The great pretender; Interview: Gavin Rossdale

The lead singer of Bush: too coiffed for a rock star, too popular for a rebel ... too old for his date of birth?
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It's Easy to determine the most interesting things about an interviewee: they're the things that his publicist asks you not to write about. Gavin Rossdale's publicist asked me not to write about two things.

In America, Rossdale is known as that British guy who sells millions of records. In Britain, up until now, he's been known as that British guy who sells millions of records in America. In 1995, his band played to a crowd of 60,000 in Washington DC. A month later they were in front of 150 people in a Birmingham pub. In America, Rolling Stone magazine boosted its circulation with a cover photo of Rossdale, smouldering and topless, reclining on rumpled bed sheets. In Britain, the Mail on Sunday magazine's piece about him was flagged by a cover photo of the Gallagher brothers, and the line: "The Band That Cracked America (and it's not this lot)". Rossdale, singer/songwriter/guitarist/sex symbol of Bush, is a prophet without honour in his own land - and not much profit either. The group's debut album, Sixteen Stone, has sold a more-than-respectable 50,000 copies here, but in the rest of the world it has sold seven million.

That's the first thing.

The reason that Bush do so well in America is that they sound like Nirvana. Whether or not it's calculated - Rossdale says not, of course - the fragmentary lyrics, the aching groan, the punk rock guitars and the sudden, Pixies- influenced dynamic switches are all Seattle trademarks. Except that they don't quite convince. They don't have the passion or the power. They don't have the ... grunginess. As for Rossdale himself, the elfin figure hunched on the chaise-longue in front of me looks like a fashion magazine's idea of a grunge star. Okay, there's a brown zip-up cardigan over a white T- shirt, but where are the rips and holes? The fading black jeans are okay, but I'm not sure about those teddy-boy creepers. And he is too handsome, too fine-featured, his streaked brown hair too carefully styled. To quote the man who discovered Bush, Rossdale has "a look which [is] very favourable for marketing and selling records".

That's the second thing.

These points have been dealt with in many articles already, points out the publicist. But no one has asked what the band are about. So, in the opulent lounge of a Central London hotel suite, that's what I ask Gavin Rossdale. What are Bush about? Do they have an aim? A theme? Rossdale laughs, showing perfect teeth. "The only theme I can think of is ... like ... like ... trying to find a way through it all." He pauses more than he talks, his low voice only slightly more than a mumble. "We want people to identify with our confusion. Confusion about how you feel, where you're going, what your part is ... and stuff. That's why I couldn't understand the hugeness of Blur. Their stuff was always sort of contrived. It wasn't really about where they were at, or what they thought about stuff."

Were Damon Albarn here, I conjecture, he would probably consider that Rossdale's way of describing his music was quite pretentious. Rossdale disagrees. "Pretentious is from pretend, right? That's where it comes from. My point is that it's pretentious to be writing about stuff you're not involved in. Damon wants to be the Alan Ayckbourn of the music world. Something like that. What I was trying to do was move away from that, and not be steeped in deceit and contrivance."

This is the crux of the Bush problem, the reason that they are whipping boys for critics on both side of the Atlantic. Rossdale believes he is the real McCoy, because he doesn't make "wacky ironic English music". American audiences agree. But he is open to the very same accusations which have driven Albarn to turn his back on music-hall vignettes: that he is an over-privileged young man, stealing someone else's voice to cash in on suffering he doesn't understand. We don't want second-hand grunge from a middle-class doctor's son who went to Westminster College, thank you very much. "It was a pretty weird thing to go from a nobby school like that into the rock world, where that could be the biggest stigma you could ever imagine," acknowledges Rossdale.

When I tell him that I have two friends who were in his class at Westminster, he responds instantly: "Ask them if I was hated at school." I reply that I've already asked them, and that they said he wasn't. "Not in the last bit," he admits. "In the first three years I was totally hated. I was the most unpopular boy that's ever been at that school."

The other area on which memories differ is that of his age. One press release says he was born in 1969, another says 1967. However, my friends are aged 311/2. When was Rossdale born? "Sixty-seven," he says.

"So that makes you ... 29?"

"Twenty-nine. But you can call me what you like. You can call me 35 if you like."

"It's just that ... if your classmates are 31 ..."

"Yeah, I could have been a year ahead for my age. I could be 29, I could be 30."

"Yes, but how old are you?"

"I've just told you." He grins. "I think they're lying. I think they're trying to be older."

It's not a very satisfying experience, interviewing Rossdale. He is a relentless fidget, scribbling on a paper napkin with a pencil, fiddling with a box of matches, rarely making eye contact. He rambles vaguely and cagily: a symptom, perhaps, of his reported long-term devotion to marijuana. I ask one question about his clothes, and a minute later he is telling me about the time his mother was mugged.

Still, the elusiveness is hardly surprising, given that he has suffered so much hostile press. Rossdale puts this down to journalists' frustration that he had taken off "without their permission". With the release of Sixteen Stone's follow-up, Razorblade Suitcase (which is now in the UK top 10), he thinks attitudes are changing. "It's easier now, with a new record to talk about. But maybe not," he laughs. He traces a headline in the air: "'Androgynous wanker, no one ever liked him.'" Perversely, this is wishful thinking. It would help to validate his songs if someone confirmed that he was an outcast, hated and scarred because he dared to be different. Whereas, to me he seemed nice, suspicious, vain, remarkably unaffected by his success, possessed of an enviable head of hair, but overall a very ordinary man - who happens to have sold nine million records.