Dennis Greaves, vocalist and guitarist with English rock band, Nine Below Zero chats with Kevin Cooper about the best Christmas present that he has ever had, what is on Nine Below Zero’s rider, the forthcoming release of their new album DenMark in 2024 and their current 2023 tour of the UK with Dr. Feelgood.

Dennis Greaves is the vocalist and guitarist with English rock band, Nine Below Zero.

Formed in 1977 with Mark Feltham they were originally called Stan’s Blues Band and for two years they played the London Club circuit. In 1979 they changed their name to Nine Below Zero, a name chosen after the Sonny Boy Williamson 11 song.

In 1980 they released their debut album, Live At The Marquee and since then they have released a further twenty four albums. After releasing their third album, Third Degree, in 1982, the band split up. In 1990 Greaves and Feltham were persuaded to reunite for a tenth anniversary concert.

In 2009 Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze offered to record Greaves and Feltham’s album, It’s Never Too Late, their first collection of new songs since 2000’s Refrigerator. This led to them working with Tilbrook under the name The Co-operative for a couple of years. European tours soon followed, including supporting Jools Holland and Paul Jones.

In 2014 Nine Below Zero supported The Stranglers on their nationwide tour. They also undertook a 35th Anniversary tour in 2014. The second half of 2016 saw the release of the band’s first ‘big band’ album and an appearance at The Glastonbury Festival.

Whilst busy touring the UK, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Good afternoon Dennis, how are you today?

Hi Kevin, I’m fine mate thanks. How are you, are you alright?

I’m very well thanks for asking, and before we move on can I thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

As usual, you are very welcome.

The last time that we spoke you were upstairs in your attic watching the Tottenham game.

Oh no, please no mention of football today please (laughter).

It can’t be all bad as you have recently poached one of our better players away from us, Brenan Johnson.

That’s right, we have haven’t we; thanks for that he’s a good boy. And, even if he did cost us almost forty million I would have to say that he has been a brilliant signing.

The game has once again gone crazy.

I totally agree with you on that; it has gone totally mental. I think the whole world has but, what can we do about it; grin and bear it I suppose.

With that in mind I have to ask, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life is treating me really well thank you. I am currently surrounded by good people, my little dog, my family unit, I currently have got a really good band, I have got my son Sonny on the drums, I have got Anthony Harty from The Style Council who worked with me back in the 80s, and I have to say that Mark Feltham is playing the best that he has ever played. So, yes, I really am in a good place. It’s taken me to reach 66 years of age, but I’m getting there (laughter).

You and I last spoke just prior to the reunion tour.

Oh yes, that’s right, with Mickey Burkey.

How did it go; how was the fan’s reaction to the tour?

I have got to be totally honest with you and say that the fans viewed the reunion tour with absolute apathy really (laughter). The whole thing really was most bizarre. I personally don’t think people care. For me it was a nice sentimental thing to do, but I think that people just take Nine Below Zero for whatever its line-up is. It’s like a lot of tribute bands, people just want to go and hear the songs. I just don’t think that it’s as important to them as it was to me. So, it was really lovely to do, and I have done a few really nice projects since.

How have you kept yourself busy since the reunion tour?

Right, where do I start (laughter)? I did the Don’t Point Your Finger tour, where we played the album in its entirety, and I also did The Third Degree in its entirety. I put an eight-piece band together when we got offered Glastonbury in 2016. I wanted to hear those songs at Glastonbury complete with a brass section, so I did just that (laughter). I got a six-piece band together for the Avalanche album, but having said all of that we are currently down to a four-piece now, although I do sometimes augment that with the piano and it keeps everything fresh. We really are lucky though because I find that Nine Below Zero fans really are pretty intense, and loyal to the band and what it is that we do.

You are currently out on the road with Dr. Feelgood on a double-header tour. Just how is that going?

I have to say that the tour is going down really well. So, I will take that as a positive (laughter). But I don’t know whether it’s our age group or the demographic, and things have changed now. But its people our age that are going out and buying tickets for the gigs. Plus, I have noticed that it is the very young kids as well.

The whole music scene is now totally different to how it was back in my day. No one collects music anymore.

That’s totally correct, it’s like your gas bill, you pay for your gas, you pay for your electricity, and you pay for Spotify (laughter). When I was growing up and maybe yourself, I would get my pocket money and go down to the local record shop on a Friday, and I would buy the latest single or album by your favourite artist. I would then play it all weekend, hold the vinyl in my hands together with the cover or the sleeve, scouring every inch of that sleeve, driving my parents mad as I would listen to the same song over and over and over (laughter). I had that utmost passion for buying and collecting records.

Well, I have been forced in to using MP3’s as they are no longer putting CD players in cars. How dare they (laughter).

I know and I find that really unfortunate. I am just looking now at my vinyl collection which is housed up in my loft. My son has just bought another deck and another amplifier, together with a set of speakers, and I am looking at them now, so I have decided that I am going to have vinyl downstairs too, in the back living room. So, that is going to be really exciting. Don’t get me wrong, I do have Spotify which I think is like having a portable library; you hear something, or you want to reference something, you just put Spotify on and there it is instantly at your fingertips. I’m not too bothered about the quality or whatever, I just like having that mobile library at the end of your fingertips, to reference things. I really do like that. I love making up short playlists to share with people; I find all of that cool but to come home and put the vinyl on is just exquisite.

When I started collecting records many years ago now, if someone had said to me that in the future you will be able to have a small box, about the size of a cigarette packet, with your entire music collection on it, I would never have believed them.

I know, it really is Star Trek stuff isn’t it (laughter). It’s frightening.

What I find worrying is that because I bought a decent system back in the day it’s now classed as retro (laughter).

(Laughter) I know exactly what you mean but it’s not retro to us is it. I think that it’s nice to embrace all forms to be perfectly honest with you. I’m lucky in the fact that my car does have a CD player, which for me is really useful. For example, when we were recording the DenMark album, we would record a mix, I would go out to my car, and I would drive around the streets listening to the mix that we had just recorded. My car is such a great reference place for me. I suppose to do it digitally as well we could put it onto a stick but there is something about putting the CD into the player, driving around listening to the mix and I like that. I like the choice I suppose but, as you say, that choice has now been taken away from us.

I will put my hands up and say that getting anything repaired is now getting harder and harder.

I know, in fact I lost one of my valve guys the other day, he died two weeks ago now. He used to fix all of my amplifiers, and as you say, it is getting more and more difficult to find anyone with that knowledge and level of expertise. We now find ourselves in this replacement way of life; we buy something and then at the sign of any problems we simply dispose of it. However, when you are dealing with an old Marshall amplifier, you simply don’t do that, they have such a unique sound. It really is a struggle to find someone. Luckily, I can go directly to the Marshall factory, but not everyone is in that position, so yes, it really is getting more and more difficult. My children still live with me, one is twenty-five and the other is thirty, and they keep it real for me. They make me look forward and don’t let me keep looking back reminiscing. It’s alright reminiscing but it’s not for me.

We don’t want to do a Jethro Tull and live in the past.

No, we don’t, definitely not (laughter).

The last time that you and I spoke I asked you if you had any ambitions left and you told me that you wanted to record one track per month on the last day of the month for a whole year. How close are you to attempting that?

The simple answer is not (laughter). I have to say that it was a great idea though (laughter). It really was a fantastic idea; typical me you know, a champagne socialist (laughter). What a great idea but what I was able to do and what I did do was, I had in my loft tapes that the band had made on all sorts of formats. We were talking about MP3, vinyl and CDs earlier; well over the years I have recorded on two-inch tape, quarter-inch tape, Betamax video tape, and Pro Tools so what I did was I collected together everything that I had done and put it all onto a hard drive. I digitised everything that I had found up in the loft and this is how the DenMark album came about. I was talking to Wayne Proctor who produced the album, and we went through the catalogue that we had and remixed, remastered, re-recorded, overdubbed, and I have to say that has been really good and that is exactly what DenMark is.

We have recorded some more tracks to go with it, so I am currently excited to take on another three or four projects. It’s like that old saying ‘new light through old windows’. I found a lot of tracks that are blues based and I want to put all of them together, perhaps record a few new tracks and then release an album of real blues power recordings sometime next year. And then, perhaps the following year a best of A to Z album where we put together a bunch of tracks that haven’t been heard together with new tracks and old tracks, perhaps we will remix them as well. I know that Joe Bonamassa has done it and I think that Genesis did it as well. It’s nice going back opening up those songs, improving on them, and giving them a totally modern sound. It’s very interesting.

I was really enjoying our chat until you mentioned Joe (laughter).

(Laughter) sorry about that. Joe is very well managed isn’t he? It really is outrages (laughter).

You have mentioned the latest album, DenMark. Whose idea was it?

Mark and I have had that name hanging around for a while now, even though it is so obvious and silly, but it was only when we were talking to the producer Wayne Proctor, who gave it the concept of getting hold of the old tracks, recording some new, and doing something that we had never done before, opening up a song that we recorded some twenty five years ago and actually improving it, adding to it, it really is quite nice. Plus, we have recorded five or six new songs, and it really is, as I said earlier, the ultimate collection of acoustic material from Nine Below Zero.

Were there any tracks that you wanted to put on the album, but they simply didn’t work?

Of course, there are always a couple of them (laughter). You can have some really amazing ideas and then you open it up and you try it and I have to say that it is quite nice really when the track or the recording of it will tell you no, this simply isn’t working. You can usually recognise that immediately. On a couple of the tracks on the album I actually took the drums off them, so the tracks are really bare, and they really worked. To be totally honest with you, I didn’t actually think that would work but they did. On a few of the other tracks I have tried to add a guitar and there was just no room. The track tells you that there is no room at the inn so why don’t you go away laughter). That is the great thing about the creative process, nobody knows.

The album has got a release date of the 19th February 2024. Is it all packaged up and ready to go?

Nearly (laughter). At the moment we are currently working on the running order; we are trying to make sure that we get it right.

I sometimes wonder why, in this day and age, you bother putting together a running order because the kids will cherry-pick one or two tracks off the album and ignore the rest.

(Hysterical laughter) I recently looked at a Madonna album and track one had been played nineteen million times whilst tracks seven and eight had barely been touched (laughter). It’s as if people just hear the first track and move on.

Now the album is finished, can you walk away and leave it or are you a meddler?

No, I’m good, I leave it well alone. When you are on Pro Tools in this digital age, this is the problem, you can go on forever and ever whereas back in the day when we had two-inch tape, you would do a guitar take or an overdub, and you had to decide. But now you can leave that one, maybe do another one, or even combine the two together. You will go on forever and ever and in the end it becomes very tedious (laughter). Luckily, the music that Nine Below Zero play and the sort of human beings that we are, it is very much still on feel. If it feels good, then that’s the one. As the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan once said, “just roll it and I will feel something” and that is the beauty about the music that we play. When it feels right and you have captured it, you will most probably never get it back again. So, I’m lucky in that respect, I don’t meddle, too much (laughter).

Are there any thoughts on a new Nine Below Zero studio album?

Yes, there are, absolutely. In my mobile phone at this very moment in time I have a sketch pad full of ideas captured on my voice messenger. Until that process dries up, I will always want to be making new material. Like I said earlier about changing the line-up of the band, I do not want to become a tribute band to ourselves. If I keep putting up a different set together with a different line-up it keeps it fresh for us too as well as the audiences. The public will come along to the gigs and be excited to see a different line-up together with a different variation of songs. We have such a vast back catalogue, it keeps us moving forward, and it keeps the wheels turning rather than getting stale.

You mention the fact that Nine Below Zero have such a vast back catalogue. Does that hinder you whenever you are putting a set list together?

What I do is, I normally put the set list on stage for the band of all the songs and then you will find me walking around the audience around an hour before we play, getting a feel of who is in the room. By doing that I begin to get the feeling of what type of crowd are in on that night. I will look at the set list and if I look down and the new song is not appropriate, I will change it. However, you will then get someone in the audience shout out a song, and I will think, ‘oh, that’s a good idea’ and I will slot that one in. I like that; I like the freedom of being able to do that.

You have briefly mentioned the Maximum R&B Tour with Dr. Feelgood. How is that going?

Unbelievable, we are actually all shocked with just how well it is being received. We are selling out quite a few of the venues; the crowds are really into it. I think that we have got the ticket price right, the billings right, we are the last two bands doing this sort of music, and the audiences are loving it and we are loving it too. Everyone is working towards one aim and that is to give the crowd a wonderful evening.

Because we are rapidly approaching Christmas, I am going to ask you, what is the best Christmas present that you have ever received?

That’s easy for me, I had been away from home for six months, working and recording over in Los Angeles, and so it was very special to me when I was finally able to fly back from Los Angeles to arrive back in England on Christmas Day morning. For me to arrive back in England on a cold and crispy Christmas Day, to be with my family, that really is the best Christmas present that I have ever had.

Now the flip side to that question is, what is the worst Christmas present that you have ever received?

Again, that is so easy for me that would be the flu (laughter). I got the flu and I was absolutely paralysed, lying down on the sofa, complete with a lower back pain like I have never before experienced in my entire life. My wife had to take me to the chemist down the road as nowhere else was open. That really was the worst (laughter).

What would be your ideal Christmas?

To be totally honest with you, my ideal Christmas would love to do what the late Keith Moon did. I would go to see the homeless people up there in Charring Cross on Christmas Day morning and help them out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a religious man so I don’t really find any comfort in the church, but if I can help then that would be great. After that, I would come home and have a roast dinner with my family. As a working-class boy, I am very family orientated, and I feel that I remember Christmas fondly as being the time of the year that all of the family would get together. I feel that Christmas has been totally ruined by commercialism; they are starting it earlier and earlier and they have totally destroyed the magic. It’s for the children really; I think that Christmas is very much for the children, and if you have got young children somewhere down the family, it is so very nice to see their little faces. As for all of the giving and sharing, I think that a commercial materialistic world has finally taken all of that away from us. It is all very self-centred.

What I can remember is Christmas dinner with the family and then watching a 1958 Andy Williams Christmas Special (laughter).

(Laughter) yes, that’s right, or The Great Escape, every Christmas morning (laughter). They still get caught every time (laughter).

That’s right; Steve McQueen never gets over that fence (laughter).

No, that’s right. I watch it every year to see if he makes it or not (laughter).

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

It’s every time that I hear The Beatles latest single, Now And Then. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the song it was the bloody video. The band were driving to somewhere and the video came on and I have to say that it did pull a few heart strings and I had to watch it again to try to find out why. It did bring a tear to my eyes I must say.

I have recently been looking at your rider and I have to ask, is it really only towels, water and two meals?

Yes, it is, that is absolutely correct. I have now totally banned junk food, so out have gone the crisps, Kit-Kat’s and all that bad stuff, because if it is there you are going to eat it out of boredom and at the end of the day it really isn’t that good for you. I always liked Mike Tyson; he had no socks, a pair of boxing boots, his gloves, and a pair of shorts. He never had any pomp and ceremony, and he always used to come out fighting. And I think that towels, water and a hot meal and we are ready to go. If there is booze backstage as well, you are going to drink it so, in order to keep fit, and to curb the drinking, if it is not around, then you won’t do it. After the show when we are back in the hotel perhaps, I will have a nice glass of wine, or a beer to calm down.

But, as for having all of this stuff around you in the dressing room, well it is a very dangerous game to be having bottles of brandy and wine on your rider. As you get older you have got to keep your health. I’m now a member of a gym; I walk the dog, just trying to stay fit because I want to do this for as long as I can. If I was boozing all of the time, you don’t perform very well when you are drunk. We never really drank that much when we were young before we played. Don’t get me wrong, we would drink and party after the show, but as for taking cans of lager onto the stage, that simple never worked for me. As you get older you have just got to look after your health. You have got to be able to get up there and deliver for an hour, which is what we are doing.

On that note Dennis let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, as always, it’s been a pleasure.

Thanks very much Kevin, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you again, and hopefully you and I will talk again sometime soon. Come and say hello when you get to Milton Keynes, and we will have a little chat. You take care and bye for now.