It’s been four decades since Limahl stepped into the entertainment world, and almost as long since he came to prominence as lead singer of Kajagoogoo. With debut single ‘Too Shy’ proving a global smash, the singer’s status as an ‘80s icon is secured, however he’s now back with new release ‘Still in Love’, which showcases a new side to the man born Chris Hamill. We sat down with Limahl for a chat about the new track, Kajagoogoo’s highs and lows, and surviving the lockdown. Ergonomics; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Limahl, how are you doing?
I’m great. I’m busy. It’s great to have a project to work on when the world seems like it’s falling apart.
How have you been keeping busy during the lockdown?
I go out cycling every day. I moved out of London about five years ago, and I had a flat, and I’d never had a garden, but now I’ve got a garden, and I’m near the countryside. I love it. I’m doing good, touch wood! I’m trying, but failing miserably to stay away from the dark chocolate. I’m looking for the endorphin release, and that’s my excuse, because apparently chocolate has got endorphins in it or something. I’m trying to stay away from the fridge in general, actually. I think I’ve put on a few pounds! It’s comfort eating, isn’t it?
As you’ve said, you do indeed have a project to work on, which is the release of your new single ‘Still in Love’.
I finished recording at the end of last year, and I shot a video for it in January, and then all this happened, and my first instinct was to delay the single. I thought; “this is wrong, this is the wrong time”. There was all this kind of chaos ensuing and then a couple of weeks later I thought; “hang on, people are going to need, more than anything, they’re going to be starved of creative arts and culture, and they’re going to need this more than ever; music, movies, TV”, and so I called my team and I said; “let’s crack on”.
Listening to the track, and it’s a real earworm that gets stuck in the head, but it also goes very deep, lyrically.
You know, song writing is not a bottle formula. Yeah, you can go to the bottle formula stuff, but then it’ll sound just like it’s copied. We’ve got 100 years of music and lyrics, and so you have to dig really deep as a song writer to try and find something new, and the process of doing that, really, is an accident. It really is quite organic.
It is a very personal track.
The verse, musically, felt quite dark, and that’s totally what took me to that dark place of our protagonist. I think because I’m a little older and I’ve been there a couple of times, it was very easy for me to deal with it. What I love about it the song is feeling this optimism in the chorus. Even though the lyric is a lament, this guy’s still crying from the heart, and it feels optimistic, and I couldn’t have panned for that. The other thing I’d like to say, because I think it’s quite flippant to say; “oh, I’m a song writer”, is I think that there’s never a guarantee that you’re going to come up with something. All song writers and musicians have got on their shelves one song with maybe a decent verse and a rubbish chorus, and another that’s a reasonable chorus and a rubbish verse, or you might have a great intro and nothing else, and so, there’s no guarantees.
When I started this process of dipping my toes back in the creative waters, I really didn’t know what was going to come, and I’m absolutely thrilled. I’m thrilled because I think it shows off my voice, that my voice is still working. It introduces the audience to a slightly lower register of my voice in the verse, because with ‘Too Shy’ and ‘NeverEnding Story’, with me, as soon as you hear the F#’s and the G’s, this in the verse is a little bit lower, so I love that; I’m showing off my range a bit.
The release coincides with your celebrating forty years in the business; how does it feel to have reached that milestone?
Well, in one sense I can’t believe it’s been forty years – it feels like yesterday! And then in another way it feels bizarrely, like ages and ages ago; like another lifetime. And of course, so much water has gone under the bridge. I feel grateful really to be around to enjoy this revival, really. The ‘80s was never more unfashionable than in the early ‘90s, and nobody cared about it; the DJs and the Samplers were the new artists. But in 1997, a record company released the first ‘80s compilation that went to No.1, and then another record company copied that idea and it went to No.1, and then we had ‘80s themed events, and ‘80s festivals, and ‘80s radio shows, and ‘80s TV shows, and the whole thing has snowballed. I thought it would last like six months, and basically I’ve been gigging for the last 27 years on this whole ‘80s revival.
How comfortable are you with that ‘80s tag, because some people are uncomfortable with that?
I think it’s foolish to deny it. ‘Too Shy’ and NeverEnding Story’ have kept my phone ringing, and right now I’m hot, baby! As you probably know, both of those songs were used in three massive American TV shows last year, which is kind of what tempted me to go back in the studio; to see if anybody would be interested in hearing something new from me after the monthly streams of ‘NeverEnding Story’ went from 3000,000, to 1.5 million on the back of ‘Stranger Things’. It’s been amazing, and you asked me what it was like – 40 years – and two years ago, I nearly got killed, and by a split second, a double decker bus at full speed missed me. I was on my bicycle in central London – my fault; I went through a red light, it was raining.
That must have been terrifying
It was just one of those things, and after the bus passed me, he hit his horn really hard, and I suddenly realised what had nearly happened. It took my breath away, literally, and it affected me. I realised then that it was nearly all over, then, in that split second. So I’m just so thrilled that I’m still around to be able to enjoy what’s going on with the American thing, and being back in the studio; everything has suddenly got an increased value because of that.
Going back to the very beginning, what was it like coming into Kajagoogoo and achieving a global No.1 single in ‘Too Shy’ a relatively short time later?
It was brilliant. I mean, how many teenagers and young students join bands, play around with instruments, maybe dream of Glastonbury or whatever it is? We were all in our early twenties – I was 23 – and suddenly we all had his song that went to No.1 all over the world, and was No. 5 in America. I mean, America is the one everyone wants to crack, and so to get top five in America, It just really meant something. It was like every Christmas present rolled into one. It was just a perfect storm, and when you’re young and you’ve got all that energy, the excitement is just beyond anything. I feel very lucky to have done that journey, and I’m still enjoying it, really.
It’s quite an unlikely story isn’t it; four musicians who grew up together start an avant-garde outfit, add you as the singer, and then create pop history.
The Kajagoogoo combination of musical influences is so diverse; we were all into such different things. I came from a sort of theatre background, really, and Motown was what I grew up with; a real kind of song sensibility, the three minute pop song. Jez [Strode], the drummer, was into Devo, Steve [Askew] the guitarist was into Robert Fripp who I believe is married to Toyah, and then you had Nick [Beggs] who was into prog rock. The other thing that I loved was, I was mad about vocals. I had three albums by the jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer, and so you bring all those together, and there’s a really kind of pull, musically, and I think you can hear it in ‘Too Shy’. You know, there’s a lot of different things in there, and in many ways, that’s probably what’s made it stand the test of time.
In terms of the actual recording, what can you tell me about working on the song?
The lead vocal was double-tracked, so there’d be two of my voice, and then the first harmony had about four tracks, and the second harmony had four. Nowadays we would do more than that because there are so many more tracks available with music software, but when we were working on analogue tape, I think we had about thirty tracks, so by the time you’ve got every part of the drums, you’ve used up six or seven right there. So there’s about ten voices on there, and then the engineer / co-producer Colin Thurston, who was Duran Duran’s producer – he produced ‘Rio’ and the first album – Colin would have probably put some nice toys on it as well.
The period between the release of debut single ‘Too Shy’ and ‘Big Apple’ was only a few months, yet you were gone from the band by the time of the latter’s release.
In the public eye we lasted eight months as a five-piece. It was crazy. But I was actually with the band about two and a half years before ‘Too Shy’ came out. But the split was far too soon. I think if I’d sang ‘Big Apple’ – which I thought was a great record - and ‘The Lion’s Mouth’ – they were both superb pieces of work – for the simple reason that, not that my voice is better or anything, it’s just that as soon as you remove a key element, especially the lead singer, you put a big question mark, in the media’s eye, in the fans’ eye; in general music audiences, there’s a question mark, and so you turn everything on its head.
They got rid of me, I think, because they thought we were being construed as a ‘teeney’ band – which of course we were - but then The Beatles were a teeney band; so was Elvis; so was Wham; so was Duran Duran; but you outgrow, and your fans grow with you. So, we could have done at least three albums and then we could have all gone off and done ‘artistic’ solo projects and just kept the band together. That’s really what should have happened. I think it’s one of the biggest ‘what if?’s in music, really. To think that we just made one album is just ridiculous, really, but we can’t change that.
The VH1 ‘Band’s Reunited’ documentary that briefly managed to get Kajagoogoo back together in 2003 was fascinating; how was it from your end?
Well, that was the first. I was really uncomfortable, general, really, and I think they were too. I think we all were. You’re washing your laundry in public, and we hadn’t dealt with any of that stuff, not even on a personal level, let alone. And so, the first time I met them was on camera, and it felt weird having an external audience for something that was so personal. But reality TV was the new kid on the block, and I guess in one sense, maybe we all hoped that it could help reconcile things.
There’s a telling moment in the documentary where you and Nick go off for a private chat before meeting the others.
Well, I guess, before I was there, Nick was the leader, and he was the lead singer. He is a natural leader, so I guess it felt like perhaps we had something to… I think by us reconciling it made the others more comfortable. It was just a private, you know; “good to see you”, and “let’s do this and let’s do it in a good nature”, really, that was the kind of chat that we had.
In the end, you did get to play together again; was it nice to have that chance?
It’s a bit like if you break up with your first love; there’ll always be, throughout your life that morbid fascination with what your ex is doing [laughing]! I’ll always have an interest in what they’re doing. It’s isn’t really morbid – that’s just an expression – but I can’t take away from the fact that they are part of my journey, and, you know, if a beautiful marriage comes to an end and it’s a bitter divorce but there are beautiful children that come out of it, you’ll always look back and say; “well, at least I’ve got the beautiful children, and for that reason alone, it was worth it”, and the beautiful child in that relationship was really ‘Too Shy’. Yes, there were other smaller hits, but ‘Too Shy’ has been such a legacy for me, because as the singer of the song, I’ve been able to work around the world, and of course it was that song that led to meeting and working with Giorgio Moroder [song writer and producer of The NeverEnding Story], so I’ve only got really good feeling about the whole Kajagoogoo experience.
2023 isn’t that far around the corner, so what are chances of a 40th anniversary get together for Kajagoogoo?
I always say ‘never say never’! For me, personally, there’s no animosity, and any bad vibes is not enough to stop me working with them again. I don’t know if it’ll happen. There’s no talk of it, and I know everyone’s very busy. And everyone’s at different places in their life. I just don’t know what would justify it, because if the creative drive isn’t there – and there has to be the creative drive, really for it to work – so, I don’t know. I see sometimes that Nick is incredibly busy touring, and he seems very happy doing that, so, who knows?
Back to the present day, and you were due to hit the stage in Henley Upon Thames for Rewind Festival; you must be disappointed that that’s now not happening.
Yeah, I had a diary full of gigs for 2020 as we all did, and within the space of six weeks, everything’s gone. Right now, I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting on a plane, in such a confined space. I mean, I worked in nightclubs from the age of 18 – 21, and they were very smokey environments, and I was a social smoker until I was about 30, so although I’m fit and healthy, I don’t want to risk getting that virus, I really don’t. So getting on a plane for gigs even next year, for me, at the moment there’s a question mark, because unless there’s a successful treatment or some kind of vaccine; will the gigs happen in 2021? I don’t know at the moment, I really don’t.
Finally, what does the future hold for you?
Oh boy. I try not to think too far ahead, especially after the bus near-miss [laughing]! I’m in a very content place in my life. I’ve been with a wonderful partner for 26 years, and I love where I live. I think quality of life and the balance between work and quality time is very important, so, for me, I’m in a good place in terms of that. And I do less live work – I just accept a few things. Creatively, let’s see what happens with this [single release]. I am working on something else – watch this space! And who knows?! That’s the excitement of life; we’re not quite sure how things are going to go. It would be absolutely boring if we knew what was going to happen, so we’ll see what happens.
That’s a really optimistic and healthy outlook in these challenging times.
I think you must! Don’t watch the news too much, and focus on good things, and your cup is half-full, not half-empty. What happened to me is, I just decided one day that no matter how bad things are out there, how bad I feel isn’t going to change it. By me getting upset and having nightmares and breaking out in sweats and all the rest of it; that’s not going to change it, so I’ve got to look after my mind, and my body and that’s very important for our mental survival. And chocolate!
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‘Still in Love’ is available now.