Title: Seal: A wild and crazy guy
Author: Ian Gittins
Source: Melody Maker
Publish date: December 1 1990
SEAL: A WILD AND CRAZY GUY
Seal was singing for years, getting nowhere fast. Then he sang ‘Killer’ for Adamski and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the action. With his first solo single, ‘Crazy’, about to storm the charts, IAN GITTINS meets Britain’s next superstar. Pics: PHIL NICHOLLS.
“IN A SKY FULL OF PEOPLE, ONLY SOME want to fly — isn’t that crazy?”
AS A single, “KILLER” had everything, but mostly it had a lurking pall of controversy surrounding the two people who made it. The pap press could get off on the cuteness of the artist whose name appeared on the sleeve, while the nationals could stir the fact that the man who seemed to have most to do with the record’s vast appeal wasn’t mentioned on it. The two had started as friends, having met and decided to work together one morning on Clapham Common after a rave, and ended as disgruntled strangers.
Seeing them on “Top Of The Pops”, many people actually thought Seal was Adamski, something which must amuse the singer no end now. At the time it wasn’t so funny.
Whether the success of “Killer” owed more to Adam’s clever synth bleeps and basslines or the moody distraction of Seal’s voice is something we can only speculate on. What we do know for certain is that the cute one has followed it with two absolute monstrosities, both of which he insisted on singing himself — very badly indeed — whereas Seal’s first solo effort, “Crazy”, is a staggering thing, every bit as clenched and compelling as “Killer”.
SEAL is pretty nervous. He’s been wary of interviewers ever since he felt Fleet Street stitched him up over the “Killer” affair. He’s been known to record interviews himself for reference, though there’s no tape machine here today.
“Yeah, it’s a bit sad for Adam, but it needn’t have been like that. If his record company had promoted ‘Killer’ the way they should have done, I’d probably be doing another single with him and we’d be collaborating instead of having found ourselves caught in this Black Box syndrome. It’s almost the same situation, if you think about it.
“Adam’s quite young, substantially younger than me.” Seal is 27. “I sympathise with him, because I think if this had happened to me five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have handled it. Obviously, I haven’t arrived anywhere yet, but even at this stage I can see that it’s completely different to what you expect. It must be really difficult for Adam, especially after what’s happened.”
Yeah, the kind of fame where you can never be anonymous must do strange things to people’s heads (poor dears), being a kind of solitary confinement in reverse. And people like Adamski and Seal would have trouble merging into a crowd at the best of times.
“Adam really wanted that, though. He really, really wanted that. It used to be nice for me, because we could walk down the street and all the attention would be centred around him. I could take a back seat, if you like, and just prepare myself for what was coming.”
This is what was coming.
HIS full name is Sealhenry. That’s why he’s called Seal, though I should have thought “Henry” a more elegant and slightly less aquatic abbreviation. His parents came from Nigeria, but the family line runs back through South America and the markings on his cheeks, which look like tribal markings, are nothing of the kind. Those dark scars are what make Seal such a striking sight when you see him on a TV screen. They just appeared out of nowhere a few years ago, during a period when he was spending a lot of time on his own. Soon afterwards, as he tells it, he started to dream much more vividly than he ever had before. A specialist was at a loss to explain what the stripes were or where they came from and none of his family have them.
“I’ve only got vague answers as to why they appeared when they did,” he offers mysteriously, before changing the subject.
Like Adamski, you somehow expect Seal to be a little guy. He’s not. Six foot six if he’s an inch and clearly brought into the world by the Good Lord for the express purpose of becoming an alligator wrestler. I’m not used to feeling small, but as my mit disappears inside his by way of a handshake, I sure enough do.
Seal tells me about his past jobs- five years as a clothing maker (mainly in leather), a week working in McDonald’s, some time spent studying to bean architect — and his travels in Europe and Africa.
Last year he took a few months off and went to Asia, eventually being forced to choose between continuing on to Australia or coming home. In the end, he came home, met Adamski and found himself at Number One in the singles charts with the first record he’d ever been involved in. There’s a sigh of relief in his voice as panders the crossroads you sometimes arrive at and wonders what if… In any case, fate was smiling this time.
“CRAZY” has been remixed countless times. I’ve got eight different versions scattered across my floor at home. Some were done in London — there’s a particularly fine William Orbit mix — and some in LA. Trevor Horn, whose ZTT label Seal is signed to, just said one day, “Would you like to go to LA, Seal?” “What for?” he asked, sceptical. “Don’t worry about what for,” came the reply, “would you like to go?”
So he went and, like many before him, fell in love with the fact that you can have sushi delivered to your door at four in the morning or walk down the street and hire a ‘62 Chevy on a whim. One of the LA mixes of “Crazy” just has him, starkly set against a backing of ambient electronic swoops and dives and washes of synth, whispering fire into the microphone, and alone this justifies the trip. It’s a remarkable thing, that voice. Like “Killer”, this maiden solo effort is a fine song, but it’s the tortured ardour of Seal’s tones that makes it into something more. Is the tortured quality real? “Depends how many fags I’ve been smoking,” he chuckles, lighting up another. “Nah, people say this, but as far as I’m concerned, singing a song isn’t really about having a brilliant voice. Anyone can sing, or at least learn to sing.
“The thing that’ll impress me is the delivery. People like Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye, now they can deliver a song. Every time you hear it, it’s like a new experience. The quality of the voice is secondary: listen to Sly on ‘Family Affair’, man, I mean his voice is all over the f***ing place — it sounds like he’s been up smoking all night and he’s just drunk a bottle of whiskey, but the things he communicates through that performance are just awesome. You understand exactly what he’s saying, there’s no other way you could take that, it just floors me every time.
“It’s funny because, as soon as you put out a record, you get all these people saying, ‘Hey, your voice is brilliant’ and all that. There are lots of people with good voices. I don’t think my voice is brilliant at all and I don’t think I’m a brilliant singer.
“That’s where you can get f***ed up, when you start believing all the people who gather around you telling you you’re great. It’s easy to get caught up in all that and find yourself thinking, ‘Yeah, I am brilliant’. Of course, what you invariably find in the end is that you’re not that unique.”
Like “Killer”, “Crazy” has an unorthodox, wavering quality and it’s no surprise to hear Seal name Hendrix and Joni Mitchell as his favourite songwriters. To call what he does “dance music” would be like calling Velvet Underground gothic because they wore black. More than anything, the chorus line, “No, we’re never gonna survive, unless we get a little crazy,” intrigues me. What do you mean?
“It’s really just about everything that happened last year. A lot of things seemed to resolve themselves. It’s really just saying that people have got to take chances and do things which other people would regard as crazy. That can apply to anything. A lot of what other people are most ready to tell you is crazy turns out to be the most sane. It’s not about telling people to get up and go mental. That’s pretty useless most of the time.”
IT must be the dream of everyone who’s ever played in a band or made a record to find themselves at Number One, having not yet signed a record deal. Suddenly you have a cash value, rather than just a speculative one. The record companies, who’d been politely negative until this year, must have seen Seal as some kind of hot property. Did you enjoy being courted?
“Yeah, it made me laugh, actually. I mean, I’d been trying to get a deal for about three and a half years before that. I did the usual thing of making lots of demos and taking them round to people.” Nice-voice-but-we-don’t-hear-any-hits, they said.
“After the Adamski single, I found myself in the position where I’d been Number One for four weeks and I was unsigned. Then they found out that I co-wrote the song. I won’t say it felt like revenge, but it was a sweet feeling, although it quickly got pretty boring. I noticed how these people were talking to me in a completely different way to how they used to — ‘Yeah Seal, well done, we always knew blah blah blah…’
“What really did surprise me was how stupid record companies think artists are. A lot of patronising goes on. It really surprises me how thick they assume you are.
“The thing is, if this had happened to me before I went away last year, I don’t think I’d have been able to deal with it. A lot of it is really good fun, and I now find myself in the position of being able to do things I wouldn’t even have dreamt of doing before. But there’s loads of crap involved as well, so many people telling you so many different things and everyone wanting a piece of the action. I don’t think I’d have been able to handle it in the way I have done if I hadn’t had that experience.
“Going to somewhere like India, you suddenly realise that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether it happens or not. If what you’re chasing is happiness and contentment, you can get that in a lot of ways. This is one version of being successful. My dad always used to say, ‘Be careful of what you want, because you might get it’. The other thing he used to say is that no condition is permanent, which is very true.
“The other thing I’ve learnt is that, when you hear of artists making it and their friends saying that they’ve changed… I’m getting all that crap at the moment, people saying, ‘Oh, Seal’s changed, he’s not as lively as he used to be; he thinks he’s a star now’. It’s all bollocks! I haven’t changed, people have changed around me. There are two extremes on the scale; you get people who are cloyingly nice, much more than they were before, and then on the other hand you get people who feel they’ve got a point to prove. You very seldom get people who remain in the middle, just react to you the way they did before, or who deal with you in what would be considered a normal way. You don’t know what’s what at the end of the day and you become much more self-conscious.”
Surely that’s part of what people want from it?
“Oh yeah, I’m aware there’s a contradiction here. I mean, when ‘Killer’ first reached Number One was when people started painting at me as I walked down the street, even in the area where I lived. Now, if I’m honest, I admit that that’s part of the reason why I do it, and it’s nice. won’t be hypocritical and give it all the ‘I don’t want fame’ shit. It’s enjoyable. But when you find that you can’t pick your nose without someone analysing it or popping out from behind a bush to photograph you… I guess it’s slightly more extreme in my case, first because of the way it happened, and, second, because I don’t exactly blend in. The worst thing is that I find it really hard to go to clubs now.
“My problem is that I really do care what people think about me, despite how I may come across. It troubles me to think that someone might be thinking that I’m an arsehole if I do something or if I say something.”
SO it’s settled, then, “Crazy” is to be this year’s Christmas Number One. Significantly, the rest of the material I’ve heard is equally impressive, but then I’ve always been impressed by people who have the patience to write down their dreams when they wake up in the morning, as Seal does. He tells me about one he had the other night — “You, being an Aquarian, would really understand this,” he says, getting up to pace the room, describing it for me, as I wonder what Freud or Jung would make of it all. I never remember my dreams.
“Yeah, it really annoys me when I forget them, because dreams are just so much more exciting than reality. You get the best special effects and everything. That’s what art’s all about, isn’t it? — trying to get that dream out from inside your head and onto tape or film. Very few people can do it. The picture’s always so much bigger in your mind. Imagine what the picture must have been like in someone like Dali’s mind!”
Like the man says, a little bit crazy.
“Crazy” is released on November 26, through ZTT.