Although he’s been releasing music of his own for more than a decade, it’s still difficult to talk about Baxter Dury without at least acknowledging his father, the late iconoclast Ian Dury. After all, Baxter was first introduced to the British public at the age of five, when his father used a photo of the two of them as the cover of his 1977 debut album, New Boots And Panties.
That said, while Ian was a regular presence in Baxter’s childhood, he was largely raised by his mother, and eventually set out on a musical path of his own. In 2001, shortly after his father’s death, Baxter released his debut EP, Oscar Brown, via Rough Trade. The storied U.K. outpost went on to release Baxter’s first full-length Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift in 2002 and its follow-up, Floor Show, in 2005. These early efforts were steeped in the guitar-driven Britpop that largely defined the U.K.’s rock output in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but Baxter’s subsequent efforts, particularly 2014’s It’s A Pleasure, have seen him gravitating towards a more melodic pop sound buffered with airy synth melodies and a relaxed new wave vibe.
In these condensed excerpts from his RBMA Radio Fireside Chat, Dury analyzes the looming influence of his father, his incidental entrance into the music business, collaborating with Fabienne Débarre and arriving at his particular singing style.
Growing Up “In-Between”
I’m a bit corrupted because I was brought up in music. It wasn’t forced on me, but it was there. There was always some mustachioed, bongo-playing loon. I’d either think, “I don’t want to be him,” or “I like the freedom of that dude’s jib. I like the way he lives his life.” There was always a bit of a conflict in-between.
We were brought up in a normal setting. I wasn’t forced into a more bohemian background. We had a good balance. My father was a little bit different, but my mum was very normal, so I could choose in-between.
His great positives were always to talk about music very intellectually, and a massive range of it. Someone would send him the earliest tapes of prisoners singing in Mississippi, or something weird. Then he’d make you sit there until 4 in the morning repeating the thing, which would drive me crazy, because I was only 13. “What sort of sentence is this?” In hindsight, it was a real inspiration. I think he was probably a forced inspiration. He forced it upon me, but actually I’m really grateful for it.
[My mother] was a painter and she had none of those sensibilities, but they lived apart. They were good friends, but they lived apart. We lived at one end of the river Thames. I could walk in-between the houses. We had two camps that were not opposed to each other, but they were different. Mum was purely a painter in a very old school sense, and didn’t really seek out any bohemian-ness. She wasn’t a pot-smoking mum.
It’s taken me a while to go, “Alright. Well, I’m not that and I am this.” I found who I am.
I liked Elvis, I think, by the age of four. I was into Elvis, and then I got into Gene Vincent, I got into weird rock & roll stuff. Then a lot of pop, Madness. A lot of bands I’ve associated with dad. At the time, I had a sort of privileged connection with them [Madness]. I think they were rung up and told, “Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to my son.” Or else, whatever. He was quite dominant, domineering. They would sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Madness were a big influence. I was really into rock & roll and jazz. A bit precocious, I guess, because of my upbringing. I mean, connected. I was so young, but I saw more bands than most, because I was in that world. I was exposed to a lot more music because one of my parents was heavily involved in the industry. I was always there, I was a tour kid. I would run about on tour and see all sorts of people.
Becoming A Musician
I didn’t really know what else I could possibly do. I thought I might as well do something that I was defined by, and I could live poorly by, but at least I was defined by it, as opposed to going to do something that I didn’t want to do. I think at that stage I wasn’t really committed to anything. I thought, “Well, this is the only thing I love.” It was a bit of a lost decision.
It was a much more fertile business then. I think someone gave me a record deal just by… I could cough into a tape. I wrote half a song and I got about £100,000. It was pretty easy then. I think that was the bricks falling from the foundations of the music industry. I didn’t deserve that, to be honest. It possibly was because I was the son of somebody. The only thing that 100 grand gave me was a bit of space to learn to do what I could do well. It wasn’t until about four or five years after that that I actually put an album out. Now I’ve done four, now I’m quite good. I wasn’t then. I was a chancing idiot.
You have a big old emblem of a dad, a big old iconic thing, and he did something incredibly well. You forage in, you sort of sense and find your space in it. It’s taken me a while to go, “Alright. Well, I’m not that and I am this.” I found who I am.
The Importance of Creative Environments
Every time is different. A creative scene is more about being with the right people and all that. I made an album once in Ibiza. That was quite fun. It depends on who you’re with and what you’re going to do next. Each new project can be fun, and who you choose, and how you do it. I’m just starting to build a studio in Tring, where I live, in an old 200-year-old silk mill, owned by the Rothschilds. It’s a very beautiful place. That’s quite exciting. It’s a total shit-hole, but I’m happy about that.
I wanted to make an album that sounded good in foresight, based on hindsight.
I’ve started writing again. I’m just about to start writing a new album. I’ve got a piano. We live next to an auction, a big old auction. You can buy pianos every day. I bought two of them. I think my next album will sound like someone that’s been given a piano in his prison cell. A bit like a lonely guy, he’s got the rest of his years left incarcerated, but he’s a bit emotional. They’ve given him a piano, because they like him, he’s helped out a little bit. I’ve kind of got that feeling to it.
The Making Of It’s A Pleasure
When I started [It’s A Pleasure] I thought about really rubbish hip hop from the ’80s. Almost like white hip hop, really badly-emulated crap, but really melodic. Malcolm McLaren did a song once called “Buffalo Gals.” You know that song? Things that are pretty awful, but sound good in hindsight. I wanted to make an album that sounded good in foresight, based on hindsight. It was a bit confusing, but it didn’t work out like that, anyway.
Then it went a bit Kraftwerk, a bit angular. I did a lot of it at home and used drum machines and stuff. The album I’ve done before was a bit more raw and honest, and this one was a bit more... You kind of start to think about titles of songs more than what the song’s about. There’s a danger in that. I’m not criticizing my own work, but you can definitely see the difference.
“Pleasure” is me accusing people of not changing their lifestyles, but really, secretly, not wanting to change my own. It’s a bit like, “Oh my God. It’s ridiculous what you’ve been up to, and look at you now. But where are you going now? Where are you going now? Can I come? Am I too old?” It’s a little bit like that. It’s a little bit of a contradiction: giving up smoking and, “Oh my God. What are you smoking? What are you smoking?”
“Palm Trees” is always an interesting one for me, because it was always the one that had the most distinctive story. It’s right next to me, where I used to live in London. There was a big shopping center built, called Westfield. It’s a horrible, horrific, big American-like place, where everyone’s dreams are met. That story is about somebody, probably a female person, trying to escape from a potentially abusive situation, going to stare at the palm trees that have artificially been grown in this big place, to dream of a better life. That’s the extent of her dreams, because she doesn’t know anything else. It’s all from his perspective, the man that she came with thinking, “What the fuck is she doing looking at those palm trees?” It’s quite aggressive. I always liked the idea of going more into that territory.
On the Cover of It’s A Pleasure
Basically, I was on holiday in Barcelona and my girlfriend took an unfeasibly attractive photo of me. I thought, “That’s a really good photo.” She took an unfeasibly attractive photo, and we dwelt upon that for a while, “Fuck. You know, that’s good.” Someone said I look like Alain Delon, a famous French actor. As an end result, and not having any other ideas, I chose that putting a swan next to me detracts from the seriousness. It’s to soften my own vanity, basically.
The Vividness of “Strange Fruit”
I listen to a lot of old soul music, and old black music, really – not necessarily related to the music I make, because I couldn’t make that music. I listen to a lot of American black music. I taped something from Radio 4, which is all about the history of the song “Strange Fruit.” That’s the most disturbing thing I’ve ever, ever, ever, ever heard. It almost gave me anxiety listening to it. It’s the most horrific song, brilliant. It’s almost impossible to listen to it because you start to picture what it’s about. The vivid, kind of weird-smelling death, and flesh burning.
I love vivid songs, and I think songs should be based on what you know and experience. But I did it in a very, very domestic, silly, my own self-world way, because that’s what I’m in command of. It’s incredibly vain and silly and suburban. It doesn’t go into that territory, because I don’t live like that. I don’t live like that person who wrote that song. I’m not active like that, so I don’t dare to write like that. I’m not political.
Good songs are always dead-on. Dead-on about something that happens and you feel, always, the way you sing them and everything, totally sincere. It’s totally and massively important to be real.
Working with Fabienne Débarre
I met her because she supported us a few times in Paris with her band, called We Were Evergreen. I always thought she was, not better than her band, but she was just amazing, and we got on well. Then she moved around the corner, she moved to London. I kidnapped her straight away, and we just worked together on the last album [It’s A Pleasure]. She’s the most unbelievably proactive person.
She’s someone that was probably smashed on her fingertips if she got a note wrong at the age of three. I guess – I’m not saying that is true. She’s so accomplished in all things classical, musical things. She’s just a machine of positive creativity. She doesn’t stop. Then she carries all the equipment, as well. She does everything. I’m a bad person compared to her. She’s just a force of things. I think she’ll go on really well. I got a whisper someone was about to offer her her own record deal, and I can understand why. She’s amazing.
It gives relief from my melodic non-melodic adventures. I can do a bit of convincing narration, tiny bit of melody, but then I’m bored. I can write better than I can sing. Then I’m bored. I don’t want another dude to come in, I don’t want another load of boys all singing together. We’re not on a submarine. I chose a woman as a sort of foil, relief from my dour tones.
Over-consideration, for someone like me, is murderous.
I do it because it’s the only option. Then, I dig it because I’ve done it and everyone likes it.
I can’t always sing and I’m quite wordy. If you’re wordy and you can’t sing, you’re fucked. If you can sing and you’re wordy, you’re fucked, because you sound like an idiot. I mean, I’m quite wordy and I like to describe things. I’m quite convinced that what I’m saying is important to what I’m doing, so I want to talk it, because I can’t sing it. Certain words, you can’t sing them. I can say them. I’ve learned to appreciate it. I sometimes beat myself up because it’s too easy to talk in a microphone. But that is my singing, in a way.
On Trusting Spontaneity
I find that the best things come out of little pockets, and you have to capture them and believe in them. It’s hard to believe in pockets of inspiration because you don’t believe that they can be that good. You learn how to go, “That’s actually really good,” and you follow it through. Over-consideration, for someone like me, is murderous. It starts to make it frumpy. When I’m most relaxed and happiest I start to be creative. It’s the opposite for some people, who have to be really pained. I just want to be really happy.