Seven venues, 78 acts and three days of solid music...
Andy Williams of Doves, one of the UK’s most famously private bands, opens up to Becky Lucas ahead of their highly anticipated slot.
Doves: you may recognise the Brit guitar band’s songs, but it’s darn unlikely you know their names. You see, Doves aren’t celebrities – they’re musicians. Which is a shame, really, because the story of their inception would make for a superb film biography. Starring Robert Carlyle, perhaps. In the ’90s, twin brothers Andy and Jez Williams and long-term friend Jimi Goodwin formed Sub Sub, a dance group inspired by Manchester’s famous Haçienda club. They scored a few hits, most notably ‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)’.
Then, disaster struck. Literally. In 2000 their studio burnt to the ground. But rather than allow this bizarre turn of misfortune to stop them in their tracks, they instead chose to change musical direction completely, rename themselves Doves and release Lost Souls, an immaculately produced, soulful indie album that earned them hundreds of thousands of fans. These fans then proceeded to snap up their next three albums and flock to their gigs, including support slots with U2, Oasis and Coldplay. Talk about turning a crisis into an opportunity.
Now, nine years later, could another meltdown and reboot be on the cards? Should their studio managers be worried? ‘I really hope not,’ Andy, the band’s drummer and contributing vocalist, says in all seriousness down the phone from London. ‘We’ve got lots of fire extinguishers and we make sure the electrics are fine in this studio. I hope we never go through that again.’ What about another shift in musical focus, though? Should we expect a death metal makeover next? ‘As far as a direction change goes, we never rule it out,’ he says. ‘You’ve just got to attempt new things with each record, so that’s what we try to do.’
The critics tend to agree, describing this year’s record, Kingdom of Rust, as ‘unmistakably better than its predecessors’. But while the musos like Doves, the celebrity rags don’t really know who they are. ‘People aren’t into us personally, which is fine,’ says Andy. ‘It’s sort of like we live by ourselves, we die by ourselves. If we wanted that kind of attention, we could go about getting it.’
But sometimes that attention comes anyway. Doves admit they aim to create music that expresses the emotions people find hard to put into words. And that causes some fans to get a little too attached to the band. ‘We did have a stalker a few years back,’ Andy reveals. ‘I can laugh about it now, but this guy started sending letters to my home address and – well, I won’t go into it.’
Doves’ relative personal anonymity also stems from their lack of frontman: they all sing; they all write; there are no showy Brandon Flowers or Chris Martins. ‘I suppose Jez is the most prolific,’ Andy says. ‘But I think the reason we work so well is that we all bring new ideas to the table; we’ve always got a lot of material to choose from.’
This private attitude has caused journalists to get a little creative with the facts in the past. ‘I read that I met my brother Jez on the Haçienda dancefloor a couple of years ago, which was pretty funny. I was like, “We have met a few times before that!’’’ Okay, so how about giving us some accurate behind-the-scenes insights instead? What are each band member’s most annoying habits? ‘Oh, we’ve all got plenty. But I can’t really go into it,’ he squirms. ‘Okay – Jez eats apples in a really annoying way, but that’s all I’m saying!’
Hold the front page! Does he have any more exclusives like that? ‘We’re talking of doing a “best of” album next year and a couple of new songs for that,’ he replies, swiftly switching back to the professional side of things. ‘Then we’ve got the UK tour in December and we’re talking about asking this band called Camera Obscura or a new guy called Bibio to support.’
How about some gossiping, then: what does he make of the other acts at the fest? ‘We love Super Furry Animals, Happy Mondays and Echo and the Bunnymen – we grew up on their music, so we’ll definitely be angling to see them,’ Andy says animatedly. So, if you spot three vaguely familiar lads hanging out with Bez, Shaun Ryder and Ian McCulloch, that’s Doves. You may not recognise them at first, but ask them to strum a tune and they’ll blow all the loudmouths away.
The Furries’ guitarist, Huw ‘Bunf’ Bunford, discusses violent fans, obscurity and guerrilla parties with James Wilkinson.
They’re strange beasts, Super Furry Animals. Their eclectic mix of psychedelia, indie-rock and power-pop has resulted in a string of critically acclaimed albums, singles and EPs (including the splendidly-titled Llanfair-pwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwlll-lantysiliogogogoch (In Space)), yet they remain a band that many have heard of but not actually heard.
But their inability to reach superstardom doesn’t bother Bunf, who’s been the band’s guitarist for most of its 19-year existence. ‘If we’d had a massive international hit, we’d probably have been peddling it for the past 10 years. And that’s not a pay-off we really want,’ he says. ‘We just don’t do the formula thing. Our albums are all different, in an almost annoying way.’
Indeed, from the lush pop of Rings Around the World to the experimentalism of Guerilla and the rock of Hey Venus!, they’re a hard band to pin down. So what will they play out here? ‘We’ll play some singles from the old albums, but I think we’ll be promoting our new album [Dark Days/Light Years], really. Dubai audiences may not have heard some of our old stuff, so there isn’t the weight of expectation to play the old singles. Whereas in Wales you get people who shout, “Play the f****** singles!” And they get pretty violent, sometimes, if you don’t. And some people complain if you don’t play obscure B-sides. But over the years we’ve become immune to the bulls***.’
So they can’t please some fans no matter what they do. But what about pleasing themselves? If they could host their own festival anywhere they wanted, where would it be? ‘Somewhere in Columbia,’ says Bunf after a bit of thinking. ‘Any village that is quite inaccessible and is run by the guerrillas, where you can bribe the mayor and really run wild.’ Er, is that a good idea, we wonder? ‘Yeah, they’d welcome us with open arms,’ Bunf laughs honestly. And he should know – the Furries have first-hand experience of some of the strangeness that lies south of the US. ‘Some activists got in touch and invited us to Columbia,’ says Bunf. ‘These workers at a Coca-Cola plant had tried to set up a union and it was being stopped by the bosses with… quite aggressive tactics.’ And this, according to various magazines, was why the band turned down a £1.8million (Dhs10.8million) offer from Coca-Cola to use the band’s music in an ad campaign. But when we put this to Bunf, he’s nonplussed. ‘Actually, we just turned it down on the basic principle that it was Coca-Cola. The activists got in touch with us afterwards. Originally it was just a fight.’ Like we said – strange beasts. Venue: The Irish Village
The electro-indie dance band’s vocalist and guitarist, Bruce Carter, waxes lyrical with Time Out. What do you expect from Dubai? We’re excited – we’ve been through Dubai’s airport before but never played a show there. I guess we picture Dubai a little like Las Vegas with a sea. Hopefully the festivities will be a good opportunity to pitch things to people from various places on planet Earth.
Tell us about your set. We’re recording our second album, so we’ll play a few new songs to see what reaction we get. We try to put as much energy into our set as possible, and add bits to the live renditions to take the audience on more of a journey.
Tell us about the new material. It sounds a lot bigger and wider; we’ve learned lots about our sound by playing so many shows over the past three years so I’ve tried to write and produce tracks to our strengths. We’re trying to get more of the live energy onto the record this time too. I can’t wait to get a new album out and tour again. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen at one of your gigs? I’ve had a naked man dancing in front of me. And two naked women… I think that’s all the nudity so far. You see a lot of exciting things on the road – it’s good for distracting from home sickness.
Who’d play at your own festival? The Velvet Underground, because I saw Lou Reed solo and he didn’t play enough old songs; Primal Scream, playing Screamadelica start to finish; Soulwax, who are the masters of electronic music; and Rage Against the Machine. James Wilkinson Venue: Chi
The multi-instrumentalist and fusion king on why he’s happiest out of the limelight.
It was in April 2004 that a close friend handed us a CD labelled ‘Nitin Sawhney’ and enthused, ‘You’re going to love this!’ They weren’t wrong: his intoxicating music is the kind that gets under your skin and runs through your veins.Although Sawhney dabbles in genres innumerable, he is able to coalesce them into a unique and recognisable sound. From his home in the UK, the British-Indian musician explains: ‘For me, music is a means to an end. It’s a way to express a feeling, a thought or an idea that is going through my mind at the time, and I guess that’s what comes through when I approach music. It’s an expression of my identity as a human being. My music has included flamenco, Indian classical, hip-hop, jazz and whatever, but it’s really not about any of those things; it’s actually about an expression of something that I feel is important to me at that time.’
Besides his astounding studio albums, Sawhney has scored more than 30 films, including A Throw of Dice and, more recently, Oscar-nominated director Mira Nair’s The Namesake. Asked about working towards a creative vision that isn’t solely his, he says, ‘I have a very strong bond with directors when I’m working on films. For instance, working with Mira Nair was really interesting. The film was her vision through and through, and it was about understanding her unique viewpoint. It’s a very delicate balance because you have to be open without losing yourself.’
Sawhney may be wary of losing himself, but he’s also careful about letting people find him. ‘For me, who I am is not very important,’ he says. ‘The work I do is what I value. I am in everything, but I don’t want to be the focal point. I’d rather present interesting work on stage or on an album, rather than making it all about me. I think of myself as a director who makes films in sound – it’s important to understand the film, but it’s not to know a lot about the director himself.’
The division between musician and music remains for Sawhney, even when we ask which artists he’d invite to his own ideal festival. ‘[Sufi devotional singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Massive Attack, Jeff Buckley, [flamenco guitarist] Paco de Lucía and [Indian classical musician] Hariprasad Chaurasia. There isn’t much I need to say about them; their repertoires speak for themselves.’
So far Dubai has only experienced Sawhney as a DJ, so his gig at Dubai SoundCity – which will include a full band – will reveal a whole other side of his ability. If you’re new to the world of Sawhney, we suspect this could be a gig you’ll remember for some time. Gayathri Krishnan Venue: The Irish Village
Indie drummer Dan Haggis recounts his meetings with the biggest names in music.
Paul McCartney has said he’d like to produce your second album – has his management been in touch? No – I think it was more if he ever got back into producing, he’d like to work with ‘a young band such as…’ and then our name got mentioned. But we did have a little chat with him at the MTV European Music Awards.
A chat? Sort of. He said, ‘Hi Wombats, I really liked that New York song,’ and we all just s*** ourselves and ran off screaming. Would it be tempting to turn him down just because you could? No, I think that would be such a missed opportunity. It could be amazing. Or s***, you never know. But it would be interesting.
How’s your new stuff sounding? It’s got a little bit more of an electro feel, and it’s probably a bit darker and heavier. A bit more rocking. But it’s still being written. It’s early days yet – it could all change between now and the studio.
Do you get starstruck much? Only if it’s someone I respect, like if I really, really like their music. I met James Mercer, the singer of The Shins, in Japan briefly and I didn’t really know what to say. But that was more about meeting someone whose music has helped you through tough times.
If you could host a festival anywhere in the world, where would it be? We did a little one once on a mountain in Switzerland, and that was just incredible, like a Swiss version of The Sound Of Music. You just want to stand up and start yodelling or something. We didn’t, though. I wish we had. James Wilkinson Venue: The Irish Village
Other big acts
Those aren’t the only bands playing the festival. Here are a few more you won’t want to miss.
Happy Mondays Honestly – if Ian Brown coming to Dubai last month was a shock, then Happy Mondays visiting our fair town is enough to make us faint. Vocalist Shaun Ryder and dancer/maracas-shaker Bez made their names in the ’80s by blending the decade’s rave and rock cultures. But it was their forays into rock ’n’ roll excess that made the headlines, eclipsing their musical achievements. Though they’re now somewhat reformed characters – Bez even did a guest spot at Chi last year – the Mondays are still a pretty edgy choice to headline a festival in Dubai. Even if you’re not familiar with them, it’ll be worth going along just to see what happens… Venue: The Irish Village
Echo & the Bunnymen Ian McCulloch has no time for fools and little time for anyone who’s not Ian McCulloch. As the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen, he spent most of the ’80s lashing out at the likes of Nick Cave and Paul Weller with his acerbic wit, which would be a bit much if he wasn’t so bloody talented. Ocean Rain, the band’s biggest album, was a post-punk classic; its excellence was introduced to a new generation when cult film Donnie Darko featured the track ‘The Killing Moon’. McCulloch has also worked as an associate producer for Coldplay and invited Chris Martin to work on the Bunnymen’s new album, The Fountain. And how did he feel the first time he met Martin? ‘I didn’t meet Chris Martin – he met me.’ Oooh. Venue: The Irish Village
The Human League With the ’80s synth-pop stylings of La Roux riding high in the affections of music fans the world over, there’s never been a better time to see their spiritual predecessors The Human League. Well, not since the actual ’80s of course, when their seminal album Dare was released and the unbelievably catchy – we’ve got it stuck in our heads as we write this – single ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was unleashed on the world. (See? It’s in your head now too.) They’ve racked up eight top 10 UK hits, including ‘Tell Me When’ and ‘(Deep Feeling) Fascination’, and are still releasing albums to this day. If you’re at all interested in where modern pop is heading, then checking out these truly influential artists is a must. Venue: The Irish Village De La Soul When they created the genre-defining hip-hop album 3 Feet High and Rising – and its quirky, smash-hit single ‘Me, Myself And I’ – De La Soul became the acceptable face of rap. Of course, it was the unacceptable face of rap – gangsta rappers NWA, et al – that went on to dominate the charts, but De La Soul battled on, creating critically acclaimed album after critically acclaimed album, and nabbing a Grammy Award for ‘Feel Good Inc.’, their ace collaboration with Gorillaz. More importantly, they put on a storming live show, as anyone who saw them performing at Chi last year will attest. And in a festival that’s largely based around white guys with guitars, quality hip-hop like this will shine even brighter. Venue: The Irish Village
Alphabeat The unstoppably poppy Alphabeat bounced into our consciousness last year with their inescapable debut This is Alphabeat. With an almost psychotically cheerful demeanour and colours so bright they’d give Willy Wonka a migraine, they bestrode Europe like a giant, cuddly colossus. According to the band, their new album, The Spell, has moved away from Euro-pop and into the ’90s dance arena inhabited by the likes of Black Box. Still, they should provide a suitably chipper pick-me-up after Nitin Sawhney’s thoughtful fusion fare. Venue: The Irish Village