Blur’s Dave Rowntree: Raised On The Radio
The renowned drummer steps out with solo debut
Of all the great rock drummers in British rock, only one has stood for the House of Parliament: Dave Rowntree of Blur.
But in 2023, the Colchester, England native has a brand new bag as a solo artist with the release of his excellent debut LP, Radio Songs. The title stems from the old days of Rowntree’s youth when he built radio kits with his father at the kitchen table.
“The idea of Radio Songs is me spinning through the dial,” he explains. “It sounds like you’ve got a radio tuned to some static and you spin the dial, and the song pops out of it. And then you spin the dial again, and the song dissolves back into the static.”
Moreover, each of the songs on the record finds Rowntree exploring significant turning points in his life while proving a penchant for melodic songwriting on par with bandmates’ moves outside their collective.
In fact, the record might surprise many fans, being an electronic-based album with orchestral fringes, filled with great, tuneful songs delivered by Rowntree’s assured and expressive vocal performances that will no doubt appeal to fans of David Sylvain and The Blue Nile. It’s a wonder to reckon the fact that Radio Songs marks the first time Dave has stepped up to the mic for lead vocals, having sung backups in Blur through the years.
“I’m kind of unselfconscious in the studio, having spent half my working life there,” he admits. “What really helped was I took trumpet lessons during lockdown. Absolute disaster. My trumpet-playing sounds like wild geese being murdered by a fox. But that really nailed the breathing aspect of singing for me. I’m still experimenting with my voice.”
Produced by Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Ghostpoet, Wild Beasts), featuring co-writers including Gary Go and Högni Egilsson and orchestrations recorded in Budapest, Radio Songs is as sonically diverse as the most experimental Blur album. But its also deeply personal record as well, evidenced in a song like the slow-burning ballad ‘1000 Miles’, which expresses the difficulties in keeping a relationship as a world-touring musician.
“I’d just had an argument with my girlfriend the morning when I set off for Iceland to work with Högni,” Rowntree recalls. “Which is just the wrong thing to do, isn’t it? Because then there’s no chance of making up ‘til you get back again. And so that’s what the song is about. It’s like, ‘Oh God, I’m 1000 miles from home.’ That’s been a real problem…on tour with Blur, trying to keep a relationship going from the other side of the world.”
Another key track on Radio Songs is “London Bridge,” an upbeat number rooted in Rowntree’s fascination with pattern recognition.
“When I was in my early 20s, in Colchester, I would start to see the number 126 everywhere,” he remembers. “I lived at a house that was 126, I’d get a bus that was 126. I knew this was confirmation bias. I’d read books about that kind of thing, but it was still happening. It felt to me that the universe was trying to alert my attention to 126 for some reason, even though the rational part of me knew that that was bollocks.
“So, ‘London Bridge’ was one of those,” he adds. “Things just started happening when I was near London Bridge, or going past on the bus, or on the tube going underneath London Bridge. I would just notice events occurring, and it was slightly unsettling. Bad shit started happening around London Bridge. I had to confront my London Bridge demons and that’s what the song is about (laughs).”
Other tracks, meanwhile, find Rowntree revisiting the political arena. Namely “Devil’s Island,” which serves as a backdrop to Rowntree’s recount of darker days back in the ‘90s, and “Downtown,” a commentary on the “negative and divisive” UK post-Brexit. “It just felt so much like my memory of Britain in the ‘70s and how toxic that all felt,” he says.
VIDEO: Dave Rowntree “Devil’s Island”
The album also explores more abstract terrain as well, rooted in Rowntree’s film score work for Netflix and Disney+, and telltale of the presence of Abrahams in the process. Namely the pastoral “Who’s Asking” and the exotic “HK,” reconfigured by Abrahams from cut-up recordings of radio broadcasts Rowntree had captured in Hong Kong while Blur were there making 2015’s The Magic Whip album.
“There’s something full on about Chinese commercial radio,” Rowntree enthuses. “If you think American radio is kind of pumping you the hard sell, you should listen to Chinese radio. It takes your breath away.”
Despite having served four years as Labour councillor in Norfolk County Council from 2017 to 2021. Rowntree has set aside his political ambitions to once again focus on music. In fact, he’s already got plans for a second album, albeit not before he road tests Radio Songs for a series of solo gigs in addition to the string of festival shows where Blur will be appearing over the summer.
“It’s not a traditional album,” he admits. “So, the kind of mosh pit way of doing things isn’t going to work. The idea is for it to be a bit more of an interesting event – maybe doing it in the round, surrounded by a light show. So, watch this space.”
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