Hifi Sean – Sean Dickson – has a lot to get off his chest. From being relentlessly criticised by the music press for having the temerity to experiment musically with his first band, to his life falling apart and his eventual return as a DJ and producer, he has stories for days. Jim Butler hears about his mercurial existence and is urged not to call his second life a rebirth. “That makes me sound like Gary Numan,” he jokes…
It’s late-summer 1989 and four guys in their mid-20s are floundering across the shingle of Dungeness Beach. Sitting at the southernmost point of the Kent coastline, this wild and desolate outpost is never the easiest of beaches to navigate. Factor in industrial-strength ecstasy consumed in industrial-strength numbers and for the young men trying to film a video for their band’s forthcoming single, it becomes nigh-on impossible.
“We partied on the way down here. Very, very strong ecstasy,” Sean Dickson, one of the bandmembers, alongside his companions in The Soup Dragons, recalls today. “One of our managers suggested the location. He knew Derek Jarman, who lived here. We met him. He wished us luck as we stumbled about the place.”
Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. Whether it was the hedonistic spirit of the time or dubious late-80s camera technology that nixed things (“We can’t have been that bad?” he asks, somewhat rhetorically) the footage was deemed unusable, and the band were summoned to a studio in London the next day. The only film from Dungeness that did make the final cut is of seagulls flying overhead.
The video was for the band’s breakthrough hit, their reimagining of the Rolling Stones’ – then – little-known B-side ‘I’m Free’. The incident on Dungeness Beach was the first time that song would seamlessly mix moments of euphoria and anguish. It wouldn’t be the last.
Just over 30 years later and in the autumn of 2021, Dickson, now operating musically under the name Hifi Sean, would again experience a range of conflicting emotions on this surreal stretch of pebbles – sometimes, erroneously, referred to as Britain’s only desert – and weird vegetation. Armed with just a camera and a headful of ideas, he was here to shoot the cover for his latest album, the recently released ‘Happy Endings’, an unbelievable collection of modern electronic psychedelic soul, made with singer David McAlmont.
One moment he was seemingly alone, taking pictures of the speaker stack that adorns the album’s sleeve, and the next the beach was awash with frightened and bewildered refugees clambering out of a boat before being confronted by a less-than-friendly welcoming committee in the form of UK Border Patrol.
“A woman landed in the water with what looked like a few-weeks-old baby in her arms,” he remembers, visibly upset at recalling the scene. “I screamed at the officials that the woman needed help and asked: ‘Where are the medics?’”
Dickson, not a man given to hyperbole, as will soon become painfully clear, describes what happened next as the most disturbing few minutes he’s ever experienced.
“I was told to get in my car and leave the area immediately - or else. Five minutes later I drove by, and they had them all lined up on their knees. It was brutal and harrowing to witness. I could see the whites of their eyes, the tears and the sheer look of fear, desperation and confusion.” He pauses slowly, his eyes welling up. “Something I’ll never unsee.”
A year-and-a-half on from that second Dungeness experience and Dickson is sat comfortably in the Britannia Inn, 50 metres or so away from that very beach. He’s picking over the remnants of his cold fish and chips (“I’m talking too much aren’t I? I always do when I’m nervous, like now”), and recalling these two moments that are marked by such contrasting fortunes. Dungeness has changed incredibly in the years between the aborted video shoot of 1989 and today – the dilapidated wooden shacks that litter the beach are now joined by ‘Grand Designs’-approved feats of modern architecture – but for Dickson much is the same. He waxes lyrical about the nuclear power station, the abandoned Experimental Sound Stations that now abut stylish Airbnbs, the two lighthouses and the railway line that takes tourists across Romney Marsh to nearby Hythe 13 miles away.
“I absolutely adore this place,” he says. “It’s equal parts beautiful and the end of the world. I suppose using that image on the cover sums up to me what this place is all about. There’s also something slightly futuristic about it because of the power station. You have that futuristic technology, a world that’s never changed, people experimenting with science and sound… it just fascinates me.”
Although recorded in the city – in his flat on the 18th floor of an east London tower block – he mixed ‘Happy Endings’ up the road in Camber. Dickson spends an increasing amount of time on the border of East Sussex and Kent, staying at a friend’s place, where he’s working on his second album with McAlmont and more dancefloor-oriented tracks.
“I’m really into safe spaces,” he explains. “It’s about protecting my feelings. If I’m having a shit time, I’ll turn everything off and come down to Dungeness and look at nothing.”
Protecting his feelings is something Dickson has had to work on after an adult life spent being bruised by the music industry and battered by the double-edged sword of fame. His first brush with celebrity came as the lead singer and songwriter with The Soup Dragons, that archetypal C86 indie band who on a wide-eyed, creative journey fell under the spell of acid house’s alluring musical freedom and were subsequently castigated for daring to veer off the course of orthodox indiedom. A quarter of a century later and he re-emerged – don’t call it a rebirth (“That makes me sound like Gary Numan,” he jokes, “I’m not big enough to have had a rebirth”) – as Hifi Sean, a joyously unapologetic dance producer and DJ, who now collaborates with the likes of Yoko Ono, Crystal Waters, The Blessed Madonna and Bootsy Collins.
Between then and now, though, is a tale of hurt, suffering, excess, guilt, regret, abandonment, love, survival and redemption. An abridged version reads something like this: his band split up (he was ousted, finding out en route to the Reading Festival to watch his pal Bootsy); he decamped to New York to live a wild few years clubbing and indulging heavily (“I partied everywhere. I used to go to the Limelight, Michael Alig’s parties. Club USA was insane. Ecstasy in America was insanely amazing”); formed a new band, The High Fidelity; was groomed online by a man; came out to his then-pregnant wife; lost everything; attempted suicide; was sectioned – “put away for my own safety” – for six days; before eventually meeting his now husband and moving to London in 2006, starting again as a DJ playing afterhours parties on the gay scene.
It’s an incredible story and one that if it was rewritten as fiction by a Hollywood scriptwriter, would be instantly dismissed as too far-fetched.
Sean Dickson always knew he was different. Growing up in the working class Scottish town of Belshill, ten miles outside Glasgow, he was surrounded by old school notions of masculinity. His dad was a football manager, while his uncles were boxers. Whenever there was a football match on TV, everyone would cram into the front room of his parents’ council house. “I found all that stuff abhorrent – it was all very aggressive,” he remembers. “I’d be upstairs playing my Depeche Mode records really loud. I didn’t have any inclination of being gay back then, but I did know there was something different about me.”
Back then, in the 70s, there was little attempt at understanding Dickson’s personality. He was often taken to his uncles’ boxing matches, where he was regaled with lines such as: ‘Come on, wee man, give us a punch.’
“Music was my safe place,” he explains. “It still is my safe place.”
His parents were supportive of his earliest forays into music. They bought him a guitar when he was nine and he went for classical guitar lessons on the same street where Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) lived. The pair eventually got speaking (“He used to walk about with tartan trousers on – I thought you’re obviously into the same kind of shit as me”) and through Blake he met Duglas Stewart (who would go onto form BMX Bandits).
The trio became best mates, their own self-affirming weirdo tribe. They’d swap records and rehearse at Blake’s parents’ house, which was part of a newsagents. “There was no-one in the house. We used to rehearse with keyboards, guitars, everything and yeah, free packets of crisps.” Aged 14, Dickson was seduced by the synth-pop sounds pioneered by the likes of the Human League, Depeche Mode and Soft Cell. Ironic then that the quote used by a bullying music press to beat the Soup Dragons with was Dickson’s claim that there had ‘always been a dance element to our records’. What he actually said was ‘… dance element to our record collections’.
Persuading his parents to buy him a Roland SH-101 synth – he traded his guitar in to help with the cost – he immersed himself in the world of electronic pop. “I could air drum every beat on Human League’s ‘Dare’,” he laughs. He even made an album using the SH-101 and a drum machine borrowed from the music shop where Blake now worked, painstakingly assembling it on a double tape recorder. The album – which he recorded under the suitably austere Factory/Mute title Silent Industry – is being released by a small Greek label who contacted Dickson after he posted on Facebook about finding the original cassette.
“Silent Industry,” he smiles. “That was my band! My fake bedroom band. It’s not bad actually, but it’s very of its time. The drum programming is shit hot. The basslines are not bad either. Some things I’d sample and turn into a dance record. There was something called ‘Dance Craze’ – I’d use that.”
Upon leaving school, Dickson and his pals coalesced around Glasgow’s psychedelic punk rock Splash One club – Bobby Gillespie was one of the eight-strong organising committee – which put on early shows by Primal Scream, The Pastels and gave The Soup Dragons their first gig.
“We were gravitating towards Glasgow, where we were hanging out with The Pastels and The Shop Assistants – we’re still friends to this day. But we also put on parties in Belshill at the Hattonrigg Hotel. We had members of The Jesus and Mary Chain coming over.”
Formed in 1985, The Soup Dragons’ first single, ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’, was recorded for the bass player Sushil K. Dade’s fanzine, Pure Popcorn, and released as a flexi disc. It was made Single of the Week in the NME and John Peel played it on his radio show, going on to become one of the band’s most vocal early champions, even lending Dickson £150 to ensure the band could get down to London to record their first Peel Session. “I tried paying him back several times, even leaving the money in his car one time. He wouldn’t take it.”
After recording their debut album, ‘This Is Our Art’, the band’s original drummer, Ross Sinclair, went back to art school, which meant Dickson reverted to his 14-year-old self, using synthesisers and drum machines. This coincided with the emergence of acid house in Glasgow, in particular the club UFO where Dickson would hang out, falling under the spell of “all this complete psychedelic looseness”. Having signed to the dance label Big Life, the band began to capture the energy unleashed in UFO.
“We were just a guitar band that messed about with psychedelia and machines,” he explains. “Speak to Bobby [Gillespie] and he’ll tell you how having samplers was like having a psychedelic experience. That’s how I felt. I could now make records that sounded like what I was hearing in my head.”
The release of ‘I’m Free’ – it was originally called ‘Don’t Be Afraid of Your Freedom’ but the Stones’ lawyers insisted it was presented as a cover version – should have been the band’s crowning glory. The music press, once so supportive, thought otherwise and pivoted to a point of belligerent disdain. Dickson, in particular, became the punchline to a rather vicious joke.
“We were bludgeoned to death,” he sighs. “As I’ve got older, I’ve realised there’s no point pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen and it was fucking horrible. It sent me over the edge.”
There were highs though. Some not chemically assisted, and most of them in America, where the audiences weren’t concerned with the gripes of the inkies. From touring with Deee-Lite and INXS, playing David Letterman “umpteen times”, and Alice Cooper visiting them backstage, to Mick Jagger waving to them at the 1992 MTV Music Awards, where their ‘Divine Thing’ single was nominated for Best Alternative Video (Nirvana won with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and hanging out with Neneh Cherry at the afterparty.
“Watching 45,000 connect with a song [‘I’m Free’] that was my idea, I get tingles thinking about it. But to then go to the point where you have your shoelaces and your belt removed as you’re being sectioned because you’re a threat to yourself, that’s as low as you can go.”
He can also claim to have duetted with Prince. The Soup Dragons twice played Prince’s club, Glam Slam, in Minneapolis, at the behest of the man himself. The second time, Prince sang along “at the top of his voice” to ‘Divine Thing’ at the soundcheck.
“Nobody fucking told me,” he recollects, still beaming at the memory. “The guitar tech said: ‘Prince was singing your song with you.’ But he left. I never met him, but I was in the same room as him while he sang my song.”
As a child Dickson used to fantasise about the year 2001. He was obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and he’d daydream about what his life would be like in the future. Little did he realise that it would end up being the worst year of his life; the year that changed everything.
His second act as The High Fidelity saw him create “the album of my dreams”, ‘Demonstration’, but the press still beat him with The Soup Dragons stick. John Peel persuaded him to make another record – ‘The Omnichord Album’ to which Peel contributed ‘Pig Might Fly’ – but in 2001, in the week of the album’s release, he had something to tell his wife.
“I came out, over a toaster of all places. She knew there was something going on. I don’t know why I just blurted it out. ‘I think I’m gay.’ I stared at the toaster for half-an-hour afterwards. ‘Cause you can’t go back on that.”
He’d been groomed online by someone posing – catfishing – as a married man who coaxed him “to have a bit of fun”. After his toaster bombshell, everything fell apart.
“I lost all my friends. I lost all my family. I lost everything,” his voice quivers. “I left the family home, which was all I ever had after years of making records. I became homeless. The council gave me a flat that was fire damaged. They said if I did it up they would give it to me. I never did do it up. For a year I lived in a burned-out flat and spiralled ever downwards.”
At his lowest point, he tried to kill himself and was briefly sectioned. He sang Yazz & The Plastic Population’s ‘The Only Way is Up’ as “a kind of joke to keep me up”. The joke being Yazz was a friend, as she was married to The Soup Dragons manager Jazz Summers.
Thankfully, the only way was up. Having begun dipping his toes in London’s gay clubbing scene in 2002, he moved down to the capital after he met his now husband in 2006. He began DJing at afterhours parties, where he’d DJ from 5am to 9am. Thanks to his background in producing and manipulating sound, his DJing style – particularly his use of edits – suited this otherworldly slot. On one memorable occasion he took a deep house track and put bits of Hot Chocolate’s ‘Heaven Is in the Back Seat of My Cadillac’ over the top. “I thought it would be fun to play that at 8am when everyone was spangled.”
No-one knew about his past and he was content. But in 2015, he realised it had been 14 years since he’d last made an album. He knew that if he didn’t make a record soon, he never would. The result was 2016’s ‘Ft.’, a stunning concept album that featured collaborations with Fred Schneider, Billie Ray Martin, Norman Blake and Alan Vega and saw him gain a number one hit on the Billboard Dance Chart with ‘Testify’ alongside Crystal Waters.
“I think that’s when I started enjoying life again,” he reflects. “That album really helped me big time.”
The album also led to Dickson working with David McAlmont for the first time. The pair immediately hit it off. “He’s an incredibly mind-blowing person to work with because he always brings something to the table that excites me,” he says.
Which brings us to ‘Happy Endings’ - an irrepressible collection of literate electronic pop and widescreen orchestral soul, buttressed by house, disco and even some breezy dub. It’s the best collaboration of its kind since Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr joined forces in Electronic, and sees Dickson recast as a kind of Charles Stepney for the 21st Century, his production savvy – honed over the last 40 years, since he was that imaginative teenager in his bedroom – shining joyously.
But that’s not the end of Dickson’s redemption – his happy ending. Later this year the original line-up of The Soup Dragons will head back out on tour again. Over time fractured friendships have healed. Last year, a compilation of the group’s early years was released. Putting it together – Dickson remastered the songs – was cathartic.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” he reveals. “Things that heal me for all the time that I’ve been hurting. It scares the living shit out of me [going onstage], but it also excites me because if you don’t face your demons you can’t move forward.”
He recognises that satisfying so many creative endeavours, while a balm for his soul, makes him a nightmare for marketing people. “I’m not a straightforward DJ. I’m not a straightforward artist. I confuse people. I’m so used to being fragmented that I actually love it.”
A case in point: in-between writing a new Soup Dragons song for the forthcoming tour, he’s created an absolute Italo disco stomper remix for S’Express. Meanwhile the writing of the second Hifi Sean and David McAlmont album continues (“We want to showcase this party-in-my-head album”).
And then, suddenly, after an afternoon in one of his favourite safe spaces, he says something so instructive it immediately explains why his zest for music remains unbridled. Around the time he collaborated with John Peel on ‘The Omnichord Album’ he was sat in the presenter’s kitchen when he noticed a pile of promos on the table. He asked him why he still checked out so much music.
“His reply has always stayed with me. It didn’t feel rehearsed. He looked up and said: ‘The next record I hear may be the best record I’ve ever heard.’”
And that’s why Sean Dickson is still searching for the perfect beat.