The Damned — formed in ‘76 — was the first British punk act to release an studio album on Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera’s famed UK indie label Stiff Records. A true punk-rock institution, which nevertheless shouldn’t be confined to a singular genre, the band has endured lineup changes, breakups, and personal differences, to remain at the forefront of gothic rock and new wave. As the group’s 40th (technically 41st) anniversary tour heads to St. Petersburg’s State Theatre on May 13, we dialed up frontman Dave Vanian for a chat.
He talked to us about everything under the sun including motorcycles, Phantom Chords and the band's new album.
See the full interview below, and get more information on the show via local.cltampa.com.
This will be my third time going to your 40th Anniversary show. I was at the 40th Anniversary kick off in London last year at the Royal Albert Hall. That was an amazing show, what was that experience like for you?
I think that when you have a show like that, it’s a once in a lifetime thing for everyone in the band, when everything comes together like that. It just seems like the band coming home and the audience wanting us to win something. Especially with all the hard times that we’ve gone through over the years.
I know that your daughter came out and played (violin) for the encore of Curtain Call, I bet that was a proud moment for you.
I was very humbled
I’ve always considered The Damned to be the first British punk rock band, and not because of the timetable in which you did things, but how you did them. The band’s beginning were not a hatched publicity stunt or an art piece like The Pistols or a political movement like The Clash. The Damned were really the first DIY band and in some ways still are.
It’s very true, the timing for us in the forefront and the actual reasons we did things were just to be a band. As you said it wasn’t an business behind it you know.”
Exactly, and that’s the right reasons for doing it.
Ya, it was kind of funny for us, at the time there were people going “punk rock’s this blah blah blah” putting out laws and rules that shouldn’t have been there. We were out there living the way it was, we were being punk rock not by choice it’s just the way it was. I think we were making the right decisions, but not always.
My all time favorite album is Machine Gun Etiquette, I spent many hours woodshedding it and learning the bass lines track by track when I started out as a musician.
It was a great album for us, it started our transition period because obviously Brian (James) had written the first album and the band had split up at that point and Machine Gun Etiquette and the Black Album showed what we were capable of.
You definitely came back with a vengeance. I’m happy you’re doing a full U.S. tour this time around. On October of you did a small 40th anniversary tour of the West Coast and New York during Halloween at Gramercy Theater, I was at that show.
Yes, the Halloween shows. It was very fun.
I don’t think that I’m wrong in saying that The Damned are one of the primary reasons that there is a punk scene on the West Coast, you were and are a huge influence to many bands that came out of California.
That’s a big statement, we certainly helped, but I think in an equal way that what happened was when the Ramones came to London and a lot of bands started up like Billy Idol, Adam Ant, and those kind of people were in the front row that day and were like, “We’re gonna form a band”. Originally the Damned’s roots were steeped in the American 60s garage bands of the time, and it’s always been a big part of who we are I think, and those are the bands that we liked. They weren’t big bands they made a few records and then disappeared but they shown brilliantly.
I know, bands like the 13th Floor Elevators, the Stooges, and MC-5.
Yes, and even further back bands like The Left Bank, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Seeds, and Shadows of Knight. I remember the first British tour that I did. I was so happy to get a "Shadows Of Knight" deleted single because it was almost impossible to find anything in England like that at the time. I think I found “Oh Yeah” which is where Bowie must have gotten the idea for “Jean Genie” from because it’s almost identical; if you listened to it you’d be surprised.
The Damned were never afraid to experiment with styles from album to album and draw on your influences and turn it into your own unique style.
That was the whole point for us, we didn’t want to keep writing the same songs we wanted to experiment and push our own boundaries as well. We were always reaching for something that was a little almost unobtainable, I think it’s good for a musician because it helps you grow. We’re really lucky that when we’re doing it, it’s different, and the audience doesn’t expect it to be the same. They like the change.
I’ve always looked forward to the differences from album to album, and that you stayed true to yourself and what you wanted to do and that you still do that to this day.
We try to.
How is this tour going so far?
It’s been good, it’s been pretty hectic the audiences have been absolutely great and they really appreciate what we’re doing. A lot of young kids coming down to see us, who just found out about us through the Internet I guess? Generally the band is playing really well, we’re quite excited because we signed a record deal in London. And although the deal is for an English label we signed it in California, so with that and the pledge campaign, it enables us to put out an album which we’ll be working on and as soon as we get back that’s what we’re going to throw ourselves into.
How is the track writing going with the new album?
I’ve never track written on the road its very difficult, we have a lot of material flying around it’s just a matter of putting it someplace that starts to become enough tracks to do what we need rather than masses of music. It’s interesting ‘cause Damned albums don’t generally form as a complete idea they kind of grow more organically. So we never know quite what it’s going to become, and this album is no exception.
That’s good because when it’s formulated that’s when you become stuck in a rut.
I think so too.
Do you have any projects from The Phantom Chords or have you put that on the back burner for right now?
Well the Phantom Chords have been on the back burner for a while, I don’t remember how long it’s been. But the good news is I am going to release a box set. We found the original DAT copies of the mixes with the albums that we released so we’re going to be able to take that, maybe remix it a little bit. There were some extra tracks on them that we forgot about that no one’s ever heard. I might even add some more to it and there are some American tracks that I did, the idea is to put the whole thing together and explain the story behind it all, put it out as a lovely box set on Chiswick or Big Beat Records and put it out by the end of the year. I’ll be putting that together in between working on The Damned stuff. I don’t know if I’ll actually do any gigs with it, I might try and form a band and try to do a few special shows but who knows.
That’s great I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that. I know that you’re a big collector of vintage motorcycles, have you had any recent acquisitions?
I bought my first modern motorcycle, a 2004 Triumph Bonneville, I thought it would be really nice to have something modern. It’s tough riding a hand changer 1942 Harley in London traffic sometimes, what happened was I kept seeing them and I didn’t like the way they looked when they first came out and then they slimmed them down and they started looking like real Triumph’s again and I kept reading great things about them then a friend of mine brought one around and said, “Have a run around the block on it,” and it reminded me so much of riding my old Daytona in a way, although it’s a bit bulkier, it handles, and stops and starts beautifully of course. So I decided to get one, and found one cheap so I stripped it down and made it into a nice PT Racer, and it’s a dependable bike I can whip out if I have to go somewhere quickly.
I understand, you won’t have to worry about anything going awry on it.
It copes with modern speeds and traffic and like you said you don’t have to worry about the clutch slipping a bit when getting stuck in traffic too long and over heating, it just runs beautifully and stripped down it’s a little lighter and leaner and runs a bit better so it’s exactly what I need.
Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to speak with me.
The most exciting thing will be that there is a new Damned album on the horizon, and it will be a case of either people will love it or hate it because it’s not going to be the same old same old because we always approach writing albums with the idea that it’s the music that leads it, not what people want. When we realize we’ve created something good, we like it, [and] we hope others will. At first sometimes people don’t like it, and weirdly a few years go by and they become the most requested songs that people want to hear. So we’ll see.
I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Nice talking to you.