Richard Dawson doesn’t think he would survive for long in a post-apocalyptic world. Would he get killed off in the pre-credits sequence of a movie? “Probably, and it’s hard to admit that. I have sleep apnoea as well, so I’d have to go off on my own because I make such a noise when I sleep,” he says, over a pint by a crackling fire in The Boathouse pub in the Northumberland village of Wylam. It’s “probably the best pub in the world,” according to the sign outside, and today it feels like it. “I’ve actually given this a lot of thought. The only way I would survive would be to find a cave, and then to booby-trap it, because the volume of my snoring is immense. So not only am I going to have to sleep in a cave that is booby-trapped, I’m also going to be absolutely exhausted. I’m not going to last long.”
He laughs happily. “I already said to [partner and Hen Ogledd bandmate] Sally that when it happens, she’s better off doing me a favour and making it quick.”
Dawson’s extraordinary seventh album, The Ruby Cord, is the cause of this conversation about survival in a ravaged world. It’s not that it’s a musical rendering of Mad Max – it appears to be set in a future that bears more in common with the past than the present, with scattered reminders in the lyrics that this is indeed the future: “Along weedburst motorways we tear / Past the tangle silence of our emptied cities,” he sings on the closer, Horse and Rider.
Some of the inspiration behind it came from the state of the world, some from gaming, which seems apt, given The Ruby Cord and its two predecessors – Peasant and 2020 – form a rough trilogy of past, present and future, and showcase Dawson’s commitment to worldbuilding. Just as games create their own environment, so does Dawson with his records, with their accumulation of lyrical detail (for Peasant, he even researched dyeing in the dark ages, so as to be sure of getting it right).
The three albums also share the idea of Dawson imagining them as refracted through a particular art form: with Peasant, it was the paintings of Breughel; with 2020, “I envisaged a little telly, the kind I used to have in my room, with a video recorder included. And this one I imagined more like a computer game – it looks realistic, but it has a slightly pixellated quality.”
When he plays games, he says, he likes to go through them “at clip-clop pace, instead of racing through”. And he notices how they change his interaction with the world. When he was playing The Last of Us, he realised he was waiting for an x to appear in his vision to enable him to open doors. “I don’t know if you’ve picked up a newspaper and tried to enlarge it” – he gestures moving his fingers apart to zoom in – “it was like that. That felt scary, but also a bit exciting, like my brain had started to change because of my engagement with these things.”
He talks about his first encounter with a fully imagined gaming world, playing Skyrim in his late 20s, with his friend Ben. “I went into it, start of the game, and was going, ‘Where can I go?’ ‘You can go anywhere you like, mate.’ What? I hadn’t played a game in so long that the very idea of an open world was so new. And suddenly you have the sense of: ‘Fucking hell, I can just go and walk in the forest and study the trees and plants that are there.’ And also, crucially, you could decide your own character – that’s a staple of these games – and inevitably you start gaming and three hours later you’re still trying to decide the slant of their eyebrow.”
That seems like a decent summary of Dawson’s approach to making records, too – he writes all the music first, then the lyrics, line by line. “I don’t write ahead of where I’m at, so I’ll wait until I’ve really got that verse or couple of lines pretty much as they should be.”). There is almost certainly the slant of an eyebrow described somewhere on one of his albums.
What he won’t do is explain what he is trying to say, or even why, really. Asking a blunt, direct question of Dawson about his music is like asking a prime minister when they knew of the allegations against such and such a minister, because the response leads you away from what you wanted to know. “It took a long time to arrive at the words in the songs, and I could easily undo some spell if I talk too much,” he says. “But I really wanted to make something – I know it will sound corny – that was very beautiful.”
The Ruby Cord is as unpindownable as Dawson is. Songs such as Thicker Than Water or Museum or Horse and Rider are almost conventionally pretty (the almost is important; no one is going to be mistaking this for Lewis Capaldi). But it opens with The Hermit, a 41-minute track, in which I dare suggest nothing much happens for the first 10 minutes.
“You say not a lot happens, but it’s really essential to the story,” he says. “It sounds like a bit of an improv session, but there were quite clear instructions to the musicians to never let it build – it should only ever be a suggestion of something happening, like a frond waving, or a little animal scuttling. The idea of that section is a forest on its most basic functions, idling before dawn. But the weight of that sleep is very crucial to the character waking up or being brought into consciousness. That wouldn’t mean anything if you hadn’t had that before. There’s a pleasure in thinking about YouTube and Spotify and the fast pace of everything, which is all fine, but it was a pleasure to go in the opposite direction and slow it down. There was never any choice but to lead with The Hermit, because it’s such a strong idea to have as a single.”
Despite releasing a 41-minute single in which nothing much happens for the first 10 minutes, despite his high profile, Dawson is incredulous at the idea he is the poster boy for British experimental music: “I’m sure people from experimental music and improv would find that ridiculous.” When he plays experimental music events, he’s often the most conventional artist on the bill, he says, then accepts that when he is on a more conventional bill, he often appears to be the outlier.
“I’m essentially an old-fashioned melody man,” he decides. “I know that’s a funny thing to say, but I believe it. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet” – of course he doesn’t, he’s Richard Dawson – “but they’ve been good melodies on the last few albums. Melody’s the thing. Melody mixed with words.”
“Oh, I do want to blow my own trumpet!” Good for him. He deserves to.
• The Ruby Cord is out now on Domino