Johnny Borrell knows more than most how fickle the record industry can be. In an in-depth interview with Dan Jenko he recounts the rise and fall (and rise again) of Razorlight, and how ten years on from Up All Night he’s finally enjoying music once more.
I must confess to being a bit wary before interviewing Johnny Borrell, the enigmatic Razorlight frontman and former Libertine associate. Borrell’s reputation for losing patience with journalists is widely publicised, and I came across several accounts of music writers angering the singer when they asked about Razorlight’s sharp demise – and the weak sales of his debut solo outing Borrell 1.
Fairly or unfairly, there was perhaps always some negativity directed towards Borrell ever since Razorlight debuted in the charts with ‘Stumble And Fall’. From there the four-piece took the British music scene by storm, topping the singles and album charts with ‘America’ and a self-titled second LP, while securing a headline slot at Reading And Leeds. Borrell enjoyed more commercial success than even The Libertines, and with Andy Burrows on board as a second songwriter Razorlight looked like an unstoppable force.
Borrell’s recent solo record may not represent a return to commercial success for the indie icon, but it does represent a happier artist who has endured a career full of highs and lows, and finally re-kindled his love of music. When we meet, he warmly wishes me a ‘good morning’, quashing my nervousness slightly in the process. He then proceeds to enlighten me about his recent musical activity with genuine enthusiasm, and reveal some startling insights into the Razorlight saga with refreshing honesty.
Hi Johnny. You’re bringing out a new EP, The Artificial Night. When were those songs recorded?
“We were touring last summer and I took the band in to put down those tracks. As usual they were recorded live and we put the strings on them towards the end of the year.”
How do you think your new material differs from Borrell 1 stylistically?
“When we recorded Borrell 1 we went to my place and recorded with just a piano, saxophone and some plastic buckets – we were making a great sound from that and that was kind of the point. We wanted to make a record that was that pure. With this EP, we didn’t have that limiting factor – we were able to play whatever instruments we wanted.”
Can you put your finger on why you enjoy making music in that way? Presumably the records you used to make with Razorlight had quite expensive production, so what did you enjoy about making an album like Borrell 1?
“It’s strange – all of my hit records have been demos. Everytime I make a demo of a good song, there’s always someone that tries to convince me to re-record it. ‘America’ was an interesting case because we tried to re-record it four or five times and it wasn’t working. I ended up nicking the track, going to another studio and singing over the demo, and that was the recording that was used for the actual record. If you listen to it, it’s full of mistakes – there’s only one guitar in it and its atrociously played. Production is an interesting thing because it should mean making something sound right – not polished. ‘America’, for me, sounded right with that original demo.
“To finally come round to answering your question though, part of the enjoyment of what we did with Borrell 1 was the fact that I was making an unconventional sound. When you have two electric guitars, an electric bass and drums, you’re already making a conventional sound. I don’t see why every band has to revolve around a kick drum and a snare – I did that with Razorlight for ten years and I loved it, but the formula can get boring.”
Now your new EP is finished and approaching release, what’s next for you musically?
“We’ve got this great musical collective going at the moment so we’re just going to go out and play. If I get that chance to make more records I will, and the moment it’s just incredibly enjoyable doing what I’m doing.”
This years marks the tenth anniversary of the first Razorlight record, Up All Night, and you’re doing a gig in Camden to commemorate it. Were you surprised at how quickly that show sold out and how many people are still enthusiastic about Razorlight?
“I’m always blown away with the level of interest that Razorlight always gets. In terms of that record, I was so proud of Up All Night – that was, in many ways, my first solo record. Out of the three Razorlight albums that one came mostly from me. The last time I sung any Razorlight stuff was at this party and there were a load of young kids singing along to ‘Golden Touch’ that would have been about seven when I wrote it. It’s amazing to see that kind of thing.”
You’re headlining a lot of independent festivals this summer as well – did you deliberately avoid the bigger ones?
“I literally just decided to do a gig and a few festivals with Razorlight. I was quite up for doing a Razorlight EP as well, actually.”
Is there any possibility of new Razorlight material, then?
“Yeah! We’d need a label that wants to do it. We started recording the fourth record and it didn’t feel right. That was kind of due to my level of frustration with the lack of integrity that is expected from artists in the music industry from major labels. For the new bands coming through it’s pretty astonishing what is expected. The sheer conservatism of the industry in terms of labels and media is so different from what it was ten years ago.
“The same thing happened with Up All Night. We half made that with [producer] Steve Lillywhite and it just wasn’t right so we started again.”
After the Razorlight summer shows then, can you see a new Razorlight EP or even an album being recorded?
“I’d quite like to, but I find it very hard getting on with the record companies in this country. As soon as you mention ‘Razorlight’ the dollar signs appear in their eyes. It’s been so long since we’ve done anything, and yet the band is still treated like a cash cow.”
I think a lot of people would love to hear some new material from the band – could you see yourself putting it out independently?
“I think I’d have to. I’ve got my own label now which is really good fun, but Razorlight might be a bit big for us to handle!”
Have you signed any bands to your label?
“We have an active A&R department, yeah.”
Well I look forward to hearing who you sign! The second Razorlight LP was more of a songwriting democracy than the first record – did you enjoy having other influences in the songwriting?
“Razorlight were a totally different band at that point. We had to change when Christian (Smith-Pancorvo, the first Razorlight drummer) decided to leave just as our album entered the charts and we were put on the cover of the NME. We found Andy, who is a fantastic musician, and that changed everything. I thought the predictable path for the band there would be to make Up All Night again except not quite as good.”
That’s generally the way with second records (see ‘Room On Fire’), but it certainly wasn’t with you. The second album, to me, sounded wildly different to Up All Night.
“It was, wasn’t it?! I really felt after the first record that I wanted to prove myself as a pop writer in the same way as The Beatles did with Please, Please Me. I was in a very, very positive frame of mind at that time – I had a serious girlfriend and my band was working out – so it was irresistible making that second record. It was really fun trying to make a perfect pop album. What blew me away was just how successful that record became.”
You mentioned that you wanted to become a great pop writer when making Razorlight – was it gratifying, then, to have the chart success of ‘America’, ‘In The Morning’ and ‘Before I Fall To Pieces’ – really big hits that indie bands don’t tend to have?
“Of course it was! I always wanted to put out ‘Who Needs Love’ actually, I thought it would have been great to have a song like that on the radio. I really didn’t expect that level of success – I thought it would work but to the extent that it crossed over culturally from the counter-culture into the mainstream was amazing. You’ve also got to bear in mind that we went on tour for two years after putting it out, so it was hard to get an idea of just how big it was getting in Britain. For the large part, at the time, I had no idea actually.”
After that period of touring you released Slipway Fires, which for a lot of people was, by quite some distance, the weakest of the three Razorlight albums.
“It definitely was. That album was just about greed – that’s the only way I see that record. I went to go and live on the Hebrides – I didn’t do that to be cool; on a personal level I was in a really bad place. I’d been in front of crowds for eight years and I just went on my own to live on an island with 200 people. I needed to be on my own and start again, at that time I didn’t want to be in a band or write songs any more.
“Everyone kind of said ‘yeah, Johnny, we understand’ whilst thinking ‘we can still get a record out of him by Christmas that can sell a million units’. The problem with rock and roll is when it gets to that level, you know you can’t trust anybody, and yet you can’t function without trust. I wasn’t writing for a pop or rock album at that point – I was just writing because that’s what I do. I came back to London and the label had already booked studio time even though I wasn’t really confident in the songs.
“The songs I wrote came from this place of total mental breakdown and they were shoe-horned into a pop album, which just didn’t work. I was very conscious that I didn’t tell anyone in the band what I thought about their part of a song, because I couldn’t face the consequences of saying that and the tantrums that would ensue.”
Hearing you say all this really makes it clear why it’s been so long since the last Razorlight album and why you seem to enjoy the way in which you made Borrell 1.
“You’re completely right, I loved playing with Razorlight but I just couldn’t handle the way it became. I would love it if Razorlight was a totally unknown band and I could go in and cut an EP. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing – the pop game isn’t any part of it. It’s about having fun with the music we’re playing, which is just me.”
In terms of the gigs you’ve been playing, would you say you prefer the more intimate venues you’ve played as Johnny Borrell?
“I’m totally open to playing any venues, I loved playing the 100 Club in particular. I’ve been playing tiny venues for the last four years without any kind of publicising or anything really. I’ve been enjoying my last two years playing music than I have at any other point in my career – besides perhaps just before Razorlight signed a deal which was great as well.”
I guess a lot of people would look at your career and say your peak was the success of the second Razorlight album, so it’s really interesting to hear that you most enjoyed the times in which you weren’t really in the public eye. Do you think that the inevitable result of how the music industry is?
“I’ve got a lot of respect for people whose bands become a brand and remain so huge for such a long time. I just don’t know how they do it. I think a great part of being a musician is that you have to be getting outside of your comfort zone and you have to be risking things all the time. The problem is when you have a hit sound, everyone wants you to replicate it. You end up touring every night and just repeating what you’ve already done, which isn’t really being a musician to me. I’ve tried doing that and it dried everything up for me.”
Johnny Borrell plays The Boileroom in Guildford on Apr 28 and The Water Rats in London on Apr 29. More info. Razorlight have announced a series of shows and festival appearances around the UK this summer. Find dates near you