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Interview: Dave Rowntree

18 January 2023

Photo by Paul Postle

With Blur experiencing a lengthy period of inactivity, drummer Dave Rowntree had the itch to create music and, eventually, get back on stage. Of course, just as Rowntree was set to launch of his debut solo album, Blur announced 2023 reunion shows and got all the press. Fortunately, the news didn’t cause a delay or shelving of Rowntree’s album, Radio Songs, which, while a relatively traditional sounding album, incorporates a number of production techniques inspired by Rowntree’s fascination with electronics and longwave radio.

On a recent Zoom call, Rowntree shared the theme behind Radio Songs, discussed where his fascination with electronics began, and talked about his interest in being a lifelong learner.

Did you come up with the theme of Radio Songs as you were writing the songs or as you were putting things together, did you think of it as, “These songs sound like things I grew up listening to on the radio or songs I wish I had heard on the radio”?

DAVE: The two evolved together. I came up with the name Radio Songs first or kind of the idea of spinning the dial. During the writing process, and the more songs I wrote, the more I refined the idea, that then influenced the songs, all of those ideas came together to influence the way I recorded it and the techniques I used. They all have their own lives, really. The concept behind it and the songs themselves and the recording all have separate but intertwining lives.

I’ve heard albums that are based on listening to the radio. Did you put any thought into having interludes, maybe some DJs introducing songs?

DAVE: Radio Songs doesn’t refer to listening to a radio station and these songs being played. It refers to several things, the most obvious being spinning the radio dial on AM radio or longwave in particular where there’s a lot of static between the stations, when the stations pop out of the static in quite an interesting way. When the receiver locks onto a station and it’s like “static … static … static … BANG”. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of surprise element of spinning the dial. Spinning the dial is something I’ve always done, ever since I was a kid really. I had a radio by my bedside and I would spin the dial, especially on longwave where you’d get stations from all over the world. Tune into these exotic stations playing exotic music in languages I had never heard before. It is really an inspiring thing to do. It made me think about the rest of the world and imagine what life might be like in those kind of places.

Also, the technology of radio has always been important to me. I come from a family where there was a lot going on to shake it apart. One of the things that held it together, certainly between me and my father, was his love of electronics. He was a radio engineer in the ’40s in the armed forces before he ended up working at the BBC. He had this love of electronics that he passed on to me. We used to sit around the kitchen table on a Saturday afternoon where some fathers would take their sons fishing or to football, he and I would build radio receivers and then plug them into the antenna we had in the back yard and then tune into stations from all over the world.

The idea of making things, that was the beginning of that for me and it’s something I still do. I express that in this record by making some of the hardware that I used to make some of the songs. And, it’s the love of bringing something to life like that and the utility of it is something I’ve always found very interesting. Radio was kind of my political awakening in an odd way. My father worked at the BBC when I was born as did my mother. It was a very conventional place back in the 1960s and 1970s, we had very conventional newspapers. We listened to and watched the BBC news channels because my dad said the other channels were sub-standard. We had a very homogenous view, all the news we got was very similar. The perspective on the world we were fed was very similar. It was listening to news stations elsewhere in the world that was my political awakening. It was a shock and an interesting idea that the same events could have more than one interpretation in a different place in the world. Not that I necessarily agreed with those interpretations but it was an interesting idea. That was the start of my move away from conventional politics towards the more left-of-center politics.

In many ways, the radio technology has been a big part of my life and a big inspiration and so that was the idea, as well as listening to pop radio, I mean, me being played on pop radio with Blur, that was a big part of the band being successful. The record is imagining me as a child laying in bed, reaching out and spinning the radio dial and tuning in these stations and the songs popping out. At some point, I did think maybe I’d put static in between but then I thought that that might be too literal and it might be a mistake to feed the whole idea to people hook, line and sinker. It means they can’t interpret it in their own way and have it be personal to them.

What are some of the production tricks you used on the album?

DAVE: What I did that is unexpected for people is that I used the sounds that I had recorded from the radio in lots of unconventional ways. I think what happens between the stations is as interesting, if not more interesting, than what happens on the station. There’s a lot of sound in the radio spectrum in between the stations that’s there for all different kinds of reasons. Some of it, especially the static, is the hangover from the birth of the universe. It’s the echo from the Big Bang. Lots of other sounds are naturally generating to do with meteorites coming through the atmosphere or radio frequencies bouncing off airplanes. Lots of it is machines and computers talking to other computers, people talking to each other in ways other than words, people sending pictures to each other. All of this can be decoded as sound through a radio and some of it sounds nicer than others. Some of it sounds musical. Some of it sounds horrible. It’s all interesting. I recorded hours and hours of this stuff and cut it down before I started the recording sessions. I used it on many of the songs as the basis for the sound of the tracks. On some of them, you can hear it quite overtly, there’s some static and warbling starts to songs and then the song emerges out of that. Other times, I put different kinds of sounds in different sides of the stereo pair and then figured out how to loop them together as a single sound. Other times I’d cut things up and use them. You can do a lot with different kinds of static. You can make claps out of it. You can make snare drums out of it. The unconventional side of it is where I focused my energies.

Does this translate live? Have you been able to play shows?

DAVE: I wasn’t sure how it was going to translate so I had to dip my toe in the water. I did a couple of shows outside of London in case it was a disaster. I did a headline show at the Omera in London and it went really well. I got a band of excellent musicians together which I think is the key to these things. Then we spent a week figuring out how it was going to work. What sounds on the record were essential, which could be ignored, which could be played by people, which would be played by backing tracks. A lot of compromises went into doing it but I think it really did work well. The audience really liked it. It wasn’t a traditional rock show but it was quite accessible. I’m keen to doing a lot of shows over the next few years.

Was it good to be back on stage and playing in front of people?

DAVE: Yeah, that’s what I’m in it for. That’s the payoff for everything else. A big part of the reason for the album was my frustration with the lack of any activity in the Blur camp and wanting to get back out there and play some music. I’ve got a few project burbling through, this is not my only idea. With this project, I want to get an album out every year for the next three years and then see where we are.

What were you listening to on the radio when you were a kid?

DAVE: At the beginning, it was music. The BBC used to be really good with children’s programs. I got my first radio when I was very young and every day there were programs specifically aimed at children and I devoured those. The music was aimed at children too. As I grew older, my tastes changed although I still quite like a nursery song (laughs), who doesn’t? That’s kind of gone now. Listening to the radio as a hobby is gone. Listening to music as a hobby is gone. When I was young, if you asked somebody what they did in their spare time, they might say, “Listen to music.” They didn’t just mean that there was some music on and they sit there. It was a much more proactive thing. You’d share music with your friends and you’d go to each other’s houses and you’d sit there with albums and look through the covers. You’d compare, “Oh, this producer was on that album as well.” You’d read between the lines in various ways. Now, all of that’s given free. People give all that stuff away and people no longer really, in general, listen to music as a hobby. The nature of all of that has changed. More so now, going to gigs is a hobby much, much bigger than it ever was. Somebody says, “What do you do in your spare time?” “I go and see live bands play.” In the 1970s, when I was growing up, there weren’t that many opportunities to see live bands, especially small bands, that kind of punk rock in the ’70s that kicked that off. Every pub became a venue and every space became a venue. Things change, I guess.

How old were you when you went to your first concert?

DAVE: I was playing music from a very early age. Most of the concerts I was going to were my own (laughs). One of the ways my parents coped was by farming me off to music school on the weekends. I went to normal school Monday through Friday and then music school Saturday and sometimes Sunday. There was all kinds of music going on there – orchestra, jazz, various kinds of wind bands. And, if you wanted to do pop music, you could do that too. There were gigs and performances of all kinds all the time.

So the live element as you got older wasn’t something brand new to you.

DAVE: Yeah, that was something that I enjoyed. I still do. That’s the best bit of it for me which is one of the motivations of doing this record. My other project [Blur] only gets to see the light of day every few years at best. The live part of it is the part that I really enjoy. I thought that I’ve got to get something where I can go out and perform and not be at the whim of anybody else.

Most kids start out by listening to songs and then graduate to listening to full albums. Do you remember who the artist was that inspired you to do more than listen to just a single?

DAVE: I don’t remember when that was. I was only buying singles for a short period of time. That was in the early 1970s and I was buying punk rock singles. The punk rock ethos wasn’t really based around the album. If you put out a really great single, the band would then split up and never be heard of again. That would be the punk rock dream at that time. By the late ’70s, early ’80s, I was buying albums. My friends that I was sharing these records with, they liked to put on different music than I did. It was great because I was exposed to an awful lot of music that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I was then, and am now, very interested in music that twists you in the gut somewhere, that fires you up, that has some passion about it. Emotional content is very important to me. That’s why I was attracted to punk. I was a very angry kid. And then I discovered how great sweeping orchestral movements could be. When I was at music school, there was a lot of orchestral playing. My friends were into prog-rock – Genesis and Yes, Phil Collins, Can, Here & Now. It wasn’t music I would have ever discovered on my own and it’s not the kind of music I listen to to this day. But it was interesting and broadened my musical horizons. That was the joy of it. That was the algorithm in those days, your friendship circle. You didn’t need a computer to tell you what to listen to. “If you like Blur, you might also like Radiohead.” How stupid, these bloody algorithms. Can they really not do any left-field steps at all. “If you like Blur, you might like Oasis. You might like Pulp.” I KNOW! I get that! Is it true that if you like Blur, you’re going to like Pulp?

Elements of all that music that I was exposed to when I was young was an influence on me. Bizarrely, the one band out of all of that lot that I did take through with me and still listen to today, not that I listen to that much music because I do music for a living, is King Crimson. They made the most inventive albums and had the most creativity. All the albums were different.

You said you make a living at music but I was reading your Wikipedia page and you’ve led a very full life. You’ve got a pilot license, for instance.

DAVE: It’s written as if I’ve done all of that for a living. Most of that has been things I’ve done out of interest. I’ve always enjoyed learning except at secondary school which is a shame because my early school days I actually loved. From about the age of 11 to the age of 16, school was boring. It really was about rote learning and discipline – two things that didn’t come easy to me in those days. Later in life, I discovered how to pass exams and since then I’ve just loved learning, especially learning with an exam at the end of it. I read a book called How to Pass Exams and am astonished that they never taught us how to pass exams at school. I’ve done an awful lot of things which, on the face, seem quite challenging and some of them genuinely have been challenging. Learning to be a lawyer was quite challenging. But, at the end, there was an exam. Bring it on!

So, what’s next for you? Medical school?

DAVE: I’m studying for a degree in Astronomy at the moment.

It seems to me that classes about how to change your oil or do your taxes would be more beneficial than some of the stuff I learned in school.

DAVE: Way back in the day, when Blur won all those Brit awards, Alex [James] went up on stage and said something that’s always stuck with me. He and Graham [Coxon] had just dropped out of university to do the band full time and he said, “Why on earth aren’t they teaching this kind of stuff in universities? They teach orchestral music in universities, they teach all other kinds of music but they don’t teach this. Isn’t that odd seeing how this is the big one and all the others have a minority interest.” In a few years, the Brit School was founded and now all aspects of the music industry are available. I don’t know if what he said inspired it or if it was going to happen any way.

If there is a kid out there that is like you and is spinning the dial on his or her radio, which songs on Radio Songs do you think are the most accessible?

DAVE: I think “London Bridge” is the most immediately accessible pop song. My favorite is “1000 Miles.” It’s a love song so that will make it relatively accessible, the instrumentation is much more simple than the rest of the album. I think it’s the best song. It was one of the last I wrote. I got into my stride with the lyrics. I think it’s the least self-conscious. I managed to say something, I hope interesting, in a fairly simple way. We shall see if everyone else thinks it’s interesting.

I enjoyed how you ended with a quiet, instrumental song (“Who’s Asking”).

DAVE: It was a choice to either be first on the record or last on the record. First on the record was tempting, that makes quite a statement. It was a chorale piece I wrote when I was pitching for a film. It didn’t get the film and it was just kind of sitting there with other tracks. I thought it would be a shame if it went to waste because there was something there. It still fits in the vibe of the record, it’s still got the density and shimmer of the rest of it. It’s much safer to put it at the end than the start. I wasn’t quite brave enough, maybe on the second album I’ll start with a Lithuanian goat-herder wailing or something like that.