Dave Rowntree (the dorky one/drummer) spoke with Impose on the eve of the band's last tour since 2003, and just after Graham Cox had left the band in the midst of the Think Tank recording sessions.
While Rowntree is currently studying to be a barrister while running an animation company (check his Wiki, yo), let us whisk you away to 2002, where the BBC is his conduit for underground music, he is quite sure Blur is not about to quit, he is very distracted by a sandwich, and Oasis still suck.
Dave Rowntree: I’m eating a sandwich at the moment, so you might have to do a bit more of the talking than you normally do. You suggest me some answers and I’ll just pick “A, B, or C”. [laughs]
Derek Evers: Yeah, that will make it easier transcribing too. So what was the last thing you listened to?
The last thing I listened to was an old standby record of mine, an old faithful called Mister Divwabogards [sp, surely], this Bulgarian folk music record.
Before we get into things, and I’m sure you’ve answered this probably 100 times, can you explain what officially led to Graham’s departure?
I don’t know that I can really. Graham did the departing. Still not sure that I fully understand it, so I think that if you need to know that, you’d be best to talk to him.
OK, well can I ask if it was something directly tied to this record?
Again, I really don’t know. I don’t know why he left. I have no idea if it’s going to be a permanent leaving either. There is no official parting on this one, unfortunately. Nobody really knows. Graham is the one who knows and he certainly hasn’t told me.
Last question regarding Graham, how big was his departure when it came to the songwriting?
Well it was all done, really. Damon’s the songwriter really, so that wasn’t so big a deal.
So with Think Tank, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, it seems as if you guys as a band are moving back toward the dancey-electronic sound you had early in your career. Is this a matter of, that’s the sound you’ve always been trying to achieve and now that you have the luxury to make records more or less the way you want to, or was it just the way things took you?
When we do records, we do whatever seems interesting at the time. So when Graham left, there was an enormous great gap opened up in the sound and we were in no hurry to fill that gap with anything, least of all with guitars, because it sounded very exciting and made all the instruments sound much bigger. So we kind of went with that really, and I think what we ended up putting down a lot of, instead of a lot of guitars, is a lot of percussion and a lot of backing vocals and that tended to give the record a lot more hits.
That’s something I was gonna ask you, as the drummer, how do you progress or incorporate that into the songs? Do you do any programming or use any drum machines yourself?
It’s a mixture of a lot of all different kinds of stuff, electronic and acoustic. We have our own little studio which means we have to do everything ourselves. So there aren’t hordes of people around programming drum machines or anything. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single programmed drum machine apart from one track, which is “Ways to the Club”, where all the drums are programmed and there are no real drums at all. I didn’t play any drums on that track at all, I played some guitars, but there’s no kind of demarcation. Because it says drummer on the album sleeve, doesn’t mean all I do is play the drums, or indeed play any drums at all on some tracks. We’re kind of beyond that, really. After 15 years, those labels stop making so much sense.
Well that’s the luxury of being successful.
That’s certainly one of them, yeah.
I usually don’t ask this kind of question, but when it comes to your newer stuff, particularly 13 and Think Tank, how do you write the songs? And the reason I ask is that when you write a pop song it seems to be pretty formulaic, but when you’re dealing with something that’s a little more ambient and little bit harder to detect the structure, how do you approach it?
Well, like I said Damon’s the main songwriter, so he works up some kind of demo at the start. So there will be anything from a little loop or kind of vocal thing, just something to get us started, to the other end of the scale, a more worked out demo, maybe even with some vocals on it. From there on in, we follow our noses really, we kind of add, experiment and cut and paste. We noticed on the last album we worked with William Orbit as the producer, he showed us a new way of working that we kind of adopted and developed. Which was to do more cut and paste, scatagoric approach, rather then everything worked out beforehand. Just splurge ideas down onto the computer and filter them down afterwards. Which is kind of an interesting way of working as a musician, it makes it a bit of a nightmare to produce.
Do you find it harder that way to find the pieces or parts that are cohesive, that work well together?
No, in fact the opposite is true because you don’t have that little voice in your head saying “what you’re doing is rubbish”, which is kind of the bane of all musicians, you’ve got to switch off the bit of your brain that’s being critical. If you can do that you can kind of tap straight into the subconscious once you get into the flow of it, and I think it makes it easier to come up with interesting parts.
So another mandatory question…do you feel Damon’s success outside of Blur has created tension or hindered the progress of the band in any way?
No, I don’t see how success can hinder.
Well just in terms of how much time he allotted for Blur and things along those lines? I think a lot of people wonder with all the side projects what the status of Blur is.
Well, when we’re working on Blur, we’re working on Blur. When we’re not, we’re all working on other things. That’s life, isn’t it? You don’t lock yourself up in a flight case when you’re not doing your job, do you? You go on and do something else.
Let me jump ahead and ask you this question then…aside from Damon, do you or anyone else in the band, independently release your own material or have other side projects?
I’m the only one that doesn’t. Musically, being in Blur is quite enough for me. Both Graham and Alex their own separate careers. I have Blur and other things to keep myself occupied.
What about the business side of it? Do any of you guys release records or do anything along those lines?
Yeah, both Damon and Graham have record labels. I think Alex has a record label. I’m the only one without a record label, I think. [laughs]
Alright, as a band that pretty much hit it big with British and American pop hits, as you move further in your albums do you still feel the necessity to put on a pop song or two on each album, kind of like to appease your listeners?
We don’t really make music with you listeners in mind. I think that’s the way of madness, really. That’s the way you could drive yourself insane, wondering about what people are going to think about when they hear your stuff. I don’t think British musicians in England intend or draw such arbitrary distinction between pop and rock, alternative or anything else. I think that’s something more of an American thing to do. I mean all of our records are pop music. You’re saying pop music is retrograde and everything else is in development.
I guess that’s how I would perceive it, but before when it came to the songwriting there seemed to be a formula, a certain structure. Whereas now, being successful you have the luxury of being a little bit more creative, a little bit more out there if you will.
Being out there is the only thing that’s interesting to us about making music and the only thing that has ever interested us really. Music making is an experimental creative process for us, always has been, always will be. It’s difficult to know what we look like from the outside but from the inside, I don’t think we see ourselves as ever having been a pop band that went on to be a bit more experimental. That seems like a completely crazy point of view if you don’t mind me saying so. [laughs] I have no idea where you got that one from. [laughs]
Well… now you have the luxury of having less restraints on what your records sound like and stuff like that.
I don’t think there ever has been. After the first album, when we were really in the hands of quite a manipulative record company, after that when we kind of won the moral argument about who should control what we do, since then, there hasn’t been constraints on us to sound a certain way or to do a certain thing. So while the first album the record company had a lot of input in and we did do things like worry about what the listeners might think, since then we haven’t really tortured ourselves in that way. So really from the second record on, we’ve just been following our noses doing whatever seems most interesting at the time. But no, I categorically don’t accept that we used to be a pop band and now we’re more experimental, and it’s a result of our success. So if that’s what you’re saying, I completely disagree, I think for us music making is an experimental process and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of music as we see it, but I also don’t accept that the bare extinctions be drawn between pop music and rock music or anything like that. They’re categories for people who work in record shops, and I further don’t accept that pop music is some kind of backward music and rock music is more advanced in anyway.
Well excuse me for being a little naïve but I felt inclined to ask this, as a band that’s known world wide it’s not uncommon to collaborate with other big name acts, for instance Fatboy Slim on Think Tank. Now this is the naïve question, but do you guys pay attention to what’s going on in the independent music world?
Sorry, I’m finishing my sandwich. It depends on what you mean by independent music world. Are you talking alternative again, back to the labels?
No, I just mean music that is not so readily available through mass media.
Uh, we’re quite lucky here in that the mass media here is state owned but basically quite benign. By far the best TV and music channels here are the BBC ones which kind of have a mandate to play everything. So if you listen to the main output here you get a pretty good idea, the underground is the mainstream really. Things aren’t formatted here like they are in the states. Here you get to hear an awful lot of stuff from very new bands to very established bands just by turning on the radio. Which is pretty cool I think.
Yeah, definitely. That’s something we miss over here.
Yeah, actually things are getting a lot better in the States as well; I think radio really is improving.
Well, technology seems to be pushing that as well. It’s forcing labels and radio to look at things in a new way.
Yeah I think so and that’s part of what’s driving it here as well. The Internet kind of opening up of all kinds of music for all kinds of people and the Internet is driving radio to do more or less the same thing.
Let me ask, what led to working with Norman Cook?
We’d meant to work with him for a long time because he’s somebody that seems to have quite a similar outlook on music as us and he’s a musician first and a DJ second, and it’s the musician we wanted to work with. We had a lot of ideas of various people who might [work], but when we wanted to produce this record ourselves or at least as a co-production job with somebody, it turned out to be Ben Hillier an old friend of ours; but we were nervous that we didn’t have the production skills to finish the record off. That wasn’t something we needed to be worried about in the end, especially with Ben Hillier involved, but to cut to the quick, we lined up a bunch of people to come along at the end and see if they could dust some fairy dust on the tracks. Well that really didn’t work because the tracks didn’t need fairy dust dusted on them, so when Norman came along for a couple weeks, he started again on some tracks. He re-worked them from scratch and that worked out quite well. As to why, he’s somebody that we met a long time ago and kind of said we would work with but never got around to it.
So I know you’re doing the festival route, but do you plan on doing a full U.S. tour anytime soon?
In terms of a full a U.S. tour, we’re certainly never going to do a 6 month slog around America again, we don’t want to do a 6 month slog around anywhere again really, because we don’t have to. [laughs] We’re going to play all the ones that are fun, we’re playing all the ones where we have friends and people know us. There was a quite a destructive fashion in the English record companies a few years ago for trying to “break” America, whatever that means. They would talk about going to places in terms of smashing them and breaking them, [laughs] we’ve never really been that interested in that and we’re doing quite well so I don’t think we need to kill ourselves anymore. We’re all getting on a bit as well. [laughs]
It’s funny you mention that because it seems that the roles are reversing now. Seems like now you’ve got bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes that are establishing themselves over there before coming over to America.
Yeah, well like you say, I think that’s the fashion. And it’s quite an easy way to whip up some interesting talk in America isn’t it? To get a record played on British radio and talked about in the British press because that seems to cut some sway over there at the moment.
So what’s next for you and the band? Should we look forward to another album, other bands, or would you guys actually consider retirement?
Well I sincerely hope there will be another record, we certainly have no plans to quit. The ‘Blur about to quit’ story has been going really since we released the first record, it doesn’t seem to show any signs of disappearing, I think if we were going to quit we would just say we’re going to quit and there would be no reason to keep it a secret. But who knows what the future holds, you know? We’re working live now up until February of next year, so we’re certainly not going to start recording anything probably for another year.
Again, I’m sorry for the naïve American journalist approach, but is there still any Blur vs. Oasis animosity over there or has that pretty much died down?
Well Oasis doesn’t have a record out at the moment, so there not really getting enough air time to answer back. [laughs] I don’t know, I think that was a great marketing gimmick. It worked both for us and against us both really. It pushed both bands up to the next level that they literally wouldn’t have gotten so easily, but it’s now permanently linked us with them and them with us in a way that probably we both regret…but they’re still crap.
Read other interviews in the Vaults series:
This interview was originally printed in the Spring 2003 print issue of Impose