Jammerzine has an exclusive interview with the multi talent and Blur drummer known as Dave Rowntree. His new album titled ‘Radio Songs’ is out as of today and features a gamut of styles and genre hopping contained within songs straight from the heart of a musician that wears that heart on his sleeve.
‘Radio Songs‘ (playlist below) is one of those albums that you could say is truly diverse. Sometimes subtly, and sometimes genre bending. But, what I find really endearing about it is that feeling you get when each song was created out of that certain passion that comes from artists that stay late and work until that sense of completion is present.
And, in this interview, we get that sense between the words as well as a peek into how an album such as ‘Radio Songs’ comes to be. We also get to know Dave the person as well as the artist.
About Dave Rowntree & ‘Radio Songs’
As a kid growing up in Colchester, Dave Rowntree would often sit with his dad at the family’s kitchen table, building radio kits together. Then, using an antenna situated in their garden, they’d tune into stations from around the world, picking up exotic languages and music while wondering what life was like in these faraway places.
“Radio has been a constant for me,” Rowntree reflects. “It’s been one of the steadying factors in my life.”
Hence the title of Radio Songs, Dave Rowntree’s debut solo album. Many of the songs on it began life with his recordings of the weird and wonderful sounds of atmospheric static in-between stations, using them as the foundations upon which he built the tracks.
“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.
Best known as the drummer in Blur, Dave Rowntree is also something of a polymath: film and TV composer, podcaster, light aircraft pilot (and instructor), lawyer, former Labour councillor. “I’ve always been a bit of a nomad,” he laughs. “Never quite satisfied. I suppose I’m endlessly ambitious, really.” Those ambitions have led him to the creation of Radio Songs, which he points out is “an album that I’ve been musing on and chipping away at for a few years now.”
It’s a record set to surprise many people, being an electronic-based album with orchestral fringes, filled with great, tuneful songs delivered by Rowntree’s assured and expressive vocal performances. While down the years he’s provided backing vocals on many of Blur’s albums and onstage during their live sets, this is the first time the drummer has stepped up to the microphone as a singer in his own right. He says he didn’t particularly find the prospect daunting.
“Less than you’d think, really,” he notes with a chuckle. “I’m kind of unselfconscious in the studio, having spent half my working life there. 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 stirring orchestrations recorded in Budapest, Radio Songs is a sonically expansive, but also deeply personal record. Slow-burning ballad ‘1000 Miles’, for example, is a remote long song expressing the difficulties in sustaining a relationship as a world-travelling 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.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the deceptively bright and upbeat ‘London Bridge’, with its staccato “la-la-la-la” hook line, which on closer listening reveals a lyrical sense of dread. Rowntree says the song has its roots in strange recognitions of patterns.
“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).”
Elsewhere, the tumbling beats and dreamy instrumental layers of ‘Devil’s Island’ backdrop Rowntree’s lyric returning him to darker days back in the ‘90s, and ‘Downtown’ (with its references to ‘Bitterville’) is 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.
Further down the track list lie the syncopated rhythms of beautifully brooding pop song ‘Tape Measure’, the slow-moving synths of ‘Machines Like Me’ and the electronically-enhanced admissions of ‘Volcano’. Rowntree says the latter was inspired by a childhood photograph and describes the song as being about “a situation I’ve found myself in several times in life, where I can’t get any closer to something, but equally you don’t want to get any further away. And I’ve just found myself stuck.”
Meanwhile, two other tracks highlight more instrumental or abstract approaches. Closer ‘Who’s Asking’ began life as a choral piece for a film, that went unused, and was rearranged by Leo Abrahams. Similarly, Abrahams reconfigured ‘HK’ from an original track that featured 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.”
Dave Rowntree is clearly an individual bursting with energy, and someone drawn to different fascinations. “I get grabbed by these random obsessions,” he says. In recent years, his film and TV composing work has included soundtracks for Netflix sci-fi series The One, the Bros documentary film After the Screaming Stops and BBC One’s technological crime thriller The Capture. Upcoming projects include a second series of The Capture and the third season of War of the Worlds through Disney+.
While he still flies his part-owned Cirrus SR22 single-engine plane every week, touring commitments with the reformed Blur around The Magic Whip put a stop to his parallel life as a lawyer. Instead, when the band’s activities died down once again, he served as Labour councillor in Norfolk County Council from 2017 to 2021.
“That was great,” he says. “I believe in localism passionately. Knocking on doors and offering help I think is a really powerful and amazing thing to do.”
For the foreseeable future, however, Dave Rowntree’s focus will be back on music. He’s already thinking about a second album, along with the gigs he’s planning to perform the tracks from Radio Songs.
“It’s not a traditional album,” he points out. “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.”
In the meantime, there is this surprising, moving and highly melodic album to enjoy.
Radio Songs: spin the dial and tune in.
Images by Paul Postle.