Of the many vital rock bands to emerge out of the ’60s British Invasion, none are harder to categorize than The Kinks. Progenitors of hard rock and baroque pop — and experts at nearly every style in between — they hold the most eclectic catalog of any British band of the era (the recently released, expertly curated collection The Anthology: 1964-1971 is a testimony to that).
Now 68, lead guitarist and songwriter Dave Davies sat down with Billboard to discuss the myriad of musical and familial influences that created the Kinks from a working class British family.
The rock legend also explains how his latest solo album, Rippin’ Up Time, was informed by vivid memories of his past — and his Blade Runner-esque nightmares. Not that he’s afraid of progress. On the contrary, Davies also talks about his love for computer editing tools, the Internet and finding old friends on Facebook. Here’s what he had to say.
A lot of songs on your latest album, Rippin’ Up Time, are very nostalgic.
It’s deliberate. Rippin’ Up Time is based on a dream/nightmare I had. I kept dreaming of what might happen in the future. It was a bit like New York in the future, a la Blade Runner imagery. And it had all the terrible, scary things going on in the world you see on CNN and in the newspaper. But then there were also reminiscences of the past — how we did “You Really Got Me,” and how we built up a career. But it was all condensed in one place, in one reality. And I woke up screaming, “There is madness here! There is madness here!” and that gave me the idea for “Rippin’ Up Time.” And there’s a repeating line in that song: “There is madness here.” It was the starting point for the album.
On “Front Room” you sing about your musical upbringing with your family, pre-Kinks. That’s more than 50 years ago at this point — does it seem that long ago?
No, it’s weird. That’s the strange thing about memory. When you remember big events in your life, they loom so large they could be last week. I find that writing as well. When I did my autobiography (Kink: An Autobiography) I didn’t know where to start. But when you start playing music of the period it’s very evocative of what you did. Music and smell open up the inner landscape of memories for me. Music’s been a big trigger for ideas and thoughts.
Does your own music trigger memories, too?
Now that I’m 68 years old I obviously have a lot of my own music out. Every decade from the ’60s onward. Later this year there’s [a reissue of] Lola vs Powerman coming out, which is one of my favorite albums. “Lola” was pretty risqué back then. It was interesting times. For me — with Ray’s writing and my writing — it’s very inspired by our family. It’s a very big family. Growing up with six older sisters you get that woman’s perspective and intuitive perception of events and ideas. I’m very thankful for that and I think it helped our music. My mum would have parties on weekends, and the music was a cross-section of everything from the Platters to Al Jolson. It’s not surprising me and Ray got into music, it was a mainstay of growing up.
Those days we were a working class family, and it was pre-TV, so we made our own entertainment. My sisters would play piano — like in the song “Front Room” — and my dad would play spoons. It would be a family evening. The Kinks grew out of a very supportive family. I was quite used to playing in front of people and used to the company of women, so I quite enjoyed playing in front of girls.
I would never think of Al Jolson as being an influence on the Kinks. On “Front Room” you name check a ton of artists from Eddie Cochran to John Lee Hooker. It seems your influences were just about everything.
That’s been a great thing about the Kinks over the decades. We always tried to touch on eclectic things we like. It’s not one style straight ahead. We’ve borrowed and been influenced by a lot of music. Hank Williams was a really important writer growing up. He was writing something different, with a lot of pathos and a lot of dark humor. Which we could relate to being a Cockney family. My dad used to play banjo. I’d pick it up and pick away, listen to Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatts and try to copy that style of picking. Another big influence I didn’t mention on “Front Room” was Lead Belly. Lot of guts, and the tone of his guitar was very unusual, it was a D-tuned 12-string.
Were you writing your own stuff at the time?
Ray and I were writing bits and pieces, but mainly we were trying to copy people we liked, like John Lee Hooker and Lead Belly. Ray was a really good mimic. He could sing like Buddy Holly, whereas I liked the more gritty rock stuff like Eddie Cochran and the blues guys like Big Bill Broonzy. We were called the Boll-Weevils for the time, which was named after an Eddie Cochran b-side.
Your new album incorporates synthesizers, something that obviously wasn’t around when you started. How did you get into synth music?
I suppose when synths started coming into their own in the late ’70s. When songs would normally use strings, suddenly we had the opportunity to fake strings and brass. But we used it in very subtle ways. My son Russ, who helped me write three songs [on Rippin’ Up Time] and put together two of the arrangements — “In the Old Days” and “Through My Window” — he’s really into electronic music. He gives the album more of a modern flavor, which I think is important. Even though there are songs that are nostalgic and Kinks-ish, I wanted elements of new technology running through the background.
And your other son, Daniel Davies, is featured on John Carpenter’s electronic-heavy album Lost Themes.
He did a great soundtrack for I, Frankenstein with his band By Maker. I went to the theater and at the end [during the credits] I was standing there bopping around in the theater. “That’s my son!”
You’ve done several soundtracks on your own.
The Kinks did one called Percy in the early days and I worked on a couple films with John Carpenter. I lived in L.A. for a bit and was fortunate to work with him on the Village of the Damned remake. I was really proud of that. Very inspiring guy to work with.
How is working on a soundtrack different than a regular album?
I like working in film because it’s about mood and feeling. You don’t have to worry about lyrics; it has that unexpected element to it that I love. Where is it going to go? It’s a bit more like painting. You put this here, this here and see where it goes.
All the drawings on Rippin’ Up Time were doodles I did over the years. One of them is of a sad alien, which was going to be the title of the album: Sad Alien. But we thought would be a bit down. Rippin’ Up Time is more like, “Get your axe on, man!”
I have to ask — any chance of a Kinks tour in 2015?
Ray and I spoke two weeks ago. We talked about football and about food. It was just members of the family [stuff]. It was nice rather than talking about work. So many times work gets in the way of us being regular people. I think that’s always been a really big problem. Sometimes it’s good to chew the fat about people we used to know. We talked about some characters that you hadn’t seen childhood that pop up on Facebook. People are like, “You remember me?” on Facebook. Which can be great or it can be like, “oh no!”
What’s coming up for you?
I did a great gig at City Winery [in New York] last November that we’re mixing to get out later in the year as a live album. I’m working on new material as well. Something I’ve always wanted to do is… well, everything I think of to describe it sounds crass and wrong. I want to do a mixture of classical and rock. Symphonic, something based on tones. Even on this last album, a song like “Semblance of Sanity” could be in a film. That song was based on a joke Ray and I had as kids about two people living in an insane asylum. Which is a bit like New York.
Do you think the world is crazier now than it was back then?
Absolutely. The Internet is amazing. You can find out anything. I’m online a lot of the time. You have to be. I like it, but it is like madness. We’re doing so much stuff but we don’t have time to think about what we’re doing.
And it’s so easy to produce music — it’s a great arena now for creative people. There’s so many different opinions and angles and perspectives across a multitude of subjects from religion to music to how people live to everything.
A friend of mine was talking about Pro Tools generation, that they’ve never played a song all the way through. In the early days we had to edit tape and it was a nightmare. Or on “See My Friends,” we didn’t know how the hell to get the sound of Indian instruments, so we D-tuned our guitars to make up the sound. Now you can just go into Logic and get tablas and whatever you want. It’s very easy now. And that’s great.
So you’re pro Pro Tools?
Yeah, I am. I use Logic though, it’s really good for everything, I love it. I tend to write more on it rather than produce on it. When I work on the song I can move it around and change it. And then I get it on the acoustic guitar and see if it really does work. I use both; I jump back and forth. I think creative people have got it made now. Just press a few buttons and you’re on your way.