The leader of The Soup Dragons has been reborn as Hifi Sean, a producer/DJ with a #1 Dance hit on his hands, "Testify," featuring Crystal Waters.
It was 1985 when Sean Dickson formed The Soup Dragons with three of his mates in Glasgow. They were named after a soup-serving dragon in a British kids' show, which explains their ethos pretty well: mind-expanding, upbeat fun with a heavy visual element. In 1990 they hit paydirt with a ravelicious gospel-reggae version of the Rolling Stones B-side "I'm Free," which took off in the UK and garnered enough attention in America to bring them to the country, where Dickson dove into the pop culture, stopping at flea markets and thrift shops along tour stops for old albums and assorted kitch. In 1992 they landed their big US hit, "Divine Thing," which as Sean explains, was inspired by a famous American performer.
When Soup Dragons split in the mid-'90s, Dickson formed an electric-leaning outfit called The High Fidelity. That lasted until 2001, when he quit the business and went through a long period of soul searching, earning his keep as a DJ in London. In 2016, he released his first album as Hifi Sean, Ft. (as in "featuring"), with a different guest artist on each of the 13 tracks. Among them: Bootsy Collins, Fred Schneider, Yoko Ono, Alan Vega (his last recording) and Norman Blake.
In this interview, Sean shares the stories behind some key tracks on the album as well as a few Soup Dragons favorites, finally revealing the "I'm Free" lyric that has confounded us for decades. Turns out it has nothing to do with the Loch Ness Monster.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How do you create a song?
Sean Dickson: The six-million-dollar question. If I had a formula I would be a better man for it.
Sometimes I start with a melody, sometimes a thought process like a concept of how it should sound. In that way I come from the Prince school of thought as I produce as well as write songs in my head. Sometimes I hear it all as a finished picture. Other times I tailor the writing of the song to fit the concept.
Songfacts: "Everything is so beautiful... I don't want that to be destroyed," Yoko Ono says on "In Love With Life." Please tell us about the message in the song and how you created it with Yoko.
Sean: It's a simple message, in a way so simple that it's powerful. The idea is that when you enjoy and respect something, you are destroying it at the same time. It was a huge honor to work with Yoko and create the track. I'm very proud of it and the way it turned out as I cannot think of a single song that sounds anything like it. Unique and mesmerizing.
Songfacts: Please tell us about how the song "Testify" came together.
Sean: Crystal and myself decided to write something along the lines of a classic 7-inch record, including a fade. It was recorded and mixed as you hear it, just over three minutes long. I sometimes feel that in the world of dance music, artists just elongate tracks for the sake of it. "Testify" is one of those songs you wish went on for a bit longer.
Songfacts: How have your beats and soundscapes evolved since you started making them in the '80s?
Sean: Technology has changed hugely, of course. What you can basically do on a laptop or phone used to be a wall of tech gear behind you in the studio, which would heat the room up like an oven on a summer's day.
Also, nothing was touch-a-button-and-recall; you had to tweak these things every day as things would "move around" for no apparent reason. Early samplers and drum machines had personalities of their own. I kind of miss that. I used to name things in the studio like "Danny the Drum Box" or "Milly the Moog."
In 2017, Sean and Peter Shalvoy released a cover of the 1982 dance favorite "Get Down" with a video comprised of New York cable access TV footage from the '90s. Back then, cable companies were required to allocate a channel to user-generated content, which meant that anyone could get a show. So, if you wanted to come to the studio every week and play polka music on your accordion, you could. In most of the country, the programming was pretty banal, but New Yorkers got pretty creative (and naughty), resulting in unpredictable shows that drew lots of viewers, including Sean.
Songfacts: "Get Down" is great, and the video is absolutely bonkers. For those not familiar with New York City cable access programming of the '90s, can you explain what was going down and how you got the footage?
Sean: I lived in New York City on and off in the early 1990s and was obsessed with Public Access as I watched nothing else sometimes. It was perfect early-morning, post-clubbing fodder after a night out at Sound Factory, or wherever. It was chaotic, anarchic and funny as hell. I met Shalvoy, my "Get Down" collaborator, during this period. Since we had been mates in NYC it seemed right that this single we both made would also have a video homage to our misspent yet wonderful club schooling.
I had many VHS tapes that I recorded during that period and I went through them all and edited this video myself. It's the first time I attempted editing old vintage footage, so it felt new even though I have directed many videos in the past, just not on the editing side of things. It turned out perfect. The very last scene sums up the attitude of NYC back then. I still love her.
Songfacts: You once said you wanted to be the first musician to play in space, but the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield beat you to it. What is your dream these days?
Sean: He does not count as he is already an astronaut... just sayin'.
Fred Schneider of The B-52's handles vocals on the Ft. track "Truck," where he goes into character as the driver of an 18-wheeler.
Songfacts: A song about a trucker is an unusual choice for Fred Schneider. Please tell us about that one.
Sean: Myself and Fred adore trucker jargon and the song is full of it. The video, too, is everything I would want it to be if I was a trucker, which I have wished many, many times.
Songfacts: The phrase "divine thing" is a drag queen expression, but what inspired the lyric to that song?
Sean: I don't think it was a drag queen expression before the song. It came after, maybe because of the song.
It was my homage to Glenn Milstead, more famously known as Divine. We talked to John Waters about making the video but he was too busy on a film project. The video that Nick Egan created was so groundbreaking as it captured early '90s New York City club culture, with club kids from Jackie 60 and some of the other Meat Packing District underground nightlife scene. It was also the first music video with transgender and drag culture to ever be given full daytime rotation all over the USA. I used to get great joy out of how subversive that video was to many kids in small towns across the land.
When Divine passed, I made a pilgrimage to his grave to lay a copy of the record there as my "thank you" for the inspiration. If you listen to the lyrics it's plainly about him, and his beauty freak iconic culture.
Songfacts: With Soup Dragons, you hit it big with your take on "I'm Free." Please tell us about reworking that track and how its success changed your life.
Sean: It was crazy times. It opened a lot of doors but also closed others. Sometimes the hits hurt.
Songfacts: What is Junior Reid saying in the part that sounds like, "Free from the Loch Ness Monster, free from the deep"?
Sean: Ha ha, yeah Junior sang about the Loch Ness Monster in "I'm Free"... I love that!
"Free like a butterfly, free like a bee."
Songfacts: As a frontman, you were great with a crowd and really seemed to feed off the energy. How did you give that up?
Sean: I had a bit of a breakdown after the bands The Soup Dragons and The High Fidelity and lost all confidence in myself. Playing records to crowds of club people was a way of keeping myself involved in music without giving too much of myself away any more. But now, after 15 years of not making records, I can't stop as I feel so invigorated. I remain hellbent on making the classic 3-minute song, although I think I have touched that perfection many times. Now I want to make the classic 3-minute song and the classic extended 12" club track as well. I don't know why I do these things to myself but they are just silly games I play to keep myself excited.
Songfacts: You get futuristic with Bootsy Collins on "Atomium." What can you tell us about this track and your sessions with Bootsy.
Sean: I adore the Atomium in Brussels as much as I adore Mr. Collins. Once, I spent two days at the Atomium just going up and down it, and being next to it all day. I feel like an objectophile when I speak like this but it's more of a fan club kinda love.
I met Bootsy when The Soup Dragons and Deee-Lite toured together and we hit it off. He's a lovely man and also a total legend. His lyric-writing capability blows my mind.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration for the Soup Dragons song "Mother Universe"?
Sean: "Mother Universe" is about trying to figure out religion in your head as a young man. Why are we here? Who put us here? Do you believe it? How do they know? Could they be right? Could they be wrong? Questions, questions, questions.
Songfacts: What's the hidden gem in the Soup Dragons catalog?
Sean: A B-side called "What You Want" recorded in about two hours one night during the making of the Hotwired album and very special. Don't you miss the art of the good B-side?" [hear it on YouTube or Spotify]
October 11, 2017
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