Analogue Music | Dave Rowntree

Dave Rowntree

By Matt Conner

Dave Rowntree has been aiming in this direction for quite some time.

After serving as the principal songwriter in some early nascent bands that were never going to go anywhere, however, Rowntree's own songwriting (or at least the dreams of releasing those songs) took a backseat as he settled in as the longtime drummer for Blur. As Rowntree tells us, there was only room for one songwriter and the genius of Damon Albarn commanded that role.

Outside of Blur, Rowntree has stayed very busy as a composer and animator, Labour councillor and lawyer. However the impulse to write and record has remained firmly in place, and when presented with the demanded downtime due to a global pandemic, Rowntree finally got down to business when it came to his own compositions.

Radio Songs is the resulting solo debut, a wonderfully diverse pop album that mirrors his childhood activity of searching through stations for new songs to consider. We recently sat down with Dave to hear more about the new songs and the journey to make this album amid quite the emotional swirl.

Analogue: Given that it’s only your name on the banner or marquee here, I’d love to hear the summary of your emotions right about now.

Dave Rowntree: The kind of anxiety associated with that is the reason it’s taken me so long to do it, really. It’s quite a big step. I’ve always been a songwriter, but it’s been a step to take those songs and release them under my own name.

It’s one of those things, like anything that involves taking a risk and trying something different, in general, no one would ever criticize you if you didn’t do it. If I went to my grave having never released a solo album, it wouldn’t say on my gravestone, ‘Sadly never took the plunge and released his solo material.’ Know what I mean? [Laughs] Lying awake at 4:00 a.m., it all seems like downside, doesn’t it?

At worst, there’s just criticism ahead. That’s the artistic dilemma, really. That’s what traps people in artistic boxes for the rest of their lives. Some bands and musicians hit on a winning formula and just carry on doing it forevermore. I’ve nothing against that, but that’s not how I see myself. I wouldn’t like to be repeating myself until kingdom come.

So that’s all that’s been swirling in my head. What if it’s rubbish? What if everybody points at me and laughs? I guess it took my film composing career to take off and for that to become successful, for me to make a name for myself in that way, to give myself the confidence to decide this time around I will do something with it.

But that was some years ago and then my composing career took off and you always have to prioritize paid work over anything else. Had it not been for lockdowns and all of that appalling stuff, which gave me the space to actually do it, it probably still would not have happened.

Analogue: How far back does the thread of solo work go for you?

Dave: I’ve always been a songwriter, so in pre-Blur bands, I was the main songwriter. That was at school and university and they weren’t professional bands, so it’s not much of a pedigree, really, but it’s not like it was a bizarre, out-of-nowhere idea.

Analogue: Is there some benefit to having waited? Even if it was out of fear or something else, is there an upside to having written and released these songs now instead of earlier?

Dave: I guess. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it in my teens or twenties. What allowed the physical production of the album was that I had a recording studio in which I was able to do the work. Second, I’ve made a dozen albums or so over the years, so I know how to do that. I’m no stranger to any of that. Because of those two things, when the space arrived and I had the material, I was able to work on it and turn it into a record.

In terms of emotions, would I have been able to do it? I was desperately trying to do it in my twenties. When I met Damon [Albarn], it was clear he was already the kind of songwriter I was trying to be. I deferred to him from that point on in the songwriting for Blur. He is the one who has the genius for it, really.

Analogue: Do you apply lessons from being around him in that way or even watching others?

Dave: No, I’m not trying to ape him in any way.

"When I met Damon [Albarn], it was clear he was already the kind of songwriter I was trying to be. I deferred to him from that point on in the songwriting for Blur."

Analogue: Oh, of course. I guess I just think about the habits of a songwriter you admire.

Dave: Here’s the thing: songwriting is what Damon does when he goes home at night. He doesn’t switch on Netflix or watch the latest box set. He goes into his home studio and knocks out a half-dozen songs. When we’re on tour and the rest of us go out to a nightclub, Damon will sit in his room knocking out a half-dozen songs. Songwriting is what he does; that’s his thing and he does it with every spare moment throughout 365 days a year.

It’s very hard to ape that. That’s the reason his songs are so amazing, because you have to write five songs for every good one. That means he writes a good song every day, so he can churn out albums full of brilliant material.

That kind of work ethic taught me that the songwriting part of it is achievable. It’s basically effort and practice, like all other things. You imagine, especially if you don’t know much about the music industry, it’s something like talent or innate ability that musicians or songwriters have, but the reality is it’s the people who work the hardest who tend to be the most successful.

Analogue: Did you have a large catalog to pull from here? Or are all the songs pretty fresh?

Dave: There were a few, like “Machines like Me”, which I’d written along the way, but probably three fourths of the songs were written for this record.

Analogue: Was that fun go to back through some older songs? Was that fun to go back through those unreleased songs?

Dave: Well they are unreleased for a reason. [Laughs] You have to write a few songs for each one that feels like it works really well. It’s the process of exploration. Equally, if you just keep writing songs, you inevitably find that even if the whole thing doesn’t work, you can use part of it—the idea from a chorus or a transition—will come in handy in a later song. Many of the ideas you have do see the light of day even if the song it was in was never released.

Analogue: Anything else you wanna leave us with or share about the album?

Dave: Not really. I’m just really excited for it to be out and for people to hear what I’ve been doing. The release has been a journey but the album itself has been a journey. It’s supposed to be what I was doing as a kid when I was supposed to be sleeping, when I was surreptitiously listening to the radio and spinning the dial, tuning into these stations from all around the world. That’s what this album is supposed to be like.

VISIT: Dave Rowntree

Photo: Paul Postle