Who's That Girl..?
DAVE STEWART's Platinum Weird
interviewed by Andrew Darlington
Dave Stewart says he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life talking about The Eurythmics. Eurythmics was great, but it is so over. Instead, right now, he wants to talk about his new project, Platinum Weird. But to do that involves further trips into the past. Into the time even before he was one-half of Eurythmics. According to the tie-in DVD, it's all a long, strange, involved tale. I've a sneaking feeling it's something far simpler. Dave - who was described as "composer, filmmaker, television producer and political campaigner" in a major Telegraph Magazine feature (23rd September 2006), is based in Los Angeles at the moment. That's where he's speaking from today. What can he see from his window? Well, it's the third floor of an office block, and...
Is Platinum Weird a virtual group, like Gorillaz, or The Rutles..?
DS: Not really. No, we're a real physical band. We're going to play live. In fact we played our first gig at this place called 'The Roxy', which is like, a legendary gig on Sunset Boulevard. And we have been in rehearsals with the band...
Perhaps you can put me on the guest list?
DS: Sure, yes. Just nip over and back again in the day! So we'll be coming to England to play live as well.
I enjoyed your Platinum Weird: Rock Legends DVD, tracing the semi-mythical origins of the group, supposedly in the early 1970s.
DS: Ah yes, well, that's all of the sort-of build-up. It's like as if we're transforming from Jefferson Airplane into Jefferson Starship in a month. If you know what I mean.
(Actually, that's not a very encouraging analogy, as Airplane was the radical innovative incarnation of the band which later went on to became the bland platinum-selling AOR Jefferson Starship, then just Starship.)
Who plays the young 'Dave Stewart' in that DVD?
DS: Well, that's a mystery. I'm not allowed to say.
(Platinum Weird's supposed 1973-4 line-up is: Noel Chambers - keyboards, Matthew Sugarman - bass, Brian Parfitt - drums, Dave Stewart - guitar, and Erin Grace - muse, soulmate, songwriting partner and vocals).
As I understand it, you were first brought together with Kara DioGuardi - your real Platinum Weird partner, as part of a project intended to write new material for Pussycat Dolls! The prospect of you writing for Pussycat Dolls is a highly amusing concept. Are they sisters doing it for themselves, or just a highly lucrative franchise?
DS: Ah-ha! Well, it's very funny see, 'cos I had... when I was living in England about ten-and-a-half years ago, I had two of those girls staying with me! But then Jimmy Iovine called and said "I'm sending you a spitfire," and the spitfire arrived in the shape of Kara, and within ten minutes of her walking into the room we had suddenly written this great song which had nothing to do with Pussycat Dolls or anything, it just sounded like... us! It sounded like a kind-of 1970s' Fleetwood Mac kind of rock song, and then we just couldn't stop. And it was like, we're just doing what we're doing. And we just realised very quickly - that actually this is a great sound, and this is what we love doing. And it just carried on for an hour. We carried on recording and writing for no reason apart from that we loved doing it.
It must be intimidating to be thrust into a room with someone you don't know, with the intention of writing songs together. It's rather like that old 'Brill Building' concept, where people like Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield perfected their craft.
DS: Well, yeah. You'd be surprised at the weird combinations that came together and yet turned out something very interesting. And right back in those days you'd be surprised who was actually writing in the Brill Building. Not many people realise that Lou Reed wrote in there, for instance. He wrote surf songs, ha-ha! I think one of his first releases was a sort-of pop surf-song. Because, you know, The Beach Boys were all the sort-of hip thing at the time. But yes - the thing is, I don't usually do that. I don't usually write songs specifically for people. I'm often collaborating with the person who's singing the song, whether it's Mick Jagger or whoever it is. But that's what happened with me and Kara. It's just turned out so well. She's such a great singer.
Although Kara is already an established LA-based songwriter in her right, with her compositions recorded by Santana, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Kylie Minogue and others, it must have been an even more scary project for her, the prospect of writing with you.
DS: Ah well, yes... [he seems to be picking his words very carefully] She's a very interesting... dynamic personality. And, without her realising it, she's more rock 'n' roll than probably 99 percent of the female singers I've met. Although she didn't quite realise that herself. Not until we started getting more and more into writing this kind of vibe that we'd created. Eventually we went into a big warehouse with a band, and played live. That was the first time she'd actually performed. We filmed it. And she saw it back, and she realised - 'oh yeah, I'm a rock 'n' roll singer'. You know? So she wasn't as much daunted by writing with me, but more curious as to how we'd suddenly created this sound. I don't understand how we did it either! You can be in a room with some people for ages and just not come up with any particular sound - you may write a song. But immediately me and Kara had that sound.
How did you actually start writing the first song for the project? Which was the first song you wrote together?
DS: Yes, it's called - er, Somebody To Love, and it was done in the first ten minutes of us writing together. The album you've got is the first one (Make Believe). The '1974' album, which is all done on 1970s' gear and vintage stuff, and it was a completely different-sounding record. So now this is - I'm talking about the album that comes after that one. We've made these two albums which we've mastered and finished, but yes, we're making a third album now. We're actually halfway through finishing the third album. Not to deliberately try and make an album, but it's just that we can't stop writing these songs.
So Platinum Weird is intended to be a long-term project?
DS: Oh yes. I suppose you could say it's the first time I've formed a duo - with a girl, since obviously, Annie (Lennox). And that took a lot of decision-making. For Kara too, because it's like - "hang on, I'm going to be there in a duo with somebody who's last partner was Annie Lennox!" So, thankfully, we don't sound anything like Eurythmics.
I shouldn't tell Kara, but to me, so far, the most striking track on the Platinum Weird Make Believealbum is Piccadilly, which you sing.
DS: She'll kill ya! Yeah, well, I was just putting myself back to when I was feeling really out of it, back in London, during the period when I was a bit sort-of lost, in a lost space, and this girl I'd met kinda broke my heart a bit and disappeared ['Erin Grace' in the DVD mockumentary]. And the song's kinda going - I've seen a lot of things, I've done a lot of things, but it doesn't mean anything without you. And I'd put myself back to that period when I used to sing with just acoustic guitar. And even before that when I used to do it in folk clubs. And had good fun doing it.
Isn't the entire Platinum Weird scam really an affectionate rewriting of your own history? After all, you were in a group called Longdancer which signed to Elton John's Rocket Records.
DS: Yes, after Longdancer started to break up I did go to Holland, and met an American girl, and we started writing songs together, and we did play them to Elton. You see... it's all, that documentary is 91 percent true. And the bits that are filled in are the bits where I probably couldn't remember anyway because it was a blurry period of drink and drugs.
Your first chart band, with Annie Lennox, was The Tourists. Wasn't Tourists also a real-life progenitor for Platinum Weird?
DS: It was yeah, you see, the thing is... there was this period between Longdancer and The Tourists where it was... it's funny, because musically as well it was very confused, because that's when - in a way, punk came along and just exploded it all. But there was, like... we'd had this great 1960s' thing, y'know, Hendrix, The Beatles, The Stones, The Who - the explosion of psychedelia, and then it turned into something very interesting with Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bowie. And that was great, and then - 1973, just before punk, it went a bit, kind of homogenous and you got weird things like a mixture of ginormous sort of dinosaur bands, but you also had the Bay City Rollers. It was kinda jumbled up. And you had - on one hand Slade and things like that, and on the other hand you had...
The Amazing Blondel? Wasn't that the hippie folk duo you first hitched a ride out of Sunderland with?
DS: Actually that was before. That was 1968, '69. But it was a great period to be growing up and be sort-of consuming all that sort of music, poaching and devouring it, and learning it on guitar. It was so musical. When you think of the records that came out, like Bowie doing Life On Mars. And you had these, kinda, epic musical moments in pop.
What was it like, after all the false-starts and to-and-fro's, to finally break through so massively with Eurythmics.
DS: Yeah, well, I think it's all like a training ground, except often in something like pop music, you train in public, you know? Lots of people work in different jobs, move jobs and get better and better and end up being in a really good position. Like the editor of a magazine. Or whatever you work at. Moving hospitals and eventually becoming a doctor. But when you're doing it, and you're being written about and you're being on radio and on TV, everybody can see all of your mistakes. And you can too. It's very sort-of larger-than-life, glaring you in the face. When you realise 'oh, that wasn't how I meant it to be' or 'that wasn't as good as I thought it would be'. But if you're - I suppose, wise or in tune with the facts you can go 'I'm gonna make that much better next time'. I'm going to refine that. I'm gonna... you know, you don't look back as much as you use that to propel yourself forward.
Yes, it's a process of 'growing up in public'.
DS: Yes. It's a funny old thing. Growing up in public. I mean - you know what I've been through now. And at the beginning you do get worried. I mean, 'oh my god, I did that, look what happened here' or 'look what this person wrote about us'. But then, obviously there's so much that's been said or written about you, so much that's happened, that you just can't worry about it. After a while it just doesn't affect you. It just turns into one big process really.
Does that confidence - that sense of acceptance, carry though to launching a new project like Platinum Weird?
DS: Well, you manage your expectations too, you know. One thing I learned very early on is, you should only do stuff that you really really enjoy, and that you really love doing. Because then, if it's a success or if it's not a success - it matters in one way, but in another way it doesn't, because you had a great time, it was a great journey, and you really love it and you stand by it. If you try and do something, force yourself to try and make loads of money, and you don't even enjoy doing it - it's a nightmare both ways because if it is a success you're going 'shit, I've got to do this for ages', and if it isn't - you've wasted all that time not enjoying yourself.
I love the mocked-up covers of N.M.E., Melody Maker and Sounds you use to illustrate the fictional Platinum Weird story on the DVD.
DS: It was a labour of love, anybody who is in the industry can see that - 'oh god, they went into every little detail!'
During your scuffing pre-fame years did you used to buy those magazines each week, and fantasise about one day having such a cover story?
DS: Yes, of course, like any kid in his bedroom. Absolutely. Being in Sunderland there was only ever one shop that stocked it, but a queue of scruffy kids outside waiting for it.
I know exactly what it was like, I was growing up in Hull around the same time.
DS: A very similar town.
Yes, I sometimes felt like I was the only hippie in Hull.
DS: That's a great title for a book, 'The Only Hippie In Hull'. It rolls off the tongue beautifully. You should write that book. I think you've hit on a great one with 'The Only Hippie In Hull'. I think it's a great title for a book. Just by saying the title to yourself, you could probably trigger loads of... trigger loads of memories of what it was like. 'Cos I know, trying to survive in Sunderland and wanting to be different, or just being different, and being into different music and a different look, and stuff like that, it was a pretty dangerous thing to do. You had to watch out, dodge the knives, if you know what I mean?
You've now worked with people like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger (Dave plays guitar on Dylan's 1986 Knocked Out Loaded album, while he collaborated on three songs with Mick Jagger for the soundtrack of movie re-make Alfie (2004) - Old Habits Die Hard, Let's Make It Up and Blind Leading The Blind). You've also collaborated with the likes of Bono, Bob Geldof, Anastacia, Bryan Ferry and others. Surely Dylan and Jagger must have been your musical heroes at one time. Did you queue to see them on tour, and buy their albums?
DS: Oh yes. Yeah-yeah. I mean, can you imagine how weird it is for me to come from Sunderland, and then these kind-of characters - you know, who are larger-than-life iconic mythological characters - like Bob Dylan, who even somebody from America would have thought 'Wow!', you know? - all of a sudden, to have these characters - like, in your front room! [he laughs incredulously] It's a bit strange. But you know, when you start to work with somebody, you've got to roll your sleeves up and start to get down to something. Whether it's making a video or filming with Bob Dylan, or writing a song with Mick (Jagger) or whatever, you very quickly become involved in a dialogue that is... you kind of go past being polite and respectful. You go into an actual exchange of ideas, you know what I mean? And then that becomes a different person.
I've been doing this for a long time, but it's still a great kick for me to get opportunities like this, of talking to musicians and artists I respect. After having worked with the most famous artists in rock, is there anyone left that you're still in awe of?
DS: Erm... the person I was most in awe of meeting was Nelson Mandela. And I was meeting him in Africa on his home turf, standing with him in the room where he was kept for all those years. A tiny little cell. Nothing to it. Just the bed that you lie on, and a tiny little... almost like a box where he was allowed to put things. Standing in there with him. And imagine him going back in there..? What would that feel like for him? That was probably the most daunting and lost-for-words kind of thing that's happened to me [Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 17 years on Robben Island).
Although you always claimed Eurythmics were never the hi-tech concept they were perceived to be, they were always forward-looking. With acts like Scissor Sisters reviving different aspects of the 1970's - as a Leo Sayer/ Bee-Gees pastiche, do you consider that rock, or pop, or whatever you want to call it, is becoming more concerned with the past than it is with the future? (on Lonely Eyes, Kara sings "it's hard to face the future when you're moving backwards").
DS: Well, I think everybody, in all art-forms, has drawn on past influences, whether it's painters, sculptors, or filmmakers. Filmmakers are always obsessively repainting a scene from something that really moved them when they were a kid, like 'hey, look at this movie!' I suppose Cinema Paradiso was the ultimate example. But you know, Scorsese will re-create something that he loved about a Hitchcock movie. He will put it in his latest movie, but re-disguised, you know what I mean... as something else? But it's their influences, and they can't help it. Tarantino, y'know - all his influences were packed into Pulp Fiction, then all his influences from Japanese and Chinese movies went into Kill Bill.
The past is so readily accessible now too, it's almost inescapable.
DS: That's it. Also you're always seeing snatches of film on YouTube and things like that. I try to keep track of my archive, but everything's sort of disappeared. I've lost something, and then - all of a sudden it reappears on YouTube. Like 'oh god, there's that thing, there's that video that Annie and I have been looking for for ages, the one for Never Gonna Cry Again which is the first sort-of video we made' [the video for their first single as Eurythmics, issued in July 1981], and somebody's found it and put it up on YouTube. And I emailed it to Annie and we were both going 'oh god'.
You've utilised the web as part of the 'Platinum Weird' promotional scam, seeding websites and inviting internet dialogue to construct the mystique.
DS: Yeah. I mean, what's interesting is that we noticed very quickly that fans - whether fans of Eurythmics, or fans generally of the web, picked up on what we were doing, and asked to join in. We would put up a website, and all of a sudden two others would go up, and then some others, and obviously by then it had gained a snowball effect. So that a German fan of Eurythmics saw what I was doing, and thought 'oh, that's really great', so he created his own 'Platinum Weird' website. And they create a little social world, and exchange stuff. It becomes - I suppose, a bit like when we were kids and you'd collect 'Tetley's Tea-Bag' cards. You know, your mate's got one that you haven't got, so you swap it, and all that stuff. I noticed on the website that they do that. Somebody finds a picture, and they swap it with a guy in Germany or wherever, or he put it up there and someone else grabs it to add it to his own.
Finally, Paris Hilton also appears on the DVD, apparently sending herself up. Was she in on the scam..?
DS: I think that was more the way we edited it.
You've had no reaction from her about it?
DS: No, no. It is quite funny though. 'Cos there's all these megastars, and she's the only one, she goes "what's Platinum Weird?" [in a whiney voice]. Y'know, we were just messing about with that. But we had loads and loads more footage. It was made for American VH1. Screening had to be inside 23 minutes or something - with commercials, but actually it eventually ran to over an hour long.
Thanks for your time, Dave, I appreciate that.
DS: I'll speak to you again soon, anyway. Hopefully if we play in England we'll get a chance to meet. I'll tell you what - I'm serious about you doing that book.
Actually, I've already got a book out - called I Was Elvis Presley's Bastard Love Child. Google that.
DS: I will. But that also fits with the follow-up though, which will be then 'I Was The Only Hippie In Hull'. The sequel. That would make a really good British indie movie too. Cast in that hippie period, and there's this one guy trying to be sort of like, into his hippiedom. And everyone else is 'hey, what the fuck are you doing?!'
Great idea, Dave, let's talk percentages...