Guitar music has had a bit of a rough time of late. The 00s represented its last great heyday, when the likes of The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, The Zutons, Arctic Monkeys, and The Kooks et al, bestrode the world stage, guitars, drums and bass at its beating heart. The internet was young, smartphones did not exist, singles still mattered, Brtipop a fresh memory, and mainstream radio continued to shine a light on the classic pop-rock formula, via beat combos with six-strings at its epicentre. Johnny Borrell still loves his rock’n’roll, but he is under no illusions that the landscape has changed, and not for the best, in his opinion. “It’s not very fashionable at the moment. Every song in the charts is by Rita Ora, isn’t it?” he claims. “It sounds like it, I can’t really tell the difference. There’s no B or C list anymore. There’s A and D. A is absolute bullshit right now, bands pretending to be electro-pop or that millenial electro-pop thing which is the same fucking melody for every song, which is dog shit. Or you’ve got D, which is really underground, and alternative. I can see those things going on, but B and C is just being wiped out. I think the thing that was great ten years ago, even on mainstream radio, you would have some big Dre-produced thing, followed by Kaiser Chiefs, followed by Outkast, followed by Gnarls Barkley, followed by The Zutons or Razorlight or Libertines. There was much more variety. Some people send me links to stuff on YouTube. Too many bands use click tracks. Quite often, I can’t tell the difference between the advert, and when the song begins.”
Still opinionated, and still with a fire in his belly, Borrell has recently re-ignited Razorlight. Their first album for ten years, Olympus Sleeping, is an unashamedly guitar-pop album that is full of sharp guitars and dancefloor-ready rhythms. It sounds like a throwback to the 00s, a time when bands really did not want to be lumped in as ‘indie-rock’, but which Borrell is very happy to do now. Describing the album as a “Love letter to rock’n’roll,” he says, “This time, it was about embracing English indie guitar pop. That’s what I love about it. That’s what Razorlight is. That’s the DNA of Razorlight. I watched other bands, and I just formed the band that I wanted to see live. In terms of arrangements, the early blueprint was early Buzzcocks, early Pixies. Very short songs, very tight arrangements.”
Following the huge success of his band first time around, which included three top five albums, and a number one hit with ‘America’, Borrell slowly but surely fell out of love with his band, finding it increasingly hard to deal with the stardom and the huge pressures. “The band got really big, and we played big gigs, and they wanted you to play for two hours. I don’t think we’re that band. That was hard to make that transition. I really didn’t enjoy that.”
Following the release of their third album, Slipway Fires, in 2008, the band continued to stutter along, shedding members, recruiting new ones, and somewhat losing its way, before Borrell finally called it a day in 2014. He embarked on a solo career, which resulted in two albums, both of which failed to make much of an impact, but which he nevertheless claims he put his all into, and which he remains proud of. “I never made a Razorlight record when I didn’t have the feeling for it,” he says. “And that’s why I didn’t for a while, because I needed to go off and do some other stuff. Which I think as a musician is quite a valid thing to do. I didn’t want to try and fake it at any point. If you’re faking it, I can imagine that would be really really hard. I loved making my two solo records. I gave them everything. I was very proud of those. Every time I come to make a record, I think, ‘how I can do my best’?”
So, you felt you could just leave something behind, that was successful, and turn your back on it? That couldn’t have been easy? “Success is not the same as happiness. Someone could have asked Kurt Cobain the same thing after suffering In Utero. If I had tried to go through it when it wasn’t there, I think that would have been highly dangerous for myself.”
What was the reason for getting Razorlight going again? “I knew I really wanted to make a new Razorlight album at some point. It was always in the back of my mind. I felt that our third album – although it had some real moments – didn’t feel like it was very Razorlight-y, and I didn’t want that to be the last one. That was always in the back of my mind. I was just waiting for it to be fun, you know?
“I’ve always used the same guitar in Razorlight, and the same amp. It was such a part of Razorlight. Apart from a short period when I used a Gretsch, I always used a Gibson L6. It’s so emblematic of Razorlight for me, I was kinda like I couldn’t even look at it. It was sitting in its case. I knew that when I wanted to play that guitar again, it was probably going to be the right time for Razorlight. ‘I’ll just get it out the case, and clean it up’. Around that time, David Ellis, who joined the band, he was back from New York, and he was someone who I wanted to play with for a long time. ‘Yeah, let’s try it’.”
Olympus Sleeping, whilst not quite reaching the commercial success of their previous albums, represents something of a renaissance for this singer and songwriter. His joie de vivre is apparent throughout. It’s an album packed full of cracking, accessible, and energetic songs. ‘Brighton Pier’, for instance, is a love letter of sorts to the city which has been a big part of his life ever since he was at school. “When I was a kid, when we used to bunk school in London, obviously you couldn’t go to each other’s houses, so we had to figure out where to go. I used to spend a lot of time in Swiss Cottage Library in North London, but then they started twigging on to us. And then my friend had this great idea; the Thameslink back then had no ticket machines, so we could get the train down to Brighton from Kentish Town. We could go to Brighton for nothing, and just kick around, and then get the Thameslink back in time for three o’clock. Then you could say to your mum you had been to school. That was my first experience of Brighton.
“And I remember driving there for no reason, with Pete Doherty, before The Lbertines or Razorlight were anything, in one of his dodgy vans. We went to the beach, threw stuff into the sea. And then I was down there with my girlfriend, and had an unexpected moment of pure trust, and I wrote the song, ‘Brighton Pier’. The song had seven verses originally, but we pared it down for the album version.”
Having Martin Chambers play, drummer with The Pretenders, was also a big part in making the new album work out. “Yeah, man,” purrs Borrell, as he recalls that chance meeting. “I had the great fortune to be in a corridor with two drum legends. There was Clem Burke from Blondie as well. It was Dave Stewart’s (Eurythmics) birthday gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and I’m standing in the corridor with Clem Burke and Martin Chambers. I’m thinking, ‘Fuck, man, I’ve got an album coming up, who am I going to ask? I’ve got to ask one of these guys’. It’s ridiculous, you know. Clem was busy taking a selfie on his phone, and I looked at Martin, and he was rolling a fag, so I thought, I would ask him!
“I love Martin. I’ve always loved his drumming. He does something that no one else does – a very groovy hi-hat, but very trashy at the same time, and very measured. Although he hits it quite hard, he treats the kit as a real instrument, with many interfaces. So, you get a very cohesive sound with him, and recording with him is a joy. He was such a big part of the sound, the classic Pretenders sound; some of my favourite music ever, especially the first two records.”
Things have obviously changed, radically, even in the space of just a decade, with the internet now the source for most sales of music. Just mentioning the internet though, sets Borrell off, in inimitable fashion. “I think the internet is shit, man. I genuinely do. I think it’s bullshit. I live half the time in London, and half the time in a little village in the south west of France, and I don’t have the internet there. As soon as I am away from the internet, I am twice as happy. I’ve never had a smartphone. I think it’s bullshit. I think the proof is all the guys who work in Silicon Valley, whose job is to create things that get you addicted. They won’t let their children anywhere near it! You’ve got people whose job is to make these things compulsive, working out how to prey and play on desires, wants, to keep you fucking clicking. It was great for a bit, but it’s total fucking consumerism. I think it sucks. I think everyone being hooked on smartphones is bullshit. I feel strongly about that one! How many times have I swore? I was polite up to then. But honestly, it’s terrible. Fucking rubbish. Show me the thing that is going on culturally that is so brilliant, right now, in music or whatever.”
Borrell is a natural frontman and performer, who loves nothing more than getting up on stage. If he was ever faking it, he hid it well. Before the success of Razorlight, he was involved in the early stages of The Libertines, and performed solo, at open mics, even on the streets. “I think I leaned a lot doing that. You had to learn how to hold a room. The thing that inspired me the least, when people would sit there, with an acoustic guitar, on a solo night, and they would go ‘shhh’ to the audience. I wanted to be that person, and I did want that audience to shut up and listen like anyone, but you had to figure out a lot of chicanery and ruses to try and win an audience over. I think that translated into Razorlight.
“I used to busk on the tube, from when I was about 19. I’ve always played in front of people. I wasn’t as good as loads of my mates (legend has it that The Libertines decided not to take him on for that very reason), who were much better musicians than me, but they never seemed to want to go out and play in front of people. They just wanted to play in their bedroom. I was doing a lot of writing. But if I was playing, I just wanted to be in front of people, from a very early age. That helped me out a lot. I love playing in public. I love playing on the streets. I really do. I know where my heart lies, and I want to be there still. I’m not fussed about being in the pop world, particularly. We should just be a good rock’n’roll band.”