When Doves fly
A gritty rehearsal space in a glum suburb of Manchester might seem a strange place to come in search of the future of rock and roll, but it is here we find Doves, a band poised to sweep all before them in 2009 -- finally. "The younger generation, they're not as equipped for hardship are they?" ruminates Jez Williams, Doves' matey, crumpled frontman. "People who are in school now, teenagers and the like, they haven't experienced real want."
He's contemplating the future of rock and roll -- a genre which, were you to believe the more excitable elements of the music press and blogosphere is, if not quite expired, certainly on life-support.
Taking its place, we're told, is a new brand of pop star: absurdly young, inordinately self-possessed and, as likely as not, female and toting a synthesizer. For examples, look no further than this year's crop of buzzy Gen Y contenders: The Virgins, Little Boots and La Roux -- artists worth adoring for their superb hair as much as for their chops as songwriters.
But fears that old-school rock is bound for the junk-yard may be exaggerated. In fact, perhaps the opposite's the case. Consider Doves, three careworn thirtysomethings, whose emotion-soaked fourth album, Kingdom Of Rust, is already being proclaimed one of the year's most important records -- nothing less, in fact, than 2009's answer to Elbow's Mercury-winning The Seldom Seen Kid. In a culture where almost everything is tangential, coy and self-consciously small, it's an LP that dares to think big.
The thing is, Doves aren't the only ones thunking a drum for unreconstructed rock thrills. Ahead of us awaits a veritable summer of sweaty guitar shenanigans. At Slane, Oasis will play their biggest show since their era-defining 1996 turn at the UK's Knebworth Castle. Meanwhile, The Enemy, three English Midlanders, who couldn't be more 'mod' were they to arrive on stage on scooters sporting Paul Weller T-shirts, are about to unveil a bombastic new piece, Music For The People. In the US, Downpatrick glam-metallers The Answer are being feted as the second coming (of AC/DC). Even The Prodigy -- essentially a heavy metal band with whacking great beats on top -- are storming back with their finest album in a decade. If rock is dead then it's enjoying one hell of an aftershow party.
"We don't care about fashion, about being the hottest new thing," says The Enemy's Andy Hopkins, musing about the pre-eminence of non-rock and roll acts in the affections of tastemakers. "We're three guys from a typical city and we do what we do. We try not to analyse it to death."
Doves, it's fair to say, have rather more grandiose ambitions than such comments would suggest. On Kingdom Of Rust, they make a courageous bid for old-fashioned stadium-proportioned grandeur. From its melodramatic title to its brooding guitars and atmosphere of oppressive melancholy, this is a record that practically gets down on its knees and pleas to be considered a Work of Serious Art. Nowt wrong with that (as these affable Mancs might say) -- particularly at a time when many younger acts' greatest ambition is a slavering write-up on Pitchfork and their picture in a Topshop window display.
"Somebody asked us if the album about society collapsing, what with the title and all," says Williams. "You know, 'is it about decay or things falling away?' Well that certainly wasn't intentional -- it was about personal things we were all going through. Some days it's an effort to get through life. But that's what's great about music -- there are always interpretations people can bring to it."
Still, there's one seismic shift from which not even the most unreconstructed rock group is immune: the rise of illicit downloading. And sometimes changes in the culture can take a little getting used to. When EMI Records suggested Doves post Jetstream, Kingdom Of Rust's opening track -- and one of its defining moments -- on the band's MySpace page, Williams and company were a shade nonplussed. What? Give away their music for free?
"That was a new one on us," says guitarist Jimi Goodwin. "Obviously things have changed a lot in the three-and-a-half years since we last put an album out. We're a bit old school. When we heard the idea, we were like 'you wha?' It just seemed a very strange thing to do. Fair dues, it seems to have worked. It certainly hasn't been to the detriment of the record and it's got a lot of people enthused."
On Kingdom Of Rust, Doves are clearly aiming for the big time. Yet they blanch when asked if the album will catapult them into the same league as, say, Oasis, kindred Irish-Mancunians, with whom they're vaguely matey and have supported on several occasions.
"The thing about Liam and Noel is that, off stage, they're exactly how you'd imagine," says Williams. "You can't fake being the kind of people they are. They're larger than life. For us, to have people knowing what we had for breakfast -- that would be awful. The accoutrements of that level of success are a heavy price to pay. It's great that nobody knows who we are. All of that stuff can get in the way -- it can distort the way people see your music."
Speaking to one of Doves' management team earlier that day, it was evident those close to the band believe Kingdom Of Rust could see them 'do an Elbow' and go massive after year's of cultish toil.
Doves themselves are a little warier of the Elbow comparisons -- notwithstanding the fact that both groups share a yearning, cinematic sound and an every-bloke offstage deportment.
"We're thrilled for them -- they're good friends of ours," says Williams. "What we don't do is look at their success and think 'we could have some of that'. That's not how we think. It's heartwarming when any band who have similar experiences to us do well. They've been dropped how many times? What's kept them together are the same things that have kept us together: they're grounded lads and a proper gang."
So do Doves truly regard themselves as saviours of a beleaguered genre: rock music with the gumption to take itself seriously? Williams shrugs. "While we do take our music seriously, we don't take ourselves seriously. Or at least we try not to. We all have our up and down days. But we're normal people really."
Kingdom Of Rust is released today. Doves play Olympia, Dublin April 20