Photo by Jon Shard
Doves On Their First Album In A Decade & Why They’re Still Trying To Stay Patient
Jez Williams is calling from his studio in the Manchester countryside. The area is currently experiencing a downpour of Biblical proportions, but the Doves guitarist isn’t terribly bothered. As he explains, accidently hitting a cymbal on the drum kit he’s perched on while trying to emphasize a point, music as always been a comfortable place for him. And returning to Doves, the three-piece he’s been a part of since 1998, was a homecoming, especially since it meant working with his brother Andy Williams, and frontman Jimi Goodwin.
After a decade, apart, the band's first official meeting took place over dinner—a working meal that Williams describes as feeling a bit like both a Tinder date and meeting with an old flame. Inspired by the loss of David Bowie, carnivals and desire in all its forms, the band’s fifth album, The Universal Want, carries a similar tension. Going into the studio, they had one rule: no nostalgia. And while the release is unmistakably covered in Doves' fingerprints, including arena-worthy choruses, crackling electronics and lyrics written through smudged rose-colored glasses ("Old friend it's been a while/We're just prisoners of this life."), it also reflects the excitement of musicians still happy to be doing what they love.
Ahead of the release, Williams spoke with GRAMMY.com about taking time to cosplay as a band at the beginning of their journey, dipping into their childhood memories and why he’d be super down for an alien abduction.
It seems like a terrible irony that Doves is putting out a new album in a year when nothing is happening.
We always joke and say there's a curse on Doves. We haven't done an album for 10 or 11 years, and we finally finished the album, we can't tour. I remember when we were cutting the new album in March, and we were so excited. Like, oh my god, we were just so amped to get the album out. And then literally I was in London cutting, and then the next day, the COVID thing really ramped up. There was a lockdown. I had to get from London back to Manchester literally the next day. You could not make this up.
On the bright side, you get to dodge bad tour bathrooms for a while longer.
You know what, I miss everything about it. Sure, we did some festival gigs last year, but we'll miss the real proper gigging where you're on a tour and with the same people in a room for three months. I absolutely love it. And I’m just really just itching to get back to that place—if we ever do.
Other than the occasional show, what has the last decade looked like for you?
Me and the singer Jimi put out a solo record, and me and my brother put out another project called Black Rivers. And then Jimi put out a solo album. It was interesting, starting a new band from scratch. It was almost like going back to when we started in a van, rather than a tour bus, and you're doing these kinds of sweaty clubs. That was cool. And you had to load your own equipment back into the bus, so not much of a crew. It was pretty much back to grassroots kind of fun.
That's interesting that you were able to put aside the privilege that comes with already having an established project.
It was really good fun, because it was different to Doves, it was something we've not experienced with Doves, because we've been together for a long time. Doing something outside that Doves was, I think was much-needed. It bought a lot of much-needed energy back into Doves. I just think we were so desperate for a break.
So, what was that first reunion like when you came back together, not as three dudes who are fond of each other, but as a band?
We met in a curry house. It was kind of freaky and strange and a little bit surreal, because we've not really seen each other. A little bit nervous—the meeting had all the emotions. We just wanted to know if there was something still there. We were checking out how each is feeling about the potential of us doing something new. We always said, if we are going to come back, it's got to be with a new album, not just to play the old songs. We're older, and maybe not any wiser, but we're definitely a little bit older. So, we had that curry. And then about a week later, we went to a little studio, and we literally just played the old songs that we haven't played for years. And that was freaky.
Muscle memory is so fascinating.
That's exactly what it was, it was some weird freaky muscle memory, your hands knew where to go. Jimi just immediately went into the lyrics. There was no "I forgotten that lyric." It was the strangest thing.
The track "Carousels" features a sample from Tony Allen. Did your band have a relationship with him?
That was a song that I personally had written. It was knocking around for years. And then I took it in a different direction. I slowed it down. Then I found this album that Tony Allen did of drum samples. And then once I had that in place, it's certainly quite good, and I took it to the band and they really liked it. And they went on from there. We've been aware of Tony Allen for a bit. I love Afrobeat, so it was such an honor to have them indirectly playing with us. And obviously, it was so strange because he passed away this year and made it all the more sort of poignant.
It is a really beautiful little hidden tribute. It's interesting because you did mention that you didn't want Doves to be based in nostalgia, and yet carnivals from your youth also came into play.
They were a little bit menacing, a little bit scary. Exciting. There was danger in the air, but yet magic in there. So, it had all these wondrous kind of mixed emotions. This is when we were kids just mucking about. There's all the bad boys and the people from the other side of the tracks. It had all these emotions mixed up, so I guess we were kind of reminiscing about that kind of feeling of when you're a kid and your eyes are opening up slowly to this sort of wonderful dangerous world.
That's such a beautiful filter.
Oh, yeah, I like that. We sometimes reminisce about things like that. Lyrically. And this just seemed to feel natural.
The Universal Want feels like an incredibly provocative title.
What summed up the album for us was this kind of misguided wanting. It was interesting to us that people sometimes are so programmed to think what they want is the newest this and that. This kind of consumerism, that's just gone into what people think they want, but they're not actually getting. This kind of a yearning for something that's perhaps misguided.
Yeah. So much of our want is out of our control and shaped by influences.
Exactly. Some people might spiritually want some something more than just the latest iPhone or whatever. But things are sort of degrading in society where people are just programmed to want these consumer things. I just think that's a sort of erosion.
Your cover was created by Maria Lax, a photographer from Northern Finland who shoots UFO sighting—which might be the best collection of words ever. How did you guys stumble across her work?
Well, in fact it was Jimi. He bought this book that she had done. She did a real limited run. Maria Lax made this beautiful book that had been hand-bound and she puts little bits of notes in personally, so it is very personalized. Jimi bought a couple one for me one for Andy for our birthdays. I was just I was just stunned by the beauty and the noir-airy look to it. It just spoke out to me, and I just thought, this absolutely marries with this album. It was just, for me it was, it was just so obvious that the two must go together.
Have you had any close encounters with aliens?
Not personally. I've always been obsessed with them. I was brought up on E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And I loved the late-'70s fascination with UFOs. It's almost like Maria's photos look like it's either about to arrive or it's just left. It's very eerie, but no, I haven't personally seen them. Not yet, but still open!
Do you foresee more music from Doves in the future?
I don't see why not. There's no reason for us not to do another album. At the moment, we're just desperate to get out there and gig. We understand why we can't, but it's at the forefront of our minds.