Hi, Johnny! Razorlight are playing shows again – why did you decide to bring the band back?
We never stopped. At some point people in the media decided we'd broken up, then we did a gig and everyone was like, "You're back!" We only ever took 13 months off … so does that mean we were finished? I dunno.
Maybe they thought that because you put out your first solo album in 2013. What could you say as a solo artist that you couldn't with Razorlight?
Err … [long pause, repeats the question] I dunno, I always see more similarities than differences. Errrr … Shit. I dunno. I'm not sure I can answer that with any accuracy whatsoever. Erm, what was the question?
What did you get from being solo that you couldn't get out of the band?
The first Razorlight album [Up All Night] and my solo album [Borrell 1] both arose from direct conversations with people. I think they're both representations of who I am and where I'm at and my culture. Up All Night was obviously a very London record, whereas the solo record you could draw a straight line through London, Paris and the Basque Country (1).
Does all your music arise from conversations?
No. On the second [eponymous] Razorlight album I wrote with Andy [Burrows, former drummer] and we wanted to prove ourselves as pop songwriters, like the Beatles – and I'm not saying we're as good as the Beatles; I just need to put that UK press disclaimer in there – but in the sense of: "Let's see what we can do as pop writers." Because we'd got to a point where we reached NME saturation and we were apparently "cool" but we'd had more than our fair share of being cool in that world. We could have coasted on that momentum but Andy and I were closing in on something new and different. I remember when I made that record, people said: "This is one hell of a risk – you're turning right when bands are supposed to turn left." And I was like: "I don't care about what I'm expected to do."
Did it feel less honest?
If you want to talk about honesty, look at the song America. I was in America a lot and I was getting extremely, honestly, pissed off that habeas corpus was suspended as far as the Americans were concerned. They were waterboarding at will and waging wars in the name of freedom, which I found incredibly distasteful. So that went into the song America. I could have just sung about some bird or something, you know?
Did people pick up on that message?
Yeah, in France they did, sure. In England? I don't know, it's an immediate song; I don't expect people to pick up on anything beyond the "oh oh oh!"
Your solo stuff has a very European sound. How did that come about?
It was born out of necessity. I got a group of musicians together and they turned up at my house in the Basque Country to record an album, expecting me to have a studio. But I didn't, I just had a house. We had this 17-year-old kid called João [Mello], who had just turned up from Brazil, playing saxophone. And I didn't have a drum kit so we used buckets instead. Wherever we play – be it a street corner or a festival – there's something very real about it.
It didn't sell many copies. Were you hurt when your label put out a statement about the sales figures making light of it?
I had almost no knowledge of that statement and I'm not sure who put it out or even what it said. My manager told me that it was really weird and, yeah, it was really weird. But hurt? No. It was something of an irrelevance.
But they're supposed to have your back.
I agree, but rule No 1 is labels are scum. Or is it rule No 2? I can't remember. I went to meet the new head of publishing at one of the big record companies and he said: "I love songs but I don't listen to lyrics." That's the kind of industry we're living in. If you're making music for any reason other than getting rich and getting laid you can't take labels seriously. Watching the label and my management try to integrate [the new material] into the mainstream was really like a labour of Sisyphus, you know? Eternally pushing the boulder up the hill, because [my music's] not the culture. Someone played Radio 1 to me recently and that's the culture.
You're not impressed with what you hear on Radio 1?
You want me to underline that point? Are you looking for a snappy soundbite?
I just wondered what, specifically, you don't like about modern music.
I think the art of recording is being lost. I'd rather listen to the demo than the properly recorded version of almost everything from the last 20 years. It's very superficial and doesn't sound like it's being played.
When your solo album was released there was a lot of comment on the track titles (2) – do you think you've got a knack for them?
Well, interestingly, my friend is in literature and she reads the Guardian. She read an article on your website and she said: "Wow, that's amazing, I've never read an article before where the first four sentences all end in an exclamation mark." Now, that's very poor writing. That's got to be bad journalism if your first four sentences have to end with an exclamation mark.
OK, but what does that have to do with your song titles?
Because you're referring to a Guardian article that was published the moment my album was announced. It was an online poll asking which title do you think is the most ridiculous (3). And I think that poll got absolutely zero interest so … great. I thought that was a bit beneath you. I don't really think it was worthy of the Guardian.
OK, but I was asking about the song titles …
Whatever, I'm happy to leave it if you are. I thought it was specific to that article. It's very, very rare that I read the press but I was pretty shocked by that. I know the media is dumbing down but … are you laughing? Is that the giggle of a man who has just got his pull quote?
Not at all, I'll change the subject. Other than you, every member of the most well-known Razorlight lineup has been replaced. You've said before it wasn't a "happy camp" – what went wrong?
I think everyone was doing their best to try and make things work, but for me it was like a destructive marriage – you give it everything you can to keep it going. The one thing is that I have always felt extremely privileged to be playing in a band and touring the world and making music. I have never lost sight of that. I'm not sure it was the same for everyone else.
When other members complain of their time in the band (4), do you feel they're being a bit ungrateful?
When I do interviews with the Sun they put words in my mouth like that, you know? That's not what I said.
I didn't say that's what you said, I was asking you.
No, but that's classic … it's like hanging around Chelsea football club as a teenager and they'd say, "Do you feel disgusted?" and you'd be like, "Er, yeah, OK." And then it was a story. So if a journalist says the word "ungrateful" it's a pejorative term and it's not what I've said at all.
I didn't say it was.
I'm not going to comment. I couldn't even begin to apply gratefulness to that situation. There's no need for gratefulness, let alone a lack of it.
You seem slightly paranoid about the media.
You're asking the kind of leading questions you'd get from a Sun journalist. I just think a conversation about music in the Guardian should be above that. I just do, I'm sorry. You may disagree. Have we reached our half-hour yet? I feel like we've done a good interview here …
How do you look back at your famous quotes, such as, "Compared to the Razorlight album, [Bob] Dylan is making the chips, I'm drinking champagne"?
I never look back on them. How do you feel about something you said 10 years ago? I get asked this question so much. If you've got a good question, let's do it.
OK, you were recently quoted saying you don't read the news because you find out more truth from walking down the street with a guitar. How does that work?
Music is a language that's older than words … rhythm is older than words. It's a language we all share. So if you have music then you're never alone, you're always connected to your fellow humans. So of course you would know more if you walked from here to God knows where and experienced as many cultures as you could while playing a musical instrument. That's so blindingly obvious to me. But if you're asking if I believe in mainstream media, then sorry but I don't.
Why even do this interview if you don't believe in mainstream media?
Why shouldn't I? I could sit here and play the game but life is too short, you know? And I think it's the job of any artist to speak their mind and say the truth as they see it, otherwise they're selling you out.
OK, but the thing that maybe comes across most passionately from talking to you is a hatred of the media.
[Laughs] I don't hate the media! I've only written one article in my life – it was on the front cover of the Independent – and there was no mention of the media! But anything that goes through editors and a collection of viewpoints is by definition political … whereas the truth is not political. And what is politics anyway? It's all about money-making.
At Razorlight's peak of success did fame mess with your head?
I went to an island in the Hebrides in January 2006 or 2007 on my motorcycle. Stayed there for four months with no phone or internet. That was my reaction to the height of fame.
What did you do there?
There was no heating so I chopped a lot of wood, burned a lot of wood. Did some reading, writing. A few walks on the beach. I ended up doing a few guitar lessons in the school. I thought I would engage with something real.
How many people knew you there?
Out of 200 people I would say … zero. Nobody gave a fuck. I'd go to the Co-op and my song was playing on the radio and nobody cared. In fact, while we're on the subject of the Guardian (5), there was somebody on the island, I don't know who, but they wrote a nice letter to the Guardian saying there was never a mention of Johnny Borrell without a mention of his arrogance. And they said that I'd been there for four months and they'd found me to be this and that. So who am I going to trust? The person I've engaged with in their community or the one who's written an article?
Is that reputation unjustified, then? You have said in the past that you were obnoxious …
Yeah, but who has never been obnoxious? It's like saying who has never got angry or envious or jealous. It's a bizarre question – why should I never have been obnoxious?
(1) Borrell has previously lived in the autonomous region of northern Spain.
(2) Highlights include Cyrano Masochiste, Erotic Letter and Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina).
(3) None of the first four sentences end with exclamation marks, although the last sentence of the article does end with four!!!!
(4) Andy Burrows told one journalist he had turned to drink and counselling because he was "all out of coping mechanisms".
(5) We're not on the subject of the Guardian.
• Johnny Borrell & Zazou will play at Camden Rocks on 31 May, before Razorlight headline London's Electric Ballroom on 4 June. Both bands will perform at various festivals this summer.