Blur's Dave Rowntree: the rock star who wants to swap a drum stool for a Westminster seat

Defending the underdog has led Dave Rowntree into fighting music piracy, studying law and becoming a Labour candidate

Vote Dave! was the cry heard all over Hyde Park back in July when Blur capped their successful reunion tour of the UK with a pair of giant outdoor shows in the capital. Coming almost seven years after their last gig, the triumphant run was only made possible by each member briefly setting aside the new lives they had made for themselves once their Britpop heyday had begun to fade.

Multi-faceted frontman Damon Albarn had put his Chinese operas and excursions into world music on hold, bassist-turned-farmer Alex James had reined in his cheese-making and fragile guitarist Graham Coxon, who departed in 2002, had stepped away from his latest solo project. As for drummer Dave Rowntree, he'd been preparing to stand as Labour party candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster at the coming general election. Hence Albarn's jocular attempt to influence the audience come polling day.

Rowntree, 45, is under no illusions about his prospects of taking a safe Tory seat. "I'm not a betting man, but if I was, even I wouldn't bet on me winning. Activism is by its nature a slog, but it depends why you're doing it… I'm seeing where the problems are in my neighbourhood and trying to sort them out."

Identifying problems and locating solutions is how Rowntree now spends his time. When not training to be a solicitor, there is his increasingly high profile on music piracy. Last week Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, announced that the government's digital economy bill, which goes before parliament next month, will contain plans to suspend the internet connection of anyone persistently sharing unlicensed content, music or otherwise. The plan is for content owners, such as music, film and TV companies, to identify offenders and contact their internet service provider, which would then send up to two warning letters, with suspension "a last resort", according to Mandelson.

Rowntree, who is co-chairman of the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), the body that has represented musicians in this debate, believes suspension is not so far away from the punish-the-fans approach the music industry adopted when panic first broke out over file-sharing. The FAC favours restricting users' bandwidth, rather than removing it altogether, thereby preventing large-scale copying of illegal material and leaving email and basic online access intact.

"Co-operation, not criminalisation", as it says on its website. "When record companies make mistakes, musicians suffer," says Rowntree, sitting in the Soho office from which the FAC operates. "In the past, musicians haven't had a way of voicing their concerns, which was a big motivating factor for the FAC." Rowntree has a pragmatic outlook and a technician's eye for detail that is a legacy of his pre-rock origins as a computer programmer for the council in his home town of Colchester.

It is easy to see how he "muscled his way into the FAC" when it formed seven months ago, the idea coming from a group of managers rather than artists. "Had it been left to the artists, I doubt we'd have got enough in one place at one time," he says.

Despite some snotty comments on the FAC website about rock stars looking after their riches, most of its members are still seeking their big break, and its educational side helps artists to negotiate the more Wild West aspects of the music industry in the digital age. Rowntree is keen to pass on his knowledge, citing Blur's early experiences with management. "It would just take an afternoon to tell people the tricks you learn from bitter experience," he says. "My band weren't always millionaires. For much of our careers we lived on tuppence ha'penny. We used to call ourselves the Poverty Jet Set as we were flown around the world first-class but got home and had no money for tea bags."

Rowntree's one concession to starry extravagance extended to ownership of a twin-engined Cessna that he has since sold. He is aware of the risk of being seen as a dilettante, well aware that few musicians involve themselves in the nitty gritty of politics. "People assume I want a free ride and I don't. So I have to work very hard to show that I'm interested in what I can give, not what I can get."

His route into activism began with the opposite of a midlife crisis during the early part of this decade. He got divorced, then sold his house in Hampstead, coming to the realisation that he had been living like "a middle-aged baby". "So instead of getting a red sports car and a 19-year-old girlfriend, I trained to be a solicitor and went out knocking on doors for the Labour party."

He was drawn to the law after spending two weeks in the public gallery at the Old Bailey. "It mattered so much, people's lives were on the line," he says. Soon he was working at the offices of the east London criminal defence specialists Edward Fail Bradshaw & Waterson, as well as taking the Open University's LLB in law. Involvement with Labour came at that time. "The two are linked," he says. "It was seeing who the clients were – the same people over and over. One-man or one-woman crime waves, who largely are drug addicts, or who have mental-health problems, or who come from generations of crime: 99% of these people have never had a chance."

In his engineer's way, Rowntree can see how many of the problems surrounding crime, drugs, housing and mental health are connected. These are, he says, "the bees in my bonnet". This from a man who describes his "more politically extreme" younger self, the Marxist whose student nickname was Shady Dave, as a "squat punk".

I ask what the young Dave Rowntree would think of him now. "I suppose that person would think I'd sold out," he says. "But if you hang around long enough you become mainstream. The law I'm involved with is legal aid. It's not the glamorous end; it's being in the police station at four in the morning with a client who's swearing at you and the police swearing at you. No one thanks you for doing it, but it's important."

During their 90s pomp, all of Blur struggled with substance abuse, Rowntree included. He has been teetotal for years, saying: "I've got first-hand experience of treatment – what works, what doesn't. I think that's quite valuable."

He also has something to say on two of the big ideas of the 90s that have touched his life, New Labour and Britpop. "New Labour has the same resonance for me as Britpop. Both were labels coined by the participants that they then lived to regret." Albarn famously turned down an invitation from Tony Blair to Number 10. Rowntree was not invited, not that he would have gone either.

Albarn, as a pacifist, was one of the few musicians visible on anti-war marches before the invasion of Iraq. He and Rowntree differed on the need to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein, with Rowntree influenced by the fact that his girlfriend, Michelle de Vries, is the daughter of Daphne Parish, the nurse arrested along with Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft before the first Gulf war. Bazoft was hanged in Baghdad, with Parish eventually released from a life sentence, only after campaigning from De Vries.

"She met Saddam, Uday Hussein, all the key players. So I was getting an inside perspective on what was going on there, which is why I think Saddam was an evil bastard. While I don't think he should have been killed – I'm extremely opposed to the death penalty – getting rid of him was the right thing to do."

Rowntree's election work has begun in earnest, and he is undaunted by coming third in a Westminster council by-election in 2007. In fact, he enjoys himself. "The best part is knocking on doors and offering help." Is he recognised? "By some, but I've been campaigning in the area for 12 months," he says with a grin. "So any disappointment or excitement they may have felt at the quality of their candidate has been gotten over."


Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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