Music interview '“ David Vanian of The Damned: '˜It's taken us a remarkably long time to get to this point'

After a ten-year gap, punk veterans The Damned are releasing a new album. Duncan Seaman spoke to singer David Vanian.

The Damned are about to release their first album in ten years.
The Damned are about to release their first album in ten years.

Long-time fans of punk rock pioneers The Damned are used to lengthy waits between albums but even by previous standards the ten-year gap from their last record So, Who’s Paranoid? to Evil Spirits, which is released at the end of this month, has been exceptional.

Singer David Vanian puts it down to a variety of reasons ranging from “being on that touring circuit and not getting round to it – being lazy” to “quite simply having no way of releasing and trying to work out how you even do it because the business obviously has changed so much, there’s new ways to do everything”.

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“It’s just taken us a remarkably long time to get to this point,” he acknowledges, but finally things have turned in their favour. “I think we’ve gone from a band which is seen as an old band which are great if you know who they are but otherwise no one’s really interested to now people realise we’re a good musical group. Rather than just a few years’ flash-in-the-pan there’s a whole history of great stuff there.”

Captain Sensible and David Vanian performing live at London's Hope & Anchor in 1977. Picture: John Ingham

The modern method of crowdfunding came to their aid, as did a deal with Raw Power Management, who have their own record label. That kind of support has sometimes been lacking in the past, the 61-year-old singer says. “Grave Disorder [released in 2001] was a great album, it was well received by all the critics, but the record company really didn’t go further with any promotion. I’m not complaining because they were the only ones that stepped forward and signed the band but by the same token it didn’t help.

“We had this thing in our minds where you put everything into making a record then through no fault of your own it just slips away through your fingers. After a while that’s quite hard to get used to.”

For the first time in 20 years he’s pleased to report: “We’ve actually got a really good team behind us that are going to work with us and push things and make sure everything’s done in the right way. If people want to buy something or stream something it’ll be there rather than ‘oh no, we don’t have it right now’.”

Sound-wise, Vanian describes Evil Spirits as “kind of a journey”.

Captain Sensible and David Vanian performing live at London's Hope & Anchor in 1977. Picture: John Ingham

“It has influences of what we were influenced by – there’s a little bit of Joe Meek in there, there’s a little bit of garage band, there’s a lot of melodies in the backing vocals and things. A lot of music that had influenced certainly Captain [Sensible, The Damned’s other mainstay] and myself over the years has worked its way into this album.

“It has a feel of bits of The Black Album and bits of Grave Disorder, it’s got that kind of experimentation through a 60s feel here and there. It’s got a good sound, I’m really quite happy with the way it’s come together.”

After a year spent celebrating the band’s 40th anniversary, Vanian says he was ready to move forward. While proud to have been part of British musical history – The Damned were, after all, the first punk band to release a single and album – the singer says: “I was just glad it was over, in a way, because I want to think about tomorrow, not today. There’s still things that I feel are challenging that I want to move forward to. I don’t want to recreate things we’ve done before. If you’re a musician or an artist you’re always trying to improve your technique and try new things and get better.

“We could’ve, like some people, found a niche and then recreated that over and over. That wouldn’t be challenging enough.”

While pulling out all the stops, the band chose Tony Visconti to produce this album. The American’s associations with the glam rock of David Bowie and Marc Bolan felt “close to home”, Vanian says. “I wanted somebody who we could talk to and would understand our musical references, that was my main point. There were other people we wanted to work with but I quickly realised if I said something about a Joe Meek drum sound or something they would have to look it up.

“I’d heard the last Bowie album, Blackstar, and I really liked the sound of things on that and thought ‘I wonder if he would produce us?’ I found out when I talked to him, he said ‘Why didn’t you ask me years ago?’

“I would’ve loved to have had Shadow Morton, who did The Shangri-Las, and there’s lots of others, but [Visconti] is one guy that’s still there, amazingly still producing and still loves music.”

For the third time in their history The Damned will be joined on their UK dates by bass player Paul Gray.

The former Eddie and the Hot Rods bassist previously served from 1980-83 and in 1996.

“He’s just stepping in for the tour and the recording,” says Vanian.

Gray’s “prime job” in recent years has been with the Musicians’ Union. “He’s out of the business, really. He’s kind of semi-retired, but we asked him if he would do this tour and he said ‘yes’. It’s weird, though, looking behind me and suddenly I’ve got two of the members from way back.”

As The Damned enter their fifth decade, Vanian says he still feels as enthusiastic about music as he did in his teens. “I’ve found as you get older there’s always music to be discovered from the past letalone what’s happening now. I spend a lot of time listening to 1930s music these days, whatever, it might be a bit of blues music or something, so that’s good too.

“But I think there’s a lot of good new music around. I don’t think necessarily it gets heard a lot, though. Often I find a really great band and find out they’ve disbanded already, which is a real shame.”

The Damned play at O2 Academy Leeds on January 30. Evil Spirits is out the following day.