Though he has a reputation as a rampant egomaniac, in person the ex-Razorlight frontman is surprisingly down to earth. Sure, not everyone has a house in the Basque country or such impressive taste in scarves but as we settle down for the interview across a bulging bowl of fruit he seems far from the voluble Borrell of legend. If anything the singer appears wary of the manner in which he’s been treated by the press and seems keen to tell his side of the story.
Hi Johnny, how’s the tour going?
It’s good man. We were at Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh last night and played to about 22 people but apart from that it’s been going good. Razorlight played here in King Tuts about four times when we were touring Up All Night and then we played here last year just before we played the O2 Arena in London. We were selling the arenas as well but I was sick of that whole game and just wanted to play little venues so we came up here.
What’s the difference between playing a little venue and gigantic stadium show?
A lot of bands who play big shows, the drummer is plugged into a click track, there’s a big light show, everyone’s following a script. The thing about Razorlight was we couldn’t ever do that for a second. It had to be improvised, sixty percent of the songs we never played the same way twice. I could never get the idea of a big show with lights and video boards. It’s so controlled and boring. I like energy and unpredictability and when gigs get bigger the energy seems to drain out.
What was the last thing you saw that blew you away?
I saw Regina Spektor in Paris and Barcelona. I thought that tour was amazing and I was a huge fan of her last record.
How did Zazou, your new backing band, come together?
I’ve known Freddie Stitz for years. He was playing bass in Razorlight and now he’s mostly playing piano in this band but he showed me something he’d recorded on a cassette four track and it was really good so I invited him down to the Basque country to produce my solo record. Earlier in the week Freddie had seen Joao Mello, our Brazilian saxophonist just playing on the street in London. We played together on Monday nights and he just came down and blew us away. It was only later on we realised he was only 17 and had only been in the country a few weeks. Darren, I asked to play percussion at 6am in the morning on a canal boat. We actually met when he was playing at one of my friend’s psychedelic parties. He turned up at my house in Spain and was just like, where’s the drum kit? We didn’t really have any instruments, just an old piano and the sax so we were using things other people don’t use. The bass comes from hitting plastic buckets and then recording it to the four track cassette. It was an amazing atmosphere, all completely natural so I think the spirit of the place really informed the record.
Were you disappointed with the reaction to Borrell 1 from critics and the public?
I’m never disappointed with a reaction. I wasn’t expecting to sell Adele quantities of records.
That week we went out on a tour of Europe with no plan whatsoever, just the four of us carrying the piano round and playing on the street. I don’t think this band is about the sales; the only thing I know about this band is that wherever we’ve played around the world, from New York to tiny villages in the Basque country, there’s something real and unique about the music that touches people. If someone can work out how to sell that then good luck to them but it’s not for me.
When you were in Razorlight you had a reputation for having a big mouth. Is there anything you regret saying?
I feel like I’ve always been pretty calm and gracious to everyone I’ve met in this business. (Didn’t you once compare yourself to Bob Dylan though?) What happened was a journalist said to me “how does your first album compare to Bob Dylan’s first album?” so I said “If Bob Dylan’s making chips, I’m drinking champagne”, which is funny, isn’t it? It was a stupid question and I feel like if people want to change what I say then that’s up to them.
First time we played Brixton Academy, I read a couple of reviews the next day and one described me as “the diminutive singer of Razorlight” and one described me as the “lanky singer of Razorlight”. After that I more or less stopped listening to critics. A lot of people want to know what’s going on out there and there are plenty of artists interesting enough to talk about but you won’t find an artist who would sit down and say “yeah NME have always been very fair towards me”. It’s always (grabs a knife and mimes plunging it into his back)
You’ve hosted a radio show and been touted to appear in a couple of films. Is there something that attracts you to these different mediums?
Well I was a rapist bunny rabbit in a Mighty Boosh stage show once but I think that was about the height of my acting career.
I loved radio. They told me to just play what I was listening to so there was spoken word, old blues records… I was so pleased they gave me the opportunity to do that; it’s nice just knowing you’re talking directly to people. I would have loved to have carried on but I was away on tour, recording my show in the middle of the night in a Japanese hotel room and then sending it to them and I think they got a bit concerned about deadlines.
What is it that attracts you to a record?
I think it’s different things every time. You can’t explain why something is compelling; I think the most important thing is not to rehash what other people have done and I can’t get my head round how often that seems to be allowed nowadays. Not only the public, but critics saying something is fresh and exciting when actually it’s just something else repackaged. It’s not necessarily about retro styles – Savages are a great group where you can see all the influences but they’re edgy and fresh. I just keep hearing groups, like Haim who are taking from eighties and nineties pop and people are saying they’re new and exciting but there’s nothing new there.
What’s next for you?
We’re really excited about taking the record out to Europe and America and seeing how that goes. After that, I’m a songwriter; sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it’s slow but there’s a place this band has got me to where I’m in a good space so I’m really looking forward to whatever’s next.