“We’re like angels trapped in mammals’ bodies,” Dave Wakeling says. “I try to focus on that optimism. If there’s any chance for decency or survival, it’s based on keeping optimistic.”
As songwriter and vocalist for his band, The English Beat, and later with General Public, Dave Wakeling fused lyrics panning the undercurrents of human interaction with ’80s pop and ska, creating an upbeat sound bordering on the ecstatic. The results being a navigation of often the darker side of human relationships and actions packaged into radio friendly songs such as “I Confess” and “Tenderness.”
In September, Wakeling will perform with the English Beat, while including his General Public hits as well, onstage at the KAABOO Del Mar at the Del Mar Fairgrounds just north of San Diego.
I was a different person by the time I had finished the album than when I had started.”
“The megafestival has become a cultural event, and a cultural statement,” he says to me about playing KAABOO Del Mar. “In England (from where Wakeling hails), people don’t meet in church anymore, but standing in a field with mud in your toes, drinking beer and communing. It’s an enjoyable experience.”
I don’t bring up that September in San Diego is typically in the mid-70’s, and the ocean breeze from the Pacific lying just a parking lot away from the festival will be more conducive to KAABOO’s artistic and festive atmosphere than the typical slightly more dreary British fests.
Along with his ambitious tour schedule, Wakeling and the English Beat have just released the record “Here We Go Love,” their first proper new album in 35 years. Over that time, Wakeling has maintained his recurring voice of an outsider looking in.
“I was a different person by the time I had finished the album than when I had started. I don’t drink, but I’ve also stopped smoking. It was caffeine to lunchtime, wine in the afternoon, and cigarettes from morning until night. I smoked them for nearly 50 years. But for the record, I thought ‘you might as well be focused for it.’ I used the record, and I ended up feeling and looking much healthier than when I had started.”
The slow intellectualizing and processing, the thoughtfulness of a perspective outside of a given scenario coming to inform an autopsy of a series of events, this has been a consistent quality of Wakeling’s lyrics. When I ask him if there is anything he tried on this new recording that he had previously sworn he would never do, that thoughtful air fell over the phone for a second, and then he broke his silence…
“No. But then again, I’m struggling to think of anything I said I would never do. That’s the problem, you’ve got to be careful about trusting your own point of view.”
He acknowledges how — over the years that have passed since those early English Beat and General Public albums — that age has changed a bit of his perspective.
“Just because you believe something strongly, it doesn’t mean you’ll believe the same thing in 10 years. Look at photographs of yourself from 10, 15 years ago: at the time you thought you looked fantastic and not like everyone else. You look at those photos now and you think, what on Earth was I thinking?” he laughs. “And if we can’t trust ourselves with something like our appearance, how do we trust ourselves with religion and politics?”
And thus, he brings it back full circle, to revealing where that sense of fragile optimism underlying his music comes from, and how he can make sense of these themes and perform them in a way that communicates optimism.
“With music, you have to remember it’s a stage, not a soapbox. The ultimate prize is if someone comes up to you and says that that song or that lyric meant the world to them. Or that they played it in the birthing room or the hospice or the wedding.
“That your words connect with others’ suffering or joy or subconscious, that’s the aim really. If you can learn about your own dilemmas, and take frustration and fear and turn it into commentary and mass consciousness and it flashes over the room like wildfire. After 40 years, I may be finally getting the hang of it.”
Dave Wakeling and The English Beat perform on the opening day of KAABOO Del Mar, held Sept. 14-16. For more information, head to KAABOODelMar.com
— Shaun Astor
The English Beat
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18
Where: The Saint, midtown Reno
Tickets: $35 at the venue, $40 at Recycled Records (includes $5 service fee), $44.28 at eventbrite.com