Dexys' Big Jim Paterson interviewed

If you’re gonna do it, do it right. Indeed. 27 years. Twenty. Seven. Years. Doing it right never felt so good. Back from the grave, the re-monickered Dexys dropped the Midnight Runners and earlier this year raised a middle finger to the doubters with the epic One Day I’m Going To Soar. A 60 minute dramarama that fused Kevin Rowland’s passion and candour with a new and hefty soul, it gave the band some of the best reviews of its on-off career. It was jaw-droppingly good. Dexys were back and Rowland, the renaissance man with a predeliction for self-destruction, had finally delivered album number four. Older, yes, but finally wiser, here was his latter day masterpiece. You almost couldn’t believe it.

And now, in the best Dexys tradition, they’re taking it out on tour. Rowland, a difficult bastard of some repute, sure knew how to put a band together. Whatever particular incarnation of Dexys was fuelling his muse at any time, there was always a group of battle-hardened pros stood behind him. See that big guy? Tall? Kind of inscrutable? Trombone in hand? That’s 'Big' Jim Paterson. The guy who answered a newspaper ad for a horn player. The guy who co-wrote a host of Dexys classics including ‘Come On Eileen’. And the guy whose presence not only part-validates Rowland’s return under the Dexys banner, but also adds inarguably and substantially to this new formation’s live punch.

We’re sat in the bar of the Bridgewater Hall, its rain-soaked windows the most telling reminder of just where we are. In a few hours, the reformed and sharply remodelled Dexys will play their first Manchester show since 2003’s To Stop The Burning tour. Unlike those shows, which were well received but built around a Greatest Hits set, the current tour is large on scale and scope but, crucially, fired by new music. The first hour is a complete performance of ODIGTS, the second a blissful sifting of the back catalogue.

When were you last in Manchester? “Quite a while ago, I think. Must have been the 80s. Possibly. I’m really not sure.” Last time you were here with Dexy’s, this place wasn’t built. “It wouldnae been, no. But then it was 1981, 1982 when I left Dexys…well, not really left. Sort of parted company for a while.” You didn’t do the 2003 tour. “No. I didn’t do that one, no. I was asked to do it. But I just wasn’t prepared mentally, myself. I wasn’t sure if I could get onstage again, to be honest.”

Does it require that much of a stretch? To step back into the collective, commit to not just the work, but the ethos, and the hotels and buses. “Yeah…well I hadn’t played for a long time. I stopped playing in 1995. For whatever reason, I don’t know. Maybe my head wasn’t in the right place. I just stopped playing. I was still writing songs but it was more of a hobby, that, really. But, yeah, in 2003 Kevin asked me to do it and I was really tempted but I backed out at the last minute really. I didn’t even go and see it. I was supposed to go and see it in London but I didn’t go…which I regret now.” That’s hard. “Oh yeah.”

But this time around it’s different, yes? Life’s too short for regrets. “Well I’m older and wiser, I think. I’ve got over my personal stuff, I’m mentally stronger. Believe it or not, I think the stars were aligned. It’s like Kevin’s been saying – everything just happened at the right time and I think him asking me to come and do this one just happened at the right time. It just seems to have been that getting the right musicians, that worked out. Plus, I co-wrote four of the songs, so I wanted to get involved for that reason, really. Believe it or not, I only play eleven notes on the actual album.”

Paterson does humility like it’s going out of style. Which, of course, it is. But his is a wry, self-assured outlook. On a couple of occasions later that evening he’ll receive roaring ovations. The first comes during part one when he takes a staggering solo on ‘Thinking Of You’, the second after a roof-raising blast through ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’. You’re onstage throughout the entire second half but there’s not a huge amount of brass on the new album, is there? “There’s sax and trumpet but there’s no trombone on there. It’s different. I think what is there still complements the song.”

On this tour you’re playing so many of those older songs where it has that classic Dexys horn, driving the melody rather than just filling out the arrangement. “Oh it’s incredible. Just the audience reaction, especially the last two nights in Edinburgh and Brighton.” Do audiences still differ? I was never sure if there could really be that much in it. “Yeah, they do a little bit. Not much. I’ve noticed, it depends on how full the auditorium is. If the hall’s packed, people feed off each other. If someone stands up, then the next person stands up. But if there’s a gap, if there’s a few seats unsold, it’s like a Mexican wave that kind of falters.” Have they been largely full? “Oh yeah.” He takes a moment to ponder. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d be doing this at my age and enjoying it so much. Honestly, I’m having a ball, I really am.”

Do you know where it might go from here? “Well, I’m not sure. We’re hoping to do some more shows next year. The same thing, by and large, but…” He stops and considers. “I’m not sure, really, whether I can tell you.” Oh go on! He tells me. Which is so generous, I’ll repay him in kind and keep his confidence. “But, for that whole broader plan, Kevin’s the man to ask about that, really. He’s the man with the vision.”

How did you decide on that second half? A Dexys audience doesn’t come out casually, does it? “No, no.” But I’m guessing you chose the songs you all enjoy playing. “Yeah. Based on the reaction, we’ve chosen well. We’re getting a standing ovation at the end of the LP and then a standing ovation at the end of the show. In the encores we’re doing ‘I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried’ and ‘Liars A to E’. Then we’re ending with ‘This is What She’s Like’, which is twenty minutes long now.” (The epic call-and response high spot of 1985’s once mocked, now revered, Don’t Stand Me Down, it’s quietly become the band’s signature tune.) That’s the song everybody wants to hear. “It is, no doubt. It’s an incredible finish and you’re right, it’s probably most people’s favourite. It’s such a rabble rousing song. It’s three songs in one, really. The audiences, as you say, are very particular. Dexys fans are…I don’t want to use the word ‘fanatics’…” I think you have to. “Yeah…” I think it’s the wait. We thought maybe it would never happen. “Yeah, well, you can see it these days with the fans on Facebook and Twitter, it’s like a genuine community.”

As we talk further, Paterson’s place in the history of one of Britain’s most eclectic bands gains resonance. That it’s Rowland’s baby has never been in any doubt. It’s been that way from day one. But despite the acrimony surrounding certain elements of their history (documented in detail and depth elsewhere, so I’ll spare you), his loyalty to key band mates is telling. For this tour, note the inclusion of (sensational) fiddle player Lucy Morgan (who, oddly, first played with the band on the 2003 dates) and, most importantly for devotees, the return of bassist and foil Pete Williams alongside Paterson. I avoid asking about Rowland out of respect. (Kev’s “not talking on tour” is the official line.) Similarly, I avoid asking for Paterson’s opinion of his mercurial leader because, well, the answer's obvious.

With every man and his dog from a certain era reforming, the return of Dexys, with their new-found creativity, is almost beyond justification. When I tell friends I’m going to see you, there’s maybe surprise but there’s certainly no distaste. “And I think that’s down to two things. We’re not a revival tour. And we’re still creative. On one level, even more than ever. We’re striving to improve the show every night. We don’t rest on our laurels – we’re never satisfied. We just want to give people the best show possible. The songs we’ve chosen are the ones we think they’re gonna enjoy. We don’t play ‘Geno’. We play ‘Come On Eileen’…” Because you have to! “Yeah. You have to. But we do a different version.” It’s come full circle now, though, like we don’t have to appreciate it on an ironic level. “Yeah, I think it has.”

This new Dexys, let alone the old, still doesn’t fit – beautifully so. We talk about the current scene and how these outsiders, still rebels but no longer young, keep a tight hold of their soul. I wonder how you’d do if you emerged now? “I think we’d do really well.” Really? “Yeah, because music’s lost something. I don’t know what it is but it’s the computer age, it’s the age of samples. It’s not rap because rap’s intelligent and I love rap. No, it’s the record companies, the demise of the actual business. Music’s so bland and mass produced now. Blandness. And I think we’d stand out. I really think we would. We’d stand out a mile.”

Perhaps, with the political landscape as parched and barren as it is, some well-aimed, smartly politicised rabble rousing is what we need. The charts are full of over-earnest self-examination. “Mmm. Well, lyrically, Kevin’s got – well this LP’s very personal. The lyrics are about his childhood and his upbringing and the Irish thing, finding love and losing love. It’s very personal. There’s a couple of songs that are extremely deeply felt and quite…well, the first time I heard, read the lyrics, it made me cry. That’s what Kevin’s all about. It’s not easy.”

For me there’s still a great contradiction, though. The lyrics on ODIGTS are very single-minded but also they seem to be the words of someone who doesn’t fully know who he is, what he wants, what he believes. Still. “Yeah, I know what you mean…” What’s biography, what’s fiction, is never clear. “Well, yeah, that’s the mystery of it. Maybe this is just a precursor to something else. It might be resolved later…”

Ah. Um. Okay. It’s probably unrealistic at this stage to talk about the future, though. It’s taken long enough to get here. “Well, yeah, I think so. It’s enough right now to be living with playing this unique, fresh music night after night and seeing that people get it. It’s so humbling. It’s really something. That’s why I’m enjoying it so much. I’m not partying. I don’t party at all. I stopped drinking. I just head for my bed at midnight. I know I’m going to get up in the morning and get to do it all again and that’s why I look forward to the next day. It’s incredible.”

Dexy's will release 'Incapable Of Love' as a single through BMG Rights Management on Monday 29th October 2012.

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