“It’s A Confidence Thing” Dave Rowntree Interviewed
Dave Rowntree likes to keep busy. Alongside his very-much-on-again role as Blur’s drummer, he also served as a Labour councillor for his Norfolk home. Nurturing a life-long fascination with the cosmos, he recently signed up for a degree in astronomy through the Open University, while the past decade has brought a slew of film and television scores. Oh, and he’s just released his debut solo record, an excellent cycle of deeply English pop songs themed around the radio dial.
It’s this latest endeavour that brings Dave Rowntree to Clash. We’re fans of his new record ‘Radio Songs’, and he’s kindly giving up a few moments of his time for a quick chat. Diving in, we’re immediately intrigued as to his motivations for this debut endeavour – more than 30 years after Blur released their debut single.
“Well, it’s a confidence thing really as much as anything else,” he explains. “I’ve been a songwriter all my life, I’ve always done it for fun, really. But the success of my film music career kind of gave me the confidence to think, maybe I should do something with these songs and start a project.”
Bringing together numerous melodic ideas and lyrical sketches, ‘Radio Songs’ could only have come into being with the space afforded to Dave Rowntree by lockdown. Looking back, he says: “I found myself at a loose end, really. Nothing to do sat in the studio twiddling my thumbs!”
Focussing on completing these songs, Dave Rowntree began obsessing over the role that the radio has played in his life – from accelerating his love of music through to acting as a political conduit. “My dad was a radio engineer in the RAF so he got he got a passion for electronics from that, that he then passed on to me. Whereas some fathers and sons might go fishing or go to the football, we sat around the kitchen table with soldering irons, designing and building radios! Then we’d go plug them into the antenna we had in the back garden.”
Spending hours scanning across the Long Wave dial, he’d sit and listen to broadcasts in other languages, marvelling at the information pouring out of the speakers. The radio also, he points out, fostered his “political awakening”. He recalls: “As a kid growing up in a fairly claustrophobic environment that was my that was my release, really… listening to all these stations from all over the world.”
In a household where the BBC and the Daily Telegraph ruled the roost, these fleeting broadcasts offered different, non-Western perspectives on global events. As Dave Rowntree puts it: “That’s what set me on the road I think, to my sort of lefty politics where I remain to this day”.
As a result, ‘Radio Songs’ is designed as a kind of Long Wave schematic, bringing together his different influences and interests in the process. “The album idea itself was for it be as though you’re spinning the dial on a radio and each of the tracks was a station that popping out of the static, talking about a different period of my life.”
With lockdown easing, Dave Rowntree set plans in motion. Linking with the vastly experienced figure of Leo Abrahams, the two devised what he only half-jokingly refers to as “a brutally efficient way of working”. The two remained separate, seated at screens in their respective studios. “We’d get together in the morning, open Zoom and just divide up the tasks of the day, recording in our own studios, swapping files backwards and forwards.”
Work progressed with alacrity. Recent single ‘London Bridge’ came together on a tube ride to a studio session, with Dave Rowntree reflecting on a bizarre but memorable experience of “confirmation bias” that filtered through his mind during the early 90s. “The lesson from that really relates to mental health… it’s about acknowledging what’s going on, and how sometimes even when you do that, you’re going to need outside help.”
Weirdly, his main solo show to date was in Omeara… close to London Bridge. And then his girlfriend – a current Labour councillor – put into place Operation London Bridge for the local area, following the death of the Queen. Spooky.
Even the demise of a monarch couldn’t halt Dave Rowntree, however, and the album soon came into focus. While it’s an inherently personal album, some political aspects do filter through – such as the self-explanatory ‘Devil’s Island’, which includes a take-down of the narrow-minded, nostalgia-driven politics so beloved of the Right.
“I’m a child of the 70s,” he says. “I grew up in the 70s. And I remember the 70s being a pretty bleak period. While there were undoubtedly highlights of the 70s – some great music, great art – general, I remember Britain as being a pretty bleak place to grow up… there was there was lots of civil unrest, there was dissatisfaction, strikes, the economy was a disaster, the far right was on the rise.”
“And now, in the 21st century, we might look back at the 1970s as a kind of golden age of Britain. And I found that quite worrying… I’m glad to be as far from the 70s as humanly possible. There’s always this hankering to get back to the good old days, only to find out the good old days weren’t so good, after all. We never learn our lesson. Do we have to make the same mistakes over and over?”
That’s not to say that the album is an inherently political experience – Billy Bragg, it ain’t. “I wrote the album about me,” he says. “I thought, it’s a solo album. I could be forgiven for talking about myself. I haven’t written about what anybody else should do or what anybody else should think… I’ve simply written about what was going on in my head at the time.”
‘Radio Songs’ is a wonderfully successful experiment. Deft, very English pop songs, at times it recalls everyone from Robert Wyatt to Wild Beasts, while also sharing some aspects of Dave Rowntree’s day job. The core of the record hinges on his relationship with Leo Abrahams, and the songwriter is endlessly effusive in his praise of the producer. “He’s very, very musical. He plays lots of instruments. And he’s very experienced. But mostly, I really love his sense of melody and harmony. And they’re the two things that are kind of important to me in music… that’s what I look for. And that’s his talent, really. That’s his gift.”
An album with deep roots in the past decade of his life, ‘Radio Songs’ was also – due entirely to circumstance – pieced together in a matter of weeks. “It’s definitely intimidating,” he demurs. “You’re making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself out there, sticking your head above the parapet, making yourself available for criticism. And yet, it’s something that’s entirely optional!” he laughs. “You know, if I died tomorrow, nobody would say: what shame we’d ever heard his solo album.”
“At four in the morning, it can appear like there’s only downsides to doing this!” he jokes. “As I say, I’ve had plenty of other things to do. So had it not been for my life grinding to a halt as everybody’s did, it may well not have got done anyway.”
While he’s pleasingly self-deprecating, Dave Rowntree also remains intensely proud of this new record. “It’s reinforced the idea that it’s worth taking risks,” he says. “It’s not always obvious that it’s the right thing to do. But when it works, it’s life-affirming.”
We leave Dave Rowntree to head back to his myriad of projects. He’s refreshing his mathematics, for one thing, in an attempt to kick-start his astronomy degree. He’s also given over a spare room to two Ukrainian refugees, two people fleeing the war. It puts his own schedule – which includes the small matter of an international tour with Blur – into sharp perspective.
“I did a year planner earlier this week and pretty much every day between now and Christmas is spoken for. It’s been quite a bit of time since that was the case! But that’s the way I used to live my life. With Blur, we were either writing, recording or touring, there was no downtime… and it was like that for 20 years, really. So I’m quite keen to get back on the horse.”
“I’m going to try and squeeze in writing and recording another solo album, as well,” he finishes. “That’s my plan. We’ll see how it goes.”
‘Radio Songs’ is out now.
Words: Robin Murray