FULL INTERVIEW: Dave Rowntree

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Rowntree from Blur and I asked him a number of things from his childhood, Blur, The Ailerons, politics and more. The interview was in two parts originally but here it is in full for your reading pleasure!

I’d like to start right at the beginning if I may. Your family was quite musical, so in many ways it was inevitable that you would get into music. But what made you want to play the drums?

There was a rule in my house that we had to learn an instrument, it didn’t matter which. In fact the rule originally said that we had to learn the piano, which I hated, so I complained long and hard until I was given the choice. Anyway, I thought I could subvert the rule and get out of music lessons altogether by picking the loudest and most obnoxious instrument there was, so I originally chose the bagpipes. However, I was only 10 and it takes adult lungs to inflate the bag, so I switched to the drums. I was hooked straight away, and played every spare moment from then on.

You achieved a Higher National Diploma in Computer Science and then went on to become a computer programmer at Colchester Borough Council. That’s obviously something you wanted to make a career out of before Blur happened, but why Computer Science? What was it that attracted you to that?

Computers were something else that I discovered when I was in my early teens. I have always loved machines, and computers are by far and away the best machines.

You left your job in Colchester and moved to London to form (what would be) Blur with the boys. That must have been a big decision for you with no real guarantee at that time that it would work out. What was your thinking at the time? There must have been something that stood out about the band that gave you the confidence to leave your job.

Graham took me along to see Damon play a gig at the Arts Centre in Colchester. It was obvious that he could write killer tunes, which was the magic ingredient missing from the bands I’d played in until then. I gave him my number and told him to get in touch if he needed a drummer. He did, and I played in various line-ups with him, with Graham originally on saxophone. Graham switched to guitar and finally Alex joined on bass, and the chemistry was there straight away, as it got much better very quickly. It seemed obvious to me that we were going places, and it wasn’t a hard decision to leave the day job.

Blur did sessions with Bill Laswell in 2000. Two of those tracks, “1” and “3”, appeared on the 21 box set in 2012. What other songs did the band record and what were the aims of the sessions?

The aim of the sessions was to try working with a new producer to see what would happen. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for one reason or another, and we didn’t do much recording.

In 2002 you became a member of the Labour Party, what was it that attracted you to politics at that time?

I felt that I was becoming more of a ‘taker’ than a ‘giver’ and I wanted to redress the balance.

Don’t Bomb When You’re The Bomb is one of the rarest Blur releases out there and a song that is drastically different in sound to anything else Blur recorded previously. What were the influences behind it and why was the decision made to release it without any promotion or Blur labelling?

I don’t remember exactly what we were thinking I’m afraid. It was some time ago.

In 2005, Blur supposedly recorded a punk EP and were scheduled to play a few pub gigs around Christmas of that year. Both never materialised. Could you tell me a bit more about the EP and ultimately why it (along with the gigs) was cancelled?

There are always ideas knocking around. If they don’t happen it doesn’t necessarily mean they were concrete plans that were cancelled for some specific reason. Just that they didn’t happen.

I heard that one of the songs Blur recorded for the EP was Sub Species Of An American Day which Damon released on his demo album Democrazy in 2003. Is this true and if so what can you tell me about the Blur version? Also many Blur fans consider the 2005 EP the holy grail of unreleased material. With it being left off the 21 box set, do you think it will ever be released?

As far as I remember, we didn’t record an EP in 2005. Googling reveals that Damon did an interview with XFM in 2005 and talked about that sort of thing. We certainly did do a tiny bit of recording when we got back from the Think Tank tour, but I don’t think our hearts were really in it, and we didn’t get very far.

Could you tell me a bit about the formation of The Ailerons? How did you guys meet and what was your motive behind putting the band together?

Mike and I started The Ailerons as something to do during the long drives on tour.

The Ailerons are considered a favourite band amongst Blur fans and the material you did release was excellent, as were the live shows. Obviously you’re firmly in Blur mode at the moment but could you see yourself ever starting the band up again at some point?

I suppose we should have put the album out at the end, but the project kind of ran out of steam. I hope that Mike and I will make some more music together soon – we’ve certainly talked about it. I’ve had more time recently to do some more songwriting, so who knows?

It’s no secret that Blur looked to originally record Under The Westway with William Orbit but things (drastically) fell apart. What happened?

Some things work out, some don’t. You never know unless you try.

Orbit released an odd version of Under The Westway online after you guys cut ties with him. What was your reaction to that?

It was an unusual thing to do, but then he’s an unusual person. Strange Cargo 3 is still one of my favourite records though.

Aside from the three songs Blur released since coming back in 2009, The Magic Whip features the first real bulk of songs as a four piece since 13. Are you nervous to play these new songs and was/is there any pressure to live up to previous Blur material?

It’s always a challenge to translate an album into a live performance, and you never quite know which songs are going to work. We’ll have to see which ones fit into a festival set. We have some more rehearsals before the summer shows to nail down those sorts of things.

You got an incredible reaction from the crowd at the MODE show after playing the album for the first time, that must have been a special moment for the band?

I loved the show – it was great seeing the reaction of the audience hearing the tracks for the first time.

Ice Cream Man was a highlight from the MODE show but the band haven’t played it live since (German and French TV gigs). Are there any plans to play it again at shows this year?

We don’t really plan things in that level of detail.

Damon has said on a few occasions since the album announcement that Think Tank is a difficult period for the band, however there are a lot of fans that love that album. Out Of Time is a song you now play with Graham and Battery In Your Leg was played in 2009 as well. After getting back together in 2009, did you play any other songs from Think Tank in rehearsals and would the band consider playing any more live in the future?

I like the album too, but the Blur chemistry isn’t there without the four of us. I think it’s unlikely we’ll play many songs from that album, but you never know.

Reviews of The Magic Whip have been nothing but positive so far, what does that mean to you and the band so long after releasing your last album?

You can’t please everyone, but I’m glad that people feel the album was worth waiting for.

The Magic Whip came from sessions in Hong Kong from 2013 which Graham and Stephen Street then pieced together last year. But were there any further sessions since then where the band touched up the ideas and added new pieces to perfect the song ideas? If so can you tell me a bit about those sessions?

Alex and I spent a few days each tidying up and re-recording our parts. I’d say about 2/3 of the drums on the record are from the Hong Kong sessions though.

What does The Magic Whip mean to you as an album and how does it compare (for you) to Blur’s previous seven albums?

It was recorded in a very different way to the others, and I don’t think any of us knew what it was going to sound like until it was finished. I really like it though.

What’s your favourite song from The Magic Whip and why?

I always like the big tunes. Pyongyang is a favourite, as is Mirrorball and New World Towers. I like them all really.

Blur have a long history of fantastic b-sides going all the way back to Leisure but The Magic Whip appears to be the first album where there won’t be any at all. Were there any other songs recorded in Hong Kong (or that Graham/Stephen worked on last year) that didn’t make the album that could see a release at some point?

Unlikely I think. It’s astonishing that we managed to get enough done in a week to fill an album really.

As it stands you have a bunch of festival dates booked for this year but a lot of people want to know if you’ll properly tour the album as well. Are there any plans for a tour and if so can you share any information?

Because we kept the album a secret, we couldn’t book many shows until the announcement, so we’re playing catch-up at the moment. When shows are confirmed we’ll announce them.

A lot has been made recently of Blur not wanting to tour or at least play shows in the US. There are a lot of American fans who would love to see Blur but is it all depending on how the album goes down? Do you see Blur playing shows there?

I’d love to play in the USA. We’ve got a small but dedicated group of fans there, and I’d hate to see them left out.

There are a number of songs loved by fans that Blur are yet to play since coming back in 2009. Songs like Blue Jeans, Battle, Ambulance and I Know to name just a few. Are there any plans to play these particular songs this year?

It would be great if we were organised enough to plan what songs we are going to play later in the year. I can’t say that’s ever happened though. Normally we decide what we’re going to play at a show when we’re rehearsing for the show.

The final headliner for Glastonbury now won’t be announced until June. Can you shed any light on whether it will be Blur or not?

It’s not us. They book the headliners before Christmas, and we didn’t announce our album until February.

Inevitably people are already questioning what Blur will do next and whether or not Blur are (to quote a Take That song) back for good. Where do you see Blur going in the future?

We’ve not made any plans beyond this year. Who knows what will happen?

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