lundi, avril 11, 2005

Razorlight: At the sharp end

The end seemed nigh for Razorlight after their American débâcle. But Alexia Loundras joins a reinvigorated band on tour

Published : 08 April 2005

Since bursting on to the scene last year, Razorlight have been a car-crash waiting to happen. The four-piece had hardly released their first single when tales of their Gallagher-esque sparring started to appear in the music press. In interviews, the front man, songwriter and creative linchpin, Johnny Borrell, spared no breath in extolling his songwriting genius. But he didn't seem quite so keen on the bandmates he had recruited through NME advertisements, even claiming he could no longer stand the sight of his Swedish band mates, the guitarist Bjorn Agren and the bassist Carl Dalemo. Further interviews revealed that the feeling was increasingly mutual.

The spiky, visceral, Clash-meets-Patti Smith songs of Razorlight's excellent debut, Up All Night and their incendiary live shows did, rightly, win them a sizeable army of fervent fans. But, like Borrell's pals, The Libertines, Razorlight's mouthy antics were soon getting more attention than their songs. Encouraged by the music press, Borrell played up to the role of the cocky rock star and forever painted a picture of a band on the cusp of self-destruction even though, at the start of the year, things for Razorlight were beginning to shape up nicely. As well as a profile-building US jaunt they had sold out their biggest UK tour to date and written the longing and super-catchy "Somewhere Else" which, they'd releasing as a standalone single. But then, in January, while playing a show in Denver, the band's simmering tensions came to a head.

Five songs into the set Borrell stormed off stage. When interviewed afterwards, shorn of bravado, he seemed deeply unhappy and said he felt like killing himself. After just one more American show, the band pulled their remaining US dates and postponed their UK tour. The Razorlight camp insisted Borrell was suffering from laryngitis, but this sounded like a cover-up, and observers speculated that Razorlight's end was imminent.

But, if that was meant to be the end of the story, nobody told Razorlight. After three weeks off - "sick time" - a visibly invigorated Borrell corrects - I'm invited to see the band make their live comeback at a fans-only secret gig at the band's Acton rehearsal space.

Backstage, the atmosphere is relaxed. Agren chats about books with his manager - the guitarist spent his time off scouring thrift shops for classics. Meanwhile, Dalemo drinks Stella with the Razorlight crew. He's joined by drummer Andy Burrows, recruited last May after the original skins-man, Christian Smith-Pancorvo, saw his relationship with Borrell disintegrate. Borrell, though, is preparing for the gig alone, and a bowl of steaming water is rushed through to him. "It's for Johnny's voice," explains Dalemo. "Orders from his singing teacher. She's the only woman Johnny's scared of." Since Denver, Borrell has acquired a vocal coach to help him ease his strained chords. "She is the boss," agrees Borrell with mock fear, later, before explaining that inhaling the steam is good for the "back folds" of his voice box - problems with which, he insists, really did cause the US tour's cancellation.

Once the show begins, it's clear the advice - and the time off - have made a difference. Borrell is in excellent voice and great spirits. The singer is enjoying his return to the stage so much that the prepared seven-song set is quickly scrapped in favour of requests, the last half of which he delivers solo with an acoustic guitar. After 15 songs he finally retires, looking as ecstatic as the diehard crowd. But Borrell's not gone for long - five minutes later he's back to mingle. "I'd happily have played every song I've ever written," he beams to one fan.

But, though Borrell is thrilled with the gig, all is still not peachy in the Razorlight camp. Upstairs, Dalemo is in a huff. Apparently Borrell's decision to play the latter half solo hasn't exactly thrilled his bandmate. It's been a hugely positive occasion, but this is still Razorlight and the tensions are still there. It still remains to be seen whether the band can keep it together through the upcoming tour.

Ten days and six shows later, it seems more and more like that they can. The band play the first of two shows at Alexandra Palace, their biggest venue to date - just a stone's throw from where Borrell grew up. "This is our Earls Court!" grins Borrell. It's clear they want to prove themselves tonight, because Borrell, shielded behind sunglasses, joins the others for an extremely rare soundcheck appearance.

Even without an audience to spur them on, Razorlight sound impeccably tight. More to the point, they look tight. Perhaps brought together by the coming thrill of playing to 16,000 punters in the next 48 hours, they actually look like - get this - mates. They playfully swap their instruments, play Blur's "Parklife" (presumably in reverence to the band's famous performance here) and air a new song - the self-mocking "The World Revolves Around Razorlight" which, Borrell says, they wrote together (yes, together!) while travelling on the tour bus.

Backstage with an hour until the doors open, Borrell coolly insists tonight's show is no different to any other. But, as he fusses about his voice, he's not remotely convincing: "I am worried it's a bit husky," he says, "Feels like I have a cold potato lump in my throat." When he later takes to the stage his nerves are obvious but they seem to up his intensity. Midway through the set, his nerves forgotten, he stands shirtless like a lithe young Iggy Pop, dripping with sweat. Around him, Agren plays his guitar like a master, standing coolly at Borrell's side while Dalemo leaps about like a mischievous spring lamb. Afterwards, Razorlight are clearly buzzing. The aftershow party is packed with the band's mates and Borrell flits about like a hyperactive bumble bee. "Last time I was here, it was to see Blur play," says the friendly Burrows. "And now we've played it! I kept freaking out in the middle of drum-beats thinking how many of my schoolfriends were out there!"

The following night, without the first-night nerves, is even better. To their immense excitement they have an unexpected visitor. "Noel Gallagher was watching us from the side of the stage!" Burrows says, wide-eyed, when it's all over. "When Carl told me mid-set, I nearly dropped my sticks." "And," Dalemo adds, a gorge of a grin breaking his icy Scandinavian looks, "he said to me, 'I've met you before, you know!'"

As their biggest tour ends, Razorlight have achieved what they set out to do. With their electrified and assured performances they've not just proved the doom-sayers wrong, they've forced the attention back where it should be - onto their music. "With this tour, we wanted to prove there was nothing wrong with our band," says Dalemo. And that's exactly what they've done.

A few days later we meet up again at the launch of Bob Geldof and Richard Curtis's Make Poverty History campaign in a Soho cinema. I'm due a rare interview with all four members of Razorlight together. But as soon as the pictures are taken, Borrell is off in a black cab.

"We've gotten used to doing things without Johnny," says Burrows brightly, sipping a lunchtime pint in a nearby Soho pub. "You probably won't see us hanging out together," he continues. "We're not really that kind of band. None of us joined Razorlight looking for friends. But having said that, these days we are actually much closer than it looks."

It appears that, far from delivering the final blow to their fractured nucleus, the Denver show offered the others a window into Borrell's mind, inadvertently bringing Razorlight's separate factions together. "After Johnny walked off, the first thing I wanted to do was smash my guitar to pieces," says Agren. "The second thing I felt like doing was ripping Johnny's head off. But then I thought, no. You'll never get the truth out of Johnny about what happened to him there. But it doesn't matter. It was a human reaction to whatever - a combination of tiredness, pressure, drink, loneliness, missing home and probably a million things we don't even know about. I knew he wouldn't have done what he did unless the way he was feeling was serious." "He was wasted," adds Burrows, "but we saw he was just as scared of failing as everyone else."

I catch up with Borrell at Channel 4's studios. He's warming up for a solo acoustic performance. He apologises for this morning's escape, explaining that he's producing a Razorlight fanzine to be distributed on the upcoming US tour and, having interviewed Burrows at the pub the night before (the two have grown particularly friendly), he had a deadline. Smiling and relaxed, he's in what Burrows describes as "good Johnny mode", and records the song in half the time it takes to do his hair and make up.

Borrell looks tired, yet he's genial and unguarded - a world away from the mouthy, swaggering rock star that I met last year. His experience in Denver seems to have changed him. "I didn't want to be in Colorado. I wished I could be somewhere else," he says, with a deliberate nod to the new single. Despite his bandmates' theories, Borrell claims it was "surface pressures, not the pressures of the world," that caused him to crack. "I couldn't spend my time with the band and crew in a small enclosed space, I just couldn't - it was torture." Borrell sought relief in alcohol and after three days of drinking, he says: "You're not so much playing gig as playing your demons."

"I'd become a monster," he says. "If I had been there, I would have pulled me right back onto that stage, but I wasn't." He shakes his head. "I'm surprised no one from the band came to have a word with me." It's probably a good job they didn't. Their tour manager - the only person who spoke to Borrell that night - was told in no uncertain terms where to get off.

It's still unlikely that you'll catch Razorlight hanging out together, but Borrell is grateful for the understanding his bandmates showed him and he believes they have become closer as a band. As we pull up beside MTV, Borrell spots the rest of his band and raps cheerily on the window. "If I could photo-fit the perfect band, it would look exactly like the one I've got," he says beaming, though this being Borrell he adds: "though I would get rid of Bjorn's neck-ties. We're like a football team. We've gone from banging them in for the reserves to playing in the Premiership. We had a wobble, but now we need to keep proving ourselves on every level. And really I think we can." More than ever, you believe him.

The single 'Somewhere Else' is out on Monday on Vertigo

© 2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.