Baxter Dury: ‘Jane Austen did the same thing’
Baxter Dury is reflecting on his first gig of 2020, at a music festival in Hastings. It leads to some analysis. “It was all right, it was interesting,” the 48-year-old singer-songwriter says. “When you do your first gig it’s that static thing, you’re over-aware of yourself, you haven’t quite hit your thread, your dreamscape state of performing yet. The band were a bit Madame Tussaud’s.
“But Hastings is a stony-faced bunch of people. They’re sort of sea battered. I mean you can’t put many tricks past them. Maybe they’re a bit tuned into the generation before me. They might have been a bit dad-centric, which is always a bit frustrating when you go out. But beyond those restrictions it was all fine.”
Escaping the shadow of his much-feted late father, Ian, on the cover of whose album New Boots and Panties!! he appeared aged five, was often a theme in the early part of Baxter’s musical career, but in recent times his own song writing has deservedly earned considerable recognition.
Much changed with Dury’s fifth album, Prince of Tears, which alongside critical plaudits earned him his highest chart position to date in the UK as well as cementing an audience in Belgium and France. Dury became a festival favourite and even played arenas as an opening act for Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Performing live is where he focuses his craft. “I’ve always got a sort of potty energy anyway but it’s more full-beam when it’s onstage,” he explains.
His raised profile has made a difference, he acknowledges. “You gain little bits of ground every time you put things out and maybe it’s a clever way of doing it, in some ways. There’s not a sort of sports car express route into indulgent levels of fame but it secures you along the way. Slow and steady or whatever wins the race, but maybe that’s who I am: slow and steady. But it feels okay.
“Releasing music is basically always a bit of a precarious enterprise. You can have a boost of attention and then it’s quite fragile, isn’t it? The next second you could be taken down again. But we feel quite secure. We are who we are. The type of music and the type of person I am has a certain cap in the modern world, how far it can go, and that’s quite reassuring. If you’re near the top of who you should be, not purposefully imposing limitations, but it’s a nice place to be.”
Dury was close to finishing his sixth album, The Night Chancers, when we spoke in May last year. At that point he spoke of a “collective meltdown” in the studio. “It was probably a little bit fraught,” he recollects, ten months later. “I guess it’s meant to be fraught if there’s pressure on you to complete something and you’re putting a lot of effort into it, it’s bound to be. I always find before you go onstage if you’re too calm it’s a dangerous thing.
“It’s not the same but if you’re about to jump over the line and you’re not nervous and you’re not aware of your surroundings, you’re not quite as good, are you? I guess there’s a bit of that stuff.”
The Night Chancers comprises a series of ten succinct character vignettes that range from absurd bloggers and internet stalkers to the “fag end” of the fashion set and hotel ravers. “They’re a combination of all sorts,” Dury says when asked if they are based on people he knows or has observed.
“You have to have a starting point to inspire you to create music, or I do anyway, and that usually is quite egocentric. It starts with me. It’s a version of me and some of the people I know and you have to put a distance, create a bit of mystery. You can’t write about your shopping list and your everyday life; you have to put a bit of legal distance maybe.”
Dury admits he’s “tuned into” watching people when he is out and about in cafes and bars. “But as I say, it’s very me, me, me. I’m not doing a kind of French café observation. I more care about people I understand because then I’m writing about what I know. It’s not a pessimistic society portrait, it’s more about people I know. It’s basically me, I guess, in different guises.”
He has jokingly described his way of writing as “a way of creating a few characters through which to launder” his own behaviour. Today, he says: “There’s autobiography in everything that’s good. You need a bit of your own blood and sweat and DNA in things to allow you to write about things you understand. It’s about understanding your environment and then I don’t have to go that far.
“Jane Austen did the same thing. I’m not Jane Austen, but she did the same thing projected onto a kind of upmarket world that she fantasised she lived in. I’m not judging in my observations. It sounds quite sleazy sometimes, but the kind of micro details are sleazy when observed. But there’s no behaviour of any non-consensual kind taking place and it’s not really judging anyone.
“It is quite autobiographical, I guess, but it’s all turned into an abstract form of song writing, so it’s all made into another story.”
Amid the darkness in songs such as I’m Not Your Dog and Saliva Hog is a bleak sense of humour. “It’s about romantic adventures of some kind,” Dury says. “I made a post break-up album a few years ago [Prince of Tears], then you make a better copy of those successes and you’re in a sort of #MeToo world of unsuccessful romantic adventures then it does get a bit questionable. But I’m talking about the fragility and the vulnerability of being in a certain position, there’s a sort of darkness to it, but I think of Kubrick and people like that. It doesn’t even get near Kubrick, but I like his exploration of the unnaturally dark world of people’s lives.”
The singer has also described The Night Chancers as the last part of a trilogy, that began in 2014 with It’s a Pleasure, of “slightly indulgent, narrative based indie music with strings”. He agrees he’s honed his working methods in recent years but is also aware of falling into a trap of his own making.
“I know what I’m doing,” he says, “but I think as soon as you know what you’re doing you should stop doing it. Once you know what you’re doing you sort of become a cliché of your own effort and that’s really boring. Plainly no one else needs to hear anyone else talk as they can’t sing any more in an estuary accent, I think it really is a tired genre. Maybe there’s been a glut of it in recent years for whatever reason and to think I should be responsible for continuing that. I should try and sing or not sing any more and become a traffic warden or whatever. There’s not really anywhere else to go with it.”
Could he imagine working in a different way? (He did an electronic side-project with Etienne De Crecy and Delilah Holliday in between Prince of Tears and The Night Chancers.) “I could do, yeah,” he says. “I don’t know how that is. Maybe you need someone with a lot more presence to try and bully me into doing something different.
“You’ll gauge it all based on the success of this record and see how much value you have, see how much someone’s ready to invest in you to do something on a different path. It all depends, really, where people think you can go. I’m a late forties dude with a funny haircut – what value that has I don’t know.
“I’d like to make an urban American record. I don’t really what yet. I quite like Frank Ocean and those kind of people. Something more than just me controlling it. Not with a band, not with some good old boys. Sometimes with the good old boys you get a mature kind of music sound that perhaps needs not to exist any more. I don’t know.”
The next chapter could be interesting… “Well, let’s wait and see,” he says.
The Night Chancers is out on March 20. Baxter Dury plays at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on April 17. www.baxterdury.tv