The way he tells it, Dave Davies has been making music based on psychic connections for more than half a century. “I’ve always been an intuitive kind of person,” he tells Rolling Stone with a broad smile. “I can tell when something is happening out of the ordinary.” He pauses and searches for an example from his years as the Kinks’ wild-child guitarist. “I got a rush when Ray played the riff for ‘Sunny Afternoon’ on piano before it was a song. I looked at him, and whoosh. And there are times when Ray and I got a kind of telepathy onstage.
“I also have that with Russ,” he continues, referring to his son, who has made a career for himself in electronic music. “He plays something special, and when that moment happens, we both know it. But there’s no language – just feeling. Music is a phenomenal art and force.”
Dave and Russ recently collaborated on Open Road, an album of nine generally melancholy rock songs on which the elder Davies waxes nostalgic about his growing-up years, winsome emotions and the elusive nature of love. It’s not far removed from the topics he sang about on his earliest breakout songs, 1967’s elegiac drinking song “Death of a Clown” and the following year’s powerful ode to a lost love, “Susannah’s Still Alive.” At age 70, he sings lyrics like, “In my heart, I’m just a boy with worn-out shoes, playing the blues” on Open Road’s understated lead track “Path Is Long” with a deeper, more pensive introspection than he could muster in his younger years.
It’s a mood that imbues his every word, especially in conversation. During a wide-ranging interview in a private room of New York City’s Gibson Guitars Showroom, where he’s been rehearsing with his solo band, he reveals an almost sage-like demeanor, speaking carefully and philosophically. His personality is bright, except for when conversation turns to talk of a Kinks reunion, which causes him to close off slightly. But whether it’s discussing Russ or Ray, conversation about the Davies family seems to make Dave the happiest. Music, for him, is about understanding the human condition.
“All the important Kinks songs captured aspects of greater things about people in a very simple way,” Dave says. “I think that’s what we strive for as artists: to try and capture those feelings in a very simple way and open up doors to relationships and connections with each other.”
On “Path Is Long,” you sing, “It’s not where you’ve been or how much money you’ve made/It’s how you’ve lived.” What does that lyric mean to you? How have you lived?
That song is a reflection. When I look back, I don’t think about the places I’ve been touring all over the world. You meet lovely people, strange people and assholes [laughs]. But what I think about is what you get on the journey. The song is about how life changes you as a person. I’ve always been a deeply feeling person, even as a kid. I decided to see where the song took me, and it’s good to hold onto that innocence when you’re writing. We really didn’t know where it would go. It’s different than forcing it. Sometimes the best things happen to you when you’re not in control of what’s going on.
Can you think of another time you wrote a song where you just let it happen?
“Strangers” [on Lola Versus Powerman …] came out of that place. It’s great to work with a feeling of melancholy. I think it opens up a lot of creative areas. I think melancholy is really important. It’s how you deal with it. People get depressed or upset – that’s what we do as humans. It’s OK to be angry. But we need to look into why we’re angry.
That makes me think of your song “Death of a Clown.”
That’s disillusionment. I get inspired by all kinds of innocence. It’s beautiful. That fragile clumsiness that comes out of not knowing how to do something is always my main source of inspiration. You can see it in great art. Van Gogh had that innocence.
It’s important to reflect and to meditate about, “Where the fuck am I? What am I doing? Why am I here?” and all that stuff.
You seem to be reflecting a lot on this album. You have the song “Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and in “Path Is Long,” you say you feel like a boy playing blues on a Harmony guitar.
When you put yourself in that place, that frame of mind, you remember things you’ve forgotten. When I sing, it’s a bit like making a movie. You go back and see these characters in your mind’s eye. You resurface memories but go through them with new emotions, because you’re different today than you were 50, 60 years ago. You’re learning something different through your emotional environment. When I was singing “Path Is Long,” I had a lot of tears and anger. I realized that if only we’d simplified certain aspects of our lives, maybe we’d be happy.
If you could go back to when you were 16 and everything was blowing up with the Kinks, how would you advise yourself?
I wouldn’t say anything. It’s like repainting a painting. Why go back and touch up a bit?
Well, you were saying you think about things differently now.
Only based on the connection I have of how I felt then coupled with my emotions as a 70-year-old man. There is a world of difference in the emotional connection you have with it. It’s like you’re watching yourself as a kid but you can’t do anything about it because it’s gone. Memory should stay like that.
Talking about your life, it seems like you weren’t so interested in staying innocent then, between sex, drugs and rock & roll.
Well, there are so many elements that play a part in that fragile existence. We all have our own stories to tell. A lot of it was disillusionment. I was a young man. I fell in love at 14 and, of course, in those days, you’re “too young.” I used to listen to a record that my sisters had – Nat King Cole, “Too Young.” My mom used to play it a lot. It’s beautiful. “They say that you’re too young to really be in love.” That kind of loss fascinated me because it actually helped me when I was really young. Me and this girlfriend at school fell in love and it all went to shit. She got pregnant and had a baby, and the parents separated us. It’s normal now but in those days, it was quite scandalous.
It shattered you. You wrote many songs, like “Susannah’s Still Alive” and “Funny Face,” about it.
Yeah, I did. Nearly every song. When I went to write a song, those feelings came up. Like what the hell can we do with these feelings when they come up? You have to search for ways of dealing with these invisible energies. Maybe as a species, we’ve had a great lacking in the ability to know what to do with these things. It’s either a downfall or our saving grace.
How did collaborating with your son on Open Road come together?
My son and I had done an experimental album before under the name the Aschere Project. Russ was really eager to write actual rock songs this time. He’s good at creating landscapes in music, and he threw a few ideas and song titles out and it gave me a place to work from. Russ is a bit of a perfectionist, and I like to do things really quick. It took us a good year to finish, from start to finish, but it was worth it.
When we got over the father-son thing, it became a proper project. It helps to have that feeling of trust with people you know so well; you’re bonded emotionally to start with. It was like that in the early days with me and Ray: that automatic, unspoken trust. If gives you a feeling that you can do anything.
Did you spend a lot of time teaching music to Russ when he was growing up?
I mean, of course there’s always music there. It’s inevitable he grew up with the Kinks music. I think he started working on music at 11 or 12, but he got an early aptitude for electronic music. I think he had a bit of classical training at school.
Are all your children musically inclined?
Most of them are. It’s inevitable they pick it up. I have a son by a different relationship in L.A. named Daniel Davies. Guitar is his main focus. He’s been touring with a friend of mine who I used to hang out with when I lived in L.A., [director] John Carpenter. And he’s made a couple of albums.
My parents were quite a lot older than me. I was the last of eight kids, so they could have been my grandparents. So I thought when I have kids, I want to have them young, so I can have a different relationship with them. And I made sure that the kids in my first marriage called me Dave. I wanted to be close to them.
You were 16 years old when the Kinks took off. Did you worry about your kids being swept away like you?
You can’t protect your kids from some things. I wanted my kids to learn things.
It’s like with my parents. They wanted me to have a proper job. It was my older sisters who helped, saying I should get a guitar. My sister Peg’s husband was a really good guitar player; still is. Me and Ray both used to go to his flat and listen to his music playing. He introduced us to Django Reinhardt and Big Bill Broonzy. With Big Bill, it was like, “What is this?” Apart from his great voice, he did everything. He was an all-around musician, singer, songwriter, everything. A lot of his songs fell in line with the emotion of growing up in a working-class family in London. You hear stories about how your uncle can’t get a job on the railway at King’s Cross; it was like Big Bill Broonzy’s “Get Back.” Like, you’ve got to stand in line to get a job: “If you’re white, you’re all right/If you’re brown, stick around/But if you’re black, oh, brother, get back.” They were inspiration behind a lot of Kinks music, when you think of songs like “Get Back in Line.” It’s like On the Waterfront, which was a really powerful film for Ray and I growing up.
Movies played a big part in our musical creative process growing up. Films like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. It was an old English, black-and-white film, and it was based on the working-class culture that was breaking out for the first time ever. My mom and dad, they lived through two world wars right on their doorstep in London. There’s a big backstory behind all this.
Another big influence you discovered from the movies is Chuck Berry.
Oh, that was a big, big moment. Ray and I went to a local cinema in Muswell Hill, and there was a film called Jazz on a Hot Summer’s Day. Seeing him was one of those moments. He was just so great. He was playing with all these jazz snobs, but he knew what he had. He knew what he was doing. It was a moment of pure joy and it was a big turning point for us. I think what really impressed me about that film was the contrast between what he was doing against the backdrop of everything that went before with jazz. I thought it was really magnificent.
I met Chuck in the late Eighties, but he was grouchy, miserable and didn’t really want to talk. But the fact that I met him, I didn’t give a shit.
Incidentally, what’s going on with the movie based on the Kinks, You Really Got Me?
I spoke to Julien [Temple, director] five or six months ago, and he said they were still working on a script [laughs]. But Ray and I met with the writers more than a year ago, and I thought they’d nailed the script then. But it’s not ready. Julien is working hard.
Why do you think your parents encouraged you and Ray musically?
My mom was a tough, working-class woman who had a really rough life. She was pretty tough and smart. I think she sensed that Ray and I had a different mind or way about doing things and she encouraged it. She maybe thought it was an opportunity for something bigger in their lives, rather than being an accountant or working at a factory, which would have been normal for kids like me.
Your mom also tolerated you electrocuting yourself when you hot-rodded your guitar amp wrong, sending you flying across the living room.
I didn’t know anything about electricity. I was more into science fiction than music then. When I’d go over to my sister’s husband’s house, he’d show me guitar chords but he also showed me how to make a guitar pickup because he was an electronics whiz as well. He had this old turntable and you would spin the wire around. My eyes were opened. I thought it was fucking amazing.
With the amp, I didn’t like the way it sounded. So I figured, how can I change it? Eventually I tried something different.
I had just started to learn to shave, so I looked at the razor blade and thought, “Oh, what would happen if I cut the speaker?” I didn’t think it would work, really. But luckily it did. When it happened, and I got the distortion, it was a magic moment. I got a rush.
You’ve been credited with creating that distorted sound that came to define hard rock. How do you feel about that?
It became too slick. I used to like the rougher sounding stuff. When punk rock came in, it had more feeling and edge. I found pristine metal and rock to be a bit fake. It was “ugh.”
Didn’t Jimi Hendrix compliment your guitar sound on “You Really Got Me”?
No, what he said was that “You Really Got Me” was a landmark record. We sat next to each other on a plane going to Sweden to do some TV thing, and we didn’t say much but we talked a bit about guitars. Being a young kid, I didn’t have an incredible vocabulary, so I just sort of huffed and puffed a very ordinary conversation apart from that.
What do you remember about your first tour of the U.S.?
It was immense. I was running around Detroit taking film. I was a bit disappointed though when I came here because growing up, I knew Rick Nelson and all these records with guitar playing, James Burton and the blues, Muddy Waters, and all these people, and I never saw them playing any of it on the radio. I’d thought Americans were ahead of the game culturally and I realized they were behind in a way. I found out that what we were doing as young English musicians was more ahead of the curve than the Americans.
Since you did so much reflecting while making Open Road, has it made you look at the Kinks differently?
Yeah. I mean, Ray and I get along good. We talk a lot but we’re older. We’re old men. There are connections that are ageless, timeless. We’ve always had a special relationship. There’s such a bond of love there, and everything else pales into insignificance in a way.
Why do you think there were so many disagreements in the Kinks, not just between you and Ray but also between you and drummer Mick Avory?
With Mick, we were really good friends. Maybe too close. It was like brothers. Maybe it’s not always good to be that close. He’s a different person to me and I’d find that sometimes I didn’t get anything back from him.
And I think the thing with me and Ray was that Ray could be very one-track-minded on ideas. That’s how he functions, but he had this way of working where I felt I was there to support him. Which I have. There was a period where I felt like all my energy was being sucked down like a drain. That isn’t a good thing all the time. We can’t function in these family groups without some human give and take.
You did some demos with Ray a few Decembers ago. What became of those?
I don’t know if we’ll ever get around to recording them. It was good. He came up with an idea, a bit like the way me and Russ had been working. I can’t tell you what the idea was, because I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but I liked the concept. It gave me something to work with. We came up with a few songs and some lyrics and had a nice interaction. So he’s got demos on his computer, and I’ve got them on mine in a different form. I hope we’ll get together and do something with them, but who knows.
Why is it “who knows”? Why isn’t there more of an urge to get together and do it?
I really don’t know. From my part, I’d love it. I’m ready for it. A couple of years before the Russ thing, I was ready for it then, but then Russ helped me with these songs.
With Ray, for the last few years, we’ve been close but we mainly talk about football and a bit of music. Music is almost like a burden. It’s nicer to talk about other people than music.
He recently said that when people ask him about a Kinks reunion, he thinks that people just want to see the fights rather than a musical reunion and that people should be happy the music exists. Is that how you feel?
I think with reunions, the Kinks have an amazing legacy. Why fuck it up by getting ourselves together to make a few bucks? Some things are best left alone. I’m saying that and half of me is saying it would be good to do a show or a TV thing. Or one song.
There are a lot of different aspects to not doing a reunion. If my contribution was respected not just as part of a collaboration but financially as well … no man is an island. We like to think we’re in control of our lives, but it takes many elements and people.
You feel like things weren’t equal in the Kinks?
Yeah. But I could see why because in that enthusiasm of getting an idea to fruition, you sometimes have to use people. Using people isn’t necessarily a negative thing. In any group, you need to work out who does what.
Is the fact that things aren’t equal the thing holding up a reunion?
Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. It’d be lovely to do something, but he’s a bit of a control freak. When I was working with Russell on Open Road, I didn’t feel like I had to fight for my space. Creativity suffers when you’re thinking about how to fight for that. Maybe some people thrive in those situations but I don’t.
Do you feel like it’s been 50/50 in the Kinks?
In some things, yeah. I remember when we cut “Tired of Waiting,” I knew it was going to be a hit. When I sat around Ray playing “Sunny Afternoon,” I knew it was going to be big. I could spot those moments. But when I felt an imbalance, I can’t function. I think we all have to learn how to function emotionally. We’re never really taught.
It just occurred to me that maybe the holdup is that things don’t seem even between you.
I’m not sure Ray really wants to do it. I think rightly so he’s reached a pinnacle of success as a writer. I’m only surmising, but maybe that’s really important to him. That’s OK. So I don’t have a problem with that. Maybe whatever the Kinks means to him is good enough.
Maybe the thought of rehearsing … “OK, we’ll do one gig. What’s going to be in the set?” The first thing that comes into my mind is “Big Sky.” That would be fun. But physically wanting to do it, maybe he doesn’t want to do it at all. I don’t know if it matters. Obviously financially it would, but maybe the music is best left alone. I don’t know. I mean, I’m up for whatever we can conjure up between us that’s worthwhile.
Is it true that in the early days Ray would give you the music to record and do his vocals later, sort of presenting it in parts?
No. It was different depending on the songs. There was a pattern in the early days. He’d call me and he’d play it on the piano, and we’d work it out and then we’d call the band in and it would really grow. It takes people to be part of that. And when there’s an imbalance of what people are getting from it … maybe we’ve all suffered emotionally and not gotten what we need in different ways.
Have you ever talked about this with him?
Not really. The exercise of talking about it is kind of pointless. It’s like we know already. We do have that telepathy.