Duglas T. Stewart
We seek to write the perfect sentence. The one that opens the paragraph, like a key in a door, to places undiscovered. It was how to begin this story on Duglas T Stewart, the lead singer and mainstay of BMX Bandits, whether with a fact or a quote, or oblique reference that would set the scene to unfurl his tale.
Duglas has written his fair share of perfect sentences - in dozens of songs over his twenty-five-year career with BMX Bandits. From the first singles in 1986, the debut album C86 in 1989, through to Bee Stings in 2007, Duglas has been at the center of an incredible family of talented musicians who have together created some of the most beautiful, toe-tapping and joyous music of the past 3 decades.
In the early 1990s, when Nirvana was top of the tree, Kurt Cobain said:
’If I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits.’
It was a tip of the hat to a man who is responsible for singing, writing and producing songs of the kind of beauty and fragility Cobain aspired to.
Not just Cobain, but Brian Wilson and Kim Fowley are also fans, with Fowley explaining his own definition of what it means to be a BMX Bandit:
’It means a nuclear submarine floating through chocolate syrup skies of spinach, raining raisins on a Chihuahua covered infinity of plaid waistcoats, with sunglasses and slow motion. It sort of means, pathos equals suburban integrity of loneliness punctuated by really nice melodies.’
But let’s not take Kim’s word for it, we decided to ask Duglas to tell Dangerous Minds his own version of his life and love as a BMX Bandit.
DM: What was your motivation to become a musician?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘Initially it was two things. I heard Jonathan Richman in 1977 and it sounded so human and full of warmth and humor and beauty. It also seemed to fly in the face in the punk ethos of DESTROY. It really made a connection with me and I thought I’d like to try to do something that hopefully might make others feel like I did listening to Jonathan. Listening to his music gave me a sense of belonging. I felt less alone.
‘The other thing was I met Frances McKee, later of The Vaselines, and I thought she was incredible. I loved everything about her from her mischievous sense of humor to her slightly overlapping front teeth. She said to me one day she thought it would be fun being in a group, and so I thought I would start a group and she could be in it and that way I could spend more time with her and have a vehicle for expressing how she made me feel.
‘Also I had a lot of self belief so I knew if I started a group it would be way better and more interesting than any other local groups at that time.
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘Later the motivation changed as I discovered more of the possibilities of what music could do and what we could do with it.
‘It’s now more about wanting to fight in the corner of beauty. To provide some testimony of its existence.
‘There is so much evidence of the ugly, everywhere one looks, on T.V., in newspapers, in celeb gossip magazines, greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, walking down Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night, it’s in reality shows and I think now, more than ever we need to be reminded beauty is out there and not let all the ugliness defeat us. Where there’s beauty, there’s hope.
‘I think artists are often dissatisfied with the world they find themselves living in and so they try to create a new and better world of their own and hopefully through their work they allow other people to escape to better place too.’
DM: Tell me about the early alliances that lead to the formation of BMX Bandits?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘In the early days the 2 big musical alliances were with Norman Blake and Sean Dickson. In our hometown of Bellshill [on the outskirts of Glasgow] we were outsiders and dreamers. So, we were drawn together and we drew strength from each other and offered each other support and reassurance.
‘I think all three of us had our own unique voice and ideas about what we wanted to do which would ultimately lead to all three of us pursuing our own personal thing but in the early days it was good that we had each other until we grew stronger.
‘Also, Sean and Norman had musical and technical skills that I didn’t have and I needed that to do what I wanted to do. I think I had a fearlessness back then and was more of a natural performer and I think they got something from those qualities of mine.’
DM: In a TV interview in 1987, you chose Village People, The Beach Boys, Throbbing Gristle - what three records would you choose today? Why?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘Well I think I’d still choose a Beach Boys album but now it would be The Beach Boys Love You instead of Pet Sounds. Love You is my favorite Beach Boys album. I think it’s the perfect synthesis of Brian’s childlike, uncontrived naivety and his profound musicality.
Duglas with Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘At first, some of the songs could almost appear like simple/dumb children’s songs but when you look a little deeper they are musically speaking really profound. I also like the slightly fucked up quality Love You has. There’s much more of Love You in my music than there is Pet Sounds. Of course, I love Pet Sounds too.
‘I’ll go for Kraftwerk’s Computer World I love that Kraftwerk with their whole man machine thing can make music that has such warmth, soul, elegance and beauty. It’s the exact opposite of someone only seeing the surface would expect them to be. It still sounds fresher and more modern than any other record I can think of.
‘The 3rd choice would have to be The Shangri-Las, probably my all time number one pop group. One of the all-encompassing collections would be the thing. Mini-movies for the ears and the heart. There’s nothing that comes close Mary’s vocal delivery on things like “Never Go Home Anymore”, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” and “Past, Present & Future”. Plus what Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Shadow Morton came up with for them, it’s incredible. It’s so extreme, no holding back 100% undiluted art and 100% undiluted emotion.
‘I do like a lot of more recent music too, honest.’
DM: BMX Bandits is an incredible collection of very talented musicians, what keeps you together? How does it work?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘I think some people get surprised by how many really big talents and independently creative individuals have been part of BMX Bandits (and even continue to contribute after officially leaving two decades ago, in the case of Norman) but I think that’s sort of also the key to how and why it works. For many of them they have their own main priority personal project as well as being a part of BMX Bandits and so they aren’t frustrated about BMX Bandits being about me so much.
‘But they know how much their contributions are valued and it’s an enjoyable environment to make music in. Quite a few ex-Bandits who have had much more commercial success and critical success elsewhere have told me that the must fun and happy times they’ve had being in a group with BMX Bandits.
‘I think there might be something liberating that chasing big sales figures or get big festival gigs aren’t part of the equation.
‘It has really become like an extended family and I’m very lucky that such great talents and friends give so generously to this thing that is pretty much my life.
‘Also, people will depart the group officially but then still pop up on new recordings or playing at shows.
‘BMX Bandits are a bit like Hotel California “You can check out anytime you want but you can never leave”.’
DM: Describe yourself in 3 paintings?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘Paintings: The Snail by Henri Matisse.
‘When I first saw this it was like an epiphany for me, as much as when I first heard Jonathan Richman. It seems to say so much what it is to be alive and about how we travel through life, how that journey feels.
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘Ibi Dabo Tibi (1925) by Eric Gill.
‘Gill’s best known for his typography but I love his art. This says a lot about my pursuit of love and beauty and sensual pleasures. So much of my work is about trying to make testimony to the beautiful. In its original context, it has some religious content but I’m just viewing it on what I see in it.’
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘The Fall of Icarus (possibly by Bruegel, although that seems to be now disputed)
‘Well this painting seems to say a lot to me about how I’ve lived my life. I’ve tried to fly but ultimately I’m doomed to fall and do you know what? The world never even noticed the brief moments of flight or my inevitable fall. Some may see this as a painting of failure but i don’t think so. People might think of Icarus and me as fools but at least we tried to fly, to do something less ordinary and for a brief moment we did.’
DM: BMX Bandits inspire great love, adoration, in part the beauty of the songs, but there is also a magic here, why is that?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘I think it might be that it’s for real. There’s no fake sincerity or overly earnest emoting going on in BMX Bandits. There’s no censoring lyrics or what we do in fear of not looking cool, being thought foolish or commercial failure. It’s me and my world set to music. Sometimes I’m dumb, sometimes I’m almost clever, sometimes I’m funny and sometimes I’m sad ... and sometimes I’m all of them at the same time.
‘I think I am pretty good at being myself in an unembarrassed way on stage, on record and in life. It’s kind of ironic as I would pretty much rather be in someone else’s company than my own and I nearly always feel more comfortable in someone else’s home than my own.
‘There’s lots of things I’m not very good at; playing football, playing guitar, juggling but, although some people might not think it’s a very good thing to be, I am good at being Duglas. I think at being Duglas I’m probably number one. Although Norman and I once swapped identities for a day and he was so good at being me it was uncanny. He totally nailed me, I wasn’t nearly as good at being him.’
BMX Bandits - ‘Serious Drugs’
DM: In the 1990s, BMX Bandits signed with Alan McGee’s Creation records, where you toured with Oasis, and released such tarcks as “Serious Drugs”. What was the highlight of being with Creation Records?
Duglas T. Stewart: There were lots of fun adventures and funny memories but genuinely the best thing was Alan McGee’s unreserved support and belief in the group and in me as an artist. When we joined Creation the majority opinion was we were a bit of a joke and not a very good joke but Alan was convinced we had something unique and special and took it on as a personal mission to change people’s perceptions about us. He still quotes “Serious Drugs” as being one of his top 10 tracks Creation released. I agree with him. When we recorded that other “indie” groups were not making records that sounded like that.’
DM: What are your ambitions?
Duglas T. Stewart: To find love. To make music that people feel a connection with. I remember reading Brian Wilson saying he wanted people to feel loved after they listened to Pet Sounds. If they felt alone or troubled or without a friend in their day-to-day life that record could be a friend to them, a friend who would never let them down. I want to make music that when people listen to they will feel like they are in the company of a friend.’
DM: What were they originally?
Duglas T. Stewart: Even back then I wanted to make a connection with people, maybe people I might never get to meet or that on the surface I might seem to have very much in common with.’
DM: Describe yourself in 3 songs?
Duglas T. Stewart: Songs: “Neil Jung” by Teenage Fanclub. Norman wrote this song about me. It was originally entitled “Brothers in Rock”. Norman knows me better than almost anyone so if anyone is qualified to create a portrait of me in song it is him.’
Duglas T. Stewart: “Baibaba Bimba” by Tenniscoats- It feels like how I feel when I feel like my heart is dancing, when I feel 100% alive.’
‘Duglas T. Stewart: “True Love Will Find You in the End” by Daniel Johnston. The song has such sadness in it and such longing in it but also hope.’
DM: What have you been working on recently?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘The most recent things I’ve been working on are an e.p. with a Japanese singer/one girl band called miette-one. I co-wrote 2 of the songs with her.
‘Also we are at the very final stages of preparing for the release of the new BMX Bandits album BMX Bandits in Space. It’s being mastered just now. Some musicians don’t seem to care much about the mastering process but it’s important to me. It’s like putting the varnish on an oil painting or fine piece of furniture. It can bring out the light and life in recordings or kill them. So far it’s sounding really good to my ears.
DM: Describe yourself by 3 books?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘Books/ novels: Well the first book I’ll pick is one that someone told me that I was like. It’s children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein called The Giving Tree.
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald for Gatsby’s undying and unshakeable belief in love and that love is all.
‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, that eternal battle between the light and the darkness inside ourselves. I don’t have an overt Jekyll side that I keep hidden but everyday I fight against the darkness, to stop it taking over.’
Tell me about your creative process?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘It can vary greatly. Sometimes it can start with me going into Duglas the Musical mode. What I mean by that is just like in the musicals a feeling will be building up inside me as I’m walking home at night, doing the dishes or something like that and I start to spontaneously sing about it. Like in the musicals it isn’t just me singing a cappella there is a group playing along with the song (in my head). I then have to go over it again-and-again so I can figure out what the musicians in my head are playing so I can try to communicate that to the other Bandits. Of course, I work with great collaborators who will often help me take things way beyond what I heard in my mind.
‘Other times it’s more conventional where one of the other Bandits has a musical idea that they want me to bring something to and then it’s like closing my eyes and seeing what triggers the music fires off for me.
‘Another thing that sometimes happens is someone tells me a story or I am in a situation that I replay in my head later and when I replay the story or situation it has a soundtrack, like a scene in a movie. So sometimes the musical themes from those will later become songs.’
DM: Tell me about the film ‘Serious Drugs’?
Duglas T. Stewart: Well, Jim Burns, the director, approached me in Monorail Records in Glasgow and was incredibly open and frank about how he had been touched and at a very dark period in his life felt he was given hope by some of my songs. It meant a great deal to me to hear that. Later after getting to know Jim a bit better, I discovered he had unfulfilled ambitions to make films. I think I encouraged him and then after a while, he said he would like to make a film about BMX Bandits.
‘I told him then that although I would be as available to him as much as he wanted and try to be as helpful as I could it had to be his film, his version of the story and not mine. So the first time I saw any of it was at the premiere at the GFT in Glasgow, sitting next to my mum. I totally put my trust in Jim and he made a very beautiful film about me and about my musical family. This was not an exercise in trying to make money or gain some sort of acclaim. It was a real labour of love with Jim wanting to share something he saw as important with other people willing to listen.
‘There’s laughter, tears, drama, broken hearts and hope in there.’
DM: What’s next?
Duglas T. Stewart: ‘The new album BMX Bandits in Space. It’s sort of little snapshots of love stories from my own life and stories that I’ve been affected by about others but sometimes misremembered, half remembered or altered to be how my romantic mind wanted things to be. So I’m drifting in space in a sort of dream replaying these little scenes over and over in my mind and trying to find my way back home. It’s coming out on Elefant Records later this year.
‘I want to do the album as a live show too.’
BMX Bandits play Oran Mor, Glasgow, October 5 2012.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
With thanks to Duglas T Stewart