Disciples of Sound

Stephen Duffy: Flying Beyond Duran Duran With the Hawks and Lilac Time

Issue 144

“Rock royalty” is perhaps an overused term these days. But there are those who have applied their creative hand to so many pieces of music over time that it’s impossible to imagine what the modern musical landscape might have looked like without their contributions. Stephen Duffy is one of those artists. First as a founder of Duran Duran, Duffy helped set rock on a course that would lead to a post-punk world filled with remarkable bands and unforgettable songs. Unfortunately, one of the outfits he led following Duran Duran, The Hawks, came and went almost unnoticed.

With a sensibility birthed in Birmingham, England, The Hawks made music that sat somewhere between The Jam and Echo & The Bunnymen. Their brief 18-month run produced a bunch of demos but no record deal. Duffy and The Hawks, Dave Twist (drums), Dave Kusworth (guitar), Simon Colley (bass), and Paul Adams (guitar) would disband and find success elsewhere. For Duffy, it was first within the world of pop, where he scored a massive international hit with Tin Tin’s “Kiss Me,” and later developed into a highly regarded man of song with the acoustically driven outfit Lilac Time. Along the way he also collaborated with Robbie Williams and Barenaked Ladies, helping them craft music that would sell millions upon millions of records.

 

The Hawks. Photo courtesy of Brendan Jackson.

The Hawks. Photo courtesy of Brendan Jackson.

 

Three years ago Duffy was approached by Kusworth and asked if he would unearth the Hawks’ cassette archive Duffy had been holding onto, and use it to build an album. It would be the last time they would speak. Kusworth passed soon after. However, Duffy was true to his word and has undertaken a remarkable journey, turning 40-year-old cassettes that were largely deteriorated into a stunning ten-song collection of head-turning rock tunes.

We had the opportunity to speak with Duffy about the project, the band, and how his music has evolved as the modern music world becomes more and more fascinated with the sounds he and others created in the early eighties. Duffy’s career has had so many hallmarks, but when you spin the Hawks’ Obviously 5 Believers, you can’t help but become enwrapped in an energy that only a bunch of 19-year-olds who were just unleashed upon the world could possibly create. Their time together was short, but within that window they made music that will reaffirm your belief in the power of rock and roll and make you wonder what other gold Duffy has stowed away in boxes throughout his home.

 

The Hawks: Obviously 5 Believers album cover.

The Hawks: Obviously 5 Believers album cover.

 

Ray Chelstowski: I have really enjoyed Obviously 5 Believers. Can you tell us how this project came about?

Stephen Duffy: Because we had never really made a record at that time, I had never gone back and listened to this stuff. But David Twist and David Kusworth had always been talking to me about having a listen to the tapes and maybe releasing a record. Then, the last time that I saw David Kusworth he said it again. Unfortunately it’s the last thing he said to me, which gives the project a little more emphasis, I suppose. With David Twist, I had started looking around for video footage. We wanted this to include more than just the music from the forty year old cassettes. We found the footage actually the week before David died, so he never knew that we had started on this.

I’ve had these cassettes in a box in the back of my studio for some time. I also had a cassette of the first Duran Duran concert in 1979, which became the Devils album that we made in 2002. It has made me realize that I have a lot of cassettes that I should be transferring, because who knows what else is back there.

I’m glad that we did it properly, because I never thought that it would get this much attention. I had thought that people wouldn’t be interested in it and if they were, they’d be a bit snooty about it. So it’s amazing to me that people are enjoying it.

RC: How did you decide on the final track sequencing?

SD: There were probably between thirty to forty cassettes. It was a process of finding which cassette and which version hadn’t deteriorated the most. [Then] it was a matter of transferring them and then just listening to each one to find what the best version was. In the end it became stuff from the very first recording session and stuff from the very last.

RC: What was the general condition of the cassettes?

SD: We’ve all had to bake reel to reel tapes for some time. [This process restores deteriorating magnetic tape by carefully and literally baking it – Ed.] This is the first time I’ve been part of a project were you’ve had to bake cassettes, and I don’t know how they did it. Do you put the whole cassette in the oven or do you take the tape out? I don’t know, but I’m now working on a retrospective piece for a Lilac Time album called Astronauts which was [recorded] ten years later in 1991. On that project we’ve had snapping DAT tapes, where you’re rewinding a DAT {Digital Audio Tape] and it just breaks. So you have to find someone who can fix the DATs. We’ve [also] been doing the same thing [in] baking the DATs. So either someone’s having me on and no one is baking anything, or there are a lot of people taking apart plastic boxes and baking tape for me. But this must be going on all over, because these retrospective releases are quite popular, aren’t they?

RC: How do you optimize the sound? And, was there one song you tried to tie everything else to?

SD: The first track, “All Of The Sad Young Men,” was going to be our single [at the time] and it was one of the first things we recorded. So we knew that it had to be on the record no matter how it sounded. After that, I did go through and chose all of the ones that sounded sonically “OK.” I had to stop myself from listening to myself as a vocalist and accept [the tracks that were] the best ensemble performances, and not be distracted [by] a song where I sang very well, [only] to hear that everyone behind me was completely out of time.

RC: Why has this period of your career been so overlooked?

SD: That’s because nobody knew that it had happened. We were so ignored. Nobody was interested. It was that immediate post-punk time and I think that we would have been part of the Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes, Orange Juice scene. But we were in Birmingham and there wasn’t a trendy label or local scene-makers like you would have in Scotland, because Scotland is so far away from London. Or in Liverpool, where the Bunnymen and Teardrop were. And we didn’t have a manager to speak of and we weren’t very ambitious. We just wanted to play a few gigs. We had very simple ideas of what our future would be.

 

RC: How did you move from this to pop?

SD: I had already written “Kiss Me” and we tried to play it in the band and it just wasn’t our strongest suit. So after the 18 months that we had been together, around Christmas of 1981 I thought that I would either do an acoustic thing where maybe I could get an indie [record] deal, or pursue the other idea, which was Tin Tin and doing things electronically. So just before Christmas in 1981 I went to a record shop in town and bumped into John Mulligan from Fashion, and they had just signed to Arista. They had all of these synthesizers and he suggested we do something.

So, we got together after Christmas, I taught him “Kiss Me,” and we went in the studio and I had a deal in like four months. I didn’t really know anything about electronic music. So as I got into it, it was very much about learning as we went along. It became quite a commercial success, getting to the Top Five of the dance charts.

It was successful but I never really came to terms with it. That was 1982. By the end of 1985 this new version [of the song] would come out and become a big hit in Britain. So, I’m 25 years old. I’m on Top of the Pops with a song I had written when I was 19 and that seems like a lifetime away. I was uncomfortable with it and people could feel that, so I didn’t have a very long or illustrious pop career. I decided instead to go back to that Dylan, Nick Drake sort of thing and started Lilac Time. That was 1986 and I’ve been doing that pretty much ever since.

 

RC: Are you surprised with how many modern acts are mining that ’80s pop sound?

SD: Yes. The thing about it, especially with that early 1980s electronic sound, I felt that we were trying to make it sound like something, and failing. So when I hear people try to emulate that sound I’m confused, because we weren’t trying to make it sound like that. We were trying to make a modern Motown. I find it very funny because you’d struggle with those synths and have crocodile clips and little bits of wire [connecting them] and it was absolutely hellish. It was like some electrical DIY project. The idea that people would try to emulate that sound is kind of insane to me.

RC: I really love your album I Love My Friends. There you demonstrate with songs like “You Are,” “Lovers Beware” and “Seventeen” that you clearly can still write songs that really rock. But you seem to prefer a more intimate acoustic sound.

 

SD: I’ve always felt more at home with solo acoustic. Especially at this point where pop music doesn’t even sound like music. It doesn’t sound like something that’s travelled through the air. Even the vocals now sound like an instrument. So the idea of a folk club could possibly be the most avant garde thing you could come up with. Sitting down and playing the acoustic guitar and having people enjoy it is sort of out of this world, isn’t it? That’s what I love the most. That’s what I listen to. That’s where I’m comfortable.

RC: You have successfully partnered with Robbie Williams and Steve Page of Barenaked Ladies. What do you look for in collaboration?

SD: I think that a lot of producers, they have this unused ego. So, they are using whoever they are working with as a platform for themselves. It’s not collaboration, where I’m here to help you make a record. How can I be of help? I have never thought that I have needed to slap my brand on anything. For me instead it’s about trying to help [artists] be the best of themselves.

I haven’t collaborated with anyone sine Rob (Williams) which was in the mid- 2000s, and pop has moved on so dramatically since then with streaming. With Rob, I lived with him for like three years to make all of those songs. I lived with Steven for months. You really can’t do that anymore, because back then you’d sell records and if you believed in it, there was always the chance that it was going to pay off in some way. And obviously with Rob, he sold something like eight million records, and the Barenaked Ladies sold around three to four million records. So this was a good way of investing time.

These were good bets, weren’t they? Now I’m also 61, so there’s no way I’m going to spend months living with someone in their twenties. But back then that was my lifestyle. That was how I lived.

 

RC: How has the creative process evolved the years for you?

SD: Well I’m one of those people who have never really recovered from the loss of magnetic tape. I had a little studio at AIR Studios [in London}. It was an office right at the top and if the Pro Tools [computer recordings] were sounding a little too antiseptic I’d open the window so there would be traffic noise, some sort of background, because [when recording using a computer], everything is so clear and precise.

I miss hitting “record” and you have to then perform. All of those hours where you’d be sitting in a room in front of a mic waiting for the red light to come on and [the engineers] are behind the glass saying, “I hope he gets it right!” You’d be there sweating. You can’t beat that. Even the mix was a performance. Now you just program everything. Just waiting and wondering if the engineer is going to get the fade right, that sort of thing is what I miss. And of course how collaborative it was.

RC: What’s next?

SD: We are making the next Lilac Time album to come out next year. That’s fun because we have had such a long to write and prepare it because of COVID. I didn’t want to record it back then because we didn’t know when the record shops would reopen or the festivals would start again. So we are recording it now and it will come out next May.

RC: Well thank you for bringing this great music to market!

SD: I wanted to do it for David and make it sound as good as it possibly can. I’m just so happy people are enjoying the music.

Original demo cassette for the Subterranean Hawks, later the Hawks.

Original demo cassette for the Subterranean Hawks, later the Hawks.

 

Header image of Stephen Duffy courtesy of Brian Robinson.

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