The Taxi man who beat the odds

in Features

The best stories are always the ones that test individuals to their limits and as we embark on telling Dylan Ferro’s story, it seems remarkable that he had to overcome huge odds to speak and sing again. Twenty years ago at the height of his singing career, he was diagnosed with three polyps on his vocal chords, which led to surgery and loss of his voice for eight months. Today at a concert venue we chat as he sips tea, ahead of his sold out ‘Taxi Homecoming‘ concerts at the Sunborn Hotel. They say that fortune favours the brave and Dylan Ferro is excited at the prospect of raising money for charity by donating the entire proceeds of their fourth and final concert on 11 February. He never once stopped  believing and worked very hard to recover his voice so now he is in a happy place, with music still at the centre of his life.  

“When I was young I liked to dance and I realised that rhythm is what makes people want to dance and that drew me to play drums, but earlier on I had learnt keyboards on my sister’s instrument and then basic chords on a guitar until eventually I found myself writing songs and started as a drummer in my first band ‘Sympathy for the Blonde’. From there we became Treehouse, then Melon Diesel and then Taxi.” Ideally Dylan would have played another instrument in the band but my guess is that it suited everyone to have a singer who could sing his own songs, so he was first pushed and then drawn into the spotlight. ‘Melon Diesel’ had enough belief and  band skills to venture beyond our shores and they became a huge band in Spain where they were signed by Sony and had chart success. When they were touring their album ‘El Hombre en el Espejo’ Dylan reckons that he was already damaged goods through overworking his voice.

“We had played over a hundred gigs for the first tour and during our second tour I was forcing myself, even if I couldn’t sing properly I would shout even more, which made it worse, until we came back here for a gig (2002) and I made the decision to get seen by a voice specialist in Madrid. There I was diagnosed with early cancer in two polyps which had grown in my vocal chords. Within two weeks I was under the knife and after the operation the news was not good, they had found a third polyp and had to sacrifice about a half of my vocal chords in the surgery. The surgeon said that if I was going to recover my voice it would take about eight months but I would never be able to sing again. I was devastated and went into a massive depression. All the hard work to carve for myself a career in music and suddenly the dream had gobbled me up. After a few difficult months here in Gib I had to leave and I decided to live in Madrid for a while to seek professional help.”

His vocal coach was not very hopeful of a complete recovery because Dylan was a ‘Rock’n’roll casualty’ with all its implications, but Dylan is headstrong (‘Cabezon’ he says…) “I was determined to sing again as soon as I could talk. During recovery I was only allowed to use my voice for ten seconds a day. It was hell and I don’t wish that on anybody but somehow I managed to start singing again after the eight months. I now had technique for the first time and my healing had been very good. The surgeon who operated me was impressed and I squared up to the challenges ahead but always aware that as I am still damaged goods, I have to work much harder than anybody else to deliver the hundred and one percent that I always give in concerts.”

Dylan writes songs constantly and in various ways. His ideas can be melody-led when he comes up with a melody that he hones into the shape of a song, or he plays a bunch of chords into a pattern that suggests a melody then at the end of that process he writes a lyric to suit the style.  “The last thing I ever do is add the lyric. I don’t do that ever. My style is when I have developed a piece of music which moves me or that I find cool, I ask myself what does that piece of music suggest to me or makes me want to tell in a story through a song? ”

 “Nowadays the big advantage is that most musicians can create music at home in their little desk top studio computers. In the old days you would have to book a studio and turn up in the hope that songs would come together during recording. It made the process very expensive and hit and miss because maybe on the day the band was not too inspired or the song just didn’t work out. Now you can try things out beforehand and if they don’t work you change them, or drop them completely and move on with another idea. The down side of that is that everyone has the same tools for music recording so that is why home produced music tends to be very predictable and ‘samey’ with very few exceptions.”

I steered our chat along to talk about a recent collaboration with Albert Hammond and Christian Hook which was conceived for a charity project but also serves to highlight the three most important contemporary Gibraltarian artists who have successfully exported their talents to the wider world. “I am grateful for the opportunity to help create a piece of art which brings us together for charity, the merging  of our handprints on canvas as devised by Christian Hook, means that our DNA as artists is captured in our handprints and that is something of historical significance for the future generations. Of course there is also the possibility of making music together and the three of us are open to that collaboration if it can happen in the future. Each of us have distinctly different styles in music but that makes the idea of coming together even more exciting.”

Our conversation centred for a bit on the huge achievements of Albert Hammond and Christian Hook. Dylan remains in awe of the former and had this to say “He is probably in the list of the top ten composers in the world and has sold over 360 million albums through his songs and many artists. I believe that he should be recognised in Gibraltar at the highest level because there is no bigger export of local talent than Albert Hammond. I mean what is there more to say… the guy is one of my idols and I love him because I am old school, I love Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Albert once told me that Roy Orbison had been one of his favourite guys to work with. We clicked on a lot of things and I still have a framed autograph by Albert Hammond from many years ago and I told him that.”

Talking about Christian Hook, Dylan and I both agreed that there is no one quite like him. He is supremely talented and his quest to be original is by deconstructing everything and pushing the creative envelopes all the time. “When I went to see Christian for the first time he said to me that he didn’t need to work with me and that was quite a shock – but then he also said that my band ‘Melon Diesel’ were his idols growing up and that we inspired him to make music. When you think you’ve done everything and seen everything you meet Christian Hook and he floors you with his original way of working and his genius concepts. It took me a while to tune in to him as he kept me on my toes and made me work in ways that I wasn’t used to. He made me rap and that is not my style, but he pushed me to try that and many new concepts. He opened my mind and told me not to ever become stale and complacent, always pushing for new horizons”.

By the time you are reading this Taxi will have played their four concerts at the Sunborn Hotel, the last one added to the sold-out first three after they decided that they wanted to give the entire proceeds from the last concert to charity. Trying to sell out concerts and succeeding are two different things, I wondered whether the fourth concert might have been a bridge too far. “ Not at all, we thought that this is a way to say thank you because the old Spanish proverb ‘Nadie es Profeta en su Tierra’ (no one is a prophet in his own land) has never applied to us, on the contrary, we always manage to sell out our comeback gigs here and we are grateful for that”. 

“This year is twenty four years since as ‘Melon Diesel’ we launched our first album and somehow we sold out our first concert on 26 January within minutes, which is pretty amazing”… I quickly interrupt him to point out that there is a generation here for which ‘La Cuesta de Mr Bond’ is a part of the soundtrack of their lives…”We have kept it up also, always bringing in fresh material which some students tell me are in the albums that make them feel like home when they are away from home. That is a sobering thought, as also when someone who has been close to suicide comes up to you and says ‘this song saved my life’…I can never fathom the power of music or the impact that a song can have. Disabled people have told me that our music has helped them cope with their daily challenges, so that is why the proceeds of our fourth concert will go to those who are in need.”

It’s nine years since Taxi released their last album (the pandemic accounts for two lost years) and I wondered whether they have new material to share with us now. “Well musically we are in a very good place at the moment. Some of our new material may see the light of day within three months or so. There is also a very good chance that we might play one of the new songs in the concerts. In ‘Taxi’ we each have our forte, I mainly write most of the time. Dani Fa is very strong in the studio and records and mixes all the time and Danny Bugeja is the guitarist who is closest to playing live and involved in music and together we have this strong bullet proof friendship and we can take each other’s criticisms. I mean I get my ideas shot down by them many times as each one is a solid musician but it always works out well in the end.” 

In 2010 Taxi were nominated for a Latin Grammy for their album ‘Aqui y Ahora’. That is a huge achievement, up there with them selling over 350,000 albums (250,000 as Melon Diesel and 100,000 as Taxi). ‘Perdido en la Calle’ was the single from that album which sparked it off. The story of how that song was born came up in my chat with Dylan. “I simply woke up one night with an idea and quickly put down a melody and chords over which I sung a rough vocal and I can tell you it was the driver for the finished song. The following morning when I played it back to my wife I remember saying that it was the song that I had been waiting for all these years. Anyway months later when the Grammy office rang me to tell us of the nomination, I was in such disbelief that I thought it was a prank call and hung up. They called back and confirmed and I remember that I had been forceful in the studio with ‘Taxi’ and I fought for that song not to be shot down. Which goes to show that sometimes you just know when your mind is not playing tricks and you rightly feel that you have a winner.

A refined version of that song came from a midnight inspiration which blossomed into the single  from the album that was up for the Latin Grammy. Over 6000 Latin records had been edited in 2010 and Dylan’s song ‘Perdido en la Calle’ from the Taxi album ‘Aqui y Ahora’ was up there in the top five album nominations.  The stuff of legends – the sort of thing that makes one proud to be Gibraltarian and share in the glory. 

Here’s to more success from Taxi and a strong parting message from Dylan Ferro to all who struggle to seek recognition and fame in music, Jermy Perez, Guy Valarino, Jesse Maclaren, Simon Dumas and many more…”You can do it if you believe and work hard to make your dream come true.” Albert Hammond, Christian Hook and Dylan Ferro are all living proof of that.     

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