Jez Williams Of Doves Tells Us Why Being 'Natural' Was Key To New Album 'The Universal Want'

The band Doves is releasing their fifth studio album on September 25th, The Universal Want. Singles that have been released so far include "Cathedrals of the Mind", "Carousels", and "Prisoners", all of which suggest interesting musical directions arising from this period of reflection since their last album in 2009. Fans keeping an eye on Doves during the past couple of years would not have been too surprised by the album announcement following their energetic and well-received touring and festival appearances in 2019.

What they'll find on The Universal Want is a strong connection to universal human needs and a rediscovery of the warmth inherent in vocals, guitar, bass, and drums. There's also a strong sense that the band had a lot of fun recording the album, which indeed turns out to be true.

Jez Williams of Doves joins Tower's PULSE! from the UK to talk about The Universal Want and the band's experiences recording the new album.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I noticed that you all had a song on television recently, “Carousels”, at the Champions League Final?

Jez Williams: Oh yes, we did that somewhere in a warehouse in the South of England. It was a nice day out. It was a big deal, especially the Champions Final, even though Manchester City, the team we support, weren’t in it.

HMS: Was that all filmed during this time, during lockdown?

JW: Yes, it was pretty odd. There were masks and a distance of two meters. It was still a fun day, though.

HMS: It’s a beautiful setting and very well shot. How did it come about that you were asked to do it?

JW: I just got told [Laughs]. Champions League have asked you to play for the Finals. It was completely out of the blue. It was a very nice request. The carousel was because there was a fun-fair nearby so they dismantled the whole thing and reconstructed it in a warehouse. They went to some effort.

HMS: It was a great way to drum up awareness that a new album was in the works. How long have the songs on the new album been in the works?

JW: It’s a bit of a mixed bag, really. There were a couple of songs that go back to our last album, which was quite a while ago now, 2009. There were a couple of songs then that we couldn’t finish. It’s pretty strange looking back on old ideas but given time we were able to look back on them and see where we had gone wrong. We were able to complete them ten years later, and that’s a long time to write a song, isn’t it? [Laughs] Sometimes that’s what happens.

Mainly it’s new stuff, about 80% of it. It was important that we went into it not feeling any pressure and that really helped our cause, I think.

HMS: I imagine it was totally in your hands what your timeline would be.

JW: Yes, and also because we are a bit older, we could say, “If we’re not feeling it today, let’s not go into the studio.” It was more of a relaxed way of doing it. It’s a good thing. Otherwise things get too heavy. Going in with a positive, light attitude for this album really helped us, I think.

HMS: I think that’s something you can hear on this album. I think audiences pick up on that stuff fairly easily.

JW: I’d agree with that. The process was one of our more enjoyable albums to make. Certainly, it was quick. We didn’t write it all in one go. We started on it properly in 2018, but then we gigged last year, too, so it’s been quick for us.

HMS: Yes, you were really quite busy last year with tours and festivals!

JW: Pre-COVID. Imagine that! Oh, the glory. We could hug people! I remember that. It’s like a different bloody planet, isn’t it?

HMS: It is. How important has live performance been to the band, traditionally, in terms of working songs out and building identity?

JW: Integral. When we put our first album out, way back, funnily enough we didn’t enjoy the process of gigging. I’m not sure why, but because we came from a more electronic band, so we always liked the studio. Twenty years later of touring around the world, we kind of realized that it’s probably the most important thing that you can do, especially these days. Probably not for us, but these days, the album is there to promote the tour, not the tour the album. It’s all flipped around now. But playing live is absolutely integral. We’re all really gutted that we can’t now.

We finished the album, and literally the day that we mastered it, the UK was on lockdown and we had to get out of London back to Manchester. It was a bit of a strange day.

But this is actually the third time we’ve rescheduled the tour, and we’re hoping we’re not going to have to do that again. We’re playing the UK in March next year.

HMS: Oh, yes, I saw that tickets were live already for 2021.

JW: Here’s hoping. No one knows, do they?

HMS: No, they don’t. How are you keeping yourselves sane during this time?

JW: [Laughs] We’re actually doing a lot of online stuff. We’re actually rehearsing to play live online for a small show. So we’re keeping busy. We’re quite busy at the moment since the album is coming out soon. That’s part of the schedule, doing little things. There’s obviously going to be a gap between putting it out and what’s next. We might get together and do some more writing. Might as well.

HMS: Trying to do something useful during this time, I guess.

JW: It’s difficult for bands at the moment. Everyone’s on hold. The creative writing is quite good, but it’s doesn’t necessarily mean that bands want to write during lockdown. It’s a weird holding pattern that everyone’s in. Some people probably love it, and some people think, “I can’t write when I’m under this cloud.”

HMS: It’s so varied and it really depends on personality and situation whether it’s going to somehow be a productive thing or whether the whole climate is a big obstruction in some way. I’ve heard a lot of both.

Even before COVID, the UK was already dealing with Brexit. I was actually in the UK for Brexit day. Did those kind of elements at work in the world make their way into the album at all, or is this album more of a personal approach to music?

JW: I’d say so. There are definitely bits of it in there. We have some tracks on that album, like “Prisoners”, which was one of the last tunes to go on. We wrote it in February, and then it took on a new meaning with COVID when everyone had to lock themselves in their houses.

Brexit day, that was shit. I don’t know anyone that wanted to leave the European Union. We all wanted to stay and be part of Europe. We got forced out, and it was out of our control. I was hoping to move there, because when we were part of Europe, you could live anywhere you wanted. Now we’ve left and we can’t and I’m trapped on this island. I’m really happy about that. [Laughs]

With this album, there’s a lot of themes of self-help, I think. It’s like our self-help album, I’d say.

HMS: The personal therapy album.

JW: It’s kind of therapeutic, really. We enjoyed writing and recording this album, as opposed to some of the others, which became tortuous. It was good to experience an album that was relative easy.

HMS: That’s wonderful. Do you see any directions or sound on the album that are a bit new or different for you?

JW: Yes, I think so. We made a definite decision that we didn’t want it too electronic, we wanted it more organic. So we played live, which was relatively easy. We wrote a lot of songs together that you could stand up on just bass, guitar, and drums. The nucleus of the tracks came from those origins. I’d say it’s one of our most organic albums. We wanted it to sound more natural.

We’ve got some songs that are more a nod to our dance past, because we used to be, in our old band, more club and electronically-oriented before we were Doves. So there are a couple like that, but we were trying to keep it quite band-y.

HMS: So when it came to recording this one, did you intentionally record tracks with more of a live feeling?

JW: Yes, on this album definitely. We were trying to capture takes. We’d play a song twenty times in the studio and pick the best take. We’d work it up from there. It was, in a way, like going back to how we used to do it before things became more complex. This time, the key was to rediscover the simplicity of being in a band, I suppose. I’d say we were trying to find that again.

HMS: It has a very fresh feeling. There’s a lot of air and space there.

JW: Aw, thanks. The idea was not to pack it all out and overproduce it. We wanted certain things. I wanted the drums to sound small. I wanted a certain amount of intimacy to it, a lightness to it so it wasn’t too heavy. I think we achieved that.

Everything kind of clicked into place really, including the artwork as well. We found this amazing photographer called Maria Lax. She’s a genius, an artist and photographer. We were so fortunate to get her involved.

HMS: I was looking through her work. She is amazing. Presumably you had quite a lot of choice in which image you might use. Are there things that made you pick this particular image out of other works of hers?

JW: Well, Jimi [Goodwin] for our birthday, bought us this book of hers called, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire. It’s a book, but it’s all personalized with little bits of paper. There are images in that that are just breathtaking. The front cover leaped out at us because it kind of had that idea of noir, but there’s magic in the air, there’s something in the air that’s electric. It just spoke to us, it just felt like it fit the music. You just know without articulating why. It had a mystery to it that we liked.

HMS: It has kind of a Twin Peaks-y and Blade Runner-y feel, and it has an Americana feel, even though it’s not totally that.

JW: Yes, it’s Lynchy, like David Lynch. Spot on. Someone said that it was like the painter Hopper. It has that whole vibe.

HMS: Yes, but it’s more of an outside, forested feel so it’s different, too.

JW: Rather than the inside of a diner. It has that quality, though, doesn’t it?

HMS: It does.

Do you think that having an image like that brings out different aspects to the music for people who look at it?

JW: Yes, though I know people mostly just stream. They are missing out on a whole load of information about where the band or the artist have tried to take you, which is a shame. I think imagery has always been really important with us. With all our album covers, we’ve put a lot of work into it.

Even though it’s becoming obsolete, but strangely, it isn’t? Record and cassettes are still on the way. People are even buying CDs, I didn’t know that!

HMS: Yes, there’s a kind of counter-revolution going on.

JW: Thank god. What it does, it puts you in touch and makes you more connected to the band when you have something physical in your hand and you’re looking at it. That’s really important to us. I know the reality out there is different. Sometimes it’s about looking at what it means to you rather than trying to please everyone.

HMS: That’s what we’re seeing at Tower. Not only with records, but also with cassettes and with CDs now.

I have to ask you our Tower Records question, about our motto, “No Music, No Life/Know Music, Know Life”. Which of those two do you prefer and what does it make you think of?

JW: I like them both. They are both very strong. “No Music, No Life”: Indeed. I couldn’t imagine a life without music, it’s unthinkable. So I’ll have to go with the first one. It’s more stark, isn’t it, in its concept? That the idea that there would be no life without music speaks to me, because it all started for me when I was about eight years old. That’s my journey with it. That’s what it means to me.

HMS: I think there are very few people who would say that a life in music is easy at all. I’m sure you’ve hit many difficult spots. Was there ever a time where you thought, “Oh man, it would be so much easier to do something else than to do this.”?

JW: Well, yes. There have been many. But I think the worst period for me was getting there, getting in. The journey to try to make it to the point where you can do what you love to pay the rent. That was a struggle, and it was a long struggle. Just when you think you might be able to say afloat, and you don’t, and you have to struggle some more. That’s been the most difficult part. Then once you’re in the band and signed, that difficult bit is keeping the whole band together, and making sure that everyone has got their feet on the ground and there’s no egos that get out of control. I’d say that the beginning was the most difficult part.

HMS: Well, congratulations for coming up with a great album. The sound is quite human and emotive, and I think that’s quite helpful for times like these.

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