Q Magazine

Dave McCabe on the New Zutons Album, Working With Nile Rodgers, and the Epic Saga of 'Valerie' & How Amy Winehouse Came to Cover It

'You never think you're gonna write one of them songs that aunties and uncles are gonna f---ing sing on a karaoke machine. But that's how it's turned out. And I'm very grateful for it.'

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Source: Jonathan Turton

The Zutons: back on the dancefloor after way too many years.

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In the mid-2000s, the Zutons were one of the biggest bands in the UK, and all three of their first three albums -- 2004's Who Killed...... The Zutons?, 2006's Tired of Hanging Around, and 2008's You Can Do Anything -- were top-10 smashes, hitting No. 6, No. 2, and No. 6, respectively. Of course, there's one big reason why that second album proved to be such a smash, and it can be summed up in a single word: "Valerie." Between the Zutons' own version and the now-iconic cover version by the late Amy Winehouse, the song was -- and remains -- in perpetual airplay. Despite their success, however, the group disbanded, and they stayed that way until 2016, when the band regrouped for a one-off performance...or at least it seemed as though it would be a one-off.

And, in fact, it was...technically. But in 2018, four out of five members of the group -- the holdout: bassist Russell Pritchard -- set off on a 15th-anniversary tour for their debut album, and from there the band stayed together. The lineup did shift a bit, with guitarist Boyan Chowdhury stepping away in 2022, but now the band is back with their fourth studio album, The Big Decider, scheduled for release on April 26. In advance of the LP's release, frontman Dave McCabe hopped on a Zoom call with Q, during which time he discussed the process of getting the band back together, finding his way back to sobriety, and the sheer bliss of working with Nile Rodgers. He also offered up the full fascinating story of "Valerie," including the song's origins, his close encounter with Amy Winehouse before she covered it, and what it's meant to him and the Zutons as a whole.

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Source: MEGA

The Zutons' Dave McCabe worked with Nile Rodgers for the band's new album.

I've been a fan since the first album, so I'm thrilled that you're back with a new record. Was it the pandemic that led you back into the studio, or was that incidental?

Well, we'd done a gig for our friend Kristian Ealey, who'd died. In Liverpool, we'd done a fundraising gig for him back in 2016. And up to that point from the last album... I was battling drug addiction, and that was kind of getting in the way. I tried a solo career. I tried, but...it wasn't really a solo career. It was just an album. The album's good, but it didn't really work out with the band, because it was electronic music, and I didn't like playing it live. So we'd done this gig for our friend Kristian, and we realized that there was something special to the band. We always knew it, but we'd kind of be looking at each other and...it wasn't enough. So then three years later, which sounds like a long time, we'd done a tour of the first record with most of the original members, bar one. And that was kind of like a key moment where it was, like, "Okay, all the gigs are selling well, and we're not just throwing in the dark." And after that I went to rehab, and then when I came out we started writing the record. But then lockdown happened.

So there were basically three members of the band, really, at this point. There was still another member, but because it was lockdown, we didn't really see him. But we three, we basically moved in together in my house here. We built a little studio, we started writing songs, and we were feeling really good. So the lockdown worked for us. The first half of the lockdown was really good. But then obviously I started drinking and that again, so the old problem came back. Because you sat in here, nothing else to do... An alcoholic, what's he gonna do? He's gonna help himself, isn't he? [Laughs.] So that kind of ran its course, that bit. But in the midst of all that... It wasn't too bad, I suppose. It wasn't that bad. Because I met a girl, and I got her pregnant, and then I decided when I had the baby... I decided I was gonna stop before that, because I needed to be a good dad. I had this model thing hanging over me. So that's why I stopped. But by the time that was happening, we'd demoed a lot of the record, so... [Hesitates.] Am I jumping the gun here?

No, no, you're great. You're just telling what I would've been asking, so have at it.

Okay, so our manager at this point had a connection with Nile Rodgers, he got on him, and we sent him demos of five songs. And within 48 hours, he was on a Zoom like this, talking to us.

That's awesome.

I know. [Laughs.] It was awesome! And it was, like, "Wow, okay, we're doing something right." And he was singing "Creeping on the Dancefloor" to us. So it was, like, "Okay, we're onto something. This is good." But we had to wait quite awhile to get in the studio with him, because lockdown was still in progress.

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So how was the experience of working with him? Because he's obviously a legend, but did he make you feel at ease pretty quickly?

Yeah! He was kind of the most easy-going fella I've ever met in me life, to be honest. I mean, you know, you're intimidated, but I think part of him is probably intimidated as well, in a small sense, because you're a new person. So for the first few days, we just kind of spoke about everything, and I pretty much told him my life story up to that point within five minutes of meeting him. And he was just really nice, really cool. He was really open. The most open producer I think we've worked with. Didn't really come back with "I don't think you should do that." So that was a funny thing. I mean, maybe he just didn't say it. [ Laughs.] Maybe he just went and done it and made you feel like it was you that was calling the shots. But even if that's the case, I think that's a really good skill to have.

He'd come in and talk about Madonna and Miles Davis and Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck... He just talked about everyone, all these legends. I was just, like, "Oh, f---ing hell, he has worked with everyone!" And then you'd think. "Well, he's working us now. He's standing next to me." But it wasn't intimidating. It was just, like, "Okay, this is gonna be good...and it better be good, because if it isn't, it's gonna make us look a bit f---ing silly, innit?" [Laughs.]

What's funny is that I just talked to someone else who worked with Nile Rodgers: Tom Bailey of Thompson Twins. It's just a reminder of how far back his work goes.

Yeah, he told me he hung out with Jimi Hendrix one night in the '60s, and he had acid. And that's when I realized, "F---ing hell, he's been around." He said he was only a kid back then on that particular one night he'd done it, but I was, like, "Okay, that makes sense now. This is the timeline." He was 68 when he told me that, so he might be 71. He's packed a lot in, definitely. But he's still got his s--t together, and he's still like a kid. He's still got all the energy. He's not, like, a grumpy old man. There's none of that. You don't get any of that from him, really. He leaves all that at the door. Which is cool.

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And you guys also worked with Ian Broudie again on this album, right?

Yeah, but he's more like our uncle, really. [Laughs.] But not all the recordings worked out with Nile. The "Creeping on the Dancefloor" one did, and about three or four others on the record did. But some of them just weren't right. And that wasn't 'cause of Nile. That was probably more on our behalf. Some of the grooves or rhythm tracks weren't right, so we had to go and redo them. So Ian just came in. We went to Rockfield in Wales, which is another legendary studio, and we got it done in about a week. Like I say, he's like our uncle. He's like an old mate. There's a song called "The Big Decider," it's the title track of the record. He heard the demo of that from, like, 2016. That's the oldest song on the thing. That was wrote between me and the keyboard player, and the band came in later on, a few years later, and played on it. But I think Ian told me that he heard it and he said it brought a tear to his eye, and he said, "I've got to do this now. I've got to record this song, and whatever else songs they want to do." So it brought him out of production retirement. He's actually working. He's producing people again now. So I'm quite proud of that.

I'm also quite proud to have made him cry, because he can be a tough cookie sometimes. [Laughs] He's not the type of fella to cry in front of you. But, yeah, he's another guy who just sits there and he'll agree with you, and you'll do that, and then he'll suggest something, and he'll suggest it in a way where you can't say no. Whereas if it was me suggesting it, or Sean in the band, we'd probably look at each other and go, "Eh, no, we shouldn't do that." Because we're like brothers. So it's good to get these older guys in who are like your uncles. Man-management, I think, is the key to production within bands. It's about making everybody feel like they're important, and their side counts, that kind of thing. As pompous as that is, I think that's the f---ing truth of the matter. 'Cause everybody's ego is through the f---ing roof. And if it isn't through the roof, it should be through the roof. But you need an older guy to come in and go, "Okay, children, this is what's gonna happen..."

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When you look back at those earlier albums, do you personally think that they hold up? Or are there things that you'd go back and change, given your druthers?

I think the first two records do. I think the third album by the Zutons doesn't. I would go and delete that from history, personally. I would've split the band up after the second one. I mean, obviously, there's a couple of good songs on it. Maybe three good moments. But I just don't have any fond memories of it. I mean, it's funny to talk about, because it's so positive at the moment, and that's why we're doing it, but I suppose sometimes you have to go to a sh-tty place, don't you? You have to have the dark to have the light. But that was definitely the dark for me, 'cause... [Hesitates.] As a band, I didn't really want to be around them, and I'm sure they really didn't want to be around me.

I wasn't really writing any songs. I was kind of getting half a song and taking it into the room. We weren't really thinking about it too much. And my brain wasn't really... I think that's kind of where the drinking and the drug-taking probably started overshadowing what I was doing with the band. And that's a shame and all that, but that's just what happened. I mean, no point in crying over it. But for me, yeah, that's the one album that I'd cut. We don't play any songs off it live. And it's not on purpose. It's just that when you look at the new record, the first album, and the second album, and you're, like, "Well, what songs are gonna go into the set list over what else?" And that record, it's just not cutting it.

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I'm sure you've been asked about the whole Amy Winehouse thing a billion times, but I am curious: I don't actually know the story of how the song made its way to her in the first place. Did she just hear it, or did Mark Ronson introduce her to it?

I couldn't tell ya. I just got sent... [Hesitates.] Ah, no, okay, there is a story here. I'm telling a lie. [Laughs.] So we had a hit with the song already, y'know? It was all over the radio, and... [Hesitates again.] Okay, I'll start it differently, this answer. I'll give you the background on it as well. Is that okay, yeah?

Of course.

So the song started with a riff in the rehearsal room. And then from the riff, I got in a taxi, and I kind of started singing the song in me head and writing in me brain. It's about a 15-minute drive from town center Liverpool to where me mum lived. 'Cause I was living in my mum's at the time. So I got most of the song - the words and the melody and the change, the chorus and everything - so as soon as I got to me mum's, I stopped and paid the cab, I ran in, ran upstairs, grabbed the guitar, wrote it all down. I didn't record it 'cause, y'know, in those days, phones didn't really record that well, so it wasn't a tool. But then I took it in to the band the next day. I said, "Y'know that thing we were messin' with? I've got something." And everyone was, like, "Oh, that's good, isn't it?" [Laughs.] I was, like, "Yeah, it f---kin' is, isn't it?"

So then that album came out, and it was all over the radio, and people when they first heard it were, like, "F---in' hell..." You know, you'd texts off your mates saying, "This song's great!" And then three weeks later it's, like, "I'm f---ing sick of hearing your song!" Which is always a good sign, because it means that the radio is still playing it every two seconds. So we'd already had a big hit with it.

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And then I met Amy Winehouse one night in London. I went to a party, and I was with this lad called Boo, who's a bit of a divvy, and when he was drunk, he was saying things to me like, "If you're a 1, Amy's a 10," and all stuff like this. And I'm, like, "Okay, whatever." And...I don't think she'd had Back to Black out yet. I think it was about to come out. So we're at this house, and all night he's doing this thing, so I ended up turning on him. I said, "F--- off, Boo. You're doin' my head in. You're pissing me off now. Do you wanna fight? Because you're just going on about negative s--t." So then she joined in with him. She stuck up for him, 'cause he was her mate. And she was, like, "No, you f--- off!" And I said to Amy, "No, you f--- off, love, all right?" [Laughs.] That kind of thing. So then I said, "Okay, I'll leave!"

So I f---ed off outside the house. And she came down the road, and she went, "Oh, come back! I love your song!" I went, "Oh, really?" She went, "I love your song! Come on, come back in. Let's just forget about what happened." I said, "Okay, then." And then we went back in, and we started talking, and then we carried on with the night, and I thought, "Oh, that's nice of her: she forgave me for telling her to f--- off." Because it got a bit ugly. And then Boo was quiet when we went back in. He was dead quiet. But in a weird way, if he hadn't been such a prick, it never would've happen, the conversation. So I kind of have to thank Boo as well. So this is me, if he ever reads Q Magazine, saying, "Thanks for being an a--hole, Boo!"

So the next thing I hear, she's covered the song on the Radio 1 thing, where they have to cover a modern song. And I heard them talking about it, saying how much she loved it on the radio, and she'd done this really stripped-back version of it which was amazing. I think it's my favorite version of it. So then I thought, "Well, that's good, isn't it? That's nice."

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And then the next thing I heard that Mark Ronson was recording it. And at the time I was, like, "Who's Mark Ronson? I've heard his name..." [Laughs.] I didn't really know who he was because, y'know I've never been really hip! So I heard the version -- someone sent me it -- and I was, like, "Oh, this is good!" But I thought, "This is weird." Because we'd just had a really big hit with it. I was, like, "This is not gonna strike twice. Lightning doesn't strike twice." And it f---ing did. The song went bigger than our version! And you're getting paid for it still! It was, like, "Wow, this is un-f---ing-believable!"

And yet at the time, I think we were going through the s--tty third album. So if you think about it, as the songwriter, I'm looking at this song that I wrote, and it's doing amazingly well still, but it's kind of overshadowing what the f--- I'm doing now...and it's not a bad thing. But personally I was, like, "Where's the next f---ing 'Valerie'? Why haven't we got another one? What's this f---ing piece of s--t thing that I've wrote?" And then, obviously, she died...and it got played even more! And it's just a weird thing now. When you're into Guns 'N Roses and the Beatles and Metallica and Pantera and Nirvana when you're a kid, and you start playing the guitar, you never think you're gonna write one of them songs that aunties and uncles are gonna f---ing sing on a karaoke machine. But that's how it's turned out. And I'm very grateful for it.

So what I always say to everyone is that it's like a gift from God, that song, and I'm just glad that the Zutons and myself were there to receive it. You can only be grateful for things like that. And the way I remembered it in the taxi and everything, it was just like... [Intoning.] "This is your gift. This is meant to be your thing, your song that you're gonna be remembered by."

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Can you remember the first person you met where you had to fight to keep from going full fanboy?

David Byrne. Yeah, in the Museum of Modern Art. I turned 'round, and he was there. Stood right next to me. And I said, "Hello," and I said, "I'm a huge fan." And he said, "Thanks." And then I kind of looked at him and thought, "What else do you say?" And I said, "Did you see the band?" He said, "No, I'm sorry, I thought the music would be on a lot later." And I was, like, "Okay." And I kind of just had to walk away, because basically I was just f---ing too excited. I would've started asking him questions about songs he wrote 30 or 40 years before. And it's too much. And it was only from being in a band myself and meeting him that I kind of controlled myself and sort of stood away and then just looked at him from across the room like a weirdo for a bit. And then I went and found people and went, "I've just met David Byrne!" [Laughs.] It was great. But he looked exactly the same as ever, but he had gray hair. And he had a green suit on. He looked really cool.

Who else? I met Jack White once. And I came in... We'd done a gig - the Radio 1 Big Weekend - and they played after us. I'd never seen 'em play before, and he absolutely blew me away in every sense of the word. And it kind of made me question what I was doing, because he made me look like a little boy, as far as I'm concerned. On the guitar. Maybe not so much vocally, but definitely on the guitar. I think he makes everyone look like a little boy, so it's okay. So then after it, we met them -- it was the Raconteurs - and we sat in this bar, and...I get really shy. And there's a point where he's actually started talking to me, and he says to me, "Hey, I thought you were like Tony Iommi there for a moment, with your guitar the wrong way down, but it was the reflection." And I turned on him and said... [Apologetically.] "Oh, I'm really sorry." And then he said something else, and everyone kind of went quiet again, and I seen his face go kind of blank, and I think he thought we were being rude. And to this day, I've always regretted it, but the truth of the matter is, I was just really in awe of Jack White, and I just didn't know what to f---ing say to him! But Brendan Benson and the rest of the band, they were really approachable. And Jack White was more than approachable, but...I got in my head. [Laughs.] And I think I came across like a bit of a dickhead. And I've always regretted it. So sorry, Jack, if you read this. Not that he's ever gonna remember, but...it's one of them moments in life, isn't it? He was just so good!

Lastly, what would you say is the most proper pop star moment - either wonderful or ridiculous - that you've had with the Zutons?

It's hard to say. I was on a charity single. You know the band the Farm, from Liverpool? I don't know if you know them, from the '90s...

I do, absolutely. "All Together Now" and "Groovy Train."

Yeah! Well, they'd done this single for the Liverpool football club, for the charities for the Hillsborough disaster. The guy who recorded it was called Guy Chambers, and they get loads of people in to sing on the song. It went to No. 1. It's the only No. 1 I've ever had! But it was "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." And they have all the really young people on the first verse. Guy Chambers said, "I'll put you with the legends." [Laughs.] I said, "What does that mean? Why can't I be with the kids?" Because at this point I'm in my early 30s, and I'm coming to grips with the fact that I'm aging a bit. But the next one that comes up on the screen... I'm by Paul McCartney! I just popped up on the screen, and you just see me singing into the camera, doing my Live Aid bit. And I was just, like, "Wow! Look at that!" That was me most pop star moment.

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Oh, but I'll tell you another pop star moment! We went to London years ago, and... Okay, this is f---ing ridiculous, yeah? But we're doing an XFM session, and I'm outside this cafe. And some cafes, they have the songs on the television coming out of the restaurant, into the street, just to play some music. And this woman's walking down the road, and she makes eye contact with me...and our video is on at the same time. And I point to meself on the screen...and she went, "Ooooooh!" And I think I was even wearing the same jacket that I was in the video, and I had the same haircut. And she gives me a hug, and then she just walked off. But I was, like, "Well, that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That's probably never gonna happen again." This is such a stupid story, I know. [Laughs.] She was just some Eastern European woman. Before that, she probably didn't know who the f--- I was, and she'd probably never heard our band. But it was an attack from both reality and not. And for a split second, I felt like Elton John.


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