It’s the mid-Noughties in a scruffy Camden boozer called the Hawley Arms. Amy Winehouse is pulling her own pints behind the bar. Members of Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs are milling about. So, too, are The Libertines, probably tossing their pork pie hats ceremonially in the air. Kate Moss is there, obviously. Nick Grimshaw is DJing. And Johnny Borrell from Razorlight, resplendent in a nipple-low V-neck, has brought along his girlfriend, Hollywood A-Lister Kirsten Dunst. The pub is the tabloid-feeding epicentre of London’s posturing indie scene – “a scene so cool”, Tim Burgess of The Charlatans once told Vice, “it didn’t have a name”.
“I haven’t been in here for about 10 years,” says Borrell now, taking off his aviator jacket and squinting around the pub’s roof terrace. The 38-year-old's back in his old stomping ground with a new Razorlight album, his first with his platinum-selling band since 2008. It’s here that he once told an interviewer he didn’t care whether he won an NME award for Villain of 2006 because he was “one of the only guys ever to be on the cover of UK Vogue”. And it’s here that he said, in reference to his old pal Pete Doherty’s pastimes, that he “prefers tea to crack”. It’s also where he once had a brawl with his former drummer, Andy Burrows, the seemingly final straw during his band’s tempestuous heyday.
Making music back then “was simple”, says Borrell, who grew up in nearby Highgate. “You form a band, you go and play and you get fans. You could go and play in The Dublin Castle or Dingwalls and then if your song was good they’d play it on national radio.” He says the diversity of the radio playlists in that era, where you’d hear “Razorlight and Zutons next to OutKast and Beyoncé” was “amazing, but they don’t do that anymore. Now we’re at a point with new releases where I can’t tell the difference. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, is that the new Coldplay song?’ I’ll say that about every big act. Everything has become this radio mush.”
That’s about as judgemental as Borrell gets this afternoon. True to form, he has turned up on his motorcycle – like the one he once rode through his own home during a party and has been mocked for ever since – and orders a cup of tea. But he is hardly “the century’s most righteously ridiculous rock star” anymore: older, mousier of hair and suffering, he says, from “my first hangover of the year”. He is more wary of print interviews, too; one with him is a slippery word tussle that can often end with Borrell announcing, “I don’t understand you”. Yesterday he went to the NME offices and found it strange how the staff were all “super nice”. Why was he so surprised? “Carl [Barat] from The Libertines used to say to me, ‘Live by the NME, die by the NME’,” says Borrell. “We all grew up reading it, and then they’d just print things that we didn’t say.”
Somewhere along the bleary-eyed indie timeline, Borrell became the frontman that fans loved to hate. Razorlight’s 2004 debut, Up All Night, embodied young London with its perky, jerky indie-rock tales of rolling from one squat party to the next. It brought with it mainstream adoration, a Live 8 appearance, line-up changes, famous arm candy and a No 1 self-titled follow-up two years later. But Borrell had also developed a litany of offences, including slagging off other bands, declaring himself a genius at every given opportunity and displaying an unflappable commitment to taking his top off.
It made excellent music mag fodder, of course, but Borrell insists that his quotes – such as the famous line when he said that, compared to his second album, “Dylan is making the chips, I’m drinking the champagne” – were either exaggerated or made up. “I thought I was creating this persona,” Borrell explains, “like a fast-talking Lou Reed on amphetamines”. When he decided to drop the cocksure act, however, the press “wouldn’t let me move on from it” (though curiously he has continued to do interviews). “It’s frustrating, yeah, it’s frustrating,” he says. “But you give up trying to do anything about it.”
What others think of him, he suggests, is rather down to predetermined bias. “I remember reading one of the early pieces on Arctic Monkeys,” talking again of the NME. “They’d had some big stage backdrop built for them and Alex [Turner] walked in the room and said, ‘No f***ing way’, and walked out. And that was taken as a sign of his rock and roll integrity, right, that he wouldn’t ever have a backdrop. Now, if I’d walked in and I’d gone, ‘No f***ing way’, it would be taken as a sign of my ‘frivolous nature’. I think it’s just what you look for.”
What the media couldn’t invent, however, was Borrell’s wince-worthy fall from favour. After they cracked the States, Razorlight’s third and 2008 album, Slipway Fires, bombed and the group disbanded. A debut solo record, Borrell 1, with its song titles like “Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina)” and “Cyrano Masochiste”, only sold 594 copies during its first week. Its performance prompted his new record label to send out a press release celebrating that it was the “15,678th best-selling album of the year”.
More ridicule followed. First, there was a 2011 press shot to announce their new lineup, in which they looked, according to The Guardian, like “extras in Pirates of the Caribbean 4”. Then Borrell started another band, Zazou, whose Peaky Blinders tango-jazz sounded custom made for Glastonbury’s Chai Wallah tent. Next came the chortling uproar over an interview he gave to Metro: “You’d find out more truth by just walking down the street with a musical instrument than by looking at any of the news outlets,” he announced to them.
Not that Borrell would necessarily have known about any of this fuss, or so he says. He has never owned a smartphone and doesn’t use social media, adding: “I don’t even know what sliding into someone’s DMs means.” He allows himself 20 minutes each day to skim the news but says, “I haven’t read anything that exists out there about anything I’ve done for ten years, maybe longer.” He divides his time between Paris, the Basque Country and north London and prides himself on existing in a sort of culture vacuum. I explain the recent #indieamnesty hashtag on Twitter, which had the journalists, fans, DJs and bands of the mid-Noughties indie scene, including Franz Ferdinand to The Coral, confessing their “indiest” moments. Borrell is perplexed when I ask him what he’d contribute. “Well, I was the lead singer of Razorlight,” he laughs awkwardly. “What do you want me to say? I don’t know, I don’t get it.”
That culture vacuum is presumably why he can bounce back with a new Razorlight album that picks up where he left off, after another lineup shuffle (and Martin Chambers from The Pretenders adding drum parts in the studio). Borrell describes the making of Olympus Sleeping as “effortless”, as opposed to 10 years ago when he admits to being stuck with his sound. On the album, which he is self-releasing, he acknowledges that struggle at least with an intro that goes “give me a Razorlight album that doesn’t suck”. Happily, it doesn’t. Songs like “Carry Yourself”, “about taking responsibility for yourself”, are Borrell at his best: hooky and peppy, squeezing the grapes of nostalgia. It sounds like classic Razorlight – if there can be such a thing – with its strutty, glamrock-lite yarns and troubadour-pop about chasing girls and youthful abandon.
“As I started to make it, I started to realise that it was a love letter to that kind of music, and a really sincere one,” he says. “I was just like, ‘This is fun!’ I was always going to do it again, but for a while I just couldn’t, even if I wanted to do it. I’d be like, ‘OK, now let’s make Razorlight happen’, and it’s not me that writes the songs, it’s something comes through – you know, the muse. Which I suppose to some people sounds pretentious, but it is what it is.”
Does he think that people think he can be pretentious?
“I don’t know. I’m not sure really,” he says. “We’re in a society where we’re trained into making judgements rather than getting in touch with what we feel. I don’t really hear judgements, and I try not to use them.”
Is there nothing that he’s done, when he looks back, where he thinks, oops, that was a bit wanky? I’m thinking of the white trousers, or the decision to let fans get into a Zazou gig for free if they drew a complex Buddhist symbol called a mandala. I’m not thinking that, in just a minute, I will have to explain what “wanky” means to Johnny Borrell.
“Can you define what you mean and I’ll really, I’ll have a go,” he says.
I say asserting one’s sense of importance or intellect, even though I’m not sure that’s entirely the correct definition, to which he replies, “I mean, yeah probably. I was on tour for 10 years,” after a forever pause. “You get stressed, you get tired, you get strung out, you get fearful. I think I was really frightened. I was really frightened of showing any vulnerability, and I think that was unconsciously driving a lot of what I was doing.” What actions is he thinking of in particular? “Just everything. Everything, you know.”
I ask him about the rumour that at one point he had a separate tour bus to his bandmates, and if he regrets that? He starts to get defensive. “I did have a bus,” he says, “when we did Reading Festival, because I was going to bring a bunch of friends, just on one bus, for two days. So many people have their own bus. That’s what happens in bands. Is that pretentious?”
It could potentially be perceived by some people as pretentious, yes. Or it asserted the view that Razorlight was Johnny Borrell and the rest of the band.
“Yeah, which it was in many ways,” he says. “But I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I love The Cure – it was Robert Smith and the rest of the band. If Robert Smith was travelling on his own I wouldn’t find it pretentious.”
And so it goes on: me searching for a sliver of perspective; Borrell displaying both an acute self-regard and a lack of awareness at the same time. In the rock’n’roll sitcom of life, I am hoping for some aspect of repentance, where the lead character confesses to having been a bit of a silly todger and then, I dunno, gets given a Radio 2 show. Though Borrell is generous with his time, he’d much rather “sit here and talk about the state of the world that we’re in right now” than his storied past. He has found “acceptance” with his career and the subtext is that he probably wishes everyone else would allow him that, too.
“Obviously I’ve experienced phases where I’ve been incredibly loved,” he says. “I remember walking down these streets and having nothing but positive stuff coming to me – and that felt wonderful but dangerous as well. Because if you build yourself on that, you’re dependent on it. And then if somebody says, ‘Your hat looks stupid’, or something like that, you’re frightened because you might lose that person that you think you are based on.”
Perhaps he did see the hat jibes after all, though he is remarkably level-headed about them. “At the end of the day, what have I got?” he continues. “I know that I’ve got a band and I’m going to make music, and that’s what I do, and at some point it’s going to be underrated, at some point it’s going to be overrated. At some point I’m going to be cool as f*** and at some point I’m going to be the lamest thing in the world. But it doesn’t really affect my life.” His self-belief, he says, “isn’t a belief in me. I think I’m lucky. I’m tapped into some kind of creative thing, like all musicians are, and so I just try and keep my mind clear.”
So there you have it: Johnny Borrell, 10 years on, as unapologetic and contradictory as ever – and yet changed. Which is kind of brilliant, really. He isn’t sure where Razorlight fits into the world now but he’s just happy to have a place in it. After our interview we pass a framed signed photo of Borrell and Andy Burrows on the Hawley Arms’ wall and next to it, a picture of Razorlight performing on the pub roof. He regards them silently, as if he’s looking at himself in another life.
Olympus Sleeping, the new album from Razorlight, is out on 26 October
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