A couple of weeks before Christmas, and the planning meetings have just finished for two of 2023’s most anticipated gigs, by a British band who first rehearsed together 35 years ago. In July, Blur are due to play two nights at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium (only one concert was originally scheduled, but it sold out in two minutes). Their blend of ideas from British pop culture’s past, mixed with the peculiar optimism at the end of the last century, made them one of the biggest bands of the 1990s; they’ve only made two albums since, both of them tentative, tender but lovely: 2003’s Think Tank and 2015’s The Magic Whip.
The day before I meet the band’s drummer, Dave Rowntree, he was with singer Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James in an undisclosed location in London, plotting the rough shape of the Wembley gigs, with instruments on their laps. “It was good! This is the fun bit before we’re playing the set over and over and over again, staring sullenly at our phones between songs,” Rowntree tells me. On this bright winter morning he is at Tate Modern in London’s Bankside wearing a hoodie and carrying bags of the clothes he has just worn for the Observer’s photoshoot. He had his portrait taken in the gallery next to Cildo Meireles’s Babel, a murmuring, ominous tower of a sculpture that he’s always loved, made up of hundreds of analogue radios. Oblivious ageing hipsters and midlifers, who will definitely have danced to his drumbeats, pass him by.
Rowntree, 58, is chatty, sparky and clever, not the wallflower he sometimes appears behind the big personalities in Blur. “I’m recognisable if the context is right, like at a gig, but I can live my life relatively unmolested – it’s not a bad life,” he says. It’s been an extraordinarily varied one, too: he has been a criminal lawyer, animator, flying instructor, Labour county councillor and prospective parliamentary candidate; he’s also studying for an Open University astronomy degree (“I wanted to find out how the universe works”) and is a successful soundtrack composer, whose credits include Netflix’s sci-fi series The One, the BBC tech thriller The Capture and, delightfully, incidental music for the Bros documentary After the Screaming Stops. “I met them at the premiere,” he explains, “and they were brilliant – so funny and really lovely. To go from nowhere to the biggest band in Britain to nowhere again… their story really touched me.”
His confidence in composing has also led him to finish his first solo album, Radio Songs. It’s a surprisingly touching collection, its inspirations whirling out of fragments from his tough past. These will emerge later in our conversation up on a high floor in Tate Modern overlooking the city he lived in until 2013, when he moved to a very big house in the country – Surrey – with his girlfriend, Michelle de Vries.
Of the album’s highlights, Downtown and 1000 Miles recall Blur’s more atmospheric, melancholic epics, while glitchy, nervy tracks such as Tape Measure see Rowntree weigh up the years (“Look at my life / Measure my time / What have I done?”). You’ve done a lot, Dave, I say. He laughs. “I still wake up in the middle of the night, at 3am, going, ‘Oh, God, I’ve frittered my life away – what an idiot.’ I guess to be in a successful band, you have to be extraordinarily motivated – doing music to the exclusion of everything else, almost from childhood – and that motivation doesn’t get switched off.”
If Radio Songs has an overarching theme, it’s how radio changed Rowntree’s life, from rare happy moments with his father soldering radio kits at the kitchen table (“The smell of a soldering iron is very nostalgic for me”) to the magic of music and languages he didn’t quite understand filtering into the house from an antenna rigged up in their council house garden. Radio also took him away from his mother: “The cleverest person I’d ever met, by some way, whose extraordinary brain came with such downsides, such crippling downsides.” And here the real story of his life begins. “It was all quite life-changing, really, the radio, helping me dream about life elsewhere, of a world outside the horrible reality of my life.”
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He was born David Alexander De Horne Rowntree in Colchester, Essex, in May 1964. (De Horne is his family’s original surname, from his father’s Huguenot ancestry: “They settled in Yorkshire, where the name Rowntree was as common as Smith, so they changed it to fit in.”) His father, John, an RAF radio technician headhunted by the BBC after the war to build its mixing desks, ended up sound-engineering early sessions by Cliff Richard and the Beatles and in the 1970s he was put in charge of the BBC’s first mainframe computer, for which he wrote early software, and computerised the BBC’s payroll system. “He was the tech wizard of his generation,” Rowntree says, a little sombrely.
Then there was his mother, Susan, a former concert violinist who never played a note in Rowntree’s life. Why? “After music school, all that training through childhood, she found that she was expected to be a kind of machine in a symphony orchestra, transcribing the notes on the page exactly as the conductor told her to. She wasn’t expected to be in the least bit creative, and she hated it.” Then there was sexism. “She was a pretty blond woman in a male-dominated world, with all the bum-pinching and everything else that she had to endure. She never picked up the violin again. She was very bitter.”
Susan ended up as a secretary in the BBC typing pool, where she met Rowntree’s father. “But all the downsides had started a long time before that,” Rowntree says. “Basically, I grew up in an alcoholic family.” They ended up living on a council estate in Colchester that was built on the town rubbish dump and began to sink as soon as it was constructed (it was later fixed, Rowntree shudders, but it’s still there). Being a child in the 1970s, he adds, was also particularly bleak. “The unemployment, poverty, strikes, the economy collapsing, a violent time of racism and misogyny. It was just shit.”
Rowntree’s song Volcano is inspired by a family photograph that belied the reality of what was going on: “A violent equation / Whose solution is nil / The pressure of forces / Have frozen me still,” run the lyrics.
When you made a success with music yourself, were they proud? He looks blank. “You’re asking the question based on some kind of idea of a happy nuclear family that I simply didn’t have. I don’t even know how to begin to answer that.” He’d have been put in care these days, he says. “I’m still quite angry that I wasn’t, to be honest.”
Music – played loud – became a place of rebellion for him. He first tried the bagpipes, taught by local army musicians (“But you need an adult set of lungs, so I didn’t get very far”). Turning to the drums, he was soon “farmed out” by his parents to a Saturday music school, where Blur bandmate Coxon’s army dad was also a teacher. “Then I just fell in love with playing in a group of people.”
Before he started playing with Coxon and Albarn (who moved to Colchester when his father became head of the art college), he was a mohican-sporting, baggy clothes-wearing punk, playing in “lots of little pub bands” across Europe with friends. He wrote a piece for the New European in 2018 about that time, when Britain had not long been part of the European Economic Community. Trade was still “far from frictionless”, and the misery of EEC carnets and unloading equipment at every border made touring nearly impossible. “All music industry bodies were saying the same before Brexit: ‘We have to address the needs of touring musicians in this deal.’ And the government were all: ‘This’ll be fine, we hold all the cards’ – blah blah blah.” He’s seething now. “And they did absolutely nothing.”
Brexit is “an abomination”, he says. Does he think that the Tories ignored touring musicians because they thought that side of culture didn’t have value? “No. I just think that the people in power had no idea what they were doing. It was this simple: to be a Tory MP, you had to kind of pledge allegiance to the flag of Brexit, even when the vague optimism that somehow everything would be all right had gone way beyond common sense.”
He’s still an active campaigner for musicians: today he’s a director of the trade body Featured Artists Coalition. This interest began in the early days of Blur, he says, when a poor business deal nearly “finished” them after their first album. “And for the first 10 years of Blur’s existence, we barely had a penny. We were being flown around the world in first class on somebody else’s money – well, our money, as it turned out – and then coming back home to our kind of dingy little bedsits without enough money to feed ourselves.”
The same year as Blur’s second album, 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, Rowntree also quit drinking. Alcohol was taking him into dark places, he says. Still, given the band’s star was rising, quitting then must have been hard, I suggest. “But I’d seen where that particular road ended, you know, so…” He trails off. “The scary thing isn’t where that road ends, it’s the fucking journey. It’s not: ‘What if this kills me?’ It’s: ‘What if this doesn’t kill me?’ He then got addicted to cocaine, but has been sober since 2007.
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In his sobriety, he got more involved in politics. As a teenager, he was far left. “A friend told me about Marxism and it was like being told the secret of the universe… but I went rather far down that rabbit hole.” He’s less extreme these days. I ask which Labour MPs he likes: he mentions Bridget Phillipson and David Lammy, but then stops himself. “What I should say is: Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn, Alastair Campbell, Tony Benn – by which I mean, to get stuff done in politics, you have to learn to escape the camp, get on with people across political divides. It ain’t sexy. Waving the flag, going on the march, buying the loudhailer and screaming things might be fun, but that doesn’t do your residents much good.”
Surprisingly, Rowntree isn’t excited by Labour’s lead in the opinion polls. “It’s taken the most incompetent string of Tory governments with absolutely no redeeming factors whatsoever to literally crash the UK economy for that to happen. That’s how toxic the Labour brand had become.” He likes Keir Starmer (“He’s doing quite well at kind of appearing level-headed and competent”) but thinks Labour needs to set out a solid aspirational vision: “One that directs people to a different way of life, where things are getting better again.” The renationalisation of the railways has been a hugely popular idea on the doorsteps, for instance, he says. “It’s time to admit that the experiment with the privatisation of public services has failed.”
Rowntree was a Labour councillor for the University ward in Norwich from 2017 to 2021 (he stepped down in the pandemic as a relative of his partner was shielding) and last year campaigned to become Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Peterborough, a city that reminds him of Colchester – “About 100 miles away from London, with a kind of lack of ambition of the place, which is just unlucky geography.” He failed, but still harbours ambitions of re-entering politics. “I’ll be involved until I die, one way or another.”
His fame has seen him recognised in other parts of his life. After he qualified as a criminal lawyer in 2012 he got on with the Essex police particularly well. “Because they were fans,” he says. “I’d get the nice chair and the cup of tea and: ‘Would you like anything, Mr Rowntree?’” He worked in the field for a few years, until Blur’s 2015 album The Magic Whip was released, then his brain dashed off elsewhere: paid work is still important to him, he says, despite Blur royalties providing the bulk of his income. “I want the things that I do in my life to have value. It’s important for me to feel like a productive member of society.”
He’s also excited about touring solo, having had singing lessons after making the album, to strengthen his voice. “I just want to play five gigs a week. Touring’s like being a sailor – you’re in a different town every day, you leave yesterday behind in quite a literal way and it keeps you very much in the moment. It’s a very spiritual thing to do, touring. And there’s a real purpose and focus of the day” – he laughs – “even when you’re totally knackered.”
Still, he didn’t realise Blur concerts would also be in the mix until a few months ago. The Wembley offer also came at an emotional time. Last year, his parents, from whom he had long become estranged, both died. “I spent time with my father in his last days. I took him to and from hospital, and I was there with him the day before he died, told him I loved him.” He also made “a sort of peace” with his mother. “I made my peace with both of them.”
Blur last played together in 2019: a surprise three-song set at Albarn’s Africa Express: The Circus show for the Waltham Forest borough of culture celebrations, a stone’s throw from Albarn’s childhood Leytonstone home. They played bittersweet Parklife album track Clover Over Dover live for the first time. “And we all went: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s actually really good, isn’t it, when we all play together?’” They’re not playing Glastonbury, he says. “Well, we haven’t been asked. You can’t play Wembley and Glastonbury, can you? Wouldn’t that be a bit off?” He adds. “No one, as far as I know, from Glastonbury has approached us. We may do some warm-ups and stuff like that – we usually do.” He jumps up, suddenly aware of what he’s said. “Not that we’ve planned to. Not that Dave from Blur is revealing anything!”
The band are not as close as they were, he admits, but they do support one another’s projects. Albarn gave Rowntree detailed feedback on his album before he finished it and Rowntree always attends his gigs, as well as bassist James’s summer weekender on his Cotswolds farm, the Big Feastival. He read Coxon’s recent memoir, Verse, Chorus, Monster!, which the guitarist sent to him before it was published – “But not religiously, from start to end.” Did he like it? “I’m happy with whatever Graham’s got to say.” And any plans to write his own? “In the first kind of decade of the band, I had a camera with me constantly, so I’ve got boxes of photos, I’ve no idea how many, from those early days. One day, I will go through all those photos and if I was going to do a book, it would probably be about that.”
The four of them do still call each other for chats from time to time. “It’s funny, but we always slot together like a jigsaw puzzle. Even though we’ve all grown and changed and kind of moved on, when we come back together, we slot back into a relationship that we all know works.” How does it work? “I’ve always said [it’s because] we were all boys with one sister – but also, all of us wanted to be pop stars. When we got together, it was like a magic button got pressed. We became each other’s brothers, really. We made a new family for each other.”
Radio Songs is released on 20 January on Cooking Vinyl