DEACON BLUE – Believers
We are reluctant travellers/All trying to get home” (“Gone”)
Deacon Blue are on the move again. The band whose second life began with the album The Hipsters in 2012 and accelerated with A New House released in 2014, is now poised to scale new heights with Believers.
“The Hipsters was about the band – my love letter to Deacon Blue,” says singer, pianist and songwriter Ricky Ross. “A New House was about our country, Scotland, a physical sense of a place that I’m sometimes overwhelmed with. Believers is about the journey we all take into the dark. You come to that point in your life where – whatever you’ve been told, whatever the evidence you’ve been presented with – you just don’t know what the answer is. At which point you can only rely on the instincts of your heart. You either take the leap or you don’t.”
For Ross and his fellow travellers in Deacon Blue – Lorraine McIntosh (vocals), James Prime (keyboards) and Dougie Vipond (drums, vocals) – taking those leaps of faith has become second nature. The band continues to celebrate the legacy of their platinum-selling success in the 1980s and 1990s. But in recent years, they have hit a sweet spot with a creative process that has helped them grow, once again, into a major contemporary act whose new records are playlisted on BBC Radio 2 and elsewhere, and who routinely sell out huge venues as disparate as the SSE Hydro Arena in their hometown of Glasgow and, more recently, Aintree Racecourse on Merseyside. With worldwide sales now in excess of seven million albums – including five albums in the UK Top Five and 17 singles in the UK Top 40 – the band is back with another reason to believe.
Believers began, as did the two previous albums, with Ross writing and demoing songs with the help of Gregor Philp, the guitarist who first joined Deacon Blue in 2008. After a few days of rehearsals, the full band, including bass player Lewis Gordon (also recruited in 2008), returned to Chem19 studio in Glasgow with producer Paul Savage (Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, King Creosote, etc.). “Paul works a lot with new bands and people who are completely outside our musical world, and brings a different perspective to the songs,” Ross says. “We love working in his studio. He gets a great sound. It’s been one of the most creative sessions I’ve ever done.”
The sense of a band and producer working in perfect sync was evident throughout the recording sessions, with everyone pitching in ideas for the arrangements, some of which have taken the songs in unexpected directions. “A Boy”, a song full of nostalgic yearning, is enhanced by a string quartet arranged by Pete Harvey (of King Creosote fame). “We were young once/Don’t pretend it didn’t happen to you,” Ross sings.
Other songs are stripped back to the essentials, instrumentally and emotionally. “What I Left Out” is a song which Ross found in his Logic files, which he had completely forgotten having written. A sense of quiet wonder permeates the song’s poignant lyric which is set against a simple backdrop of Fender Rhodes piano and acoustic guitar. “I told her everything…She’s got me wondering what I left out.” “It’s a love song, from an older perspective,” Ross says. “The guy is thinking he must have left out some important detail about himself, because she still seems to love him after all this time.”
Some of the songs are deep album tracks, including “Birds” a long, spontaneous performance that was recorded almost as a live track with the liberating refrain: “One day we’re going to be free as the birds.” “It’s really special,” Ross enthuses. “It reminded me of when we were doing Raintown. We’d always think a track wasn’t finished and our producer Jon Kelly would say ‘What’s wrong with it?’ And we’d realise it was sorted. It’s a nice moment.”
The first single to emerge from these sessions is “The Believers”, a song reflecting, in part, on the scenes of despair among refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and elsewhere, but nevertheless cast as an anthem of hope: “Step on a boat/Go on a journey/May it take you to heaven.” Another song, “Gone”, dwells on the sheer numbers of people whose lives nowadays seem to be disposable. “Huge numbers get drowned, people get lost and the humanity of it gets ignored,” Ross says of this song, which distils a universal theme of suffering into a deeply personal expression of anguish and loss.
As a songwriter, Ross has reached a stage where experience has honed his sense of motivation to a sharpness that he didn’t always feel as a younger man. “You look around. Things happen. People are falling over and you get to a point where you think: everything you do, you can’t do it forever,” Ross says. “So you try to write something that would be good enough if it turned out to be the last thing you did. When you’re young you think ‘There’s plenty more records I can do.’ It’s not so urgent, somehow. There are still plenty more records that I want to make. But I might not get time to do them all. That’s a thought that certainly pulls the songwriting into focus.”
It is now 29 years since the band – founded in Glasgow and famously named after a Steely Dan song “Deacon Blues” – released their million-selling debut album, Raintown in 1987. A string of best-sellers followed: When the World Knows Your Name , Fellow Hoodlums , Whatever You Say, Say Nothing  and a double-platinum compilation Our Town – The Greatest Hits  which included “Real Gone Kid”, “Fergus Sings the Blues”, “Dignity”, “Wages Day”, “Twist and Shout” and many others.
Then, with 12 UK Top 40 singles and two No.1 albums to their credit, the group split up for five years. While Ross built up his career as a songwriter and solo act, he and the other band members set about establishing themselves with remarkable success in various other fields of the media, the arts and academia. But as their lives unfolded, they never gave up on the Deacon Blue dream. A reunion show led on to a new album Walking Back Home  and a follow-up Homesick  after which the band continued to reconvene whenever there was a good reason to do so, of which there have always been many.
The success of The Hipsters in 2012 marked the beginning of a new phase in Deacon Blue’s affairs – a return to the days when a new, ground-breaking album and a major UK tour was never more than a couple of years away. An unusually industrious group of individuals, they have achieved this while continuing to build up their lives and careers outside the band environment.
“We’re all better when we’re busy,” says Ross, who among his many projects as a songwriter and broadcaster also found time to do a solo tour last year, where he went out and performed, literally on his own. “I just wanted to go out and sing and play the songs on a piano by myself. I made a decision, there and then, that any song we put on Believers, I could take it back to that level and it would still work. That idea helped me a lot in writing the songs on this album. Songwriting is really the reason for everything else that I do. When you wake up in the morning and you write a song…It just goes from there.”
Ricky Ross [vocals/piano]: has released five albums as a solo act. He has also written songs for or with artists including James Blunt, Ronan Keating, Jamie Cullum, and Nanci Griffith, among many others. In 2015 he wrote the songs for the acclaimed musical play The Choir at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow. He presents his own radio show, Another Country with Ricky Ross on BBC Radio Scotland, and presented a TV show tracing the history of his hometown Dundee. More recently he has presented Ricky Ross’s New Tradition, a series of shows on BBC Radio 2. He is one half of the duo McIntosh Ross who toured and released their much-admired debut album The Great Lakes in 2009.
Lorraine McIntosh [vocals]: has carved out a career as an actor, on stage in recent productions with The Scottish National Theatre in Beautiful Burnout and Men Should Weep, on television appearing as a regular character in the Scottish soap River City and in several feature films. As a singer and songwriter, she is the other half of McIntosh Ross.
James Prime [keyboards]: is a lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland, where he and Allan Dumbreck [of the Big Dish] set up the School of Music and Recording Technology 15 years ago. There are currently 250 or so students enrolled in their Commercial Music BA degree course. “We’re arming them with everything: business, technology and performance skills,” James says. “The London music business comes here to hand-pick our students.” James also performs in several other bands, notably the Floorstompers.
Dougie Vipond [drums/vocals]: is a TV presenter for BBC Scotland. He has fronted sport, travel and rural affairs programmes including Sportscene, Landward, and The Great Climb, which won a Scottish BAFTA. In 2012, he took part in an event for Sport Relief in which he sailed, ran, rowed and cycled round Britain. He regards going back on tour with Deacon Blue as “quite relaxing. I’ve just got to sit on a bus.” He likes to remind the others that, at 49, he remains the baby of the group.
Gregor Philp [guitars/vocals]: has played live with Deacon Blue since their 2008 tour with Simple Minds. He has helped Ricky to record demos for The Hipsters, A New House and Believers, and co-wrote songs on all three albums.
Lewis Gordon [bass]: covered a session for Deacon Blue in 2008 and has been on stage and in the studio with them ever since. A young musician who has worked with John Fratelli, he is also a songwriter who used to phone Ricky to ask his advice about the music business.
REAL GONE KIDS
Ewen Vernal [bass]: played in Deacon Blue until the 1994 break-up and now plays with Capercaillie.
Graeme Kelling [guitar]: was a member of Deacon Blue until his death in 2004 from pancreatic cancer. There was a dedication to him on the album cover of The Hipsters. “He was the only one of us who was a true hipster,” Ricky says. “He was the cool guy with the Ray-Bans and the Katharine Hamnett jackets. He lived the life. Truly a day doesn’t pass without us thinking about him and very often talking about him and the stories that all come up.”