Dave Rowntree: Lawyer, politician, pilot – and drummer in Blur

Quietly spoken, somewhat hesitant, a recurrent but modest social activist, 58-year-old Dave Rowntree isn’t just the drummer of one of Britain’s best-loved bands (Blur) passing time by writing, recording, and releasing his debut solo album (Radio Songs).

When he isn’t been beating out rhythms for Blur (which have had two lengthy career pauses, 2004-2008 and 2016-2022), he has been engaged with work on the following: radio presenter, podcaster, computer animator, film/television soundtrack composer, criminal lawyer and, most recently, Labour Party councillor (in Norfolk County Council from 2017-2021).

He is also a qualified pilot, and a trustee on the board of Release (a UK charity that provides free unprejudiced, expert advice and information on issues related to drug use and drug laws). In other words, he gets bored easily and likes to be busy. Do we have this right?

“Yes, there is more than a grain of truth there. That said, I can bring my entire attention to bear on something, so if there’s a task to be done, then I’m not bored with it. With being a lawyer, for example, there’s an awful lot of work to do involving writing essays and rote-learning cases. None of that was dull but, yes, if there’s nothing going on then I just like to be busy. With life, I’m a bit like a kid in a sweet shop – everything seems bright, shiny, and exciting.

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“I constantly want to try the next thing. I’ve always got far too much on, and I’m sure I’d have a much easier life if only I could miss out one thing, but I find that difficult. I’d be hopeless on a desert island, although that said, I’m sure I’d end up doing micro-work projects like sweeping up the sand, sorting it into piles and then sorting the piles into grain size. I’d have to do things like that, otherwise I’d go mad.”

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Radio Songs is far removed from what might be viewed by some as a vanity project or something Rowntree is just trying his hand at. “I intend to start on the next album before the end of the year,” he says.

Rather, the album is a conscious attempt to review his early life growing up in Colchester, Essex. Thoughts on this topic had been brewing for some years, and while one might presume that the onset of Covid-19 shook the ideas into life it was Brexit that spurred it on.

If you look at all of the jobs I had or have you’ll see they’re all about people

“I was in a fairly reflective mood, anyway, looking back on my life and thinking about my childhood, growing up, but then Brexit happened and the right wing in the UK was growing, and I felt this dreadful deja vu, having grown up in the ‘70s when England was a horrible place, racist, xenophobic, economic chaos, collapse, being bailed out by the IMF. Everyone had gone on strike, and to me, Brexit was, oh, here we go again.

“The generation in charge couldn’t remember the ‘70s and didn’t know how bad it could get. The idea that you can mess with everything at your leisure because everything will be all right in the end is bollocks. These numpties have no idea what they’re doing, have they, so that sense of despair got me thinking back. That said, in as much as the album is about anything it’s of looking back through my life and asking myself how I got here, what were the turning points for me, and so on.”

Rowntree admits that post his teenage years and during Blur’s euphoric heyday, there didn’t seem to be anything he’d rather be doing than being in a band. And yet when they went their separate ways, for the first time, in 2004, he sensed (incorrectly, as it transpired) they might never return.

“Of course, inevitably, we did, but by then I had qualified as a criminal lawyer and had started work. I could fit work in, by and large, around the weekends that Blur were playing festival gigs, but when we started to make a new album, it was a full-time job again. Writing, recording, and promoting an album takes about a year and you’re just not able to do the two jobs, so I had to choose. Being a member of Blur isn’t a difficult choice to make, however.”

I ask if there was no music to return to, would he want to go back and work again as a lawyer? Rowntree’s answer arrives faster than you might think. “Absolutely.” What was it about that line of work he liked so much? “The people.”

“If you look at all of the jobs I had or have,” he goes on to explain, “you’ll see they’re all about people. With criminal law, I met some proper psychopaths, a contract killer, and some very dangerous characters that I thought should be in prison and were imprisoned, and quite right, too. The overwhelming majority of characters, however, were just normal people who had become involved in drugs, borrowed money, mixed with the wrong crowd – people who knew that risks were involved in what they doing but who never really intended to break the law.

“If you had asked them at the start of taking heroin if they could ever have seen themselves living on the streets, walking into a supermarket and shoplifting meat from shelves, I’m sure they would have said no, but that’s where they ended up. They needed some level of support, someone who could listen.”

It turned out that someone was Rowntree, who followed up his stint as a criminal lawyer with four years as a Labour Party councillor. As some musicians on hiatus from bands turn to session playing, production work, holding up a bar, or the occasional reality TV show to pass the time, such a path for a successful musician to take seemed unlikely but not for the Blur drummer. He has, he agrees, a social conscience.

“Being in a band can be very artificial, especially for a touring band. Music can be transformative in people’s lives – it has helped me more than I could ever have imagined and more than I could ever explain. I’m sure that’s true for many people, but touring at Blur’s level there are big stages, with tens of thousands of people at the shows – and more if we play major festivals like Glastonbury. Thousands of people are shouting and screaming, and it’s like a huge party but you don’t know anyone.”

He trails off, muttering “I suppose it was a mid-life crisis, really” but rallies with “that’s what I was missing in life, that one-on-one engagement with human beings, to look them in the eye and try to help them.”

Helping people who “had flicked a wrong switch somewhere in their lives” or the simple act of “knocking on neighbours’ doors and asking was there anything I could do for them”, says Rowntree, “isn’t sexy, nobody throws their knickers at you, and you don’t get a round of applause at the end, but it’s satisfying in a way that playing music isn’t.”

Radio Songs released on January 20th on the Cooking Vinyl label. Blur play Malahide Castle, Co Dublin on Saturday, June 24th

Dave Rowntree on writing lyrics for the first time

“I found that writing lyrics was the hardest part of making the album, but that process evolved over the course of writing the songs. Writing bad lyrics is very easy, depressingly easy, but then the first attempt is always hopeless, awful. In the early part of writing the lyric, there is always the real terror of a blank page; you have to magic something out of, effectively, nothing, and having nothing is a difficult hurdle to jump over. When I started writing the lyrics I looked at a YouTube clip of someone who was really inspirational.

“He said the trick is to give yourself permission to be rubbish, to admit that what you first write down is nowhere near what it could or should be, and not to be embarrassed about that because if you don’t you might never get past the first draft. One piece of advice was to consciously write something bad, like rhyming ‘telephone’ with ‘herringbone’ or something like that. So what I found is that, yes, the first draft is woeful but you carry on and then, slowly but surely, you’re up and running.”

Radio Songs released on January 20th on the Cooking Vinyl label. Blur play Malahide Castle, Co Dublin on Saturday, June 24th

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