Razorlight: Too sharp by half

Razorlight are on a roll. Alexia Loundras meets the front man who says his band's debut is better than Dylan's

Johnny Borrell is the lean and wiry linchpin of Razorlight, and is a fairly regular-sized 24-year-old. Except, that is, for his ears. Borrell has very small ears, which every so often peek out from under his dishevelled pixie mullet. "They're exactly six centimetres long," he says proudly, though they look even smaller. After a moment's pause, he continues: "Did you know, ears never stop growing? It's not very well known, but they carry on growing for a full two months after you die." Clocking my scepticism, Borrell is suddenly struck by the ridiculousness of what he has just said. "How Spinal Tap was that?" he laughs.

Giggling in a booth in a tacky Tex-Mex restaurant, the Londoner looks more like a mischievous teenager than the centrepiece of the UK's band of the moment. Yet Borrell is the epitome of the rock'n'roll front man. He is effortlessly charming and colours his speech with quotes from Bowie, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bob Dylan, reciting song lyrics off the cuff. While he's perhaps not quite the hyper-intellectual he thinks he is, he's certainly far brighter than the average frontman, and pumped full of blustering, bold confidence.

Borrell has, to an extent, earned his self-belief. Razorlight's debut album, the fiery Up All Night - released in June to near-universal acclaim - went into the chart at No3 and has spawned a handful of Top 40 singles (the most recent, "Golden Touch", clambering into the Top 10). The band are on the cusp of selling out their upcoming October tour, and Borrell's addictive, melodic songs have just clinched him a lucrative publishing deal with Sony.

But Borrell's assuredness appears to go beyond a sense of vindication. So convinced is he of his own talent that he has been known to compare himself to Orson Welles, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and John Keats - and, according to the music press, has even claimed to be a better tunesmith than Bob Dylan.

"I never said I was a better songwriter than Dylan," he insists, sounding simultaneously amiable, apologetic and a little annoyed. What he said - when asked to compare Dylan's first album to his band's own effort - was that Razorlight's record was "a hell of a lot better". "I still stand by what I said," he says. "If you're comparing our debuts, Dylan's making chips and I'm drinking champagne. But that's not the same as saying I'm a better songwriter than Dylan. He only wrote two songs on his first album." Borrell has written 13. Touché.

He is a mass of contradictions. While he bristles with naive arrogance, he is not devoid of humility. The comparisons he draws with the likes of Dickens, he stresses, are purely aspirational. "I'm not comparing the three singles I've done, or whatever, to the entire oeuvre of Keats," he says. "But I look at the path of these people and it keeps me going." Borrell is determined to make his mark on history, and is used to getting what he wants.

"I want people to enjoy my music," he continues, more like a command than a wish. And people have. Razorlight's visceral, spiky New York rock - think Television caught in flagrante with Velvet Underground - has smitten public and critics alike. The NME swoons over Borrell and his band week in, week out, and Up All Night went gold in four weeks. The presentation gold disc sits in front of Borrell in a huge flat box, like a prize pizza. "This means there's 100,000 people out there listening to my music," he says, lifting the lid to show off his sales trophy. "That's cool."

Inspired by London, Up All Night grumbles with the punk energy of The Undertones, the passion of The Clash and the frazzled transcendence of Patti Smith. But Razorlight have transcended their influences. While they haven't exactly created a sound wholly their own, they have concocted a tantalising dish of transatlantic flavours. Brimming with assurance, Up All Night is an album as lean and wiry as Borrell himself. And while it may sound as though it was recorded by a band who'd known each other since junior school, Razorlight formed just two years ago, when the Swedish expatriate guitarist Bjorn Agren (who, according to Borrell, learnt English from Yogi Bear cartoons), replied to a "band wanted" advert Borrell had placed in the NME. Agren invited fellow Swedish bass player Carl Dalemo on board, and drummer Christian Smith-Pancorvo completed the band.

Although Borrell had been writing songs since he was 14, he says he had never crossed paths with anyone he wanted to be in a band with. And, contrary to indie folklore, he was never a member of The Libertines. But he did get close to joining the band on a temporary basis. Having befriended front men Pete Doherty and Carl Barat in the days before the band were signed, he offered to stand in when their bass player went Awol, but the offer was never taken up.

Borrell is quick to defend what could be seen as Razorlight's somewhat manufactured genesis: "Some people find each other naturally and some don't. This is just a different way of doing it."The band gelled quickly, demos were recorded, and Razorlight were snapped up by the Mercury imprint Vertigo. Within a year of meeting, the foursome started work on their debut opus.

But Razorlight were not without their teething problems. Midway through the recording of their debut, their producer jumped ship to work for U2. The band were later forced to abandon their Battersea base and decamp to Cornwall or risk loosing their new knob-twiddler, John Cornfield. And, just when it looked as though things were settling, Smith-Pancorvo left the band (later to be replaced by Andy Burrows, enlisted, in typical Razorlight style, through an open audition).

"I'm not comparing myself to Jesus," says the singer, before comparing himself to Jesus in his usual outspoken manner (presumably this particular comparison is not aspirational). "For me, recording the album out there, in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall, was like when Jesus went out into the wilderness."

Borrell is not clear on whether Smith-Pancorvo jumped or was pushed. But what's certain is that there was a fundamental disagreement on the way things should be done - Borrell thought they should be working on the album every minute of the day, while Smith-Pancorvo didn't - and Borrell won.

By his own admission, Borrell is a compulsive scribbler - never caught without a notebook to jot down inspiration. "We might be mouldering in the ground in two years time," he says. "You never know what's going to happen." Is it a race to get it all out? "It could be, I don't know," he says, brightly. "I can't go two days and not write something down. Sometimes, like yesterday, I'm sitting in my lonely flat in Soho, feeling miserable, putting song after song down into the four-track, wondering when this is ever going to stop - when I'm going to run out of songs. But I put down some wonderful songs and, although I was feeling awful then, those really are the good times."

For Borrell, songwriting is not just about cathartic release. It's more a need to communicate. "From the moment I first picked up a guitar, stole two chords off 'Scarborough Fair', and wrote my first song, I knew I'd found a better way to express myself," he says. While Borrell's mates are important to him - "I like having a laugh," he says, "friends make me feel human" - he is wary of getting too close to people, and admits he finds it difficult to open up. "If you open yourself up, you go to this wonderful place, and it's hard to get back from there.With music it's different, much more honest. In a song you don't have to hold anything back. You can be totally truthful - no need for pretence."

Borrell uses his songs to speak his mind. Whether inciting a dance-floor revolution ("Rip It Up"), confessing crushing heartbreak ("Stumble And Fall"), or making impassioned pleas to loved ones ("Fall, Fall, Fall" and "Don't Go Back To Dalston") he writes raw vignettes that everyone can relate to. "I'm telling someone something in every song," he says. "Whether it's a friend or a lover or myself - whoever - it's just somebody who moves you and that's who you write to. But the songs themselves can be inspired by anything: love, hate, kissing someone incredibly passionately in the rain - whatever."

All of a sudden it's as though Borrell has plugged himself into the mains - his eyes light up and words flood from his mouth in unrestrained excitement. Talk of his inspiration has flicked a switch somewhere inside him. "La vie est peut-être triste mais elle est toujours belle - life may be sad, but it's always beautiful," says Borrell with the absolute conviction of a lovesick student. "Making music is not about some rock-star fantasy of playing gigs, scoring chicks and drugs, and making all kinds of money and getting out quick. It matters," he says convincingly. "Music's proof there's something good in the world."

Whatever his songwriting motivations, Borrell still reckons his band, his songs - his talent - are easily the best around. "It's impossible to describe what makes a great band," he says, lighting a cigarette. "It's an X-factor. The first time I wrote a song, I knew I had it. The first time I got up on stage, I knew I had it. If I was an A&R man, I'd sign a band with songs and a superstar to sing them. A lot of bands today have got good songs, but the guy up front couldn't even make me cross the room, let alone queue for a gig." He takes a long drag. "Could I make someone cross a room? Yeah. Could I make them queue up for a gig? Yeah." His eyes are fixed in a determined stare. "You give me a challenge, I'll do it," he says, resolutely. "I'll do it all."

'Up All Night' is out now. Razorlight play the Astoria, London WC1, on 18 August, then the Carling Weekend at Reading on 28 August and Leeds on 29 August

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