It’s release week for Dave Rowntree and his debut solo album, Radio Songs. Get ready to get into it.
Best known as the drummer for Blur, Dave Rowntree actually has his hand in a slew of creative projects; Radio Songs is just one of them, but it is his most personal endeavor to date. The album, released this past Friday, highlights his ear for a good beat and floods the tracklist with his rhythmic tendencies. It stands close to the edge in regard to being a full-on concept record, but it doesn’t make that full jump. Instead, Radio Songs is thematically conceptual but sonically diverse. Each song can stand on its own with ease (and the singles released prior showcase that). Upon chatting with Rowntree, you get a sense of pride in his growth as a musician and the freedom he has earned over the decades to today release something so dynamic, brazen, and borderline tactic in its layered instrumentation and film score assembly.
Dave, it must be fulfilling to have Radio Songs out after putting in the work to create it.
I [was] feeling quite impatient. It’s been ready for quite a long time.
The delay in putting it out is due to the ridiculous delay in getting vinyl pressed, and that is due to a number of factors – Brexit being one, as it turns out all the vinyl presses were abroad and in mainland Europe. Who knew? Also, the difficulty of getting raw materials, which isn’t just Brexit related, but that is one of the factors, was dealt with. When I finished the album and when I was first talking about putting it out, there was a six month delay between booking the slot and getting your records, so by the time I had booked my slot, it was an eight month delay.
We would be right in the middle of Christmas then, so I thought, “Well, there’s little point in trying to do anything over that period. It just wouldn’t get any cut through at all.” We decided to put it off until the middle of January, release it then, so I’m feeling good. Yeah, I’m really glad how the tracks I’ve released so far have gone down. There were no guarantees, but I am glad that after the wait that this is the case [Laughs].
I completely understand being impatient. It must feel nice to find the wait worth it for good reviews. Something I’ve learned from talking with artists over the years is that the time when they start creating these songs from the ground up to then pitching it and actually getting it recorded – let alone pressed and out in the world – is such a long time. It’s such a chunk of time the when it’s new to the audience, it’s not new to the artist whatsoever anymore.
Yep. That was definitely the case with Blur, as well. By the time we were promoting a record, we were writing the next one, and if you want to get a record out every year or every 18 months, that’s the way you have to do it. You can’t sit and wait for the record to be released and then start thinking about the next record. You have to be working on the next record as soon as you finish working on this one, so that’s what I’m doing now and that’s what we always did with Blur.
Do you find that with songs you’ve released, after they’ve reached they audience, you listen to them differently and play them differently? Or maybe just have a new appreciation for it through the eyes of the fans?
Well, you definitely get a new appreciation when you play it live. Absolutely. I’ve always found that (and I found it with this record, too) you discover something else in the songs when you perform them live in addition to what you discovered when you were doing the recording.
Also, talking about doing the promotion and talking about the songs, you get to hear other people’s points of view. People make suggestions and things that, again, spurs you to think about what you’ve done in different ways. It is an interesting process.
I remember when I first tuned into “Devil’s Island,” one of your singles. When I first listened to it and I was like, “I don’t know how I feel about this, but I like it.” I didn’t love it, I’ll admit, but I’ve listened to it maybe 10 to 20 times since then and it soon became one of my favorite songs of the year . You can kind of hear a little bit of everything in it – your own personal influences, talent, things that you’re interested in. The aspect of composition in the song is superb because of it. Oh, and some of the things you’ve done with Blur are kind of in there, too. The more I listen to it, the more I talk about it, the more it shifts for me – and I imagine you.
Yes. The music I’ve always liked the most long term is the music I’ve had to put some effort into getting the hang of – that means you’ve invested some of yourself in it and you’ve put in some emotion, so you get a lot more back in return. While all the tracks on the album aren’t like that, I’ve definitely tried to just not make them like a kind of fast food meal where you eat it and enjoy it but then are hungry an hour later. It’s not like that with something where you have to put some effort into it.
All of the tracks also wear their hearts on their sleeves, like “1000 Miles.” It’s a very obvious love song with a pretty tune, you know, but to some extent that there are layers within layers more than others that you need to peel back, I think, before you can figure out what’s going on.
As a listener, I think that’s what kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat and wanting more from an artist because you’re able to discover stuff about them, about their process, and about what’s to come through the tracks themselves. I believe that’s the coolest aspect of Radio Songs. At least what I got out of it is that you can put a song like “Devil’s Island” and “HK” next to each other and might not think that they’re supposed to be on this one cohesive piece of music, this one record. In the grand scheme of things, though, you and the listener are sort of spinning a radio dial and kind of going across the different landscapes of music offered up together. I think that’s quite fun for the listener to explore with you and what you’re making.
Yeah, that was the idea. The idea kind of evolved as I was writing the songs, which was a few years ago now before the pandemic, but that was the idea that it evolved out of it. The radio has been an important feature in my life, and not just obviously listening to pop songs on the radio, but also radio technology has been important in my life, important in my family for various ways, and important for my sanity in other ways. As a kid, I had a radio by my bedside and I used to spend a lot of time twiddling the dial, tuning into stations from all over the world and imagining what the places were like when you heard that kind of exotic language, hearing that exotic music – to you – and imagining what that told you about the society where these stations were located. That kind of dreaming about the world through radio is something that I wanted to kind of invoke from this, but instead of different places, it’s kind of spinning through the radio of my life. Each of the songs is like a station that sort of pops out of the static and are tunes about a turning point in my life, I guess. That was the idea.
I still experiment with radio today. I build radios and I study radio technology and that kind of thing. Electronics are very important to me, as well. I’ve expressed that in various ways. For [Radio Songs], I built some of the equipment I used to make the record out of electronics. There’s also something very interesting about the sounds you hear in between the radio stations. There’s a whole load of very bizarre and extraordinary sounds in between the stations that are there for a variety of different reasons. Did you know that some of them are naturally generated and some of them are generated by machines communicating with other machines? Some of them are humans communicating in different ways – nonverbal ways. I recorded quite a lot of those different sounds and used them as the beds for many of these songs and as the starting points for the sound of many. Some of the songs have some static that fades in first or some in between where the station’s sound fades first, and others I had come in other ways like cutting up the sound and making instruments out of it and things like that. It’s interesting how these things come out.
I’ve never started a project thinking, “I want the project to be about this and I want to express the ideas in that way.” The idea evolves along with the music, really, as you have the germ of an idea early on and then you build on that idea and that changes the way the music sounds, and that refines the idea. It’s interesting how the concept of a record and the record of itself both kind of have evolutionary lives. They both have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They’re both stories in themselves, really.
I think that you make a really good point about how each song maybe doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to be in order for this to be listened to as concept record. It flows due to its unconventional creation and static-y interludes as this big orchestrational piece. It sounds different but is cut from the same cloth, the same narrative, the same soundscape that you built out of radio and technology and instrumentation.
I’ve never been particularly interested in the idea of genre. I think that is something that is kind of anti-art, really – genre. I’ve never worried about it – not on this record and not at all with Blur about whether ‘song A’ is going to fit in with ‘song B.’ It’s going to be in the same category in some way if they’re part of a project, so you hope at least that they’re going sound cohesive. The radio idea was one of the ways that I think I achieved that.
I write film scores now as a day job when I’m not doing Blur and I’m not doing this. I have a studio in which I do that and the studio is set up to write film scores. It hasn’t got a drum kit – it’s not a rock studio. It’s got very different kinds of instruments in it as film music is all about trying to make an interesting sound. If you have a long, intense scene, you might just have one note playing for the entire scene. Well, people are going get mad if you just kind of press a synthesizer key and you hear that same note for 45 seconds. You have to keep this note evolving and changing to keep the interest in it. There are a bunch of different techniques that you can use to do that, or you can if you invent your own techniques, which is a more challenging thing to do, but more interesting. I brought that ethos to Radio Songs. I used my instruments that I use to compose film scores and I used that ethos of trying to keep all the sounds interesting and the sound of the song evolving over the course of the three or four minutes. So, that is what all the songs have in common: radio and the studio I was using which offers a kind of musical ethos. Equally, though, yes – they’re all very different songs. I don’t think you could listen to any one and predict what the rest of the album’ is going to sound like.
Of course. It goes back to the layers that the album has because you yourself, as an artist, have layers to peel back and showcase.
I imagine that people would’ve expected me to make a more traditional record with some drums and maybe some guitars. That would be a safe thing to do. Nobody criticized me for doing that, but what I’ve always found more interesting is operating at the boundaries and seeing how far you can push things. I was really interested in Blur’s greatest hits album [Blur: The Best Of] that had a drawing on the cover by an artist called Julian Opie who is very famous for making his art digitally using Adobe Illustrator as a kind of line art. You sit with him as you do with many portraits, like a painter would, as well, and he paints your portrait, albeit digitally. I was talking to him about it, about his work, ad we were talking about how interesting it is… how few lines you actually need to capture someone’s likeness. When you look at what he does, there’s actually very few lines in it, yet he captured all of our likenesses really brilliantly. It was almost magical what he did. That idea has stayed with me: how little do you have to do to express something musically? That’s an equally interesting idea. How little music do you have to make to make something that sounds complicated? How few notes can you play and still suggest a tune? All of that kind of stuff is intriguing.
That’s all sort of on the fringes, though, and some people would call that experimental, wouldn’t they? I guess so, which is sort of a very unhelpful word, I think, when you’re describing any sort of art because it is all experimental at the end of the day. The pop song is quite restrictive in what it asks you to do; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight bridge, verse, chorus, chorus, chorus. There are different varieties of that kind of song format, but fundamentally, they all share some fairly similar structural ideas. Well, how far can you push that? How far can you disassemble that and still have something that’s recognizably a pop song? There are all kinds of questions you can ask. I think if you are making music, that’s an approach to take, and I guess that’s the approach I take, really, but only because that’s what you have to do in film music. That’s how film musicians work because you don’t have a big palette… you have a very small amount of sonic space to work in because actors are talking and sound effects are happening. You haven’t got the canvas to yourself. You’ve got the top left hand corner and you have to do a lot of work within that small sonic space. You have to set the emotional tone for the scene, so you, as you score a film, decide whether the audience is laughing or crying… or both [Laughs].
It really is an impressive talent to be able to create those emotions and find that texture in the art to be able to do such a thing – and with such a restrictive palette. With Radio Songs, fans can feel like they’re listening to the radio, but they don’t feel like they are listening to the radio in a way that is nostalgic and you make sure of that with a heavy aspect of modernity on this record. It’s technologically savvy within its retro build, but I think that’s what’s really magical about this record, because it isn’t a score. There are lyrics to it making grander soundscapes to put a person in a moment.
Well, I hope so. Fundamentally, it’s an album of songs. It’s nothing more more or less than that in one way. I did want to write an album of songs rather than some kind of experimental, free jazz, sort of electronic project, but on the other hand, I did want it to have more to it than that. I wanted it to be interesting in other ways, so it’s got some eccentric lyrics. Too often lyrics are very good tricks, and David Byrne famously said that lyrics are a trick to get people to listen to music longer as it’s possible to kind of cover up some bland music by having some really interesting lyrics. I think having interesting lyrics while also trying to express the feeling of the song is the way of the music gets you to think about both. Some of my favorite albums that I return to again and again do that, so that’s why I’ve tried to do.
ORDER AND LISTEN TO DAVE ROWNTREE’S NEW ALBUM, OUT NOW, BY CLICKING HERE!