, yes, sure, but then so has everybody else. We're hardly unique in that respect. Our past just happens to sound pretty bleak in print, that's all, and people - well, journalists - like to make a meal of it."

But what a three-course feast it is, with indigestion to follow.

Immersed in Manchester's club culture at the turn of the 1990s, the trio initially set out to create a soundtrack to take drugs to. They were quickly snapped up by Virgin as Sub Sub, a dance act that would operate with a succession of guest singers. After being unceremoniously dropped before actually releasing anything, they were subsequently rescued by New Order's manager Rob Gretton, who signed them to his own label, Rob's Records. Within six months, alongside friend Melanie Williams on vocals, they had a Top Three hit with "Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)".

"To be honest," Goodwin says, "that song was something of an anomaly for us. By that stage, we were already experimenting with more leftfield, cinematic stuff. 'Ain't No Love' was just something pure and simple to dance to, but our ambition was to make a much bigger musical statement."

After 1994's debut album, Full Fathom Five, which Jez Williams today describes as, "a disaster, totally dreadful," Goodwin suffered a breakdown, something he initially ascribed to the pressures of success but now to a relationship ending. Back in the studio, meanwhile, they were working on new material with other vocalists, among them Tricky and New Order's Bernard Sumner. As the project was nearing its completion, their studio burned to the ground. Everything - equipment, master tapes, morale - was destroyed. A year of disillusion followed, the band occasionally playing with good friend Damon Gough's Badly Drawn Boy, before re-christening themselves Doves and establishing Goodwin as the sole singer. Things, at last, were going well. And then Glastonbury 1997 happened.

Andy Williams smiles ruefully. "Basically, we'd tanned it too much over five days of rain, mud and misery. Too many bad drugs, too many bad vibes."

"It wasn't just the drugs, though," Goodwin adds, "it was a build-up of so many other things. See, we're not ones for getting emotional with one another, and so we kept on burying everything, not addressing things... It was all tension, strain, fatigue, tiredness and depression. Glastonbury was just the breaking point."

A week later, they called a meeting in a miserable pub in the south of the city where, uncharacteristically close to tears, crisis talks ensued. They decided to give it one last Herculean effort, and went on to complete what would become the Mercury-nominated Lost Souls. A few weeks before its release, their manager Rob Gretton suffered a fatal stroke.

"Okay," says Goodwin now, as the waiter arrives with his beer, "our story is perhaps a miserable one, but personally, I'd say we're three pretty well-adjusted blokes. Sure, we've lived through some shit, but that's all in the past, hopefully." He checks to see what the table is made out of before adding, "Touch wood."

While the band is undoubtedly a thriving unit these days - their first two albums have now shifted half a million copies - Andy Williams tells me, over espresso, that they have yet to make a single penny from record sales. They've never been motivated by money, of course, but now that they are all in their mid-thirties - Goodwin remains single, the twins settled in long-term relationships - a little financial security, he admits, wouldn't go amiss.

"We are massively in debt to the record company, our tours cost a fortune, the only money we do make is from PRS, and we're nowhere near breaking America." He catches himself, and changes tack. "We're not grumbling, though, and things could be worse, but if Some Cities sold millions, I think we'd be really quite happy."

One avenue for potential riches, his brother mentions, is to license their songs to films, but while Hollywood has yet to come calling, offers from TV ads have. This brings with it a very pronounced ethical dilemma for the three-piece. They consider it virtual prostitution.

"It's blurring the lines between art and commerce, isn't it?" Goodwin says. "That's why we'd never do it. Well, okay, we did do it, once [in America, "Words", from The Last Broadcast, was used to sell Volvos], but that was hypocritical of us, and a big mistake. I don't think our fans would appreciate it if we went down that road again."

He lights up a cigarette, looking doleful.

"You know, last year we turned down something like $750,000 in advertising. We must be insane."

One of the more incongruous offers came from Gap.

"At first, we just thought they wanted one of our songs," says Andy Williams, "but it turned out they actually wanted the three of us. As models." His face is a picture of pure incredulity. "I don't want to put us down, but... why?"

Were they not, I ask them, even slightly tempted to jive alongside Sarah Jessica Parker and Lenny Kravitz, immortalised forever more in competitively priced denim?

It's Jimi Goodwin who answers this one, Goodwin sat there wrapped up in his coat and scarf, smoking compulsively, and taking himself, as ever, perhaps just a little too seriously. This is what he says.

"Tempted? Are you serious? No, of course we weren't fucking tempted. We're from Manchester. Mancunians don't do that type of thing."

And so we change the subject.

'Some Cities' is released on 21 February on Heavenly. The single, 'Black and White Town', is out now

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd