Ray Davies: Looking For The Real World
Introduction and interview by Daniel Coston
Originally published in the Big Takeover Magazine, summer 2008
Say the name of Ray Davies, and how many great songs come to mind? We all have them in our heads, playing on cue whenever we wish to hear them. I have seen Japanese bands that could barely speak english sing and play Kinks songs note for note, and watched friends take part in three-hour tributes to Ray’s songs at a local club, and grin at the thought of which Kinks song to play next.
Ray’s new album, Working Man’s Cafe, continues the creative roll that began with the 2006 release of Other People’s Lives. While the press for the album emphasizes its American connections, it is a record filled with Ray’s experiences over the last few years, and his views of the world around him. Be it in a quiet English town, or in a hospital bed in New Orleans, recovering from his gunshot wound in 2004, Cafe is an album that offers glimpses of both its creator, and of ourselves, something that Ray has excelled in doing for over forty years.
This phone conversation with Ray Davies, who was in New York City to perform on David Letterman’s show, took place on February 19th, the day that Working Man’s Cafe was released. In many ways, this was the perfect day to talk to him. For all of the accolades that he and his songs have received in the past, Ray is a man that is very focused on continuing to create new work, and pushing himself towards the future. While that future may include a return to the Kinks, and working with brother Dave Davies, the future for Ray Davies will come on his own terms. Even when his plans take the unexpected detour.
BT: The new record is out today. Is it still exciting for you to have a new record out?
Davies: Yeah, it is. It Never seems to diminish, the excitement. Particularly with this record, the journey to being released. It was quite a quick record to make, but arduous, to say the least.
I only made it last year. I started it this time last year, really. So I started recording it in London with my touring band, but the producer wasn’t working out, and at the end of January, I thought, “This has got to happen fast, because I don’t want to take seven years,” like the last one. So I phoned up a friend who’s a producer in Nashville, Ray Kennedy, and asked if he had any free time. And he said he had an opening (laughs) at the end of February.
So I flew over, tried a few tracks with some local players, then went straight back home and closed off the other sessions [in London], terminated all that, and then flew straight over. We recorded the basics, I’d say, in about 14 days, and then overdubs and things.
Other People’s Lives took longer for different reasons. I say, seven years, but lots of things happened. The management company that I was working with collapsed. Well, they went into business with somebody else, and I was not comfortable there. Then I had to find a producer I was happy with, and finding musicians, as well.
It’s difficult to find players after being with the Kinks for so long, you know, for the studio. Eventually, I found some people I was comfortable with. As with this record, Working Man’s Cafe, the musicians, Ray [Kennedy] assembled the guys for me, from local session players and musicians. We were instantly, sort of, we knitted. It worked, so we went straight for it.
BT: Did it feel right to record these songs in America since so much of what you wrote about for this record was written in, or around America?
Davies: Yeah. Yes, it was written while I was on tour in America, most of the record. Also while I was recovering in New Orleans, so it was quite an American, even if it was not written directly about it, it was in the sensibility [of the United States]. And it was a good test to play something like “Vietnam Cowboys” to all Americans [in the studio]. Also, I was the only English person on the record. It went down okay, we talked through the politics and stuff, as well as the music, and it was a good thing to do. That was the first thing we recorded, actually, “Vietnam Cowboys.”
BT: Was that song a good jumping off point for the record?
Davies: Yeah, it was a good sparring song. Sparring up to see where the dynamics of the guitars are, and the drummer. It was an interesting track to do first.
BT: Have you enjoyed finding new musicians, different musicians to play with in the studio? When you started on Other People’s Lives, it was like you were, to a certain degree, starting new again, because obviously, you’ve always written on your own, but you had to find new people to bring that sound forth in the studio.
Davies: It is difficult. Musicians can come recommended, you can hear a record that they played on. But its not until you get down to work with them, as to whether psychologically it works with musicians. There’s a lot of psychology involved in playing tracks. When the musician is into it, when they’re ready. Because my primary aim is make them sound like a band, and not just great players who were slotted into a song, like session musicians. So again, that word, sparring around just to see how intellectually they resonate. And politically, as well, and musically, of course.
BT: I was curious about the title song of the new album, “Working Man’s Cafe.” I’ve read your bio’s description of it, but I wanted to get a description of the song in your words.
Davies: I was thinking about that this morning. The song particularly is a focus track, because it’s the title track. I think really its someone who’s been away from home, and is looking for somewhere to settle. To return to where you grew up, to find that things that changed. And it’s lot to do about my brother, meeting my brother. When we were kids, my brother and I used to go up to cafe that my mother ran, and we’d have lunch there, on break from school.
And ironically, just over a year ago, I found myself looking for a place to meet my brother in this town called Exeter, in the west country of England.
So I was meeting him there, and I said, “There’s got to be a cafe around here somewhere.” We were on the mobiles [cellphones], trying to find somewhere to meet. And that event actually found its way into the song, in the bridge, where I sing “There’s got to be somewhere to meet, I call you when I’ve found it.” It’s about somebody reviving a relationship, or going back to try and move on to the next phase of their life. And the “Working Man’s Cafe” is a symbol of all the things they thought would be there, but are no longer there. And how to adapt and move on from that experience.
BT: Obviously, the U.S. has changed a lot in recent years. Does it all feel like the same now, and it does feel strangely traveling America now?
Davies: It certainly did. My last traveling experience in America was a couple of years ago. The dynamics have changed a lot with flying, of course. Flying in America, pre-2001, was like jumping on a bus, or getting in a taxi. Now it’s a big experience just to go for a 45-minute hop. It’s not easy, and there’s more tension involved with flying and security checks, et cetera. Which I think has had a knock-on effect to people’s psyche, and the way they approach, you know, it’s such a big land mass. Flying was like getting the bus, but I think Americans think a bit, “Do we really want to do this? It’s two hour check-in, security checks.” It’s changed that dynamic.
I think America also is more aware of its position in the world, and, let me get this right, how it interacts with the rest of the world. It’s not such an isolated place to be. You know, before America was the whole world to people that lived here, and never traveled from here. But know, it’s absorbing other cultures and at least being aware and being sensitive that there’s other cultures.
BT: I’m actually going to England in two weeks, and in my previous overseas travels, I have found that Americans look at the world differently, and that American culture is just so much more prevalent. There have been times I was like, “I left America. I left America to find something else, and it’s following me.”
Davies: Yeah. You won’t have any misconceptions then about the UK. If you’d ever been there before, I think you’d find its really changed from the picture postcards.
BT: Yeah, that’s what I’m expecting going in. Has America changed England? Or has the world changed England the last several years?
Davies: I think my England was affected by America because of movies, and music. And it had a positive effect on my life, for the most part. I think England has changed because it’s had to become more European, and integrate with what could be the EEC, the community. I’m not pleased about that, because all these countries should retain, the French retain a lot of their French culture. I think it’s difficult for the English to keep theirs. I can’t explain why. I think we’ve had such a conservative country, and old, old ways. Sort of like the Village Green Preservation Society. The old way did manage to survive, and now they’re all under threat. It’s quite a crisis in England, at the moment. Because it can be implemented there.
In America, it’s difficult to change America, quickly. It’s too big. In England, all it takes is Gordon Brown to pass a law, and that’s it. It’s a small land mass, and we’re the most monitored country in the world, the CCTV cams, speed checks, and everything. It’s quite a paranoid place, England. I still get the sense in America that there’s a moment when you can be free, but it’s gradually eroding. But it’s still possible to get in the car and drive down the road, and look for the real world.
BT: A lot of Americans, myself included, end up driving a lot more, because we’re not flying as much. And the irony, for me, is that I’ve end up finding more of these out of the way places because I’m not on the plane, how I look at things has been redefined, and it makes me want to see what else I can find.
Davies: That’s true, yeah. After 9-11, I was on a tour, and we had to drive everywhere, because we could not rely on the airlines. Because they were canceling, and flights were being pulled all over the place. So we drove a lot more, and I found out my perception of America quite a lot.
BT: I was at the SXSW show and discussion you did in 2006, which included your documentary of that tour. And I struck by the feeling that while all of those things were happening, you were also finding where you were again, in your own life at that point.
Davies: Exactly. I think this new record isn’t a continuation, I think it’s more a conclusion. I think of it as a two-album project, in many respects. Of course, when I was on that tour, shooting that little home movie, I had no idea I would end up in New Orleans in a hospital. Which is ironic, really. I took this journey, went where the music took me, and I ended up in a life-threatening situation, so it just goes to show you can never tell what’s around the corner.
BT: Obviously, this is a silly question, but what did you pick up from that experience, and was there anything that changed your view of life?
Davies: It has, but it’s such a complicated issue. Maybe that was a warning for me to stop everything, just go off. Because before that incident, I was thinking of settling in New Orleans. I had been visiting from time to time, and was going to rent somewhere, or even buy somewhere. I think I should’ve taken (pauses) a complete change in my life. I wanted to set up a writing school there, and do more with things outside of my life. And I didn’t do it. Maybe it was something. These things come as a warning, these random events in your life, sometimes. But all these things happen for some reason.
BT: I just got discovered in the last years about the ban that the Kinks had in the U.S. in the ‘60s, and how that influenced the writing you did for the rest of the decade. So in some ways, America was influencing you, even though you couldn’t even come here.
Davies: Yeah, if we had toured here, probably our music would’ve taken a completely different root. But because we were stuck in England, I reverted to my Englishness, through Arthur, and Village Green Preservation Society. I wouldn’t have done those records if we had been on tour in America.
BT: Are you surprised how many Americans, myself included, really enjoyed those records?
Davies: It didn’t surprise me, because I always found in those days that America accepted you on one level, and that was it. And I knew that there was a level you could scratch underneath the surface from the network, the three-channel America. ABC, NBC, CBS. And that there was a lot of independent thinkers in this country who would find music, who would find books, and art that was not necessarily in the mainstream. So I somehow knew that there would be an audience for it, at some point, but that it would be harder to reach that audience. Without being in their face, being on television. We were not here for almost four years. And there was no MTV, no video to keep the world aware. So we relied basically on albeit dwindling airplay on the radio.
BT: Did you find that the music you were writing did change once you were touring America again?
Davies: Yeah, because we made a positive effect. And things like Low Budget and Give The People What They Want were not designed, but inspired by the American landscape, and the touring.
BT: I wanted to ask you about songwriting. Did you find yourself writing any differently for this new album, or does it all come from different places for you?
Davies: Well, it’s strange. I do these writing courses in England, and I’ve been doing this since 1992. I find that when I sit down with people, I say to them, “I can’t teach you how to do this, because everybody has their own way of doing it.” I can show you some ways ‘round problems you might encounter, but the good thing about songwriting is it is purely straight from, or something in the psyche that makes you want to write. I like showing people how to get these ideas out, and how to sort of address issues they have inside them.
I have no set formula. I used to go through a phase where I got up at eight in the morning and wrote till lunchtime, because it was fresh, and I enjoyed that for a period. And some of the songs on here were done at that time, but most of the time, it’s like grabbing time. Last year, I had seven days that I could dictate to writing. And that’s what I go. I could dedicate only seven days in one year. That’s quite a small amount of time.
I have to really grab them when I can get it, and obviously with technology now, you can carry a laptop and do demos on it. But the best ideas come to you when you’re sitting in a restaurant, or you’re waiting for a bus, or at an airport. I just put them down on pieces of paper, and I carry notes with me.
BT: Were you surprised by the subject matter that came out with this record?
Davies: Well, what was surprising was, songs like the “Morphine Song” was written in hospital while I was recovering [from being shot]. I’d written that on hospital notepad, and when I came back to London to do the demo, even though it didn’t scan over eight bars, the verse was more, it was like ten bars, I stayed true to the original notes I’d written. I wanted that to be, it’s not a song, it’s more like a document of what a song should be.
I think it’s good to be adaptable, and I always tried that with the Kinks. I always tried to do familiar things in a slightly different way. I say to musicians sometimes, “Yes, this is a 12-bar blues, but imagine that you’re the first person to ever play one”. Just try to get the mindset right for players.
BT: Did you find yourself writing to the Kinks sound, or the musicians that you had in the Kinks back then?
Davies: No. I could cast songs for the Kinks, knowing what I would get, but that would invariably end up being uninteresting, because the best musicians like to be challenged. But getting back to this record, the guitar player did a lot of research. I’d tell him what song we were doing the next day, and he’d go and research an old Kinks track. And I’d say, “You know what, that’s really nice, but play it the way you play it.” (laughs) So he did the source work, all of the research, but then just came in and played something new, and that was good.
BT: Do you think that the songs on this new record speak well to where you’ve been, and where you are now, given the last couple of years?
Davies: They speak well and accurate to the way I felt when I wrote them. But now, I’ve moved on. We were rehearsing in the hotel, just me and my guitar player, and we did about eight of these songs, and worked really well with two acoustics. They work well because mainly they were written for acoustic guitars, and not synths, not keyboard synths. So the tonality is very guitar, as opposed to keyboards, which some of my records have been written on.
BT: Going back on the road, have you enjoyed just going with just yourself and your other guitarist?
Davies: I have, but next time I come around, I’ll have my touring band with me. That’ll be fun. And I’m doing a project that I just started last October with a choir, an English choir on some of my songs. We did a concert in London, a really successful one, and now we’re doing a big outdoor event in the summer, in London, using a choir.
I keep evolving, keep trying different things. I think it’s good. It keeps my mind active, and also it’s good for a regular audience to actually say, “Oh, that’s interesting.”
BT: Do you hope that the people that are listening to you now, or have listened to you for however long, will follow you and let you try these things? Obviously, that’s important for any artist.
Davies: I think it’s like any relationship. With an audience, with a person. I think that after a while, you can’t make people do the same thing all the time, but then you enjoy it when they take you on the journey with them. It’s stepping on the journey that’s the important thing.
BT: Have you heard that the people who come out to your shows has changed? Has it changed over the years, is it a mix now?
Davies: I found that on our last tour of the UK, which was the last long tour we did, last summer, that there was a real mixed audience. There was a lot of old faithfuls, diehard people that come, long term fans. There was also a new generation of fans coming for like the first, or second time, which is really good.
BT: Do you find that the younger fans look at it all [the music] differently?
Davies: They look at it quizzically. They kind of say, “Yeah, I know that song,” or “I didn’t know that, but I want to find out what the record’s like.” Yeah, inquisitive.
BT: In preparing for these shows, do you find that going over your, for lack of a better word, catalog, is it strange to go through those different songs and put them together?
Davies: What amazes me with my old songs particularly is that so many songs that were going through the Kinks career, we didn’t do so many of the songs that I enjoy doing now. Album tracks, obscure album tracks. Let’s say, one of the new guitar players I use says, “Oh, I heard this. Do you like this?” And I’ll say, “What’s that?” And he’ll say, “Oh, it was on your album twenty years ago.” (laughs) And it makes me have to stay in touch with my music.
For example, on this trip, I’m doing so much focusing on my new stuff. Rehearsing it, playing it today on television. Doing radio, and this interview, there are people who want to talk to me about re-releasing the Muswell Hillbillies, and I don’t have time to talk to them, because I’m constantly moving forward with the new stuff. So there’s a bit of a backlog of people I’ve got to talk to.
BT: When your next interview, then?
Davies: In about two minutes.
BT: Well, I should finish this, then. There was a bit of hubbub the last few months that you might be doing stuff again with your brother, and the Kinks, and I wanted to ask you about that.
Davies: That’s when I was looking for him last year, to talk about that, and about general matters. Whether we like it or not, we have a responsibility to our old music, and it would be fun to play with him again, because he is a very special guitar player. And I couldn’t do a Kinks project without him being on it, in some form. But as you know, he’s been ill, and I want to see how he is, and just see.
He wants to go in the studio and do something, but he doesn’t want it to take forever. (laughs) He’s always been that way. When we did Low Budget here in New York, I’d stay in the studio with the band, stay in New York, Dave would fly in for a weekend and do the overdubs, and go out again, back to California. He’s never really enjoyed being in the studio for long periods of time, so nothing’s really changed. It’s just, he’s been a bit ill, and he’s been working on his hand, his right hand, and that’s going to be fine.
We’ll see that at the end of this tour. We’ll get together, and see what music.... I want to do new music. Always, if it’s one percent of what we play, as long as there’s something new, I think it’s important to do that.
BT: Has it been a bit of a struggle on the press for this record to say sometimes, that’s all well and good, and I’ll get to that, but this is what I’m doing now”?
Davies: Yeah, it is a battle, but it’s inevitable that people will site other records, and say, “Working Man’s Cafe, is that connected to Muswell Hillbillies?” “Well, you finally fulfilled your dream of Muswell Hillbillies by recording in Nashville,” so there’s always this going on. The best thing is to tell people politely, “Yes, but this is me now. Right here. Today.”
BT: Ray, this has been an honor and a privilege to talk to you.
Davies: Tell Jack I said hello, and tell him to take care of that kid. It’s a very big responsibility. Please give him my best, and my best to you, man.