Gavin Rossdale Discusses Bush’s Critics, Nirvana Comparisons
After a brief stint as a solo artist, Gavin Rossdale is back with Bush, the 90s’ radio juggernaut responsible for alt-rock anthems like “Everything Zen,” “Comedown” and “Glycerine.” Whether you love them or hate them, you really should read this interview — Rossdale, who has some even-handed words for his band’s critics, is one of the most articulate and likable dudes in rock.
How does it feel to be back making music as Bush again?
It feels like I’m in the boxing ring with my hands untied. It feels like I’m like I’m playing the football match of my life with two feet, rather than one foot. It feels like the cake has its frosting on it.
When were the songs on your new album, The Sea Of Memories written?
Over the last year and a half. “Sound of Winter” I think was written probably four months ago. As soon as we got our lives back, things have been able to move as quick as I’ve been able to write quickly and play the songs with the band and get it all together. And it’s an incredible time now, whereby it’s determined by the work and not by the scheduling of a large company. So it’s been phenomenal. I couldn’t be happier. I don’t have any particular regret.
Instead of doing a solo record I really tried to make that record a Bush record. I wanted the reunion to be intact. I wanted Nigel [Pulsford, the band's original guitarist] to feel that if Bush was happening, he was happening. Therefore, I patiently waited, waited, waited and waited and waited. Then I realized it wasn’t going to happen, and then after a couple of false starts, I wrote a few songs.
I just realized that if I wanted it to have a bigger impact, I should get my name off of it and put it back as Bush and it would do a lot better. So I then just pushed full force for that and just figured, I would take what I could with band members and whatever. And when it was Robert from the original lineup and Chris from the semi-original lineup, that was fine for me.
What’s the reaction you’re getting from fans?
It’s like relief. It’s a really strange situation. It’s a bit like public divorces. People you may know, people you may not know. Somehow if you distill marriage back to its original context, which is, you stand up and you want to tell the village that you really like this other person. You are committed to them and there’s love. And you say, “I love this person and we’re gonna make out alot,” but we’re gonna live together and maybe have a family or whatever. And conversely, when you break up, everyone goes “ahh love fades, that sucks.. oh well.” And it’s a bit like that with a band. When the band breaks up, even people who didn’t like the band–“Aaw really? Who are we gonna bash?” And then, conversely when you get it back together, the gratitude and relief that people have, it’s just been staggering. I can’t believe it.
People are just so pleased. I think it gives them a bit of faith back in life that you know, nothing lasts forever and bands shouldn’t be around forever, but there’s something life-affirming, hope-affirming that a unit that you cared about and disbanded. That entity is gone and transformed into something else, that unit can be reconstituted and it reinvigorates people. And you couple that with the essential element of making a good record. You can’t do that and make a shitty record. It has to be at a certain level of merit. It has to reflect the musical, songwriting, lyrical improvements. You have to be seen to have grown.
And you couple that with the whole catalog, and that is in a way the situation where we start to find ourselves. You know, we’ve been in a submarine, we kind of bring our heads above the water slightly. It’s not betraying the history of the band, it’s not betraying the past–it’s actually adding to it. It feels exactly where I should be. That’s got to be a sign of success–feeling you are where you’re meant to be.
You talked about improvements. Can you elaborate?
Yeah, from the start, you know, whether I take guitar lessons or singing lessons, piano lessons, how much I practice, how much I listen. How much I try and turn my life experience into songwriting. All those elements–those are things that I do, those are things that I apply myself to. I’m a musician, so I should practice and I should learn and I should accept that there’s so much more to know. It’s the weirdest thing, music. The alchemy of music is infinite. If you break it down, you would think that mathematically you could explain in a way, distill it into something quite simple, but it’s so weird, with the harmony and the melody and lyrics, and chords. You can just go on forever which is why so much music can be made, because it’s such a mystery. It’s so ancient. I love the idea that we live in this technologically advanced world, and I have an ancient job that is realized using the most modern of tools. It’s a really fantastic hybrid.
Has your songwriting approach changed over the years?
Drastically. When I first started. I would do songs on acoustic guitar, or just like with a drum machine or a distorted guitar in my room, And back in 1990, I got myself a studio and I wrote The Science and Things record, and I moved to an island for four months and I wrote a record there. That’s when I began to use my studio more. So I would have an idea, but I began to flesh it out a little more.
Now I’ve got the point where I work backwards. I just create tracks myself. I create world, I create atmosphere. If I sit with an acoustic guitar I end up just playing a Neil Young song. I don’t gravitate toward that kind of songwriting, because I find it more fun to play Pink Floyd. So I just immerse myself with any instrument in the studio. Get a melody by any means necessary and usually backwards. I often start with drums and bass and sing on that and then add the guitar afterwards. It’s really rare that it comes from the guitar actually, just because I like the warmth of the bass, it’s a really intriguing way to write.
There was a recent concert review in the Village Voice of your Bowery Ballroom show. The writer mentioned that people were trying to sing along to your lyrics and some of them had difficulty because of their stream of consciousness quality. How do you craft lyrics?
Well basically, certain songs are [like that]–earlier ones. It’s weird because some of the songs are written when I was in this Allen Ginsberg period, Where there would be fireworks of words and couplets that work together. It’s not quite the William Burroughs cut-up technique that David Bowie used, but it was a way of using words like color. It was more interesting to me to create barrages of light through the lyrics than it was to have a thread the whole way through the verses.
But that’s less the case on this record, because I’ve done that one and I’ve been in there, and tried that thing. Because my music is very plaintive. You always want to try to get it as good as possible. And there were certain songs where I fucked up and I should have written better words that have been released and the words were not done. But throughout my career, there are sections of any song that are very simple or straight forward and then it would go into like, “what the fuck?”
The words kind of create a feeling or an energy. It’s just using words in a different way. I think that it’s a fair comment. But I heard a lot of people singing all the words, which was cool. But I think that on the new record of the more recent stuff I’ve done, that has changed a little. Because it was a consistent criticism that I was handed. And whilst you never want to get in and play hurt or play interested, all criticism can’t be wrong. Some criticism with us was so lazy. It was like laughable and pathetic, and those people should be ashamed of themselves.
But sometimes people would say stuff where you go “OK, fair point.” There are some music critics who make sense. And that was definitely something that was level with me. So I was kind of like “OK, I agree.” So I would get into stuff more. But I do like the mystery. I don’t like things to be ABC. For instance, I’ve never heard that said of R.E.M., but nobody could ever explain any of their lyrics to me. Like Michael Stipe, and he’s seen as this fantastic lyricist which he is. But it’s very intellectual. It’s a student thing where everyone sort of goes, “This is amazing, I love it. Can you explain it?” No don’t ask him to do that. It’s amazing.
Speaking of critics, this is a huge year for grunge, with Pearl Jam and Nirvana celebrating anniversaries. People used to compare your band to Nirvana quite a bit. How do you feel about that?
I thought there was immense brilliance by that band, and who made rock records that weren’t influenced by them in some way, in some capacity? Because if you weren’t influenced by them in some way, meaning inspired.. that’s the whole point. Music is a legacy. When you think of songs like “Comedown” or on that first record, you had “Swim” which was written in 12/8, and you had that song “Body” which is a sort of weird little riff. There’s the song “Bomb” which is written about the Irish IRA presence where I grew up. It was a little bit lazy, because it was never seen beyond that one statement. It’s like okay, now let’s investigate what we want to get into.
With Nirvana, “Teen Spirit” is like the same riff as “U-Mass.” That’s just the nature of music. That’s what happens. It’s how it gets handed down. I think what will obviously ignite a lot of hatred, which is potentially justified is the tragedy of him shooting himself, being the essence of grunge, the essence of that scene. Until someone comes along and has the audacity to have the tunes that people want to play on the radio.
People are protective of the legacy that Nirvana created. I understand it. But it was a bit punitive. I don’t think it would be anything like that if Kurt hadn’t killed himself. It was this crazy void he left. In that void, two or three years after that we came along. That’s not to say we hadn’t been struggling and playing and doing that already.
There’s tons of bands –The Pixies was the most influential band to me. Which I’ve said a thousand times to a point where I don’t want to take up precious interview words with it. And yet, no one has ever complained about that. The complaints have always been about the Nirvana connection and that’s because people are protective which is a great thing. It showed great loyalty. But it was a bit unfair and a bit exaggerated. Then it became the thing that went with us. It displayed chronic laziness on the part of any journalist who didn’t even bother to look into things further, or just regurgitate the stuff that someone else had said.
That side of it was tricky, but outside of that, you know it doesn’t really matter. Nothing really matters, we’re just specks of dust. Nothing matters, the war matters. Don’t go to war, stay home. Do not fight for your country.
Back to the new album for a minute. Do you remember the inspiration for ”Sound of Winter?”
Really that was when I’d already written maybe 19, 20 songs and these are the last six, that I did. I was like “have I been true to my past, as to my future?” The whole record I began with is always writing to the future–where am I going? What am I going to do? How am I going to improve? How am I going to be more articulate? And it occurred to me that I should listen through to the older material so that there was an real connection.
That’s a mistakes I’d been making. I made the first 20 songs and I hadn’t really listened to any Bush songs. So I listened back to other records that inspired me at that time and I made myself sit down and start listening to Robert Johnson because I was like “Where’d this all come from?” I left on a jet plane and never went back, to Robert Johnson. Just because, I’m not really a blues fan, but I wanted to really sit down and listen to how he played guitar, you know, really study it. And a few days later, I sat down and wrote “The Sound of Winter,” and it came from looking really as much back as forward and it came together real quick. It had its own momentum, which is always the measure of any song that has gone onto to do really well for me — it came out fully formed. It didn’t come out being vulnerable and needing help or needing a re-write. It just cascaded. Those are the moments that, as a songwriter, you live for, and they justify your whole life’s work, when songs fall out like that.
The other thing about the streams of consciousness and stuff, sometimes you might write a lyric that falls out when you’re writing a song. It may seem like stream of consciousness, or it may seem random. I love the idea that you let that go. You let that stay in there. First though, best thought. You may start a lyric that has those fireworks and you think, I’ll clarify that later.
Then whenever you try and do, it’s all set in stone in terms of your own composition. It just works. Sometimes that stream works. I’ve written so many songs, it’s inevitable that some of them work better than others. I don’t know how to avoid that. You try and not have any turkeys on the records, but then when you hear them back a few years later, you go “maybe I should have edited that, or re-arranged that, why didn’t I finish that lyric?” Then I sort of pick it apart and see how I would do it differently now.
I think a lot of people would be curious — do you ever make music with your wife, Gwen Stefani? And if so, do you ever plan to release anything?
We just breed, we just breed. No, she sings her own stuff. She comes into the studio and helps me out. She’s a really good singer, so I get her up if I want to get a girl’s voice on something. If she hears something as she walks by and gets inspired by it, she’ll say something. But generally we keep it separate. It’s way sexier separate. You don’t want to get into any of that. Especially now in the band world. The solo career stuff is a little bit more collaborative and open. I respect her and her band. I see the dividing lines and I just keep well on my side, because it’s not my position to comment. It’s not my world.