Interview: ORIGINALS… HiFi Sean
They say that there are ‘no second acts in American lives’… but that’s clearly not the case in Scotland, where the one-time frontman of pioneering indie rockers The Soup Dragons, Sean Dickson, has reinvented himself as one of electronic music’s leading tunesmiths, HiFi Sean.
Over the course of more than three decades, Sean has quite literally ‘bought the ticket and taken the ride’ – from rocking acid house sessions in the late 80s, to hanging out with ‘party monster’ Michael Alig in New York, to working with John Peel on his pre-HiFi Sean project, The High Fidelity.
That he was able to battle back from depression to record one of the decade’s best debut albums, 2015’s Ft., makes his journey all the more impressive.
Sean plays Dublin’s Mother club this coming Saturday (23 February), and ahead of that, 909originals caught up with the Bellshill native as part of our ORIGINALS interview series.
Over to you, Sean.
Q. How did you first get into music?
My first recollection of making music was visiting my aunt around the age of four. She had a piano and I would (supposedly) play little riffs on it every visit. My parents noticed that I started to play the same ones every time we visited – as in I was remembering and composing my own little pieces.
Following on from this, my Dad bought me my first record player at the age of five – an Alba Dansette – and I would be fascinated by the fact that music would come off these flat, round plastic things.
I totally destroyed my parents’ record collection by ‘playing’ them on the garden step, with sticks spinning them and stones as the stylus.
Q. Do you remember the first album you bought, and/or the first album that had a big influence on you? Why?
First album that was bought for me was What The World Needs Now Is Love by Jackie De Shannon. I didn’t choose it for the music – I was 6 – but my Dad said I was fascinated by the leather effect embossed sleeve and that’s why he bought it for me! Most of the tracks are produced by Burt Bacharach and his stunning string arrangements – this, I suppose, must have influenced by my love of string arranging, which has featured a lot during my career.
First album I bought myself was T-Rex’s The Slider – a classic rock album with a groove to dance to. My kind of dance music.
Q. Growing up in Bellshill, near Glasgow, what were the options if you wanted to go out and listen to music?
There was a local disco called The Charleston which played the pop hits of those days but myself and Norman [Blake, Teenage Fanclub] , Duglas [T. Stewart, BMX Bandits] would take up our Orange Juice, The Pastels and Jesus and Mary Chain 7-inches and get the DJ to play them.
We would jump on the dancefloor and bop about to the startled looks of others. Eventually they would join us. Looking back, it seems like some bizarre US high school movie scene, with the rebels showing off against the high school jocks.
And, of course, there was The Hattonrigg, which I lived across from, where we started to put on our own nights and play with various bands we would invent. These eventually became the bands we are known for.
Q. Why do you think a town like Bellshill spawned its own ‘sound’, leading to the creation of The Soup Dragons, BMX Bandits, Teenage Fanclub?
Well the sound I suppose of those three bands were spawned from our friendship and musical education growing up, and listening to John Peel and Janice Long .
We spent a long time in various each other’s bedrooms playing records to each other, which then led to us making little albums of our own on C-60 cassettes.
Q. What drove you to start making music?
It was something that was in my blood and from an early age I realised it gave me such a great feeling of being alive. To this day I still get that feeling and never want it to stop.
Q. The Soup Dragons’ career overlapped the emergence of acid house and rave, in what ways did this influence your music both at the time and retrospectively, looking back?
The Soup Dragons really are the most misquoted band; there were so many unfair injustices, off the back of music journalism faux pas.
Production wise, we were one of the first of the indie bands of that time to release a white label promo, Mother Universe, which was picked up by the acid house DJs, back in early 1989. It was being played by people like Terry Farley from Boys Own and other well known DJs.
I was attracted to the energy of the raves I was going to, back in 88/89, and to me it had the same punk aesthetics as the music I was making in my band up until then. I thought ‘this is the future’.
Our drummer had just left to go back to art school, so I bought a Akai Sampler and an Atari computer and started messing with loops, which in the scheme of things added the psychedelia that I had always strived for but could not bring to fruition.
If you listen to those tracks, and the eventual album Lovegod, which came out at the start of 1990, it sounds nothing like the bands the press lumped us in with [Stone Roses, Happy Mondays etc] . It really annoys me that I and that band have never been credited for a lot of the things we did first – and of our own accord – and not by the hands of other DJs or producers.
The things we did were all my ideas and concepts; even the record sleeve, which was based on a design by mathematician Dr. Benoit Mandlebrot – known for his fractal theories. I contacted him via the London Science Museum, and he even gave me access to his movies of his fractals to use in the video to Mother Universe.
And then BOOM, within three months of us releasing the album and the video, those fractals became the psychedelic look of acid house. And, guess what, were were suddenly ‘jumping on someone elses’s bandwagon’ for something that we did in the first place. It was so frustrating.
Also, a line in the music press I was always hounded with was, “There has always been a dance element to our record collections”. They dropped one word, “collections”, to make me look like a fool in the interview and that quote was repeated endlessly… to this very day, in fact.
Why would I say our records were dance records when they were not? What would be the point of me saying that?
Of course our record collections contained many dance records: soul, disco, house, you name it.
It was all indie schoolboy bullshit written by people who had never even stepped into a club, but wanted to punish us for stepping out of the field were known for up to that point and embracing contemporary technology.
I still stand tall though to know that Mother Universe was one of the first ‘indie dance’ records to cross over into the acid scene. That term was once used to describe it in a sarcastic fashion, as in ‘not dance enough to be dance, not indie enough to be indie’.
But it is a respected genre within the electronic and dance music scene now, and a record I wrote and produced was probably the first to be described as that.
Q. Scotland embraced acid house in a big way – in what ways did you notice things changing: attitudes, music, parties etc?
I remember around that time there was a weekly acid house party in Glasgow called Universe, and we were asked to do a PA of that 12″ white label of Mother Universe.
Now, we were a live guitar band and asked by ‘what do you mean by a PA’? And they just said ‘mime to the track’. Payment was a massive bag of ecstasy!
It was fantastic – a moment where my mind exploded, leading to the album Lovegod.
Q. Do you think there was ‘unfinished business’ with The Soup Dragons? Or did it have a natural conclusion?
The conclusion was not natural, it was forced. But by then, the bad apple had rotted the core and the soul was gone.
I was left to piece together a last album, which was already written, with pressure from the US-based record label off the back of two big selling albums. In hindsight, I wished I had never done this.
There were way too many drugs involved, and I was letting ‘yes men’ convince me it was the right thing to do. They were dangling a carrot in front of me – saying I could live in New York, make an album in Jimi Hendrix’s bedroom at Electric Ladyland, and get to work with members of The Specials, Talking Heads and Funkadelic.
I spent a year in New York partying hard and being under the illusion what I was doing was great, when it was not. To be honest I should have taken a few years off after the band split, before starting The High Fidelity.
I do not regret the period I lived in New York, though, as I made some lifelong friends and those clubbing experiences led to the mindset I have now about making music. It was a great period for my education… and miseducation.
Q. Was the New York club scene as hedonistic as movies like Party Monster illustrate?
And more..! I used to go to Michaels Alig’s parties. I even met Angel Melendez, the guy he is known for killing.
Back then, it was like all of a sudden, New York’s underground club scene was taken over by three-foot-platform wearing club kids all wankered on ketamine. People were breaking into veterinary clinics everywhere to get it.
To be honest, that drug was never my cup of tea. I remember once being around someone’s apartment before heading out to the Limelight and I was like ‘oh, whats for dinner, there’s something cooking in the oven’? They were all rolling around at my naivety.
Club USA, which they ran in midtown, was INSANE. I mean how many clubs had a full size Helter Skelter that you could slide down, from the top floor to the bottom dance floor? And yes, the character played by Marilyn Manson in the Party Monster film did control the elevator, and you never got to the floor you wanted, which added to the whole genius chaos of it all.
It all felt so anarchic and punk rock.
Q. How did you get into DJing?
Around the time of The High Fidelity I was asked to fill in for a DJ friend one night at a club I used to go to called the Buff Club. She knew I had tonnes of disco and funk records and said I would be great, as she couldn’t make the night.
That led to me filling in for her one night at Glasgow School of Art, where I met Alan Miller [aka DJ Hush] , who was playing after me. We got on like a house on fire and became best friends. We started a weekly party called Record Playerz, which was a family affair and always packed. That ran for many years, before I ended up moving to London.
I have hugely fond memories of those years and those parties and Alan is still the one person I would quote as having the best record collection I know of.
Q. Do you think The High Fidelity project gave you the opportunity to express yourself a bit more musically, try new things?
I am so proud of The High Fidelity. Bollywood Orchestras, electronic meanderings, garage punk aesthetics, lo-fi and hi-fi flip sides on singles. Those two albums are something that mean a lot to me. I love those three other guys [bandmates Adrian Barry, Paul Dallaway and Ross McFarlane] and we should have been bigger than The Beatles .
But I fucked it up completely by coming out as gay and totally nosediving into a world of depression and self loathing.
Q. There was a sizeable gap between The High Fidelity and your comeback, first as Up Yours (alongside Severino Panzetta) and then as HiFi Sean. What were the factors that led you to return to music?
I think I started to beat myself up, as in ‘if I do not get back to making music I never will’. So I gave myself a concept project that would throw me deep back into it.
That’s how, after 15 years, the album Ft. came about.
Q. What is the story behind the Hifi Sean moniker?
That goes back to Record Playerz and Alan Miller, who asked me one day ‘what do you want to be called on the poster’? I have a DJ name, so what’s yours?’
At that point, emails were pretty new, and the members of The High Fidelity all had one based on our names: Hifi Sean, Hifi Paul, Hifi Adrian and Hifi Ross. Alan used that, and that’s where it came from.
And yes, to this very day, I still have the very same email address.
Q. The Ft. album was an impressive mix of electro, house, funk, disco, pop, classical: were you paying tribute to different sides of your musical past?
I approached it with the view it might be the last album I ever make, so I wanted to make a snapshot of everything that has been part of my life including the artists I was involved with. I thought: ‘if I was the curator of my own musical art show this is what I would present’.
Q. Of the collaborators on the album, who were you most surprised said yes?
Paris Grey from Inner City, mainly due to the fact she no longer records. I have my good friend Ralphi Rosario to thank for that, helping me reach out to her and saying how much he liked the track.
She agreed to take part and got back in the studio… and blew the vocal out of this world.
Q. Anyone you reached out to that you didn’t get to work with?
No, and that is a fact that still astonishes me. Everyone I reached out to agreed.
Q. The track featuring Alan Vega [the lead singer of Suicide] ,A Kiss Before Dying, is particularly poignant given the fact it’s the last thing he recorded.
Alan passed away literally a few weeks before the album came out. What I was glad about was that he loved the finished track with the orchestration. What I find sad, however, is that he never got to hear the great reaction that it received.
Q. How is the new album coming along?
Wonderful. Myself and David McAlmont have become a team for this and have been writing and recording beautiful psychedelic electronic soul odysseys.
This album is not a club album as such, as I want to get back to the pure essence of a songwriting team – working together and creating lasting melodies. But there are a few moments you can lubricate your living room to as well.
Q. Tell us about your most recent release?
I have just released a track called Mess Up on Dutch label Animal Language, as part of a concept EP featuring artists that have to use only eight elements in each track.
I did mine as a homage to my teenage hero producer Martin Rushent, who introduced me to the word ‘dub’, which literally took my teenage mind to different places. It was a fun project to be part of, and the track turned out great.
Q. What is a piece of musical trivia that very few people know about you?
Prince was once heard singing The Soup Dragons’ Divine Thing. Whenever I am having a bad day I think of this fact.
[Thanks to Sean for the interview. Tickets for this Saturday’s Mother club gig in Dublin can be purchased here. For more information, visit HiFi Sean’s Facebook page.]