Music

Doves on The Universal Want, their first album in 11 years: ‘We can’t do anything else, now… We’re institutionalised musicians’


In an office just off Manchester’s Oxford Road, Doves are bickering over the details of their apparent dissolution in 2010. Jez Williams, the band’s guitarist, is wincing.

“Did I really say that?”

Sitting beside him, his twin brother, Andy, is grinning impishly.

“Oh, yeah. Did you ever see the Ziggy Stardust film? Where Bowie announces it’s the last gig they’re ever gonna play, and the band are just looking at each other, shocked? That was me and Jimi [Goodwin]. We didn’t know the Warehouse Project was the last Doves show until you blurted it out on stage.”

It wasn’t a statement that stood for long. When Doves did disband after that final hometown bow, they were clear about the fact that it was only ever meant to be a comma, not a full stop. Everyone just needed a break.

The gig was the last of a gruelling campaign to promote 2009 album Kingdom of Rust, the making of which had been an arduous, stop-start affair that threatened to derail a 20-year love affair with music, which began when the trio met as Haçienda-going schoolboys in the mid-80s.

“I don’t look back on it fondly,” says Jez. “There was writer’s block, there were personal problems. We were clocking in and clocking out every day, trying to force ideas that weren’t working, not getting anywhere. The idea of going back into the studio after that… none of us could face it.”

The in between

Kingdom of Rust was a success, although as if to underline how bittersweet the experience had been, they missed out on their third No 1 album to Lady Gaga, who pipped them by four copies.

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Jez and Andy formed a new outfit, Black Rivers, while frontman Goodwin went solo, releasing the warmly received Odludek.

By 2017, both projects had run their course, as Goodwin explains when he barrels in late after a battle with a car park barrier.

“I hadn’t realised how involved a solo album was,” he says. “I was responsible for every decision: music, artwork, videos. It was rewarding, but I had no desire to do it again in a hurry. And Jez and Andy had gotten tired of touring in a Transit van, because they were too tight to pay for any crew and had to lug all their own gear.”

The twins protest that they were on a budget, and counter with the image of Goodwin as a solo prima donna, beeping his tour bus horn at his roadies.

Jimi Goodwin, Jez Williams and Andy Williams from Doves perform on stage as part of the Summer Series at Somerset House on July 16, 2019 in London, England. (Photo: Rob Ball/WireImage)

Slipping by

The three have made music together for nearly 30 years – first as dance act Sub Sub in the early 90s, before making the transition to emotionally literate indie-rock in 1998 – and have clearly settled as smoothly back into their interpersonal dynamic as they have their shared musical language.

The result is The Universal Want, their fifth album and first in 11 years. It offers 10 new panoramic exercises in studied elegance, and in that respect, it is Doves as usual; the sweeping heartbreak of “Broken Eyes”, the skyward lilt of “Cathedrals of the Mind”, the bitter, exposed-nerve sting of “Cycle of Hurt”.

Elsewhere, though, there is a reckoning with how quickly the years have slipped by. All three have raised families and embraced domesticity over the past decade, which becomes apparent in everything from the small talk about the kids going back to school to Goodwin rummaging through his pockets for his keys and turning out only dog biscuits.

The Universal Want is scored through with quiet acquiescence of middle age; as they “hurtled towards 50”, as Andy puts it, the band were both tentatively embracing the opening of a new chapter (see “I Will Not Hide” or closer “Forest House”) and yearning for their youth, too, particularly on the title track, which nods to their Haçienda days with a scintillating house outro, and “Carousels”, which evokes their childhood seaside holidays.

Not that those excursions were as romantic as they are made to sound.

“That one reminds me of being 13 years old, at a dodgy fairground in Wales, worried about getting my money nicked,” laughs Goodwin. “Or watching these two try to burn down an ice cream van. Their poor mum; they were a right little pair of vandals.”

Sticking it out

That they’ve stuck together for as long as they have is, by Andy’s calculations, the crucial factor in ensuring they came back from the layoff at all; initial writing sessions in 2017 were kept secret, and in an effort to avoid Kingdom of Rust-style burnout, they would simply wait out periods where the inspiration was lacking.

“When you’ve got a family, and life becomes more complicated, you really have to want to keep doing it,” he says. “I’ve seen it countless times with friends’ bands; if there’s one person saying, ‘I can’t be arsed,’ the whole thing can fizzle out pretty quickly. It’s still a priority for us, though, even at our age.”

Cue another cackling interjection from Goodwin, who recounts early rehearsals for last year’s triumphant run of comeback shows as involving “getting the Werther’s Originals out, popping a bit of tobacco in between our gums, emptying the colostomy bag and then playing ‘Black and White Town’, ‘Snowden’ and ‘Firesuite’”.

He doesn’t feel 50, for what it’s worth.

“Mentally, I don’t think we’re anywhere near it. There’s definitely a bit of arrested development. We can’t do anything else now, anyway, we’d be unemployable. We’re institutionalised musicians.”

The Universal Want album cover, out 11 September 2020 (Photo: EMI)

Career nostalgia

Still, there was something daunting about returning to a much-changed landscape. The industry was already becoming inhospitable towards guitar bands last time they made a record, “and that looks like Mecca now”, says Jez.

“I never would’ve thought I’d be nostalgic for the glory days of 2009.”

Gone are the opportunities to make the “expensive mistakes” of the past. He refers to one ill-fated attempt to work on 2005’s Some Cities at Grouse Lodge in Co Westmeath, in Ireland, the same studio Michael Jackson spent months holed up at after his acquittal the same year.

“It had its own pub, which was the beginning of the end.”

Doves’ plans for 2021 remain in the lap of the gods, with an extensive UK tour scheduled for March and April.

“We’d have to start writing again if those gigs got moved,” confirms Goodwin, who has a few ideas already. “We’ve got a two-hour synth jam recorded that we haven’t done anything with yet. We should make a freak-out album, I think. Go full Flaming Lips.”

He grins.

“It’s either that, or get the pipe and slippers out.”

‘The Universal Want’ is out on Friday. Doves tour the UK in March



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