The musician is in better health after a canceled Philly performance this time last year.
As leader of the Kinks, Ray Davies proved one of the British Invasion’s finest songwriters. Their American ascendance was held back by a conflict with the American Federation of Musicians that kept them from our shores from ’65-’69, and cost Davies his due as a lyricist that arguably outshone all his British peers. However, over the years his wry character studies (“Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” “Apeman” and, of course, “Lola”) and poignant sketches (“Waterloo Sunset,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Misfts”) have received proper approbation. The band collapsed in the mid-’90s and hasn’t reunited thanks to long-simmering tension with brother Dave. Yet Davies remains relevant, and particularly busy of late. He released two fine solo (2006’s Other People’s Lives , and 2007’s Working Man’s Cafe ) followed by a full choir take on the Kinks, (The Kinks Choral Collection) and early last year, See My Friends, featuring duets with Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Alex Chilton, Lucinda Williams, Spoon and Jon Bon Jovi among others. We talked with Davies from his London flat about America, his conflict with his brother, and his plans for the future.
With all the inspiration you drew from American artists, were your years in America at all revelatory? I heard there was a possibility you’ll move back here.
Yeah, I’m thinking of moving back to America. It’s still the place—you may not think so being where you are—but its still a place where there’s an opportunity to achieve things. I wouldn’t put it any other way. I’m proud of my connection to the American continent because I’ve had a great career there even though we had a rocky start. It’s ended up good, and I’m proud to have been the first English person to be given the Slim Harpo Award for contributions to R&B, which I’m very proud of. I still think America’s a great land of opportunity and a free-spirited country. It’s not until you get out of the States that you realize how precious that is.
A quote you wrote 30 years ago: “I write songs because I get angry, and now I’m at the stage where it’s not good enough to brush it off with humor.” How do you deal with your anger now, or has it dissipated a little?
I still get angry and write about issues, but I don’t think I brush it off with humor. I think that humor is a great antidote to pure anger. If you can make something topical and satirical and tongue-in-cheek, it takes the curse off of just being a political rant. I’m not a protest writer, but I still like to veil it with a little humor. That’s the best way to get a point across.
Many of your songs have come from describing people near your home. The wonderful “Waterloo Sunset” is obviously a watcher’s song. Your autobiography even uses a device where you interview yourself. Have you ever struggled with being too removed, too much a spectator?
I’m an observer, so I’m a bit detached. I’m a reflective person, I’m not a nostalgic person, and I do like to stand outside the situation, like a journalist, only I write songs not articles.
Balance that with the very active role you took in New Orleans. Obviously, it didn’t turn out so well. (Davies was shot often chasing down a purse-snatcher, and spent some time in the hospital.
I was trying to be proactive and it sort of exposed a lot a of the city’s problems to me. This was before Katrina and before the BP oil spill. I saw into all the danger in that city. A great city, but a city under constant threat from the environment, from poverty, and at one point it was the murder capital of America.
How much of that kind of environment—it’s such a vibrant, unusual city—is because it sits on that precipice?
Louie Armstrong wrote in his autobiography, it’s called Satchmo, I’ve got it in front of me, he says one of the first things he heard was a gunshot when he was a kid. I think he alludes to that dangerous aspect. It makes for great music. There’s a great saying from the movie The Third Man: “Switzerland has had 1,000 years of peace and what have they made out of it? The Cuckoo Clock.” I think you’ve got to have the rough with the smooth and that’s what makes society. But I could do with a little less pain and a little less suffering in the world. That’s part and parcel of that place.
You’ve revisited your older catalog on your last two albums. Is there an urge to reflect, embrace, and revisit as you get older especially with a reunion looking more unlikely?
I revisit, but I’ve just recorded a collaborations record which has allowed me to see the songs in a new light, because other people have been involved with it, really good people like Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, some really good young English artists. It’s allowed me to step outside my music and reassess it. I’m very proud of my catalog. But my whole desire, the thing that drives me, is to make new music and find interesting things to write about.
You had chance to work with Mumford & Sons and other young artists. Is that an invigorating experience?
It rekindled the spirit. Mumford are a great band. It’s always good to meet other bands and pick up on their energy and they were a great band to work with. They’re not put together by a record company. There’s no X Factor involved. They make their own decisions and it’s a great environment to be around.
Townshend and Daltrey have had some really publicized blowouts, but it seems to be nothing compared to the friction between two brothers.
I think when Pete and Roger fall-out it’s big time. And it’s on par with Dave and I. I think it happens when you work in such close proximity to another creative talent. It’s inevitable. All the great bands have had friction. It’s the inevitability of being productive. Of being very creative and having an opinion. That’s what makes great music art. The smart ones always say, “You know what? You’re right.” Pete and Roger have had some disputes.
Speaking of, do you have songs or sessions sitting around that are ready to be recorded?
I just found about 70 unreleased Kinks tracks that we stopped recording, that we got vocals on. There’s a whole backlog of work I have to do so I’m not sure if that’s the project to work on. It’s if I decide to pursue that ... when I was recording with Bruce in New Jersey, I started playing a song that I hadn’t finished yet and he came over and started strumming along with me. He said, “Let me know when you’re going to finish that, I’d like to be part of that.” So you know, I wouldn’t rule that out because I do like collaborating. I'm not known for writing songs with other people, but it’s something I wouldn’t rule out in the future.