Irvine Welsh, and in the process the two have written some outstanding drama and comedy moments which have found their way to the stage as well as television. Dean is also responsible for writing all eight episodes of the cult internet viral comedy, Svengali. Away from writing he has found time to put out a number of music projects; his more recent Narco Bear venture is now available to download free online. Never afraid to put his morals first and continually marching to his own beat, Dean Cavanagh is a one-off maverick in these times of bland, soulless entertainment.
ZANI - Creative urges seem to come to people in their teens, whether playing a musical instrument or writing; was it the same for you?
Dean Cavanagh - My teenage years were spent running around like a lunatic dipping into everything on offer. I had a wonderful childhood because my Mum and Dad left me to my own devices. We were piss poor but rich in culture. My Old Man was a club singer cum labourer cum professional drinker and my Mum – God rest her soul – was a firebrand print union shop steward. Football was a big thing in the family: there were quite a few pro-footballers from the extended family and we lived on a bit of a notorious council estate where if you weren’t into football you were basically ostracized. It was always music that interested me more than football though. I never learnt an instrument though and was happy to just listen and collect. I started reading books in my early teens, mainly biographies, and then got a taste for films. I remember sneaking into Woody Allen films at an early age and my mates thinking I was strange. I hardly ever went to school and I think that gave me an advantage. I managed to escape the institutionalized indoctrination, but couldn’t escape the left-wing indoctrination at home.
ZANI - You’re a man of many different hats. Music has been a massive part of your career; what came first for you, your love of music or writing?
Dean Cavanagh - I don’t really separate the two to be honest. I don’t actually “love” writing as it’s become my job and in screenwriting it’s more about compromise and being industrious. You can have flights of fancy but the bottom line is you’re part of a team and it’s all about collaboration. Obviously you can be creative but it’s a very restrictive medium. I’ve written a couple of novels and that was very liberating, but there’s still compromise in the publishing world, so I ended up throwing the towel in on two novels. What I actually “love” doing is simply creating in whatever medium I have a go at. It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am now, but I feel I’ve finally got to the place where you get the real kick and reward out of simply making something. I truly, honestly couldn’t care less about any kind of perceived success or reward. Everything is about the creative process. It’s actually a great place to be in your mind. I got to know Anton Newcombe (the legendary leader of The Brianjonestown Massacre) last year and I instantly “got” him. He’s a prodigious talent but it’s obvious that it’s all about the actual creative act for him. I love people like that! They are doing something, be it fucking knitting, sculpture, writing, woodwork, whatever, you know, for the sheer high of actually creating rather than what they will achieve once the creation is finished. Don’t get me wrong, I still panic about paying the bills and being in debt but the last thing on my mind when I’m making something is about reaping rewards. It’s obviously a nice feeling if other people dig what you’re making but you should really please yourself above and beyond everyone else. I suppose I’m just not cut out to be an entertainer…which on reflection I’m happy about.
ZANI - You seem to have made a conscious decision not to let yourself get pigeon-holed into any one genre of work? Or is it just your creative nature?
Dean Cavanagh - Pigeon holes are restrictive but it’s not conscious. I just like to have a go at things that interest me at that certain time, be it making music, writing or producing TV and film or doing some graphic design. Pigeon holes are simply part of the control matrix. I believe first and foremost, above even health and wealth, the thing to strive to achieve is personal freedom. To me it’s more important than anything else. When you are making something, whatever it is, if you are being true to yourself you are achieving the total personal freedom and like I said, there’s no other feeling like it…you know, just flying on your own steam kind of thing.
ZANI - You were quite a figure in Northern Club land in the 90s. You promoted various dance nights in Bradford and Leeds as well as running the popular club magazine ‘Herb Garden’. This culminated in your electronic music outfit, Glamorous Hooligan, releasing an album to critical acclaim. This must have been an amazing time for you. Were you then convinced music was the way forward?
Dean Cavanagh - I had a wonderful time in the 90s, got up to all sorts and met some really interesting characters. I also got to learn and understand a shit load about the “entertainment” industry and how fickle, shallow and populated with really unimaginative people it is. Actually, I’d go further and say that I was just amused with how dense some really famous people and their entourages are. I know it’s not a revelation but I’d grown up in awe of famous singers and actors and artists and then to start working with some of them and seeing how screwed up and insecure they are was a real eye opener. Once you get to look behind the curtain and see that The Wizard is really a coward and an amoral dwarf you really do lose all interest in fame and all that shit. I worked in the record industry for quite a while but just used it to finance my apprenticeship in scriptwriting. Again, I lost interest once the album was out and all the touring and promotional stuff bored the life out of me. Promoting House nights was a good laugh and exciting in the late 80s early 90s but I lost interest when we were selling out 3000 plus venues and started booking fucking “superstar DJs”. I just jacked it in and started a small night with Chris Madden, The Rootsman and Andrew Weatherall in Leeds. Again, a lot of people thought I was barmy throwing away all that easy lucre, but if I’m not excited about something I just can’t fake it. You might as well just go back to the factory if it’s just all about making money. Lot less hassle in factory work than there is in promoting.
ZANI - Irvine Welsh is a close friend of yours, you’ve worked on a number of projects with him. Were you a fan of his before you met him?
Dean Cavanagh - Not really a fan, no. He was always around the music scene like me. We had loads of mutual friends in London and everyone used to say to both of us that we should meet because we’d really get on. I think because of that we avoided each other for quite a while. I watched all the Trainspotting hoopla from the touchline and was happy that a book and film about junkies was raising hell, but I had no interest in meeting him or even thought about one day writing with him.
ZANI - What did you think of him when you finally met him?
Dean Cavanagh - I can hand on heart say that he’s one of the nicest lads on Earth. He’s helped me out more than I can say, and nothing to do with work either. There’s just no bullshit about him. People often think of him as this Bukowski, Thompson, Burroughs kind of character, which he is to a certain degree, but as a friend you couldn’t wish for a better one. I don’t actually see him as a screenwriting partner at all now. Obviously that’s what we do together but more importantly he’s a friend.
ZANI - You wrote, among other things, Wedding Belles with Irvine which was met with critical acclaim; there are some real dark moments in there. When you’re putting such things together do you ever worry that due to some of the content it won’t get onto the television?
Dean Cavanagh - Not in the slightest. The way it works is that the producer on Wedding Belles, Jemma Rodgers, will let you know what you can or cannot get away with. It’s a kind of self-censorship thing. Just before Wedding Belles came out the News of The World called for a boycott of it and then when they’d actually watched it they thought it was hilarious and not really offensive. Anyone who finds reality –or even hyper-reality in mine and Irvine’s case – offensive needs to grow a pair and get out more or buy a crash helmet.
ZANI - Do you and Irvine critique each others work, or do you have disagreements over writing?
Dean Cavanagh - There’s no pattern whatsoever. It’s a very easy partnership. Either one of us comes up with an idea and we just let it flow from there. We don’t really critique each other because that’s the job of the producer or commissioning editor. We let rip and then edit each other as we go along. The thing with Irvine is that he a fantastic painter of characters. He finds things in characters and takes whatever it is he’s found to the nth degree. I’m not a voracious reader of his fiction but the character of Robbo from Filth that he wrote is my favourite anti-hero of all time. The comedy in that book is genius and virtually all of it flows organically from the character. People go on about Begbie from Trainspotting but Robbo is a real work of art. My heart broke when Miramax commissioned me to do the adaptation and then folded their UK operation.
ZANI - When you’re writing on your own do you go to him for advice on any writing or suggestions, or is it more of case of “I’ll show him when I’m done”?
Dean Cavanagh - I went out to stay with him in Miami a couple of years back and spent two weeks sunbathing, eating and boozing. Not once did we pick up a pen or sit at the computer, yet when I got back we were ferociously e-mailing each other scenes from a rewrite we were doing, so again, no. No pattern. Irvine’s a lot more disciplined than I am, he has to be because of his novels, but I can really hunker down and be productive when I need to be. In screenwriting, simply talking about ideas and concepts can be more productive than sitting at Macs all day.
ZANI - The stage play Babylon Heights which you wrote with Irvine was met with fan fare as well as lot of controversy. Could you explain the outline of the story please?
Dean Cavanagh - Simply put, it’s about the dwarfs that were recruited to play the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. They were banged up in a decrepit hotel and left to run riot. It’s played in San Francisco, Dublin, LA, Auckland, all over the place, but not in the UK. Yeah, there was quite a bit of media controversy saying we were poking fun at dwarfs or midgets or whatever people are calling them nowadays. Again people had to eat their words when they actually saw it and realised we were really poking fun at Hollywood and were on the side of the little buggers.
ZANI - I read there were “veiled threats” of demonstrations made due to some of the subject matter. Did any finally take place?
Dean Cavanagh - Fuck knows. Probably not, but it would have only given us more publicity anyway.
ZANI - Some people might not be aware of the internet hit, Svengali. Could you explain how you got involved in the project?
Dean Cavanagh - Well I had this idea about doing something about a manager of a shit band. Well, a shit band and a shit manager. I told John Owen about it and we just ran with it. Phil John, the director, came on board and it just mushroomed from there. It’s been a real labour of love. Self-financed, real guerrilla, blagging style.
ZANI - Broadcasting companies in general seem to be scared of the endless possibilities of the internet and such ideas as Svengali. The only reason I can see is because at the moment you can’t generate vast sums of money. Do you agree and do you think the internet will become the media to overtake regular television?
Dean Cavanagh - I used to think about it quite a bit but I couldn’t care less at the moment. Svengali is a quality internet comedy and none of the fucking idiots in TV broadcasting can see that. Look at Ricky Gervais with The Office. He had the same shit trying to get it made. The problem isn’t TV Versus Internet or the platform issue it’s that TV is peopled with fucking idiots who are so far behind the loop it’s shocking. There are a couple of good people working in TV and making decisions but they are becoming marginalized by the fuckers simply desperate to hold on to their salaries and free taxis.
ZANI - You’ve been quite scathing in the past about the state of British Television. Is there anything at the moment you enjoy?
Dean Cavanagh - Dragon’s Den’s good. I catch snippets of the wife and kids watching UK TV but don’t see anything that interests me.
ZANI - Simon Cowell, it seems, holds the Monopoly at the moment and no TV show seems to come without a 0800 voting phone number; there’s nothing of any real substance to get audiences thinking. If someone would give you the director general’s job at say, for arguments sake, the BBC, what changes would you make?
Dean Cavanagh - Mass redundancies of the management and commissioning editors.
ZANI - You’ve recently put an album out for free download on the internet. Under the name Narco Bear http://narcobear.bandcamp.com/ Do you create this work at home on your computer?
Dean Cavanagh - Yeah, a few plug ins, filters and toys, very lo tech and high imagination. It’s good fun dicking around with sound and ideas. I loved that when we had the band in the 90s – everything was so compact, you know, small portable synths and drum machines, but now it’s even better. Virtual studios and loops and samples. It’s so fucking liberating just sitting at your Mac making beats and trying out ideas that would have even been impossible to create a couple of years ago. I’ve had some really nice feedback but I just enjoy doing it. It’s my drug of choice at the moment.
ZANI - What’s your view on people downloading music for free?
Dean Cavanagh - I do it myself.
ZANI - What’s next for you Dean?
Dean Cavanagh - Irvine and I are writing a couple of films and Jon Owen’s still pushing to keep Svengali going ahead. I’m also gathering samples and loops for another Narco Bear album. We’re also going to be doing stuff with Warp Films, who I’m a fan of, so it’s a pretty interesting time.
(c) Ian "Nipping out for a pint of milk" Park