Have you ever sent your favorite music artist a letter, hoping for a response back? Father and son duo Derek & Dave Philpott have been writing letters to their favorite pop and rock stars for 10 years about ambiguities within their lyrics or often deliberately misunderstanding them for comedic effect. They compiled 100 of the best letters into a book called Dear Mr Pop Star. Katrina and the Waves, Tears for Fears, Squeeze, The Housemartins, Suzi Quatro, Devo, Deep Purple, Nik Kershaw, T’Pau, Human League, Eurythmics, Wang Chung, EMF, Mott the Hoople, Heaven 17, Jesus Jones, Johnny Hates Jazz, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Chesney Hawkes and many, many more are included in the book.
I got the chance to talk with Dave about why he and his father decided to write under nom-de-plumes, where the idea for the book came from, what his favorite letter is and so much more! Keep reading to see what he had to say!
Why did you guys decide to write under nom-de-plumes instead of your real names?
It’s us (and maybe you the reader as well!), but overblown and exaggerated versions of us. The non-de-plumes are our mask and a device whereby where ‘normal’ people would stop when it’s all getting far too silly, our personas can utilize that limit as a starting point to go right to the extremes and be as ridiculous as possible.
Where did the idea for this book come from or had you guys been writing letters together your entire life?
It was a complete mistake. The book took 10 years to complete, and the idea arose at a wedding in 2008, whereby the records being played by the DJ were being discussed with my dad after a few beers. Why is it just ‘hungry like the wolf’? All animals get pangs – why can’t it be ‘starving like the starling’, ‘famished like the ferret’, ‘peckish like the panda’ or ‘ravenous like the raven’? How do we know how good it would be in Nik Kershaw’s shoes unless we know what size he takes? If only mothers and brothers are staying alive, why haven’t the Bee Gees put contingency plans in place for curtailed life expectancy for fathers, sons, uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, sisters, nieces and nephews? Why has the postal system allowed Mr. Wonder to be signed, sealed, delivered and ours? We didn’t recall ordering a Motown singer on Amazon, and he’s yet to arrive, so he’s probably at the sorting office. We sincerely hoped that his packaging allowed for sufficient air holes and were also quite alarmed that Royal Mail have permitted such a live cargo. We have told everybody that Elton John has gifted us a song, but are still awaiting backdated royalties for it, which we need to fix our conservatory and so forth.
We fleshed this surreal grievances out into letters which we posted onto a website that a fan built, and thought having this catalogue of unanswered missives hanging in cyberspace was funny enough. Word spread though and we built up a passionate army of fans on social media. Then one day in 2010, one such fan whispered to us that he knew one of the artists and could secure a witty ‘in spirit’ reply. Then more roadies, tourbus drivers, hairdressers to the artists etc., followed suit. At this point, we realized that we had a direct line to our ‘victims’ and that this could actually be the first ever interactive dialogue between pop and rock stars and ordinary (or in our case not so ordinary) members of the public, ever undertaken. In the end, as our notoriety grew, the artists were telling each about us and allowing access through their personal emails. The whole thing was achieved through the ‘back door’ of the industry and bypassing management, gatekeepers and official channels that would almost certainly put the kibosh on our activities had we approached them directly.
I know this isn’t your typical book in terms of a writing routine etc., but what was the process of putting it all together like?
Let’s call that ‘resilience challenging’. A journalist fan confided that if her commissioning editor had given her this brief ‘Write 100 witty letters and secure 100 witty replies from major pop stars, without going through traditional routes and offering no financial or other incentives” challenge, she would have countered that it was impossible, and resigned!
Given that there are no stuffed brown envelopes involved and the artists get involved out of love of the project, we take care not to be a pain. The result is a creative process whereby we may be waiting on a wealth of musicians to give us the green light to scribe a funny letter, and go sometimes weeks without penning a word. Then five will come back in the same day or two and we will be flat out writing for a month. Other authors and publishers have told us that this is an unprecedented and bizarre method of writing a book, but that is just the nature of the project. Also, the replies and letters often cross-reference each as similar songs and bands intermesh, thus what may look like a haphazard hardback has actually been painstakingly stitched together.
Were there any letters that you received back that didn’t make the cut for the book?
Absolutely, which is quite wince-inducing for us in that the artist has sacrificed their valuable time and been very generous enough to partake in our mad little world. We are always very polite in our declinature though. Sometimes they haven’t quite grasped the concept or have missed the point. Sometimes, they’ll just grab the opportunity to plug a new album, knowing that the letter will be read by 1,000s. We are also inundated with requests for letters. We are quite picky as the artist has to fit the ‘vibe’ of what we are doing.
Which letter that you received back was your favorite and why?
We adore it when we are trounced by an artist and they completely annihilate us with a superior wit and intelligence. I’ve said before that our enquiries are the bread and the retorts the jam. My favourite changes weekly but stand outs are Christopher Butler from The Waitresses responding to our warning that the male ‘Christmas Wrapping’ protagonist is a serial killer (he replies as a third party in prison), Clive Jackson a.k.a. The Doctor from Doctor And The Medics and his incredible tarry tackling his band’s name, and Bruce Woolley’s genius take-down of our smart alec prodding of ”Video Killed The Radio Star”. Also, Rick Wakeman’s sublime acceptance of a booking at a school hall in the first book was unbelievable.
Since the book came out, have you heard from any artists not featured in the book that felt the need to explain their odd lyrics just cause?
Yes. A lot. We are stockpiling them
Would you ever consider doing another book of letters focused on a specific decade of music or a specific genre of artists?
The beauty of being non-genre specific is that we enjoy the bonkers aesthetic effect of having, say, Dr. Hook on one page, Spinal Tap on the next and then a punk band and then T’Pau or Wang Chang. It’s part of the fun, knowing that the reader has no idea whatsoever what’s coming next, which is why we deliberately did not include an index. There are 1,000s of likely targets given that pop music has a 70 year old library to delve into. We are working on our third and last book of exclusively British 90s indie acts at the moment, and although it’s shaping up brilliantly the problems are twofold, in the same way that some bands don’t want to be seen and categorized as heavy metal or prog rock (even though they undoubtedly are), we are encountering acts that are affronted at being labelled as ’90s. Also, if one doesn’t land every artist associated with a particular era or genre, the book may diminish in perceived quality. The beauty of our first books is that, without boundaries, if a particular target says no, there are 10,000 more to pick from.
Last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?
Records that sound like other records. Constantly shouting at the radio whenever a new release is ‘dropped’, with stuff like: ”That’s not a new (insert up and coming indie/alternative act here) song.. That’s The Smiths from 1983!!”…Actually I’ve been doing this since 1983.