By Brian Ives
“I listen to a lot of music by much younger artists, and then I go back to my classic albums, have a vodka martini, sit and play some Blonde on Blonde.”
Dave Stewart said this towards the end of his interview, and it kind of sums the guy up. He’s a chill dude who has had a pretty extraordinary career — he was, of course, one half of legendary duo the Eurythmics, but also produced Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks and Mick Jagger, to name a few.
At the same time, he’s often working with a number of lesser known artists, and it seems important to him to keep his ear to the ground. And he definitely seems like the kind of guy to chill with a vodka martini while listening to a Bob Dylan album.
In his newly released memoirs, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This: A Life In Music, he talks all of his musical collaborations. Radio.com talked to the man for about an hour, and we discussed all of the above, as well as how the legendary supergroup the Traveling Wilburys formed at his house (without him), how he felt about his most recent reunion with Annie Lennox, and how he saw the future of the music business three decades ago.
In your book, you recall having a revelation about how corporations were taking over the music business. “I’ve seen the future of the music industry,” you said. “And it’s burger-shaped.” And that was in the ’80s!
Well, in the eighties it was a decade of over-the-top huge amounts of money in the record industry, because vinyl was still around, but CDs were coming, and there were huge album sales. People would sell 12 million, 20 million albums. But because there was huge amounts of money to be made, there was a kind of cultural shift in the corporate world and people said, “Oh, yeah, the CEO from Hertz Rent-a-Car could be the CEO of RCA records and run it like a business.”
And I had to go and meet the new CEO: his name was Jose Menendez. He and his wife were later famously murdered by their own children. But he was a pretty scary, huge guy. Shook my hand, then he [practically] broke my fingers. I was delivering our album, Be Yourself Tonight, which had “Would I Lie to You” on it. He goes, “Stewart, love your album, it’s just like ‘Ghostbusters.'” And I was like, “‘Ghostbusters?'”
And he started talking about putting me and Annie on the top of a sort of burger, sort of Coca-Cola thing as a free mini-CD and plastic Dave and Annies coming out of your burger packets; Annie was a vegan at that time, so that would have been tricky. But as I wrote in my book, “I started to see the future of the music business, and it was burger shaped.” And it definitely is now.
You were kind of offended by the idea of tying in with a burger-chain back then, but these days, artists kind of look for those sort of corporate deals.
I wrote a book a few years ago with a friend, Mark Simmons, called The Business Playground. And in it I came up with a word called “sponsorbility” — as opposed to “responsibility” — and using it to flip it the other way around. Instead of artists begging at the door, it’s going to companies and saying, “Do you realize you have sponsorbility?”
In other words, yes, you could spend 25 million on a print campaign and this or that. Or you could sponsor this artist and get loads more attention through social media, and if it’s a good pairing, then it can go on for a while. There’s no difference really. EMI Records, they were making scud missiles and rockets; Sony is building TV sets and whatever, so [being sponsored by] Ben and Jerry’s is not such a bad thing after all.
Speaking of Be Yourself Tonight, in the book you describe collaborating with both Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin on that album, and you’ve collaborated with lots of huge artists over the course of your career. Stevie Nicks says she’s never written with someone in the way that she’s written with you, and in the book, Mick Jagger says that you take the angst out of recording. What is it about your personality that you’re able to create environment where talented people can relax a bit and work together?
I think Mick says in the forward that my main number one priority is, “Is it gonna be fun?” I’ve got this sort of “life’s too short” attitude. We’re just having fun, like kids in a playpen, and “Oops!” out pops a song.
I said to Stevie Nicks, “Hey, look, if we don’t like it, we just throw it away. Nobody will ever hear it.” So it kind of takes away a lot of the tension for the artists. Just like anybody in a job, they gotta hand in their papers, or if you’re at college, you do the exam. Basically, people are expecting to hear a cohesive song or an album or a video or something, and you’re expected to deliver it.
Well, the more successful you get, the higher the expectations are. Even though they’re brilliant, most artists are very insecure. So how do I handle that?
Well, the best way is to say “Let’s do stuff, but not worry whether it comes out or not or whether it’s the right one or not. Let’s just do stuff for now.” And you can see them react like, “Phew! Okay, let’s play,” and it’s suddenly back to the way they remembered it when they first started.
You tell a story in the book about hiring someone to work for you, and within 48 hours of being at your house, Mick Jagger showed up, George Harrison was there, Robert Plant stopped by, Bob Dylan stopped by. Is that what your house was like in the ’80s?
Well, yeah, I hired a wonderful lady called Nida, from Thailand, because she was literally crying outside my front door talking to my mother, and she was lost and didn’t speak much English.
And my mom didn’t know what to do, so in the end my mom knocked on my door with her. “Oh, this lady’s lost,” and she said, “My son will give you a job.”
And I went, “Oh, okay, come in.” At the time I wasn’t married; I didn’t have kids; it was like, “Okay, so what do we do?”
And slowly she realized that I wasn’t a normal chap going to work. I would sleep til 11, and then these characters would come round. And in my book I mentioned in the space of two days, Mick Jagger came ’round, and Robert Plant and George Harrison, and this and that. The only one she recognized, actually, was George Harrison, because he was a Beatle, and in Thailand [they were huge]: “Ahh!”
But this lady became an integral part of my life and actually retired when she was 65. But she’s seen absolutely everything. I keep telling her she should put out a book, and I’ll give her the pictures.
But at a certain point in everybody’s career who gets to a certain level and everything’s buzzing around you, it’s hard to explain one or two days or three days [in their life], because millions of things happen. Annie and I flying to Detroit to meet Aretha Franklin and recording with her, and then I can’t remember what happened the next day, but it was probably something epic, because you’re on this epic journey. So if you stop many people when they’re in the peak of that and ask them, “So this happened on a Thursday. What happened on a Saturday?” They’d be “Uh… another crazy thing.”
And so I just put some of those excerpts in the book, but I could’ve went on and on with all different kinds of stories. But when you’re writing a memoir, and you’ve only got 340 pages or whatever, and you’re starting with when you’re two years old, and you’re ending in the present day, that’s a lot of editing.
I was always doing lots of different things, different things were going on all the time, like filming inside the Church Studios, making a little independent thing for BBC or… and people would be arriving and see lots of things going on.
So Bob Dylan, for instance, would be very interested in what’s going on over here, and then “Hey, let’s make a film.” So we wandered around shooting 8 mm film, and then somebody else goes, “Oh, what are you doing with Bob? I wanna do something.”
You know it just spirals, because as I said earlier, there’s no rhyme nor reason to it. It wasn’t like we’re delivering this because we’re gonna try and make a Hollywood feature, you know. We’re just doing it.
In the book, you mentioned that you and Annie wanted Robert Plant to cover one of your songs.
Annie and I were writing songs, one after the other. We only used to spend maybe three weeks at the most in the studio. That was including writing the songs, recording them, producing them and handing them in to the label. And songs are spilling out everywhere. One time Bob Dylan and I were in the Church Studios just messing around; it’s now owned by [record producer] Paul Epworth. If you saw Adele recently singing from inside the Church Studios, that’s it. I’m pleased that it got passed on to other musicians.
But this was an amazing place, and people would come there all the time. I remember one time having a jam session; there’s Joni Mitchell on drums, Daryl Hall on bass, and Clem Burke [of Blondie], a drummer, on piano. We would swap instruments; it was mad.
Anyway, this one time Annie said, “Listen to this,” and she started reading the words of “Missionary Man.” And we were saying [to Bob Dylan], “Hey, this is interesting. Bob, what do you think of this?”
And he was, obviously, a brilliant lyricist, and also very quiet and shy. And so we went back to my house—actually last night I was just playing a little of these tapes in my kitchen where he’s singing along with stuff. And then Annie rings the bell at midnight, and she’s singing harmonies, and that stuff we recorded earlier; we’re playing it back on what used to be called a cassette and singing along with it. And then Annie and I went off to record “Missionary Man” ourselves, and obviously that was a huge hit in America.
But often we would think, “Oh, this would be good to hear in Bob Dylan’s voice, or Robert Plant’s voice.” Often onstage we would do things in different ways, like just a dobro guitar and a gospel choir or just me and Annie acoustic or a full-on sort of rock version of something that was electronic or vice versa.
Did you ever actually suggest “Missionary Man” to Robert Plant?
Well, actually it was our tour manager at the time, who became our manager in England, who said, “What the hell are you doing? That’s a huge song for you guys.” ‘Cause we had so many songs we were writing one after the other, and we didn’t really realize that we were writing songs that would become huge hits. We were just writing one after the other, and we would fantasize, like “God, if Dusty Springfield was around she’d kill this” or “Tina Turner would sound great doing this.” Because between Annie and I, we could write in any style, you see, Stax or Motown or totally electronic, so it was like limitless.
The Traveling Wilburys formed at your house; was that an early inspiration for SuperHeavy?
Well, I was great friends with George Harrison, and me and my wife were living in his house in Friar Park, and him and his wife and his son Dhani were living in our house in L.A., and I’d built that house and built a studio in the back garden. And there was a lot of seemingly unconnected dots starting to get connected.
So I was making little films of Bob, and then Bob was talking to Tom Petty, and he said to me he really wishes he could have another band together like The Band, and I was saying, “There’s only one like that: the Heartbreakers,” but at the same time he was talking to Tom. And then Jeff Lynne would hang around with me in London, and then it just all seemed to come together in my back garden at my house because George was staying there, so they started recording, not only in the studio at the back of the garden, but in my house. So you’d have Jim Keltner [hitting] the refrigerator with brushes, guys banging on the table and strumming acoustic guitars and mic-ing it all up.
Basically, they were doing the thing I’m talking about, they were just having fun, and it became the Wilburys album. And yeah, that probably did give me the idea of having a SuperHeavy. I saw how much fun they were having.
Did you ever ask to become the sixth Wilbury?
Well, the thing was, I think it was right when Annie and I were doing the We Two Are One world tour. So I’d come in for like a day and out again and go, “Oh, God, that’s really good fun, but I have to go.”
How as it working with Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins and Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey on your Greetings from the Gutter album?
Well, yeah, that was interesting. I arrived in New York, booked into Electric Lady Studios, rang up Bootsy Collins, and got him and Bernie Worrell. I’d met Bernie Worrell while we were touring with Talking Heads, and he was playing with Talking Heads. And I always remembered his amazing style of playing. And they suggested, “Hey, we could bring Jerome ‘Bigfoot’ Brailey,” and I was like, wow, I’ve got the whole P-Funk kinda rhythm section going.
And then that record turned into this great sort of meeting place of artists. Across the road was Lady Miss Kier [from dee-lite], so she’d start singing backing vocals with other people, and then Lou Reed would come round and play a strange guitar solo. At that time he’d just met up with Laurie Anderson, and she started doing this track called “Kinky Sweetheart” with me where she speaks back and forwards these strange words I’d written. And then Mick Jagger comes in, and he’s singing backing vocals on “Jealousy,” which is a great sort of funky groove.
And it just started to become like the party house, you never knew who was gonna turn up. And I was just having more and more fun.
And then a track called “Heart of Stone,” put out first as a single. And then I wrote a song called “Damian Save Me” about Damien Hirst, cause we’d become friends, and then he did the album cover artwork, which turned into this huge installation, it’s the size of this room. And again, it just goes to show if you’re having fun… all those characters I mentioned were amazing characters in their own right. We were all just having fun.
Regarding your relationship with Mick Jagger; you’ve played together in SuperHeavy, you’ve produced his solo records. You seem to have a great rapport.
Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of the Stones, I thought Keith Richards was the most amazing guitar player: he’s a riff genius, a total character, he’s rock and roll embodied. I used to stare at them on the TV and watch Keith playing. And Mick, obviously. Being 16 in 1968 and seeing the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park when Brian Jones had just died kinda blew my mind.
So I met Mick in 1983, I think in Paris, and we became friends instantly. We just started talking, about blues music, and then we started playing guitars, messing around with each other, and it was like one of those easygoing relationships. Didn’t have to do anything, “Let’s just go out for a meal, let’s go to this place,” you know. I was single, not living with Annie anymore, living between Paris and London, and Mick and I would go on all sorts of adventures. And then we started writing a few songs, and it’s been the same from then til now, and I’m sure it’ll always be like that. There’s no pressure, basically.
Is there a lot of unreleased song that you guys have done together?
Yeah, there is, actually. I was playing a couple last night. Yeah, obviously, when we get together we jam or record something, anything, just for posterity; we never know when it might be pulled out. And there’s some great ones, actually. But the Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones, and you can’t mess with that. Who would want to? I have total respect for them.
I guess the Stones reactivating was what led to SuperHeavy not doing anything after the first album.
No, it wasn’t like that at all, really. SuperHeavy, we made a great album and we knew it, right? And we actually were talking about playing various [dates], not massive tours, but various small clubs and a big concert. But it was nothing to do with Mick why we didn’t play. It was actually another member and their management.
That’s a bummer.
Yeah, it was a bummer, yeah.
I’m guessing you were already thinking of set lists for concerts…
Oh, yeah. We had everything going on.
So the band will never work together again?
Is there unreleased material?
Well, we went in and literally recorded about twenty-nine pieces of music in ten days, which most of them were songs. But yeah, there’s loads of weird jam sessions and things.
Tell me about meeting, and working with, Bob Dylan.
Yeah, well, I was in the studio recording, and the phone rang, and I was working with a guy from Ireland called Feargal Sharkey. And the receptionist said, “Oh, I’ve got Bob Dylan on the phone for you,” and I was convinced it was Feargal, sort of larking around.
So I picked up the phone and then this voice came on, and it was like, okay, nobody can fake that voice. So I knew instantly it was Bob Dylan, and it was weird, because since I was a kid I was obsessed with learning his songs.
And then he asked if I wanted to meet up and chat, so we met up at this place called the Talesai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and we had a few drinks and ate some food, and he talked a lot about film and about his feelings about videos. He said he hated making videos. And I said, “I really like making videos. Annie and I see them as surreal vignettes.”
Anyway, he got in a car and said, “Follow me, we’ll go to this club,” and I thought, “Bob Dylan doesn’t really go to clubs. This sounds weird.” But it wasn’t a club that I would’ve recognized; it was more like just the middle of nowhere. And as the door opened there was this amazing sort of mariachi Mexican music playing and this lovely lady, really tiny, wearing like a wedding dress, and she was like “Bobby!”
And we went into this… kind of a party. Everybody seemed to know Bob, and we sat down, and we’re meeting people, and he said, “Let’s make a film tomorrow. This person will be in it, and this person.” And it was just like walking into one of his songs, really.
It’s interesting that he wanted to work with you on a visual project, instead of on a record.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and I think ever since when I’ve met him and talked, we talk about all sorts of things; it’s hard to explain. Bob Dylan’s, obviously, to a lot of people an enigma. They’re not quite sure [about him], but I’ve gotten to know him really well, and he’s obviously really incredibly smart, poignant, listens, takes in everything, and a really, really sweet person, that he’s trying to protect himself from the barrage of everything.
Most people are intimidated by him. You don’t seem intimidated by anyone.
I think a lot of the place where I’m coming from is the place of no fear, because I died a couple of times. Literally: flatlined. And I’ve been through a lot of things. And I think I enter into a situation with the idea that anything could happen, I’m not afraid of anything, and this, in some weird way, relaxes people like Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger. I don’t know why.
I guess you have to sort of restrain your fandom when you hang out with, or work with, a Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger.
Oh, yeah, if you act like a fan they would just freeze up. But I would never go in there acting like a fan, but I’ll always remember how much I was inspired as a kid trying to work out how to play “Sympathy for the Devil” or trying to play “Tangled Up in Blue.”
So it’s fascinating, yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. Part of you is going, “Oh, my God, ‘Shelter from the Storm,’ how would you write that?” In my book, actually, I write a funny moment where Mick comes on the boat in Paris on this little boat on the Seine, and I have all these younger sort of musicians with me, and we’re all quite sort of high on something.
And Mick, I’d arranged to meet Mick there, but I’d forgotten, and he came in, and it was sweet, because they had no inhibitions, so they were all, “Oh, my God, Mick!” So how did you do this?”
And he just sat and was almost like a schoolteacher; everybody was cross-legged, and he just told all the stories.
One of the most fascinating parts of your book was your relationship with Jagger. He always comes off as guarded, and super-unsentimental and a bit sarcastic. But the forward that he wrote for the book comes off as a loving tribute.
Yeah, it’s a funny thing, you see. I think there’s very few artists in the world that can hurdle to the kind of fame of a Paul McCartney or a Mick Jagger or a Bob Dylan, right? So people say, “Oh, they seem kind of guarded.” Well, yeah, cause they witnessed insanity when they were very young.
Beatlemania was crazy. When Dylan would do an interview there’d be 50 microphones and everybody was writing everything about what he was saying… it’s enough to make anybody paranoid, you know? So I think it stems from that.
One of your other collaborators I wanted to ask you about is Tom Petty, I loved the songs you produced on Southern Accents. I always thought you’d work with him after that.
Well, we were friends for years and years and years, and I built a house next to him, and then the Wilburys, again, recorded in my back garden. But that record, I arrived like an alien in Los Angeles like from Alice in Wonderland or something.
And I had no idea about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers apart from the song, “Refugee,” which was on the radio in England. And I had no idea there was this tension in the band at the time and they were going through all sorts of… you know, what bands go through.
And Tom suddenly arrives with me, “Hey, look at this guy!” And of course, the band members are like “What the f—?” Like “We’re the Heartbreakers.” And here’s me playing a song that I had made in the hotel room with a drum machine and a sitar, and I’d already written that and the whole chorus, “Don’t come around here no more” and everything.
And Tom started singing on the verse, and I think something in Tom’s mind was, “Hey, there’s something about this that allows me to climb out of a box.”
Cause in a way, that box that his world is in is amazing, and you can imagine why you don’t really want it touched. But it was a double-edged sword, because it made him come out of the box, and he had a lot more commercial success after that. But it wasn’t in the world of the swampy Florida, down-south, southern accent world. In retrospect, he could probably look back and go, “Now that was a weird thing in my legacy there.”
But there’s always a double-edged sword to everything. We made the video [for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”], with the Mad Hatter’s tea party and everything; I mean, that really was an amazing video, brilliantly directed. And at the time on MTV, it just blew up.
Then they did the tour, and all of a sudden they had some backing singers, and horn players. I think in the end they went, “Whoa, hang on, this is not Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” But they must admit they did have fun while that was going on, ’cause I was there, and I played onstage with them a couple of times, and they were loving it. I thought it was very wise of him, and them, to rein it back in after that tour.
Yeah, it was funny because everybody was asked to pick a song, and Annie picked that one. And I was like, that’s kind of interesting, because it’s probably one of the only Beatles songs without a guitar on it. And yet, we were gonna do it with just the two of us. And so I had to work out with her an arrangement, and I worked it out; I would play it on a 12-string acoustic with her on the piano and make people think that that was always there, and a string quartet.
And so we did it that way. And I think that was probably interesting rather than just making it exactly the same, it gave it sort of a breath of fresh air.
I think a lot of people thought that that might lead to more Eurythmics activity.
Well, I think Annie already had decided to make her blues-jazz covers album [2014’s Nostalgia]. I think the concert came out of the blue. After the show, she went straight into recording the other album.
And everybody always asks us are we gonna do something again, and will we ever play together? And we never say never. We never say we broke up. But there’s a time and a place for everything.
So what are your next production projects?
I just produced four or five new artists in the last 18 months. I just went in the studio, paid for it myself. So the Lake Poets, I just produced them, and that came out in September in England and is doing really well.
A girl called Hollie Stephenson who’s coming out later this year. She’s great, I heard her when she was 12, met her when she was 13. She was writing soul classics when she was 14, went in the studio with her when she was 15.
Stewart Lindsey, which is my own project with a boy from Louisiana called Thomas Lindsey, and it’s… I can’t explain it, it’s like amazing messed up blues. He’s one of the most incredible blues soul singers I’ve heard. And my own daughter, actually, Kaya Stewart, who’s signed to Warner Bros., is only 15.
So I listen to a lot of music by much younger artists, and then I still go back to all my classic albums, [Van Morrison’s] Astral Weeks or whatever, have a vodka martini, sit and play some [Bob Dylan’s] Blonde on Blonde.
When you know a lot about the history of music, it’s sometimes hard for new music to hold up to the older stuff; at the same time, there’s always great new bands.
Suddenly you hear a hip hop track with a blues thing on it and people rediscovering stuff and Frank Ocean with John Mayer playing on it, “Pyramids,” and like you go “Okay, that’s really interesting.”
It was easy to think that the blues had exhausted all of its possibilities, and then the White Stripes and the Black Keys came out and made it seem fresh again.
Right, that’s what my new album is like. It’s like I’m playing dobro guitars and stuff, and this kid’s singing from Louisiana, and it’s like the blues kinda reinvented. I made that film Deep Blues in about 1991. Jack White told me it was his favorite movie. It had R.L. Burnside, and Jessie Mae Hemphill and Booker T. Johnson and all these blues players that most of them passed away now.
Tell me about working with Stevie Nicks; you’ve made records and a documentary with her. I think her best records are where she has a strong collaborator, whether it’s you or Sheryl Crow or Lindsey Buckingham.
Stevie is interesting, cause she will craft things herself, and she’s really articulate about what she wants, and she actually will understand the high hat pattern and every note on the guitar and say, “No, that should be this note” and everything.
But when I collaborated with her, after about the third song we’d written, she said, “You know, I’ve never written a song with anybody that sat in the room before,” and I was like “What?” Anyway, we have such great fun and we have such great laughs, and we’re always talking on the phone, and we’ll probably do lots of other stuff.
So you guys are going to do another record together?
Well, the thing is see, artists don’t really just make records, they do all this other stuff in between, and they might turn into a record and they might not. So popular culture seems to have been given the impression that people just come together and do a tour, and then they make a record. But no, they’re just doing it all the time.
The thing is you can’t really sit in a studio, just sit in your house. And the same nowadays, lots of kids can be in the garage still with a garage band or whatever and make a great recording, and if you’re a hip hop artist, same thing.
I kind of sort of half invented that back with “Sweet Dreams” and working on tiny tape recorders and little drum machines and making something that sounded huge. And you can do that, in this room right here: this is about the same size as Annie and I made the album, Be Yourself Tonight, in a French suburb in a kids’ sort of a youth center.
Is there anyone you haven’t collaborated with, that you still want to?
I’d like to do more things with Stevie Wonder. I’d love to just have him in the studio and get him to play everything, the drums, the bass, the keys, you know, like he does, and then not allow him to play anything else on it.