Bush frontman: ‘I wanted to run from the establishment’
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In 1994, the English band Bush released their seminal debut album “Sixteen Stone”, which was certified six times platinum. After their initial grunge streaks, the foursome consisting of frontman Gavin Rossdale, guitarist Chris Traynor, bassist Corey Britz and drummer Nik Hughes changes their musical direction with almost every album – a decision he wouldn’t make as Rossdale admits today. In an interview with ntv.de, the singer and ex-husband of rock girl Gwen Stefani talks about the ninth album “The Art of Survival”, Bush’s musical change and his “usual mix of stupidity and insight”.
ntv.de: You were unlucky with your last album, “The Kingdom” – it was released in time for the first lockdown, so you couldn’t go on tour. How did you approach “The Art of Survival” now – did you wait for the worst to pass?
Gavin Rossdale: We just finished. The decision to release The Kingdom during a pandemic was not a good idea commercially. From an artistic point of view, for the band as well as for the fans, yes. We had finished the album and didn’t want to sit on it. Also, we didn’t want to wait and had to explain songs that were two or three years later.
Is the album title “The Art of Survival” a reflection of the past two and a half years?
Yes, everyone has their own story and has been through a lot. Some more, some less, others have died. We move a bit in between. I think every story you hear has its own success in overcoming this insane obstacle. And it goes even further, it still resonates.
Have you tried to reproduce that on the record as well?
I think so. I only write about the human mind – mine or that of the people around me. People are very inspiring when you listen to them and learn about their lives.
You were born in London in 1965, so you’ve seen the beginnings of rock and punk rock. How do you remember this time?
It was great because I was 13 years old when punk was big in England. That was a very impressive time, a real revolution, a youth movement that has not been seen since! Now people have seen everything. There is a lot of movement, but people are no longer startled so easily. For me, this time stands for young versus old, children versus authority. I’ve always had a big problem with authorities, I don’t like them. (laughs) That gave me real spirit. And funnily enough – even though I would never do punk today and not delve into this American pop punk – it was this anger, this energy that appealed to me. I always try to make music that sounds like it has a price tag. It didn’t make me the most successful or popular musician, but it kept me true to my spirit. And we as a band have never lost that. And if they did, it’s because the music got even more depressive and darker. (laughs)
Did the movement inspire you to make music yourself?
I didn’t really think about that then. When I was a kid, my sister’s boyfriend had a band. I often went to their rehearsals and loved being in this environment. I think it affected my DNA more than I realized. A few years later, when I was done with school and faced with the decision of what to do next, I thought to myself, oh god, the last thing I want is a job! So what can I do that isn’t a job but is a job? That’s how I came up with the idea of becoming a singer, expressing myself and being free. My desire to become a singer was a desire to walk away from the establishment and expectations.
Did you find writing easy from the start?
I had the ability to do it. No idea why. I just got into it, sang something on a tape and just kept going – it was my usual mix of stupidity and insight. (laughs) The combination of these two traits is the source of how I pushed myself to write songs. That’s the punk aesthetic: I pull myself together and decide to do something without having learned anything.
What does your work on an album look like? Do you write lyrics and do your colleagues think about a suitable melody?
We have a studio where I write songs – alone, without the presence of the others. Only when I’m done writing do I present it to them and they play with it. It’s not that other people make me nervous, I just don’t want to show them the numbers until I get them right.
Because you are a perfectionist or because of the possible rejection?
Because I think perfection is the right direction. (laughs) You’ll never be perfect, but at least you’re going in that direction. Of course, there are always songs that get lost and go unrecorded. Rejection is a natural thing and I’m at a point where I can roughly estimate which songs are being rejected and what’s being worked on. I don’t have a big ego either.
Are there any songs that came on an album that you don’t remember why?
There are definitely songs where I wish I had worked harder on it. My contribution is to decide when a song is finished. Sometimes that instinct was premature. (laughs) For example, I wish the album “Razorblade Suitcase” (1996) had been more edited, cropped and made more efficient. We just let everything in. The song “The People That We Love” (2001) originally had a different lyrics, which we unfortunately didn’t choose in the end. I just don’t play those things live anymore.
When you started with Bush in the early 1990s, Brit-Pop and Grunge were in full swing. Your first two albums were also a bit more grunge. Did you then consciously choose to go in a different direction?
That was probably my fault. My colleagues wanted something more traditional. But when we were working on “The Science of Things” (1999), I had just come from London, where there was a remix, club and dance culture. And I was like, wow, it’s weird that I don’t include that in my music. So I tried to add a more modern sound. I don’t know if that was the right decision – probably not… (laughs) Maybe we should have stayed traditional, then we’d be filling stadiums now!
How would you describe the change in your albums?
Actually, each record has gone in a completely different direction from its predecessor – except “The Art of Survival”. It’s like the sequel to “The Kingdom”. “The Kingdom” was about finding that holy ground and trusting in fellowship and hope. With the Black Lives Matter movement and people losing their jobs or dying from Covid, the whole world seemed to be collapsing. It started with a pandemic and then we drifted into a civil rights movement in the US with the murder of George Floyd. Our tall player was like an idealized utopia: if we’re more aware, we’re better people, and we’re all better off. It was about coming together and finding an antidote to loneliness. To the power of the masses, the power of a peaceful revolution.
And how does “The Art of Survival” fit into that?
It was more like, oh my god, we’ve been beat up like this for the past two and a half years, how are we going to get through this? (laughs) Luckily we made it. Let’s see what the next record is about…
But then it paid off to keep going in a new direction, didn’t it?
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in bands eventually accepts where their band is. Every day is a new day where we have to prove ourselves, where we have to get people interested in us. On the one hand I feel successful, but on the other hand I feel very grounded and realistic about our place on Earth. I don’t think we’re particularly seismic. It’s just a band putting out records and trying to do good work and good shows. What I just meant is: sometimes I think to myself that I would have been more successful if I had stuck to one thing. My desire to stay interesting was not the best financially. Maybe it was the best artistic way, I don’t know.
Do you regret pursuing this desire?
No, because every time I felt conviction. I spend more time on our songs than anyone else, they start and end with me. Sometimes I delve too deeply into it, and then the view from outside is missing. I go with what appeals to me and inspires me.
Ultimately you make the decisions – also in terms of direction – but together as a band, right? And you certainly have people around you who also give their opinion?
Yes of course. When I walk into the studio, there is already a very idiosyncratic guitarist and a very idiosyncratic producer. (laughs) For me this means that my ideas have to be clear. That’s why it’s better if I don’t wear them out before they’re final. Then you can change everything. Of course we work together. But as a primary songwriter, I have to present the aesthetic and then the others can add something.
You also tried your best to be a solo artist. Which way did you go there?
A very different one! On my solo record “Wanderlust” it was really collaboration and I also wrote a lot with other people in the same room. Pretty funny actually, since a solo album is actually more like “This is the real me!” should be. (laughs)
Was she “the real you”?
Well, every record is “the real me”. I don’t understand when artists say “This is the real me” about their new record. I always wonder: where were you during the last one? (laughs) You must be convinced that you are always making the music that reflects your mood, your thoughts and your status. that’s what you are
But in the end it pulled you back to Bush…
Yes, I consider myself very lucky to be surrounded by good people, be it a producer, a guitarist, a bassist or a drummer. When you include them, they contribute something very special. And we are also good friends. We’re not one of those bands that have been working together for a long time but have completely separate lives and can’t stand each other. We like to spend a lot of time together, even outside of work.
Bush is now 30 years old – what’s the biggest change you’ve seen?
People don’t buy records anymore. It used to be a nice comparison: you make something and people buy it. Today you do something and you give it away. (laughs) Spotify and the labels are still making the big money while the artists wonder what happened. That was challenging. I’m grateful and I don’t want to complain. There’s nothing worse than someone complaining about how great it used to be. I’m lucky to have been in that position. I feel more sorry for the young bands because I don’t quite understand how they have to exist like that.
Is there anything you wish you had known sooner?
Always, that’s wisdom, isn’t it? I wish I was wiser and smarter. As you get older, you realize that your time is limited. You don’t think about that at all in the beginning and you are free. I would have liked to work harder had I known my time was up. Of course we have always tried to make good music. But sometimes I think I was actually better than what we did.
Linn Penkert spoke to Gavin Rossdale
The Art of Survival is now available everywhere.