“I pissed on his head once when I was young,” laughs Baxter Dury when the subject of Clash frontman Joe Strummer suddenly arises in conversation.
“I was at the top of this roof when I was at carnival,” he continues in trademark gravelly tones not a million miles from his father Ian Dury’s. “I pissed over the edge of the roof and him and his mate ran up the stairs looking foe who did it. I ran down the stairs and we passed each other in the corridor, That was the only time I met him,”
Clearly, when you’ve grown up with a legendary star of the punk era as your dad – indeed, you can see a young Baxter posing alongside his father on one of the most iconic album covers of the 70s, ‘New Boots and Panties’ – the standard of your celebrity anecdotes quite literally pisses on all competition. Like the time, when he was aged nine or ten, that his favourite band Madness sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to him during a gig at the Hamnersmith Odeon (now Apollo).
Not that our hour long discussion, in the living room of his Kensal Green flat, revolves around the adventures of the past. Much to the contrary, in fact. While Baxter isn’t bashful about mentioning his occasional brushes with some of the most famous names in music, and acknowledges his father’s musical influence while perhaps being too close to fully explain it, his mind is very firmly fixed on the immediate future. Namely the imminent release of his new album ‘Prince of Tears’ and the accompanying live shows to promote it.
He admits that in the past he’s not always liked his albums once they’re been finished. But in the case of this, his fourth and surely most ambitious LP to date, there’s no doubting the pride he feels. For a start, he;s impressed that the project even got off the ground in what he calls a ‘brittle’ financial climate in the music industry today. “It’s expensive with orchestras etc,” he admits, “and also you have to kind of justify this old, narrative-based music bloke. Why should someone fund that, you know?! But I did it somehow.”
“It came out quite easily,” he says oif the whole process, “I set some goals for myself and I achieved them, so I’m quite happy about that. I created a kind of infrastructure to the album, you know, strings, the sound, the kind of nature of it. Angry bloke, a bit confused, that kind of stuff.”
The original impetus for the album was the collapse of a relationship, and the desire to turn that unhappiness into something productive, almost as an act of therapy. But while the core of the album, its most overwrought and emotionally intense moments like ‘Tears’, ‘August’ and ‘Wanna’ seem to have arisen directly from that experience, that led on to encompass a wider set of subjects and moods. There’s the track ‘Letterbomb’ , for instance, probably the album’s punkiest moment, speedy and short. Careful not to give away too much of the mystery of the lyric’s origins, he first says “It’s about letterbombs, to be honest. I just wanted to shout it out.” But not long after he admits it was inspired by an earlier romantic split. “A very harsh speaking girl I went out with once, and when we split up she said ‘babe, it’s in the post’. I said ‘what’s in the post’ and she said ‘your feelings babe.’ She was right – boom, uggh!”
‘Oi’, meanwhile, is a heart rending recollection of a slightly scary childhood friend who Baxter used to knock about with, stealing “smelly pens” and “being horrible to people” along the Chiswick High Road before fate took them their separate ways. Its stream of consciousness lyric was delivered in ten minutes, but the results are undeniably hilarious and poignant, “It’s an unknown one, things like that,” Baxter says of the song, “they happen really quickly and then you realise that they’re quite powerful, Just by accident in a way. It’s good isn’t it? I like that one as well. And it’s really accurate about somebody as well. Well, it’s quite clumsily described but it’s quite clear. You wouldn’t want to bump into him again, I can tell you. I thought about putting his name on it and then I thought ‘no, I better not.’”
There’s even a subtle hint of the post-Brexit social landscape in ‘Listen’, with its looping refrain that warns “the white coats are coming for the clever ones”. Baxter started the album living out in what he calls the faux countryside of Tring, Hertfordshire, where he had lived as a child. He describes the rise of the ‘Brexit Zombies’ around the village as the debate over the EU Referendum hit top gear, culminating in his Asian neighbours having their house pelted by eggs. The moment, which ultimately led to him returning to West London, brought back unsettling memories of the overt racist of his 1970s childhood.
“I remember being at Aylesbury Civic Centre and the skinheads broke into the backstage of one of dad’s gigs and rioted,” he says, ”I remember the soundman grabbing my sister and I and we were running down the corridor, going into a room and getting every bit of stuff, tables and everything, and slamming it against the door and holding the door while people were trying to kick it in. It was fucking creepy. Imagine that. Pretty damn scary shit.” He says he’s still confused about why skinheads came to see his dad’s band when there was a black drummer and an Indian bass player among its line up.
Baxter assembled his own six piece band after laying down the original demos on a”shitty keyboard” and a Linn Drum, the vintage drum machine much beloved by 80s hip-hop producers, “It’s all about who you choose to to play it and I’ve got amazing people. Non-muso but at the top of their game people.”
Among the key musicians he’s gathered are Damon Reece, a former drummer with Spiritualized, The Orb and Echo and the Bunnymen who’s now part of Massive Attack’s touring band. The connection with Bristol continues with bass player Billy Fuller,, who plays in Geoff Barrow of Portishead fame’s new band Beak.
“They’re way over qualified and they all love it,” Baxter grins, seemingly not believing his luck. “We just jammed it constantly and I’d just edit the jams. It’s got that feel to it – an enjoyable experience. People enjoying playing music, without it ever going into indulgence – at least I hope it doesn’t sound indulgent. They’re just not those kind of musicians.”
After initial recording in Edwyn Collins’ old studio with Metronomy producer Ash Workman at the production helm, the final piece of the jigsaw was adding dramatic string arrangements at The Church in North London, an experience he says was “fucking unreal” and “one of the best days of my life.” He pays tribute to strings maestro Joe Davis who oversaw the 24 piece ensemble who brought the orchestrations to life and to whom, he confesses, he gave rather a hard time,
“He was the politest and nicest and most browbeaten dude I ever met and I kind of terrorised him for a week. Because we work in totally different ways, I wasn’t particularly sensitive to his process because I didn’t really understand it. So it wasn’t until the day that he turned up and actually conducted all his mates in a room, that I went ‘fucking hell, this guy is amazing.’ I had to say ‘sorry mate, I’ve been a total twat.’”
Alongside his own highly distinctive voice, employed with a style devised to avoid rhyming at all costs, the album features vocals from long-term collaborator Madelaine Hart, Rose Elinor Dougall and a brief cameo from Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson on the breezy ‘Almond Milk’. Williamson has said Baxter was a massive influence on his decision to start making music and was “really chuffed” to contribute to the album. Baxter says he’d heard he’d been namechecked in a Sleaford Mods track but was initially nervous, not sure whether the reference was complimentary or otherwise. But after making contact through their shared press officer, they’ve become mates and getting the collaboration was an easy enough affair given that the Mods were recording their ‘English tapas’ album downstairs in the same studio when ‘Prince of Tears’ was being laid down.
He’s full of admiration for the Sleaford Mods, and says despite their image to the contrary there’s a lot of precise, minute calculations that go into making their music sound as spontaneous and instant as it does. They’re one of the bands around at the moment that he makes an effort to go and catch live. “As you can imagine I was brought up going to gigs so I’m a little desensitised to it, “ he admits, “I won’t go every week, It’s more of a social thing for me. There’s a community of associated acts who I know, people like the Fat White Family and the Sleaford Mods, they’re all my kind of mates. Not that I get stuck into any dangerous behaviour that they like doing – I’ve got to keep my distance because they’re all fucking nuts those people!”
Check out upcoming Baxter Dury gigs including his show at KOKO on 29/11/2017 at ticketweb.co.uk/baxterjury
‘Prince of Tears’ is released on 27/10/2017 via Heavenly Recordings. Pre-order the record now via Rough Trade.