The Doves

Music Features

Jimi Goodwin, the affable, bearded bassist/singer with Mancunian trio the Doves, leans forward in his seat for an endearing moment of honesty. “We were looking for a frontman like Morrissey, and we just couldn’t find one,” he says. “So it was like, ‘Jimi, you might not be the greatest-looking kid on the block, but you can sing. And this is about the music.’”

Goodwin is recalling the fateful decision made in 1998 with his bandmates—brothers Jez and Andy Williams—to remain a trio and cease searching for the mythical lead singer who’d eluded them for so long. “Once we realized that,” he says, “no one could f—in’ hold us back.”

And almost nothing has held the Doves back since they released their debut, Lost Souls, in 2000. The band is one of the most fêted to come out of England since the demise of Britpop in the late ’90s. Its passionate, atmospheric music has also brought an ardent following in the United States, where the Doves third album, Some Cities, is slated for an April release.

“We’ve got a bit of a fan base in America,” Goodwin says. “We can go to the big cities and play to 2,000 people.”

The Doves rode in on a wave of unapologetically emotive rock triggered by Radiohead and Jeff Buckley. Like Thom Yorke and friends, they resurrected rock’s passion. Lost Souls was about transcendence—reaching for redemption, reminiscent of that post-punk period of “rockism” epitomized in the early ’80s by Echo & the Bunnymen.

“We’re glad we sidestepped Britpop because we weren’t ready,” says Goodwin. “Britpop was a bit detached and aren’t-we-clever-clever. We were quite aware that we would never have fitted into that [scene]. If we’d put out Lost Souls a couple of years before, it would probably have got lost.”

The Doves were part of a wider resistance to the paralyzing pop-culture irony that had undone epic rock as Britain had once known it. Lost Souls had a quintessential Englishness: the shiver of yearning, the self-doubt and introversion of grown men weeping over liquid guitars.

What set the group apart from Coldplay, Muse, Six By Seven, JJ72 and other Radiohead wannabes was the depth of its sound—the use of beats and textures that drew on its early love of hip-hop and cool movie soundtracks. “We’ve always had that sampling, cut-and-paste aesthetic,” Goodwin says. “We’ve never been a straight-ahead plug-in-and-play band, and we never wanted to be.”

If anyone doubted the widescreen melancholia of Lost Souls, then 2002’s The Last Broadcast was the group’s very own OK Computer—an expansively ambitious album bursting with beauty. “Lost Souls was us dreaming of the whole life that bands were meant to lead,” says Goodwin. “Broadcast was more outward-looking. I’m not going to say optimism was creeping in there because it’s too trite. It was just different.”

With his beard and a scarf knotted around his neck, the 34-year-old Goodwin could be any old punter in one of the myriad working-class pubs in Greater Manchester. You don’t get anything fancy from the Doves, but then—as Goodwin points out—you didn’t get anything particularly fancy from New Order once Bernard Sumner accepted he was the de facto frontman of that Manchester institution. The Sumner connection extends further: New Order’s late manager, Rob Gretton, was the principal investor in Sub Sub, the dance-oriented act from whose ashes the Doves ascended after a 1995 fire destroyed their studio. Sumner even sang on the Sub Sub track “This Time I’m Not Wrong.”

“Rob Gretton told us, ‘Just fookin’ do it yerselves,’” Goodwin remembers. “It was the same thing he said to Bernard. And when we did finally agree to do it, it was so empowering.”

Gretton, who suffered a fatal heart attack in May 1999, funded Goodwin and the Williams brothers from the earliest days, when they were just kids who hung out at Manchester’s legendary Haçienda club. Inspired by the house and hip-hop classics they heard there, they formed Sub Sub and recorded the hit dance anthem “Ain’t No Love, Ain’t No Use” in 1993.

The three first met at Wilmslow County High School, where Goodwin was a late arrival at the age of 15. “Andy and Jez were literally the kids I met smoking by the tennis courts,” he says. “It was like, ‘He looks a bit interesting.’ ‘What you into?’ We just got chatting and then did a bit of jamming in their mum’s front room. We lost touch after we left school in 1986 and then I met ’em again at the Hacienda.”

Much of the band’s music has been about Manchester, especially the city’s outlying satellite towns where its members grew up. “I didn’t know that many people that lived in the city center,” says Goodwin. “It was all ’round Didsbury and South Manc and f—in’ Eccles.”

Like their Mancunian contemporaries, Elbow—whose sublime 2001 album Asleep in the Back speaks of the same love-on-the-outskirts dreams—the Doves are wedded to a strong, monochromatic sense of place. This can be felt overtly on the magnificent Some Cities. From the driving title track via the Northern Soul-influenced single “Black and White Town” to the plaintive “Shadows of Salford,” their third album is an exhilarating, sometimes claustrophobic journey through the rainy industrialized landscape of their childhoods.

“It’s always about getting to a better space,” Goodwin says. “We’re trying to escape that ‘is this all there is?’ feeling. ‘Black and White Town’ echoes that feeling. … It’s that whole ‘When’s my life gonna start?’ feeling. It’s a very British record, I think—the way we’ve aped Northern Soul, which in itself was a typical English phenomenon of embracing black dance records made in America. Lyrically, it’s dead British, though anyone can relate to growing up in the ’burbs and projecting this fantasy of what the city might be like.”

Paradoxically, the dark urban beauty of Some Cities only started taking proper shape once the band got out of Manchester and set up its equipment in an old schoolhouse in Fort Augustus, Scotland. The suggestion to get away from it all came from Ben Hillier, highly regarded producer of Blur’s Think Tank and Elbow’s sophomore effort Cast of Thousands. The recording climaxed with the album’s shimmering final track, “Ambition”—a kind of melding of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Elbow’s “Grace Under Pressure”—in an old Benedictine monastery near Loch Ness.

“That was just pure luck,” says Goodwin. “Someone had recommended it for a photo shoot and we went in there and it was just this beautiful cavernous place. The song ‘Ambition’ wanted that sort of Cowboy Junkies hushed approach, and it was the last song to be recorded. Two days later we were in there, and in six hours it was done—no overdubs.”

If Some Cities is occasionally guilty of Coldplay-like emoting (Goodwin occasionally sounds uncomfortably similar to Chris Martin), its peaks more than match the moody beauty of Lost Souls’ “Firesuite” or the harrowing majesty of The Last Broadcast’s “Sulphur Man.” Jez Williams lays tingling guitar fills over his brother’s gentle drumming on the pleading “Almost Forgot Myself.” “The Storm” uses ’60s soundtrack fragments to underpin Goodwin’s mournful vocal. “Walk in Fire” hearkens back to the galloping urgency of The Last Broadcast’s glorious “There Goes the Fear,” and “One of These Days”—sure to become a live classic—is a pounding blast of anguish.

Unlike The Last Broadcast, Some Cities resulted from a more organic recording process. While the Doves’ second album heavily featured layered overdubs, the band’s third grew out of more cohesive live arrangements.

“This record was the culmination of us being in a room together,” says Goodwin. “Last Broadcast was very much hit-the-tape-and-start-overdubbing, whereas there’s an urgency and a tautness, this one. On ‘Black and White Town’ and ‘Almost Forgot Myself,’ there’s a soulful element there that maybe we’d not done before. We’d go, ‘This one’s a bit retro, innit, but it feels f—in’ good.’ It was really from the ground up.”

Goodwin says Some Cities’ overall theme only became obvious once they were about five songs into the album. Ensconced in the countryside, they realized many of the songs touched on changes in Manchester’s cityscape. Increasingly unrecognizable from the place that spawned The Fall, The Smiths, Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, the Doves’ hometown is gradually being gentrified.

“There’s some great things happening, but we were just a bit suspicious,” Goodwin says. “The obvious example is the Haçienda. We’re by no means sentimental about it. I spent my formative years in that place, but it had to go ’cause it was getting ugly by the end. But it does gall me that the slogan for the new Haçienda apartments they’ve built there is ‘The Party’s Over—Now You Can Come Home.’

“The thing about Manchester is that, aside from the music, it was the first industrialized city in the world. We’re not town planners or architects, and we’re not historians, but there’s 20,000 people living in Manchester’s city center now. It’s great, this new vibe in the city, but I just wonder how long it’ll last. … When you get home from touring and a building that you loved is gone and there’s a crappy office block there, it’s like, ‘Whoa, no one told me’.”

Touring is something Doves are once again psyching themselves up for. But the band remains unwilling to slog it out coast-to-coast in America. “Gigging’s obviously the most hands-on thing we can do,” says Goodwin, “but none of us are prepared to get on a bus for 11 weeks and do the whole radio weenie-roast shit. It just doesn’t interest us at this stage in our lives. We’re not gonna support some inappropriate band, and radio’s a non-starter for us out there.”

Currently on Capitol Records after Lost Souls was released by Astralwerks, the Doves are unconvinced by the company’s commitment to breaking them in the U.S. “I’ll be honest, I’ve got little faith in them out there,” Goodwin says. “They don’t seem to have a plan for us. It’s like, you’re a big label with lots of money. If you don’t like it, then let us f—ing move on.”

Capitol could be missing a trick here. While its parent company EMI waits in vain for the next Coldplay album, Some Cities could be just what America needs right now. Goodwin, though, is looking forward to playing live in 2005.

“It’s great now having the three albums to pull stuff from,” he says. “Jez has been talking about almost building the set like a DJ would. We played some shows in London before Christmas, and they had a real mood to them. That’s invigorated the old stuff. There comes a point in any tour where you’re … not feeling phony playing the set exactly, but when you know you need some new blood in there. I think we’ve got that now.”

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