Consisting of DJ Al McKenzie and frontman, singer, and song writer Peter Cunnah, D:ream achieved a brace of UK top 5 albums in the mid-nineties, as well as a domineering number one single in 'Things Can Only Get Better, before "burning out bad" a short time later. Reconvening for one album in 2011, the pair are now back with their first work in a decade, with new single 'Meet Me at Midnight', as well as a new album; 'Open Hearts, Open Minds'. We sat down with Peter to discuss the band's return, song writing, the 90s' club scene, and how dancing might just be the answer to decide future elections. At midnight; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Peter, how are you today, and what are you up to?
I’m good. I’m in the car now, heading to my studio. I moved back home, and I’m in Fahan, in Lisfannon [Co. Donegal], just over the border [in Ireland], but I’ve just been up to my old family home in Clarendon Street in Derry / Londonderry. I just went to meet a couple who’ve bought it, and I went to show them my Terry Wogan photograph, which was taken with him in their front room, in what used to be my old front room. They’re a lovely couple, and I was very happy to walk about there and reminisce with them.
You are having a very busy day!
Well, I’ve got to get back as the London Metro magazine are doing a feature on my new house in Fahan, so I’ve got them coming around with the cameras very shortly.
Of course, you’ve been busy with music too, and reactivating D:ream.
We’re going into overdrive because we’ve a record out, and it’s our first record in a decade. We got busy during lockdown, and that’s why we’ve nearly three albums’ worth of stuff! I’ve heard so many artists saying this, because that’s what lockdown gave them, that focus, you know?
‘Meet Me at Midnight’ is the first single to be released from 'Open Hearts, Open Minds', and it’s a very melancholic track. Tell me about that one.
I’m like all writers, I keep an audio diary, and ‘Meet me at Midnight’, obviously, the literalisation is one thing, but there’s something that happens in the midnight hour that is sort of, very other-worldly; it’s almost ancient. As Alan and I began working on it, we were thinking of the amount of screen time that people used; everyone’s got a [social media] profile, and it pushed away at the human experience, and it became a real wish to engage with someone face to face.
So it’s very relevant to the lockdown world of 2020 - 2021?
We started it in 2015, but by the time that the pandemic struck, we were separated, and we couldn’t work on it together, and it took on a different significance then because of this wish that everyone has to meet up again, to be human. So yeah, “melancholy”, I never thought of that. But I was saying to Alan I didn’t like the song, and , for many years I was like; “no, this is not what we do, which is a hands in the air, piano record”, and he’s going; “no, you don’t understand Pete, this is one of the best things we’ve done”, and I didn’t want to fall out with him again – we’ve had our troubles in the past – so I said; “I tell you what, Al, I’m going to go with you on this because you’re the DJ, and the last time I didn’t go with you, it ended up splitting the band, so I’m really happy to let you take the wheel, and let’s see where this goes”.
So Alan has been a real driving force?
He’s really gone for it. He’s put our label together, we’ve acquired our own press agents and radio pluggers, we’ve got good new management, we’ve got a great new live agent. We’re pushing towards something sustainable, really real here for us after so long away. If you look at the arc Kings of Leon had; ‘Youth & Young Manhood' [2003 debut] was a great record, and then you could just see the machinery going; “we need another one lads, this year”, and then, “we need another one, lads, this year”, and after ‘Only by the Night’ , they were a spent force. They had done five albums in five years; they’d run them into the ground. The lads were getting to the stage; “where’s my life?!”, and “what am I doing this for?!”; you burn out bad, and that’s what happened to me the first time around, on the first two albums.
You actually beat me to the question there, but D:ream’s second album ‘World’  didn’t fare as successful as debut ‘D:Ream on Volume 1’ .
They [record company] just said; “write us another ‘U R The Best Thing”, I said; “well, if I knew how to do that, I’d probably be Elton John, or I’d be Sting”. I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t selling myself very well to them. So, I spent years in the wilderness, and you try to rewrite the same songs, and it puts you through the mangle, because creatively, your head is still trying to repeat the glories of the past, when what I should have been doing was just enjoying my life and writing about that, and once you get in that headspace, things open up.
Earlier I mentioned the melancholy sound of ‘Meet Me at Midnight’, but it’s also there in ‘U R the Best Thing’, in those minor chord progressions. Tell me about how that one came about.
Well, I was getting au fait with loops, and one night before I went out clubbing, I was playing sort of jazz chords; if you know ‘Moondance’ by Van Morrison, I had this thing going on, and I thought; “oh that’s good syncopation”. I left it for god knows how long, and then I was just thinking of the space that you have in a nightclub, going out clubbing, and of the beat, and that’s how I came up with that idea of [opening line] “my simple heart”. And having taken a ecstasy, it really opened up my mind to music in general, and also, just the love that was in the scene at the time. I wasn’t writing for the drug, per se, but I was writing for the love I felt for fellow human beings, and all the friends I had around me. That’s why I talked about “lift your head above the crowd”; I could just see those moments that I was feeling from all around me. I realised having run away from home in Derry, what it was like to actually feel part of a little community there when I went to the Brain club or the Love Ranch, and then that became the early house music scene, and I was just writing from where I was, psychologically, and physically, location-wise.
There were various versions of the song before it became a huge hit.
It took about three years to find that moment. Remember when Rozalla [Miller], who did ‘Everybody’s Free [to Feel Good]’, and it had those large, legato notes? I knew how the hairs on the back of my neck felt when that would happen, and I wanted something just like that, but I couldn’t sing it as it was outside of my range. So, we got D’Borah [Asher] in. We tried several girls, but they were too powerful; they didn’t have that sweetness in their voice, and we layered D’Borah’s vocals several times to get that haunting sound. It was almost operatic, but other-worldly, and that really worked. There was that drop-down in the pre-chorus area before she took off, and it had this really good dynamic. Thank you for asking that. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time.
It’s gone on to become one of those classic anthems from the era.
I used to stand beside Alan in the DJ booth, and he was playing out, and I’d see the way the crowd would react at the end of the night to these kind of records, and I said; “if we want to do anything, we’ve got to own that last record of the night”, because it’s the one that people take home with them when they go home. They don’t take home the beats; they take home that lyric, that melody, so what I wanted was something that was going to lift through clubland, and be word of mouth, be viral, and that’s why I kept plugging away at it thinking; “no, it’s got to have this, I've got to have more shivers, more dynamics”, and more space so you could really feel the words. Because I’d had rock and roll training in Tie the Boy [previous band, and Mother Records’ signings], I knew my blues forms, so the verse was taking in like, a blues shape from twelve bar blues, and then we have this ridiculous chorus which would take the beat down, like a breakdown chorus. And then the way it kicks in, and just that step-up in the breakdown section reminds me a bit of George Michael. That’s in my blood as well, and I wanted it to be that close, intimate stuff.
It’s a fantastic piece of song writing.
That’s all the stuff that’s in your head as a writer. By that stage I’d written nearly 300 songs. I’ve been writing since I was 15, and I write several times a day. What happens is you build up a real catalogue of ideas, and the ones that really speak to you are the ones you come back to, and ‘Best Thing’ was always there. It’s not a person, it’s “a kind of feeling I've been searching for at last”; I was writing that moment, and I didn’t want to talk about ‘him’ or ‘her’ or any of that sort of stuff; It was just about a feeling, a shared feeling.
To me, that’s a much better song than the one you’re arguably most famous for ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.
‘Things Can Only Get Better’, I’ve a love / hate relationship with. I hated what Tony Blair did with it [the Labour Party used it as a theme during the party's successful campaign in UK the general election of 1997] because I knew what it meant to me when I did it. It also was the thing that made me successful, and really, that was super word of mouth, super viral, but at the same time, it just became a shadow under which I lived for a long, long time, and I’ve only come out of that having met Alan again in 2008, when we began working on ‘In Memory Of...’ .
‘In Memory Of...’ was a more experimental album for D:ream.
I said to Alan that I wanted to try something with house music and rock guitars, and we did that. We got ‘Drop Beats Not Bombs’ in there, the arpeggio was done using my guitar, and it was just experimenting. It was an experimental return to form for us, but this latest album is our proper return to form. It’s our forth studio album, ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds’, and there’s some songs on there which I feel hold their head up against our bigger records.
As big as D:ream was, this is, as you say, only your forth album, so is there a little bit of trepidation, or nerves, leading up to the release?
No, I tell you what, we’re in the groove. We know who we are now, and we’re better now than we’ve ever been. The thing is, if we had have had a live scene there, we would have been getting more offers there because the album is coming out. None of us know what’s going to happen to live music because, it just seems to me that not only did the Tories come up with the idea of the Criminal Justice Act – which I got fined and convicted under; I was done for having repetitive beats, back in the day [the law covered collective trespass and nuisance on land and included sections against raves, including sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats]. They put me up in front of a judge who threw it out; I got a fine and a criminal conviction on my record – but the thing is, the Tories are notorious fun-sponges, and the live music industry was the first out, and will be the last back. Now, you can’t tell me in a month of Sundays that people standing outside, even if there’s 100,000 of them, are going to be spreading anything other than love. The fact that they’ve taken that away from us is an abomination, and I hope heads roll.
You must be looking forward to the eventual return of the live scene, with the new album coming.
Once we get to the stage when we are back at the live thing, then maybe this is what will happen for us, because we’re trying to put albums out to attract attention to us, going and doing festivals. We’ve still got our eye on the prize. Until this album, I didn’t think we’d made a good album. I think the first one was rushed, the second one was rushed, the third one was an experiment, and this one, we’ve actually sat down, Alan and I, and we’ve went; “do you know what? The word’s our oyster, we can do what we want”, and I’m bringing him songs, he’s bringing me songs, and the trust was finally there after what, nearly 30 years together, off and on.
What festivals would you like to see D:ream performing at?
The bigger ones, please, because we do all the little ones, which is great and keeps us busy, but I really want to do Glastonbury, I really want to do Reading, I want to do T in the Park; I want to be up there again. I don’t need to be on the radio – we’ve done all of that stuff – we don’t need to be selling tonnes of records; we just want to entertain people, and that’s what we’re bloody good at, and I want to get out there again and go live. That’s basically it; that’s why we put records out now, to advertise that we’re still alive, and that we’re really fucking good!
Finally, and just to go back to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and although you said you were dissatisfied with how it was used, it has, in many ways, also become an anthem associated with the Northern Ireland peace process.
Yes, but the thing is, that was set up by John Major, and Blair made it look like he owned it. The man’s still walking around, and he’s actually a war criminal, in my estimation. I can’t get my head around [it]. The biggest thing I’ve learned is, politics and music don’t mix. I’m not a politician, I certainly don’t aspire to be one, but I’ve certainly learned not to lend any of my music ever again to that. It put my music towards them, and I’ve had people come up to me and say; “I loved what you did, and I love that record, but to me now it’s tainted because of what happened”, and I’d say “I’m sorry, I’ve no control over what happened”. I had the wish for change of government, I had hope in my heart that things would get better and change, and it didn’t. It was just business as usual; just change the blue team to the red team.
The thing is, I jumped into that world, and I’m going; “oh my god, none of these people can even fucking dance!” They’ve got no sense of rhythm, anything, so what we should do is elect politicians on whether they can dance or not. We need to get them all in like, a dance off, like Diversity, and if they’ve got rhythm, maybe they could be better at running things. It’s just a thought, let’s see, but it would be fucking good television!
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'Meet Me at Midnight' is available now. 'Open Hearts, Open Minds' is released on 23rd July 2021.