Dan Gillespie Sells

Dan Gillespie Sells

February 2008 - Dan The Man

The most played band on British radio when their debut album 12 Stops & Home came out two years ago, The Feeling are back and hoping to repeat the trick with new record Join With Us. David Hudson caught up with songwriter and singer Dan Gillespie Sells to talk about difficult second albums, lesbian parents and Mika...

Most pop stars are understandably wary of inviting interviewers around to their house. Not so Dan Gillespie Sells. The 28-year-old songwriter and singer with The Feeling is doing a day of press interviews from his home - a modest Shoreditch property that he brought with long-time housemates last year, and where he now lives with said housemates and his boyfriend.
Today he has a cleaner bustling around the kitchen and a press officer from Island Records in attendance, but when I ring the doorbell, it's Dan who answers the door himself. He's refreshingly down-to-earth, polite and, well, ordinary.
Some critics might use similar platitudes to dismiss his particular brand of 70s-flavoured soft rock. This, after all, is a man who wrote a song on his debut album called 'Kettle's On', a plea to a high-living lover to espouse the short-lived fizz of Champagne and return home to enjoy the comforts of the humdrum and consistent. It's an ethos guaranteed to get up the noses of those who think the greatness of a rock act is proportional to their capability for debauchery and excess.

To the possible chagrin of such critics, the majority of the record buying public embraced The Feeling when they first burst on to the music scene at the beginning of 2006 with debut single 'Sewn'. It shot into the top ten and was swiftly followed into the charts by four more singles from the debut album, each one more naggingly catchy than its predecessor. The band arrived just at the right time, with the whole Guilty Pleasures phenomenon re-awakening public interest in music that had previously been sneered at or dismissed as being a little too MOR. Suddenly, the appearance of a band that wanted to sound like Wings, Supertramp and early Elton John didn't seem like such a bad idea after all. Indeed, it could be argued that The Feeling helped pave the way for the likes of Mika and The Hoosiers.
If the music was a little safe and mainstream to some ears, the same can't quite be said for Gillespie Sells, who caused a brief ripple in the tabloids when it was discovered that not only was he gay, but that he had spent his north London childhood being raised by his lesbian mother and her girlfriend. Despite some tabloid's reporting his 'admission' with as much shock as they could muster, it's not something that the singer has ever hidden. Besides his mum, he also had an openly gay uncle, and he regularly attended gay pride events as a child.

He met most of his fellow bandmates while attending the famed BRIT School in Croydon. They spent some time as a covers band, honing their musical skills while playing resorts in the French Alps, before settling down to record their own material.
The success of the boys' debut in the UK was followed by tours of the States in early 2007, before they returned to this country to immediately start work on their second album. 12 Stops & Home had been recorded and self-produced "in a shed", but its success meant the band were able to lock themselves away in a Wiltshire mansion to work on its successor, Join With Us. Despite the changes in surroundings, Gillespie Sells was keen that everything else remained the same - chiefly that they would disregard any notion of what was 'fashionable' or 'cool' and make the sort of record that they themselves wanted to make.
Sitting on a battered sofa in his basement-come-studio, surrounded by keyboards and touring paraphernalia, I begin by asking him about the dreaded 'difficult' second album syndrome...

Did you feel under pressure to follow up the success of your first album?
DGS: I tried my hardest to eradicate anything like that from my brain. There is a pressure, an underlying knowledge that you had a successful first record and it would be good if the second one is successful, but if you think like that when you're trying to be creative, I think it stops you being creative. It makes you conservative.
How do you think the new album compares musically to the first album?
I think it's a natural development. When we made the first record we were concerned with how we would play it live in clubs, so we didn't record any more instruments than people in the band could play at any one time - two guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. On this record, we haven't got that concern of having to worry about whether we can play it live, because we can hire in musicians, so we worked with more music, more instruments, more layering. That's the only difference. You get more music on this album, if you know what I mean, because we had the chances to do more elaborate things.
What's your favourite song on the album?
That changes all the time. My favourite song is... 'We Can Dance'. I think it's my favourite song on the album, but it's not even listed. It's a hidden track at the end. It's the same with the last album. 12 Stops & Home had a hidden track called 'Miss You', which I thought was the best song on the album, it just happens to be that these funny, cute little songs that I write sometimes end up being hidden tracks. I don't know why. I like the simplicity of it as a song.
How much faith do you place in reviews or the response from critics - or do you ignore it?
I try and ignore it. I mean, if it's coming from the NME, we know we're going to get a bad review, they're never going to like us... Do you accept that some critics will automatically slate it?
Yeah, from certain people. It's kind of the real music journalists who I kind of respect and stuff, they're the ones that you don't want to get a bad review from, that would be really awful, but you know, we can't go thinking about that when we're being creative, because it closes down your mind and you start being more conservative with your ideas - we'd just look at what worked on the last record and try and do it again. And you can't do that if you really want to be creative - you've got to follow your instincts. That's really what worked on the last record - we were following our instincts and making the music that we wanted to make. We made the album that we wanted to make, totally - the five of us in the band - unaffected by any of those influences.
You modelled from Marks & Spencer last winter, which could be interpreted as you sticking two fingers up to notions of 'cool'? Or was it just a case of them offering you loads of money?
Well, they did offer me quite a lot of money, so that was one point! But yeah, it was a bit like that. To tell the truth, I didn't think anyone was going to notice, and very few people did. It amazes me that so few people did. The idea of it just kind of made me laugh. My gran loves M&S! The thing is, we've turned down a GAP advert since then. We've turned down all the 'cool' stuff.
But why?
[Pause] When I did M&S, it was different. Bryan Ferry had just done it, and Bryan Adams was going to be taking my photograph, and I just thought it was all a bit of fun, and it was all stuff that I sort of approve of, and I liked the kind of Britishness, old-fashioned... there's something very English-ey about Marks & Spencers. But the idea of doing GAP... yuueech... I wouldn't wear GAP clothes! I thought it was ridiculous, but they've got that much power now, that the only way I can get my face in certain magazines is endorsing some product that I don't really believe in. That's the obvious route, but it's not for us. From the beginning we were never going to be 'cool', and I think people at the label were concerned - not because of that - but that we weren't going to get the kind of support we needed because we weren't cool enough. I had faith in people's judgement of music. But a bunch of guys from Sussex in their mid-20s, we'd look ridiculous if we tried to dress up as indie kids from Camden.
Is it true that you went to school with Rachel Stevens and Amy Winehouse?
They were at my secondary school, from the age of 11 or something like that. My friend's brother knew Amy. Amy's mum was the lab technician at my school - I remember her. She was a character as well.
What do you think of the treatment that Amy's been getting in the press recently?
I don't really have an opinion on it. It's a kind of wild and mad thing.
Does it make you grateful not to be so hounded by the press?
When I look at Amy, I think I'm glad that I'm not having as many troubles in my personal life. From what I can see of it, she's got a really bad problem with drugs, and luckily I went through my phase of drugs and came out the other end and thought 'that's that - I can leave it now'. If you're lucky, that's what happens, but if you're unlucky, you get stuck in it.
Have you experienced any press intrusion yet?
No, not at all. We're just not interesting enough [laughs]! Do you know what I mean? We're not falling out of the right clubs. I fall out of pubs!
Have you experienced any downside to fame?
Not really. We're not "famous". We get recognised, but only really by our fans, but not by anybody else. Our music is famous, but as people, we're not really that famous. Rich [Jones - bass player] probably gets it more than me, because he's going out with Sophie [Ellis Bextor]. He gets in the tabloids - I don't get in the tabloids. What would I be doing to warrant tabloid attention? I mean, there was a bit when I supposedly 'came out' as being gay, which I never was in the closet, so I never really came out. I was raised by lesbians so there was no reason... it was weird that whole 'Dan admits he's gay' awful journalism.
Perhaps you don't quite fit the agenda of certain tabloids - if you were a messed-up, drug-addicted pop star, they might rush to blame it on your upbringing. That you've turned out so normal and balanced, leaves them nothing to write about.
Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it?

The Feeling

What kind of kid were you at school?
Incredibly awkward. Really awkward. It wasn't like a gay thing. I didn't even like the gay scene when I was younger. I knew all about it and I was totally free to experiment in it. My uncle's openly gay and I went to gay Prides and stuff, so I knew about the gay scene, but I didn't really feel that was part of me either, I didn't feel that I connected with that. So I didn't feel like I connected with the gay scene, and as far as being like the cool kid at school, I couldn't quite manage that either, so I don't think I really fitted into lots of stuff. It was when I discovered a more alternative gay scene was when I started to feel more comfortable with the gay scene in general. I discovered a more inclusive gay scene that wasn't G-A-Y or tight t-shirts or dance music, At school, it was just very odd. I used to go to Glastonbury, because my dad took me to Glastonbury every year. All the other kids were like, "What's Glastonbury - is that that hippy thing?" until I got to about 15, and then the girls started thinking that Glastonbury was cool, and "Dan went to Glastonbury", and all of a sudden I went from being totally avoided by everyone to being totally surrounded by... well, at least the girls, because they'd discovered rock. They became rock chicks and hung around with me.
Was it widely known at school that your mum was a lesbian?
Yes, it was.
Did you ever face any problems or taunts because of that?
No. I think they were scared of my mum. It wasn't that rough a school really, but I think they might have been intimidated by my parents more than anything else. You kind of take the piss out of someone's mum at school, but you'd never say anything that was true about them. One kid at my school, his mum was a hooker and everyone knew his mum was a hooker, and he was the only kid that nobody said 'you're mum's a whore' to. Everyone else got told 'you're mum's a whore', but he didn't because people knew that it was true!
Certain sections of the press say that gays shouldn't have kids because those children will be bullied or ostracised at school - what do you think of that?
It's complete rubbish! We had kids at school who had every excuse to be bullied but they weren't because they were the 'cool' kids. And if you're the cool kid you don't get bullied, and if you're not one of the cool kids, you get bullied. If you're the kind of kid who will get bullied, you will be bullied. It doesn't resonate with me, that idea.
Kids are more open-minded than we give them credit for?
But also, I think kids know who they're going to bully, and it's not because your parents are gay...
It's because those kids are somehow seen as being more vulnerable? Or because they're the kids that the bullies know that they can get away with bullying?
Yeah, that's what it is, and it's got nothing to do with the clothes they're wearing, the parents they have, their upbringing, any of that kind of stuff. Once I was a 'cool kid', I was a 'cool kid with gay parents', so it was never a problem. They all knew because both my mums would come to the parents evening. I'd have my dad and my two mums there, so everyone knew what was going on. Plus my mum looks like a proper dyke, with short hair and round glasses, with her 80s lesbian waistcoats... that's where I get my waistcoats from [laughs].
Would you like to have kids yourself one day?
Yeah, I suppose so, but that's quite far of for me, but I'm sure I'll get broody at some point.
I read that you're currently in a relationship, but that it's your first proper relationship?
Yeah, it is.
Why is that?
Why didn't I manage it before?
Well, yeah. You're in your late 20s, you're good looking, and given your gay-friendly upbringing...
Yeah.... I don't know. It took me a long time... [long pause]. I think the gay scene can be just as hard to crack if you come out early and you come to terms with it. A lot of kids come out and immerse themselves in the gay scene. I felt kind of intimidated by it. Or not intimidated. I just felt it wasn't for me. I didn't have a good body. As a teenager I was quite plump. I lost a lot of weight when I got to my late teens. For most of my 20s, I would go out with guys for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, and it would just never last, because I was often away, and the balance was always wrong. I was always a bit aloof and they were always a bit too in to me, and that put me off. Or I was always a bit too into them and maybe that made them turn away from me. Sometimes it's just about getting that balance right. I think it's a rare thing to find someone who has the balance the same as you, you know what I mean? Where they've got their own life and you've got your own life and you're both kind of happy in yourselves. The other thing is that a lot of gay men, I found I couldn't connect with them in a lot of ways because I found they didn't have the same upbringing that I had. A lot of them had issues that I couldn't understand or sympathise with, cos they had not come out to their parents, or they'd been rejected by their parents, or there was some part of their upbringing that I couldn't quite connect with, because I was always quite liberated as a child. I never had those issues. I always knew that being gay was ok, from an early age, which I'm very thankful for, but I was probably not that understanding towards some guys that didn't have that. I'd just think 'get over yourself'.
Did you have a specific issue with the gay scene?
I just think it wasn't for me. I think most of the gay scene was geared at people who had broken away from something, or 'come out' of something, so that was why I don't think the gay scene was for people like me.
It's an oasis of escapism?
Yeah, slightly hedonistic and glitzy and fabulous, and I love all that, but there was something a bit... degrading about it, or that I saw at the time. I don't now. I think it's fabulous, but back then, as a moody teenager, I just saw it as degrading and didn't like the music. It was funny, the whole shirts-off thing and that kind of stuff, I didn't see any point to it. It was a kind of grotesque.
And it's pushed as a very sexual thing... which can be both scary as well as thrilling to anyone new on the scene.
Yeah, everywhere was like a meat market, but that was only because I hadn't discovered that there was an alternative. Then I discovered a gay salsa group, who were all really lovely. All different ages, and I got introduced to them, and learnt how to do salsa dancing with them. You met people who were into a different kind of the gay scene and stuff. It wasn't that heavy, clubby thing.
It wasn't dancing under an arch in Vauxhall?
Yeah, it took me a while to enjoy that side of it, because I love that side of it now, but only because I can see a way out of it and see it for what it is. Now there are places that I really like, like Horse Meat Disco, and other little niches on the gay scene that I really like.
Since your last album, Mika's come along. Do you think he's covering similar musical territory to yourself? Do you like his stuff?
When I first heard it, I loved it. He came and supported us on our first tour, at Shepherd's Bush Empire. We're big fans and I know some of the guys in his band. I thought it was really exciting. Now it's just kind of everywhere and it's bonkers. I never thought it would be as big as it is, but... I'm glad.
He famously refuses to clarify his sexuality - what do you think about that?
Well, I think he should [laughs]! Only because I think it's boring not to.
It makes it more of an issue not to talk about it?
The problem is... there might be family reasons why he doesn't want to talk about it. But I still think he should. I think if he's still got to come out, if he is gay and he's got to come out to his family, then I think he fucking well should, because I think it'll be the best thing for him, and them, and then he can come out to the fucking world and he can give us all a break and we can stop talking about it, because it's so boring. People have been doing that since the fucking 1960s, all of that 'I might be, I might not be'. Let's be honest.
Do you think record companies are still happy to collude with someone staying in the closet?
No, they didn't with me. If I'd wanted to stay in the closet, they'd would have been fine with it, but I don't think record companies push anyone in any direction. Mind you, Mika's signed to a big American label and his connections are mostly American, and I don't know if it's different over there.
How important is it to break the American market - to you personally?
It would be nice, but I'm philosophical about these things. It could be the best thing to ever happen to us, but it could also be the worst thing.
It could take things to a whole new level of madness?
Yeah. In many ways it would be great because I'd get to work with some amazing people that I wouldn't get to work with right now, so artistically I'm ambitious that way, because I think being ambitious means you get to do things you wouldn't normally get to do - be it recording with an orchestra or whatever. So, I'd like to do it, but if it doesn't happen, I'm always like that might be the best thing.
I did an interview with Elton John for Interview magazine. One of the first things he said when we started talking was "do you want to be out in America, because it might have an affect. Are you ok to talk about it? We don't have to if you don't want to."
I thought it was really interesting that he asked, actually, because I'd talked to him about my boyfriend and stuff before, and I just thought it was interesting that he should ask. Maybe some artists do that - they just don't talk about it in America. Which I think is a fucking pity!

The Feeling The new single 'I Thought It Was Over', is out 11 February 2008, followed by the album, Join With Us, on 18 February 2008. For the latest news on the band, check the official website at www.thefeeling.com

An abridged version of this interview was published in Out In The City,
February 2008 David Hudson




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