Dave Rowntree: Blur’s polymath drums up another new career as XFM radio DJ

Dave Rowntree – politician, lawyer, Britpop hero – talks about his latest incarnation: as a DJ for indie station XFM

You are the drummer of a highly successful Britpop act that, due to much internal strife, goes on an indefinite hiatus in 2005, and so you naturally look to diversify. You have only just recently turned 40, after all – the age at which life reputedly begins. The inescapable option is to start another band: many musicians, drummers included, do just that. But if you were Dave Rowntree from Blur, this was never really going to appeal. He did give it a go, he admits now, but the musical chemistry he had so readily located in Blur wasn’t always apparent with other,  different musicians.

No, instead, he nipped off and became a computer animator, and set up his own animation company. Intermittently, he flew planes, having qualified for his pilot’s licence a decade earlier. He stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate – twice, in fact, first in 2007 in central London, then in Norfolk in 2011. Did we mention that he also became a practising criminal lawyer? Because he did, and still does. And, as of last week, Thursday to be precise, the 49-year-old became a DJ on XFM, the indie radio station whose average listener is a good 15 years his junior. But Rowntree remains a music fanatic, and his show, he says, “is the highlight of my week.”

The story of how he became a late-blooming disc jockey is one that takes him a while to tell. He explains it one Saturday afternoon over  two lattes at a riverside café in Shad Thames, just around the corner from the home he shares with his long-term partner. As if in preparation, he removes his glasses and his Pebble wristwatch, and places them on the table next to his iPhone. Rubbing both eyes with the heel of a hand, he begins.

“About two years ago now... well, I think it was two years ago, but I’m losing track of time now that I’m nearly 50. It could have been 1000 years ago; it could have been yesterday. Anyway, I got an email out of the blue from a guy in Italy asking how much I would charge to do my DJ set at his club.”

I ask where in Italy, and Rowntree answers, enigmatically, “the North”. Yes, but where? Milan, Bergamo? “Um, I can’t remember. I forget all sorts of details these days. To be honest, you’re lucky you’re getting this story at all... The point is, I didn’t have a DJ set, and hadn’t DJed anywhere since I was a teenager at my local youth club.”

Nevertheless, the idea appealed, and a fee he refuses to disclose was settled upon. Stage time was four o’clock in the morning, which would have been painful, he admits, but a criminal lawyer often has to rise before dawn to visit clients in police stations. Parklife: Blur in 2012. (L-R) Alex James, Damon Albarn, Graham Cox and Dave Rowntree Blur's Alex James, Damon Albarn, Graham Cox and Dave Rowntree in 2012

The story ribbons freely from here. His father worked as an RAF radio engineer, and Rowntree himself was a radio enthusiast since childhood. Enjoying his now regular club DJ stints, he wanted to do more, and elsewhere. A friend who works in radio helped him to polish his style, then introduced him to XFM, who promptly signed him up, before, presumably, 6 Music could.

Rowntree’s first show was last Thursday, and, in between songs by John Lennon, Elbow and The Polyphonic Spree, he proved himself a genial host, freely indulging in discussions with his studio pal, “researcher George”, on, amongst other topics, nerdy facts about Mars. (In 2003, Rowntree handled the PR for Professor Colin Pillinger, who led the failed Beagle 2 mission to the red planet.)

“I enjoyed doing it enormously,” he says of  the show. Of course he did: he likes new challenges. The upside of this is that he gets to have an exciting life, but the downside, he admits, “is that not everything I try is a success.” He refers, reluctantly, to his experiences in politics. “You have to develop a thick skin if you want an interesting life. But I have.”

In February 2012, neatly coinciding with their Outstanding Contribution to Music nod at the Brit Awards, Blur released two new songs, “Under the Westway” and “The Puritan”. They had already played live intermittently over the last couple of years, always to universal acclaim, but these new tracks, “Westway” in particular, seemed to hint that, creatively, the band was stronger than ever. This is unusual in reunions.

“Well, the music has never been much of a problem,” Rowntree says. “That’s why we were successful. But there are harder things about being in a band than just making music...” Which perhaps explains why nothing more has followed, though rumours abound that new material  is imminent.

“Ah, I can’t really give you the whole Blur thing in the context of this interview, I’m afraid. You have to go through other channels.” What he does say is this. “It’s no coincidence, I suppose, that all four of us have one sister and no brothers. We became each other’s brothers, and that can have both good and bad consequences. We were together, in very close quarters, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Something was going to have to give eventually.”

It was when something duly gave that Rowntree went off to become a criminal lawyer. He believes now it was part of a midlife crisis. “I would toss and turn at night wondering whether I’d wasted my life as a musician, but I quickly realised this was a ridiculous thing to think.” His work as a Labour candidate, though, had given him an appetite for local issues, and the impulse to help people. Becoming a lawyer felt like the next logical step. “And I absolutely love it, the drama of it all. It feels like it matters, like it’s real.”

And, as it turns out, he’s in good company. “So many lawyers are wannabe musicians, and so many are in lawyer bands on the side. I was asked to judge a lawyer band competition once. I was, of course, very rude about them all.”

His legal work, then, remains ongoing, as is, he seems to sort of hint (but only sort of), a likely new album from Blur. They clearly remain, despite their differences, close, loyal friends. Rowntree tells me that he keeps up-to-date with all the music Graham Coxon produces, and turns up to every first night of each successive Damon Albarn project. And what of Alex James?

He smiles, all crows’ feet and teeth. “Yes, yes, I try out all the new cheeses, too,” he says.

Dave Rowntree’s XFM radio show is on Thursday nights from 9-10pm

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