2020 introduction: Back in July 1985 when Dave Stewart was still one-half of Eurythmics and I was still well-known as a recording artist, Record Mirror commissioned me to interview Dave about the process of making music. We chatted in the interim studio Dave was using at the time (see photos below): halfway between the tiny church cloakroom where “Sweet Dreams” had been made in 1983 and the full blown studio complex he later built after buying the entire building. At this point Dave was already on the brink of becoming globally famous as a producer/collaborator, but still close enough to his DIY roots to share some fascinating insights…
Original 1985 introduction: The thing that interested me about interviewing Dave Stewart wasn’t so much Eurythmics’ music, excellent though it is, but the way they set about making it. I belong to the same musical generation as Dave & Annie: like the old TRB, their first band The Tourists emerged in the 70’s. Since then it’s been interesting as a fellow-musician to watch them develop with the times, while remaining true to their musical roots. As Dave and Annie came up from nowhere not once but twice, I wondered whether he had any useful suggestions for young people trying to get started in the Music Business today. But since I don’t much like being interviewed myself, the first question was whether he minded doing this piece with me…
DS: It’s okay doing one in a day, like today. But then sometimes you have to do six or seven in a row. You know that it’s kinda necessary because all the fans in Holland who’ve bought your album want to read about what you did in Dutch, and so you do it. But after a while you’re just going completely mad. You get completely drained when you have to talk all the time about what you do to people who aren’t interested. They’re just trying to find some kind of story – probably a personal story or something – yet they still ask you the same questions because they’ve got them written down.
TR: It gets you down ?
DS: I don’t mind doing sensible things; its just when the record company gets you running around Europe doing eight interviews in a row then a TV station… it prevents you from doing really amazing musical ideas. You start to think “what’s best – giving people great records or just going around talking about it?” I think making great records is better: with interviews, no matter what you say you can’t really describe what you’re doing. So we had a little mutiny a few weeks ago & stopped doing them. They’ll have to buy some advertising space or something instead because it was just mad… this enables me to do other things like making this album with Feargal (Sharkey) and another side project producing a singer called Pauline Matthews. (ie Kiki Dee – TR)
TR: Groups often find themselves saddled with a public image that doesn’t have much to do with what they’re really like: what’s the popular image of Eurythmics ?
DS: The public image is Annie. It is like a duo but we’ve always made Annie the front of Eurythmics because she is a fantastic singer – great visually with herself and everything – and I have always been like this hovering-around kind of chap, a cross between a Scotch terrier and something else, pushing buttons and twiddling knobs, that basically is what it is really.
TR: Is that how you see yourself ?
DS: In fact my friends know me as being a very funny person, almost like a Woody Allen kind of character but that never really comes across. In interviews people want to read about Annie and what she’s doing, and about the songs. That is what we are – a group making records, so what’s the point of me trying to cram in ? It’s just not worth it.
TR: But you don’t show your humourous side on record either…
DS: Just because you’re funny doesn’t mean to say that your records should be: if I put that element into Eurythmics it’d destroy it because a lot of the songs are very intense – full of despair and things like that, which is a side of Annie’s nature – and also of mine too. I have written a film script which is very funny, I think – I mean, people I tell it to end up on the restaurant floor laughing – and I also wrote a follow-up to the Prince film, called “Lime Green Drizzle” … It had me posing on a moped in a green plastic cape with a funny hat like the Purple Rain poster and singing things like “I should have listened to my Auntie”…
Well, you’ve always had an unusual style of working…
DS: When you are creating something, whether its an album, a video or whatever, you’re under pressure from the record companies and the media so that you’re sitting in your house thinking “I must write a really good song that’s better than the last single.” Rather than letting that pressure get to you I think it’s very healthy to just plough on regardless in total chaos, knowing that amongst it all people will do things that spark off ideas. Sometimes I’ll set up a situation with me playing the hi-hat, Annie playing bass on a synthesiser and somebody who can’t play at all playing chords on a keyboard that we’ve drawn on – you know, “that note’s ‘C’ ” etc. From that person’s terrible mistakes we can sometimes get a great moody thing, and because we’ve got an open mind we just reject what we did before and say “well, this is much better.” The mistakes are often what becomes the main source of inspiration.
TR: Brian Eno works that way, too
DS: I thought so, listening to his stuff. It must sound pretty stupid to a person who’s reading this and thinking “how come they like something, get a mistake, then think that’s better than what they’ve written…” It’s actually the decision-making that’s the complicated thing – deciding “that is a good mistake.” Other people might set out to do this and just end up with a lot of horrible mistakes and noise – I wouldn’t want all that.
TR: So it’s important to use your musical judgement…
DS: When Elvis Costello was up here he was saying that a song isn’t really a song unless you kind of sit and write it on your acoustic guitar and then sing it… I think he really disagreed with my way of doing things. We weren’t arguing or anything – he just has a different approach. But if we had written a song like ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ his way and then come in to record it with the bass player and drummer, it wouldn’t have sounded anything like the way it did. A lot of that song came about by messing around here in our studio. I’d written the little intro bit in a hotel room and Annie had the line “Here comes the rain again falling on my head like a memory…” and that was it. When it came to “talk to me like lovers do” it was a totally different thing – we had funny whistling noises and things going on and it was a completely different rhythm. It was only through complete experimentation that it ended up in the song.
TR: Having your own studio must make it easier to experiment…
DS: It’s like cooking in your own kitchen I suppose – that’s the nearest you can describe it. You know when you go to somebody else’s house and knock up a meal it’s not really the same – but in your own kitchen when you know where everything is and know all your ingredients, you’re not afraid to do experiments. I think what we do is capture improvised music and then put it into some kind of orderly fashion. I saw Jim Kerr running through his new songs at rehearsal the other day and making up what he was singing as he went along. If that had been me it would all have been down on tape, because he was singing some great things. But that’s alright: he probably will sing great things again, whereas I don’t mind having thousands of cassettes full of ideas and then not using any of them.
TR: In the seventies bands concentrated on playing live first and recording second; nowadays it seems to be the other way round
DS: More and more groups – even ones that are just starting off – have a different attitude now. It used to be “where can we get a place to rehearse?” Now they’re saying “right, how can we buy a tape recorder ? Who’s got the biggest bedroom to put it in?” We did a lot of interviews about the fact that we only did “Sweet Dreams” on an 8-track in a warehouse and loads of people in America, y’know, bands used to phone up our management company and ask how we did it and we used give them all this information on what to buy… I’m sure loads of them are doing it now.
TR: Supposing you & Annie were 19 now & living in a bedsit with one guitar between you… How would you start out your career ?
DS: If we were 19 years old and just starting I would manage by hook or by crook to scrabble together an HP deposit, because you can buy certain equipment that doesn’t become useless when you get more money to buy something else. I mean usually you can manage – whether you have a wealthy Auntie or a bank that might lend you £300 or something – and get your dad to sign an H.P agreement. For instance, this Ghetto Blaster… (Dave points to his big portable cassette-radio.) It never becomes useless: first you buy it to listen to music, but it also copies tapes. Then you get a portastudio, & instead of buying an amp and speakers you just plug in the back. (A portastudio is a self-contained 4-track mixer/cassette deck, used for making demo tapes.) With a Ghetto Blaster and a portastudio, if you’ve got your guitar all you need is a mike, two leads and you’re away. If you spend like £100 in deposits for your portastudio and your Ghetto Blaster you’ve then got HP’s of maybe £12 per week.
TR: What about the other instruments ?
DS: You’re bound to find a mate who’s got a drum machine you can borrow and another mate who’s got something else: you can even put on a bass part by slowing down the tape & playing the bottom strings of a guitar. By hook or by crook you end up with a track that’s got bass, drums, guitar and a vocal and sounds like a good song. And if a record company can’t tell something’s good from a song made like that then they’re deaf anyway. (They are, they are – TR)
TR: So it’s important to team up & share with other musicians…
DS: I think a lot of people should pool together: thats what we did, thats what I’m still doing now with Feargal, it’s just on a different level thats all. Davey Paine comes around and he’s got all these funny whistles and things and nobody’s going “well I’ll rent you this” and “I’ll rent you that”: It’s to do with building up a community with other musicians – like when your Aunties and Uncles in depressed times would all share a big saucepan! You pool all your stuff together and when somebody comes out a winner from it then they share their stuff as well. I suppose we’re talking about how capitalism works, when it does work.
TR: Or collectivism…
DS: It doesn’t work when you get some bastard who then says, “well you’re not borrowing this anymore and I want my money back.” The greatest thing is to be fair in everything so if you think somebody has done something that’s really contributed you shouldn’t just pay them threepence.
TR: Presumably with all these little studios growing up there are also going to be all kinds of jobs created…
DS: The music industry must employ loads of people when you think of all the cassette-making manufacturers, studios and lighting companies and all that… It really pisses me off that there is more money invested in Opera to save each seat, than there is on the average person finding them a new job and that kind of stuff. All that money put by the goverment into opera houses who lose fortunes on massive productions, while the average kid who’s formed a band in Sunderland would have no chance of ever getting any kind of government help. So I think its down to people like us to create jobs within our industry, in fact we’ve just employed a guy who was on the dole to help out and assist in our studio and learn how to be a tape-operator. But it’s difficult because on the other hand you don’t want to turn into a big conglomerate business. I think the best thing to do is just to inspire people into doing whatever they want to do, rather than try to get them to join in with what you’re doing.
TR: What would you say to a young person wanting to get a job in the music business ?
DS: I don’t see the Music Business as being any different to the Oil Business: I mean to me the record companies, and all that, get over-glamourised because it’s pop music. Basically they are just doing the same sort of job – I wouldn’t say it was all that exciting. But on the other side of it, the side actually connected with the performance…. I think touring the world as a roadie is a brilliant exciting opportunity if you have the right attitude. Some roadies haven’t, some of them just get pissed all the time and go about it in a blur. Whereas other roadies really learn all the time and end up mixing live sound for a band within a space of a year – they sometimes end up being recording engineers or even producers from nothing.
TR: So how does someone get to be a roadie ?
DS: If you wanted to start off being a roadie, I would go and see your favourite local band play (who usually can’t afford a roadie and are struggling themselves) and just help them. I think people who get on don’t have money as their first objective. A lot of people who have jobs say “I want to earn this much money so that I can buy this car” or something, but those who want to get on aren’t really thinking like that – they just see a band they like and say “look, I’ll help you hump the gear” or something. The band are probably not making any money – they may be on the dole – but they grow together. That’s what happened with my first band, all the roadies who were with us came down to London with us. They all went on and learnt more and more – one of them went on tour to America with another band. So even if that first band doesn’t happen, you can learn so much from the experience.
TR: How about starting to learn about recording ?
DS: Oh well, the best way again is with the portastudio. I was in big recording studios for about eight years and learned absolutely nothing. And then on a portastudio I just learned everything…When you’ve been working on one of those little machines, a studio makes sense all of a sudden.
Technical note: In the photograph below I’m clutching Dave’s Ghetto Blaster while he holds his Tascam 244 Portastudio. Strictly speaking, only Tascam make “Portastudios” but actually it’s one of those names like Walkman, Hoover or Sellotape that’s become part of the language, and portastudios are made by several different manufacturers under various names. My own favourite is the Fostex 250; both Fostex & Tascam also make “budget” models that don’t sound quite as good, but do the job. You can buy portastudios at most musical instrument dealers around the country – if in difficulty try the London Rock Shop (01-267-5381) or Audio Services in Stockport (06632-2442). Shop around locally for a Ghetto Blaster ( if you already have a hi-fi you won’t need one.) Either way you’ll need something with speakers powerful enough to handle bass guitar, drum machine etc – and with input sockets marked “line in” or “aux” where you can plug in your portastudio! A good cheap mike for recording is the PZM type sold in Tandy stores for about £21. Dave even uses these on his records…
Good luck – have fun !
Acknowledgement: the black and white shots above are taken from a 2018 Sound On Sound interview by Tom Doyle about the making of Sweet Dreams, which I highly recommend. It’s actually a much more comprehensive account of Eurythmics’ history, their DIY origins and the low budget equipment with which they started out.