Blur's Dave Rowntree Discusses His Early Radio Influences and Debut Solo Album Radio Songs

Dave Rowntree may be best known as the drummer for the iconic Britpop band Blur, but his musical prowess goes far beyond his accomplishments as a percussionist.

For as long as he's been making music, he's also been a songwriter, and after finding success in composing soundtracks for film and TV in recent years, he decided it was finally time to do something with his own music. More than three decades after starting his career, he committed to releasing his debut solo album, and today, Jan. 20, it's out in the form of Radio Songs.

Across the album's 10 incredible tracks, Dave weaves together tales from the most momentous interludes of his life, from soaring ballads to '80s-tinged electronica and atmospheric beats, juxtaposing various genres and sensations that flow together perfectly, bringing about the feeling of tuning through stations on the radio. From the moody beat and ethereal chants of "Devil's Island" to the almost alien orchestration of the closing track "Who's Asking," it's stunning from start to finish, feeling at once like a fresh start and a culmination of many years of music-making. After an early listen, we just had to learn more, and we had the pleasure of hopping on a Zoom call with Dave Rowntree himself to get the full story on the album, and what it means to have his first solo music out in the world.

Sweety High: After making music for decades, why did now feel like the right time to release a collection of solo music?

Dave Rowntree: Well, I've been a songwriter for all my life, really, but other than when I was young, in bands with my mates, I'd never really really done anything with my writing. It's a confidence thing, as much as anything, and a time thing. In the last seven or eight years, I've been writing film music, and that career has taken off. I'm doing quite well at that now, and that gave me the confidence to think about doing something with my songs—as well as a recording studio full of equipment that I could use to produce them.

Then these lockdowns happened, and it's a bit of a cliché to say, but it is a lockdown album. By the second lockdown, the film industry had dried up completely, so there was nothing else to do. I was sitting in the studio, twiddling my thumbs, and my friend, producer Leo [Abrahams], was in the same situation. He had nothing to do, and he'd just built this shiny new studio, so we talked about him producing my record.

At first, we thought it would be impossible to make something from our separate studios, so we agreed to do some preparatory work before we could get back together again. We thought we'd get a head start on everything. In actuality, that turned out to be a ruthlessly efficient way to make the record. We'd meet over Zoom first thing in the morning—a rock star's "first thing in the morning" of 10 o'clock—and lay out our goals for the day, divide the tasks up, and then swap files over the course of the day and compare notes again in the evening. Rather than the way it usually works when you collaborate in the studio and you can only do one thing at a time, we could do two. We were also both confident working studios—it might have been different had I not known what I was doing and needed help—so it actually worked out really well. We went from, "Let's just do a bit of preparatory work," to finishing the album in about six weeks.

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SH: How has working solo, with just one producer, been different from working as part of a band? What parts does that kind of freedom make easier, and what parts does it make more difficult?

RD: Well, you don't have to come up with all the ideas when you're working with a band, and that spreads the load a bit. When it's just me and the producer, we have to do everything—come up with all the ideas, all the parts—and there's a lot of trial and error there. You do a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't work and then you have to undo it. You can find you've gone down a blind alley. It could have taken a lot longer, but Leo got what the album was supposed to be straight away—the sort of sound I was looking for, and the tone of it, and the idea of it being like the static from the radio, and stations popping out of the static. His understanding, and us being on the same wavelength, was the main difference.

With a band—or even just two people working in a studio—you bounce ideas off each other. Somebody comes up with something, and that inspires you to change what you're doing to do something else. That can be quite an exciting process. We didn't get that, working separately in our own studios, and that's the downside of doing things that way.

 

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SH: Can you walk us through the concept for Radio Songs?

DR: Radio has been a very important thing in my life over the years—not just playing music, but the technology of radio. My dad was in the Air Force when he was young, and he was a radio engineer who'd teach the radio section of the piloting course, showing pilots how their radios worked. He had this love of electronics that he passed on to me. Whereas some sons and dads might go to sports together and or go fishing, my dad and I would sit around the kitchen table with electronic components and a soldering iron and build these radios. Then we would plug them into a big antenna we had in the back garden and tune into stations around the world. I come from a slightly chaotic family, as many people do, but that was a constant. That was a bond between us.

I had a radio by my bed when I was a kid, and I would lie awake at night tuning, especially on medium wave and long wave, where you get stations from a long way away, from all over the world. I would just be tuning through the stations, and all these exotic, different kinds of music and language came through. The music and the language seemed to guide how the stations operated to some extent, and made them seem very worldly. I would drift off to sleep dreaming of all these kinds of faraway places I was listening in on.

It was a very inspirational thing for me when I was young, and listening to foreign news stations was also my political awakening. I came from a very traditional conservative family, and so the news media we consumed were all very similar. They all had the same stories and the same point of view. Before listening to these foreign news stations, it hadn't really occurred to me that there might be another alternative view of the same events—that it was possible to construe events in different ways and reach different opinions. I'm now very active in local politics, and listening to the radio was the start of that as well.

Radio has been this constant in my life that has otherwise been a life of change, and that's what I was trying to get across. It's a very personal album. It's an album about me—a solo album in every sense. I wanted to get across the idea of me lying in bed, spinning the dial, and the stations popping out of the static. That's why it's called Radio Sounds. I was going to be very literal about it and have the space in between the songs be static, but I decided I couldn't really grind these ideas in people's heads. I just needed to hint at them, really. Each of the songs is talking about an event or some events in my life that were really pivotal moments. And I do hope that they also get played on the radio!

 

SH: Even though the songs have very different feels and genres, they do feel like one cohesive unit as part of the album. Is there a secret to managing that?

DR: They are very different, but you make it sound cohesive by using the same instrumentation. All we had were the instruments in our respective studios. That might have been a limitation if we were making the album in normal times, but it turned out to be quite a useful way of tying the songs all together sonically. It's hard to pin down a genre to it all, really, but what I'm interested in is melody. That's what I listen for in music, and these are all very melodic songs. That's the other constant between them.

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SH: Why did "London Bridge" feel like the right choice for your first solo single?

DR: It was difficult to decide what to put out first. "London Bridge" is very different from the rest of the record. It's the only song that sounds like it's got a genre to me. It's got that'80s electronic feel. I always quite liked the idea of putting out something and wrong-footing people. They imagined this was going to be an '80s electronica album and, of course, it's anything but. But it was also the one with one of the more obvious choruses on the album, which might attract people's attention. I also got this fantastic video done by these French video artists called Cauboyz, made out of paper cutouts. They work in a very similar way to me, really. I still have this abiding love of electronics, and I try and make as much musical gear as I can because that's a way to put your own particular sonic stamp on things. They make videos by building everything they're going to use from scratch, up to the camera. That gives their videos a unique feel as well. The stars seemed to really align and it just felt right.

 

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SH: Does it feel unusual to be putting out a first album, of sorts, when it's so far from your first experience in the studio, making music? Do you have any expectations for this first solo album?

DR: Yeah, I was nervous about it. I've been nervous about the project all the way through, really. You never know, until you put some creative work out there, how people are gonna respond to it. I mean, it's a risk. I thought at the time that I could go to my grave not having done this, and nobody would ever criticize me for it. They wouldn't say, "If only he'd put out his solo album!" It seemed to me at various points through the process that there were only downsides to it, but that's really the creative risk, isn't it? I've done all this work with Blur. I have nothing to prove to anyone. Why risk tarnishing it all by becoming a laughingstock and releasing a ridiculous record that everyone hates? You can lie awake at night and these thoughts go through your head. I'm sure it's the same for everybody, but especially people that work in the arts, thinking, well, I think it's good, but what if it isn't? What if it's terrible? Luckily, it's gone quite well so far.

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SH: Do you have a favorite song on the album?

DR: I really like "1000 Miles." I'm a sucker for a ballad, and in terms of songwriting, I think it's the best one on the record—and the last one I wrote. I was finding my feet through the process with the lyrics. Most of the songs were written within a six- to eight-month period, and I wasn't quite sure of myself at the start. I was feeling my way forward. I wasn't quite sure what it was really about—what sort of tone I should strike with the words.

I started off a bit self-conscious, writing lyrics like you do when you're writing poetry. You just cringe at it when you see it on the page and think, "Oh God, this is awful." But by the end of it, I'd figured out what I was doing and what it all meant. I finally had all the ideas, and I was writing much more unselfconsciously—much more from the heart. That's a love song. I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve on that one.

And I'm English. We don't really do love songs. It's not in our nature. We apologize. We should do apology songs. "Sorry! Sorry!" It can be difficult. Poetry's still very much of a minority interest here. It's not big like it is elsewhere in the world. I lived in France for a few years when I was young, and poetry is massive there. It's seen as a normal part of the arts, as much as painting and sculpture and music. Here, it seems it's a pursuit by weirdos, really, and we're all a bit embarrassed to talk about it. But that will be the starting point for the next record, if I can keep that kind of unselfconsciousness.

 

For more of the new music we can't get enough of, click HERE to read our interview with Phoneboy on their new single, "Ferrari."