Q Magazine

Nick Laird-Clowes on the New Dream Academy Box Set, Seeing the Damned With Marc Bolan, and Marching Alongside John and Yoko

'When you do what you believe in and you stick to your truth, after all the doors closing, one opens, and there are a few other people there, and suddenly there's a movement going on.'

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Source: Warner Brothers

Gilbert Gabriel, Nick Laird-Clowes, and Kate St. John, as pictured on the single for the Dream Academy's "The Love Parade"

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Over the years, pop culture history has reached a point where it's painted the Dream Academy as one of the so-called "one-hit wonder" bands of the '80s. In fact, that's not true, although you could do a lot worse than being remembered for a song as gorgeous and frankly timeless as "Life in a Northern Town." But they had a second top-40 hit with "The Love Parade," which hit No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, and after they released their self-titled debut album in 1985, they also had two very solid follow-up albums - 1987's Remembrance Days and 1990's A Different Kind of Weather - and in between those first two albums, they also put out an extremely memorable cover of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want."

Although the Dream Academy split after the release of that aforementioned third album, the band is now the subject of a new box set on Cherry Red Records: Religion, Revolution & Railways (The Complete Recordings), curated by the band's frontman, Nick Laird-Clowes and approved of by his two former bandmates, Kate St. John and Gilbert Gabriel. Thankfully, Nick was kind enough to hop on a Zoom call to chat about the amount of work - and let's face it, the amount of love - that was involved in compiling the set, and he also had tales about other aspects of his career, involving anecdotes about riding around in a Rolls-Royce with Marc Bolan, writing songs with David Gilmour, and being politically inspired by John Lennon, only to end up marching alongside him in a protest.

Before the conversation about the new box set began in earnest, however, there was a bit of idle chit-chat about a few of Nick's peers with whom Q has chatted since its return, including Stephen Duffy, with whom Nick toured in the wake of the Dream Academy's breakup. ("He said, 'You've got to get out there. It's like having a divorce! So just come on the road with us, play some songs before us, and then play in the band!' So I did it, and it was great!") The chit-chat then wound its way to what a different era we live in compared to the one he grew up in as a young music fan.

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Source: Warner Brothers

Gilbert Gabriel, Nick Laird-Clowes, and Kate St. John, as pictured on the cover of the Dream Academy's self-titled debut album

One of the bright sides of the internet is that you do get that interaction with artists. Before you only knew them through their music, but now you can actually say that you've had some direct communication with them.

It's true, and...I don't know, it's a complex thing, because one used to feel... [Hesitates.] The artists that I loved, the Nick Drakes and people, they were enigmatic to the extreme. And I always felt that one should just really be getting on with the work and really wanted to keep it like that. But it's not the way things are. And then you realize, "Well, actually, it's wonderful to reach out and actually have communication with them." It's important. It was important to me in the old days... Ah, and I'm getting into the interview now!

But when I wrote to John and Yoko when I in school, I was a 12-year-old, and there was Melody Maker, NME, and Disc and Music Echo. This was before Sounds. And they said, "If you write something about John and Yoko, because they're getting a lot of flack, then you can win a disc token." And I thought, "Great!" So I wrote my letter, and I did that every day before I went to school. I listened to Two Virgins. I dunno, I thought it was an amazing piece of work! I was in awe of them, anyway. So about two weeks later, I get a thing from Disc and Music Echo that says, "You and another guy have both won the disc token." And then about another few weeks later, I get a postcard in the post, and it's "to Nick Laird, who heard. Love, John Lennon." And I was, like, "My God!" And then I see the little drawing of him and Yoko and I'm, like, "Oh, my GOD!" [Laughs.] And the other guy who won, he was in the music business, too. And I bump into him on the rare occasions that I go to things like awards ceremonies, and he says, "You got the card from John, didn't you?" And I said, "Yeah!" He said, "I did, too!" I said, "God, how great!" And he always says the same thing: "Yeah, the Stones played in Hyde Park that weekend, and I took my card to show everyone...and I lost it."

Oh, man...

I know! When I showed my card to Alan McGee, he said, "Oh, that is the best thing you have got! Without any doubt, that is the greatest thing!" And it meant a vast amount to me, just to have that connection. Later, I wondered if he'd actually written it, so I met Anthony Fawcett, who was his assistant and wrote a book called One Day at a Time. and he said, "Oh, no, John did everything. He wrote all the envelopes, too." And it's great, because the envelope - just like I would do - is upside down, so it opens underneath. He'd done it the wrong way round! [Laughs.] It was fantastic. He'd written it upside down by mistake!

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Okay, so let's get into the interview proper. This Dream Academy set... Was it something that you already wanted to do, or did Cherry Red reach out to you and ask, "Would you like to do it?"

A bit of both. I'd always wanted to do a box set. When the Rhino compilation came out, I asked them. I'd just done the About Time film, so I was in L.A. promoting it, and I had a meeting with them and said, "I've always wanted to do a box set." And they said, "We won't do a box set, but we'll go with a double best." So I said, "All right." And then right out of the blue I got an email thread that said, "We're licensing, and we'd like to license the Dream Academy to make a complete-recordings set." So I said, "So a box set! How wonderful!" And the Dream Academy actually wanted to be on Cherry Red. We tried to get on there, because they had Everything But the Girl, with Ben and Tracey, and - along with every other record company - we sent our tapes to them, and they turned them down. And later Mike Alway, who was Cherry Red, did my Trashmonk artwork for the re-release on Poptones. But I digress.

So I was very, very pleased, and they sent me what they were doing, and I said, "Look, I've really got to get completely involved with this, because the aesthetic of the band and the way the albums were took a tremendous amount of attention and care, and it's only going to work if I'm completely involved." And marvelously, they said, "Yeah, we love it when the artist is involved, so go ahead!" And that was great, but it took a large part of last year because of all these different things. Mastering has changed, people change things because they want it to sound better, more modern for the thing. I had to go through this whole thing again and again, things like... Well, when I hear a Nick Drake record, I don't want to hear the bass pumped up. I want to hear it exactly like it sounded when it came out, as close to my vinyl as possible. I was looking to Joe Boyd a lot, because he and I are great friends, but he also produced a record for me with the Act back in, uh, 1982. [Grimaces, then laughs.] But we're old friends, and he's making a lot of world music and producing, and he said, "Yeah, it's a real problem. You think you're going to mad. You listen on every system, and you just try to get it the way that you heard it. And it's the same with reissues."

So I spent a lot of time getting that right, finding the tapes, and then were the things in the Warner archive digitized? And some were, but in a quite perfunctory way. They must have so much stuff that they've got to transfer to digital, of ancient tapes that never came out. But when I heard those, I thought, "These can't be as good as the versions I've got." And I had to find all my versions and put them together. And then I remembered things like how, on the second album, we made a whole album of just the instrumentals. Not of "Indian Summer," funnily enough, but of all the others. And I knew that existed, and I knew these other things existed, because I'm an absolute completist. [Laughs.]

The first album, of course, I adore, but we made it sort of like a demo, and then I just went in with George Nicholson and made the tracks as good as I could. Then I took them to David Gilmour, who was my friend, and he said, "Is this the way you want to do it? Okay, well, this bit could be better, and we could re-record that, and we can redo this." But on the second album, with Hugh Padgham, he said, "I want to do this in a different way. You guys work with a lot of machines, and I've been working with Peter Gabriel on So, and I think this could use a brilliant drummer and [keyboardist] Larry Fast as extra players for you." So we did that. And when I listened to those... I mean, they sound like they're woven out of gold! Now I make things here in my room or I take them in the studio, but...they don't make 'em like that anymore. And Hugh was a genius engineer, so the sound was mind-blowing. So that was fun. And I'd always wanted [the instrumental version of the second album] to just come out on its own, because the Beach Boys did that. I was on EMI when I was in Alfalpha, and we got a copy of that, and I loved it.

It was called Stack-o-Tracks, wasn't it?

Yes, it was! Stack-o-Tracks, exactly, And it was thrilling! But anyway, I knew we had some vocal-only things, and I'd always loved "Hampstead Girl," which only had us singing the backing vocals. I'd really loved how that sounded, but I couldn't find it, and they couldn't find it, but then finally it was found. So it was a journey! And then once we'd gotten through that, I thought, "Well, it's got to look like a Dream Academy album!" And they sent me some things, and I said, "But this is not what we're about. Peter Saville designed two of the three album covers, and his things are now in the [Victoria & Albert Museum]!" And they were great. They put me together with this great guy, and I just started going to him again and again and again, driving with him, and f---ked with things I'd got, asking Kate and Gilbert what they'd got, putting it all together, and then trying to make it look like a Dream Academy thing. And that took months and months.

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And then sequencing it... You know, we only made three albums, but there was a lot of other things, and they're completists, so they wanted it complete. So there were seven or eight mixes of "Love," because that was the single from the final album, and that's what labels were doing at that point. They were always going, "Oh, you've got to do all these remixes to try and get chart position!" or whatever they did. And I wasn't happy with a lot of them. But they said, "No, no, no, no, we want everything!" And f--- me, I was listening through to the eight or nine mixes, trying to get them down to an acceptable-to-them seven or eight. And my wife shouted out, "What's this incredible music?" [Laughs.] So I was, like, "Okay, she's younger than me, so she thinks it's incredible." And then I realized, "It is incredible!" These are amazing things and, y'know, we had Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex singing the Krishna chants...and, actually, with the benefit of time, they sounded great!

So I wanted to make each one an album in its own right. That comes out on Love, Etc., with a few other 12" of things that I discovered that we'd got, one of "Twelve-eight Angel," and of course "Life in a Northern Town." But each album, I wanted it to have its own identity. So there's the three official albums, then there's The River Ran On, which has got our Japanese beer commercial, which I adore! They wanted us to make something that sounded like the Bulgarian singers, and I said, "S--t, I wish we could!" But we did it, and they loved it, and it was great. Later, that got turned into "Lowlands," on the A Different Kind of Weather album. So there were things like that, but we obviously loved "Girl in a Million (For Edie Sedgwick)." It's one of the favorites of all three of us, because it had a real Dream Academy sound, we thought, but we hadn't done it with David for the album because we thought we had enough things on there already. So there's that, and then other B-sides and rarities came in, and suddenly it became, "How do we make this sound like an album that we never actually made but still sounds like an album?" Which I think we did.

And then we go the next one, which is where it's really demos, things we'd done when Gilbert and I first left the Act. Before Kate joined, we were playing these things where he was playing just his string machine and I was playing acoustic guitar, and we'd done these backing tracks to try and make it sound produced and make a world. We were already into that idea. And they were on cassettes, and David Gilmour had just bought his house from Alvin Lee, and he had a barn which Alvin had made into a studio. And he said, "Well, you can just set up in that barn." Because Mark, his brother, was also in The Act, and he's a very good engineer. So we set up, Mark engineered, and we just played our live set. And a lot of those are on that fifth disc, like "Test Take No. 3," which was the B-side of "Life in a Northern Town," and "Poised on the Edge of Forever," which was the B-side of one of the other later singles, and "Things We Said Today."

But there are some others, things like "Doubleminded," which appeared on the second album with Padgham, but it was way different. It had been one of Geoff Travis from Rough Trade's favorite songs of our recordings! And it was probably that and "These Walls" that were the first tracks that Gilbert and I ever did in the first session. "These Walls" was probably the first thing we ever wrote, and then "The Edge of Forever" and "Test Take No. 3." Anyway, these and anything else that wasn't ever released is now out there! Sorry, I'm rambling... [Laughs.]

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Did you have a favorite rediscovery in the process of putting the set together?

Putting "Heaven Pts. 1 & 2" on there was good. Diane Keaton had asked us... We were there in New York on Saturday Night Live, and she invited the Cult and us and the Fine Young Cannibals to see her first movie that she was directing. It was a sort of feature documentary on heaven and the meaning of heaven. And we were really interested in cinema, so we talked to her, and then all three of the bands went. It was a daytime thing. And then a few weeks later she wrote to me and said, "I'd really like you to do it if you'd be interested," and she said something like, "You have just the right poetic sensibilities for my film." And that was it: I just couldn't write anything. [Laughs.] The date was coming closer and closer to when they needed it, and I had a complete block.

But we'd taken "These Walls," which was one of our first songs, and we'd gone into the studio for the movie and done the instrumental with Howard Shore, because he was doing the rest of the score. And then one day I was at my flat and suddenly I went, "'The further away / The more you need it...' Wait! Hang on.. 'Heaven / The further away / The more you need it...'" And I was on it! But my friend from my first band was coming 'round, and I thought, "Argh! He's gonna be here in 20 minutes, and I'm gonna lose the thread!" But I got it down just before he got there, and then we recorded it with Paul Stavely O'Duffy, who had produced a lot of our demos. We went in with him, and we used the drummer from the Waterboys.

And then I wanted to mix it with someone that I hadn't worked with: Roy Halee, who's the genius who worked with Simon and Garfunkel and put all those echoes on their albums. They'd stand in front of a mike and then double-tracking over the one they'd already done with Paul's guitar, so that's triple-tracking the vocals, and then he did all the echoes. Paul had said to me, "He's a genius at reverbs and delays." So I went there, and he mixed it, and it was amazing to work with him. And Diane sat at the back on the sofa for it. Not for the whole thing, she'd come and go. Anyway, I wanted him to do the second Dream Academy album, but when Hugh Padgham asked if he could do it, Mo Ostin said, "We really want you to work with him. It's an introduction: none of our bands have had the chance to work with him." So...

You don't say "no" to Mo.

No. [Laughs.] No, you don't, I've found! Oh, and both parts of "Last Day of the War" are now on the set. We recorded that right after we recorded "Life in a Northern Town." I'd written it when I was in New York, sleeping on the sofa and studying with Paul Simon. I didn't know anything about music theory, but... Well, anyway, that's another story! [Laughs.] But I'd written it when I was there, and we recorded it, but that never made it to the first album. It was a conceptual piece, but we were right into that kind of conceptual thing. And then Gilbert had written this instrumental piece, and I knew there was a fragment of that still in existence somewhere. That was very hard to find. Anyway, they're both there.

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Oh, so here's a story. Okay, so we do the second album, and it's hard work. It's really hard work. It's not David, and it's not the friendship team. It's Hugh, who's got his own way of doing it. We're in Genesis' studio mixing, and the recordings sound amazing, but...they're not sounding right. I take them to Lenny [Waronker], and he says, "It doesn't sound like you're having much fun." And I said, "It's hard to get it the way I want it." And he said, "Why don't you just come over here? In fact, just stay. We'll send for the tapes, and you can work here. And by the way, Lindsey Buckingham really wants to work with you. He saw you on Saturday Night Live, and he loved the band." I said, "Incredible!" And it was one of these dream things, where suddenly for three months I stayed there in L.A., and Kate was there, and at the end they asked me to go in the studio to listen to Brian Wilson's things. I went with Lindsey and Lenny, and Lenny said, "The only reason you're going is to tell him exactly what you think of the work." And I did. I said, "I don't think the lyrics are right." And then amazingly, the next day they said, "Well, would you come in and work with Brian?" And somehow I ended up co-writing "Walk the Line" with him. It was such an amazing thing.

But I have to backtrack, because during that time in L.A., we were going to Lindsey's every day, and he said, "I'd like to do this 'Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime." We'd done a version of it, but our version was like something off the Beatles' double White Album. I mean, it's a song that I love, but we had it like... [Emulates rock guitars.] And we started with him, and Lindsey's so amazing, because he was doing everything in his house before people did that. But he started taking things off the track we had, bit by bit, and he took more and more off, and then he said, "Let me play bass." And the bass was so incredible! And then he'd say, "Let me just try this guitar thing." And he'd play the guitar thing. And finally I started playing a bit of guitar as well, and then Kate came in and said, "I've got this oboe part." And she did this oboe part in one take, and it was absolutely brilliant. It was one of those things where we all just went, 'Wow.' Then we put...I think the sound of an aircraft going over us into her solo. Oh, it was amazing. And he got me very stoned. I did a very stoned vocal. And then we mixed it, and it was fantastic. But the great thing was, when I heard the backing track... Oh, it was so good! Because he and Kate singing the backing vocals: "Everybody's gotta learnnnnnnn..." It's a completely different version than the brilliant Korgis one. It's our own thing. And I found that amazing. And then he went on to work on "Indian Summer" with me, which was brilliant. It was a good moment.

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It's funny, but when you were talking about going to that screening that Diane Keaton held for you, it sounded for all the world like the beginning of the best music joke ever: "The Dream Academy, the Cult, and Fine Young Cannibals walk into a theater..."

[Laughs.] Right? Exactly! It was pretty amazing. I mean, when you think back now... But things were pretty amazing at that point. Going back over this and listening and thinking first of all how incredibly lucky we were, the three of us, to meet each other. And then, because we were really desperate to succeed and not sell out, to succeed on our own terms... But doors were closed in our faces all the time. And we had got four or five people that we worked with as well who were in the band, but by the time we signed, it was just the three of us. But it was so lucky, that combination, that made our sound, that didn't sound to me like anything else I'd ever heard. I mean, it had echoes of things that I loved. But that really was so special.

And I was reminded of how, when we signed to Warners, they were so great to us. They let us indulge our art. We believed in ourselves, and they let us believe in ourselves and bankrolled it and said, "Don't try to make a hit on your first album, because you've got three albums definite." And they were like a giant indie label. They lived for music and we lived for music. So once that started, things just got so extraordinary, because they bought into our aesthetic.

The first video, we'd worked with Tim Pope, who we loved, but it was a terrible video. And he thought it was terrible! I mean, now whenever we meet him, he says, "I'm so sorry..." [Laughs.] So they said, "Well, why don't you come to New York? There's this couple who work on Super 8, Peter Kagan and Paula Greif, and they haven't done much yet, but we think they'll..." And when we met them, they were just like us! Everything at that point in the '80s was white boys with quiffs doing funk. Even those New Romantic bands had all got into that, too. Orange Juice, even Roddy Frame in the end, they were all doing it. And, look, nothing had worked for me. Every band I'd had hadn't worked, because I was copying. And now I wasn't copying. I'd found my own voice with Kate, with Gilbert. And so part of finding that own voice was just being what we believed in our look. And our look... I mean, Gilbert with his goatee, that was how he was. And I'd let my hair grow because even though everyone had quiffs, that was just... We were in our own world! And then suddenly you meet people like Peter Kagan and Paula Greif, and they're in our aesthetic, they've got the same thing, and they're hip to it, too! And Peter Saville and Scott Crolla... He was a dress designer who opened a shop in London, and you just went to hang out in it, and he had the same look as us!

When you do what you believe in and you stick to your truth, after all the doors closing, one opens, and there are a few other people there, and suddenly there's actually a movement going on, because the zeitgeist is there. And that was the incredible thing about following your truth, or following your bliss, the Joseph Campbell thing. It changed all our lives, the three of us. And it's still changing our lives. Somehow our following, such as it is, is very, very loyal...and so far, no trolling! Which seems unbelievable. Maybe we haven't got enough fans. [Laughs.] But they are wonderful! And the fact that, for them, it seems that all three albums are just part of the whole...and when I listen to it all, I feel that it is as well! It's all what we loved and the sound that we tried to find, what we made and what we believed in.

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Originally I'd thought that all three of you had a hand in putting this set together, but I'm now realizing that that's not the case.

Well, no, we didn't, because I hadn't actually seen the others for a little bit. I'd gone to do some concerts in Japan in 2017 with Kate. They'd asked me to perform on my own, and they said, "Do you think Kate would come?" And then we went and called it the Dream Academy. But, no, we didn't do the set together, although we did get together at the end to sign 500 postcards. Everyone came 'round to my flat here, and it was so lovely to see them. And then we went to dinner, and now we're meeting again in April. It's lovely to be with them, because these things... We shared this extraordinary experience, this life-changing experience.

When you get together in April, what are the chances that you actually play music together?

No, I don't think we will. Because what's so lovely at the moment is that it's just meeting and being together. I'd lost my voice when they came here, so I just had to listen, and it was so great. They were talking about music documentaries, and it was like... [Croaking.] "I saw a documentary..." But we'd all seen the same things - Wayne Shorter, Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Picasso documentary - and I heard them talking about politics, and I was thinking, "We all feel the same way!" So it's good. But like a divorce, rebuilding the friendship is important...and it was a great friendship. It's important to get that back and maybe not ask anything from it yet, to just get back to that.

I mean, this already is a gift to us. And this set... They were really lovely about it. Because I knew there was a responsibility if you're the guardian of the band's sound and look. If you feel you're doing it the way they would want, well, that's the whole point. But the question is, are you? Because everybody has their own ideas. But when they came around... Gilbert was the first one, and he would've been the one who, if it hadn't been right, would've said so. And he said, "Thank you very much for putting this together and for curating it." And what was so lovely is that they both said it. And it meant a lot, because I said, "Look, you work for 100%, you maybe get 90% right, so...I'm glad you like it."

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So to speak of aspects of your career outside the Dream Academy for a bit, even though I know you've told me this story before, I feel I must - for the sake of the Q readership - ask you to reflect on your encounters with Marc Bolan.

Oh, of course! Well, my first band, we were signed to EMI, but our managers were Tony Howard and Jeff Dexter, and Tony was T. Rex's manager as well. They had an office on New Bond Street, and Marc - who was a big star - was on the first and grandest floor. The second floor was Pink Floyd. The third floor was the publisher, Peter Barnes, who had these two new artists: Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. So this was such an amazing place to be! And outside there would always be a couple of beautiful girls going, "Erm, if Marc comes in, would you tell him we're outside?" They were still hanging around...and that was probably about '75 or '76. It was '75 when we first started going 'round there, and we signed in '76 to EMI. And Marc took us under his wing.

One night he said, "Do you want to come out with me in the white Rolls-Royce?" He was a white Rolls-Royce! And I was a big Marc Bolan fan, a big T. Rex fan... I had all the Tyrannosaurus Rex albums! So it meant a lot to me. I went to his house, and we got in the car with the chauffeur. And he said he was gonna take us to the biggest place at the time, and he said, "Look, I'm gonna call you 'darling,' but I'm not gay." I said, "Okay!" [Laughs.] And then he'd go, "What do you want to do, darling? What's your career thing?" I said, "Oh, I want to be a film director!" "Oh, well, you've gotta meet this guy!"

The next thing he did was, he said, "You've got to come down and see this amazing new thing that's happening. There's this place called the Roxy, and I'm going tonight, 'cause there's this new wave that's breaking, and I want to see this band because I want to go on the road with them." And we went in, and we went down these steps with Marc into this place where there was Johnny Rotten, there was Billy Idol, they were having a kicking fight...and Idol was coming off worse. [Laughs.] And when we went down the stairs, there were the Adverts, and then there were the Damned. And in between, certainly I heard "Anarchy in the U.K.," and everybody was up, and...it was a tiny, hot, sweaty club, and they looked insane, these people. And I thought, "My God, this is 'My Generation' for our generation!'" And then we met the Damned afterwards, and Marc put them on the road with him.

And then he was making a new album, and he said, "Will you guys come into the Trident," which was in Oxford Circus and was an amazing studio, "and do backing vocals?" So we went into this tiny little studio to do the backing vocals. And he got us singing, and he'd speed the tape up, and he'd get us singing in a different key, and then he'd triple-track that - at least! - and then he'd slow it down, and then we'd sing in another key, all to make this incredible sound. And I remember saying to him, "Marc, that wasn't... We weren't in tune that time! C'mon, let's do it again!" And he went, "It's not about whether you're in tune! It's about attitude. It's about... Listen, the energy that you put into the tape is the energy you get out. It's about the energy! That's what this is about!" And he was completely right. To this day, I can be playing something and think, "You know, it just hasn't got the feel..." And then you perhaps do a version without the click, and that has everything you want in it. It was a great lesson. He was wonderful.

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What led you guys to cover The Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want"?

We loved the Smiths. We had gone to Geoff Travis at Rough Trade several times and nothing happened, he hadn't wanted to sign us, and then he called up and said, "I'm going to America, I'd like to take your tapes." We went in to see him, and...we were at rock bottom. We just said, "Sure, take 'em." And he said, "I'm going to play him some other things I've got, and I'd like to play this, too. I just didn't feel I had enough money in Rough Trade for this sort of project." But every time we went to see him, he played us this new band, the Smiths, and we were just in awe, because of Johnny Marr's guitar things and Morrissey's lyrical point of view. We got obsessed. When we were rehearsing, we'd play "Back to the Old House," and the B-sides and things. And when we heard "Please, Please, Please..." - I think it was the B-side of "William, It Was Really Nothing" - we'd just finished the six months or however long it took of making that first album, and I said, "I really want to do this." But people hated the Smiths! You can't believe it now, but they thought they were miserabilists, like people did about Leonard Cohen. It was ridiculous! We said, "They're brilliant songwriters!"

So I took it to David Gilmour, and I said, "I want you to hear this." And he said, "That's a great song. Why don't you come down this weekend?" And we went in that weekend, and...it was so lovely. After all of our hard work on the album, it was just the three of us and David. He played bass, he programmed the drum machine, and within two days we just had the whole thing. And that was it: it had this absolute Dream Academy sound, and it was effortless.

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And we were very lucky that John Hughes heard it. He'd already scored his film Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and he wasn't happy with the museum scene where they look at the Seurat painting. It's the sort of dope or acid scene, the stoned scene, but for a teenage movie. They skip school, they go to the museum, and they go into a really psychedelic place...and that's the kind of music that we wanted to make and were making! And then he heard that, and once put that against the picture, he just took off the score. And that was very wonderful for us, because we'd always been interested in working in film, coming after the Diane Keaton thing, and then he decided to put "The Edge of Forever" on the kiss scene at the end.

And what's extraordinary is that that film wasn't, like, an art film, like the kind of film that we loved, the French Nouvelle Vague, like The 400 Blows and all these things. And yet that film... They just did a re-released version, and then they put out this set, Life Moves Pretty Fast, with songs from all of his films. Our manager, Tarquin Gotch, who played for the first demo of "Life in a Northern Town," started to find things for John, but he said he didn't pitch our things to John. John had his own incredible - and really strong - musical taste, and he really loved indie English music. And then he and Tarquin got together, and Tarquin said, "Well, I manage these guys!" So anyway, I saw it again not very long ago, and...it's a great film! It's fantastic.

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And because of that, when I was doing the next album, I was in L.A., and he said, "Have you got anything for me? Because I'm doing this film Planes, Trains and Automobiles with John Candy." So I went in and played him just backing tracks of what we'd done. And then we he got to "Power to Believe," he was looking through his viewfinder, and he said, "Put it on again. Put it on again!" And he was scrolling through the film, and then he actually said, "Thank you: you saved my life again." Which is either very polite or maybe being overly so, but it was a charming thing to say nonetheless. And he used that music all through the film! I watch it now, and...we're everywhere!

You know, Family Guy did a version of that scene - they go, "Movie reference!" - and I watched it about three or four times, because I was, like, "My God, that's 'Power to Believe'!" And I asked my publisher, "Hey, are we getting paid for this?" And he went, "No, but someone else is getting paid!" And it turned out that they thought that that was all part of the score. They didn't know that that was a Dream Academy song! So we settled with them, which was fantastic.

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I know your connection with David Gilmour goes back much farther than the Dream Academy - you were in the Act with his brother, Mark - but what led to you collaborating with him as a songwriter on Pink Floyd's The Division Bell?

When the band split up, first of all I went traveling to the Tora Bora mountains and up into the places you can never go now in Pakistan and the border of India and China and Russia. It was really one of those trips to get away from everything. And then when I got back, I'd had a call from Warners, from Mo and Lenny and Michael Ostin, saying, "You worked with Pat Leonard, Madonna's co-writer, on the second Dream Academy album. He's putting this band together with Richard Page from Mr. Mister. They are interested in someone coming to write lyrics. Would you be interested?" So I said, "Sure!"

I went for the first time and wrote a couple of things, and then I came back, and then they called me and said, "Look, would you come and spend some time in L.A. doing the album?" So Pat played the instruments, Richard sang, and I had the pencil. [Laughs.] I'd sit there, and I'd listen, and I'd be writing, and then I'd come back the next day with something. So it was a major thing. And I worked on it for about three months, and...it was quite a traumatic time for me. The band had split up, I'd split up with my girlfriend, I was having a really difficult time. Mercifully, I discovered Tibetan Buddhism and meditation through Richard Page. When you're having a really bad time, you're open to new ideas and ways of getting out of having such a bad time and being in such a bad place.

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So I got back to London, and David Gilmour said, "I'm working on my second Pink Floyd album without Roger." And in the same way that we'd always done, he said, "Can I play you what I'm doing?" And I said, "Sure!" And I was really right in that thing of, "What have you got? What haven't you got?" When Pat was playing something, I'd say, "Have you got a lyric idea?" "Well, no." "If you've got one, give me what you want to say. If you haven't got one, I'll come up with something." So I was in that zone. But David played me the things, and I said, "This is great!" And he said, "Will you come in the studio and produce my vocals? Because they all want to tell me, 'It's great!' And then I come out, and I listen to it, and it's not in tune, or something else is wrong with it. And I know you've spent years with me doing it to you. I'll know you're telling me the truth!" And then he went, "By the way, don't try and write a song, because we're writing the songs." He was writing with Polly [Samson, Gilmour's wife], and he said, "Everyone wants to write with us, but...it's not about the writing." I said, "That's great, no problem." But he was going to give me a production credit, but then it was that he couldn't give me a production credit because [Bob] Ezrin already had a deal going.

Anyway, as time went on, I started going every week 'round there to his place to listen to the new tracks, and I'd just be giving my advice. "That's a good one... You don't need that one, you can cut that..." And he and Polly and I would just sit there and drink incredible red wine and do this thing. And then he got to the point where they still had two great songs that hadn't got lyrics. So he said, "Look, have you got any ideas?" Because now we were so used to being the three of us being like that. And I just remember saying, "What's your story about Syd Barrett? We know Roger's, but you and Syd went to the south of France together when you were 16. You were friends from the beginning. So what's your story?" And he's very quiet and modest, David, but he just said, "I never thought he'd lose that light in his eyes." And suddenly it was, like, "Hang on, have you got anything else?" [Laughs.] And then it started... "The rain was falling, dark and slow..." I started getting into it, and then he said, "Yeah, okay," and then we all started pitching in. And that became "Poles Apart." And he said at the end of that, "Congratulations, you're part of a Pink Floyd song." And then he said, "What year were you born?" And I told him, "1957." And he said, "Hold on." And he went down to his wine cellar, and he came up and said, "This is a '63, but it's really good." [Laughs.] And we opened that, and it was, like, "Wow..."

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Because, look, we'd been friends for a long time. I'd worked on his solo album, I'd written lyrics on his solo album - uncredited, I'd just given him some things - and we'd made a track together, "Christmas on 45," of all these Christmas things put together, and we'd worked in the studio on the Dream Academy album. We were good friends. And then a few weeks later they had my favorite track, which was then called "She Will Take It Back," which was about Gaea and about the earth taking it back from us if we don't behave. So we were working, doing cutups and all these different things. Anyway, I got in the car and went on my way driving back home. And at about four in the morning, I pulled the car over on Portobello Road and just wrote these four lines to end the song. But I thought, "God, they'll never go for it." But the next time I came in and said, "So I've got this verse..." And David, "Well, go on, let's hear it." And so I read it: "Now I have seen the warnings, screaming from all sides / It's easy to ignore them, God knows I've tried / All of this temptation, you know it turned my faith to lies / 'Til I couldn't see the danger or hear the rising tide." And they went, "Great!" I was, like, "Whoa, fantastic!" Because I really loved that song, and I knew it was going to come out as this main one, because it had such a radio feel.

And then after that, because it was such a rich experience, I went to the Tibetan Buddhists. I went to Nepal and went into a sort of retreat. And when I came back, the album was already out, and my father was saying, "This Pink Floyd album is huge! It's #1!" And they were on the road, and they said, "Do you want to come on the road with us?" And so I did, and it was great. But they were, like, "Hey, what happened after the second song? You seemed to just disappear." "Yeah, I did. I completely disappeared." [Laughs.]

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Okay, we're in the home stretch. Who was the first person you remember meeting where you had to fight from going full fanboy?

John Lennon!

Well, sure. It all comes back to the postcard.

No, but then I met him! I was on the march for the underground press, because they were going to go to prison - or perhaps they had already gone to prison - but it was the three editors of OZ Magazine, and I'd been going every day to the court to watch them, because I was no longer at school, because I'd been thrown out for having a copy of the magazine in my possession, in my desk. And suddenly my great friend ran to the back of the thing and said, "John Lennon's at the front of the march! John and Yoko are at the front!" And it was about two miles, and I was in the back with some girls...and I ran to the front! [Laughs.] And there they were! And somebody gave me a megaphone, and I started shouting, "Power to the people!" And quite soon the march got broken up, and the police were there, and the whole thing was going left, right, and center. And Yoko said, "John! John! We must look after the child! We must look after the children!" And they gathered around me and my friend! And then the whole thing got dispersed.

But do you know what was most amazing? He was the biggest person in the world for me, because now I was into politics, and I adored the first Plastic Ono Band album, and I'd had the postcard, so I was really obsessed. And when I met him, it was for, what, five minutes? While all around was total mayhem and things were going out of control, and the police were busting heads, and everyone was running...and yet he made me think one thing - and this was so long before punk: no more heroes. He made me think, "He doesn't want me to be in awe of him. He was completely natural to me. I mean, he had plastic bags on each hand because he didn't want to be fingerprinted, and he had the denim jacket, the hat down on one side... But to be right there with him, and Yoko, beautiful with that sombrero... And you still see that film online. It's incredible. By being in that presence, I realized that, "No, 'fanboy' is an obstacle." And that stayed with me all the way through with David Gilmour, Paul Simon, and all these people. It's not helpful to them. Fame literally kills people. It's useless. You've got to be yourself and say what you think, say what believe. It's difficult, but you've got to be truthful, or it's not going to work. And the way John Lennon was with me... It literally changed my life. It was really something to be in that presence.

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What would you say was the most proper pop star moment of being in the Dream Academy?

Playing on Saturday Night Live. I mean, every time we ran through it... We ran through it three times, and every time it was a disaster. [Laughs.] And then when it was live, it all just worked. And we'd been told by Jeff Ayeroff, "If this works, you'll roar into the top 20, and if you play badly, you'll plummet like a stone out of the top 40." And it was, like, " So no pressure, then!" But it all came together. And as I said in the liner notes of the set, it was incredible that Christmas when we left to come home, everywhere we went we could hear the record playing. We heard it in the airport! After so long of trying to get this to happen... Yeah, that was probably the big thrilling moment.

Well, I'll just wrap up by saying that it's amazing to me that "Life in a Northern Town" didn't sound like it was meant for the '80s then, and it still doesn't feel like it came from the '80s. It's a song out of time, but in a most wonderful way.

I think exactly the same. It doesn't sound like the '80s. But, of course, as I said, we weren't part of the '80s. You only date yourself as much as you do when you're using the devices of the time. We were making our own sound world. And that's all we're still doing. Kate's orchestrating, Gilbert's doing sound and vision things, and I'm doing my scoring. We're still just trying to make sound worlds of our own.

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