Scott Adams talks to the Diamond Dogs frontman about their new album and much, much more...
Diamond Dogs vocalist Sören Sulo Karlsson is one of those delightful characters you stumble across all too rarely in the world of modern rock n’roll, a true renaissance man. Well versed in everything from rock’n’roll to Football – and all points in between, via some pretty large diversions and switchbacks – he makes for an entertaining interviewee on a range of subjects. We’re chatting today about Sulo’s year and in particular the Diamond Dogs’ new album Recall Rock’n’Roll and the Magic Soul, but, of course, take in a wide variety of other things to chew the fat over.
So, sit back and immerse yourself in the word according to Sulo…
Tell us a bit about how Recall Rock’n’Roll… came about… “We needed to put something out that we could tour behind, so we took the five tracks that make up the start of the album, and we had some different mixes from the Sam Cooke EP we released in 2007. We’d recorded that mini album for a UK record company and had it mastered by Dan Baird of the Georgia Satellites, but for some reason it never really got a full distribution from that company. It just sort of drifted off into the air… so we thought it would be good to re-release those tracks. So we really just put this record out to save some time and say hello again before the next album comes out. It’s always bad to fight with record companies. But I guess with things like Spotify and Youtube there’s not much left to fight about…”
It’s interesting to me to hear you speak about the modern ‘music industry’ almost immediately. Diamond Dogs are quite traditionalist in their outlook, and never shy away from tributing their heroes – on this new album the title track drills a line right through to acts like Mott the Hoople to my ears; how does a band like yours that looks to the past for imspiration live in that very modern atmosphere where there’s no money in the pot for promotion or even recording? Is it as you say a situation where now you put something out simply as a reason to tour? “I think so, but there are different parts to this. I’m known as one of the most prolific songwriters in Sweden, I got a prize from the Swedish Publishing Authorities this Summer for having my songs played on the radio – I have seven hundred and eighty three published songs! That makes it sound like I should be eighty five years old but for a while – about ten years – I was releasing about five albums either by myself of with other artists per year… Of course, had this been 1975 I’d be a millionaire and wouldn’t be speaking to you from Sweden in the Winter! (much laughter), but I write for Universal Music in Sweden and even they are talking about it. It’s not about giving music away very cheaply, it’s also about a form of art that the value has been taken away from. If there’s not any value in writing songs, then of course people won’t write songs. That’s a big thing. People are scared about it. Sweden is the worst place in the world for this – we are the creators of Spotify. I have eight thousand albums because I like to buy music. It’s the same as closing down all the book shops and reading books on a laptop… The most important thing right now is to reclaim the value of music. It sounds like a backward-looking thing to do but in a way we do have to go backwards. Spotify was created without anybody knowing how the whole model of money payments would go. The music industry is the only industry that would allow this. You wouldn’t go on a flight without the plane being tested! Oh, it didn’t work! Sorry! So if you want to continue being a songwriter in this environment you have to close you eyes to that kind of thing… As long as you concentrate on being a good songwriter and continue to perform good shows that’s the kind of thing that can’t be taken away from you”.
It’s a poor position to be in if you are a young songwriter starting out. “Well, in Sweden we have something even worse, called Epidemic Sounds – I don’t know if you have a similar thing in Australia. But what happens is in the past, if you wanted to use a piece of music or a song in a film or a TV show, the producers have to pay a lot of money to the artists because they still have their publishing rights. So what they have done with this Epidemic Sounds company – which we invented in Sweden as we seem to want to ruin ourselves backwards (laughs)– is that they ask songwriters – and it’s not the best songwriters, either – to write something for a one off fee of about fifty quid. They waive all their rights to royalties, and their name doesn’t even go on the piece. This company was floated on the stock exchange looking to raise fifty billion pounds – it’s the fastest growing company in the music industry. But can you imagine what that will do, what that means in the end? The thing that happens, with Spotify, with all these new platforms, is that the quality of music goes down. Anyone can record a song on their laptop, one of those songs might end up appearing in a big movie that someone will watch or hear on their smartphone. The whole process takes away the value from creating music. So I think for the music business this is one of the biggest nuts to crack – to get back to a position where music is valuable. Recall Rock’n’Roll is about that too. It’s about people in the seventies and eighties when everyone bought music. But then music was something worth spending money on. The genre of rock’n’roll has been really poor for the last ten years; you see all these ‘rock’ awards in the US going to bands like The Black Keys. No offense to the Black Keys – they are probably a great alternative rock band. But it’s not rock’n’roll to me. It’s something else. And rock’n’roll is a genre that’s worth taking care of. That must be the longest answer to a single question ever!” (laughs)
I think it’s worth a lengthy discourse though. It’s a very important subject. “It is. And when it comes to the commercial side, people just shut their ears and close their eyes. If you want to be ‘now’, if you want to be a ‘now’ artist then you have to embrace the new technology and the new way things are done. But I don’t think that’s completely true. They have these ‘360’ contracts now for young artists which is a way of taking money from the artist from every facet of their art. That’s not the way to make the sort of big artists we saw in the seventies. Artists have always said that they’ve been ruined by record companies, which isn’t completely true as in the seventies they were probably too wasted to even know what a contract was!”
Let’s get away from the gloom – and talk about the actual music. Because we could talk about this for the next hour and still not cover it all. “I could do an hour-long podcast every week!”
Let’s get back to that title track. It could have been written in 1973. But you wrote it recently. How do you strip away all the stuff that’s gone through your head since then to get to such a pure sound? Do you find that easy to do or do you have to work at it? “A girl I work with who I make a lot of albums with says I’m ‘music all the time’, but If I’m doing something I like to dig deep within that genre… a bit like the five or six country albums I got great reviews for. People said ‘this sounds like the late sixties, early seventies’ or whatever; it’s because I consume music in a way… I want to learn everything, the way that artists were thinking when they were recording. And when it comes to rock’n’roll, I toured with (Mott The Hoople’s) Ian Hunter three or four times and had the opportunity to sing All The Young Dudes with him on stage a couple of times, and we talked a lot about writing songs, how it was back then, and how they were kind of a poor man’s Rolling Stones who were going to split up before David Bowie stepped in and gave them All The Young Dudes. That song opened a lot of doors for them. Mott The Hoople’s big songs are all pop songs made into rock’n’roll songs, like Slade and Sweet and all those bands… Roll Away the Stone for me is one of the best pop songs ever. I’ve done it so many times, and I dig deeper and deeper… If you are in an environment long enough… you can find new harmonies that sound like they were written in 1973. Nothing is nicked, but they sound like they come from the time. I wrote a song, like a tribute to Mott The Hoople, called The Closest I’ve Ever Been To Memphis in about 2006. I remember playing it at a soundcheck in Stockholm, when we toured with Ian Hunter. I thought the whole theatre was empty because it was in darkness, so we played the song. As we were playing I saw some legs stretch out over the seats in the fourth row and then Ian Hunter shouted out ‘Oi, Sulo, where’s my royalties!’ I’ve been hanging a lot and playing a lot with those guys – Chris Spedding, Ian Hunter, Nazareth, I spoke a lot to them about how it was in the old days. If there was a masters degree in English rock’n’roll of the seventies I’d probably have it! (laughs)”
The other thing about this style of music, if we’re talking about 1973, is that we’re now at forty five years remove from that scene; the fans of 1973 listening to music from forty five years before that only had jazz or classical music on the turntable, so there was a much narrower range of influences for them to call upon when writing things like Roll Away The Stone. “Yes. When I did the first tour with Ian Hunter I’d just done a tribute concert in Stockholm to Sam Cooke. I was talking on the bus, to Steve Holley who played drums with Paul McCartney in Wings, about Sam Cooke, who died in 1964… I said we’d just done the tribute. All of a sudden Ian Hunter turned round and said ‘I saw Sam Cooke!’. It was like somebody saying they’d seen Jesus! (laughs). He said he’d seen Sam Cooke in Brighton in the UK in 1961 when he came over with Little Richard. I said ‘was it good?’ – what a stupid thing to say! (more laughter). So they grew up with the soul music. The Beatles were some kids who grew up with soul, rock’n’roll and blues but they added the English touch of the folk music that they grew up with. Same with Rod Stewart who added Scottish folk music to soul music, which turns into something different with Maggie May. I’ve been into every one of those things too. It’s still what happens now. Take a band like The Hellacopters, who are old friends of ours. They do what for me is a strange mixture of Kiss, Cheap Trick and The MC5 – nobody had done that before them. It turns out to be a power pop band. And now there are bands trying to sound like the Hellaopters but they sound completely different, maybe like a rough, punk/power pop band… They sound different because they don’t have the knowledge of Nicke (Andersson, Hellacopters guiding light). I often talk about that with Nicke. I can’t stand Kiss, and he pressed a CD compilation of them for me called Sulo’s First Kiss! (laughter)… but the thing is he’s one of those people who digs down deep to find his music. And I think you need to do that. We got a great review for one of our albums in the biggest Swedish Newspaper, where it’s very rare for a rock band to get five out of five, and they said ‘now they are doing music that can be compared with the originals’… it’s the hardest thing to do to write a country song or a rock’n’roll song that’s as good as the originals”.
You’ve obviously absorbed a lot of country music over the years. Was it on the radio a lot in Sweden? “Yes, there was a lot of country music. Sweden was one of the biggest ‘country’ countries outside of the USA. We also have a form of country music here mixed with schlager music to form something called dansband. It became very big in the sixties and seventies. I actually won a prize for writing the best dansband song of 2013, which was the first one I’d ever written! It’s strange, kind of like a Doug Sahm type of country that people like to dance to. Also it’s more of a countryside thing, not so much a Stockholm thing”.
Doug Sahm isn’t a name you hear that often anymore. “Well the music is different now, with a lot more techno in it. I remember playing my first dansband song to Dave Tregunna and the boys when we were doing our The Crunch (Sulo’s project with members of Cockney Rejects, The Clash and Sham ’69) thing, and they looked a bit concerned! In the end he said ‘actually it sounds a little bit like Rockpile!’” (more laughter).
And we’re back to the seventies again! “Of course! I recorded with Billy Bremner from Rockpile! I was going to do a list for my Wikipedia of all the people that I’ve recorded with and done duets with but again it made me look like I was eighty five!. But touring and recording with people like Chris Spedding has only made me a better songwriter. He played with everyone. He discovered the Sex Pistols, The Cramps. I learned so much from him. We were sitting in the studio once and he said ‘ísn’t it strange that Mick Jagger has had a fifty year career without a voice or any talent!’ I said don’t you like them? He said they were ‘a good singles band’. This is my university of rock’n’roll! My wife says my head is full of useless knowledge about music and football”.
So does mine! I’m English so football is very important for me. “I see. Did you know I’ve just written a book? I hung out with Lennart Johansson, the former UEFA President for the last year of his life. I wrote a biography about him”.
I saw a lot of posts about that on facebook. “Yes. I sang My Way at his funeral. It was the most nervous I’ve ever been at a ‘gig’. The Swedish Prime Minister was there, as well as (disgraced football administrator) Michel Platini. So football and rock’n’roll have been important to me. Well, all music actually. I don’t like all genres, but I want to try to understand them”.
It’s Sulo’s turn to ask the questions. “You’re English? Where from?” “London”. “Who do you support?” “Queens Park Rangers”. “Ah, that’s OK. A lot of musicians support QPR. But most of my London friends are West Ham. My producer unfortunately is Tottenham. I like to annoy him by asking him to get Arsenal tickets for my Son!. I like how QPR supporters, when asked about teams in West London say ‘QPR and Brentford’, and don’t mention the joke team Chelsea!”
This statement produces the biggest laugh of the day from both of us, but I’ve just noticed we’ve overrun our allotted interview time so regretfully start wrapping things up… But first another question from the great man. “Do you like the new album?” I do, although ironically I had to listen to it on Spotify because the label didn’t send me a copy! “Haha ok!”.
I like the way that the band hold that line from the start of their career to now; each album has that undeniable Diamond Dogs sound, from first to last, from Honked to Quitters and Complainers. I probably like The Grit and The Very Soul most though. You managed to get football in there too! “Blundell Park! I see Grimsby are back from Non League football now!”
They are. “The reason why I wrote that song is because we always used to stay at a place called Avon Court in Cleethorpes. We had a booking agent from Grimsby. We played at the Winter Gardens there a few times which is one of the few venues that the Anarchy In The UK tour actually went ahead in. Was it something like three dates out of seventeen?”
Always the history. “Yes! We played there with Nazareth. There are a few things I regret in my time; they wanted us to play at the last show ever at The Winter Gardens with Slade – they’ve pulled it down now – but we thought it was too far to come for just one show. We were also asked to support Eric Burdon on his homecoming to Newcastle but we said no because they couldn’t fit our drums on the stage! A stupid thing to say no to, but that’s the way it is!”
The last word – is there anything else you’d like to say about the record before we wrap up? “We’ve just been on tour in Spain, and a lot of people who saw us said ‘its only you left now – there’s not too many rock’n’roll bands left’. And we had long discussions about this. Rock’n’roll is like a dying breed. So we have to keep on doing it. But sooner than you know we’ll be back with a new album of all-original material, because if we’re the only band left we need to make a stand. It’s hard to get kids to get into rock’n’roll. In Australia kids should listen to AC/DC; and they should take that energy and make their own rock’n’roll. It’s worth fighting for. Hard rock and heavy metal will always survive, but they wouldn’t exist without rock’n’roll, and I hope we can get old people and young people back to keep it alive”.
Diamond Dogs’ Recall Rock’n’Roll and the Magic Soul is out now.