Dave Vanian of The Damned: 'Catch Us Before We Die!'

Boys will be boys: Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian in 1976.
John Ingham
Boys will be boys: Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian in 1976.
As part of the first wave of punk rock, The Damned have always been one step ahead of almost every other band, zigging when others zagged, and doing their own thing their own way. They released the first punk rock single on Stiff Records in 1976. And for the last 40-plus years, they have continued to be creative and vital.

Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible are the yin and yang of The Damned, and they have been since the beginning. Vanian is often seen in shades of black and gray, while Sensible is practically dripping with every other color at any given time. Which is why the longtime bandmates are often seen in a completely different light, even by the ardent fans who have supported them for what seems in many cases to be their entire lives.

Who knew they both would be so thoughtful when it comes to talking with them about their current tour and all things Damned? New Times talked with Vanian and Sensible, who play Tempe's Marquee Theatre on Sunday, May 21.

New Times: First of all, thanks for coming back to Phoenix! When you think of our fair desert city, what springs to mind?
Captain Sensible: The stage invasion at that gig in Phoenix has gone down in Damned history — as one not to repeat, as everything grabbable left the venue: guitars, mics, drums, etc. We thought it was a laugh, but the manager wasn't best pleased.

I can also remember the extreme dry heat during that visit ... which us Brits are not remotely used to. We were all running from the air-conditioned van into the hotel ... gasping for breath.

Congratulations are in order, as well. Forty years of keeping a band together is beyond notable. Did you ever expect that you would be playing music this long or that The Damned would still be going this many years later?
Dave Vanian: I don't think anybody in their right mind would expect to be in the same band for 40 years (laughs), but I thought I'd be involved in music somehow, but if somebody had said to me in '76, "You'll be in the same band this far ahead," I'd have said that couldn't be possible.

Has the press generally been pretty kind to you guys over the years, and do you pay any attention to press at all?
Sensible: I've no complaints, I'm a pint-half-full guy. As a former toilet cleaner, I know what shit jobs are like ... and The Damned saved me from a life of drudge. I think when you're in a band, you have to behave a certain way ... there's a lot of pompous rock stars, totally up themselves. That's the accepted behavior pattern for rock stars. We don't take any of that seriously ... in punk rock, the bands and audience are the same. Or they should be, anyway.

We don't hobnob with celebs, attend award ceremonies, lig [British for "hanging out" or schmoozing] backstage at big shows, so we never meet any music press people. Basically, we don't play the game. That may count against us.

Speaking of media coverage, what's the weirdest part of being the subject of a documentary? Is it odd to have someone want to make a movie about you?

Sensible: Rock docs generally follow a formula, and almost always miss the point. The Johnny Cash one, for example, was made as a love story. What a monumental drag ... the bloke was epic, the original rock rebe l... champion of the underclass ... a love story? What a disgrace.

As for our one — trying to cram the band's history in a documentary was a mistake. There are so many aspects that could've been picked out, it might've made a better movie. How a bunch of 60-year-olds feel about their younger selves' reckless abandon. Ask anyone who was around at the time and they'll tell you The Damned were the least likely to still be around all these years on — as a band and as human beings.

The film also dwells on rows between members — which is a bit of a cliche ... I mean, every band that ever existed had bust ups. Even The Mamas and Papas. It was nice to see the old footage, though, of which not a lot exists. Mainly due to our manager's demands from potential filmers.

Do you ever have moments where you can’t even fathom playing certain songs one more time?
Vanian: No, not really, because we mix it up a bit and we play different ones. The set changes. The set we did just before this was the first album plus a couple of things, whereas this one's more just more of a pick and mix of some of not the best stuff, but some of the popular stuff. It's difficult, because when you do have a lot of history, it's harder to pick the songs because you have so many to choose from and you're never gonna keep everyone happy.

It's funny to hear bands who've been playing for a year whine about being tired of playing the same songs, especially when everyone they cite bands like The Damned as influences — bands that have been going strong for decades.
Vanian: Ha. I don't know how many times I've sung the intro to "New Rose" at this point…

Do you feel like you need to reinvent the songs or mess around with them just to keep it fresh?
Vanian: Sometimes you do that, yeah. When you're on tour, you tend to stray away from the original material a little bit; it's funny, you'll go back and revisit, put an album on, and think, "Oh, I don't do that the same way these days." You go back to the original form and it sounds really cool. It depends on the songs. You know, we always play around with things, try to keep things different night to night.

How does The Damned come up with record titles? Strawberries is one of our faves, for example … where did that come from?
Sensible: As soon as Brian [James] departed, we went on a musical adventure, and the directions we were going got us regular slagging from music critics. I was brought up in the '60s and watched The Beatles rapidly change from a three-chord pop band to the greatest songwriters of their generation. Bands should evolve ... we certainly never fancied repeating ourselves. So to answer the question ... we knew the album would be panned by certain journos, and we thought it was akin to giving strawberries to a pig. So that's where the title comes from.

click to enlarge The Captain on his throne. - ANDREA BECK
The Captain on his throne.
Andrea Beck
That’s awesome. What keeps you motivated after all this time. What drives you?
Vanian: The fact that we still haven't quite made it [laughs]. I think we're still, ridiculously enough, in a position where we're still hungry and we want it to work and we're convinced that if we keep at it, maybe someone will turn around and say, "Hey, they're not bad, they're quite a good group." I think it's startin' to happen, but it's taken a long time. I think originally, we were the outsiders, we didn't play the same game as everybody did, and due to bad management, record companies, and our own mistakes, of course, which were several, it's kinda held us back over the years.

We've almost got to a certain position where we've thought, 'Oh we've made it,' then slipped back down the ladder again, so. I think there's a long history of The Damned being discounted or forgotten — it's a case of a lot of people don't even realize we're still around. They think we disappeared years ago or whatever because we've gone up and down in the publicity side of things and people weren't writing about us for a long time and we were consigned to the scrap heap of time and we refused to go away.

Do you really look at the Damned as a band that hasn't made it?
Vanian: Yeah, I think that we still haven't quite gotten to where we could have gotten to. We make a living from it and we do well and we've got a great base of fans. It's the people that have always kept us going. Our live gigs have always been great, and even when we didn't have record companies, managers, or any money at all, we were still doing great.

That's why I didn't understand, I suppose, way back, after a few years we were selling out to the point of lines out on the street and people not being able to get in the shows and yet the press wasn’t writing about us at all — we'd been dismissed somewhat, and I just felt like, 'What's wrong with us?' At that point, they failed to look past tattoos and crazy antics and see there's a great guitarist and such. So, I still feel like we haven't quite reached our full potential.

Yeah, often so-called commercial success has less to do with talent and more to do with who you might be working with or for at a certain time.
Vanian: It's not like that I crave adulation. It's the music — it's been taken seriously by the fans for so long, but I'd like to see a little bit more critical acclaim here and there, which would be nice. I mean, for instance, [Rolling Stone] ignored us for 40 years; they didn't write about us in the beginning at all really, it's strange, we saw other bands that we felt we were on par with that they wrote about, and those bands rose up and we went down.

I think that's just what happens, especially when you're in at the beginning of something. If you look at history and the bands in the '60s, there were fantastic bands that were overshadowed and they kind of disappeared. Many bands have fragmented and disappeared where we've stayed together. Our fans have made it feasible for us to stay together. We can actually go on the road and not lose money all the time, so it was keeping us alive.

The main thing that motivates the band is music, and we feel there's a lot more to learn and a lot more to experiment with and a lot more things to do. We've been a bit slow the last few years regarding making albums, but that's what I'm really looking forward to. When this tour finishes, we go back in the studio and make our next album. That's an exciting part right now, 'cause in the end, that's what motivates the whole thing.

Do you keep instruments out and about at home? Are you one of those musicians who has a set time for writing, or do you just grab an instrument when the mood strikes?
Sensible: I often wake up with melodies running around my head ... get up and mumble it into a dictaphone, then go back to sleep. Several Damned tunes arrived like that. The curse of the songwriter is you can never turn it off ... your mind always has a tune running through it. Often awful ones by artists you can't stand. I was in a restaurant the other day and had just ordered when they started playing Phil Collins' greatest hits. There was no escape, so I pleaded with them to stop the torture. Thankfully, they were amenable.

Writing to order I just cannot do ... something insipid will generally result. I'll leave it till inspiration strikes, and then you can get two or three decent ideas in the space of an hour or so. As for lyrics, you only need to open a newspaper and topics jump straight out at you from every page. It's a mad world we live in ... that's for sure.

Have you been trying new material out on the audiences of this current tour?
Vanian: We're not doing anything in the set yet. That will come next time, if there's a next time [laughs], but yeah. Because we've got a pile of stuff — most people in the band write, so we've got a lot of material that we're sifting through and trying to condense down into what would be a manageable size and it's been quite difficult, in part because also we're writing different kinds of music, as well, than ever before. I've been writing more instrumental things than vocal things for quite a while so I've got to get my head around writing a three-minute song again.

Trying any new sounds?
Vanian: I think there will be some of that. As always, like we've tried in the past with the Black Album and Phantasmagoria and others, the goal is to open some new envelopes and push some boundaries for ourselves. I think we’re also gonna revisit our psychedelic roots, our garage roots, but also there may be sections with just music, on this album — I don't even know if you call albums ‘albums’ anymore — I guess with vinyl making a comeback, maybe you do, but yeah, even at this point, I'm not sure what the result will be. I never am, really; Damned albums tend to grow organically — they're never fully formed until we're in the last minute, and then it comes together.

Do you get apprehensive about playing new music when people are rabid to hear their classic faves?
Vanian: No, I like that better than playing the old stuff sometimes. In fact, I like that some people might absolutely hate it, because that’s healthy. It's great to be able to play the old songs that everyone knows and have grown up with and are so close to their hearts, I can understand all that, but as a singer and a musician, you want to move forward, at least I do. I don't want to sit back and become a nostalgia act who it's great to see playing their old hits and stuff. I want to go forward.

We’re especially nostalgic, the Americans ...
Vanian: It is true, isn't it? It's funny. It always makes me wonder. There are things I love about the past, but we seem more nostalgia-driven than any other time. I wonder if it's because we hate the moment so much.

Given our current politics…
Vanian: Right. We love all the technology, but we always seem to want to wrap it up in this cozy nostalgia, it's funny.

Cap, this is a question for you. What is your typical response to people who say they preferred when you played bass? I'm a bass player and I love your guitar work and your bass work, but I've always wondered about how it was for you to make the transition ...
Sensible: I was about the fourth or fifth best bassist in The Damned. Paul Gray and Algy Ward can fight it out for number-one status. I'd played guitar previously in Johnny Moped; I'd never have changed instrument ... or jumped band for anyone else. But Brian was a visionary, told us there was going to be a music revolution, that we would lead. Then he played some of his songs ... I was in.

When he bailed out after the second album, it was partly because of our treatment by Stiff, and also because Rat and myself must've been difficult to cope with. We certainly went for it ... I still couldn't believe my luck. They pay you to behave badly and all the beers free. Punk could've been invented for me.

Stu has got it as a bass player; in fact him and Pinch have rejuvenated the band to a certain extent. They breathe new life into the classics. Monty, on the other hand, is an improv genius … he almost never plays the same thing twice. Which is infuriating when performing harmonies as he swaps every time at random. Oh, and his "New Rose" dance has to be seen ...

Speaking of new things, are you listening to any new music? Or is anything inspiring what you're writing?
Vanian: Well, it's weird, because I listen to a lot of film soundtrack work, and lately I've been listening to a lot of '20s and ‘30s music, but there's a lot of new things I hear and enjoy. I love things I hear from Jack White's Third Man Records, and I like what he himself does, because he seems to have a great attitude towards music; you can tell that that's what he does and it's exciting for him rather than, "Oh, I'm a really great guitarist and can do this or that."

Genuine love for the music. I try to seek out new stuff. There was a guitarist that I discovered who's been around for a while. St. Vincent — that's interesting to me, because she's using the guitar in a different way, which is nice to see. Yeah, I don't always find new stuff I can enjoy, 'cause a lot is great, but I feel like I've heard it before. I am always looking for something that's totally different.

What is next for The Damned after this tour? Please tell me it won't be another decade or so till you come back to Phoenix ...
Sensible: Ha ha ... give us a break. We're old ... it's unlikely we'll ever do a big tour like this again, so if you wanna catch the band who started it all, now would appear to be the time.

Anything else we need to know?
Vanian: Just we've been on tour a month now and it's been fabulous every night; everyone seems to be enjoying it, and it's definitely worth coming to see us at the moment. Catch us before we die! [laughs]

The Damned are scheduled to play Marquee Theatre in Tempe on Sunday, May 21.