The Last Word: Ray Davies on Kinks' Early Hits, the Perils of Family Bands

The veteran songwriter talks success, nagging reunion questions and why he tries his best to ignore the past

Ray Davies discusses his new 'Americana' LP, the Kinks' Sixties "adrenaline period" and why starting a band with your brother is a bad idea. Credit: Illustration by Mark Summers

Ray Davies became Sir Ray Davies last month after a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, but the Kinks frontman says he's got far more important matters on his mind. "It's nice being noticed," he says. "But that's not going to make new music for me. I accept it for what it's worth and it is a great honor, but I want to prove to myself that I can still write and be contented by it. That is what I strive for." 

What's giving him contentment at the moment is Americana, a collection of new songs he recorded with the Jayhawks. "They're a good studio band," he says. "I wanted to use a band rather than [typical] studio players. The interesting thing about bands is they don't all have to be virtuoso players. We made some amazing tracks together." Davies spoke to Rolling Stone about the new LP, the Kinks' "adrenaline period," the perils of starting a band with your brother and more.

You're from the Muswell Hill neighborhood in London. What's the most Muswell Hill thing about you?
I was born in transit. My parents lived in Central London, and they moved to Muswell Hill during the Second World War to get away from the bombings. Their house was nearly demolished, so I'm a bit like a refugee. That's why I wrote the Muswell Hillbillies album. It's about people who were displaced, looking for a new life. It's also about urban renewal, which is not a cool subject for a record. But since I was born in transit, I've continued to live in the moment, just living wherever I am that day.

How do you relax?
I write outlines and short stories. I find it therapeutic. Relaxing has always been difficult, because my mind is very active. I can't think of anything that would appall me more than a beach. I did that once in Bermuda and got sunburnt. 

What is your fitness regimen like?
I go to the gym three times a week. London is very hilly, so you have to walk up hills, like it or not. I've taken up tai chi as well, and I'm at an excellent boxing school. I like the exercise that comes with boxing, and the grace that comes with tai chi.

What's the worst part of success?
Having to do the same thing again, but better. I was lucky. When "You Really Got Me" dropped out of the Top 10, my record company said, "We need a follow-up." I wrote "All Day and All of the Night" in a few minutes, and we recorded it in a day. Bands go through an adrenaline period where they have hits for a year or two, and then they have to assess things. It's important to do that in any form of creativity. The secret is to know there's going to be downtimes where you need to re-energize and refocus.

Do you think the Kinks benefited by never becoming as big as Zeppelin or the Stones?
That was a deliberate move on my part. I don't feel sorry for the Who or the Stones, but I continue to keep a low profile and just do my work. That's really important.

Is your past ever a burden when you sit down to write new songs?
No. When I was making my new record with the Jayhawks, I said to them, "We're going to make this record like it's the first one we ever made." I make every one like that. You'll never be able to be what you were. You'll never achieve what you achieved before. It's critical to be in the now. This is what I am, this is how I speak, this is what I write – take it or leave it. Thankfully, people have continued to take it rather than leave it.

Considering all the problems you had with your bandmates, do you ever wish you'd just been a solo artist from Day One?
I like the freedom of being solo, but sometimes I miss the band annoying me by saying they don't like the drum sounds or the lyric or whatever. In many respects, I've always been a solo artist. With a song like "Waterloo Sunset," I wouldn't let the band hear the lyrics until I'd done the back track, because the subject matter is quite personal. But, fair due to the band. They went with it, and we got good results.

They also caused you a lot of grief.
I could take that to a certain extent. At the end of the day, if we make good records, that's all that matters.

"Whenever families work together, the rivalry is always there. There'll be bloodshed."

If someone came to you and said they were thinking about starting a band with their brother, what would you say?
Good luck. It didn't do bad for the Carpenters or the Everly Brothers. But whenever families work together, the rivalry is always there. There'll be bloodshed. We broke and smashed guitars, we ruined studios, televisions were thrown out of the window. But there's still a deep love and affection beneath all of that. Band members are always close, but it's nothing like being relatives.

Gene Simmons says rock is dead. Is he right?
The guy from Kiss? A certain element of rock is over, but I don't think it'll ever be dead. As long as there's a kid on the street with a guitar who wants to make a noise, rock will be alive somewhere. Stadium rock, yes, I think that is over. Rock & roll's going to a period of transition. It's just gone to the Catskills. It'll come back.

If the organizers of Desert Trip came to you and offered you $15 million for a Kinks reunion, would you do it?
What's Desert Trip? Is that some sort of sightseeing tour?

It's the big festival at Coachella that had the Stones, McCartney, the Who. ...
[I'd do it] if it fit into my plans. It's always a bad thing to do it for the money. Do it for the event.

If the Kinks never play again, will that be a big regret of yours?
Not really. The Kinks made an indelible impact on the music industry. The story has no ending yet, so I can't anticipate what I'll feel like.

Are you sick of always being asked about a reunion?
No. It just confuses me. Because with a reunion, people just talk about the fights and disputes. They want to see that again. Just be happy the music exists.