Interview – Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet

Interview – Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet

After years of silence, Spandau Ballet re-emerged as an active band in 2009, going on to tour, write new music, and capture the excitement of fans worldwide. Then, in July of 2017, the news hit that original Vocalist Tony Hadley had said farewell to the band, leaving their future in limbo. Quoting the title of their 1980 song, to cut a long story short… and without provoking any bad feelings, many were stunned by the sudden turn of events.

While many assumed this was very much the final chapter for Spandau Ballet, the 4 remaining original members decided to move forward without Hadley, and in a timely manner cast a new vocalist. Not so much looking to replace Hadley, but more to write the next chapter of Spandau Ballet, they recruited theater talent Ross William Wild as their new leadman.

A move that has received a mixed bag of reactions from critics and fans alike, Spandau Ballet are rolling with the punches because they only have one objective in mind – their love of the music. Taking the time to talk about the shift in tides for Spandau Ballet, the history of the band, the songwriting, and more, Guitarist and founder Gary Kemp recently sat down for a candid conversation. – A vital part of the New Romantic scene in the 1980s, Spandau Ballet would go on to a string of success throughout the decade. Through everything, what has the journey been like for you?

Gary Kemp – The journey has been broken up. The entrance was very successful for us, we were very much part of the whole decade. I would say we had some big hits in America, but probably bigger in Europe. I wrote all the songs and am very grateful that 2-3 of those songs have become classics, I suppose. Obviously in America, “True,” but in other countries, other songs. They seem to still be out there getting in films, commercials, and TV shows to this day. They are being interpolated, especially by R&B artists as well. I am really grateful for that, it is something I am probably the most proud of. The band had a long hiatus. We fell apart, you know. I went in and did acting with my brother, we made a few movies. I still act, I still do theater work – my brother is in the theater in The West End in the moment. I’m going into The West End in December. That is part of what we do.

We made this film Soul Boys of the Western World a few years back in 2014 – it follows the band’s history and follows the way it fell apart. Five friends ending up in the high court of London arguing about publishing rights, etc. We managed after a very long break to get it back together. I think in Tony’s (the lead singer) heart, that was the elephant in the room, this court case. Even though the other two got over it, he probably couldn’t get over it completely. It became a bit of an issue, even though we ended up doing new material and ended up going on the road for two world tours.

My journey has been broken up with acting and performing, I also make music with other people. I still write, I have written musicals that have been on stage here in London. My journey isn’t just all about Spandau Ballet, but it’s still there. It’s the reason I’m here, it’s the reason everything exists in my life. It’s because as a young kid I wrote these songs, formed this band, and it became important to people. It still is important to people, and it’s still important to me. 

I think once Tony had decided to go, we said, “Let’s stay together, let’s see if it’s possible to revitalize the band with new blood.” Given that all the main musicians were still there, the main songwriter was still there, we were still called Spandau Ballet. Once we made that decision, it became a new exciting project to try and find Ross William Wild. That’s it in a nutshell! 

Chrysalis Records

Chrysalis Records – Wow, it has been a very compelling story to follow through the years. Speaking with your brother Martin, back in 2015, he recalled the first time you showed him the song “True” on acoustic guitar in your parent’s house. Being siblings, what was it like for you to collaborate as musicians?

Gary Kemp – It’s beautiful. I have to say I think it’s good for the band because we have a great way of letting out steam. We can have a fight, but will make up immediately. You can’t do that kind of thing with friends, it’s much harder. I adore my brother. He’s very successful in his own right. He does TV shows in the UK and is hugely successful here. The first thing I did with him, when I was 11 and he was 9, was a kid’s TV show.

Before then, and during that time, we worked in a grocery store together – just running this place during our teenage years. Working with him seemed like a very natural thing to do, there are no other siblings in our lives. I love it, he’s my rock.

Also what’s good is we know what each other is good at. I am the geekier guy who always read books and writes songs. He is the super handsome guy who can play football, but he’s also an incredible gentleman. – It’s great that you two together so well. As you mentioned, the band recently recruited Ross William Wild as the new vocalist. How did you discover Ross, and what has it been like working with him?

Gary Kemp – When we decided we were going to try and find someone else, we couldn’t think of anyone already in the music business that we wanted. Then we thought, “If we find someone in the music business who isn’t successful, or hasn’t been, then there is a reason for that.” We thought that maybe we could look into the musical theater world where there are great kids out there that are successful and have incredible voices. I think the songs I have written, and write, are very dramatic and need a voice that has that quality of gravitas or able to tell a story; or as I said, very range-y. We went into the musical theater world, we got a casting director, and we started to look at lots of people there.

We also had looked on the internet, we found some people, and sometimes we would be excited about someone in front of the piano, but when we got them in front of the band, it wasn’t working. I then got sent a list of other singers to see and I saw this guy Ross. I found some of his work on the internet, I sent it to my brother, and I said, “This guy sounds amazing!” He said, “I know this guy! I’ve been working with him;” he played Elvis in the Million Dollar Quartet where my brother played Sam Phillips. We got him around the piano, and we were buzzed. Then, fortunately, we got him in front of the band, and he was so good! Not just the sound of his voice, but his delivery, his storytelling. The first song we got to do was “Through the Barricades” and goosebumps stood up on my arms. Then we thought it was just us who are buzzing, so lets gets friends and family around for a bit of a show and see what they think, they all loved it. We said then, what we need to do is go do a small club and test him out in front of 500 of the fanbase.

I think it really has worked and it has been a real pleasure. There was a lot of criticism and critical people saying, “He’s so much younger than you, he is nearly half your age at 30.” Saying, “You are going to look ridiculous, like old men.” I thought that was strange because I don’t understand why bands all have to be the same age, for a start. When you get a soccer team, they are not all the same age, are they? They are varying ages. If your good enough, you’re old enough. He didn’t make us look old, funny enough, he has made us look and feel younger. He’s approaching these songs with an excitement, vitality, and freshness, because they’re new to him. He enjoys them and loves them. There is something really exciting about that. Maybe Tony had sung these songs too many times, and it wasn’t quite as exciting for him anymore. 

The band is full of enthusiasm to work with this guy and start showing people. That’s the key, next year we need to start getting out there and showing him to people. Listen, some people might not want to see us with a different singer, but we’re not the first band to do this. Fleetwood Mac are currently doing it, Foreigner, Journey, Queen have done it, and it still works. You get to hear the songs you know and love played by the musicians you know and love. I’m excited about it.

L to R – Martin Kemp, John Keeble, Steve Norman, Ross William Wild, Gary Kemp. – Ross does have a very strong voice, so it will be exciting to see where it goes. With things settling in, can we expect to see the release of some new music?

Gary Kemp – I have a computer full of new music that I’ve been working on, but I think you have to get that timing right. I think if we came out with an album next week, it’s confusing. I think we need to embed him in, get people to see him, accept him, and get to know his voice. I am excited about approaching new songs, I certainly want to do that. I know Ross is a songwriter too, he is a guitar player – maybe that’s something we can add to the band.

I like writing songs for Spandau Ballet. I don’t think I need to change my approach to writing new songs – Tony has a big range, Ross has a big range, also. I think I can write the kind of songs I’ve always written. It’s going to be exciting to hear and do. – Excellent. You mentioned earlier how many R&B artists have sampled or covered Spandau Ballet music. That in mind, the music has always been unique, you mix a smooth Jazz vibe with Synthpop, Soul, and R&B. Was that development of the sound a natural progression? 

Gary Kemp – I went through everything as a kid. I was very eclectic back in the ’70s growing up. I was into David Bowie, Glam Rock, Punk Rock, and Prog Rock. I ended up getting into Soul and Funk music – there was nothing I wasn’t interested in if it was played well. I know people can be very tribal about music, but I was very aspirational as far as music is concerned.

As our career progressed, I started off with Synthpop and thought, you know what, I want to try something else. We grew from there, we became much more of a Rock group. We’re a very loud, punchy band with a great saxophonist and a lot of energy. We don’t sound like those records so much anymore, we haven’t sounded like those records for years live. That was us trying to make a record when I was 22 years old when we did “True” and “Gold.” When we play them now, we play them with a lot more energy and it has worked for years. I think as a songwriter, yes, I’m drawn to melody, beautiful chord sequences, and dynamics. That’s the music I am always probably going to write. 

Steve Norman & Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet live at NYCB Theatre at Westbury, NY 5-3-2015. – It certainly has shown with each Spandau Ballet record through the years. Last question. Beyond music, CrypticRock also covers Horror and Sci-Fi films. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites?

Gary Kemp – Don’t Look Now (1973) is my favorite film. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I love too. I like those psychological, twisted films. I haven’t seen Hereditary yet, it sounds terrifying. I also like The Krays (1990), a film I did with Martin. I thought Get Out (2017) was fantastic, it twisted the genre into a different direction entirely. It’s almost like a ’70s film, kind of like The Wicker Man (1973), which is an old favorite of mine.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

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