Baxter Dury – ‘I Thought I Was Better Than You’ track by track
'I Thought I Was Better Than You' is the genius new album by Baxter Dury, and here the "mockney nepo baby bard" talks us through the tracks
Baxter Dury has a new album out which means that despite what else is going on in the world, this is a good year. The new one is called ‘I Thought I Was Better Than You’ and is a joyous thing for anyone who has previously stumbled into the droll delights of Baxter’s crumpled outsider world. Headed up with the quality singles Aylesbury Boy and Celebrate Me, there is the usual dry and wry delivery (now co-opted by every indie band in England it seems), but is perhaps his most perfect concoction yet of his brand of music which only a fool would seek to classify, so we shall: it’s a kind of mod-indie-DIY-chanteuse-dissolute-disco, which now has morphed into a battered kind of hip-hop. The album has a dip into more personal territory lyrically, seemingly as a counterpart to his recent excellent autobiography Chaise Longue. Not that this means it’s some weepy confessional; as we shall see, Baxter isn’t really like that, he simply likes touching on the whole ‘son of Ian Dury’ nepo baby thing “because it’s awkward.” Anyway, enough of this, on with the good stuff, as Baxter takes us through the album track by track:
Firstly, how did you approach this new album?
Well you assess the situation and wonder where to go next. There’s the self-motivating factor of not getting bored by doing the same thing. Then there’s that mature peninsula to avoid, of men or women that begin to wear white plimsolls and make terrible music. I guess as you get older you can potentially distance yourself from the core thing that made you interesting in the first place. I mean, I was never that young when I made music anyway.
So I was just being aware of all that and trying to find source material. I don’t live a life where I’m generating a lot of drama, I’m not doing anything that illicit. So it’s quite hard to know what to talk about. But I found a source material that I was into, that I borrowed clumsily from to make my own provincial version of.
What was that?
American hip-hoppy stuff, the clever music that comes out, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator. It just gives you a certain freedom. [When we were writing the songs] we were in lockdown – I hung out with my son Kosmo and we jammed. He’s a pretty good musician, and I sort of asset stripped him. We were just pissing around because we were trapped in a house because of a huge global lurgy. It was never considered a big work project. It was afterwards that I thought I could use this. I didn’t really ask for permission from my son, I just used it.
I don’t really have a ritual about song-writing, one thing happens after the other. I found bits of music I liked by me or my son and just sang a story type of thing over the top. Like how you would in a hip hop way. But my songwriting instincts still kick in, so there’s a songwriting landscape to it, those chorus instincts.
Do you ever experience any pressure or label expectations?
There’s no point in putting something in a cultural cul-de-sac. You look for a way it can travel. I mean, its fringe, I’m a 51 year old bloke singing about himself. There’s a lot of naturally restrictive aspects to my music. I can’t sing, blah blah. But you want to try and liberate it or there’s no point. It has to generate some income that it justifies all the effort. Otherwise its fringe art for no reason. I think that’s creative and it helps you. Otherwise it’s just self-indulgent.
You must have been pleased about all the people getting into your music over the last few years.
You know, you buy a villa going ‘this is so amazing’, but then you’re like ‘look at that villa over there’. I think there’s a little bit of that but I think there’s a place for my music and what I do. It’s a healthy place that’s not meant to exceed its expectations. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-competitive. I can imagine the bigger venues I could be in.
I think I might be in my own category. I’ve got quite good at it. It’s good that it gets on the radio, it assists the process and it makes it much easier. Otherwise it’s too much of a struggle. And I like posh things. Although I do like eating at a service station too, it’s not bad sometimes.
First track then: ‘So Much Money’
It’s this big, slightly pretentious theatrical opening with a few obvious references to [the Coleridge poem] Kubla Khan, and people being trapped in their own creations, and poems, and a bit of Pinocchio fucking nonsense. But in a way I really like. It goes into a groovy moment and then an apology. When I thought of the albums I’d been listening to, like Tyler and Kendrick – and I’m not referencing them directly or suggesting it sounds like that – it was more the freedom they use to say what the fuck they want. Tell a story that they’re burdened by. It was in that sense that I thought this was a good opening.
I got the Khan family in. I’m sure the Khan family aren’t the nicest historical family, I think Genghis has been cancelled.
I just learned about the poem Kubla Khan. And I found you could sample Citizen Kane and it not be an issue because it’s out of copyright. Also there’s a tune called Xanadu by what’s her name? Olivia Newton John. It’s in tribute to her.
‘Aylesbury Boy’ next – the video shoot looked fun.
The video was brilliant, such fun. We made two of them over two days with a very smart director called Noel Paul, from New York. I was just a spare part which you can only get when you have someone really clever who knows what they’re doing. I’d never met the kids before but they were so funny – I’m a dad, so I’m quite good, I was like, ‘come on, jump on’. It was brilliant.
The line ‘Burger King trousers’? It’s a self-reflective moment of getting fashion wrong. Pinot Noir, sunsets and Burger King trousers is a cheap celebration, thinking you’ve made it with some cheap Pinot and Burger King trousers, the sort of thing I would have worn and got it all slightly wrong. That’s what I was thinking. Radically bad fashion choices, thinking you’re being ironic.
The track is in and out of a journey about where you’re from and where you think you’re from, and where you get that wrong. It’s quite abstract. And I think songwriting should be quite abstract because it should be mystical and open to interpretation and not over-documenting real life.
I was born near Aylesbury in poor circumstances, and it’s a bit about past identity. It’s not really very sociologically considered. It’s mockney nepo bard.
It’s crazy because I did all these songs talking about family and then the whole nepo baby thing came out. I thought, ‘oh I wonder is that pre-empts the witch hunt that might happen to me’. But maybe I’ve taken the piss quick enough that everyone will leave me alone.
What’s Aylesbury like? I’ve got a happy memory of it. It was pretty but it was quite a bleak street we were from. It still exists and my mates still live there. When I lived there it was brilliant, it was a Pakistani community and everyone got on great, it was pretty harmonious. I don’t know if it’s like that now. They’re satellite towns, they’re tough. There’s a bleakness. It was quite a journey from where we were to now, but I don’t want to be horrible about it. Going back once you’ve lived in a city is claustrophobic but I have really fond memories of it.
The current single now: ‘Celebrate Me’
Narcissism and more self-review business. Narcissistic review. That’s about all I can say about this. It’s a good one.
‘Leon’ is next, a real stand-out. Do you improvise your lyrics?
I improvise everything more or less, because I find there’s more of a natural flow to things. If you start writing too much you go a bit Stratford, you go a bit actor-y. It’s about remembering the outline of a story, but when you get an irregularity to it, it has more of a melody to the talking, and that’s what I’m trying to achieve. Then also your subconscious selects more interesting words under pressure, so I find it better that way. I’ve got a leaking valve inside my mind that can pour things out.
So Leon is more or less outlining a real incident that happened and that I’d written about in a book, just about being caught nicking something with someone else. Relatively tough kid, quite unpleasant kid. It’s about the circumstances around that and me getting busted, me being a bit slow and stupid and being someone with a famous dad, and the police being more interested in that.
I try and assume a voice of how I may have spoken when I was 13 or 14, so it’s got this almost silly voice. It’s the sociological impact of who I was, where I was from.
Cathartic? It’s cathartic to be able to convey quite a dense story because its like rapping. Hip hop and rap does it very well, a balance between saying quite a dense story without burdening the listener with too much information and still remaining ambiguous. I was trying to make it open to interpretation so someone can get their own feeling out of it. You mustn’t get too natural, gritty and real. You break the spell.
‘Crashes’ is next.
That’s suggesting an incident from a more modern time. It’s about my potential to go wayward very quickly. It’s telling a story about nearly crashing a car into a pub and all the people chasing out of a Norfolk village. It got a bit hairy. I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to relate it to exactly how, where and when. I hope not because then I’m in trouble.
But I just think, fuck, I’ve still got this tendency. My upbringing or whatever has condemned me to a lot. I keep it together now and live a very normal life but there’s still a bit of me that still wants to do something really naughty.
I happily contain that. I quite like living a clear-headed life. I’m mentally vain so I don’t want to be into deep drugs or anything.
Sometimes I think people are a bit disappointed because of the projection of what I am, there’s such a valley between the two personas. On stage, it’s ‘look at this devil Viking man’, and I’m not really at all – but that personality is in me and I do understand it and identify with it. The general range of naughtiness. And I think that’s what that song is about.
Oh its this trippy little melty moment. An abstract little vignette. It’s about confidence melting away, or dreams melting. I quite like it. It’s mean to be like a toothpaste advert from the 60s.
‘Pale White Nissan’ now, another really amazing one.
JGrrey sings with me on that song – she’s the one who saved the song from getting cut because she was so into it. I didn’t know her very well when she turned up to sing but she’s very opinionated and she was like, ‘This is my favourite thing.’ I nicked the sample from a Japanese reggae band called Fishman. Absolutely amazing 90s band. I nicked the sample and it just perfectly reminded me of childhood and the pale whiteness of a car I used to go to school in driven by a guy that used to look after me called The Sulphate Strangler. It was just another perfect narrative that ties all the craziness together.
I only passed my test about five months ago. In fact the whole album is informed by driving because that’s what I was doing at the time. It has all these mentions of driving licenses and cars for that very reason. And it took me that long to pass – I passed it just as I finished the album. I just passed purely for pleasurable reasons, I’m not going to have to use it for work or family. I want to get a really shit car, like a Honda Jazz, and drive it around Europe. Let it break down.
I have rented one really shit car since and listened to the album in it, and I’ve never been so narcissistically happy in all my life.
‘Shadow’ next. Is this your conscience talking?
Yeah it’s pretty self-explanatory. That is the nepo baby anthem, about all these obvious things and projected personas, and people talking about my dad being working class, and me being working class and then not being working class. I talked about that stuff and following in musical footsteps before anyone had mentioned nepo baby, but I thought it was quite convenient that that subject has become very relevant.
You mention Frank Ocean in it too.
Well I’m just a massive fan of Frank Ocean and I admire him on so many levels and how beautiful he is and how fragile he appears. And his songwriting is incredible.
I can’t imagine this is you setting the record straight, but is it you working out this family stuff on your own terms?
I’m not working it out, even. I just think it’s really funny and awkward. I’m less shy of it. It’s just an awkward subject I like to sing about. Because it’s privileged not in the sense that I was brought up very privileged [monetarily] – there wasn’t much there to have – but privileged in how crazy it all was, in that it was a lot of very artistic people pursuing their ambitions. You can get marginalised by people like that, you have to find your own place in the world that I was brought up in. Which isn’t to say ‘not easy’ can’t be a good thing. Not having it easy is how you stabilise. You have to have that.
‘Crowded Rooms’ next.
That’s JGrrey singing, and it’s about claustrophobia. Not an anti-recognition thing, it’s more about doing things for the right reason. I don’t talk about social media and all that shit because its so corny to question how valid social media is and whether its good or bad, or whether Spotify pays you or doesn’t pay you – because its all helpful in the end and you just have to accept it and get on with it. But I think its sometimes about – and this is a very common complaint and a bit cheesy for me to mention – but about people being very me me me-orientated before actually having anything to show for it.
And finally ‘Glows’.
It’s a conclusion isn’t it? It’s like the credits, and it’s where Kosmo was doing a folky young person’s angsty anthem, and I don’t really do a lot on it. It’s mostly his song. It has a folky sophistication I’d never be able to achieve and it just made sense that it would round it all up. Teenage angst anthem. It’s literally the credits.
Are you happy with the album?
I am actually really happy with it. I have a tendency to wait to see what everyone else thinks but I am really happy with it. It seems to be going well so far, except for not getting on the television.
And you have some big shows coming up, including supporting Pulp…
Yeah, Jarvis is a mate of mine, so that’ll be nice. I think touring is always a mixed bag but we’ve got such a nice crew in our team, they’re all friends. It’ll be great to nail it, and its actually hard marrying up the old stuff and the new stuff, because this one’s quite hip hoppy so it’s all coming off tracks. You think, shit, is that a blasphemy? It’s blasphemous in live indie world to have things that come out of my mouth like that, you know what I mean? But I like the freedom.
‘I Thought I Was Better Than You’ is out on Rough Trade now.
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