David Gray & John Gray: The pop star & the philosopher

One is a million-selling rocker. The other a respected academic. Other than a shared surname, what is it that draws David to John? Liz Hoggard met them to find out
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The Independent Online

Two men sit chatting in a smart gastro-pub. It's an unusual pairing: a self-confessed socialist pop star and a philosopher formerly associated with the new right. But David Gray is a huge fan of author John Gray, whose radical philosophical texts have brought him a cult following. In fact, his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals inspired David's new single, the wonderfully growly "Ain't No Love".

Not many musicians would volunteer to debate liberal humanism over a few pints, but then David, 37, is not your usual popster. He is equally at home discussing architecture, poetry and fine art (he trained as a painter in the late 1980s).

And John Gray, currently professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is not your average crusty don. An elegant grey-haired figure in his late 50s, he's just as happy discussing Dylan as Descartes.

Yes, he dabbled in Thatcherism in the mid-1980s (now recanted), but when Straw Dogs was published in 2002 it was voted book of the year by Monica Ali, Will Self and JG Ballard. Designed to shock liberal sensibilities, the book is an assault on the premise that we are superior to animals. Self calls Gray the greatest thinker of our time.

For David, there's more than one way to crack an interview. Which is why, on the eve of his new UK tour, he's invited John to join him in conversation. "I've come to the conclusion that answering questions about music is a fruitless exercise," he explains. "I'd rather talk about cooking or plants or walking on the beach. Unfortunately, when it comes to interviews people are only interested in the curve of your life - your celebrity, the money you have."

They have never met before, but the two are soon bonding over a love of Chris Morris, why you should never put your money in the restaurant business, and a horror of blogging. It could be an episode of Angry Old Men. Both are appalled by the way technology intrudes on modern life. "I find myself feeling old all the time," moans David, "because I'm just not switched on. No one just experiences walking down the street any more, which is one of my pleasures. You think, 'I'll just send a quick text'. Everyone communicates in snippets."

Both admit they don't enjoy going abroad any more. "I do like Britain above anything else," says David. "I feel more comfortable here. It's just the plants, flowers, the whole thing is more familiar." "So do I," agrees John. "I think it's because there's no British Dream. It's the shabbiness I like. I mean, London is very rich now, but the inner shabbiness of Britain is fantastically attractive. It's like going past a shop and not wanting anything."

When Straw Dogs was published, reviewers praised its "gloriously exhilarating pessimism". Not only does the book portray humanity as a rapacious species engaged in wiping out other forms of life on the planet, it demolishes the idea that society will gradually become more enlightened.

David was given the book by his manager. "I read it effortlessly. You're a born storyteller," he tells John. "When you're talking about primordial slime or enzymes, there's almost a poetic twist. You drop the floor out of the image, it's the same thing that happens in a good line of poetry."

When David was asked to write the soundtrack for Amma Assante's debut film, Way of Life, about racism in the Welsh valleys, he came back to John's book. "It lit my imagination continuously." The result, "Ain't No Love", documents a loss of faith in God ("I'm here eating up the boredom on an island of cement").

One of the central ideas of Straw Dogs is that none of us has a "fixed" character. We are just deluded animals. "It reduces the terrible burden of trying to make sense of everything."

David is not convinced. "I love the idea of there not being a species, just a drifting gene pool. But I look at myself 10 years ago and I definitely do have a character. I still make a lot of noise, cough, spit, whatever. I'm still like a bull in a china shop."

His best lyrics have a strange, off-kilter power. "Love is the ground that needs to be clawed back from the slavering idiocy and sentimentality I see everywhere. I know, I've been in love and I feel love, but it's not there very long, or a sense of responsibility takes over. When I started out I was an angry young man writing 'political' songs but I gave up because I think I'm much better writing on an intimate scale."

He and John bond over a love of Thomas Hardy. Even their politics are not so far apart. A former supporter of the new right in the 1980s, and then of New Labour in the early 1990s, John no longer sees the conventional left/right spectrum as viable. David shares his view. "When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was much simpler. Thatcher, the Falklands, there were lots of things to get upset about, but when all that got kicked away, it dwindled away in such a disappointing way."

Neither bothers to watch TV, but radio is a passion. Where they do part company is over football. John is agnostic, David obsessed. Against his better judgement, he's been persuaded to take part in ITV's Soccer Aid, on Robbie Williams's team alongside Damian Lewis and Jamie Theakston.

All money is going to Unicef, but what is Davidletting himself in for? "I wouldn't normally do reality TV but the bait at the end of the stick was too unbelievable. You're playing the final match at Old Trafford with ex-England stars. As a childhood fantasy, it's so potent it's dangerous."

Not that he's an ideal team player. "Basically, you just hang around all day having pep talks. Why don't we just get out there on the pitch?"

He loves Gazza. "He shouts things like, 'Come on England' even if you're just putting on your tracksuit. You end up being affected by this mad patriotism." But he hasn't much patience for the mixed metaphors that fly around. "Footballers say things like 'Practice makes permanent'," he says, appalled.

Our interview is winding down. John has to dash back to Oxford to write a paper. David's bewildered publicist is fielding calls from Heat and News of the World about Soccer Aid.

Pop's grumpiest man has had a good time. "Mind you," he groans, "people will be going, 'What on earth has happened to David Gray? He used to be a musician, now he plays football and spouts off about philosophy!'"

UNCOMMON LIVES

David: from the bottom to the top

BORN 1968 in Manchester.

MARRIED to Olivia, a solicitor and sister of Orbital's Phil Hartnoll.

TOURED dodgy venues for 10 years, dropped by his record label. Then, in 1998, he released White Ladder on his own label, which sold out through word of mouth.

HIGHS White Ladder went nine times platinum; 2002's A New Day at Midnight and 2005's double platinum Life in Slow Motion. Has twice won the Ivor Novello Award.

COMING UP Headline tour of the UK, finishing at London's Hyde Park on 22 June. New single "Ain't No Love". Taking part in Soccer Aid, starting on ITV1 at 9pm tomorrow.

John: neo-liberal critic going green

BORN 1948, north-east England.

MARRIED and lives in Oxford. Studied at Exeter College, Oxford, where he completed his BA, MPhil and DPhil. Since 1998, professor of European thought at LSE.

POLITICS Strong critic of neoliberalism and of the global free market. More recently, has tended towards green thought.

PUBLISHED False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), Straw Dogs (2002), Al-Qa'ida and What it Means to Be Modern (2003), The Mirage of Globalisation (2003), Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004).

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