Danny George Wilson on Country-Soul, Roald Dahl and musical ‘Keepie-Uppy’
2013 was a big year for Danny George Wilson, the new record STAY TRUE, was universally fawned over by the music critics. He formed his first ‘stable’ band since the inception of ‘Danny & The Champions of The World’ and rode on the wave of a near sell out UK Autumn tour. I caught up with him as he relaxed prior to the penultimate date at the Maze, Nottingham.
I’d heard his family ran a business emporium in Australia, I asked him to tell me about the early days and the Milk bar in Melbourne.
Sporting a beard and with his hair gelled into a mini quiff, his face lightened as he responded in his south London accent. “Well my mum is from Aberdeen and after the war when she was about six, the family went out to Australia, which is where my dad is from, I was born in Queensland one of five kids, we came over to England when I was four or five we moved back to England, I grew up in a Scottish-Australian household in South London.”
Pausing for a sip of tea and honey and an ironic chuckle over his ‘rock n’ roll’ life style … he continued, “I actually can’t remember the Milk Bar, but I do know that when my dad was a kid, his father had a shop called ‘Wilsons Emporium’ and within all of that was the milk bar and his love of rock and roll came about by filling up the Juke Box, he still loves music … soul, doo-wop R&B etc.
I was probing for a little more, and asked if his Fathers’ passion for music somehow permeated his soul? … “Without a doubt” he said with passion … “My Dad loves music and there has always been really good music in the house, lots of Springsteen and Tom Waits and early soul and doo-wop.”
Sensing his dad had had a huge impact, I asked him to tell us about That Old Space Rocket the hitch-hiking song … His eyes widened and lit up as he answered, “Oh man, that’s a true story. I was about 14 and we were away with my dad, who was playing Petanque and drinking Pastis with the locals and heard about the ‘Fabulous Thunderbirds with Jimmy Vaughan’, playing about 25km away. So we hitch-hiked up there and saw the gig, it was brilliant … It’s all true and I like it when I don’t have to work too hard on songs and they take on a life of their own.”
He continued, unconsciously rolling up his sleeves to reveal some intricate tattoo art. “Most of my songs are like that, I get an idea and tell a story, build a picture. I quite often have a pad or a piece of paper by the bed and then I get an idea or a catalyst and it just runs from there … You don’t even have to be that poetic, you just need to be able to tell a story.”
I asked if he was a big Roald Dahl fan? … He laughed out loud as he answered. “Well I guess growing being called Danny and coming across a book called Danny & The Champions of the World – was really cool. I really like the romance of life and the great tales that can be told. Also Ronnie Lane has always been a massive inspiration and influence and he went through the period where he lived in a gypsy caravan and they had the travelling show and what not, very earthy flying by the seat of your pants life style. Everything was a bit blue-tacked together and it really seemed to tally with Danny and the book and the magical romance of life. The band was always totally freewheeling and cobbled together from the start. From a literary perspective, these days, I’m a big fan of American writers Willy Vlautin and Larry Brown, they both weave intricate stories about real life”
With a wide grin, he recalled the bands rickety beginnings. “From the outset, it was a general free for all, I was sleeping in this camper van and recording randomly. It was very lawless and there were no rules cos’ there were no permanent band members as such. Everyone was in different bands, so we could show up with two or three of us, or six or seven depending on who was available. It caused its occasional hiccoughs with promoters and fans alike … but it seemed to work out ok”
I asked about the new record STAY TRUE and the palpable change of musical style (which I admitted I had initially found difficult) … this time he paused for a millisecond, before he said, “well it wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing, but I guess I had been listening to more Sam Cooke, Dan Penn, Eddie Hinton and Spooner Oldham, you know that Muscle Shoals sound. That whole country-soul thing fascinated me, especially the way pedal steel, which is my favourite instrument, could run in the background of a soul song. So I guess it was just another organic thing … just the way the songs came out really.”
I commented that there seemed to be a lot of the cold references in the songs, yet the songs have such a summery feel… “Yeah” he said, “that’s true, and when I saw the track listing I thought the same thing, but we’ve been thrilled with the response from everyone. “I guess you are right” he continued, the songs sound warm despite the titles.” He’s laughing again now, “the record has been so well received, we’re hoping we can do a spot of ‘Keepie-Uppy’ with it, maybe even till the summer time, then those summer sounds can really work their magic.”
Had I detected a element of Northern Soul in the back beat to some of the new songs, I asked?
He answered with a firm “Yes!”, “the record is very earthy and the drums are very prominent on the tracks and I agree it has a real Northern Soul backbeat at times. It is very natural, we tried hard to make it sounds like you are in the room with the band. It’s equally influenced by Van Morrison style of arrangement … a real mix of styles with total R&B influences as well.
I asked about the recording process … and Wilson set off into overdrive. “It is very easy to make ‘perfect’ music these days … you can tune vocals, you can get the drums in time, but it loses its soul and it becomes no longer real. What I think the people who listen to Americana want, is something human … something real from the heart. So no amount of polishing up is ever going to make it better. Frankly I hate being in the studio, it can be painful, so I just want to do it as quick as possible, make it as fun as possible and then get out and do some gigs with it.”
He continued, “what I think I’ve got really good at is being able to listen to myself do a very human vocal and actually judge whether there is something in it, or is it really too shit. I am really good at saying that’s good that will work fine, often because I don’t want to do it again, but sometimes cos’ the flaws enhance it! It makes it feel real it’s pretty much a no brainer.”
The latest tour had been 21 gigs in 23 days … This is something Wilson is passionate about (so passionate the band have just come out as readers ‘Best Band’ on the American-UK website) “I love it,” he said, “I’d be doing it down the local pub if I weren’t doing it here, I need it, its something I love.” “Look” he says for emphasis, “I’m 41, I’m no oil painting I’m just a normal bloke. I don’t get carried away, but what’s nice is that it seems to be growing and the tour and the record has been so well received. I think it has always been hard for UK based Americana artists, but we’ve certainly had a great experience on this tour and I think the game of keepy-uppy seems to continue, so long may it last!” he laughing again at the comical thought.
I asked about plans for the future …? “Well now the band is finally stable – he has a regular line up of Chris Clarke (bass, vocals), Paul Lush (guitar, vocals), Steve Brookes (drums, vocals) and Geoff Widdowson (saxophone, organ, vocals) – We are probably going to do some dates in Europe in 2014. We may may also do a couple of dates in the States too, I am a huge fan of American culture, so its nice to be a rock n’ roll tourist, getting to play over there is just a bonus. But we are off to Scandinavia and Spain in May. There’s a pretty big arena close to home … Playing 6 dates in Ireland to great crowds was massive for us.
Any plans to do a big Van Morrison type surprise for the next record?
“No” he says firmly, “I think we have found a sound, and it’s one that I remain totally in love with, so I think we will be developing that. It seems to suit my voice and I love the opportunity to sing some soul, so I think we will be elaborating and working on that.”
I knew he had a passion for peoples ‘Top Tens’… and ‘best ever songs’ … and wondered what his current favourites were? It’s time for sound check, but he can’t resist this one … “Ha, ha… it changes daily to be honest… But today I guess I would be plumping for a George Jones song maybe the ‘Grand Tour, or a Sam Cooke song, but then there’s always Van Morrison to pick from and Tupelo Honey has to be a big favourite of mine too.”
STAY TRUE was released in September 2013 … Danny & The Champions of the World plan to play Keepie-Uppy with it for a while longer yet! If you haven’t heard it yet …you probably should, it’s country-soul at its very best. Don’t you just love it when a fairy tale comes true! Alan J Taylor
STOP PRESS – Three of the UK’s top Americana singer-songwriters will be performing together at a handful of intimate venues in January 2014. Danny George Wilson will assume his position next to label mate Peter Bruntnell, along with the equally un-missable Neil Halstead.
Photographs by James Millson