10 Questions with Rob Dickinson, formerly of Catherine Wheel

Mar 22, 2010 at 2:18 p.m. ET

For every lousy band that clutters up the charts with disposable pop, there are ten musical artists more deserving of such success -- who, for whatever reason, just can't quite manage to get there. And for every hundred of those, there's one no-question, sure-thing, utterly brilliant group of musicians that still, for some unknown reason, just doesn't reach that all-important tipping point.

The Catherine Wheel was one such band.

Rob Dickinson/Catherine Wheel in Canada

Their vibrant, richly-textured brand of music put to shame many of the other British groups who were likewise saddled with the shoegazer label. Quite simply, "The Wheel" had every single piece of the puzzle in place: The talent. The songs. The sound. The creativity. The look. Forgive the name that might lead you to believe you're going to hear a girl on vocals, and you have the makings of a platinum-selling career.

Alas, it wasn't to be. But that's not to say the band didn't enjoy success -- over the course of a decade, they were, in fact, lauded as critical darlings, released six albums, toured with the likes of Smashing Pumpkins and INXS, and to this day have ardent fans all around the world. (Their best known song stateside is probably "Black Metallic" -- see the video below.)

So while not wholly mired in obscurity, they didn't exactly set the world on fire, either. Kindly put: Catherine Wheel was one of the music world's best kept secrets.

The point of all this background? To really understand where Rob Dickinson, Catherine Wheel's charismatic leader, could go with his newly-minted solo career, you have to keep in mind where he's come from and the breadth of his work.

But while the band's history may serve as a frame of reference, that chapter of his life is not really something that's on the forefront of Rob's mind. "I'm proud of the music we made, but it's something that... well, I don't have any pictures -- I didn't take any pictures and I never recorded the history during the ten years with the band at all. It just didn't ever occur to me," he says. "I'm a forward looker, I like to think."

Mr Dickinson's latest work is a prime example of what can be achieved by looking ahead -- and when music is made for its own sake, not custom-built to appeal to the masses. While there's always the danger that an artist on such an individualistic bent will go off the avant-garde deep end, his debut, "Fresh Wine for the Horses" is hardly inaccessible. The album serves up 11 deliciously diverse, well-crafted tunes, each delivered by Rob's sublimely dynamic -- and always distinctive -- voice.

On his last jaunt through the US, I had a chance to meet with the man, and we discussed everything from the band's demise to the expectations for his new album. And Rob himself? Despite many reports tagging him a private and enigmatic figure, the person I met proved to be very accessible, openly friendly -- and someone who is clearly just as delighted by his fans as they are by him. (Read his full bio here.)

I tell you: Though recent years were unsung, if life decides to play fair with Rob Dickinson this time around, sparks are gonna fly.

SheKnows: I know you recently introduced yourself onstage as the former singer for Catherine Wheel, and then you added, "Well, maybe not former." What's that about?

Rob Dickinson: I don't think the band ever split up. We just stopped because no one seemed to be paying attention any more. Our manager termed it a band that was just "parked."

I never say the band split up -- we just felt that we didn't have another record in us. I think the band had reached its natural zenith. I think every band has a natural arch of visibility and profile, and I think we were slowly coming down the other side.

It's just a lot of effort to put into something when people weren't listening. The rest of the guys had mortgages and families and stuff, and so another 18 months -- or another album, or another tour -- seemed like a bit of a stretch at the time, so we just stopped.

It would be nice to play with those guys again, but we're certainly not planning on it. I'm sure that before we all die, we'll all get together and play again.

SK: What have you been doing since the band "parked"?

Rob Dickinson: Well, I made it to New York, and wrote 70 percent of the record there. I had a tough time in getting enough momentum to finish the record, and I flew to LA to talk to some people to work with, and found this guy David Rolfe and produced a record with him. That was in 2003, so it took two and a half to three years to get to that position.

It all took a long time. The writing took a long time -- and the recording, the mixing, the mastering took three months. And the inevitable success of the record is taking longer than expected. (laughs)
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SK: Do you often write your songs with a sort of audience in mind?

Rob Dickinson: No. They're all for me, most of these songs. ["Intelligent People"] is for me -- it's advice. It's advice that I've lived by myself, and I certainly believe that. But I'm not very good at writing story songs. They're usually navel-gazing songs, songs about me. I find it curiously easy to talk about intimate things in songs, though I don't enjoy talking about them. I'd much rather defer the subject to someone else and talk about some of the stuff I get into in some of the songs.

SK: So what are you looking forward to right now?

Rob Dickinson: Well, this record has been out for a while now [since late 2005] and the record company is trying to plug it. Sanctuary Records went through some difficulties, which kind of affected the promotion of my record. So we are trying to get my record re-released under Universal in Canada by the look of it, and we are looking to get it re-released in this country, released properly in Europe and stuff. So that's the main thing at the moment.

Probably going to try to make another record this year. But I don't think this record is over and done with yet. I think there's some life left in this one. I think it will run its course and I'll know when it's ready to move on from there. I know it's not the time yet.

SK: What do you see for yourself going forward into the future?

Fresh Wine for the HorsesRob Dickinson: I find myself branching out. I just started a song with BT -- the DJ BT. He's a DJ, but he also makes his own records and he does a lot of film scoring. He scored Monster, the Charlize Theron movie, as well as other movies.

This BT thing is like a rave dance track. He was a big fan of the band, and wanted this kind of trippy blitzed-out kind of vocal, and it sounds great. So hopefully he'll ask me to go on his records and it'll be interesting. He's convinced it's a major disco hit, dance hit. Apparently he took it to Germany a few weeks ago and played it to 20,000 people at a rave in Munich, and he said they went nuts for it.

I've always looked on at these people who have side projects, and side bands, and seem to be doing all these different things, and I'm thinking, "How do they do that? How do they find the time to do that, and the energy?" And I've found just living in LA, people have been asking me to do this stuff and it's kind of interesting.

My music has always been so insular and inward-looking for me. I sang a couple of songs on Jimmy Chamberlin's solo record from the [Smashing] Pumpkins, and it's the first time I've ever recorded a vocal -- a lyric which I hadn't written myself. So in many ways, I feel like I'm dropping some of my musical baggage and letting my hair down a little bit and not being quite so precious about music and working with people I wouldn't usually have dreamt of working with.

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