Ray Davies — Kinks frontman and founder, along with brother Dave — debuts his latest crew, The 88, at this year's Voodoo Experience. They'll pull songs from Davies' more than 40 years of songwriting, from early Kinks hits to late-'60s pop masterpieces to offbeat jazz (with likely some help from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band). (Read more on Davies and his latest musical ventures in this week's Gambit.)
Ray Davies and The 88 perform 4:15 p.m. Saturday on the Le Flambeau/Preservation Hall stage.
Below is the Gambit interview with Davies — he talks about working with Alex Chilton and Bruce Springsteen, getting shot in New Orleans, and growing up with jazz.
GAMBIT: How’d you bring the group together?
RD: They played a couple of old Kinks songs. They sent in an audition tape, there were about 5 or 6 bands, ... and I played it and said without a doubt they were the best of the bands. And it evolved from there, really, and I did this album See My Friends, with other people, and I did Lucinda Williams and Alex Chilton, and we did those acoustically before the band went on, and The 88 came in later that year, on Alex’s track and Lucinda’s track. Sadly I think that’s one of the last tracks Alex did, before he past away.
Were you close?
I first met him when I used to go down there. Musicians never get close. We were polite friends. He was very helpful to me when I was down there, and a very knowledgeable guy, a very quiet sort of guy. Probably had his demons like everyone else, but we got along very well. We tried another track called “Set Me Free” on the same sessions. When I was in New Orleans, Alex wanted me to write some songs. He was doing another album. He asked me to write some originals. I said I’d think about it. One of the last things I did with him we did toward the end of the day, I said, "You know, I’ll get some songs together and I’ll play them to you next time I see you." And of course I never saw him again. That was that. ... It’s a sad loss, but I’m glad he got to sing that one song ("Till the End of the Day").
On the rest of the album, you have a lot of friends on there, I’d guess.
Never really had too many friends (laughs). I’m not known for being a collaborative person, in that respect.
Did you have any difficulty having your pick of artists on the album? Did you have songs in mind?
No, everybody involved was really gracious. They said they’d love to be involved. For the most part they all picked their own songs they wanted to do. Mumford & Sons wanted to do two tracks. I said, "There’s only one song per artist." We combined two tracks in one ("Days," and "This Time Tomorrow" from Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One). Picked a song that not really many Kinks fans may know. That’s what’s good about these records, the obscure choices that come up.
I was trying not to impose myself on the sessions. One thing we agreed we didn’t want it to be a cover, it had to be a collaboration. With Bruce Springsteen for example, we talked a lot about the track ("Better Things"), we sent texts and everything, and I said I want to put an extra eight bars on the end … and I’ll sing a call and you’ll do a response. And the call and response thing is one of my most pleasurable memories of making the record. Bruce giving it all, it’s great. But also I wanted to be in same room doing the recording, not phone in the things, send files.
Not like a collage thing.
Did you get to do that with all the artists?
Yeah. I think it’s important on these kinds of records to do that.
There are a few younger artists on the album. Mumford & Sons, Spoon —
I’d spoken to (Spoon's) Britt (Daniel) on the phone. We did a lovely interview together about six months prior to it, and they came to the studio and no real arrangement in their head, and I just threw some ideas out there (for "See My Friends"). It’s the way these things work. And they responded. They’d just had a 15-hour flight from the Far East that morning, so they were very receptive (laughs). Every song has a slightly different take of it. With (Gary Lightbody) from Snow Patrol, I changed the chords and did some more transitions to it ("Tired of Waiting for You"), it suited his voice. Everybody had their own imprint on it.
Of course Jackson Browne, I didn’t choose Jackson for this album. His agent phoned me and told me Jackson really wanted to be on it. I hadn’t envisioned he’d be on it, particularly singing one of our English songs, but he came in the studio and said, "Let me convince you, it’ll be fine, don’t worry." So he played "Waterloo Sunset" and really stood out. I stood back, and I slotted him around — didn’t really take the lead — and slotted his vocal part. So it’s a collaboration in that sense, it’s not a cover record.
With the collaborations, working with some of these younger musicians and The 88 — how was it having your work played back to you by people inspired by you, inspired by the Kinks?
It’s quite an honor to do that, kind of humbling in many respects. "Wow, Mumford & Songs really love these two songs." They performed it with a passion that reminded me when I recorded it with the Kinks. They performed it with a passion in the studio, made me realize how important it is to have a band. Seeing their passion for it makes me feel, "Well, it wasn’t so bad to write that song after all." Sometimes you get detached from the music you write, the songs, it takes someone new like that to give it energy and say, "Well, yeah, as an artist I wanted to be part of that."
If there were those years of detachment, do you feel now closer to the things you’ve written then? With artists opening it back up again?
Yeah. The track Bruce did — it’s almost a no brainer, he said, "We’ve got to do it, it’s a track I’d record anyway." It’s picking the right casting. Casting is really important as well. When we took lines from each other, I made sure I’d get a line from Bruce and do it like a call and response from him, and like I said it’s one of the most pleasing aspects of the record.
Yeah, in the end it sounds like a Springsteen song.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s great. Interestingly enough, during the session — I did it down in New Jersey with him in the studio — while we were having a break I started playing a new song I’d written, he said, "What’s that? I want to be part of this." He came out and started playing guitar with me, so I’m going to finish that song and send it to Bruce. It’s the beginning of a meaningful relationship. Or not (laughs). It’s on my list of songs. I’ve just done acoustic demos. I never take songs too far. I’m not one of these people who does extensive demo sessions. I wait till I get a band in. I still like to think I’m playing in a band rather than using studio guys. It’s why I like working with The 88, like working with a band. As we speak they’re learning a whole bunch of song I’m sending them to learn so we can play them when we come down. Difficult to know what to play down there.
Really, you think so?
I was curator of a thing called the Meltdown Festival, this thing in London this summer, and I booked the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I grew up listening to trad music like that, in London. There are numerous trad songs I could do, but I don’t think I will. Depends how rehearsals go, you know? I just do songs.
What’s your relationship like to New Orleans? Are you still close, despite what happened?
It’s still got a place in my heart. My dad loved trad jazz, you see, a lot of the old guys down there remind me of my dad. The buskers. My dad played banjo, and he played harmonica. He even played washboard. He’d fit in really well down there. He never went to America. He was a very pivotal, major influence on me when I was a kid. He played "Darktown Strutters’ Ball," a famous trad song. He loved Cab Calloway, and Hoagy Carmichael. His influence is prevalent; it’s why I have a fondness for the place.
What impression did the shooting leave you with here?
What amazed me was how kind the locals were. People were generally — not ashamed — but, "Listen, New Orleans has a history of violence, and it’s one of those towns, but I’m deeply hurt by it." The locals, I mean, were deeply hurt by it. People are very supportive. It sticks together. It needs to.
Have you been down to visit since?
No. I mixed a couple tracks there. Trent Reznor had a studio there called Nothing Studios. I mixed there a few times. I haven’t been back recently. I’m looking forward to it.
It's the first tour date for you?
First real one, yeah. I’m a bit nervous, I got to tell you. A bit nervous, yeah. The 88 and I have played songs together but we’ve never played a full set together, so it’ll be a real try for them. So it’s a world premiere.
Where did that 88 name come from?
I don’t know. Maybe they were all born in 1988. I don’t know. Is it a gun? .38 special. I don’t know. You better ask them that (laughs).
I’m also an honored recipient of the Slim Harpo Award, for blues ambassador. I was presented the award — someone went to get it on my behalf earlier this May in Baton Rouge. I’ll have my Slim Harpo Award with me.
Now you’re bonafide.
(Laughs) OK, bonafide. I love it.
What songs are you performing on the tour?
I don’t know. You know, I’m not going to try and — one thing in New Orleans, you can’t con a New Orleans audience. I’d love to do some of the old things, "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoid Blues," Preservation Hall will do "Complicated Life" — Kinks sort of album tracks. I’m just going to do songs. That’s what I’m going to do. (pause) That’s what I do.
What’s interesting you now, in pop music?
I’ll tell you, the interesting thing now is music is so good to put together on computers and things. I do a songwriting course — I do like one or two a year. I did one last week, and there were two 17-year-old guys on that just writing the most amazing songs, and there is so much good talent out there, it’s more and more difficult to break through, with the urban music dominance. It’s why I like Mumford & Sons. They brought something folk-blues, or folk-pop anyway. I think new music will be, obviously, the providence of the young. And it’d be great to inspire more people to do it. The smart kids, those kids from last week, knew all my stuff, that was written before they were born. … Easy to play, they’re simple.
I’ll just do songs in New Orleans, and if they like it, they like it. I hope they do. What feels good in the day.