Derek and Dave Philpott have been writing strange letters to famous musicians for ten years now, and getting even stranger ones back. Their first book, Dear Mr. Kershaw, became a cult hit and the follow-up Dear Mr. Pop Star has just been released by Unbound Publishing to similar acclaim.
Our proprietor Tom Robinson produced a video response to their math-related communication regarding his song 2-4-6-8 Motorway.
Fresh On The Net’s Kerry JK sat down for a chat with the man behind Team Philpott, Salisbury musician Dave Dawson.
KJK: Hi Dave, many thanks for this interview. To begin, we know Wilf Turnbull and Dave and Derek Philpott from your books, but who are we speaking to right now?
DD: You are speaking to Dave Dawson. The reason we decided to use nom-de-plumes ten years ago is that, firstly, we had no idea it was going to get this big. All it was in the first place was us chucking ideas on to this silly little website, and we didn’t want to put our real names on it because we wanted to be exaggerated versions of ourselves, or exaggerated members of the general public. The last thing we wanted was for people to stop me and my Dad in the street and say, “you’re a bit bonkers”.
It’s a fine line between being a character and not… I’m so close to it it’s hard to get my head around it… it’s us but it isn’t… we’re caricatures of ourselves.
KJK: So to be clear, Derek is your actual Dad?
DD: He is, but his real name’s not Derek. He was at the book launch two weeks ago, so he’s definitely real and he had his picture taken with the Ruts.
KJK: I think a lot of musicians can relate to the character thing… it really helps in overcoming shyness and going places with your writing you might not otherwise.
DD: Yes, you can absolutely let loose with it. Whereas you or I as normal people might stop and say “this is ridiculous”, if you’re playing with a mask on you can say, right, that’s where a normal person would stop, now let’s take it all the way to the nth degree.
I was speaking to Biff Byford of Saxon. He told me about a guy who came to see him backstage about twenty years ago and said, “I love that song ‘Princess of the Night’, that you wrote about your girlfriend”. Biff explained that the song was actually about a freight train. “No it isn’t”, replied the fan.
We wanted to illustrate that once a song is released into the wild, the artist loses all control over how it is interpreted. You can understand why artists delay releasing recordings, because it’s theirs until it’s out.
KJK: Thomas Dolby said that he didn’t like to explain what his lyrics were about because he didn’t want to destroy listeners’ own interpretations with the ‘official version’.
DD: Totally right. That’s exactly what we’re aiming for.
KJK: Something that struck me about your books compared to other ‘hoax’ or ‘prank’ letter writing books like, say, the Timewaster Letters, is how collaborative the whole thing is with the people you write to. Instead of making fools out of your subjects, you end up with dialogues where their reply will often be much longer than the original letter.
DD: Yes, it’s deliberate. I love Popper and I adored the Timewaster Letters, and we often get comparisons to Henry Root, but it’s a lazy comparison because what we did is, we wrote to Tom [Robinson], we wrote to Nik Kershaw, we wrote to all these people and said, “Look, this is what we do: we are pretending to be deranged. Do you want to enter into this silly little battle with us?”
KJK: So you would tell them up front, rather than after the event?
DD: Well, we have to… we have a conscience, it wouldn’t be fair. With Tom we said, “Look, if you want to enter into this silly little battle, we’re cluing you up now, we’ll get a letter together and we’ll take it from there”. It’s all pre-emptive and we prime everyone before we do it.
KJK: That is much more collaborative than how prank callers like Victor Lewis Smith would call out of the blue and then try to get permission after the event. Do you think that’s why artists have been so keen to get involved?
DD: That, and also what we’re doing is a very punk thing, in a way. It’s very obvious that we’re not journalists or people connected to the business, the fact that that is the case is why so many of the artists got involved, they could see we were just a couple of guys with no connections. They played ball because we were upfront.
Also, as Rupert Hine said at our book launch, every musician has this little devious sense of humour in them waiting to get out.
KJK: Musicians do have a particular sense of humour that isn’t always appreciated by non-musos.
DD: Yes, that’s right. It was a matter of respect that we told the artists up front about what it is. It gives them free reign and means there isn’t any deception.
KJK: When I think of Reddit pranksters and shock jocks making crank calls, it’s all about putting the focus on the prankster at the expense of the ‘victim’. Whereas you’re much more interested in the subjects you write to.
DD: We just had a lovely exchange with fans of Carter USM, who’d told us, “well, you would say your book’s brilliant wouldn’t you, you’re the authors!”. We replied, “Our letters are the bread, the replies are the jam. It’s not about us, it’s about what comes back”.
KJK: Has there been anyone you’ve approached who’ve been flat out against it, or offended?
DD: You can’t tell, because they just wouldn’t write back. There have been occasions when we tried to go through management and they came back with “Mr. X hates this idea”, then a couple of years later Mr. X would contact us saying that Y had told them about us and now he wants to get involved. We’d say, “But we were told you hated it!” and he’d say he never even saw it.
KJK: Is this why you like to approach artists via the “back door” (your words), through roadies, fans, friends and suchlike?
DD: Yes. I do harp on about it, but with all the negativity around social media and Jeremy Kyle etc., this is one way you can prove it’s actually a really good thing. Everyone helps everyone else, and if a fan gets us in touch with an artist through being their hairdresser or truck driver or whatever, they are absolutely made up when we get a reply because they know they were instrumental in doing it. It’s a proper little community – it’s really nice when we see friends adding each other as friends, and you’re thinking “how does Francesca know Paul? Oh, it’s through us!”. It’s really nice to see this community building, I think that we use the back door is what has given this project such a lovely appeal.
KJK: Part of the appeal of Twitter is that it gives you access to people who might otherwise have seemed up in the sky, out of reach.
DD: Yes, though we primarily did it through Facebook, we’d stick a silly little update up… see, the other thing is you don’t know exactly who your friends are on Facebook, people add you but you don’t necessarily know who they are. We stuck a Divine Comedy one up in 2014 and we got a reply from a guy called Tosh who I got chatting with as a mate. Then he said, “do you want a reply to this?”. I asked him how he could get that and he said, “I’m the guitarist, you idiot!”. We had Chris [Payne] from Tubeway Army on our friendlist, he bought our first book and I was chatting with him for years without realising who he was. When someone gives you money, you don’t ask if they’re famous.
The reason why I approached Tom [Robinson], apart from hearing he was a really good bloke, was that he championed a band about ten years ago called La Rebla Fam, a band I was a really big fan of. I got a message back from La Rebla Fam telling me that Tom really is his public persona, that he truly does champion grass roots, that he likes quirky stuff and proper independents, so we were primed that he’s a nice guy.
With the punks… because we were rejected by every publisher in the country when we first tried to get published, and we went, “well, stuff it, we’re going to publish it anyway”, that’s when the punks said, what you’re doing is pretty punkish. It’s DIY, you’re doing it and you’re ploughing ahead by yourselves.
KJK: I think we’ve all had that kind of experience with Tom. I’ve said that he’s the polar opposite to the adage “don’t meet your heroes”.
DD: He did that video for us, totally unprompted. We didn’t ask him for that.
KJK: About that video, and Derek having his maths corrected…
DD: Because I’m a professional musician by trade, playing care homes as a singer, I’m obsessed with music… you and I would listen to these artists with reverence. If the Rolling Stones sing “I see a red door and I want it painted black”, we might think about how that’s the same pen that gave us Sympathy For The Devil and that it is a very angst driven message. My Dad would go, “if he’s not careful and doesn’t put a strong undercoat on it’ll turn out all wrong”. Because he has no knowledge of music, that’s what makes it so brilliant. I’ll play the records, make a note of what he says and think, that’s something I never would have thought of because I’m too close to the music.
He told me recently he’d been doing some research on a particular band. I said, “You stop that! Your research is to drink a beer and watch the telly!”. The second he gets any knowledge about what we’re doing, the whole thing collapses.
KJK: Do you ever collect material from things the old folk say in your care home gigs?
DD: No, we don’t really talk about songs there. I can’t really say I’ve had material come back from anyone other than my Dad.
The beauty of working in care homes is you realise how strong these songs are in peoples’ minds. I mean, in 20-30 years time, that’ll be us, and we’ll be asking for Stiff Little Fingers and the Cardiacs. It’s nice to go back and see how strong these songs were from the 50s, 60s and 70s. It’s a TARDIS. You start singing Pathway To Paradise and they’re right back there in 1962.
KJK: So it’s a nostalgia link?
DD: Because many of these people have dementia, the songs take them back to a time when they were thinking more clearly, you can see the smarts coming back as you start singing them. It’s a testament to the power of music.
Another thing, when I do a song like Spirit In The Sky, which is a nice little care home song, not only do I love the song, I also know that Clive Jackson (Doctor from Doctor and the Medics) is a really nice bloke, so I like the song even more now!
KJK: Talking of (the artist formerly known as) Doctor, I understand he changed his name as a result of your letter writing.
DD: He became “Duck Tour” of “Duck Tour and the Mudlarks”. Though I haven’t seen it on any posters, so he might have been winding us up.
KJK: That’s the first letter in the latest book – I was struck by the length of his reply. He filled about four pages arriving at his new stagename.
DD: Have you read the one by Chris Butler, of the Waitresses? He makes out he’s replying from prison. For me it’s a highlight.
The premise was, I’d played [the Waitresses’] Christmas Wrapping and what my Dad said came out of left field, you and I wouldn’t think of it. This bloke keeps meeting this girl in random places, the car breaks down… anyway, we worked out that the place where Chris Butler came from was one of the highest ranking states for serial killers in America and we put this thing together where the guy was a potential serial killer. So Chris wrote a five pager back pretending to be in prison waiting for a parole hearing. He put us to shame, it was like a novella! We wrote one page, he wrote half a book, and I couldn’t edit it because it was just too funny.
KJK: How has the project developed between the latest book and back when you started?
DD: There was a big magazine editor who told us that the idea that we had was fantastic, but if her boss told her to secure responses to a hundred letters to pop icons in exchange for nothing, she’d probably resign. The beauty of this project is that all the artists have contributed for nothing, they’ve dedicated their time on tour buses or whatever, because they can see that this is itself a very DIY project. It stemmed from a silly idea in a front room, and most punk bands emanate from front rooms as well. We’ve been really keen to retain this cottage industry DIY ethic where we can speak to our fans (they are fans, there’s no other way of saying it), and we can stay at a point where we don’t get too big and all the artists and all the public can still feel we retain this grass roots thing. That’s why we deliberately went to Unbound Publishing, because they allowed us to crowdfund and write the book we wanted to write rather than dilute it. We approached a major publisher about ten years ago and they said, we like your idea, but your implication that Iggy Pop can’t be your dog because he can’t get through customs due to his heroin history isn’t something we could consider printing.
We really like that people like Tom and SLF have recognised that this is what it is, it’s not some corporate thing and had we been a couple of connected journalists, Tom wouldn’t have done it, nobody would have done it. It’s very nice to keep this punk ethic, and the 80s lot, the punk lot… that’s where the waves of love have come from. I hope we can keep it going at this same grass roots level, that it doesn’t get too massive.
The first book took seven years to produce, the second one only took three. Whereas before no-one knew who we were, this time they did… for example, when we approached Junior and introduced ourselves, he said, “I know who you are, you guys are notorious!”. It was really nice not to have to do as much introduction work second time around because all the artists talk to each other and we didn’t know just how famous we were.
So the second book was easier, but I don’t want it to get much bigger. The public aren’t stupid, the public can smell a sell-out. We’re treading on eggshells really – we want people to know about us so they can have fun, but we don’t want it to get so big that it becomes meh and the whole thing’s ruined.
KJK: There is a quote on Unbound’s website from an anonymous artist who says you have given them a platform to answer questions fans have been asking for years. Are you at liberty to reveal who that was?
DD: I think that was Pete Jones from Dept. S / PiL. He said to us, “you’re part of us now”.
KJK: That’s really nice.
DD: We’ve heard it from others too. I’ve not paid to get into a gig in two years.
KJK: Many thanks for talking to us. Where can our readers get hold of your books?
DD: They’re available on Amazon and the usual book retailers, but if you buy from Hive.co.uk you’ll be supporting independent bookshops in the UK.
Dear Mr. Pop Star is published by Unbound Publishing and can be purchased from https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Derek-Philpott/Dear-Mr-Pop-Star/22365027