Eurythmics Producer Dave Stewart Reflects On His Career

PHOTO: Musician Dave Stewart visits the SiriusXM Studios, Feb. 9, 2016, in New York City.Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Musician Dave Stewart visits the SiriusXM Studios, Feb. 9, 2016, in New York City.

Dave Stewart is most famous for being one-half of Eurythmics, but a look through his credits and his new book, the aptly-titled “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This,” reveals that for the last 40 years or so, he's done so much more.

From co-writing the theme to “Ruthless People” with Mick Jagger to planting the initial seed that would eventually blossom into Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “Don’t Come Around Here No More," Stewart has produced work by everyone from Ringo Starr to Imogen Heap.

“Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This” is a frank, often funny collection of stories written with a very honest approach. Stewart, 63, doesn’t shy away from stories about past relationships or drug use. Many of them are anecdotes involving other famous names, but on the whole, the book shows him to be a brilliantly multi-faceted entertainer, whether he’s trying to write a song or organize a concert in South Africa to raise HIV/ AIDS awareness through his work with the 46664 Foundation.

The bottom line is, this book provides a fascinating and insightful read for music fans. It helps to see the many photographs that line several sections of the book. It also contains a forward from his long-time friend Mick Jagger.

Here are passages from our conversation about the book, making music and the industry.

What made you decide to write this book and go through your life? Did you find it to be a cathartic experience?

I felt that it aged me. (laughs) I never really look backwards. I’m always looking ahead at some great new project or songwriting thing, or TV show, or theater, or, you know, photographs…. I’m always excited about the day. And then when I agreed to do this, I was kicking it about because I met with Penguin about a few other things.

A lot of people have been saying this for years, “Oh, you should write a book because your stories are sort of crazy and funny.” Then I thought, well I don’t want to write an autobiography, and then Penguin said, “Well you can write a memoir,” and just pick and choose things you can remember basically. I thought that wasn’t such a bad idea until I realized I couldn’t really remember anything. (Laughs.) I had to ring some friends, but what helped me really is that I have all of my life since the late-seventies/early-eighties sort of photographed and filmed things. Luckily going into all these big boxes and carrier bags of photographs and stuff, I pieced together what happened. As they say, every picture tells a story. I would find a picture and the whole month around it would come together.

One thing I find really striking is that you have pretty much been a shape-shifter since the Eurythmics began and throughout. You began with the Eurythmics, working in the electro-pop realm and then into more soul territory. I looked up your credits and you have worked with such a wide variety of people. It seems to me like you are working from a classic mold going into newer realms.

I started when I was a kid learning how to play blues guitar like my brother and my cousin who sent from Memphis these early blues recordings and I was learning Robert Johnson, and Mississippi John Hurt and all these blues players. Then I was in a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young-type band. And then I was in a band that had a lot of sort of West Coast influence with a lot of jangly Rickenbackers. And then I was in a kind of new wave-type band and then I met Annie (Lennox) and invented this kind of electro world. Even then, within Eurythmics you see, with Annie’s knowledge of classical music and classical training, her love for Motown and my knowledge of blues, soul and Stax we realized together we could do anything and we did. People would say, “Oh Eurythmics are an electro-duo ,” and then we’d put out “Would I Lie To You?”

Yeah, that sounds like Aretha Franklin.

Yeah it sounds like Stax with a big horn section. And then we’d win “Best Rock Performance” at the Grammys for “Missionary Man,” which is the furthest you can be away from electronic. So, I’d already started to go through all those changes.

One of the first things I did in 1990 when Eurythmics stopped, I made a film called “Deep Blues” where we went back to all around Mississippi and filmed and recorded all these amazing, old blues players. It was directed by Robert Mugge and I sort of paid for it and was producer of the whole thing. R.L. Burnside and all these great players took me right back to that world that made me want to become a musician when I was 14.

It’s that eclecticism that I find especially interesting. You tend to work with such a wide variety of people from Tom Petty to Mick Jagger to more modern figures. There’s a huge through-line between what you began doing through all the stuff you have made.

The thing about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers… They were classic, big Rickenbacker, kind of great, “American Girl,” “Refugee,” all these kinds of songs… In [my band] The Tourists, we also made those big, jangly Rickenbacker songs. So when I met Tom, I wasn’t alien to his sound or his world at all. It was something that was very familiar to me. And then, Mick is of course obsessed with the blues, so Mick and I would get together and just jam blues, playing harmonica or guitar… And so I find it quite easy to dip into these different worlds, but if I’m in the studio with someone making heavy-duty Germanic electro music, I can also feel quite comfortable doing that as well.

It’s that eclecticism that provides such a great deal of impact and respect. I was looking through your credits on the Allmusic Guide and the fact for instance that RZA from the Wu Tang sampled “Here Comes The Rain Again (for his song “Tragedy”) and then you worked on a Possum Dixon record and then ended up working with No Doubt on “Underneath It All” is all pretty amazing.

I wrote that with Gwen [Stefani], yeah! Allmusic is a bit overwhelming because it is “all music"! I find things there that I don’t even remember and then I realize, “Oh yeah, I did,” because I had pseudonyms. I had about three or four pseudonyms. One was Jean Guiot.

You co-wrote “Stay” by Shakespears Sister as Jean Guiot. (Shakespears Sister featured Stewart’s ex-wife Siobhan Fahey.)

Yeah, that was number one for about eight weeks in Britain and I think number two in America.

Yeah, it did well over here.

Yeah, there was a period in the eighties when I was doing all sorts. I made a TV series called “Beyond The Groove,” which had Tom Petty acting in it, and Harry Dean Stanton, and Mick Jagger rerecording “Memory Motel” for it. It had Busta Rhymes. Little Richard was acting in a gospel church. I was completely, I suppose, on fire, and then I was co-writing one or two songs in a day, all under different names with people like Alison Moyet. That would come out and be a huge hit in England. Then I met Maria McKee and she’s play me a song on the piano and I’d say, “That’s a good song,” and she’d say, “Yeah, but they don’t want it on my Lone Justice album,” and I’d say, “Give it here,” and I recorded it with somebody else and they’d have a number one in Britain… I mean that was just a constant flow all the time.

It’s funny how that happens. A song is written for or by a certain person and then something happens and it gets repurposed. Your story about how “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” is fascinating. It was originally written with Stevie Nicks in mind and Tom Petty was brought in to write. That kind of thing happens all the time.

Often people write songs that might suit their voice, but it might also suit Smokey Robinson’s voice. This happens a lot, you know, at different periods. Like when they had the Brill Building or Motown. I mean, Lamont Dozier knocking out fifteen different hits with people singing them with all different kinds of voices. From the Supremes to the Temptations. And then Prince, for instance, he had a song that was certainly a big hit for The Bangles.

“Manic Monday.” He used a pseudonym for that, as well. In the liner notes he is credited as “Christopher.”

We’re always studying the same musicians. I found this great sax player, Candy Dulfer, when she was seventeen and we made this great instrumental hit called “Lily Was Here” at a time when there weren’t too many instrumental hits at the top on the Billboard charts. It was me and her duet-ing, and after that Prince used her for his “Batman” score and then used her a lot on tour. So did Van Morrison and so did Pink Floyd. I’m always excited at the discovery of a new, great songwriter or a new, great player. He’s sort of excited about that, too. Hannah Ford, I think we both saw and were talking to at the same time and she plays drums with him now.

With this book, I think I say to people when I sign it, “I don’t know exactly how this happened, but here it is.” Some people have the enthusiasm and the ability to spot things or spot people just before they are about to happen as artists. It’s very inspiring and you’re never bored. There’s always something beyond the periphery that you’re seeing and that’s what the book’s about, really. It’s like, “Hey, all this stuff happened to me and if you read it, there’s a lot of it.” I think it’s just because I was always open to it happening and that’s how so many songs came out. Just being open to a melody popping into my head and not being jumbled up. To me, all the melodies, lyrics and inventions are already there. They’re just waiting for you to accept them, you know what I mean?

Definitely! I write songs, too, so I understand exactly how this works.

Yeah and you can’t control it. If you write songs, you know that you’ll be driving along or in the most awkward place and you suddenly have a great line or a melody for a song and you go, “Oh s***. Do I have to pull over? Do I have to wake my wife up and switch the light on?” I looked at an email and I realized I’d written it to myself at about four in the morning so I wouldn’t forget, you know?

I sometimes call my answering machine and just leave song ideas there.

Yeah, I’ve had a few really great answering machine messages. I just go into my house and then start writing.

Or you just wake up with a good melody in your head and just have to record it immediately.

Yeah, but I’ve had some good ones from other people. I’ve not got this in the book, but I was great friends with Jack Nicholson and he was great about Eurythmics. He would stand at the side of the stage and give us tips when we came off for the album cover and at one point said he was Eurythmics’ manager. One time I said, “Hey, let’s write a song in this vein.” When I got home, he’d left a message on the answer-phone. It was just his voice saying lyrics like, “I dreamt he went to Veracruz / Dripping down his teenage blues and some guy called Ramon….” It just went on and on. It was really good!

Another time I had Leonard Cohen leave a message on an answer-phone and he wasn’t trying to write a song. He was talking about his son who had just had an accident on a motorcycle and that’s why he couldn’t meet up. He, like Joni Mitchell couldn’t help himself, so it started to turn into words from a song. “He’ll still be able to make love but will he dance in the morning….” And really he was just saying I can’t make it because my son has had a motorcycle crash. When you meet great poets or artists, it’s not something you can stop happening.

Definitely! At the same if you sit down and try to write a great song, it isn’t always going to happen.

No. That’s not good. Sometimes if you’ve just drank about three espressos , and there’s a great sounding piano and the light’s coming through the window just right, you might sit down and suddenly have a straight stroke of genius, but you can create the sort of world and the sort of platform for creativity to happen. Feeling like you are in the right place, which isn’t always staring at the computer… and things change because you are looking at it through a different lens. But if you are just sitting in a room, writing, writing, writing, it can all become very staid and laborious.

I think what keeps you going and keeps things interesting for you is that as you said, you are just so open with working with other people and bouncing ideas off of each other. That’s where you really find growth.

Well, the main thing is, it’s not generally for any reason. It’s not like, “well, now I’m going to work with this person because they are coming out with an album now.” I’m writing with people that no one even knows about. Like for instance there’s a great girl who is in a band called Le Butcherettes and she goes by the name Teri Gender Bender and they’re probably the most amazing underground band. And if I’m not busy, I’ll just do something back and forth via email. Experiments. And then the next thing, I may be working with some boy in Louisiana and he’s just in his place there and I’m here. I just finished making a whole album with a girl in Paris who is incredible and her name is Mahaut (Mondino) and it’s just going on all the time in real time.

Where do you see the industry going, musically and financially-speaking, considering you detail in your book how Eurythmics worked out a fascinating deal to make sure you wouldn’t end up broke.

Well I think there’s always going to be great talent using the same palate that’s been used for years and years. There might be new kinds of instruments being invented but basically, there is a certain number of notes and there’s a vocabulary, but it doesn’t stop people from making something ingenious every day, so I don’t think that’s going to change. How it is consumed is changing as we speak. I can imagine in not too far from now it being consumed by a virtual reality and being actually inside the music and experiencing a completely different feeling than just stuff coming to you out of the speakers.

How music gets monetized? It’s been through hell and back. But there are going to be new ways not just in the way music gets monetized but in the way people exchange money….if you want to call it money…Bitcoins or whatever you want to call them. There will be new currencies that people will then exchange with each other for media. Plus, then that currency could then be exchanged for other products. We just have to launch the First Artist Bank. Our foray into that, which is a bank for creative will also then embrace all new forms of currencies within our banking model.

As a music critic, I am very wary of streaming services because I don’t see them as having a workable fiscal model yet. I still buy everything because I’ve seen too many artists I like get dropped.

The streaming services… Obviously the record deals charge a lot of money to license their catalogue to a streaming service. And then whether the artists who are signed to that label or publisher ever see their fair share of whatever they got as their advance is very questionable. In a lot of cases it’s not the streaming services’ fault. They pay the money, but it kind of stops there. Streaming is obviously a volume business. If you have one million people subscribing, the money divided up amongst all the artists in x-amount. If you have a hundred million people subscribing, the royalty payments could equal anything you could get from selling records. There are a lot of artists who have not signed straight to labels who have done their own independent thing and they get paid very well from streaming services.

Especially if they own their own publishing.

Exactly. So they might be earning a hundred thousand dollars a year. Also, getting known through the streaming services so now they can play to a thousand people instead of fifty. So, it’s an ever-changing model.

“Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This : A Life In Music – A Memoir” is out February 9.