“I mean, you just don’t even get me! You don’t know who I am, man.” Oh dear. It had all started so well too. But it seems it doesn’t take much to put Johnny Borrell on the defensive. Wary of journalistic probings at the best of times, his unease at uncomfortable questions manifests itself in various ways: weary sighs, a flash of exasperation from those famous blue eyes, a ruffle of his voluminous Bo Peep curls. I’ve just asked him (what I thought was) a reasonable question about Borrell 1’s much publicised, and much derided, first week sales but he cuts me off. “When I say: ‘I don’t give a fuck,’ I don’t give a fuck!” he adds. But then there are many misconceptions about Borrell, most of which stem (in his eyes at least) from the inane scribblings of people like me.
The highs and lows of his career have, by now, been well documented. He was the indie-rock God who smashed into the mainstream and had the cash, cred, and Hollywood girlfriend to prove it. Chosen as the face of Live 8 alongside Bono and Brandon Flowers, organiser Bob Geldof remarked they represented “the past, the present, and the future of music”. He broke America, appeared on the cover of Vogue, and toured the world before Razorlight ground to a halt amid rumours of rampant egos, drug abuse and an unhealthy lust for success. Third album Slipway Fires bombed, ushered into the bargain bin by press shots of Borrell wearing pearl necklaces and lines like “I’ve got a hot-bodied girlfriend / Who makes the cameras flash!” so it came as no surprise when, despite yet another line-up change and round of cringeworthy press shots, his label essentially refused to acknowledge his existence and canned the demos he’d already recorded for album number four (speculatively titled Vertical Women).
He was, for all intents and purposes, as washed up as it’s possible to be, his signature tight white jeans destined for parody in some “I Loved the Noughties” late-night show. And yet…here he is, striving and surviving. Beaming from ear to ear and seemingly at peace with his place in the musical world, he’s as carefree and happy as any interviewee I’ve ever had. Sure, he’s wearing what looks like an oversize poncho and a ridiculous, wide-brimmed Fedora, but there’s no hint of rock star airs and graces; instead he’s warm and down-to-earth. Enthusiastic too – about the future, his new band Zazou, this tour, and his new album.
Dismissed by many on account of not just that title, but the track names – understandable when you consider ‘Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh Gina!)” – it’s an arresting listen and represents, he claims, his best work in years. Full of sax solos and rinky-dink piano, it’s an album that teeters on the brink of parody and occasionally plunges over the edge. Live, it’s equally as perplexing; part cabaret, part jam band, there are percussion solos, homemade maracas, and some baffling stage banter. Aside from the new material, they also veer from Dylan’s ‘Man Gave Names to All the Animals’ to an acapella, barbershop quartet number via just one Razorlight song (sadly, not ‘Golden Touch’ – instead we get a drawn out ‘In The City’). And while there’s no doubting the musicianship on show – particularly Joao Mello on saxophone – it’s the point at which Freddie Stitz, dressed like a cross between an arctic hunter and Jack Sparrow, starts playing his boot as percussion that you understand why so many have been quick to snigger at this latest “reinvention”.
Can’t he see this himself? Or does he choose not to? I have several questions about this apparent inability to understand why the silly photos, nonsensical titles and lyrics, and provocative utterings – sample quote: “If Dylan’s making the chips, I’m drinking champagne” – attract such scorn, but I don’t get to them. Given his reaction to some of the queries I do pose, perhaps it’s for the best. Chatting to him, I can’t quite work out whether he’s genuinely deluded or pulling off the greatest double bluff ever staged. In the end, I have to accept his word: he’s desperate to be viewed as a musician, nothing more, nothing less. These are his songs and, like children, he’ll fight to the death to protect them. And really, who can blame him? We all want to be respected for what we do, the rest is just background noise.
I had planned to write an arch, all-encompassing portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, but knowing his distaste for distortion and things taken out of context, I figured that might be a little unfair – after all, you can’t be misrepresented if you speak for yourself, right? So, I hereby present Mr. Zazou née Razorlight, uncut and unedited, in his own gloriously indomitable words.
DiS: Looking back to when Razorlight were at the peak of their powers and you were at No. 1, playing massive stadiums and so on, were you acutely aware of being in the “eye of the storm” as it were, as it’s going on around you?
Johnny Borrell: No, I don’t think anyone is. It’s really interesting; for me, with Razorlight, after we made our second album and it crossed over to the mainstream, it was weird because people probably saw more of me in England than I saw of England as we released it and then went on tour for 18 months. So literally, you do all your TV and stuff in about three days, then you’re sitting on a bus just doing this [touring], you know? So you’re quite divorced from it really.
Divorced from reality?
Well no, not from reality, because reality is what’s around you. But it’s weird because you can be all over the TV and radio and you’re not even that aware of it. Even when you’re there, I don’t think your thinking is any different apart from just figuring out how to do it, or how to do the show, but I think it’s the same for everyone. Rock’n’roll always looks very, very different from the outside than actually what’s going on in the inside, and I talk to my friends who are in bands and doing really well and it looks great…but on the inside there’s a whole load of personal relationships going on, and mixtures of emotions and ups and downs. When things are successful they have a tendency to look quite shiny, and that can hide a multitude of real things and what’s essentially going on – because bands are pretty dysfunctional things.
How did it feel playing to 200,000 people at Live 8?
I got to meet Snoop Dog that day, which was pretty cool. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. Second thing is I covered as much as I could of a Woody Guthrie song, which was quite a nice feeling playing something that real to that many people at once. It was just really fun; everyone had a ten-minute set which I love, ‘cause I love that thing of condensing it. It was surreal as well, and I remember trying to hitch-hike home.
Do you think the press, and by extension the public, have completely the wrong idea of you as a person?
I wouldn’t even know where to begin with unravelling that. There’d be a lot of questions….I don’t know. It sounds like a very black and white question to me.
Well, you’re portrayed in a very specific way, and it tends to be negative…
Again, I wouldn’t know, right? Because all I’ve ever done is make music. When I got to the point that Razorlight played Brixton Academy for the first time, I read two reviews. Now, I was very pleased we were playing Brixton Academy – it was like my dream – and we were, at that point, still “cool” apparently. We were in that beautiful bubble of success where there’s this wonderful, youthful energy of playing gigs, people coming to see you and everyone feels like they’re discovering what’s going on for the first time: very much the perfect phase I think. And I remember reading these two reviews, in two broadsheets, and they were both quite complimentary – which I was pleased about – but one referred to me as “the lanky lead singer” and the other referred to me as “the diminutive frontman”, and I thought at that point: “I better switch that off, that channel.” From then on – and that’s almost ten years ago now – I’ve had no interest in looking in that mirror, so you’d have a better, a million times better concept of how to answer than question than I would, because to me the most important thing is reality. And your reality as a band is what you create as a band, how you live as a band, and how you are as a band, right? That’s the most important thing, and I couldn’t possibly answer a single question about what the press think or, by extension, what anyone else thinks. I’m very happy to put my name to what I think about things, but how could I put it to anything else?
I didn’t know how much you read, but especially since Slipway Fires you’ve had quite a rough ride in various quarters. Whether that’s because certain people have had an agenda, I don’t know – a lot of people just claim to be misrepresented, and so don’t like doing interviews and so on…
As far as I’ve seen the press in terms of music, they’ve always misrepresented everything that I’ve ever been involved in from Razorlight, this, the Libertines, Florence & the Machine…that’s my only experience. But all of those were wildly misrepresented, and I think it’s a shame. That’s my only comment on that. But again, it’s weird: every time I do an interview with England [sic] I have to talk about this and dissect the press, and it’s nothing to do with me.
This is my band, and we’re doing something that’s so, so enjoyable for us, and so life affirming, and I don’t know anything about the press! I started a band – when it was me, and the Libertines, and we were playing around – we started bands because we had no interest in popular culture whatsoever. We just hated it ‘cause it had nothing for us. We probably all thought that Pulp had three good songs or something, but apart from that we didn’t give a damn about these bands that they [the press] were trying to tell us we should be interested in. I just don’t care, and I don’t care about them telling me how I should dress; you create your own world and you should exist in that. To me, that’s what being in a band is, and I’d much rather talk about now. Now, I've got a band, and this is my life and how we live, and anybody who comes to see us can see that – there’s no performance here, it’s something real, and the reason we’re together is that from our very different paths, we’ve all come to a similar rejection of the phoniness out there. I quite like sports journalism because there’s a score at the end of it; you can’t say Man Utd lost 3-0 if they won 2-1, although I’m sure sometimes they’d like to.
They get accused of twisting facts and having agendas as well though.
Of course, but it’s the same with politics. Try reading about politics and then actually see what’s going on; it’s just absurd. It’s like: “OK, that didn’t happen, but somebody wrote that it did. Cool. Great.” What’s in it for people? Because people don’t have that much choice in terms of media – it’s getting more and more like there’s choice – but with the sub-democratisation of information or whatever, I don’t know if that means there’s more truth out there. I think you can just pick your lies to suit you more. But then getting accurate information in print, to human beings, has been a problem and a challenge for civilisation forever, right?
It’s not new, that’s for sure.
It’s nothing new at all.
And it’s probably getting worse, what with Facebook, Twitter, social media and so on.
I don’t know if it’s getting worse… but it’s an interesting question. If you're taking information away from an elite, who can say this is how it is, that’s the orthodoxy, and now you’re saying that anyone can say how it is… it’s the difference between an encyclopaedia and Wikipedia. The best way must be between the two, as both extremes are dangerous, but as we said, it’s been going on since the invention of the printing press, and will probably continue for sometime.
I also wanted to ask about some of your more notorious, well-publicised instances of rock’n’roll hell raising. How much of that was you being yourself, and how much was you playing up to a character, of what you thought a rock’n’roll star should be?
Can I quote Leonard Cohen at you?
By all means.
“Read me a list of the crimes that are mine / I will ask for the mercy you love to decline.” Come on, what are my moments of rock’n’roll hell raising? Tell me and I’ll let you know, but I couldn’t say as a blanket response. Look, I’m a person: you don’t sit around and go: “I did some rock’n’roll hell raising today!” you know what I mean?
Maybe some people do.
So, like what?
The most famous one is probably the story of you riding a motorbike through a party at your girlfriend’s house…
And what was the question? Did I ride a motorbike through my girlfriend’s house? Did I do that because…?
Well, I’m curious how much that was you being yourself and living the dream, and how much of it was, looking back at it now, playing up to a character, or an ideal, of a rock’n’roll wild child? Because riding a motorbike through a house is not exactly everyday behaviour.
It doesn’t happen very often, but when you get the chance to ride a motorcycle around a house, it’s very enjoyable. I really like riding motorcycles indoors.
I’d want to do that too, don’t get me wrong. It’s not a criticism…
It’s dirty, it leaves oil and stuff on the floor, and it may be unsafe if there are people around…but it’s not really. I just really enjoy riding motorcycles through houses. I rode my own motorcycle, through my own house, only two weeks ago, and that’s because I’m using my living room as a garage at the moment to work on the bike. So I was doing it ‘cause it was fun – motorbikes are fun. But is the question did I do that as a calculated thing? Or as a myth-making thing? Because I can guarantee you that whatever you do in this business, you have no control over what people will report and what they don’t, so if you think you can go around making myths about yourself you’re a) wasting your life, and b) it’s just nuts. So I can’t answer broadly, but I can answer with regards to that: I rode a motorbike around a house at a party ‘cause I was very pleased with the state of my bike at that time – it was a 1960’s Triumph that me and a friend put back together. I did actually ask him the other day, “Did I actually ride it through the house?” And he said: “Yeah, I think you did.” So apparently it did happen.
If I had been thrust into that kind of situation, at that age, I’d have gone crazy too – I’d have wanted to do the whole throwing-the-TV-out-the-window kind of things.
But they are very different things! Riding a motorbike, and throwing a TV out a window are completely different, but you've just made that jump.
But they are both example of excess and recklessness, surely?
Motorbikes are just transport. They’re a fun method of transport, and British bikes from the sixties are something that we can be very proud of – they’re much copied. They are wonderful and beautiful. But it’s like an indie crime, riding a motorbike. I can’t actually believe that people are still asking me about it six years later, it’s incredible! And also, if that’s the first one on a list of rock’n’roll, bad boy antics, then I must be like a fucking saint if that’s all I did! Pete Doherty...He’s a punk rock legend, and he deserves to be. Robbing your own band mate is pretty bad, but there are various people in various bands who do seriously naughty things, and if you're talking about my rock’n’roll history…I’m almost disappointed that that’s at the top of my list, that I rode a motorbike through my own living room.
It’s the one that came up the most when I was doing my research, and is always quoted.
And so what’s the significance of this ten, twenty-five seconds of my life? What’s the angle, ‘cause I don’t get it? Is it disrespectful of…Hollywood? There’s some kind of politics going on otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting to people, so what’s the politics?
I guess a lot of people just want to understand the motivation behind a person riding a motorbike through a house; it’s as simple as that.
I don’t know if anyone will read this, but for anyone who does, on a Saturday night – or any night of the week really – people will do fucked up and crazy things, you know what I mean? I love that morality thing of: “How dare you do that!”
I don’t think it’s a morality thing, or a feeling of disgust.
So what’s the transgression then?
I think it’s a jealousy thing. It might be case of: “I want to be able to ride a motorbike through a party…”
I’ll start a class; indoor motorcycle skills. We can all sign up, you’re very welcome to come – you could be the first person. We’ve got a bunch of bikes, and we’ll do a little assault course around the piano, see how many stairs we can get up and down, that kind of stuff. We’ll democratise it, take it away from the 1% who have the right to ride motorbikes through houses…I just really like bikes: old Triumphs, and old Italian ones. Fantastic.
Talking of Pete Doherty, are you still in touch with him?
I’m still in touch with John [Hassall] and Carl [Barât], and I occasionally bump into Pete: the last time was when I was getting out of a taxi in Paris that he was getting into. It was a nice moment, to interact with him again.
He lives there now; aren’t you tempted to call him up and hang out?
You know, we were really good friends more than 14 years ago. Whenever I bump into anyone like that from my life, whether they became famous or whatever, there’s a certain affection that you always have, and it’s always nice to see them.
Do you feel a kinship with him? There’s a similarity to your respective career arcs: you’re both singer-songwriters and musicians, you both – perhaps in different ways – got chewed up and spat out by the celebrity machine, and ended up unfairly maligned, you both wanted the focus to be on your music.
Well, to be honest, I don’t know the ins and outs of Pete’s career, so I couldn’t comment. All I know is that if you’d walked down Bruce Grove in Tottenham in 1999 you’d have gone into a room that looked, by today’s standards, so unbelievably old fashioned and belonging to another world. You’d have found five people sitting in a room with no mobile phones, no Internet, obsessed with music. Absolutely fucking obsessed, and listening to Exile On Main Street over and over again, going out and shoplifting bottles of red wine, looking like nobody else, and not giving a fuck. You’d have found me, Pete, Carlos, Mairead [Nash], and Scarborough Steve sitting in that room. Apart from Steve, who I've got a lot of affection for, Mairead ended up managing Florence & the Machine, I ended up doing Razorlight and Zazou, Pete and Carlos ended up doing the Libertines…how could you not be proud of that? If somebody had said that to us when we were all 19, 20 we would have thought they were crazy.
It was a dream, so of course I feel a kinship…how it goes down with other people at that age is really important, ‘cause you’re still working out your sense of who you are. Pete, at that point, was remarkable, and completely unlike anybody else. Everyone was in a way – very intelligent, very eloquent, extremely quick-witted, and he was fascinated by aspects of the world that were different to what everyone else was fascinated by.
He has a new album coming out, and he’s still calling his band Babyshambles. Do you ever see yourself recording or using the Razorlight name again, or is that completely dead and buried?
I’m completely open to do whatever I want to do. But I don’t ever want to repeat the experience of having a band that a major label think they can make money out of; I just never want to get involved with that ever, ever, ever. So I’ll avoid that, but that’s not avoiding Razorlight. In part, to get away from that, I had to get away from Razorlight, so I had to do this myself. The label were literally like a straight jacket: “We’re not putting anything out, we’re not going to do that.” So I thought: “OK, I’ll just go and do it then.” That was how this happened, and they’ve never supported it in anyway whatsoever, so this is freedom. Thanks to Stiff Records and Trevor Horn this exists as far as it does, but I love playing in this band. Love it. When we play, it’s a thrill that’s completely different to any other band I've played in or been involved with; it’s a completely different order of musicality and integrity. I don’t know how you can make a more credible band – there's not even any amplification going on – well, I play electric guitar on two songs – it’s just instruments and guys singing. You can’t be any more honest than that.
Are you going to release the original tapes you made with Zazou?
Yeah, I read in your Q interview that you were planning on releasing it, so people could hear both versions side by side and hear the evolution.
I don’t think I’ve ever said that or thought that, but it might be a good idea. If anyone is interested…maybe we should. It’s interesting because the Trevor Horn stuff is just built on the original. I’m trying to get this record released in Europe and America and all that, so who knows? I’d have to sit down and listen to it again and work it out.
Did the freedom that you had to do this, with a completely blank slate, make it easier to be creative without thinking about it being a hit?
Yeah, but I never have. I said this to my friend yesterday, so this is about as unguarded as I can be. There was a point in whatever year it was – six, or seven, or five – we were on the front of every magazine, we headlined Reading & Leeds, blah blah blah. I was on the front of UK Vogue, which I’d dreamt about since I was a little girl…
You’d dreamt about being on the cover of Vogue?
Ever since I was a tiny girl, it obsessed me. But how fucking weird was this year; I’m on the cover of Vogue, playing this, playing that…something is cooking, you know? And from that very moment, I went to live on an island on the Hebrides and carried on working on making more songs. How I thought they should be made with absolutely no regard, whatsoever, to commerciality, or maintaining my position in this world of arena bands, or getting into the game with the press of clearing my name of whatever I've been accused of – riding motorbikes apparently – and I had no interest [in hits], absolutely none. From that point I’ve done nothing apart from make music. And people say: “Oh, it’s not the same as Razorlight.” Well, that’s because all I've ever done is make the record I think is the right record to make. That’s how Razorlight got to where it got to as well; I wasn't playing a game of “This is how I get there.”
Like I said, there’s that classic thing in England where you have a beautiful two or three years, everyone’s going: “We really like this, it’s cool!” People start turning up to your shows so you’re selling records and you're cool – yeah great, but it cannot last. So if I think about my career, all I think about is when I get to the end of it I want to look back at the music. All I've done, since the high point of success, is that – focus on the music. In that situation, people say to you: “You've got to do this, you've got to do that. There’s this way of playing the game, and that way of dodging the bullets. You can move from playing to 10,000 to 15,000, you can expand and expand…” That’s all the label want you to do, you know? They’re cunts. And I’ve resolutely not done that, since that point.
The only thing was, I did think it would be interesting to write a couple of pop songs for the second record. We came from ‘Golden Touch’, ‘Rock’n’Roll Lies’ and all that, because I like the Beatles so let’s see how good a pop song we can write – I didn’t want to be all: “I fucking hate that shit” if I can’t actually prove that I can do it myself, right? So I wrote three pop songs, and the only thing that astonished me was how much they crossed over, how much suddenly your band, which was this thing, becomes the mainstream. And I’m not an anthropologist, I don’t know how these things move, so that surprised me, and by the time we came back from touring people were like: “Mate, you are fucking Topman, you are the High Street.” And I thought: “Shit, I am. Fuck.” Which is not totally a bad thing being successful; like you said I got to play to loads of people at Live 8, I got to play with loads of amazing artists, I got to meet Snoop Dog. Fantastic! And Snoop Dog told me he liked my band: brilliant! Awesome! You get to do a load of things that people would kill to do – headlining Reading, what a great trip! – but all I've done since then is make music with absolutely no regard for that. And I honestly think it’s (Borrell 1) a good record, with my best writing on it for ten years, and there you go.
It must have hurt, at least a little bit, when its first week’s sales were so low, even if Stiff Records tried to make a joke out of it…
I didn’t even know! I mean, you just don’t even get me! You don’t know who I am, man. The first time I heard about the first week’s sales was two weeks ago, right? When I say: “I don’t give a fuck,” I don’t give a fuck! Everything I just said, I mean it, I’m not just saying that as jive talking or whatever.
No, I believe you, of course. But surely as an artist, you want your art to be heard and experienced and appreciated by as many people as possible?
But it is being heard and appreciated by as many people as possible! It is! If that’s 500 people, that’s 500 people. If those are the 500 people that are open enough at this point in time to hear this record, fucking fantastic man. I could be playing to one person, right? You asking me that question…it just shows the mentality that is so bizarre. I am not doing this for anything other than making music because I am a musician! Right? I just don’t get it. I’ve made a record with these musicians, and I love playing with these musicians; it’s an incredible family, it’s an incredible musical experience, it’s unlike every other band that’s out there.
On a personal level, I feel like I connected with songwriting again, I feel free in terms of songwriting, I feel like this is definitely the strongest stuff I’ve done for a very, very long time in terms of songs – that is the very definition of satisfaction. We played to what, 80 people in Paris last night? I would rather play to 80 people who are switched on enough, and unprejudiced enough, to get what’s going on with this band right now, than to play to 80,000 people who are there because that’s the CD that’s out this year or whatever. Of course I would, it’s what it’s about.
So this is happiest you've ever been?
In terms of music? Yeah, of course! I’m not sitting there playing the “pop” game.
I wasn't accusing of you of playing any games…
Well, but…the idea of trying to achieve status through sales is a pop game – it’s gotta be.
Perhaps it is, but I was just looking at it from my point of view; if I’d poured my heart and soul into writing something and only ten people read it, I’d be very disappointed. I’d think: “What’s the point?”
But also, what if everybody you've ever respected in terms of your writing – your mentors, people you looked up to, people that have really done fucking amazing things in writing – and they were all saying to you: “This is your best work.” But only ten people out there in the public read it. How would you feel?
Yeah, I’d feel good.
Well that’s exactly how I feel right now.
I can’t argue with that.
It’s like this thing of…it seems that people assume I’m on this trip to take over the world in terms of selling millions of records and being here or there. I was in a band that got very big, we got really big in England – have I outrun that yet? Nobody thinks they can make any money out of it anymore which is fabulous, so I’m free of that. Excellent. I’m just another guy, in a band, who’s making music. And I think that we’re making interesting music, I’m playing every night, we’ve done nothing apart from play – we’re literally just a grafting band at this point in time. And we love it! I would play this record to three people every night; it makes no difference you know?
It wasn't a loaded question. I’m not trying to belittle anything you've done or are doing.
But it’s just so alien, it’s weird. There’s a definite reality of what’s going on, and every time I sit down with someone from England, it’s like people are trying to fit that into this preconception they have from before. And they’re like: “They don’t fit! Well, something’s wrong!” Either the reality now isn’t actually happening, which is why it doesn’t fit, or the maybe that preconception from before doesn’t fit the reality. So people have got to work that out. But how I feel about this record is as I said, and it’s exactly how I feel about this band. That’s all there is to it.
Borrell1 is out now.
1) Jazz Monroe's 7/10 Album Review: Borrell 1
2) Robert Leedham on why 'Erotic Letter' is one of the songs of 2013
3) Dom Gourlay's chat with Johnny Borrell back in 2003
4) Johnny Goes Off On One to Adie Nunn back in 2004
5) More features by Derek Robertson
DiScuss this feature over on the DiS Music Forum.