"i don't think there is anything we relate to in the charts..." says James Prime, keyboard player with Deacon Blue. "We like a lot of good pop songs but we certainly don't feel very akin to the Top 10 at the moment. It's only since we've started having some chart success that we've taken a look around... But you look at the Top 20 and think 'Christ, we're like a complete island in amongst that'."
Hardly an unusual reaction from "conventional" pop bands these days. Yet Deacon Blue aren't that conventional an outfit. Not only does their brand of erratic, endearing, flowing pop go against the dancefloor mainstream, it also sits uneasily with the revival of three-minute "bubble-gum" pop inspired by this generation's renewed love affair with the '60s. Not surprising, then, that Deacon Blue were obliged to take their time climbing the lower reaches of the charts. Radio 1 DJs may have preferred Deacon Blue to the Stock, Aitken & Waterman monopoly of the airwaves, but to begin with, they didn't have the conviction to back this with airplay.
"Breaking down the doors at Radio 1 was a lot harder than we thought it would be", explains James, "but when they eventually did break down and we did start getting major plays and television stations were interested in putting us on shows, all of a sudden the audience increased. In the first six months of this year (since the single 'Dignity' was re-released amid extensive airplay), our album sales for the whole of last year just doubled within three months."
Having gained an unusual angle on the effect media exposure can have on your popularity, the Scottish six-piece now feel well-placed to comment on the pros and (more to the point) cons of those various media. Like 'Top of the Pops', for instance, for which James shows a crushing lack of respect.
"'Top Of The Pops' is obviously very strongly linked to Radio 1", he says. "It's the only pop programme that's gone 20-odd years and it's the only one that's managed to keep its format. But when you see how it's made, you just cringe. You can't believe that anything as contrived as that could possibly last."
As a logical progression to bands miming to the their latest hit, why not just dispense with the bands? James has a view on that, too.
"They've just brought in this idea where they just play the record and you can watch people dancing - 'The Hit Man And Her'. Is this to be the pop format of the future? And at the same time, at the risk of viewers' figures, they take off the 'Whistle Test' - without any thought that they've taken away the final chance for up-and-coming touring bands."
Undoubtedly, though, these are signs of the times. The producers of both 'Whistle Test' and 'The Tube' (another defunct live-music show) have both gone on record as claiming that music TV has to move into the CD age, and programmes like 'Wired' have appeared as a result. And though their songwriting and performing styles may sometimes border on the quirky, Deacon Blue have a refined, "professional" sound which some people might say belongs to the latest wave, not the 'Whistle Test' style of old. Do the band see themselves as part of the CD generation?
"I've never seen a CD", lies James. "I really don't know anyone who just buys CDs. I don't know anyone who has the money to do that."
Bass player Ewan Vernal sees the strengths of the band lying in a different direction, too.
"Over the last year we've played a lot live", he says. "I think essentially the band is a live band... We spent a lot of time touring and trying to build up some kind of following. We all think it's as important to play live as it is to produce extremely good records."
"WE MIX ON REALLY EXPENSIVE SPEAKERS, THEN WE GET DOWN TO THE WEE RADIO THING THAT SOUNDS AWFUL - IF IT SOUNDS GOOD OUT OF THAT, IT'LL SOUND GOOD OUT OF THE RADIO. IT MAKES YOU THINK: WHY DIDN'T WE JUST RECORD IT ON A PORTASTUDIO THEN?"
In a world of ever more professional recording studios, James finds it hard to relate making "extremely good records" to the final medium on which they must be judged - back to Radio 1 again!
"We spend a hundred grand on an album and the only national radio station is going to play our stuff through mono speakers", he moans. "We go into a studio which costs £1,500 a day and mix on really expensive speakers, then less expensive ones, then even less expensive ones, then you get down to the wee radio thing that the guy's wired up - which sounds awful - and if it sounds good out of that, then it'll sound good out of radio. It makes you think: why didn't we just record it on a Portastudio then?"
"It's ridiculous that Radio 1 have only just discovered FM" adds Ewan. "All the ILR stations have it."
Still, if it hadn't been for Radio 1 - mono warts 'n' all - Deacon Blue wouldn't have enjoyed a Top Five hit with 'Real Gone Kid'. That single bodes well for their forthcoming album, which is, as yet, uncompleted. But with success comes recording on a global basis and the luxury of being able to choose between tracks!
Ewan: "We did two tracks at home in Glasgow - one of which is the single. And we went to America in June and did five tracks over there, maybe two of which we might use..."
But the single sounds fine - why the desire to record in America?
"It seemed like the right thing to do at the time", says James. "They've got this very strange way of marketing records over there. They don't seem to be able to market albums without having a hit single, and the only other alternative is bands like REM and Lone Justice who just tour - and we just didn't have the time to tour America. We thought maybe there's a thing that Americans know what a hit single is that we don't know, because that's all they talked about. So we went there for someone to tell us what a hit single was..."
James is full of stories about the Los Angeles recording studio, from simple descriptions of the Prince and the Doobie Brothers platinum discs that hang on the wall, to the more intimate revelations of the former wheeling a miked-up purple bed into the studio to help him get that "real sexy voice" down on tape. Surprisingly, Deacon Blue found the studio equipment in LA very basic, and the business of hiring instruments, simply bizarre!
"The whole hire business over there is just absurd", laughs James. "You go in and you say 'I want a Strat', and they say 'Which one do you want? Do you want the one that 'Billie Jean' was played on, or do you want the one that played the solo on Dave Lee Roth's new track? - I've got it here, it's blue!'"
I can guess which one they picked.
Interview by Chris Hunt
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