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24th Jan 2019

Finding Johnny Borrell, the Razorlight frontman that fell down the back of the indie sofa

Kyle Picknell

Johnny Borrell answers my first question with a simple, abrupt ‘Yes’ and then there is silence. For a moment the fear comes that everything I’ve ever read about him is true. That relentless NME-spun arrogance from the early Razorlight years, a band who, through their first two albums at least, had the Midas touch before losing themselves in indie music’s semi-eternal wilderness, never to be seen or heard from again.

Razorlight are back, apparently. Johnny Borrell will stress that they never went anywhere but that’s not entirely true. The band members from the giddy success of their early years: drummer Andy Burrows, guitarist Björn Ågren and bassist Carl Dalemo had all left by the start of 2011, three years on from Slipway Fires, an album Drowned in Sound deemed about “as indie as Margaret Thatcher”. That was eight years ago. Up All Night almost fifteen.

I feel the band’s newest iteration through the walls as they soundcheck below while I chat to Johnny, who crouches purposefully over a stool rather than taking the leather armchair, gazing around the room thoughtfully from under his trapper hat. It is cold. Coats stay on and knees remain tucked towards chests.

I don’t know if you’ve asked Johnny Borrell a question. I’ll assume you haven’t. Asking Johnny Borrell a question goes something like this: at first he will answer, unconvincingly, then there will be a pause. You will open your mouth a fraction of an inch and then he will start talking again. He will keep talking, still thinking about the original question, but what he is talking about will be something different entirely.

It isn’t something directly related to the question but it isn’t something completely unrelated either, and by the end of his answer, the real answer that is, you kinda get it. Whatever that it is. Take this unabridged example:

Me: What other bands from the 00s would you like to see ‘come back’?

JB: I don’t know. I don’t know who’s out and who isn’t. Aren’t errrrr… I don’t know.

*5 obscene seconds of silence pass*

When I made this record (new album Olympus Sleeping) I was thinking about all the preconceptions, of all bands, where it’s like ‘I don’t like this song because it’s a rip off of that band’ or ‘I don’t like that because of the way he looks’ or whatever, those sort of intellectual preconceptions, so I just made myself a playlist. Where it’s just all indie bangers. And I just put my headphones on and I was just dancing. I was like a teenager, dancing in my room. I just put it on shuffle to see how I reacted physically to the songs, instead of intellectually criticising it. It was a real reset. I had no idea that I actually liked Mr. Brightside by The Killers. I just didn’t know that. I like The Killers and I really like Brandon, but I just didn’t like that song because intellectually I was just like ‘oh, it sounds a bit like Queen Bitch by David Bowie’ and blah blah blah. But when it came on I was just like ‘this is the best motherfucking thing… this is so fucking good.’ It’s banging. It was just stuff like that. … even The Fratellis! It’s interesting, I realised how hard it was to dance to Someday by The Strokes. But it doesn’t matter because I just want to hug the whole world at that point. It’s such a tender song.

That’s how it goes for much of the interview, small drops and then gushes.

He is still as eminently quotable and honest as he ever was, able to get onto the subject of replacing heroin with Championship Manager within 15 minutes of us meeting. You can take just about anything he says out of context and you have an 8/10 tabloid headline though, that’s the problem.

It’s what makes him difficult to write about. Or too easy, in some cases. You can choose between the first bit of the quote, and frame it as him not knowing or caring about any other bands from the Razorlight era – just another example of the famous Borrell ego – or you can choose the second bit, which doesn’t really fit the with the Johnny Borrell he is meant to be.

There is a very clear idea of him that already exists.

The Johnny Borrell that lurks in Plato’s world of forms, the version of himself that is ostensibly most Borrellian. The once ubiquitous indie frontman crushed into nothing under the weight of his own hubris. A floppy-haired, skinny-jeaned, searing white angel, staccato strumming the opening chords of ‘Golden Touch’ and then ‘Stumble and Fall’ – both fitting chapter titles in the book of Razorlight.

This is how Johnny Borrell makes sense to people. As the original loud-mouthed indie superstar, dating supermodels and writing commercial banger after banger until he swapped them out for piano ballads and saxophone solos. Until that chandelier world fell down around him.

It didn’t really happen like that, but it makes the most compelling story.

Read this interview from 2014 – complete with inflammatory headline – and it is unclear who exactly comes out of it worse, the apparently pretentious musician or the snide journalist, all loaded questions and sniggers, poking until he draws blood.

After the downward-trending reaction to Slipway Fires – a departure from the original, jangly, Razorlight sound – the trajectory was set. When his first solo album came out in 2013, Borrell 1, it was widely mocked for its sales (594 in its first week) and song titles (‘Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina)’, ‘Cyrano Masochiste’).

Borrell reiterates that he is still immensely proud of his solo record. “I’m pretty sure that it didn’t really fit into the culture, based on what people were expecting. Based on the fact we were playing to audiences of 50 rather than thousands, you know? But hey,” he explains.

“Making that record was the best thing ever. It was fantastic. I think if you’re gonna have a long career at times you’re going to be completely in tune with the zeitgeist, what comes to you, and at times you’re gonna be out with it. You only have to listen to the charts now to know that what goes mainstream isn’t necessarily good, and not all the good music goes mainstream.

“I think that record has got a little bedsit in the tower of song. *laughs* But it’s a tiny bedsit. Everyone’s invited. And I invite everyone who reads this interview to go back and see if they like it in there.”

And on the subject of whether Borrell 2 will come one day, he insists that it “has to”. There’s no shame, even if in the back of my mind, I was expecting some – a mea culpa, although I’m not exactly sure for what.

You can’t say his solo album didn’t live up to expectations, because in a way it did, perfectly; the low sales figures and grandiose stylings made easy column-inch cannon-fodder. It meant people could call it a failure and him a failure, even though, Borrell 1 was everything Johnny Borrell ever wanted it to be. And that perspective doesn’t appear to have changed five years on.

For all the talk of his ego, though, Johnny Borrell isn’t even in the Razorlight WhatsApp group.

He doesn’t own a smartphone, instead carrying a hefty Nokia that could double as a murder weapon. He explains that earlier that day he had asked someone else to take a picture of a text he had typed out on his phone so they could send it to the group as a joke. It asked if he could be allowed in the chat.

He doesn’t use social media either, and instead our conversation veers towards the more valuable things he has spent his time on, namely playing Championship Manager in the 90s and Pro Evolution Soccer after that. His Champ Man addiction began sometime in ’98 or ’99, when Borrell stopped using heroin.

“It came at a dangerous time for me. It was really bad,” he tells me.

That’s the game, by the way. Not the heroin.

“I had just stopped using heroin so I had a gap in my life…”

Enter Championship Manager.

“The perfect drug. I spent a month, probably in December, and I flipped around the hours. So I was literally waking up at 7pm and just playing Champ Man. I did loads of saves. Because you do that thing where you start in the fourth division and try and get Plymouth Argyle into Europe.”

He also used to play Pro Evolution Soccer, specifically Master League on hard and five star difficulty during matches, a feat that will impress some, and mean absolutely nothing to many others – but it was enough for us both to agree to a game one day.

Whether swapping heroin out for one of the most addictive substances on earth was sensible or not, it is seemingly an example of how Borrell operates. He devotes all of his energy to something, or absolutely none at all.

This might be why there wasn’t any Razorlight music for ten years, although he admits that he tried in 2012 but it “just didn’t come”.

It might also be why – after a mammoth touring schedule following Razorlight, the band’s second album that drove them to the point of dividing a single dressing room into four separate spaces using curtains – that he moved to Tiree, an island of about 650 people in the Hebrides, for four months. To chop wood.

He spent his youth running away from home and school to live in squats – there is even one next to the venue we’re sitting in that was called The Rainbow Centre, which he points to it out of the window. And his first musical experience involved returning coming back from France – where he lived between the ages of 10 and 13 – to find that his old friends had formed a band. He came back and started writing their songs for them. He stole their band.

Of course Johnny Borrell stole their band.

During our conversation I tell him that phone calls give me anxiety. He asks why, and I say it’s because of the feeling of being under the microscope. Naked against a wall of focused, intense scrutiny. He replies that he doesn’t mind the microscope, “hence all the interviews”. It’s a surprising attitude given his fraught relationship with the British music press, but it becomes apparent that he genuinely does just like talking to people.

It’s another conundrum, that he isn’t this sulky, bitter, man-child mourning past successes. He’d probably be great value sat in a pub dissecting Brexit. Which, again, he is only too happy to do. A political discussion is broached tentatively at first, to a response of: Great. Fucking love it”. Tiptoeing isn’t required.

“I don’t think people were voting on the European Union. I think people were voting on their inherent level of racism,” he says.

“I know the Tories were voted in on the promise of doing a referendum, but that’s just internal Tory politics. But somehow that got a mandate from the population of this country. I think that was the problem.

“The problem is we voted the Tories in on the promise of having a referendum – don’t do that. Don’t vote Tory anyway, obviously.”

It is at this point I am officially anointed Johnny Borrell’s spokesperson after suggesting that all the things he is saying might just be worth spreading on a platform like Twitter.

“You’re my mouthpiece man! *Laughing* Get it out there for me!” he replies.


Then comes a defence of the mainstream media in the UK. It’s not much of a defence, granted, saying that something is “better than Fox News”. But it is still a defence, and an oddly sympathetic stance given the slating he has received over the years.

It also goes against a quote of his that appeared in the Metro in 2014: “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.”

Google that quote and you’ll find a 20 Hilarious Quotes by Johnny Borrell slideshow piece first, a Vice ‘I Took Johnny Borrell’s Advice and Walked Down the Street With my Guitar’ feature, the caustic Guardian interview mentioned earlier, and an article from Gigwise called, simply: ‘Is this is the most ridiculous Johnny Borrell quote of all time?’

I mean… is it? It sounds a wanky, sure, but he’s essentially just saying that he doesn’t trust everything the press says and therefore doesn’t read much of it. He won’t read this.

The quote, in context, is a response to a question about The Libertines reunion gigs organised that year that he just wasn’t aware of. That’s not surprising. He still owns a phone that would get laughed out of a school playground and after explaining the modern day updates to Football Manager to him, such as actually being able to see the players, he reacted by just sitting there, open-mouthed, and just letting out a long, exhalatory “Fuuuuuuuuuck.”

He spends most of his time living in a small village in the Basque Country, without the internet. As in: actually using an internet cafe (who the fuck uses internet cafes?) every three or four days. It’s just how he is, it’s not the performative moral objection it is made out to be.

Which is why it is in the back of his mind as he criticises the American media sources that have emboldened Trump and paints our own as, by comparison, much more objective.

“Let’s take this back to what I believe to be the root of the issue. Rupert Murdoch. The concept of media keeping people misinformed and receiving propaganda to prop up idiots, right? Who are ripping them off? That’s the Trump model for me. You couldn’t have Trump without Fox News.

“In this country, as much as The Sun and The Times have an obvious political agenda, and that is writ large, even Sky News, you couldn’t compare them to Fox News. Our criticism of the newspapers and television news is much more balanced in this country.”

And then, perhaps imagining a future headline, he adds: “This is interesting because about four years ago I said that you can find more truth walking down the street than watching the news. And now I’m defending it. But I do mean the same things. They are not mutually exclusive.”

Whether it’s a reluctant acceptance of how the world is or wisdom earned through experience, he doesn’t have any expectations for the band as they enter their new cycle, either.

“That’s the thing with success, when you get a compliment you just kinda ignore it. You don’t take it on board. But if somebody says something negative it sticks with you forever. It’s only in retrospect that I can recognise the charmed life that the band was living at the beginning. But at the time you’d be focusing on what wasn’t going right.”

“With Razorlight I don’t have any real ambitions or anything like that,” he admits. “If I do have any ambition it’s only to do proper gigs. And they feel like proper gigs. It’s been easy. The fans have made it so easy.”

At recent shows, he describes impossibly young fans moshing to Razorlight songs and fans in their early 20s coming up to him after the shows just to tell him they were eight years old when the first heard the band. The gigs themselves are back to being sold out and the reactions to the music visceral, rather than intellectual. It almost feels like they’re back at the start.

“I’m excited about making more and more Razorlight stuff. I want to do some singles next year because it’s almost like you do the album, and there’s so much pressure, but once you’ve done that and got that out there, then you can start playing with the format a bit. Like I did with ‘Somewhere Else’ after Up All Night,” a track he tells me he had to phone up the then head of Universal records, Lucien Grainge, to convince to allow him to record and put out because there was no synth or bass track in it.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is always best when it is like the movies. Those are those nice moments. Depends which movie though, it’s either Spinal Tap or it’s Almost Famous. You never know which one is coming next. “

Has he ever had any Spinal Tap moments?

“Have I ever. Touring with Razorlight… it just is. That’s every band I think.”

As it turns out, ‘Somewhere Else’ did reach number 2 in the UK charts and became Razorlight’s biggest hit to date. In 2007, the lines from it ‘I met a girl/She asked me my name/I told her what it was’, were voted the third worst lyrics of all time. You can’t help but wonder whether Johnny Borrell had any tracks of his own primed for re-evaluation when he was dancing away to that indie playlist in his bedroom.

Or maybe it wasn’t the tracks that he was re-evaluating.

Whatever that moment was to him, headphones on, lost in the heat of a trance to the skinny-tie and alcopop bangers of yesteryear that he has, of course, publicly derided in the past and that he was, of course, a major part of, it’s worth framing in the second manner that I talked about at the very beginning, rather than the first.

Thinking about it and imagining it play over (Borrell in his emperor’s uniform, deep scoop-neck tee, inadvisably tight white jeans), it feels like the perfect visual and emotional metaphor for what indie music was and the nostalgia that people still hold for it and that period in the early 2000s.

The fact that the golden boy-king himself had to go back to revisit all the music that millions upon millions of people bought (not streamed, bought) to see if there was any good there, anything worth salvaging.

And for him to find that there was, that there was joy, and tenderness, and dancing. Well, I think there’s something to be said for that. Over time those are the kind of things you tend to forget about, especially if the things that made you feel them in the first place aren’t cool anymore. So what. You’re allowed to be young and foolish. You’re allowed to like things because… well, because you just like them.

It’s a way to reset, to spend so long away from something and then come back with all of your expectations completely erased. There’s something to be said for the catharsis you’ll find, too.