Living in your tree



Vote Dave! was the cry heard all over Hyde Park back in July when Blur capped their successful reunion tour of the UK with a pair of giant outdoor shows in the capital. Coming almost seven years after their last gig, the triumphant run was only made possible by each member briefly setting aside the new lives they had made for themselves once their Britpop heyday had begun to fade.

Multi-faceted frontman Damon Albarn had put his Chinese operas and excursions into world music on hold, bassist-turned-farmer Alex James had reined in his cheese-making and fragile guitarist Graham Coxon, who departed in 2002, had stepped away from his latest solo project. As for drummer Dave Rowntree, he'd been preparing to stand as Labour party candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster at the coming general election. Hence Albarn's jocular attempt to influence the audience come polling day.

Rowntree, 45, is under no illusions about his prospects of taking a safe Tory seat. "I'm not a betting man, but if I was, even I wouldn't bet on me winning. Activism is by its nature a slog, but it depends why you're doing it… I'm seeing where the problems are in my neighbourhood and trying to sort them out."

Identifying problems and locating solutions is how Rowntree now spends his time. When not training to be a solicitor, there is his increasingly high profile on music piracy. Last week Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, announced that the government's digital economy bill, which goes before parliament next month, will contain plans to suspend the internet connection of anyone persistently sharing unlicensed content, music or otherwise. The plan is for content owners, such as music, film and TV companies, to identify offenders and contact their internet service provider, which would then send up to two warning letters, with suspension "a last resort", according to Mandelson.

Rowntree, who is co-chairman of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), the body that has represented musicians in this debate, believes suspension is not so far away from the punish-the-fans approach the music industry adopted when panic first broke out over file-sharing. The FAC favours restricting users' bandwidth, rather than removing it altogether, thereby preventing large-scale copying of illegal material and leaving email and basic online access intact.

"Co-operation, not criminalisation", as it says on its website. "When record companies make mistakes, musicians suffer," says Rowntree, sitting in the Soho office from which the FAC operates. "In the past, musicians haven't had a way of voicing their concerns, which was a big motivating factor for the FAC." Rowntree has a pragmatic outlook and a technician's eye for detail that is a legacy of his pre-rock origins as a computer programmer for the council in his home town of Colchester.

It is easy to see how he "muscled his way into the FAC" when it formed seven months ago, the idea coming from a group of managers rather than artists. "Had it been left to the artists, I doubt we'd have got enough in one place at one time," he says.

Despite some snotty comments on the FAC website about rock stars looking after their riches, most of its members are still seeking their big break, and its educational side helps artists to negotiate the more Wild West aspects of the music industry in the digital age. Rowntree is keen to pass on his knowledge, citing Blur's early experiences with management. "It would just take an afternoon to tell people the tricks you learn from bitter experience," he says. "My band weren't always millionaires. For much of our careers we lived on tuppence ha'penny. We used to call ourselves the Poverty Jet Set as we were flown around the world first-class but got home and had no money for tea bags."

Rowntree's one concession to starry extravagance extended to ownership of a twin-engined Cessna that he has since sold. He is aware of the risk of being seen as a dilettante, well aware that few musicians involve themselves in the nitty gritty of politics. "People assume I want a free ride and I don't. So I have to work very hard to show that I'm interested in what I can give, not what I can get."

His route into activism began with the opposite of a midlife crisis during the early part of this decade. He got divorced, then sold his house in Hampstead, coming to the realisation that he had been living like "a middle-aged baby". "So instead of getting a red sports car and a 19-year-old girlfriend, I trained to be a solicitor and went out knocking on doors for the Labour party."

He was drawn to the law after spending two weeks in the public gallery at the Old Bailey. "It mattered so much, people's lives were on the line," he says. Soon he was working at the offices of the east London criminal defence specialists Edward Fail Bradshaw & Waterson, as well as taking the Open University's LLB in law. Involvement with Labour came at that time. "The two are linked," he says. "It was seeing who the clients were – the same people over and over. One-man or one-woman crime waves, who largely are drug addicts, or who have mental-health problems, or who come from generations of crime: 99% of these people have never had a chance."

In his engineer's way, Rowntree can see how many of the problems surrounding crime, drugs, housing and mental health are connected. These are, he says, "the bees in my bonnet". This from a man who describes his "more politically extreme" younger self, the Marxist whose student nickname was Shady Dave, as a "squat punk".

I ask what the young Dave Rowntree would think of him now. "I suppose that person would think I'd sold out," he says. "But if you hang around long enough you become mainstream. The law I'm involved with is legal aid. It's not the glamorous end; it's being in the police station at four in the morning with a client who's swearing at you and the police swearing at you. No one thanks you for doing it, but it's important."

During their 90s pomp, all of Blur struggled with substance abuse, Rowntree included. He has been teetotal for years, saying: "I've got first-hand experience of treatment – what works, what doesn't. I think that's quite valuable."

He also has something to say on two of the big ideas of the 90s that have touched his life, New Labour and Britpop. "New Labour has the same resonance for me as Britpop. Both were labels coined by the participants that they then lived to regret." Albarn famously turned down an invitation from Tony Blair to Number 10. Rowntree was not invited, not that he would have gone either.

Albarn, as a pacifist, was one of the few musicians visible on anti-war marches before the invasion of Iraq. He and Rowntree differed on the need to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein, with Rowntree influenced by the fact that his girlfriend, Michelle de Vries, is the daughter of Daphne Parish, the nurse arrested along with Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft before the first Gulf war. Bazoft was hanged in Baghdad, with Parish eventually released from a life sentence, only after campaigning from De Vries.

"She met Saddam, Uday Hussein, all the key players. So I was getting an inside perspective on what was going on there, which is why I think Saddam was an evil bastard. While I don't think he should have been killed – I'm extremely opposed to the death penalty – getting rid of him was the right thing to do."

Rowntree's election work has begun in earnest, and he is undaunted by coming third in a Westminster council by-election in 2007. In fact, he enjoys himself. "The best part is knocking on doors and offering help." Is he recognised? "By some, but I've been campaigning in the area for 12 months," he says with a grin. "So any disappointment or excitement they may have felt at the quality of their candidate has been gotten over."

Noisey采访 part 3

Famously this was Damon’s break up album. How were things within the band at this point?

[Titanic pause.] Well! Things are better now: we’re a bit older and a bit wiser and a little bit more focused. So much waffle’s been written about all that, you don’t really want to write any more about that! It’s all documented in laborious detail!

2. BLUR (1997)

Things were starting to deteriorate and we weren’t getting along as well as we had been, but despite that we managed to come out with songs like “Beetlebum” and “Song 2” and “Look Inside America,” which is one of my favorite Blur songs of all time. It was something of a fresh start where Graham took the lead and got involved with the production with Stephen Street. And Graham sang a song! “MOR”—which we got sued left, right, and center for. It’s quite clearly a Bowie rip off! It was another time where we decided to park where we’d got to, and move forward by taking a big step sideways. “Beetlebum” is a great live favorite and we play pretty much every track on that album live. “Song 2”—the song that launched a thousand car adverts! I think every car that’s ever been made has been advertised to that song. Plenty of other bands say they get sent the product that their music advertises, but I’ve never been sent a car. Never! “Song 2” came about incredibly quickly. Everybody had an idea: I had an idea for the drums going into that session—“Wouldn’t it be interesting if I did this and Graham I could bounce ideas off each other.” I think that’s how it started.

When you finished “Song 2” did you think this is going to be massive?

They all feel like that to me! Even “Essex Dogs” sounded like a hit single to me! I think bands are the worst at knowing what their hits are going to be. That’s what record companies are usually best at. I find it much easier with other people’s materials to hear the singles. You’re so emotionally invested in your own stuff, it tricks you into thinking other people are getting that emotion back, but you are because you put your blood sweat and tears into making the music, and that feeds back to you when you listen to it. That’s why every songwriter thinks their new song is the greatest song ever written and you can’t convince them otherwise until nobody buys it.

Do you ever listen to the lyrics Damon’s writing at the time?

In general that happens last: Damon does a guide vocal which is ordinarily just nonsense syllables strung together and you put that down with the tune. Sometimes the guide would stay and he’d pretend he’d written some lyrics. Like on “Song 2”—that’s just the guide vocal. We tried re-recording it many, many times but we could never get it as good as the guide, so we just kept it and Damon wrote down the nearest sounding words to his nonsense syllables. He may remember it differently, but “Wah lah wah wah” became “When I feel heavy metal.” It was called “Song 2” because it was the second song on the list of songs pinned to the studio wall—as you think of song names you scribble them on the board but “Song 2” never got a name.


This was the record that meant we could have a career and we weren’t going to be one hit wonders. Modern Life Is Rubbish was a big risk and it was a raging battle with the record company to even be allowed to record it because it was going to be radically different. At the end of it, when we finally delivered the album the label, Dave Balfe wrote us a very nice letter apologizing for being such a pain and that he actually thought the record was very good. I found the letter the other day when I was going through a load of old correspondence from the 90s. A letter on Food Records headed paper and it ends with a kiss!

It didn’t graze the charts—it wasn’t a commercial success at all. Had we not followed it up with Parklife that could’ve been the end of our career. “For Tomorrow” is the first track on that album and it went on to be one of our most popular songs even though it’s not an obvious choice. We had lots of stuff on there that might have been shot down in flames, “Intermission” and “Commercial Break”—which were songs we’d do live during the Seymour days before we changed our name to Blur—we put all that stuff on and it might have had people running for cover, but it made a lot of people who might have dismissed us before sit up and think about us as a band.

We were making music rooted in English sensibilities and the classic English bands of the 60s, like the Kinks. It was music we liked and we thought the kind of music we were making had the potential to kick off something different. Turned out we were right and if it hadn’t have worked out I wouldn’t be speaking to you now. I’d be some bitter old bloke in the pub, cigarette in hand, sunglasses on, and a bad haircut. As it is I’ve just got a bad haircut!

Noisey采访 part.2

“Out of Time” is the heartbreaker.

Oh absolutely that’s the big success of that album. It had a video that seemed to capture the public sentiment at the time. There was a documentary on TV about two people in the British navy and it was a very lonely doc because whenever one was home, the other was out on duty and vice versa. They didn’t even really see each other. It must have been heartbreaking for them, a young couple in love. The director took the doc and cut it up in a way that focused on the woman and talked about her experience. It came out during a time of global conflict and a lot of people were feeling uneasy about what was going on. The doc had double meanings, not overtly, but you could read it in two ways. It captured the spirit of what was going on in the world, and also the spirit of what was going on with the band.

5. LEISURE (1992)

The baggy sound was pretty popular when you were starting…

Yes, the record company had had big success with Jesus Jones and Parlophone had signed EMF who had even bigger success. I don’t want to point fingers, but it appeared to me at the time that they copied the production techniques of Jesus Jones, which Dave Balfe, the record label boss had come up with. It was a novel idea at the time to use dance samples in a rock band. That was all Dave’s idea. To make that work in an indie context was an interesting challenge. He signed Jesus Jones who were called something else at the time—Camoflage! They were a straightforward rock and he signed them on the condition that they took on these sample ideas and it actually worked extremely well. They had some big hits including “Right Here, Right Now” which went to number one in the States.

That’s crazy that Balfe was pushing that. I had no idea.

Well Balfe was an established musician in his own right. He’d been instrumental in the Teardrop Explodes and basically came up with their sound. And then he ran Food Records and helped come up with the KLF thing, that’s what Dave Balfe did—the unsung genius.

Then comes Blur. Live we were pretty crazy in those days: We’d smash things up and you never quite knew how or when the show was going to end. It would end when all the instruments were broken. I think Balfe signed us thinking he could develop this idea further and he was constantly trying to get us to use dance samples and baggy beats. To some extent at the start we went along with it and “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” are the most obvious examples of that. We spent most of our career detesting “Bang”  and wondering how on earth could we have put that on the album, let alone the second track. When we came to listen to it [when rehearsing for the reunion shows] we realized it actually wasn’t that bad. Songs like “Fool” were much more representative of stuff we were doing before we signed and “Come Together”—you can imagine instruments being smashed at any point during that song. It’s incredibly fast and aggressive and counterintuitively happy but with frustrated lyric over the top.  

In the early recording sessions of that album we were still listening to the record label and they said, “Put samples in, you’ve got to use keyboards, you’ve got to sound like Jesus Jones and EMF, that’s what’s selling. This EMF thing is going to be massive, you’ll be riding on their coattails.” By the end of the album we were like, the samples and baggy beats are crap.

As a compromise we took the bits we liked of the keyboards, which actually ended up being more the hip-hop side of keyboards and sampling, rather than the Manchester dance side of it. Not that we sound like hip-hop records, but we were much more attracted to the way keyboards were being used in that kind of context rather than the way the keyboards were being used in the Manchester dance context.

Wasn’t it during this album that you had that disastrous debut tour of America?

It wasn’t the tour of the States that was soul destroying it was the circumstances under which we were doing them. Our manager had stolen our money, so we had to tour the States for months to pay off our debt. We had made our first album, first rung on the ladder, and instead of being able to capitalize on that we were essentially bankrupt and had to sing for our supper.

4. PARKLIFE  (1994)

This was of course the one that propelled us into the mainstream. Actually what it did, bizarrely was switch the mainstream so that we were part of it. It changed what mainstream music was in the UK. Up until then indie bands like us didn’t get into the real charts: You had the indie charts and the pop charts and never the twain shall meet. The indie charts meant you’d sold 20 records and the pop charts meant you’d sold 20 million. Parklife went to number one in the UK, we had a bunch of number one singles, and all that happened because of that album and what Oasis were doing. We changed people’s perceptions of what mainstream pop could be—it didn’t have to be Kylie Minogue. I think us and Oasis made albums good enough to kick off something new, and then everybody was like, “Oh yeah we like music that sounds like that and there were all these other bands doing stuff as well.” That spawned the many-headed beast [Britpop] that we all came later to regret, but it kicked off a new kind of career for us.

It drove Graham mad. Up till then if you went out to a restaurant or a nightclub and there’d be a gaggle of paparazzi outside, you’d walk past them completely unmolested, because they were waiting for Kylie. It was in that brief moment in our career when our nights out were accompanied by the flash of cameras and the shouts of the paparazzi. Our audience changed a lot over night too—they were much younger, more girls, more screaming.

Did you like that?

It was weird, you know? It didn’t upset me like it did Graham and equally it didn’t fuel me like it did Alex. To me it seemed like we’d always been doing what we’d been doing, and that was kind of true, but suddenly we’d become media darlings. There was one paper that ran a cartoon about us called The Blur Story—about the formation of the band—as if were a boy band! If it’d happened on the first album we’d have probably been alright about it because we’d have been willing to pose topless and put on cheesy grins and say how we wanted to find the one true girl we wanted to love, and how we make music for ourselves and if anyone likes it, it's a bonus! [He’s joking.] But by Parklife we were grumpy touring musicians who wanted everyone to piss off, to some extent, so the boy band thing landing on us seemed weirdly inappropriate.

Come on though—you were still young. You were in your mid-20s at that point.

I was 30, the others were mid to late 20s. We weren’t young, young. I still looked like I was 40, but I was 30!

What about the songs?

“Parklife” was a huge track obviously. We got in one of our heroes Phil Daniels who we knew best from this film Meantime by Mike Leigh in which he played a kind of proud, but disaffected man who grew up on a council estate struggling with the meaning of life if you didn’t appear to have a life, and what could it all possibly mean. Also, of course, Quadrophenia, the archetypal mod film with the soundtrack by The Who. They were our two favorite films, the ones we’d watch on the tour bus and knew most of the lines off by heart. We were slightly dumbstruck when we got him in. I think I wandered over and said hello, but no one else said anything to him! [Laughs.] He was very nice!

And “Badhead.” I love that song.

Me too. A hangover song—the first of many hangover songs. It’s got one of Damon’s beautiful melody lines that only he can do. There are some great tracks on there. In general I think that album just had loads of singles on it which is why it did as well as it did. “Magic America” is really hooky and it’s got “This Is a Low” on it which we pretty much finished every Blur show with from then onwards because it evokes such intense emotions.

3. 13 (1999)

The vocal sessions were done in Reykjavik, but mostly the sessions were done in studio 13, a big old building split up into light industrial units, so you’d get somebody making handbags, next to somebody preparing shoes, next to somebody making websites, and then this incredibly loud recording studio jammed in the middle that pissed everybody off. It lasted a few years before they got booted out, but that was a great place to record. We named the album after the studio, but people are so weird about the number 13. If you believe in these things 13 has always been rather lucky for us. We were also kind of tempting fate: Come on then! Do your worst.

You also worked with William Orbit on this record which changed the dynamic I’m sure.

We worked with him and Damian LeGassic which isn’t well known. He was the engineer. William would come in and loosely supervise the sessions by day and then Damian would turn up in the evening, take the material back to his studio and cut and paste and edit things into shape and bring it back in the morning and we’d carry on. It was a different way of working for us. It was much more freeform, much more improvisation. There are a lot of what I call studio noodles on that album like on the track “Caramel”—where you record lots of ideas, somebody else edits it into some kind of format, and you record more ideas over it, and again and again. “Coffee and TV” is a very traditional Blur tune, “Bugman” is another studio noodle—there was freedom in doing that. Damian doesn’t get the credit he deserves: most of the editing came from him and William, a lovely guy, was basically supervising jamming sessions rather than acting like a traditional producer. It was very different to how Stephen Street had worked. [Orbit] was much hands off.

The Guardian[2010.4.26]

Blur drummer Dave Rowntree reveals why he became a Labour candidate

Usually, you'll find him hidden behind half a dozen drums. Today Blur drummer Dave Rowntree is surrounded by seven or eight Labour campaigners, a few thousand political pamphlets, and several stacks of envelopes. There are career swerves, and there are career U-turns, but Rowntree's decision to put his music on the backburner and run for parliament constituted – by his own admission – a full-blown male menopause.

"It was pretty much a mid-life crisis," the 45-year-old said, swivelling on a chair at his campaign headquarters in the plush offices of a Soho media firm. "There was a fairly well-documented split in the band, I was turning 40, and I was going from having no time on my hands to having rather a lot. And I started waking up with that angsty feeling at four in the morning, going, 'Oh my God, I've wasted my life.' I had to do something about that. And so I started turning up at the local Labour party."

Seven years on from his post-Blur meltdown, the musician – with a law degree all but under his belt, and a spell as local chairman on the CV – is now a part-time politician: Labour's parliamentary candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster, where Tory Mark Field had a majority of 8,095 at the last election.

"We almost certainly won't win," Rowntree says barely seconds into the interview, and such candour is his trademark. Take his campaign literature: five sentences into one leaflet, and he has already committed three acts of what some MPs would call political hara-kiri. He's owned up to prior bouts of not just alcohol abuse, but homelessness and drug addiction, too. Elsewhere in the pamphlet, Rowntree neither hides nor plays up his celebrity past. He simply states: "My name is David Rowntree, and as well as being the drummer in the band Blur, I am your local Labour candidate."

Such honesty is a risk, I suggest to him, in an age where even a florid Twitter feed can damn a politician to disgrace. But Rowntree shakes his head. "I've grown up in public and the last thing I want is for people to rub my nose in that. If anyone's going to do the nose-rubbing, it's going to be me. The good things in my life, and the bad things in my life – I just thought I'd be completely open about it all."

In any case, he argues, most of his would-be constituents don't care about his background, musical or otherwise. "I've had a couple of emails saying, 'Isn't it great that Dave from Blur is standing?', as well as a couple saying, 'How dare you? This is an insult. I would never vote for a musician.' But in general, it's old news for voters now. And older people don't know what Blur is at all."

Rowntree is amused by any politician who tries to turn music into political capital. He chuckles in particular at David Cameron's professed passion for the Smiths. "He's a Smiths tourist," says the drummer, cheeks creased with a knowing grin. "Real Smiths fans dress a certain kind of way, and they have a certain kind of haircut, and they wear certain kinds of T-shirts. But what they probably don't do is have their picture taken outside the Salford Lads Club.

"Politicians," Rowntree admits, "do have to try and present themselves as ordinary people. But you need to do that in a way which makes you look least like an arse."

Tony Blair was another of those who – according to Rowntree – often looked more like an arse than he might have intended. Rowntree is especially critical of Blair's unsuccessful efforts to schmooze Britpop bands, as part of his much-derided Cool Britannia initiative.

"What got my goat about Tony Blair inviting all the bands to No 10 was that that was the standard way politicians had interacted with musicians for generations. Cool Britannia was nothing to do with us. We never said Britannia was cool. It was like when Harold Wilson called the Beatles round. What happens at those things is not that the politicians say: 'Well, what do you think we should be doing?' Politicians say: 'We're going to be doing this. Will you support us?' And nobody likes to feel taken for granted like that."

In any case, Rowntree says he isn't interested in that kind of high-end political exposure: "I've resisted doing anything like that – just blandly giving my name to the Labour party and hoping some of their gloss would rub off on me. I've got stuck in at the grassroots end."

Is he not a big donor, then, I ask tentatively? Rowntree's jaw swings floorwards. "No, no, no! I'm a big donor to my campaign, but not to the Labour party. I have donated money – 20 quid here, 30 quid there. But I'm not a Labour party patsy. People write that Dave quit the band to concentrate on his political career, but I don't have a political career. I'm an activist. I go round knocking on doors trying to find problems to solve."And with that, he bustles back to the campaign room next door, sits down, and starts stuffing envelopes.


Pop goes the Easel[2/2]


The Nichtkunst boys met up with Damon and Dave, and formed Seymour. With pudding bowl haircuts, flares and loose-fitting shirts, journalists labelled them as `baggy' - a musical genre forming around Manchester. Their first single, She's So High, sounded like a synthesis of the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, and charted at number 48 (with a rocket). But Blur proved they had staying power. They became `baggy-parody' and eventually `post-baggy'. But the fame and the drinking (the band's local was credited on the second album) was starting to get out of hand. One night, playing on the same bill as arch rivals Suede, Damon told the audience to fuck off home. He cut the face of security guards with his mike stand. Only Dave the drummer was sober. And he'd been at home all day doing his laundry.

America made matters worse. "They had us marching round every record shop in town going `Hi....we're Blur. You like us'" says Alex. The same week Nirvana's seminal grunge album, Nevermind, was released. Disenchanted American kids were enlivened with the new teen spirit. "And we're going [Alex sings in mockney, like Anthony Newley] `Hello gor blimey'." "Being British in the most cliched sense goes down very well in America" says Graham. "But we weren't. If we'd been acting like Benny Hill we'd have been alright. They love a bit of a chump. A good old English chump. But we were monsters." Blur never forgave America. In an act of supreme churlishness, they set about excluding an entire continent from their music. And created something that celebrated Englishness - Britpop.

Blur discovered their ironic suburban credentials, and started singing songs about dog racing, steam engines, trarsers and bowler-hatted commuters. Then came Girls And Boys ("our gay disco song" says Alex). A damn good knees-up about sexual orientation, and the first real Britpop song. Parklife (the video, the song and the album), with its dog track/form sheet/EastEnder pretensions, took Blur from also-rans to founders of the Britpop movement. It was a label that soon became tiresome. "I met this bloke from San Francisco" says Graham. "He'd come to London to find the Britpop scene. I was in the Britpop band, in the Britpop pub, in the Britpop city, and saying I hated Britpop. He didn't know how to take it." Blur made the scene - then split.

By now Oasis, the rock `n' roll stars from Manchester, were claiming to be the biggest band in the world. A rivalry, manufactured by the bands' record labels, started to take on a momentum of its own. It became personal. When Noel Gallagher of Oasis was asked his views on Blur, his answer was he "hoped they caught Aids". Liam Gallagher spent the Mercury Music Awards trying to pull Justine Frischmann, lead singer with the band Elastica and Damon's girlfriend. Blur brought forward the release date of their single Country House to synchronise with Roll With It, and beat Oasis to Number One. Damon had something to prove. "Wanting to be the biggest is a weakness in somebody. I slowly recognised that in myself. It was a flaw in my personality that I wanted to be the most famous - the most loved. I'm on top of that now."

The battle with Oasis was presented as pitbull v poodle, squat v townhouse, armpit v roll-on and north v south. Blur were always portrayed as the nice boys. "But around the time we were being seen as the angelic little goody goodies," says Alex, "at least two members of this band were totally out of control. And probably going to bed a lot later than Oasis." "There were all these dodgy photographs, taken in dodgy places acting dodgily" says Graham. "And getting run over. I was run over coming out of a party and nobody offered to help me. The photographers just took the picture, then rushed back to the party to see if anyone else was coming out." Smoggie/the Smog Monster, one of Blur's original Wolverhampton fans, was hired as personal security. "He was really hired to look after me and Graham" says Alex. "To carry us home at the end of the night."

Damon still can't understand why Oasis are so huge. He couldn't bring himself to write a song like Wonderwall - too simple. It's no coincidence that he nicknamed Oasis `Quoasis' - a bastardisation of Status Quo, a band who never use four chords when three will do. Blur have always prided themselves on being imaginative - sometimes a little too imaginative. On the new album, Damon plays the kazoo, Graham plays the Jew's harp, and Alex plays the vacuum cleaner. And Graham taught himself the banjo just because he was feeling a little "conventional" on guitar. Blur are obsessed with moving on. And taking risks. "Paul McCartney hasn't moved on" says Damon. "Everything is static in his life". Graham agrees. "Whereas Linda has moved on, with a growing range of satisfying vegetarian meals.

" Tony Blair, the ace face Of Labour's modernist tendency, wanted to harness Blur's sense of movement to help the Party. He turned up at the Q Awards two years running (stupidly naming Oasis as one of his favourite groups) before calling Damon's office to arrange a meeting. "I went in and he said 'Make sure you're selling just as many records when the election comes and we can work together'". "What did you say to him?" asks Graham. "Make sure you get a policy then?". Damon is actually more John Prescott than Tony Blair, and fashionably sceptical about a Labour landslide victory. But he was still flattered. That was then. Eighteen months is a long time in politics - Blair is probably trying right now to change the Spice Girls' position on a single currency.

Now Blur are back. They still eat in their regular cafe, a short walk through a Notting Hill housing estate known for crack derivatives. They still order cauliflower cheese and chips for Alex, who is dealing with yet another hangover, and pecan pie - that's two slices, four forks. Then four bowls of milky coffee, and back to the two-room studio to finish off the new album. They have learnt that in a studio this small, too many cigarettes can set off a smoke detector. But that gaffer tape can desensitise it nicely. "We built a studio because the neighbours used to complain about me recording at home" says Damon. "The neighbours fucking moved, Damon" says Alex. Pause. "Well, they weren't very nice neighbours" says Damon. Blur bicker like only best friends can. For a while back there, they forget how.

"A year ago we had to decide if we wanted to go on and become a real middle-of-the-road, tabloid-friendly, cheeky mockney stadium band" says Damon. "I guess the new album is the answer." Now they have to learn to play the whole game again, and that's going to take some adjustments. Damon has just been to his first music biz party for nine months, at London's painfully hip Subterranea. "It was the birthday party of some PR company, and I was there with the guys I play football with. [Damon plays left wing for Cup Band United FC in a London music league] Baby Bird was there - all these people who are just starting to get somewhere. It was weird. Someone came up to me to talk. It wasn't `How are you?' It was `What are you doing here?' Fame is a funny old game."

From Blur to Blair[2007.4.13]


Somewhere in London's Marylebone High Street there must have been a glitch in the space-time continuum. "Blur drummer Dave Rowntree joins Labour and stands for election" sounds like a headline from 1997. But it's 10 years on, Britpop is dead, New Labour is dying and the decision by Blur's usually sensible stick-man to seek a seat on Westminster council in the May elections seems shockingly out of time. It is even more baffling when Blur's frontman, Damon Albarn, whom Rowntree likens to a brother, embodies many people's personal journey away from New Labour. Initially enchanted by the promise of rock-loving Tony Blair, Albarn then helped lead the march against the Iraq war and scathingly snubbed an invitation to Downing Street with the note: "I am no longer a New Labour supporter. I am now a communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade."

Rowntree's journey into Labour's arms is as personal as Albarn's rejection of the party. It is also, characteristically for the 42-year-old drummer, contrary to the prevailing mood. It began with Talking Heads and involves cats, as this likable, unlikely prospective politician explains. "The kind of behaviour humans find endearing in cats is the kitteny behaviour - rubbing up against you and making little chirping noises. In the wild, adult cats lose all this but domestication keeps them in that kitteny mode. A similar thing happens in a band. People look after you. If you're on tour, somebody tells you when to get up, when to go to bed and finds out what you want for lunch and makes it magically appear in front of you. It's weird, because you don't grow up. You end up being a middle-aged teenager."

"Do you know that Talking Heads Song, Once In A lifetime? [Sample lyric: "And you may ask yourself: Well, how did I get here?"] That happened to me. I just woke up and thought, 'Fucking hell, where am I?' I was living in a big house in Hampstead with two cars and an aeroplane. I was married to this woman I hardly knew because I married her, went on tour and never really came home. I didn't know really what I believed, other than I liked cats."

Rowntree got divorced, shed possessions (except his aeroplane and the cats: he now has "joint custody" of the latter with his ex-wife) and, while the other members of Blur all moved to very big houses in the country, he relocated to central London. "I suppose some people call it a mid-life crisis, but I just call it growing up," he says. Feeling he had been living not "as a socialist but as a middle-aged baby", he quietly joined the Labour party around the time Albarn began making passionate public speeches against the impending Iraq war.

The contrast with Albarn is fascinating and, at first glance, bodes ill for anyone hopeful that Blur will ever share a recording studio again. But Rowntree says Albarn is enthusiastic. "He's very excited. He's a political activist. He loves to see other people getting stuck in," says Rowntree. "Damon is a pacifist. He has very deeply held views. His politics flow from that and you've got to respect him for that." The drummer doesn't want to talk about whether he agrees with Albarn on Iraq because he's standing in a local election. He sounds, for the first time, a bit like a politician. Then he changes his mind. "I want to give you an answer. I'm not a pacifist. I do think some things are worth fighting for."

Rowntree's position on Iraq is equally personal. His girlfriend, Michelle de Vries, is the daughter of Daphne Parish, the nurse who was arrested by Saddam Hussein with the Observer journalist, Farzad Bazoft, on the cusp of the first Gulf war. Bazoft was executed; Parish was freed. "My girlfriend flew round the Middle East and got her mother released. She'd met all the people involved - Saddam and the psychopaths Uday and Qusay [Saddam's sons]. In the war, I was getting a very different view of what was going on in Iraq from a lot of people."

Rowntree is standing in the Marylebone High Street ward in what is a local byelection for Westminster council on May 3. The council is controlled by the Tories and probably always will be. Rowntree says he will be pleased to finish second. At best, he would be elected as part of a small Labour opposition in the chamber. "Westminster is a constant reminder of what happens when the Tories get into power," he says. "The spirit of Shirley Porter lives on here. Anyone who wants reminding of what the bad old days were like: go along to a Westminster council meeting. You see these arrogant, puffed-up people shouting other people down. It's ghastly."

To the cynical, Rowntree's candidacy looks like Labour hoping desperately to revive itself by snagging a new celebrity. He's an aeroplane-owning drummer who also runs an animation company and supported the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars, so there is enough material if the Tories want to paint him as a dilettante. He recognises that we live in a "celebrity-fatigued age". People assume either "we're idiots being exploited for our celebrity status by cruel taskmasters pulling the strings behind the scenes", or else "I've got a new album out and this is a weird way of garnering some publicity".

Rowntree does not shirk from the S-word and says he has always been a socialist. He says he signed up for Labour's "core values" and still believes Labour "is a party about people" - better than the Tories at protecting the welfare state and better at putting ordinary people's interests first, ahead of big business. He is, however, studiedly moderate: against unilateral nuclear disarmament because it would make Labour unelectable. And, despite several rants about Margaret Thatcher, he would like politics to be less confrontational and more collaborative.

There is enough of the geek about Rowntree to believe him when he insists he really does want to help residents tackle vital local issues such as wobbly pavements. "Local politics and local issues sound a bit pants when you say them in a national context," he says. He is particularly het up about MacIntosh House, a sheltered-housing project in the borough that the council wants to close and, he says, sell the lease back to developers for £1.4m. "There are some old people living in a house who don't want to leave and the Tories are going to kick 'em out."

Rowntree has never met Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. "They don't tend to hang around with the council candidates," he says. Unlike Albarn, he was never invited to Downing Street. "I was firmly asleep during all of that," he says. Blair, he reckons, is a bit like Blur. The band made some "crap decisions" but could always cut it live. Several times, most notably at Glastonbury in 1994, they put on live shows that he believes saved their career. "Blair has always done that as well. He can turn up to a party conference where everyone hates him and leaves them on their feet, sobbing, begging him not to go."

Rowntree's political engagement has developed quietly. He has donated money ("I'm not a big ticket donor. I'm not Lord Rowntree as yet" - he's not quite on message, then) and has several MP friends (he will not name them because "that will mark them down as Rowntreeites"). But his career is characterised by these counterintuitive turns. He lobbied ministers over music copyright issues, but while the rest of the record industry was trying to stop illegal downloads he supported consumers' rights to download music freely. "Lost of course," he says cheerfully. And now he is standing for Labour in a hopeless seat at a hopeless time. "It's important sometimes to let people know there are people with a contrary opinion," he says.

With Rowntree's politics, Alex James living on a farm and Albarn embarking on other musical projects, it is surprising that Blur are still together. "It's a love-hate relationship," says Rowntree, who describes them, and former guitarist Graham Coxon, as "like brothers" who get in touch at important times. "If ever there was good training for a career in politics then it's being in a band. It teaches you what people are like and how to get on with them. All these bands you hear splitting up over musical differences, it's bollocks. It's personal differences. It's people who snore on the tour bus. After 10 years on the tour bus, you want to kill them." Who snores in Blur? "Me, unfortunately."

They have been talking about recording new material "for four or five years" and will meet up for a week later this year. Rowntree does not sound hopeful. "One week. It's a very small thing. It'll either be small in the sense of being a seed or small in the sense of being a full-stop."

As befits one of Britpop's more grounded characters, Rowntree does not take anything too seriously. But politically he is a pragmatist who calls himself not New or old Labour but "realistic Labour". "I can stand there with a placard saying 'Save my school' or I can try to get elected to the board of governors and do something about it," he says. "One is the token activist stance, which makes you feel better and achieves nothing, and the other is the one that makes you feel a lot worse but actually achieves something." Is he contrasting his own position with Albarn's? "Damon gets involved. He has the ear of more people than you might think." He chuckles again and goes off to look at some wobbly pavements.

New Interview with Dave!

I’ve always had a bunch of careers running in parallel. There was a time when I was an animator and a musician. I used to do animation for fun. There’s an awful lot of sitting around involved in being in a band and you find things to do to fill the time. I used to take my laptop around on tour and as the band wound down the animation picked up. A lot of people have asked if I did the milk carton animation for the Coffee and TV music video but in fact the milk carton wasn’t animated – it was a man in a milk carton suit. 

I did a few things for Channel 4 but animation had a natural life-span as it turned out, and it was something that was far more fun to do on an ad hoc, small project basis.

About that time a friend of mine who is a partner at East End law firm Edward Fail Bradshaw & Waterson had just had a case come in with a lot of electronic evidence. She knew I was technical and asked if I’d go in and make sense of it for them. I turned up there intending to work one day a week and never really left. One of the paralegals left and I started working full time. I took the police station qualification and worked there for a year. 

I ended up clerking the trial I’d prepared the electronic evidence for at the Old Bailey. It was a four-handed murder case and, even given some of the highs and lows of my music career, it was one of the best times of my life.

Criminal world

For everybody who loves criminal law, the first trial they attend is a magical experience. And this was a crazy trial, like you see on TV. Witnesses would break down on the stand while recounting their stories. It was a dream. And we won the case, so that was fantastic. I knew I had to do it for a living. 

I ended up training at Kingsley Napley because it’s on the edge of the City. I thought I’d give other types of law a go because I wondered if all law was that 
fascinating. I surprised myself – there was something in it all. With all the departments I sat in I could see how you could do that for the rest of your life.

Right at the beginning of Blur, in around 1990, our then manager took all our assets and put them in his wife’s name. We were bankrupt. Our manager had – I’m embarrassed even now, decades later, to admit it – turned up on a Friday night with chequebooks and got us to sign blank cheques. 

Up to then I’d taken a back seat when it came to the business side of things, but I started turning up to all those meetings and asking questions. We then came to an agreement whereby nobody in the band would sign a document unless it had my signature on it. 

That was why I got to know lawyers and how I got to work at Edwards Fail.

I’m coming to the end of my first year of qualification now, so I’m just coming to the point where things I started are finishing. I’ve had a couple of good results so far. When you see a case through you get quite close to the client and see them through a time of crisis, so it’s incredibly satisfying. I’m just starting to see the fruits of my labour.

I can never seem to do things in moderation; I don’t know why, but I throw myself into stuff. 

Action station

I so enjoyed the police station – it’s a time when you can make the maximum difference to a case. It’s exciting – when it goes badly it is the worst of all times and when it goes well you come out feeling you have really achieved something. Having done music and law, I don’t think I could be as fulfilled as I am now if I had to go back to doing only one. They exercise different muscles.

The band have long since given up being surprised at what I do. I’ve spoken to Damon [Albarn, Blur lead singer] about it a couple of times and I think he likes the fact I didn’t go to the City; that I’ve got stuck in trying to help people. I know he’s very proud of what I’ve done.

New interview: My Legal Life - David Rowntree

Blur was winding down after a fairly well-publicised falling-out (which is happily now all mended). I had more time on my hands. A friend of mine at criminal firm Edward Fail Bradshaw & Waterson in the East End asked me to help out with a big case, with some technical evidence that had been served in a baffling and incomprehensible way by the prosecution, and I got bitten by the crime bug.

The hardest thing about my transition from musician to lawyer was the graduate diploma in law. It made the LPC seem like a walk in the park by comparison. I did my training contract at Kingsley Napley and qualified last year. Because I am at the beginning of my legal career, it’s hard to see how it’s going to pan out. I try to play to my strengths. Cybercrime, computer crime and technology are things I understand extremely well (I studied computer science at Thames Polytechnic and worked as a computer programmer). But I know things don’t often turn out how you expect so I try to keep an open mind. I feel like I’m constantly having to prove myself to people who know me as the drummer in Blur.

Many people assume I was a solicitor, then I left to do the band and now I’m going back to being a solicitor. People are surprised, but when I say I’m doing crime, they are less surprised because everyone has a fascination for crime. The police station is the most dramatic, exciting, frustrating, horrible, brilliant point of being a solicitor. The case is unfolding in front of you, and what you do there can have dramatic consequences for the client. Specialisation is not the only way for lawyers to add value to what they do but it is the obvious way.

There is a real perception problem when it comes to lawyers. The public see us as a homogenous group and tend to imagine we all do the same kind of thing, earn the same amount, all swan round living the high life. The profession has done very little to combat that and has been very bad at its own PR. I did a round of press interviews around the demonstration outside parliament against the changes in legal aid, and the lack of sympathy was marked.

There is a bizarre criminal law on the statute books still, which states you can be arrested for wearing clothes that signify political affiliation. It was only ever used once. Given the last government was quite diligent in getting rid of lots of draconian outdated nonsense, it seems strange that this was left in the statute book.



If I weren't talking to you right now I'd be…

Doing my law studies. I’m currently studying to be a solicitor. It’s basically a three year law degree squashed in four months so it’s a bit like trying to drink law from a fire hose. My solicitor friends told me it would be difficult and I have to say they were totally right.

A phrase I use far too often...

I’ve often wondered about this as I find it a particularly annoying trait in other people. I hate it when someone says ‘do you know what I mean’ all the time. That one makes me snap. Law is making me much more argumentative as a person so I’m finding I’m growing increasingly intolerant of annoying voice ticks.

I wish people would take more notice of...

The fact science isn’t all boring old men in white coats because in actually underpins everything in the entire universe. There’s a real anti-science trend at the moment and a leaning towards new age, hocus-pocus remedies. We’re starting to see these things filter through into the NHS which, quite frankly, is ludicrous. There’s no point publically funding things that don’t work in the majority of cases.

A common misperception of me is...

That I’m a placid, relaxed individual. As I said earlier that has all gone out of the window since I got involved in the law.

The most surprising thing that ever happened to me was...

Discovering an interest in the law. I’ve never had a grand plan or design for life and have always just done the most interesting thing to me at that time. A good friend of mine told me that if I wanted to do something really fun, I should spend a day at the Old Bailey just watching cases. I did and before long I found myself hooked. I didn’t go along thinking I’d become a lawyer but one thing led to another and I ended up doing work experience for an East London law firm. Soon after that I decided to train to become a solicitor.

If I weren't talking to you right I am not a politician but...

Social housing is an issue that plays heavily on my mind. In Westminster where I live, a lot of our social housing has been sold off creating a real lack of homes. The few elements of social housing that remain are often the wrong kind and leave whole families crammed into single-bedroom accommodation. As a political activist I meet a lot of people in the area and the number one issue they want addressed is housing. Crime is a definite second.

I'm good at...

Lots of things. I can fly aeroplanes, I play bridge very well and I can work a number of computer animation programs. I actually made a show called Empire Square for Channel 4 which could be described as a modest hit. I try my hand at lots of things and providing I don’t lose focus, can master most of them.

But I'm very bad at...

Martial arts – though it didn’t stop me learning for twenty years. I’m also pretty bad at dancing which is odd because drummers usually have excellent full-body movement.

The ideal night out is...

An early night in. I live in the heart of London’s glossy West End so without doubt have the best of everything London has to offer right on my doorstep. However, I’m just so busy with law studies at the moment that, whenever I get the chance, I try to grab an early night.

In moments of weakness I...

Exercise – there’s nothing quite like it for clearing the brain. Drumming can also be particularly good when you’re feeling stressed which I think is why I’ve managed to stay sane all thee years.

You know me as a musician but in truer life I'd have been...

An Edwardian engineer covered in muck and oil. I love tinkering with machines so without doubt I’d have done something like that.

The best age to be is...

Anything other than 18. People always say 18 when they answer this question but for me that was an awful, angry age to be. I was considerably more politically active back then, one of those Socialist Worker carrying lunatics.

In a nutshell, my philosophy is…

Follow your nose. I try not to struggle against life and that’s always worked for me. I throw myself into lots of things utterly prepared to fail so sometimes I land on my arse, sometimes I land on my feet.