[Read Quentin Harrison’s ★★★★★ review of Dubstar’s new album One here.]
It was a return that seemed close to impossible.
With the reveal of their fourth LP One, Dubstar reemerged this year with their trademark style and wit enthrallingly intact as it ever was. In the mid-to-late 1990s, these two musical attributes kept the trio—now a duo comprised of Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie—stranded somewhere between being a cult sensation and an act on the cusp of wider mainstream appeal.
But, One was not made to court nostalgia or shamelessly pander to modish pop norms. Sourced from the creative minds of two individuals aware of their respective skillsets, One appeals to anyone with an ear for bright melodies and imaginative songwriting.
During our interview, Dubstar reflected openly on coming of age during the era of Britpop mania, taking time away from the popular music scene and how rediscovering their muse led them to reclaim their artistic power.
Quentin Harrison: Congratulations on One, it’s an amazing body of work! Talk to me about what led you both to write and record this album?
Chris Wilkie: Well, it was a very long process. We split up around 2000 essentially. We got together again when a mutual friend of ours died a couple of years later, so we were actually all in the same room again for that. Another couple of years passed and we tried out some music. It didn’t really work out very well. It just wasn’t happening. But, I guess the thing is that if you’re rebooting a band that people are familiar with, it’s only worth doing if it’s going to be an improvement on what you’ve already done. Otherwise you do better to just leave it well enough alone, you know?
So, around 2014, there was a point when Sarah and I had done some one-off shows and we decided we wanted to do some type of writing project together. And so, I imagined that this might be like a Sarah Blackwood solo album or something, so I started writing daily in a dedicated way. We did that for about 18 months or so.
Now, Sarah was a friend of Youth, the producer; she had done some work with him on a project of hers previously. He thought what we were doing was going somewhere. He also thought that it was basically another Dubstar record, so we might as well look at it that way. I’m glad that it started without us really knowing that it was a Dubstar record because I would have found that a little bit inhibiting. I think that the ideas started flowing a lot better without that constraint, just feeling like it could go anywhere. That’s why this record has, I don’t know, a little bit more of us in it? Without having to hide behind the brand as much, if you see what I mean?
QH: What does Martin “Youth” Glover bring to One as a producer?
Sarah Blackwood: I’ve always been a massive, massive fan of his stuff. I mean “Private Universe” by Crowded House is probably one of my favorite songs and that album (Together Alone) is so wonderful. And plus, you know, I knew him. I knew what he was capable of and I knew that he could possibly be the one to help us get this thing going!
CW: When we started writing together again, I started to think about the songwriters I really cared about. So, I’d been listening to Crowded House’s stuff again, I really love Neil Finn’s writing, and thinking about how great that Together Alone album is, so I already had Youth on my mind. So, I said to Sarah, “You know that guy! You should talk to him!”
SB: The signposts were pointing us in that direction.
QH: Prior to reconvening for One, what had you two been up to?
CW: I had done some session work for a guy named Mark Owen who was in a big boy band in Britain called Take That. That project was interesting and I enjoyed it, but it took a lot longer than I expected. Shortly after that, I got married to an American and we had two kids [laughs].
I became a busy stay-at-home dad for the last sort of ten years, so it’s meant that whenever I’ve been doing any writing with Sarah for Dubstar it’s usually been in and amongst that. And that’s probably why so much of the album’s lyrical content appears to be so rooted in very mundane, day-to-day things in some ways.
SB: Yeah, I mean, I did Client for like the best part of ten years, so I toured extensively. I went on tour with Depeche Mode which was quite possibly the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in life [laughs]. They (Depeche Mode) were like, “You’re coming to St. Petersburg with us?” we were like, “Yeah!” and they’re like, “How are you going to get from Moscow to St. Petersburg?” and we’re like, “We’re going on the overnight train…” and they went, “No, you’re coming on the jet with us!” They had this private jet we were on for the rest of the tour, and it was insane, just amazing.
Then, I had a few vocal problems and I thought it was to do with my posture. So, I had this amazing singing teacher, Helena Shenel, who I had lessons with. She taught Shirley Bassey. She said my posture was dreadful, so, she taught me to open up my shoulders and I started doing Pilates. I ended up getting so obsessed with it that I qualified to be a Pilates teacher as well! Which, actually, is really interesting because it (Pilates) really makes you think about how you communicate things to people.
QH: How have these life experiences informed who Dubstar is today?
CW: In the ‘90s, when we did this the first time around, it was like living the dream, but it was a 24/7 job. It really felt like a matter of “life and death” and I found it quite suffocating. I don’t think I was particularly that good of an artist back then because the job was bigger than the art.
Since then, having had children, my wife’s had health complications, I’ve had health scares, my son has had health scares, I’ve had friends die since then, so much has happened. You realize that being in a band isn’t “life and death.” I think I’ve just let go of the anxiety of being in a group because I’ve seen much more of real life. Which means when I’m applying myself to my songwriting now, it feels like such a relief, everything just flows more, the ideas come more readily. I express them better. So, without wanting to sound too melodramatic, having had a lot of scary experiences along the way has made me into a better artist. Not because I’m writing about scary stuff, but just because I’m enjoying life more.
SB: I totally second that, enjoying it more. Less anxious. I don’t know whether or not that’s got to do with being older and a little wiser and you’ve been through the mill once or twice. Everything has changed, you’re coming back to a completely different (musical) landscape, but you’ve got the hindsight of the first time around and you’ve learned from that.
QH: What was it like to operate in the eye of the Britpop storm during the height of your initial rise to success? Did you feel like you were a part of that movement?
SB: I always felt like we were on the outside looking in. But this time around, I’m happy being the outsider looking in. I’m a lot more comfortable with it.
CW: That’s right, I know it caused you a lot of anxiety at the time, didn’t it Sarah?
CW: It was weird because we didn’t want to be part of that scene, because we were always afraid that when you become too much a part of a scene, you live and die by it. When it’s over, you’re over, you know? And we didn’t know how long we wanted to do it for at that point.
But, we were physically in all the places wherever Blur and Oasis were. We were at all the same parties. We would sit there drinking with them, but we were the ghosts in the room [laughs]. When I read books now about that period in the ‘90s, I can remember where I was in the room when these apparently historical moments were taking place. But we deliberately distanced ourselves from it; we’ve often wondered if it was the right thing to do. I think in hindsight it was good. For instance, I don’t think we’d be able to get away with what we’re doing now if we’d been too closely associated with it.
QH: Can you describe the connection, if any, between One and its predecessor Make It Better (2000)?
CW: It’s funny, unlike the second Dubstar album Goodbye (1997), when we got to Make It Better, we were going through a little bit of fear of sounding too much like ourselves. We wanted to try to diversify the sound of what we were doing. So, right or wrong, we were trying out a lot of different things. I certainly like a lot of things on Make It Better, but, sometimes when I listen to it now, I think “Crumbs! We spent too long on it!”
On songs like “Rise to the Top,” I always did the guitars on Dubstar records—Steve (Hillier) used to be the programmer in the band and he wrote that—Steve would say “Can you make it sound more like Nine Inch Nails or Metallica or something like that on the guitar?” I had friends when I was kid that were really into that stuff, so I knew how to do it. So, I said “sure!”
We were trying to throw everything in there because we really weren’t sure what we wanted to do. So, sometimes, it worked really well and other times I think we were reaching a bit too far there. But, overall, it makes me happy when I listen to it because I remember what a weird time it was.
SB: I don’t think it came from a position of joy did it, that album?
CW: Well, we developed pretty unhealthy habits as individuals at that point, we’d become overexposed to the business and we started turning on ourselves really. Relations were getting strained between band members and we weren’t looking at ourselves. But, I love that fact that it still works for some people when they listen to it today!
Whereas, by contrast, on the new record, the instrumentation and music arrangements seem to just happen so naturally as there wasn’t so much anxiety around. Sarah and I didn’t sit down and think “Oh, we’re going to do a record that sounds like this.” When we did One, we let the songs come out in their own time.
SB: It was really special as well (with One), just hearing it happen. It was like “Whoa!” it was really nice.
QH: Dubstar have always managed to merge both electronic and rock aesthetics. How does this sonic relationship manifest itself on One?
CW: So, on the “guitar-dance crossovers” that were taking place in the late ‘80s and ‘90s—with bands like the Happy Mondays and stuff like that—you would hear that blended sound. It was great, but I often found that as a guitarist, it sounded almost like karaoke. Kind of like you’d have a natural thing on top of this other unnatural thing that didn’t sit right. So, I wanted to have a project where these two things could exist together, totally naturally. I spent a lot of time worrying about that on the Disgraceful (1995) album.
On the One album, our original programmer was no longer with us. So, I took the opportunity to do things like take an otherworldly, analogue synth—like from a Gary Numan record—but pair it with a totally natural rhythm section. You know, like with a live drum kit and live bass? So, on tracks like “You Were Never in Love” and “Locked Inside,” you have something that sounds futuristic, but real. I wanted to go further with that sound here than what we might have done before.
SB: Yeah, buzz words in the studio were Phil Spector and Trevor Horn. You know, “what would Trevor Horn do?” Youth was having a real Trevor Horn moment, I was channeling Donna Summer and Chris was channeling Phil Spector.
QH: The vocal approach that Dubstar employs has made the group singular in British pop. Can you talk about that?
SB: I really don’t try to contrive anything, I just kind of open my mouth and try to do the best job possible. I just shut my eyes and get involved in the song. I’m not one of these singers that lets my voice dictate what the song does. I let the song seep in and I sing it.
I’m not interested in how many notes I can sing in one second, it’s the emotion of the words. I like good words to sing, that’s important. I’ve got one of those voices where I can’t sing crap, I’ve got to have good words to sing because my voice is quite unforgiving. If the words are crap, my voice will sound crap.
CW: Your singing is amazing on this record. I’ve made a lot of records with Sarah. But, it’s incredible watching how she’s gone from being a great singer to an amazing singer on this album. It’s been a privilege to see it up close.
SB: And I think the Pilates has helped as well! [laughs]
QH: Are Dubstar going to take One on the road?
CW: Well, it’s too late, in some ways, to take this album on the road, we would have had to have had dates booked in already. Because we set out to do this album as a writing project and bask in the joy of the writing and recording, but we always had in the back of our minds that if it worked out that we would do that with the next one. We already have plans to hit the ground running in January, after Christmastime, and get started in the studio again on Two.
The next album is already well underway in terms of the writing. We’re hoping to get that recorded and released next year and we would really like to be doing some kind of live thing as the campaign for Two. Whether that’s like special, little individual events, one-off shows, or part of some kind of tour, we haven’t decided yet.
I tell you what, I’d like to come to the States and do something. When we look at our numbers on Spotify, streaming and stuff like that, about a third of all the people listening to the group are in America. And while we did do a release (for One) in the States, we’ve never toured there, so it’s like we have unfinished business in the United States. At some point it will be great to do something over there, we need to do that. But, we’re bound to some kind of live thing here soon I imagine.
QH: Alright guys, last question! What are your five favorite albums of all time?
SB: Oh God! [laughs]
CW: Oooh crumbs, that’s a hard one!
SB: Especially off the cuff!
CW: Okay, I’m going to make a start! The Color of Spring by Talk Talk, Strange Ways Here We Come by The Smiths, On Fire by Galaxie 500, Skylarking by XTC, and Mindbomb by The The.
SB: I’ll go in with The Visitors by ABBA, Technique by New Order, Madonna by Madonna, Revolver by The Beatles, and Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.