Members Lounge

Baxter Dury: “I’ve always been on the fringes, but I can’t say it’s not a nice place to be”

Baxter Dury's new album, I Thought I Was Better Than You, largely draws on his childhood and his relationship with his father, Blockheads singer Ian Dury. But as he explains to Ollie Rankine, it's time for people to talk about something else in relation to his music and career

Things are tense. Depending on your point of view, the shiny leather-clad interior of a plush Hammersmith arts centre might either be the last place you’d expect to find the son of a famous punk poet or exactly where you’d expect to find one – but whichever way, the stony-faced glare of Baxter Dury offers a sobering reality check. Barely off the back of a gruelling run of European tour dates, lasting nine days and hopping between nearly as many countries, he’s knackered. If he hasn’t wanted to talk about his father Ian Dury before, he certainly doesn’t want to talk about him now.

“I’ve spoken about this so much. In a way, it’s pretty dull,” he says, wasting little time to cut me short. “Well, it’s too dull for me to talk about just after getting off a plane from Athens, without sounding like a total cunt.” To be fair, he doesn’t. All the interrogation and fetishising over his father’s legacy has left Baxter feeling somewhat removed, exhausted of all intrigue and lazy claim to comparison. Call him a “budget nepo baby” all you like – as he has himself –  but Baxter Dury is a normal citizen.

Sitting together, Baxter disgruntled and funnelling down a bag of salted Nobby’s Nuts, you may have been forgiven for asking about his formative years living with his father in the nearby West London flat just minutes from us along the riverside promenade. But this was some time ago, and though recounted extensively in his 2021 memoir Chaise Lounge, Baxter is finished exorcising memories of a chaotic past. “After doing a book I wrote these songs because I’d run out of subject matter. I’m not necessarily on a mad sort of mission to be crazy all the time. I’ve lessened some of the drama in my life.” These deeper cuts from a consequenceless upbringing have found their way into his latest album I Thought I Was Better Than You, his book’s unofficial sequel reminiscing over nihilistic posh kids, Kensington High Street robberies and mornings being driven to school by a 6ft 7in drug dealer.

Though vivid, descriptions are often brief, with anecdotal snippets liberally applied to form the album’s patchwork narrative. “Songwriting isn’t about being accurate. It’s a sort of energy you nick from things and turn into something that everyone can interpret for their own benefit. You don’t want it to be a documentary-led piece of information. Music that gets burdened by detail eventually becomes shit.” Baxter doesn’t tend to mince his words. His meandering storytelling forms cockney hieroglyphics, a line like “lick my forehead you whitebread-eating cockroach” being one of the album’s most ‘colourful’. “They’re just artefacts in the back of your mind. I don’t censor them. In a way, it’s quite lazy because I allow them to be printed. But if you think about it too much you prevent a sentence from happening. It’s quite a pretentious Beat poetry flow. You have to open it up, in a sort of buddhist way, to let them go.”

Ambiguity seems to suit Baxter, who prefers to remain tight-lipped on the gory details of his days as a troublemaker. Rather than indulge in anything too incriminating, his attention is focused on the revolving door of characters who are introduced and reappear across the tracklist.

“He was quite an unpleasant, dominating kid. But I’d come from the countryside so I was probably a bit vulnerable,” he says, scrunching his nose and discussing a foiled heist carried out by him and his toxic schoolmate ‘Leon’ to steal a pair of sunglasses. “We got into a lot of mischief together but he always held the power. He was a bit Rasputin-esque. It took me ages to realise that I didn’t have to take these people too seriously. Although I made efforts to stop him from taking advantage of me, it’s better sometimes to stick with the dictator you know.” The story, which wound up with Baxter taking the heat and getting busted by the police, didn’t get a mention in the book. Maybe for good reason. “Usually when I talk about these people I have to tediously disguise their identities by changing everyone’s names. But legally speaking, songwriting is different because it’s not viewed as a very accurate account of something. It must be slightly litigious, especially when I’m telling you now that he was a total cunt.” Sorry Leon.

When he’s not being reacquainted with names and faces of his past, Baxter Dury isn’t just reliving his childhood, he’s reckoning with it. Behind the tough sunken-eyed exterior lives a sensitive artist who has borne the weight of his father’s life’s work – a burden he hopes to finally lay to rest on I Thought I Was Better Than You. You’d be wrong to assume there is an ​​insurmountable expectation of punk royalty for Baxter to live up to; so much of what he does feels like an exception to the rules he may or may not have inherited. Rather than Doc Martens and pub-punk, Baxter grew up a hip hop head and is currently more interested in an artist like Frank Ocean, who he namechecks on the record, than the direct legacies of his father’s generation.

“I think it’s very refreshing, inventive music,” he says, pondering the evolving elements that moves hip-hop from one generation to the next. “In a way, it’s gone back and forth. English appropriation of American soul music was originally what made us [British musicians] interesting. And then it sprung back the other way in the ’60s and ’70s. You can hear an English influence in artists like Frank [Ocean] and Tyler [The Creator] that goes right back to The Beatles.”

This intergenerational crossroads feels like a well-trodden path for Baxter. His new music uses looser hip hop inflections to transform his own weathered Southern English drawl, a combination which helps I Thought I Was Better Than You assume its unique identity. Rather than conform to an idea of what people might expect or want him to be, it’s a body of work that feels closer to Baxter than ever before. “It all becomes a real cultural mosaic of everything. That’s really interesting, but it’s not exactly hip hop anymore.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that he resonates with the modern West Coast superstars that refuse to wear a label, with Baxter’s own experience entirely stuck on the peripheries of what others accept to be normal. “They’re just leaders in something more inventive,” he continues. “It’s kind of punk and fucked up as well as being dangerous in subject matter. I guess if you’re a Black American, you’re sociologically sponsored by a much bigger picture than provincial islanders. There’s something very deep and really incomparable. It’s got a lot of what we like about everything, but it’s actually new. I don’t really see that happening anywhere else.”

He might have a way with words, but Baxter knows his limits. “I certainly can’t rap,” he confesses with a wry snigger. I’m pleased to get a laugh out of him. Leaning back in his chair, whilst I try to conceal my small victory in a badly masked grimace, he explains: “The whole idea is based on a melodic way to express the American accent which sounds lyrical even without music. If you try to affect that, you’re heading into knob territory. Expression is informed by experience. If you don’t have those experiences, you’re way out of your depth straightaway.”

Whereas most performers get a chance to hone their craft through a bedding-in period, Baxter was flung into scrutiny barely before his lips had touched a microphone. “I found an old press clipping recently of when The Guardian reviewed my first ever gig. It was pretty awful.” It’s not that anyone particularly slated it – it’s more that a broadsheet newspaper took the trouble of writing about it in the first place. “It was some tiny gig and I had a wall of fucking journalists in the front row,” he says, taking me back 20 years to London’s long shutdown Metro Club venue. The article describes Baxter as “a rabbit caught in headlights”, and suggests that leaning into his own idiosyncrasies to distance himself from his father to be his best hope for success. There’s baggage that comes with unwarranted attention, particularly for an artist who’s hellbent on carving out his own image.

Though some may have wanted to see Ian Dury that evening, Baxter was never going to give it to them. Unlike the hoards of failed pop offspring before him, he’s managed to win over the naysayers and outlive any suggestion of a copycat career. “I think it’s more about symmetrical sons and daughters that get contracts with Chanel for no reason. Maybe you can question it in those situations,” he says, as the conversation turns to the new trend of the internet exposing so-called ‘nepo babies’. “But the majority of prodigal pop stars with accelerated attention applied to them just end up conceding to the reality that they’re shit. Mostly because they end up being some pale imitation of their parents. It generally only lasts as long as someone can finance it for.”

Baxter’s not keen to stick around. The airmiles have finally caught up with him. Frantic and apologising for his reluctance to give up more than I’d hoped, his parting quip feels like a good place to leave things. “An unorthodox upbringing probably makes you slightly different. I feel like I’ve always been on the fringes, but I can’t say it’s not a nice place to be.”