(This interview was originally published July 24, 2014 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)
When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Gilbert Gabriel. He is part of the British band The Dream Academy providing keyboards and vocals while co-writing most songs with fellow band member Nick Laird-Clowes. Released in 1985, their first single "Life in a Northern Town" became the band's biggest hit and remains one of my favorite songs of that year. Find out about him, creating that great song, what he is doing now and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Gilbert Gabriel...
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician? When and how did you get your own start in the music industry? Please tell us a little about what you did earlier in your career before The Dream Academy.
Gilbert: I was obsessed with popular music when I was about seven with The Beatles and all those well-crafted hits that were in the charts at the time in the '60s. In fact, I remember having a transistor radio glued to my ear with the chart run-downs on a Sunday night when I was at boarding school. That's where I started having classical piano lessons because a very helpful and inspirational teacher named Roy Knapman noticed I had potential.
As a teenager, I had my own school band, which comprised of bass drums, guitar, vocals and saxophone. I played guitar and my longtime friend, Aidan Hoyle, played alto saxophone. We used to entertain the other kids and parents and even did a rock festival when we were 15. Although music wasn't officially on the school curriculum, there was a lot of it there with musicals, an orchestra in which I played clarinet, our school band, the local church choir and a fabulous record collection ranging from Bob Dylan, King Crimson, Rare Bird, Kevin Ayers, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Genesis, Pink Floyd, etc.
As I seemed to spend most of my time locked in the music room, the teachers decided I wasn't ready for the "normal world" and suggested I fit into a wonderful progressive arts college situated in the depths of Devon [southwest England] called Dartington College of Arts. It was a perfect place for a teenage kid who was unworldly and mesmerized by the colorful sounds of Debussy and would have been a useless carpenter! As well as studying music theory, classical piano and clarinet, I was exposed to a new world of art and creation. I was in my element in a foray of spontaneous artists, classical musicians and avant-garde dancers. The curriculum encouraged innovation, "art in a social context" and individualism. I was introduced to the work of composers such as Stockhausen, John Cage, Steve Reich, artists such as Jackson Pollock as well as alternative theatre dance work that included Robert Wilson and Merce Cunningham.
I also had creative writing lessons where I would write sonnets by the river or learn about poets such as William Carlos Williams and E.E. Cummings which in turn later influenced the way we approached writing "Life in a Northern Town" from a "stream of conscious" point of view. There was also an amazing collection of folk music and world music in the old library that gave me ideas for fusing different styles of music together. Dartington also gave me time to read great books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game that precipitated the idea of a "Dream Academy".
Q: Please tell us a little about when and how you met Nick Laird-Clowes. Did you just click musically right away?
Gilbert: When I first met Nick, it was after a long day of auditioning for several bands in London. I had previously read in a book called The Reader's Digest that suggested that the more people you meet the more chance you have of manifesting your dreams (pretty obvious really). So I decided to triple my efforts and work in several bands and keep checking out new options. After a long day of auditions and feeling pretty tired and hungry, I eventually met Nick rehearsing with his band The Act in a rehearsal studio in London near the torture museum! I immediately liked the melody and harmony of his band as they had three-part harmonies although I felt it lacked keyboards and should be a little bit more psychedelic. Anyway, the rest is history.
We did some great gigs in London and a couple of tours in Spain but it eventually broke up and Nick and I plotted another destiny. With the help of David Gilmour, we were able to produce some "original-sounding" demos that we also used for backing tracks and started performing as a duo called Politics of Paradise in alternative clubs in London (like the Titanic and the Language Lab). Once we appeared on stage after two naked strippers came off! There were classical violinists; a guy named Tom Dixon (became a leading Ikea furniture designer) that welded furniture on stage and a band called Funkapolitan hanging around. It was like a psychedelic version of CBGB's but in London! Nick and I shared the same youthful enthusiasm for experimentalism and the love of all that was psychedelic.
I remember ranting on one night, after a long rehearsal at David Gilmour's studio in Henley, to all of the band (The Act) about how we should be more progressive and multi-media. It probably drove them nuts. At the time, it seemed like another utopia with a massive C3 Hammond organ to play, David's giant stacks of Marshall amps piled up to the ceiling from his Floyd tours and my disbelief as David played some of the albums we had listened to so many times at school and speculated on how they were put together. A vivid memory of that time also includes playing for his daughter Alice's seventh birthday and then later meeting her as a young woman of 21 at an Earls Court gig in the 1990s when the Floyd performed Dark Side of the Moon- oh how time passes!
So returning to your question, yes, Nick and I shared a similar creative space and wished to explore all the different possibilities of light, sound, cinematic backdrops, etc. Whereas Nick had learned his craft by being in the thick of the music industry since the 1970s with his three-part harmony group Alfalpha and I brought to the table an artistic "wackiness" inspired by many psychedelic nights in the depths of experimental Devon as well as an informed cultural input that was influenced by more utopian ideals.
Q: So how did The Dream Academy actually come to be out of that? Who came up with the band's name and what inspired it? Why did you make the change from Politics of Paradise?
Gilbert: As I mentioned, Nick and I used to gig under the name of Politics of Paradise that was inspired by R.D. Laing's title of one of his psychotherapy books called The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (he was the guy that tried to cure Syd Barrett when he lost it after too many acid trips). I had read The Glass Bead Game that revolved around a special game played after many years of serious study of the arts, science etc. and also a poem called The Dream House that prompted me to write down the words "The Dream Academy". I think we had both decided Politics of Paradise didn't really feel right so I came up with another name.
Q: What were your musical goals/intentions for The Dream Academy? Why and how did you recruit Kate St. John to join the group?
Gilbert: When I was living in Southgate in London, I used to have a band of different musicians rehearsing in my living room on each day (a harpist, a sitar player, percussionists, saxophone players- the list goes on). You have to remember this was before the days of sampling. I was determined to work on some of the experimental and artistic ideas that I had come across at Dartington. As for Kate, I think Nick met her at a party. We both loved the fact she played the oboe and cor anglais and her Marianne Faithfull aura! Ironically, all these years later she often tours with her.
Q: The Dream Academy had its biggest hit with "Life in a Northern Town" which you co-wrote with Laird-Clowes and was released in 1985. Please take us back to when it was written and recorded. What can you tell us about back-story about how that particular song was conceived? What inspired it?
Gilbert: I remember this song emerging gradually from the ether in autumn when I was living in Southgate in a shared house with other students. I was endlessly experimenting with different guitar chord shapes higher up the guitar fretboard on a guitar with only five strings. Eventually, I found two chords that seemed to achieve a sense of consonance that seemed to mesmerize me. Nick then learned it and came up with a lower inversion that I embellished with a colorful chord progression played on the Solina synthesizer. Nick and I would then sing various chants over these chords inspired by a library tape of some African children I asked my girlfriend to borrow from her college library. The idea was to "re-conjure" the 60s and more idealistic times through the visual imagery of the verses that were fused with a chant that sounded universal. Hence the reference to The Beatles and JFK that became the axiom that we would build it around as well as the massive chant. We consciously wanted to create a song that had a wide demographic appeal but communicated something honest, beautiful and universal - a song that could appeal to children, adults and grandparents. I think we achieved this.
"Life in a Northern Town" was released in March of 1985 in the UK and then in November of 1985 in the U.S. from The Dream Academy's self-titled debut album. It became an international hit peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February of 1986 while reaching #2 on the Adult/Contemporary chart. Here is one of the music videos for "Life in a Northern Town" by The Dream Academy...
"Life in a Northern Town" has remained one of my favorite songs from that year. I have always loved the chant chorus, but the verse lyrics are quite beautiful as well:
A Salvation Army band played And the children drank lemonade And the morning lasted all day, all day And through an open window came Like Sinatra in a younger day Pushing the town away They sat on the stony ground And he took a cigarette out And everyone else came down to listen He said, "In winter 1963 It felt like the world would freeze With John F. Kennedy and the Beatles" All the work shut down The evening had turned to rain Watch the water roll down the drain As we followed him down to the station And though he never would wave goodbye You could see it written in his eyes As the train rolled out of sight, bye-bye
Q: Did you have any feeling when you first wrote or recorded it that the single was going to be something special or have the success that it did?
Gilbert: Yes, the song felt special from its inception. It seemed to capture a melancholic energy that portrayed the colors of autumn as well as having a universal sense of humanity in the chorus that could speak joyfully as though in all "languages". I think it was one of our most sincere creations that weren't shackled by the forces of commerce and all that music business nonsense that deadens most bands' inner core of creativity and self-belief. It felt like very special time writing and recording "Life in a Northern Town". I felt as though we were vessels receiving a gift from a higher force as it gradually revealed itself. The writing and recording of the track took a year of several incarnations from demo to the final product. The great ears of Gary Langham and David Gilmour helped us further realize a fuller and more in-depth final production of what was a wildly ambitious idea before the era of sampling! Yes. I personally always had a special feeling about the song.
Q: Was the original title of the song "Life in a Northern Town" really going to be "Morning Lasted All Day" and was it really Paul Simon that urged that it be changed?
Gilbert: Yes. Nick was having some lessons with Paul Simon and he thought the original title was a bit amorphous. I think he was right on a commercial level but it suited our "stream of consciousness" approach for the song. We are now using that original title Morning Lasted All Day to call our new retrospective album coming out this year.
Q: What are your feelings about "Life in a Northern Town" now about 29 years later?
Gilbert: I think it still holds up pretty darn well. I feel it was a great achievement to accomplish making a record that is still loved today.
Q: There were two different music videos made for "Life in a Northern Town". Do you remember why a second video was made? Which one do you prefer? What memories do you have of making those videos?
Gilbert: Our first video was a bit of a disaster really. Tim Pope, the director of the wonderful Cure videos, made his first failure with us in the middle of winter on a particularly cold day in Halifax. Although laughable now, it was expensive. So the combination of a video made for the program The Tube and found footage ended being the better video. Perhaps a much better one could be made than that but it seemed to capture people's imagination.
Q: Speaking of music videos, your video received lots of exposure on MTV back then. What are your thoughts on the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s, especially in America?
Gilbert: We were blessed to be part of a new Warner Brothers operation that invested heavily in video promotion inspired by the success of their videos for Madonna, Talking Heads, Prince and Dire Straits. Some were corny, but it was a time of exploration and innovation and now adults that were youthful at the time look back at them with fond memories! Michael Ostin was our record boss and did a great job giving us this opportunity. He now manages Nile Rodgers from Chic and continues to do a great job. Also we must not forget the great input of Geoff Travis from Rough Trade who was there at the beginning for us!
MTV had an enormous impact how records were promoted in the 80s and gave us a visual accessibility to our stars that we never had before. Yes, somehow "video killed the radio star" and now many years later I think the industry suffers from the volcanic ash from its initial eruption of "style over content". Occasionally, we see a post-modernist ironic ‘take' on it but I still love some of the old footage from the pre-MTV era of live shows like The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube where you could see bands like Focus show their performance skills rather than their biceps or bottoms.
Q: What led you to record a cover of "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" by The Smiths?
Gilbert: Nick and I were big fans of The Smiths. I remember seeing them live with Nick at a GLC festival in London organized by Ken Livingstone. At a time when the majority of the youth (and a few miners without jobs) felt repressed by conservative government ideals that celebrated money over "social contentment and equality", Ken's idea of giving us a free festival to encourage people to vote for a party that hankered after democracy and equality seemed a great idea.
I personally was besotted by The Smiths music and used to have my Sony Walkman strapped on as I travelled to gigs. Nick chose that track, and I remember us all being in a wonderful state of harmony to record it in only a couple of days at Dave's studio in Henley. It felt that it came from an honest space and had a similar resonance and integrity to "Life in A Northern Town" that allowed Nick, Kate and myself to express ourselves.
Q: Many people would recognize your instrumental version of the song featured in the 1986 John Hughes film Ferris Bueller's Day Off. You also had a second song on that soundtrack as well as another on the Planes, Trains and Automobiles soundtrack. How did your songs end up on that soundtrack? What feelings do you have about your song being used perfectly in that beautiful scene in the Art Institute?
Gilbert: I think it's great! That was thanks to our manager Tarquin Gotch, who worked closely with the film's director John Hughes.
The memorable scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off where they are at the Art Institute of Chicago features the instrumental version of "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want", a cover of The Smiths by The Dream Academy. Here is that scene from the film...
In addition, the soundtrack included a second track by The Dream Academy titled "The Edge of Forever" which was used near the end of the film when Ferris is saying goodbye to Sloane after their exciting day. Here is a portion of that scene where you can hear it if you listen closely...
Q: Your second and third albums did not achieve the same success of your debut album. Do you have any ideas why those later albums did not register the same way as the first? Why was the decision made in 1991 to go your separate ways and disband The Dream Academy?
Gilbert: Band politics and money seemed to dominate the more utopian foundations of our project. We also lacked the guiding force of David Gilmour's production skills and his engineer Andy Jackson that were vital ingredients in helping to capture the essence of our musical visions and imagination. This musical instinct, professionalism and experience became replaced by a more superficial overlay of multi-track productions without a clear narrative force or musical sensitivity.
Q: What do you remember best about the decade of '80s music?
Gilbert: In retrospect, it was an incredibly inventive time. Although Nick and I mourned the passing of the '60s and its culture at the time, I think in retrospect the 1980s was incredibly interesting with the array of bands that represented not only rich kids with equipment and contacts but also just working-class kids that were talented. It wasn't accountant-driven as it is today. Some of my favorite bands of the time include: Talk Talk, The Cure, The Smiths, New Order, Dif Juz, The Human League, Pre-Fab Sprout, The Cocteau Twins and The Blue Nile. I also like what Youth did with Alex Paterson with The Orb as well.
Q: Please tell us a little about where your music career has taken you since the '80s. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Gilbert: Well, when The Dream Academy broke up I had several record deals with Geoff Travis on his labels Blanco Y Negro and Rough Trade. Unfortunately although I had some great music and Geoff Travis's support, the singer was not really cut out for the industry as she had big issues from her past (a daughter of a now-deceased famous pop star of the 1970s who hadn't really looked after her as a child). However, later I was able to do some good work with a musician, producer and good friend Andrew Fryer on the dance label we ran called Futurasound. Eventually I became tired of England and moved to Krakow in Poland from 2001 to 2008. This helped to rekindle my creative fire. I still visit Krakow regularly to top up on Bohemianism!
Well, two of my most prized memories are Morrissey from The Smiths sending us a postcard to say our rendition of "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" was "beautiful" and also Geoff Travis describing a song of mine called "England's Dreaming" as a classic. Of course there was also a special Dream Academy Day when we woke up in Denver flew to Portland (Oregon) for a lunchtime promotional stint and then that night to San Francisco where I stayed in a hotel in the same room that John and Yoko stayed and then flew to Los Angeles the next day to find our record was #7 on the American pop charts!
Q: Any chance of The Dream Academy reuniting to tour or create new music?
Gilbert: As for The Dream Academy touring again, we had an agent who contacted us a few times to do a reunion tour. It's dependent on money as touring is expensive. I guess if the right situation occurs it could happen - even the Monty Python team saw the light and realized it is not only enormous fun but useful to inspire new ideas.
Q: So I read that you have a PhD. Could you tell us what you have been doing in the world of Education?
Gilbert: Well, as you probably can see from my other answers, education means a lot to me. As Alan Bennett's main protagonist (a teacher) says in The History Boys, "Pass it on". I feel my teachers were fantastic, so I feel a duty to pass my knowledge on as well as keep learning! I also had a wonderful English teacher at school called "Fez" who brought Chaucer and Shakespeare alive and introduced Larkin, Auden, Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot to us. I feel if we can all learn more about ourselves and the world then perhaps instead of fearing each other we can celebrate our wonderful potential as a species and conjure such beautiful worlds as the poets, artists, dancers and musicians that have passed before us and will arrive in the future.
So far I have been teaching the soundtrack at London Film School, Leeds Metropolitan University and invited by the National Film School to lecture there as well as teaching music composition and production at Brighton Hove College to some very talented students. I was also awarded a scholarship by Berklee College of Music in America and have now just completed a Master certificate in Film and TV orchestration which has been incredible fun and really useful. In the last couple of years, I have also finished composing for a couple of feature films and worked with an up-and-coming talented actor and director called Mike Hatton on a comedy film which is out this summer. I have also published a book on how altered states are signified by the soundtrack which is basically my doctoral thesis which I did with Theo Van Leeuwen, the world expert on sound semiotics and another great mentor. Finally, I also am co-authoring a book with David Sonnenschein on how subjectivity is presented and represented in the recent Oscar winning film Gravity that will be out by Macmillan in September.
Q: What else is Gilbert Gabriel up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? What can we expect in the future?
Gilbert: As far as music making and CD releases are concerned, I have several! First there is The Believers (2004) and the Chapel of Dreams (2008) for sale already on my website and iTunes (GilbertGabrielMusic.com). There are also three other albums that I will release this autumn that I worked on while I was living in Poland:
The Dream Academy - The Morning Lasted All Day - A Retrospective (July 29, 2014 everywhere except for October in UK) - Painstakingly compiled, comprehensively annotated and carefully remastered, it includes 24 tracks on two CDs features the band's hits plus some previously unreleased material and a new song.
Simeon Lenoir and Gilbert Gabriel - Before Leaves Fall (September 30, 2014) - A cross- cultural album with Simeon Lenoir (a talented bohemian French artist) that features not only French, with couple of songs inspired by Victor Hugo (a famous French poet), but also Polish, Spanish and African
Gilbert Gabriel - Another Sun (November 30, 2014) - Gilbert Gabriel's soundscapes is a mainly instrumental album that mixes Klezmer, World music and has echoes of Jean Luc Ponty's playing featuring the cinematic and elegiac tones of Tomasz Kurkuba's violin, viola and wordless singing. He is a founder of the Klezmer band Kroke and was invited by Peter Gabriel as a musician to play on the soundtrack of Rabbit-Proof Fence.
As you can probably see, my passion for creativity and experimentalism has not died. I also worked with a very talented soul singer on my latest film soundtrack for a feature film. He has recorded a tribute version of "Test Tape No. 3" that will probably appear on Todd Donahue's tribute to The Dream Academy album.
I would love to do some more feature film music (any offers?) and am also hoping Nick and I can finish off another Dream Academy album. We have quite a few tracks which are unfinished!
I am so pleased that Gilbert was able to take some time to answer some questions so I could share them with you here. You can keep up with him and all of his musical endeavors on his official website at GilbertGabrielMusic.com I want to take this occasion to again thank Gilbert Gabriel for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially through The Dream Academy and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.