It’s difficult to be retrospective when you’re a forward thinker. This is definitely the case for Baxter Dury. With a career spanning some two decades, Baxter has carved a name for himself and panache that’s unmistakable. However, with his early years marked as the son of punk icon Ian Dury, he’s also a talent with a story to tell – the sort of person with a life worthy of a novel, and the skill to execute such a task with wit and style. In Chaise Longue, Baxter’s debut autobiographical novel, he does just this, wielding his way with words through the 70s and 80s to share his coming-of-age story in the midst of artists, experimentation and a drug dealer nanny called ‘the Sulphate Strangler’.
His intimate account is an illuminating dive into bohemian west London, laced with characters that would no doubt later inform Baxter’s observational eye and knack for building worlds of offbeat characters within his songs. If releasing his biography wasn’t enough, Baxter’s also releasing a ‘Best of’ record: Mr Maserati (out 11th December). With six albums to his name, not to mention production credits and collaborations, there’s a lot to talk about. But the reason Baxter is so fascinating is because he doesn’t look backwards. And if he does, it’s with purpose. In conversation, he’s already hatching plans about what to do next.
Baxter Dury / photography by Steve Gullick
Clementine Zawadzki: Baxter, it’s pretty difficult for you to come up in conversation without ‘legend’ being followed soon after…
Baxter Dury: It’s true. I even call myself a legend these days [laughs]. Some people refer to themselves in the third party, but when people say, “Baxter Dury’s hungry,” that’s when you’ve gone really mad. “Baxter Dury loves this,” no, I’m never going to do that.
CZ: You’ve been very busy lately with the release of your book Chaise Longue, and your Best of record Mr. Maserati…
BD: I’m quite lazy though, really. But it definitely looks as though a lot is happening, yeah.
CZ: Firstly, let’s talk about your music, it’s been referred to as ‘sardonic’, ‘sordid’, ‘about the underbelly of life’. Is this about the subject matter or more an attitude?
BD: In terms of content, it’s more of a ‘sleazy’ thing I’ve chosen to talk about. If I were a novelist, I’d probably write those kinds of books. It’s a bit fictional. But, I actually feel a bit tired of it now. I’d like to do something completely different. I think not being able to sing, I sort of chose a strong personality for the music that leans towards the sleaziness of life. It’s become quite identifiable, but it’s quite theatrical too. I don’t sing, I talk, so I create a character setting.
CZ: Did that character develop immediately?
BD: A little bit, but you mutate and find your strengths, and then that forms into what you can do live. Over the years, you cook up different things. A lot of it is to keep yourself interested. Without being able to do these extended, glass-shattering notes, I need to have a reason to be on stage.
CZ: Your dad said he had a ‘sprouting voice’ and not a singing voice, and that he wasn’t at all musical. How do you view your musicality?
BD: I’d say like a creator. I guess I’m the same, it’s like I know my limitations. I enjoy my limitations a lot of the time, but then it also frustrates me a lot of the time. I think the only danger with me that closes down my creativity is that you’re slightly stuck somewhere. There are a lot of people that just talk now. I don’t think they’re in anyway encouraged by me. But there are just too many blokes talking about being off their heads. That’s why I tend to get other people around me. There’s a sort of big girl vocal thing that changes the landscape around me, but I always stay the same.
CZ: That feminine voice runs through a lot of your songs.
BD: It doesn’t have anything to do with sexual politics in any way at all. I’m not trying to address a balance. I think it’s a sonic choice, so it’s quite neutral. It has nothing to do with whether it’s a female or a male voice. Whoever is singing is sort of my voice, in a way… I think. I’ve only just worked that one out… or someone else pointed it out. It’s me, which is strange.
“ I think people with really colourful lives end up adapting them because they can’t remember how the story started.”
CZ: With the subject essentially being your voice, have you ever found yourself pulling away from a particular character or idea?
BD: You can sometimes become too personal, and then you break the surrealness of it and invite people into your real life. And then that breaks the myth of it all. Music’s got to be somewhere ‘over there’. I don’t want to get too kitchen sink drama about it. You kind of can’t quite understand what I’m talking about on purpose.
CZ: Is that what prompted you to write a novel; so elements of your life didn’t spill into the way you approach your songwriting?
BD: Not intentionally, but it just felt like the right thing to do. I had a pretty vivid childhood and I felt it was time to talk about it. I spent years going, “My dad…” and those stories become distorted. I think people with really colourful lives end up adapting them because they can’t remember how the story started. You become so used to recounting these incredible tales. I thought it was a way of reframing some of my bullshit, really. It was fun to do.
Baxter Dury / photography by Tom Beard
CZ: What do you think makes a good storyteller?
BD: I think it’s all about identifying the core of what is funny or what is tragic, and it’s not always obvious.
CZ: It seems like you’ve always been interested in characters, working in TV for a little bit and studying film in New York. Is people watching a favourite pastime?
BD: I love it. I’m obsessed with film and I’m obsessed with writers. I wish in some way… I mean I always wish, and maybe I’m doing it the long way round, but I wish I had that sort of heavy education to go into more scriptwriting. More educated observations. I was always interested in filmmaking and theatre from a young age, and quite pretentiously. That’s why I went and did a short course in New York in my early twenties, which was amazing. But I don’t think I was the way I would’ve liked to have been, like people who all went to serious universities and things, and I never went to those. But I’m getting there, slowly…
CZ: Having been around so many characters from your childhood, do you think you had to get them out of your system in a way?
BD: I guess if you’ve had a vivid childhood and were brought up with vivid experiences, you need to either talk about it or still experience that to some extent. I mean, part of my life is looking for some of that excitement still, and another part is trying to tame it. It’s an inexplicable cycle. You can only talk about those things if you’re experiencing them as well. I’m not living a crazy life by any means, because I like that stillness. It depends what happens next. You can’t totally contrive it.
CZ: You have had many steps though and worked with many people. What do you look for in a collaborator?
BD: I think it’s just the change of environment. A nice lunch and just to do something different is quite interesting. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s not fun [laughs]. It’s good though. It stops me going round in circles. I sound like I’m really beating up on music, but that’s because I’m an author. [laughs]
“I guess if you’ve had a vivid childhood and were brought up with vivid experiences, you need to either talk about it or still experience that to some extent.”
CZ: I can understand your novel and your ‘Best of’ being released around the same time, but you’re not the type to slow down. So what was the thought behind your ‘Best of’?
BD: Well, it was someone else’s thought. A ‘Best of’ just sounds a bit nobby. It’s an event around another event. So my big event was writing a book, and I was supposed to put an album out but I didn’t have one, so we have a ‘Best of’. I suppose I do have twenty years in the game, so it’s just a compilation. I shouldn’t say that, because it doesn’t sound like I’m trying to sell it. I’ve got to have a more positive spin this morning. It’s an event and you’ve got to have events going on, it’s good. It’s got a funny name, and it’s nice to see those songs in a collection, to see a development, but it’s not a big, overthought thing.
CZ: Do you see your albums almost like chapters?
BD: A little bit. I’m just not very historical. I don’t really look back. [Although] I think it’s good to be a bit nostalgic. A friend of mine runs a record company who were looking after Bryan Ferry, and when they asked him to send his press photos they were from 1972. They’d say, “Bryan, is this recent?” and he wouldn’t admit they were from 40 years ago.
Baxter Dury / photography by Tom Beard
CZ: Is music something you shared with your dad or did you distance yourself from it?
BD: We talked about it, but he was a different personality to the way I am. I found it difficult to be really creative in front of him. Sometimes I was. I played him a couple of things once before, but I wasn’t really in the process by the time he died. I’m sure he would’ve become soft and open to it all now.
CZ: What was it like working with your son on your recent release D.O.A?
BD: There was a sort of forced predicament because of lockdown and we were just hanging out. He’s pretty smart and just does what he wants. He sort of threw me a scrap and went, “Here you go.” I was looking for something different. The relationship is a bit biased: he’s in charge. He doesn’t really care about ‘working for me’ or anything. It’s not like, “Wow, I’ve got an opportunity to work for dad,” he just threw me a bone and I went, “Thank you!” [laughs] He’s not shown any continued interest in working together, which is quite funny. And credit to him, I don’t think he wants to get stuck in some family vacuum. He’s really tall, symmetrical, and can sing…. maybe he’s not my son.
“They’re talking about potentially making the book into a TV series…”
CZ: In your catalogue, is there any album you saw yourself really kick into gear?
BD: Yeah, there’s one album Prince of Tears (2017) that depicts a hard time I was experiencing, and I think I nailed it. Whether it’s better written and stuff, I’m not sure. But I can still feel some of the lyrics and tear-soaked aspects to it. Sometimes music is an exercise in just making music, and sometimes you get what you’re feeling because you’ve got no choice.
CZ: You say you want to move away from your current approach. Do you know what your something new is yet?
BD: Sort of. You can hear in my tone by the way I’m talking that I’m having a crisis. Not really, but I can’t do the same format. I need to shift somewhere else for myself, and maybe no one will even notice what’s different about it. Maybe something more electronic based? I like those rap… I sounded like a real prick just then, “I’m really into those rap guys in America,” but like Kendrick and those amazing rappers making interesting music. I’m quite into dance music and I never thought I would be. I’m not sure how that marries up yet. The little bits of collaborative music I’ve done with people who do dance was really good. All their studios are androgynous, as in they don’t have any equipment anymore. I kind of envy that. They just switch on the lights, drink some pineapple juice, and they’ve made a song in an hour. There’s no stress, it’s massive with loads of Spotify hits, and they’re all happy. I’m thinking, “This is the way forward.”
CZ: If the work evolves as you evolve, what do you think your songs so far say about your growth?
BD: I’m not an architect. I’m not sitting down and drawing plans. I just think what impulsively happens next makes you feel good. I haven’t thought about it much. I’m just bored of sitting there with a band and big string section doing what I’ve done already. I just want a guy with one machine wearing some designer clothes. I’m looking for something else interesting. They’re talking about potentially making the book into a TV series…
CZ: That’s amazing. How do you feel about that?
BD: I feel really good about it… so long as it’s good. I’d like to see myself in as many formats as possible.
Baxter Dury’s autobiography ‘Chaise Lounge’ is out now.
Mr Maserati is out 11th December 2021 via Rough Trade – pre-order here.