For every lousy band that clutters up the charts with disposable pop, there are ten musical artists more deserving of such success — who, for whatever reason, just can’t quite manage to get there.
And for every hundred of those, there’s one no-question, sure-thing, utterly brilliant group of musicians that still, for some unknown reason, just doesn’t reach that all-important tipping point.
The Catherine Wheel was one such band.
by Nancy J Price
Rob Dickinson behind the Wheel
Their vibrant, richly-textured brand of music put to shame many of the other British groups who were likewise saddled with the shoegazer label. Quite simply, “The Wheel” had every single piece of the puzzle in place: The talent. The songs. The sound. The creativity. The look. Forgive the name that might lead you to believe you’re going to hear a girl on vocals, and you have the makings of a platinum-selling career.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. But that’s not to say the band didn’t enjoy success — over the course of a decade, they were, in fact, lauded as critical darlings, released six albums, toured with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and INXS, and to this day have ardent fans all around the world. (Their best known song stateside is probably “Black Metallic” — see the video below.)
So while not wholly mired in obscurity, they didn’t exactly set the world on fire, either. Kindly put: Catherine Wheel was one of the music world’s best kept secrets.
The point of all this background? To really understand where Rob Dickinson, Catherine Wheel’s charismatic leader, could go with his newly-minted solo career, you have to keep in mind where he’s come from, and the breadth of his work.
But while the band’s history may serve as a frame of reference, that chapter of his life is not really something that’s on the forefront of Rob’s mind. “I’m proud of the music we made, but it’s something that… well, I don’t have any pictures — I didn’t take any pictures and I never recorded the history during the ten years with the band at all. It just didn’t ever occur to me,” he says. “I’m a forward looker, I like to think.”
Mr Dickinson’s latest work is a prime example of what can be achieved by looking ahead — and when music is made for its own sake, not custom-built to appeal to the masses. While there’s always the danger that an artist on such an individualistic bent will go off the avant-garde deep end, his debut, “Fresh Wine for the Horses” is hardly inaccessible. The album serves up 11 deliciously diverse, well-crafted tunes, each delivered by Rob’s sublimely dynamic — and always distinctive — voice.
On his last jaunt through the US, I had a chance to meet with the man, and we discussed everything from the band’s demise to the expectations for his new album. And Rob himself? Despite many reports tagging him a private and enigmatic figure, the person I met proved to be very accessible, openly friendly — and someone who is clearly just as delighted by his fans as they are by him.
I tell you: Though recent years were unsung, if life decides to play fair with Rob Dickinson this time around, sparks are gonna fly.
Nancy J Price: I know you recently introduced yourself onstage as the former singer for Catherine Wheel, and then you added, “Well, maybe not former.” What’s that about?
Rob Dickinson: I don’t think the band ever split up. We just stopped because no one seemed to be paying attention any more. Our manager termed it a band that was just “parked.”
I never say the band split up — we just felt that we didn’t have another record in us. I think the band had reached its natural zenith. I think every band has a natural arch of visibility and profile, and I think we were slowly coming down the other side.
It’s just a lot of effort to put into something when people weren’t listening. The rest of the guys had mortgages and families and stuff, and so another 18 months — or another album, or another tour — seemed like a bit of a stretch at the time, so we just stopped.
It would be nice to play with those guys again, but we’re certainly not planning on it. I’m sure that before we all die, we’ll all get together and play again.
NJP: What have you been doing since the band “parked”?
Rob Dickinson: Well, I made it to New York, and wrote 70 percent of the record there. I had a tough time in getting enough momentum to finish the record, and I flew to LA to talk to some people to work with, and found this guy David Rolfe and produced a record with him. That was in 2003, so it took two and a half to three years to get to that position.
It all took a long time. The writing took a long time — and the recording, the mixing, the mastering took three months. And the inevitable success of the record is taking longer than expected. (laughs)
NJP: Do you often write your songs with a sort of audience in mind?
Rob Dickinson: No. They’re all for me, most of these songs. [“Intelligent People”] is for me — it’s advice. It’s advice that I’ve lived by myself, and I certainly believe that. But I’m not very good at writing story songs. They’re usually navel-gazing songs, songs about me. I find it curiously easy to talk about intimate things in songs, though I don’t enjoy talking about them. I’d much rather defer the subject to someone else and talk about some of the stuff I get into in some of the songs.
NJP: So what are you looking forward to right now?
Rob Dickinson: Well, this record has been out for a while now [since late 2005] and the record company is trying to plug it. Sanctuary Records went through some difficulties, which kind of affected the promotion of my record. So we are trying to get my record re-released under Universal in Canada by the look of it, and we are looking to get it re-released in this country, released properly in Europe and stuff. So that’s the main thing at the moment.
Probably going to try to make another record this year. But I don’t think this record is over and done with yet. I think there’s some life left in this one. I think it will run its course and I’ll know when it’s ready to move on from there. I know it’s not the time yet.
SK: What do you see for yourself going forward into the future?
Rob Dickinson: I find myself branching out. I just started a song with BT – the DJ BT. He’s a DJ, but he also makes his own records, and he does a lot of film scoring. He scored Monster, the Charlize Theron movie, as well as other movies.
This BT thing is like a rave dance track. He was a big fan of the band, and wanted this kind of trippy blitzed-out kind of vocal, and it sounds great. So hopefully he’ll ask me to go on his records and it’ll be interesting. He’s convinced it’s a major disco hit, dance hit. Apparently he took it to Germany a few weeks ago and played it to 20,000 people at a rave in Munich, and he said they went nuts for it.
I’ve always looked on at these people who have side projects, and side bands, and seem to be doing all these different things, and I’m thinking, “How do they do that? How do they find the time to do that, and the energy?” And I’ve found just living in LA, people have been asking me to do this stuff and it’s kind of interesting.
My music has always been so insular and inward-looking for me. I sang a couple of songs on Jimmy Chamberlin’s solo record from the [Smashing] Pumpkins, and it’s the first time I’ve ever recorded a vocal — a lyric which I hadn’t written myself. So in many ways, I feel like I’m dropping some of my musical baggage and letting my hair down a little bit and not being quite so precious about music and working with people I wouldn’t usually have dreamt of working with.
And that’s another thing that the band — we were all rather precious about what we did. I think with good reason and with good results. But right now, I’m thinking about maybe producing some people.
So there’s still lots of musical stuff going on, and I’m also going to start my own design company. I’m going to design, build and sell motorcycles and cars. It’s something that’s probably not going to happen for a while yet, but definitely, I’m going to push that one through. I really miss — in these interim years after the band stopped — I was always thoroughly immersed in everything in the car world and the motorcycle world. I think I’ll do something with that again, and I think California is a great place to do that.
NJP: What are your thoughts on the new era of music distribution — tracks available online, marketing yourself on the Internet…
Rob Dickinson: I think every musician should be ready to give their music away before expecting people to buy it. The writing’s on the wall. I think record stores have a limited life ahead of them and I think music is going to come from the Internet. It’s going to be downloaded and they’ll download the artwork if they choose to.
You realize it’s perfect. It’s a direct link to your audience, it’s a direct link for remuneration — it’s immediate. And, of course, the record companies are terrified of this because the control is slipping out of their hands and there are young bands starting that have no idea that record companies used to be important because their significance is lessening almost every day.
It’s a rush working with this guy BT, he is — as you can imagine, a techie guy — totally understanding of the powers of the Internet and the technology. He’s got six interns working for him. He’s got four studio stations in his house. It’s just like this factory of people and networking and people doing this. So he just puts a record out, sells a quarter of a million records, immediately, overnight. It’s just a question of who presses the button. Purely because of the work his minions have done and drawing attention to it. You do not need the record company. I mean a record company is good for helping you get on the Lettermanshow, and with that kind of gruntwork and with that kind of power and with getting on the world of the radio, those are some things that record companies still have a lot of influence in.
But in terms of really making a living out of making music, it’s basically been good. And employing the right people to get your music out on the Internet is just a question of doing the right things and sitting someone down, paying them for three or four hours a day, and sending your music off to people for free. Hopefully they like it, keep coming back, and they’ll buy it. It is just a war of attrition. You hope that if you do it long enough it will work, if what you have is good — and that’s certainly something I’m going to pursue.
NJP: How do you feel about everything that happened with your previous musical career — the critical success that just never quite got there? Now that you look back at it…
Rob Dickinson: I’ve said before that I considered it like an apprenticeship, really. It was hard at the time, ’cause you’re so close to it and you see other bands that maybe you don’t think are as good as you are doing better than you are. It’s tough at the time, but we made records that are going to be discovered by people in the future, and I don’t think the band is going to be forgotten about totally.
And we achieved a lot. We didn’t sell a million records and we didn’t become rock stars, but I’m not sure that’s what the plan was. You get on the gravy train and other people start telling you that this is what is going to happen and at the time it’s easy to start believing it. But, luckily nothing ever got in the way of the importance of the main thing, which is music. We weren’t strangled by record company pressures to make certain types of records or repeat previous successes or anything like that.
We operated rather unusually in that the band was on a major label having quite a lot of money thrown at it and we were allowed to do whatever we wanted to do, which doesn’t really happen anymore. We were one of the last few album bands through the gate before they shut the doors on that kind of behavior. Bands who made expensive records with expensive tours — and we didn’t sell that many records, and we were still allowed to do it again. Because in some sense they were investing in the future, which they were. And we had a very good manager, and he was very persuasive.
Yes, the band made good records and people were always surprised that we didn’t sell as many as they predicted. At the time, it was tricky for us all I think — but at the same time, I don’t think we allowed it to affect the music.
When I remember back to when the band started, I thought what I would be happy achieving was on a far lesser scale on what we ended up achieving. I think you have to put it into that kind of perspective. I would have been happy — I was happy when the band started — and was hoping we would do a UK tour and put a single out. You achieve these goals and you’ve never even registered that you have achieved them, and the next thing, and the next thing, and you are constantly looking forward. So it’s all good. I think it’s all good. The music is there.
NJP: If you could go back to when Catherine Wheel first began in 1990 and give yourself some advice, is there something you’d like to tell yourself?
Rob Dickinson: Yes, I’d tell myself to enjoy it more and don’t worry so much. Ten years of worrying tortured me to be honest, from doing doing what a lot of people want to do: touring the world in a rock band. I didn’t really get much of a kick out of it. That’s because I was very worried about writing the next record, and worried that the band wasn’t doing as well as it should be. I was a big worrier.
It just became… lots of disappointments, and nothing was ever good enough for me. In hindsight, we did a lot and we did well. I just wish I enjoyed it more.
NJP: Do you feel that you’ve learned from that now — are you really trying to enjoy it? Love it, be present?
Rob Dickinson: Yes, absolutely. I think I need to. I think that part of the problem with the band was that there were a lot of expectations, and we sucked up a lot of the expectations of other people who were around the group I think. At the same time, the records are very selfish records — I mean they’re there to please ourselves, and we probably did please ourselves.
In spite of doing that, I would say I didn’t get much enjoyment out of it. I think you have to do what you do and then put it out there and not worry about what happens to it. I mean obviously you have to draw as much attention to it as possible, and that’s a healthy thing, but I think you just have to keep going. And if it is done from the right spirit, with the right intentions I think you will get what you deserve. You know what I mean? And maybe that is selling a million records, and maybe that isn’t.
In other words, you just have to do things for the right reasons. If you are in this business to make lots of money, I’m certainly making the wrong kind of music. But this is the music I make. This is what I naturally do. This is what’s honest and sincere for me to do, and it will be what it will be.
NJP: Did you have any particular expectations for this, your first solo album?
Rob Dickinson: I tried not to, because I don’t think it’s necessarily the healthiest thing to have, but I knew it was a good record. Part of the reason it took so long is I made damn sure it was a good record.
I’m a big believer in things being discovered when they’re meant to be discovered. So we’ll see. I’m doing all I can to draw attention to it in modest ways that I have at my disposal. It will be what it will be, and I will be happy with it. I’m sure I had some expectations, but I was pretty realistic in knowing that it wouldn’t happen overnight. It would be a slow kind of burn. I know it’s not over yet, so we’ll see.
Every time I play — especially playing with an audience that doesn’t necessarily know my satellite stuff, and may have heard of the band but aren’t too aware of what I’ve done — it’s brilliant. I sold a thousand dollars worth of CDs last night to Church [the band] fans. (laughs) I sold the new record, and it was like — you know you’re on to something. It’s not a question of flogging an average record or hanging onto a career by your fingernails because there’s nothing else you can do.
If anything, after 15 years of doing this, I’m a fucking realist. And I know I have something to offer. I made a strong record, and what more to keep you buoyant and positive? That’s all I need to know.
Once you’ve got that kind of confirmation each night, you know there really isn’t something else you should be doing if you’re sensible. I know this is what I should be doing. I know that there’s nothing else that would get me out of bed in the morning other than doing this. And that’s worth everything to me.
Rob Dickinson: “Oceans” video (2006)
Catherine Wheel: “Black Metallic” video (1992)