Dave Rowntree: Empire-building for drummers

Dave Rowntree is more animated than your average sticksman. When not playing with Blur, he's directing a cartoon series. Chris Mugan meets him
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The Independent Online

They are the butt of many a muso joke. What do you call a drummer without a van? Homeless. The Rolling Stones' sticksman Charlie Watts put it another way. He said he had been in the band 25 years; 20 of them spent sitting around.

They are the butt of many a muso joke. What do you call a drummer without a van? Homeless. The Rolling Stones' sticksman Charlie Watts put it another way. He said he had been in the band 25 years; 20 of them spent sitting around.

It is a quote often repeated by his counterpart in Blur, who has said he has no desire to waste his down time. Now, Dave Rowntree seems to have cracked it, as he hurries into his office foyer several minutes late, deli sandwich and bottle of water under his arms. Both remain untouched for the next hour, as Rowntree hurriedly explains his passage from quiet member of one of rock's most outspoken outfits to director of his own animation series. While Damon Albarn hides behind Jamie Hewlett's animation in his Gorillaz side-project, Rowntree has been doing it for himself.

Empire Square, which is airing weekly as part of Channel 4's late-night 4Music strand, documents the adventures of three youngsters making their way in a sick, loveless urban environment. There is Richie, who would have been a Pop Idol winner if not for Tourette's syndrome, the innocent techie, Rabbit, and the sassy go-getter, Hooks. The flavour of the series can be summed up by quoting the précis to episode eight, "Boob Jobs, Live!".

"Influenced by the Surgery Channel, the kids go into business giving back-street boob-jobs. Things look rosy, but what is that moving inside the crack-whore's new tit?"

Rowntree explains himself thus: "We wanted to poke fun at the things that make us angry and get people to gasp in amazement at what we get away with. I don't find things like South Park offensive. What offends me is that arbitrary attitude and enforced morality. The idea that bare breasts are evil, that is deeply offensive."

He is surprisingly eloquent for a skin-beater, but then, he has managed to carve out a niche for himself before. The computer-science graduate gained his high profile as an evangelist of the ill-fated Beagle 2. Full of scientific curiosity and national pride, Blur's bassist, Alex James, and Rowntree had already cajoled their band into writing the music that the Mars lander would broadcast when it touched ground. It was Rowntree, though, that spent Christmas 2003 at the mission's press centre in Camden.

Last year, he was one of the staunchest critics of the British Phonographic Industry's policy to sue downloaders of illegal music. But what has been kept out of view is that Rowntree has run a computer animation company for several years. It grew out of a childhood interest in cartoons. "I never had the patience to learn to draw," he says. "Like many kids, I assumed that you were artistic or you weren't; you could draw straight out of the womb or you couldn't. It was never explained to me it was something you could just learn to do."

As Blur became successful, they spent more time on the road and Rowntree found he had a lot of time on his hands. "[Watt's quote] has real truth about what it's like to be on tour, and to be a drummer in the studio. You do your stuff, then for three weeks you sit around playing video games. I decided early on I wasn't going to waste my 20 years."

Just before Toy Story introduced us to a new wave of sophisticated, hi-tech animation, Rowntree invested in a laptop and learnt how to do it himself. What started as a hobby became more serious as contacts asked him to do little jobs, until in 1999 he set up his company, Nanomation. Clients included advertising agencies and The 11 O'Clock Show, the Channel 4 comedy series that launched the careers of Ricky Gervais, Iain Lee and Mackenzie Crook. His most high-profile job, though, was technical animation for Beagle 2, creating computer-generated images of how the Milton Keynes-made craft was to float down (not to be confused with Denman Productions' technical animation for Beagle 2).

Rowntree bounced back from that disappointment by taking on an even bigger challenge - devising his own cartoon show. In conjunction with colleagues at online marketing company Outside Line, where he helps to run a management company, he hit upon the idea of adult animation. Rowntree acknowledges that his baby owes a huge debt to The Simpsons, which created the genre of adult-oriented television animation, though Empire Square's scatological humour and lo-fi techniques betray the fact he is a bigger fan of South Park.

"It makes me a bit unwelcome in animation circles, where The Simpsons is taken to be the God of animation, but it is a very traditionally American, moral programme. It is subversive, but only slightly so. And it has that kind of slapstick American humour that comes across as sickly when smug actors do it, but it works when you transpose it on to cartoons, because you can't take the characters seriously."

What is different with Empire Square is that Rowntree wants each episode to tell a story. You will even find one narrative stretching over two shows. "I'd much rather tell a story than anything else, even to the extent of sacrificing some of the laughs. A lot of people, when we started the project, said, 'Oh, it's a cartoon. You can do anything', but we want to do more than make kids laugh."

Rowntree stops and marvels at the novel situation he finds himself in. "It doesn't sound very rock'n'roll, does it?" he says. "I should have shagged someone on the way over here. We did break things at one point, if I remember rightly."

True, his role as director of a television series leaves little room for debauchery, while animation remains the geeky member of the creative family. Having said that, though, Empire Square is groundbreaking in some respects, and deserves its place alongside the shaky-handed rock docs and cutting-edge promos on 4Music.

With a pilot of a children's cartoon series, Rowntree had already done the round of television companies. Soon, the fêted drummer found he was starting afresh at the bottom of a ladder similar to one he had already climbed. "We saw straight away that it was a soul-destroying way to live your life, and you kept bumping into the same sad people on the circuit," he says. "It was like the music industry, in that people you meet are not high up enough to actually make decisions. I suppose the people with the chequebooks need to be protected from all that."

Rowntree's team decided to circumvent the television industry and set out on their own. The reason Empire Square's animation is so basic is that the three-minute episodes were designed to be shown on mobile phones and computer screens. Now its director believes the series' retro style could be an important part of its appeal. "When we started, screens were so fuzzy that unless you had a really sharp outline, you couldn't see what the hell was going on, and you had a low frame rate, so you couldn't do complex movements. But the more we compensated for those, the more unique it looked on the TV screen."

Rowntree found the mobile-phone medium to beunregulated, which allowed them to introduce child-molesters and necrophiliac morticians into their little world. "We were struck by parallels between the mobile-phone industry and the video-recorder industry 20 years ago. It was completely unregulated, and it was the outrageous content that sold VCR, not anything else. Now, it's porn that sells internet connections. We thought, the more safe it was, the less people would give a shit. The only point in doing it was because (a) it was funny and (b) people couldn't believe what we'd done."

Now he is working on turning the basic, short animations into 30-minute episodes - a leap that he is struggling to get his head round. "It's all about the scripts in a half-hour series," he says. "The whole thing lives or dies by that. To some extent, in a three-minute show you can be less funny somewhere to make the story work; you can beef it up somewhere else. But over a half-hour the whole script has to work." In fact, Rowntree will need a team bigger than his current four-man outfit of himself, designer, animator and scriptwriter.

That should not be a problem, as the man who speaks of himself as the diplomat in Blur is managing to impose himself on his current project. "I have to be a bit less concerned about getting on with everyone and more concerned about getting on with the job. It's very important I get my own way here, because you can't have this thing made by committee. Everybody has their own idea of what it should look like, and if you allow them to impose their views, it would end up a mishmash."

Rowntree is keen to not let his other concerns dilute coverage of Empire Square. He avoids questions on his part in the management venture Transistor Project, which looks after the Italian crooner Zucchero. Last year, he inadvertently revealed that his band had convened to run though some new songs. That rehearsal, he admits, was at his insistence. "Making an album takes three years, and for us, finding the time to do it gets harder and harder," he says. "Last time, it was me, surprisingly enough. We've passed the stage in our career where we've got that much to prove, so there has to be a good reason to do it."

While Albarn works on a Gorillaz album, due out this year, and James embraces fatherhood, the band are in no rush to release a new album. A good thing, really, because their quietest member has found how to articulate his own ambitions. With help from three foul-mouthed street urchins, drummer jokes have left the building for good.

'Empire Square' is on Fridays at 12.10am on Channel 4

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