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A Quietus Interview

His Art: Sean Dickson Of Soup Dragons Interviewed
Michael Hann , August 29th, 2023 12:06

An older but happier Sean Dickson has reformed the Soup Dragons. He talks to Michael Hann about the highs and lows of his career so far

It's a Friday night in October 1986, and the Hammersmith Clarendon has a four-band bills on in its ballroom. Opening up are the Hobgoblins – spindly, amateurish. The Legend! – later to become Everett True – is hopping from foot to foot in appreciation, clutching his basket of fanzines. Next are My Bloody Valentine, at this point still fronted by Dave Conway, and trying to be The Jesus And Mary Chain. At one point Kevin Shields breaks three strings at once; it makes no difference to the sound from the PA. The third band is The Primitives, who are also trying to be The Jesus And Mary Chain, but with a woman singing. And finally the headliners, who have just released their second single, 'Hang Ten!' The Soup Dragons don't come on until 10.30, at which point my friends and I are becoming slightly paranoid about missing the last train home. We're used to headliners playing at least 90 minutes, but we needn't worry. The Soup Dragons are done in 25, a fizzbomb of brevity, a Buzzcocks for kids a decade too young for the actual Buzzcocks. I loved them.

They only played for 25 minutes because at that point Sean Dickson, the group's singer and songwriter, only wrote songs when the group needed them. And with just two singles, he hadn't needed to write many songs. But in 1986, you didn't need a vast body of work to attract attention. This was the year of indiepop, of "shambling", of bands in anoraks and bowl haircuts, the year of NME's C86 cassette, and a handful of journalists – notably The Legend! and Neil Taylor, both at the NME – had seized on this nascent scene and built it up into the future of British independent music. Which is not what it turned out to be – it was more of a dead end – but no matter, because to be in your late teens and flocking to these shows was like having your own punk rock, with its own dogmas and creeds, albeit without very much sense of danger, apart from the risk of missing the last train home.

The Soup Dragons didn't stand still for long, and quickly moved away from that effervescent rush of sound. Their debut album dwelt in the fields of pastoral psychedelia more than buzzing punk. Before their next album they had pivoted to indie dance. By their third they were trying to combine high energy rock & roll with electronics. But by then the critics had turned, the band broke up, and Dickson began a long journey that encompassed another indiepop outfit, the High Fidelity, realising he was gay (he was married to a woman, with whom he has a daughter), having a complete breakdown and ending up in a psychiatric ward, reinventing himself as HiFi Sean, a dance music DJ and recording artist, and has now returned to the Soup Dragons, with a bunch of reunion shows and a new single – 'Love Is Love', which returns, sonically, to the early days of the band, backed by 'No Music On A Dead Planet', featuring Fred Schneider of the B-52s.

But why? Dickson said he started to feel positively about the Soup Dragons again after the publication last year of Nige Tassell's book Whatever Happened To The C86 Kids?, which made him realise people did actually appreciate his old band. So he found reasons to revive them. "About 50 per cent of our catalogue had never been available digitally – all the early singles. To proper Soup Dragons fans, that's the stuff they always ask about." So last year a compilation of those singles was released. "Long story short, that got us talking, and the other members said, 'Would you do some gigs with the album?' I never really saw that coming. Nex thing I know there was a tour."

But he also stipulated that if there was to be a tour, there had to be some new music, too. "I said, 'I don't want to be a legacy act. I don't want to be that band that goes out playing Lovegod in chronological order for the rest of my life. I have no interest in that. There's a Soup Dragons record cover that has the words 'Forwards Ever, Backwards Never', and I said that having put that on a record we couldn't exactly go back on it." The result was 'Love Is Love', "a song about how I would feel as an 18-year-old, knowing that I'm now a gay man."

The Soup Dragons were born of one of those statistically unlikely agglomerations of talent and shared interest, in which a small place suddenly produces a large number of groups. Dickson grew up in Bellshill, outside Glasgow, where he was best friends through adolescence with Norman Blake (later of Teenage Fanclub) and Duglas T Steward (BMX Bandits), and Joe McAlinden, who would play in scores of Scottish indie groups and have his own magnificent project Superstar, was part of their circle.

"We all lived in the same neighbourhood," Dickson says. "I used to go to guitar lessons on a Thursday night, on Norman's street. I didn't know him then – I was in the Catholic school and they were in the Protestant school, which is a complete nonsense. In those days, to find out if someone was into the same things as you, it was usually by looking at them. Norman hates this story, but he used to have tartan trousers and I used to think: 'He knows what he's about.' Norman used to say he watched me walk past with my guitar to go to lessons. He always calls me The First Guitarist in Bellshill."

Blake's parents owned a newsagent, and their home was attached, so the lure of free crisps brought Dickson and Stewart around to listen to records. They'd try to befried the few local bands – anarchist punks who lived at the traveller caravan site. "We kind of hung out with them, even though we weren't into their music. We started going along to things at the infamous Hattonrigg Hotel in Bellshill. And we realised: we could do this. So we just started inventing bands. We would sit in Norman's bedroom, recording cassettes by the bands we'd invented. One of the first ones was Pretty Flowers, which was BMX Bandits before BMX Bandits. I did the music and Norman did the music." When Pretty Flowers played live at a CND event in Glasgow, Dickson was so shy he sat at the sound desk and played back his parts on cassette.

Eventually, the friends began going to Glasgow to busk. "We'd go in and do 'Femme Fatale' to the people outside Marks and Spencer on a Saturday afternoon. We used to make a lot of money, I think because people were so outraged by us. It got busier and busier and busier – we were the Saturday afternoon freakshow, basically. We'd use the money to buy records."

You'd expect the three of them – given the music they subsequently made – to have survived on a diet of Ramones, Byrds, Velvets and Love, but no. "Norman had a copy of King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. That's still one of my favourite records. We all introduced each other to things – I was very interested in electronic, Soft Cell-type stuff. Duglas liked that kind of stuff, too. I introduced them to a lot of Burt Bacharach, because bizarrely as a young child I had a lot of Burt Bacharach records. Norman was Mr Postcard. He had all the early Postcard records. Duglas had a few strange ones. I had quite a lot of disco records as a kid as well."

So why did they end up making classicist guitar pop? "We were very into the Mary Chain – who somehow appeared three miles up the road in East Kilbride, and made this astonishing record that blew us all away [Psychocandy]. I remember when that record came out my life changed – it was our Never Mind The Bollocks. It was that right age group for us – I was coming up to 16 and it was boom! And there was Stephen of the Pastels, who was a friend, and the Splash One things were happening in Glasgow."

Splash One, the legendary Glasgow club night founded by Primal Scream became the catalyst for an entire scene (its legendary status is slightly belied by footage on YouTube, filmed by future Turner Prize nominee Jim Lambie, which shows the same awkward kids doing the same awkward shuffle as any other indie club in the mid-80s). The Soup Dragons had just formed when Dickson handed Gillespie a cassette of their first rehearsal, and was promptly offered a gig at Splash One. "We had never played. We had two weeks to get six songs together."

They recorded a song, 'If You Were the Only Girl In The World', for £35 at a local studio, put it on a flexi that was given away with bassist Sushil Dade's fanzine Pure Popcorn, and they had their own big bang, their universe suddenly expanding at an astounding rate. "Neil Taylor gave it single of the week in NME – I believe it's the only flexidisc to get single of the week. Then the NME contacted us, and said, 'Would you come and do an interview with Neil.? I got the happy bus down overnight, and Norman came with me, cos he was my mate. We got chicken pox. I gave Neil chicken pox and I was on the bus back dying. NME came out and it was like four pages – I think it was the biggest piece we ever got. It was huge. And we'd never released a record, just a flexi."

Then John Peel booked them for a session – he handed Dickson the money for the band to travel to London when he did a DJ gig at QMU in Glasgow. "We slept on Dan Treacy's floor. I remember sleeping on his floor quite a lot. He collected music papers and there were piles of them, so we used them as pillows. I was using NME and Jim [McCulloch, guitar] was sleeping with a pillow of Sounds."

This was an interconnected scene, with fanzines, bands and club nights in every town, and the Soup Dragons became part of it. They recorded two singles for the Subway label in Bristol, run by Martin Whitehead of the Flatmates. The first was never released – Dickson was unhappy with the sound quality, and remains unhappy that Subway first pressed the record anyway and then sold it privately. The second – their actual debut, 'Whole Wide World' – brought them to the attention of former Wham! Manager Jazz Summers, who took them on with his partner Tim Parry. "He said, 'I'll give you your own record label, which I'll look after,' which was Raw TV. That was the carrot for us, because we didn't want to be on Subway anymore. We really did not get on with Martin Whitehead at all. Even to this day. All because of that record we said we didn't want to come out."

But the Soup Dragons did not stand still. After three Buzzcockian singles, they veered sharply into acoustic psychedelia on their fourth, 'Soft As Your Face', which shaped the sound of their debut album, This Is Our Art (for which they signed to Sire in the US). The restless change suggests a similarly restless ambition, though Dickson denies that. "I think it was more the production was the ambition, because I started understanding how I could make records sound the way I wanted them to sound. In the early days, I just let the engineer make it sound the way he wanted it to sound, then I started getting more hands on with it. I wasn't credited for a lot of the early stuff as a producer."

And then it all started getting strange. Dickson began going to the UFO club in Glasgow, immersing himself in acid house. So far, so indie. When the Soup Dragons returned in 1989, with the single 'Backwards Dog', they were trying to sound like both the Stooges and the Happy Mondays simultaneously. "That was where I started to write songs in a different way. I would come up with concepts before I wrote the song. So I thought, if I could have the drum beat of Salt N Pepa's Push It, merged with the Kinks and a Stooges vocal, I might come up with something interesting. I used to organically write songs, but then I pushed myself in a different way, and that's when the floodgates opened. Then came 'Mother Universe', and I started understanding BPMs."

What was strange, and which still rankles Dickson, as that the Soup Dragons were rapidly tagged as bandwagon jumpers, and lost their critical credibility in the UK extremely quickly. But, as he points out, their full-scale embrace of dance music – on the single 'Mother Universe' – came a year before Primal Scream released 'Loaded', to cheers for their revolutionary endeavour, and was embraced by the dance world. "We'd done a dub version of Mother Universe, and they were playing it at UFO. And they asked, 'Would you guys do a PA?' 'What's a PA?' 'You go up on stage and mime your song, and we'll give you a bag of E.' Well, that sounds kinda cool, go on. We went onstage for seven minutes. The 12" came out and Boys' Own were playing it, Terry Farley was a big fan. We did a video with all the fractals and I contacted Dr Mandelbrot – before fractals became synonymous with acid house – because I'd seen this documentary on BBC2 and watched all this amazing footage of computers generating their own images, and it blew my mind. I contacted the Science Museum and they gave me a contact. I asked if I could use some of his imagery – for 'Mother Universe' and the cover of Lovegod. By the time Lovegod came out, fractals became a very acid house thing."

Then came their cover of the Rolling Stones' 'I'm Free', and – at last – the big hit, on both sides of the Atlantic, and life changed. The Saturday after their first appearance on Top Of The Pops, he and his girlfriend went into Glasgow to go shopping, as usual. "I started getting followed – folk coming up asking for my autograph, which had never happened in my life before. A few days later there were people sitting outside my flat singing 'I'm Free'. And then America – 'I'm Free' got put on rotation on MTV and that's when it got really bizarre. We'd never been to America before, but when we landed we were known because we were on MTV. You'd go out to eat and people would know you. MTV was like Radio 1 – everyone watched it. I don't think I took it in properly. I don't think I took it seriously enough. I don't think I planned things right. I was still the person who flung things together."

With American success came the shunning back home, and a growing sense of personal crisis. Being the frontman of a pop group, it transpires, is not the best place from which to work out one's personal problems, "especially when you spend most of 90, 91 and 92 being crucified in your own country for no reason at all. I ended up hating myself tremendously. Hugely. Humungously. I went through many years of self hate. And then when the Soup Dragons split up, I started the High Fidelity, which I thought was a fantastic band but we couldn't get our heads above water because I was Sean Dickson of the Soup Dragons. So I had all that to deal with. It got to 2000 and I came out [as gay] and the High Fidelity exploded. Yes, I tried to kill myself. Yes, I was put in a mental unit for a while. I lost everything: I lost my home and I lost my friends, because people took sides. And then I met a man and it saved my life, and now he's my husband, and I did the thing I said I'd never do – I moved to London. He said, 'This could give you so many more opportunities in life, and you'll have somebody to look after you.' My daughter had just been born, and my ex-wife and her moved to Brighton, so I was closer to them as well."

It took a long time for Dickson to return to music. First he was invited by a friend to DJ at Glasgow Art College. "And our club became this tastemaker thing. My life was falling apart, but I'd hang out with my friend till 5 in the morning and he would help me. He was gay, which I didn't know. And when I told him I was gay, he said, 'Well you've got way too many disco records and John Waters videos.' He said, 'Who'd you think Nick is?' 'Your flatmate?' He goes, 'He's my fucking boyfriend.; I just thought he was his mate. He helped me a lot."

The real step back came in 2018 with the release of his album Ft., as HiFi Sean, with guest appearances fim, among others, Yoko Ono, Bootsy Collins, Paris Grey, Dave Ball, Alan Vega and David McAlmont, with whom he has now recorded a full album. Dickson's now a lot more contented than he was – his Instagram features plenty of pictures of his dog, and has a sense of ease about it. He's still nervy – he apologises repeatedly for talking too much – but now he's made peace with his past, and with his old friends. "It took me back to a wee happy place. I missed that friendship and that camaraderie we had. We had some amazing times, and I missed that. Once we all got talking, it was as though we always existed."

People often think the most important thing about musicians is the records they make. It's not. Artists will make good records, and they will make bad records. It's likely that many tQ readers will think of the Soup Dragons in the same way much of the press came to – as baggy bandwagon jumpers – and that's fine, but it's really not important. What matters is that these are real people, with real lives. Sean Dickson isn't defined by his career; he's defined by having found the life he needs to live. And if the worst thing he's put out into the world is a single you didn't like, well, that's hardly the worst thing in the world, is it?

'Love Is Love' by Soup Dragons is out now