On new album 'See My Friends'
King Kink - Ray Davies Interview

What’s your favourite Kinks song? Everybody’s got one. For his new album, Ray Davies asked a few famous friends the very same question...

The songs of The Kinks retain a special place in the hearts of music fans. In the Sixties, the lyrics of Ray Davies celebrated suburban English life; his characters, locations and emotions were at once modern yet nostalgic, evoking a postcard England. Fused together with his brother Dave’s caustic guitar sound, The Kinks endowed the decade’s disaffected youth with alternative national anthems.

Since the band’s acrimonious split in 1996 - the Davies brothers were at loggerheads before Noel and Liam were even born - Ray has forged a successful solo career. He was shot in the leg in New Orleans, 2004, but he only seems to have got busier after. His previous album, ‘The Kinks Choral Collection’, saw a collaboration with the Crouch End Festival Chorus on covering Kinks songs - his latest, ‘See My Friends’, finds him mining his back catalogue again, this time with more recognisable names.

Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Mumford And Sons and Billy Corgan are just some of the names joining Ray to interpret their versions of his classic (and lesser-known) tracks, such as ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, and ‘Lola’.

Clash headed to South West London to meet the man with the enviable address book...

This album and your previous both saw you revisiting old Kinks songs. What made you go back at this point?

Well, it’s been ten years since I played with The Kinks. Since then I did this thing called Storyteller, which was like a journey through my career - an acoustic show - and the choral thing came about by accident. Both these projects happened coincidentally by accident really.

The choral thing came about because I was asked to do the Electric Proms. Just after my last studio album, ‘Working Man’s Cafe’, came out, I did the Electric Proms to promote that, but they were always like, ‘You’ve to collaborate’. I’d worked on a choral work for the Norwich Festival ten years ago, a complete fifty-minute piece of all new music. I thought it would be a nice idea - they wanted me to do some Kinks songs for the Electric Proms, so I thought of incorporating some of that Crouch End chorus in the Roundhouse show. So I got them together, we rehearsed some songs... But rather than have them do ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, I integrated them into songs like ‘Shangri La’, where they had some lines to sing and they became part of the character. It worked so well that the record company asked me to record it.

And then, way back in 2004 I was in New Orleans, recovering from an injury, and I was befriended by a neighbour called Alex Chilton. Alex had been in a band called Big Star, and had sung on a record called ‘The Letter’ by The Box Tops. We didn’t talk about music much, but he did say to me before I came back to England, ‘You know, I’ve recorded one of your songs, ‘Til The End Of The Day’, with Big Star, and I’d love to do another song with you. And he asked me to write some songs for him - I felt really flattered, because by then I had found out about his history. A very unassuming guy.

In 2009, on July 4th, Independence Day, he came up to Konk Studios. He was a real character - he was wearing a New Orleans beret, he had a cigarette holder - he was a chain smoker, and I think a recovering drinker - and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’ I said, ‘What would you like to do?’ He said, ‘‘Til The End Of The Day’ and ‘Set Me Free’. So I just had an acoustic guitar and a rhythm box, because I hadn’t organised anything. I played guitar and Alex sang. We did five or six takes and comped it together. Then I thought, ‘This is interesting’. I played it to the record company guy and he said, ‘This could be the start of another project’. Because I’ve found that most artists that know The Kinks have a favourite Kinks song.

The next person who came to London was Lucinda Williams who, again, years earlier had expressed an interest to sing a duet with me. I met her at South By South West in Austin, Texas. Lucinda came into Konk and she had this idea for this little unknown song called ‘A Long Way From Home’. So we did that. That was a great thrill for me, doing it with Lucinda, because I really admired her work, since her album ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’. We used the same producer - ‘Working Man’s Cafe’ was co-produced by the same guy that did Lucinda’s ‘Car Wheels’.

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Ray Davies (with Mumford & Sons) - Days (Live on Later with Jools Holland)

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Were you surprised when she chose that song?

It was a surprise, but it’s good that it wasn’t an obvious old hit. We did that, but she didn’t know it word-for-word, so we did it line-by-line. We did a rhythm track first, then she did it line-by-line, and it ended up great. But both those artists had done that on spec - we hadn’t really formulated to definitely do the record yet, but then the record company said, ‘Let’s go for it’.

Next, I did this show at Madison Square Garden backed up by Metallica. We got on really well. They did ‘You Really Got Me’, so they were next on the list, and they said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to be involved’. Then Bruce [Springsteen] came out of his dressing room and said, ‘I heard about this thing, someone emailed me about it. Let’s do ‘Better Things’!’ Again, not an obvious hit. ‘The only problem is I’m going on holiday, so I need a heads up!’ So I did several arrangements for Bruce and ran them by him - emailed them over and we picked one.

So the next step was to go to New York to record back tracks for Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen. I’d worked with Bon Jovi live at Hyde Park in 2000, I think. I went on and guested on a couple of songs, so we had a history there, and Jon said he’d love to be involved in the project and wanted to do ‘Celluloid Heroes’. So it built its way by accident, just going in with Alex, just doing something for us. Consequently, Alex died this year, and this could be the last track he sang on, so the album is dedicated to him.

He died the day before I was due to see him.

You were at South By South West? He was on the day after me. I did La Zona Rosa. He died the day I got to Austin, so it was the day before my show. You know they have the daily newspaper? He was on the front that day, then they reviewed my show and I got the front the next day. It was a terrible shock to me, because... I was surprised that they were gonna do that tour anyway, because he expressed he didn’t want to do much more of that sort of work.

Are the old Kinks songs ripe for interpretation? Fans may think they shouldn’t be touched, but the artist may be more open to changing things up.

Yeah. You’ve got to be open-minded with artists and interpreting work, particularly as I’m involved in it - I’m singing on all the tracks. With Bruce it was easy because we just got up and said, ‘I’ll sing this bit, you sing that bit’. We belted it out in two or three takes a few feet apart singing face to face. Some artists like Lucinda wanted to finesse what she was doing.

Everybody had their own interpretation, and what that’s proven to me is that the songs can withstand that. Everybody’s got ‘Tired Of Waiting For You’; we know how the record sounds, why do it again? But I think with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, I think it’s given it a slightly different edge - it’s more psychedelic sounding.

Do you hear anything different in the songs when someone else takes it on?

I certainly did with most of them, but particularly [with] Amy Macdonald. I hadn’t met Amy at all until I got into the studio - she was waiting for me, I was late. She wanted to do ‘Dead End Street’, and I wouldn’t have put the song to her at all, wouldn’t have cast it to her. Then we got down and played it and I realised that the key wasn’t right, so I changed the arrangement on the spot; I wrote a four-bar section on the spot that we could improvise on, to have a different intro and different middle.

So, I cobbled that arrangement together, did a head arrangement of that on the spot, and she brought an energy to it. Because ‘Dead End Street’ was about a time when the song was written, which was the late Sixties, about the recession in England, the devaluation of the pound, and an economic crisis. And hearing Amy sing it in a fresh voice, I thought, ‘This could be sung by somebody now’. So that has given it a totally different take, and that surprised me.

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Ray Davies (with Gary Lightbody) - Tired Of Waiting For You

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The Kinks’ songs are closely associated with England, and London in particular, but these tracks were recorded all over the world - New York, Oslo, Belgium... Did the location of the recording have any impact on the songs?

It did. Bruce was done in New York and New Jersey, and Metallica was done in Oslo. There’s a story attached to the Oslo thing - I did Metallica at their big concert arena and we did it during the afternoon before the show, all together at one time: all in one take, no overdubs, no nothing. So that was great. Then I had to get back for a gig of my own in the UK, but the dust cloud came down - you know from Iceland? So flights were grounded. I had to get back in twenty-four hours to London. I got a boat from Oslo to Copenhagen, then got a taxi from Denmark through Germany, Holland, Belgium and France, then got the ferry over and made it back in time. So, to get three minutes of music I had to drive for twenty-four hours!

There must have been a lot of running around for you...

It wouldn’t have never have got done if I’d stayed in one place. You’re like Buddha and everyone comes to you. It doesn’t work that way. I had to chase my tail a bit, but it was worth the effort. The Billy Corgan track - the Smashing Pumpkins guy - was done by file sharing on the Internet. And that track, at that moment, I’m playing that one a lot. Because ‘Destroyer’ is a perfect complement for ‘All Day And All Of The Night’.

I did an arrangement of the two songs and sent it over to Billy in Chicago, then he sent back the complete version with vocals, bass, guitar and a click track on it. I did the drums, bass, keyboards and my vocals over here. It’s excessive, but it worked.

Was there anybody whose interpretation really nailed what you’d originally written about?

Yeah. Another surprise for me, I mean, all of them had their own...Alex sounds like Alex - there’s kind of a clubby groove to it. But Jackson Browne surprised me, because he was insistent he wanted to be on the record.

When he turned up... Particularly as he’s a singer songwriter from California, and ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is about London. But he detuned his guitar - he had a great little Gibson guitar - so I just went with his flow. I forgot any little precious memories I had about that song and The Kinks’ record and just followed the lead Jackson took.

As if it were his own song?

Well, the thing about interpreters is they make it their own; that’s the art of great interpretation. It was tough for me at first to do that, but then I found a way of floating in my own ideas around it. So it was very liberating for me to do that.

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Ray Davies (with Metallica) - You Really Got Me

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Springsteen is probably the American equivalent of you as a songwriter - singing about the provincial culture and people of his immediate surroundings, and Jackson Browne his Californian counterpart. Did you speak to him about what he took from your song writing?

Two anecdotes: Jackson was amazed - he thought ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was a beautiful song - still does, I hope - but he says, ‘It’s amazing. When I’m singing the notes “I don’t need no friends”, it don’t mean nothing when you say it, but when you put it with the melody, I find it so humbling to sing it’. And he was very taken with the way I put the words together.

Bruce knew everything about my song writing. We sang for half an hour and talked for four hours. He wanted to know how I wrote ‘You Really Got Me’. One song he wanted to do he really loved was a song called ‘Art Lover’, which was on an album called ‘Give The Poeple What They Want’. When Bruce was at his peak, The Kinks were like touring arenas in America, and we had that music out then - he knew ‘Better Things’ and ‘Art Lover’ - whereas for English artists they may not have been accessible to them.

So he was interested in how I sit down and work. I’d started working on a song before I met Bruce, and I played it [for him], and he said, ‘I love it! I want to get involved in this! This is great!’ So we were playing this new song I’ve written and I’ve just finished it, so I’m going to demo it and send it to him.

The Kinks’ success in America was very limited at first...

Because we were banned for four years.

When you got over there and were making waves, were you worried that the Englishness of your song writing might not translate?

Yeah. I stayed in New York, rented an apartment there to be close to the record company, Artista. And I did write a lot of an album called ‘Low Budget’ in America, and ‘Give The People What They Want’ was written in New York and recorded there. But ironically, ‘Low Budget’ was our big platinum album in America, and the song ‘Low Budget’ is sung in a cockney vaudeville accent. And ‘Come Dancing’, at the end of that period of The Kinks, is sung by an East End barrow boy - I think there’s cockney rhyming slang in it!

They were two really big hits, so this whole myth that you’ve gotta sound American to be a hit in America is not true. I think a lot of people like The Kinks over there because of our Englishness. Right from the get-go, when ‘You Really Got Me’ was recorded, I didn’t want to sing with an American accent.

You mentioned an injury in 2004. You were shot in New Orleans. Did that recovery period give you time to think about your work, and did it affect what you did afterwards?

It had some affect. I was quite ill through the after-care, which was not great, and I had complications with health issues from the gun shot. It made me think a bit, but I had an album already recorded and ready to mix, so I had to get back to mix that, and kind of the work pulled me through it.

Did it give you the impetus to get up and do more work?

I wanted to get up and go on stage again, because we had to postpone some dates as I was on crutches and just couldn’t hack it emotionally.

Do you have a best frame of mind in which to write songs?

Songs come at the weirdest times. I rarely sit down for a day, unless I’m working on a musical like Come Dancing, and I have to write a certain song for a certain time. Most of it is done very quickly. I think about songs... I’ve got songs going on in my head all the time, and all of a sudden [clicks fingers] I finish one. I got an idea today from something I thought of yesterday, and I just put a little note down on my pad about it this morning.

Presumably it’s not always just one song you think of at a time?

I can think about two or three. I sometimes write two or three songs about the same subject and pick the best one.

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Are your observational song lyrics written about specific people and places, or are they purely works of fiction?

I generally get it from people. I pick up from people. It’s a little training I had as an art student - I get a musical caricature of a person, and I write myself into it. Mostly it’s that way, but a song like ‘Celluloid Heroes’, I was inspired by a piece of geography really - the elements involved in the stars on [Hollywood] Boulevard: the names on them, the trashiness around them. The glamour and trash of Hollywood fascinated me - the duality of success walking hand-in-hand with failure. Sometimes those elements are enough to inspire a song.

Do you have a favourite lyric of your own?

There’s a song on ‘Working Man’s Cafe’ called ‘The Real World’ that I wrote about a friend that was in New Orleans. I’m really proud of those lyrics. It’s one I would have liked to have done with Lucinda, but she wanted to do this other tune. But it’s: “You danced and partied at the Mardi Gras / Threw back all the beads at the parade / Fake world in the shopping mall / Where you came from / Everything seems the same the whole world now”. I’m really pleased with the way the lyrics sat with the melody. I’m proud of a lot of that album.

Have you been back to New Orleans since after the shooting?

Yeah, I mixed some tracks from the album there. But since [Hurricane] Katrina it’s got worse, and the oil spill even. I’m gonna go back again, maybe finish up what I was starting there.

You were visibly moved when you dedicated a song to The Kinks’ original bassist Pete Quaife during your Glastonbury set, a few days after he died. Was that a relationship that had endured to that point?

We’d been in contact, because there were constant rumours that we might do another thing with The Kinks, so I’d spoken to him a few months before. I had no idea how ill he was - he had to get dialysis, that’s why he found it hard to travel to record and do dates. The last time I actually saw him was when The Kinks got the English music Hall Of Fame at Ally Pally. Yeah, I found it moving, but it didn’t really hit me until all the elements came together to announce a little tribute to him, then I realised the song I had to do afterwards. Yeah, it was a bit moving.

Was there any truth in the rumours of a Kinks reunion?

There was a lot of truth. Pete said, ‘But for this dialysis I’d love to do it. And if you can travel over and record me in Denmark’ - he lived in Denmark - ‘I’d be up for it’.

There are well-documented reports in the press of the relationship between you and your brother. Is that relationship as tumultous as the press like to make out?

It’s worse. (Laughs) It’s actually worse than the worst tabloid. It gets pretty bad with him.

Words by Simon Harper


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