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Conjuring ‘Evil Spirits’ With The Damned’s Dave Vanian

Friday, April 13, 2018 | Interviews

When it was announced in late 2017 that legendary band The Damned were going to be recording their first new studio album in a decade, fans were thrilled. Also thrilling was the news that bassist Paul Gray, who’d been a major part of both The Black Album and Strawberries, was rejoining the band. Expectations were understandably high, especially after the excellent single, “Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow,” was released in February of this year.

Evil Spirits is out on Friday the 13th, an appropriate date for a band like The Damned. It was produced by Tony Visconti and, according to Vanian, with whom I chatted via phone last week, the band was “really stunned” when he agreed to produce the album. “When the first track on David Bowie’s Blackstar album came out, I listened to it and loved the sound of it,” says Vanian. “It reminded me in some ways of the things The Damned does.”

Working with the esteemed producer was a great experience, in part because Evil Spirits was recorded at Brooklyn’s Atomic Studios, which includes a big live room where the band could all play together. “Visconti’s style of production is exactly what we needed,” says Vanian, “a marriage of the old and the new in terms of technology.” The only downside to the whole process was the fact that they were pressed for time. “I would have liked our album to be released on New Year’s Eve so we could have a massive party,” says Vanian. “We’ve done lots of those Halloween shows and Christmas shows in England, but we’ve never done one on New Year’s Eve.” Laughing, he admits that he’s always wanted to do that countdown. “It’s terrible, but I love it.”

 “We’ve always been very lucky. We’ve always had this amazing bunch of people through the years who’ve kept us alive, basically.”

Working with Paul Gray again has been “brilliant,” according to Vanian. “Stu West, who’d been playing bass for us since 2004, decided he wanted to leave the band to do other things. And he picked a really good time because the band had just come off a major tour for a year.” Continues Vanian, “Paul is a strong individual himself and he’s very much a front man, like a lead guitarist on bass, really.” Laughing, Vanian reveals that Paul said “he’ll play as many notes as you pay him to play.” On a more serious note, he adds that “Paul worked really hard on his bass parts and I think he’s done some of his best work, recording-wise. And it’s just lovely to work with him again.”

The Damned raised 429 per cent of their original ask on a PledgeMusic campaign to record the album, which was a “total shock” according to Vanian. “It was amazing because it was so much more than what we needed, but exactly what we needed, because we wouldn’t have been able to get Tony Visconti otherwise.” Chuckling, he adds, “He did give us a little discount but not much.”

As for whether or not the band would consider crowdfunding any future endeavors, Vanian thinks that it’s a great way of doing anything. “You know, ultimately it’s almost like the punk rock thing of ‘do it yourself.’ What’s more do it yourself than having the very people who are going to buy what you do funding your records? It’s the perfect marriage.”

It’s obvious that the band is truly grateful for their fan base. “We’ve always been very lucky,” Vanian says. “I think The Damned has always been very much a band that are ‘of the people,’ in a way. We’ve had this amazing bunch of people through the years who’ve kept us alive, basically. When record companies, or managers, or whatever aren’t interested, there has always been interest in our live shows.”

“I’m hoping that it was all worth waiting for,” continues Vanian. “I was very conscious of the fact that from the moment the campaign was funded, people were anxious for something to happen, and it was taking a long time. And that was one of our reasons for picking someone like Tony, as he’s well-respected and a very good producer. We were very careful to make sure the songs were great before we went in there. I didn’t want to go in with anything half-cocked.”

There is certainly nothing half-cocked about Evil Spirits, which not only meets expectations, but far exceeds them, with all four members of the band in top form and songs that will haunt listeners’ eardrums in the best possible way. So how does Dave Vanian get inspired to keep pushing the band into new and different directions?

“I think basically that the direction of the music changes because the band is so eclectic in our musical tastes separately,” says Vanian. “We don’t listen to the same music and then when we come together each of us is bringing in our own influences. Then we put them in the Melting Pot and it becomes something else.”

“We do like some of the same things, obviously like the 1960s stuff and garage bands. But there are a lot of my musical tastes the Captain absolutely hates and vice versa. He would never go anywhere near country and western, for instance. Like if I played Patsy Cline he’d be screaming, ‘What is that awful noise.’ He’s quite blinkered with what he listens to.” However, Vanian admits, laughing, that “sometimes I slip a little bit in and he doesn’t notice.”

“We’re always trying to stretch ourselves musically as artists,” Vanian continues. “You could go the easy route and say, ‘OK, we’ll just write E A & G. That’ll be a good song, three chords blah blah blah.’ But I’m always trying to reach a little further beyond what you really think you can get to. And surprisingly, we all manage collectively to get somewhere with it. The Captain is the same; we both would never write a song separately like one that we would write together. But I like what he does and he likes what I do. It’s that little bit of magic that you can’t really quantify.”

At this point I ask if The Damned will ever play Toronto again. Captain Sensible (in)famously fell off the stage at the band’s 2017 show at The Phoenix, breaking a few bones and suffering a concussion in the process. Vanian gives a little roar of laughter at this question. “Of all the stages he picked to go off of he picked the tallest one. I hope that’s not gonna happen again!”

“Although I think he did milk it for everything he could,” he adds, still laughing. “I think he was just trying to outdo me because prior to that on the tour I dislocated my shoulder on stage and I think he was just trying to outdo me and trying to get more sympathy.” My suggestion is to put the Captain on a leash to which Vanian responds with a chuckle and a suggestion that “he might like that actually.”

Despite the seriousness of the injury, I offer that the graffiti-encrusted toilet the Captain used as a chair for the band’s subsequent shows was a nice touch. Vanian laughs again. “The irony of that toilet was that he spent a hundred bucks on it and it was falling apart. And someone bought it at the end of the tour when it was auctioned off. The winner was really excited about getting this thing, and I just thought ‘I wonder what his wife is going to say when he gets that home’.”

After we discussed Dave Vanian’s appreciation for Rue Morgue Magazine, what new horror films are on the horizon, our mutual love for the TV show Penny Dreadful, and his wish that the cinematic reboot of the Universal horror “dark universe” had been more like 2010’s The Wolfman and less like 2017’s The Mummy, it was time to sign off.

Thanks again, Dave Vanian, for taking the time to talk, and I’ll see you next time The Damned plays Toronto.

All images by Steve Gullick.

“I’m always trying to reach a little further beyond what you really think you can get to. It’s that little bit of magic that you can’t really quantify.”

Leslie Hatton
In addition to being a Rue Morgue contributor, Leslie writes movie, music, and TV reviews for several other online publications. She considers "À l'intérieur" a perfect film.