Meet RAZORLIGHT, and in particular their diminutive front man Johnny Borrell, a stick thin dead ringer for Mick Jones (of Clash fame) if he’d spent the last twenty years living on a diet of amphetamine sulphate and Red Bull.
Formed just over 18 months ago and with less than 50 live shows under their belt, Razorlight have shot to prominence thanks to a summer support slot with garage-by-numbers foursome The Hiss and their rousing debut single ‘Rock’n’Roll Lies’, which was immediately placed on heavy rotation by MTV2.
Currently on a tour that will see them open for the likes of The Raveonettes, Suede and (tonight) The Bellrays over the coming months, Borrell and Swedish guitarist Bjorn Agren are in a fairly buoyant mood.
“This tour is like a Grand Prix” insists Borrell. “This part with the Bell Rays is like your first time round the circuit, and then by the next lap with the Raveonettes we should be going at full pelt, before the final victory lap with Suede.”
Despite being novices on the gig circuit (“We’re growing up in public” decides a confident Johnny Borrell), their shows have been quoted as being “almost legendary”, while they have been blessed with glowing reviews by virtually every section of the music press, something which doesn’t surprise the amiable Borrell.
“No, I don’t think it has shocked me. I mean, I like the songs we play!”
“I think we put on a good show. We feel we’re reasonably good at it…” offers the softly spoken Agren.
“…most of the time,” adds Borrell. “There was one time when we played the Barfly in London a few months ago, and at that point it took me by surprise. Suddenly it felt like there was this chorus of angels singing ‘In The City’ back to me, girls grabbing out for bits of me and stuff. It was really weird.”
“I was quite near the front of the stage and I felt these hands on me, almost pushing me backwards” says a relieved Bjorn, his facial expression growing more harrowing by the minute. “The other side to it though, is that we’ve played most of our gigs in and around London, so people are getting to know us there, whereas when you play outside of London, you really don’t know what to expect, or even whether they’ll be anyone there at all!”
Certainly the band’s London 'connection' - Borrell having been involved in an early incarnation of the Libertines with his old buddy Carl Barat and drummer Christian Smith-Pancorvo’s experiences with Stony Sleep – may have helped establish their status as potential frontrunners in some post-Strokes gritrock scene (“You could go and see The Libertines, the Queens of Noize and Johnny Borrell playing in a small pub four years ago and nobody gave a fuck, but now they’re all queuing round the block” decrees Borrell), while the intervention of manager Roger Morton – himself a noted music hack for the likes of the NME, did more good than harm in terms of attention grabbing.
Having been conceived in London, how does the band feel about their current on-the-road schedule which will take them near enough up to the festive period?
“I have enjoyed it so far,” insists Johnny Borrell, “although I’ve
spent most of today sat in a Travel Lodge, and I’m sure these places were built
over old burial grounds or something.”
“I think the interesting thing is that more and more people are going out to gigs now as opposed to five years ago, when they’d just stay out all night in a club” adds Agren, rather pensively.
Do you think the way the media has embraced people such as the Strokes and the Libertines has helped open a few doors for bands like Razorlight?
“I don’t know really. I mean, I feel like I have to kick four doors down every day!” insists Borrell.
Having been compared to such luminaries as The Clash, Patti Smith and The Jam, it must be difficult not to pay much attention to what the media say.
“I always think fanzine reviews and stuff on the web usually seem to get it right, whereas the national press always seem to be looking for an angle. I try not to read to much into it, because when people get it right it tends to be for the wrong reasons,” states Borrell. “It was nice to be called the best British songwriter since Paul Weller though, by John Earls (‘Planet Sound’, Channel 4 Teletext).”
November 10th sees the band release a new single ‘Rip It Up’, which has already followed its predecessor onto both the Radio One and MTV playlists, and also saw the band make their first 'proper' music video.
“The video to ‘Rock’n’Roll Lies’ cost about £200 to make, if that…it was basically our manager putting together a film of footage from all of our gigs up to that point, whereas the new single, a friend of ours came up with some ideas of what to do in the video,” declares an excited looking Borrell. “He’s quite a genius, because he’s made the new video look quite spectacular on such a shoestring budget. He really understands this band. I sometimes think he understands us better than I do…”
First and foremost, Johnny Borrell wants to be recognised as a songwriter. Not only that, he wants to be remembered as a GREAT songwriter, and from the blood’n’thunder of ‘Rock’n’Roll Lies’ and Police-do-Britpop of ‘Action’ to the epic set closer ‘In The City’, the early signs look promising. On the subject matter of his songs, Borrell is quite open.
“’Rock’n’Roll Lies’ is about a girl who comes to London, a bit of a scenester. Her only ambition in life is to be seen with the right people in the right places and how false all that is, really. It’s like when someone gives you an ‘Access All Areas’ laminate and you think you’re on top of the world when in actual fact, most of the people in there just treat you like shit. I’ve always found that everyone who’s not in the backstage area wants to get in and everyone who’s in there can’t wait to get out! It’s like, you can imagine those sort of scenesters waking up with 20p in their pocket and never washing the dishes and living to go to the next electroclash club where they’re surrounded by all these supposedly ‘glamorous’ people…it’s about how that individual just lived a lie, basically.”
And what’s the biggest lie you’ve ever told, Mr Borrell?
“I really don’t like lying. I don’t think I’ve ever had to. I think there’s a difference between tact and lies. People tend to mistake one for the other. I want my tact turned off. I want everyone’s tact turned off. I think if that happened people would just do what they actually wanted to do, say what they wanted to say, rather than say what they think they should say because it’s more tactful, whether they believe it or not.”
Next it’s the subject of pop music. Razorlight may be predominantly geared towards a traditional white indie/rock audience, but the diminutive singer doesn’t quite see it totally in that way.
“The point of this band is to make good, pop music. Pop music shouldn’t be seen as a dirty word. It should be taken as meaning ‘to do something’ in the sense that a lot of people can level with it, if you know what I mean. Whether or not you’re engrossed in the lyrics or just love the tune blaring out of your speakers for three minutes and you can’t stop nodding your head. Music is more of a leveller than conceptual art, in that it can grab so many people in different ways, and that’s why the notion of pop music being completely throwaway is wrong. I mean, you’ll look at a conceptual art piece and probably less than 0.5% of the world’s population would ever try to understand it, want to even.”
So would you say that you wouldn’t want people to take Razorlight’s songs too seriously, in the way that fans of say, the Manic Street Preachers or Joy Division have taken some of their lyrics (and subsequent circumstances of the songwriters involved) too literally?
“There is that element of trying to get people to dig deeper in the songs
than just shake their arse to the kick drum or whatever, you know, get a message
through that’s contained within the lyrics of our songs, but at the same time
I don’t contrive it. I don’t sit down purposely trying to write a particular
kind of song that might reach certain people, I just sit down and tell these
stories I write the best I can. I guess it’s better described as my way of telling
people what I know, which basically isn’t everything or nothing – it’s just
something,” explains Johnny.
“We feel our songwriting style is natural. It’s not like we go ‘let’s do it this way because it’s fashionable’ or whatever. We just do what we feel is right when we feel it’s right and then everything just follows on from there. Spontaneity is a very important thing,” adds Bjorn.
“At the end of the day there’s only so many ways you can play so many chords” declares Borrell with a wisdom superseding his tender years.
At 22 years of age, Johnny Borrell is one of the most intensely prolific songwriters of his generation. Armed with his trusty cassette recorder, he’d think nothing of writing a new song in the back of the van whilst the band are driving up the M1, or passing away the hours in one of those Travel Lodge “cemeteries” he’s come to despise over the last few months.
“I go through tapes VERY quickly” he exasperates. “I usual fill a whole C60 every 4 or 5 days. Our first album isn’t meant to be out until the beginning of next year and yet I’ve already written the follow up. I’m quite frustrated at the moment because some days I’ve got 8 or even 10 ideas bouncing around in my head. Sometimes it drives me really mad. I’ve got a couple of major addictions and one of them is writing. When I get started I just can’t stop. I find it hard to really concentrate on anything else.”
Care to elaborate on what the other one is?
“Yeah, it’s Teletext. There are two main addictions in my life.”
Any particular aspects of Teletext?
“I really like ‘Words Of Wisdom’ on BBC1 and ‘Bamboozle’ on Channel 4.”
Johnny has a few philosophical thoughts of his own:- “Drink at least eleven cups of tea every day. Don’t wait for buses, because then you’re just waiting for someone to catch up with you. Always carry a tape recorder – you never know when you might end up behind a couple of old men in a museum and you can record their conversation…”
Have you bootlegged any good conversations recently?
“Yeah. I went through a period a few months ago where my tape recorder went everywhere with me, and I was sitting in a bar when the sleaziest, dirtiest old man was just trying the most desperate chat up lines on my friend’s sister. This guy just wouldn’t leave her alone, wouldn’t take no for an answer…!”
And then of course there’s the record label. Razorlight are currently signed to Vertigo (an imprint of Mercury), an appropriate choice given the dizzy heights that young Borrell is trying to achieve.
“They’re alright really. They just gave us some money to record the album and let us get on with it. I put myself under more pressure with my own quality control for the songwriting than they do. I won’t be able to rest until I’ve written THAT perfect song and I’m not gonna stop until I’ve done it.”
And how will you know if and when that day arrives?
“I’m hoping I’ll know! Maybe it’ll be hard to tell – after all, there’s nothing worse than trying to analyse your own stuff”.