‘City dweller, successful fella’ - Blur’s Dave Rowntree on his switch from pop to politics
- Credit: Wikimedia
To most he is part of a world-famous band; in a small area of Norwich he is also their county councillor. Dave Rowntree of Blur bangs the drum for stepping up. By Rowan Mantell
The rumour among UEA students that the drummer from Blur might pop round for a chat has the ring of an urban myth.
But Dave Rowntree does just that in his county council ward, knocking on doors and occasionally being recognised as the musician who twice headlined Glastonbury, released six consecutive number one albums, won five Brit Awards including best group, album and single of the year and has played huge festivals and arenas around the world.
Becoming a Norfolk county councillor and getting involved in the nitty-gritty of council business, problems with education, traffic, social care or money, seems about as far from the glamour of being in a world-famous band as it is possible to get.
But for Dave, being a musician and a Labour activist are part of who he is - alongside being a lawyer, composer, computer programmer, radio presenter and computer and TV animator.
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“I have never known what I wanted to do when I grew up!” he said. “I always do whatever seems interesting at the time. I don’t have a plan.”
What didn’t seem interesting, growing up in a musical family in Essex, was piano lessons. “I grew up playing classical piano, which I absolutely hated,” he said. Then he discovered drums. “From the first time I picked up drum sticks I absolutely adored it.”
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His first job was as a computer programmer. Then Damon Albarn asked him to join his band. As Blur, Dave, Damon, Alex James and Graham Coxon had huge success. From the release of multi-platinum Parklife in 1994, every one of their studio albums has topped the British charts.
For Dave, some of the most memorable moments include their first big show. “We did our own kind of mini festival in East London and it was the first proper big gig we had played. It was my first experience of doing that kind of thing and I just got blown away by it.”
Then there was headlining at Glastonbury, playing in front of more than 100,000 people over two nights in Hyde Park, performing the London Olympics closing party, and a Swedish festival called Hultsfred which he said has a particularly magical atmosphere.
“Playing live. That’s the best, that makes all the other stuff worthwhile,” said Dave.
But it was not all he wanted to do. “I was a very left-wing youth,” said Dave. “I was very, very angry at the injustice in the world. I did a lot of going on marches and demonstrations and signing petitions to get somebody to do something but as an adult I realised that the somebody who should be doing something is me.
“I had been a Labour party member for a long time but not the one who did the door knocking or constituency meetings or campaigning. I just started turning up and that did a lot to turn me from an angry person. If you start volunteering you can start changing things and it doesn’t take much to make a real difference to people’s lives.”
He came to Norwich because he was asked to, by Marion Maxwell, who was campaigning for the city council. “She sent me a cheeky message saying why don’t you help me?” said Dave.
So he did. “I met Marion and a lot of the other Norfolk Labour people, who are such a nice bunch and so friendly.”
Talking to Dave, it is easy to see how he would have fitted in immediately and three years ago (after failing to win a Parliamentary seat in Westminster or the nomination for the Norwich South seat which went to Clive Lewis) he was campaigning on his own behalf.
He already knew parts of Norfolk from childhood holidays and for a while he lived in Knapton, near North Walsham, but now has a flat in Norwich and splits his time between there and London and his partner and their dog and cat.
He chose to stand for the county council because that is where he sees the need. “On the front line, waving the flag, that’s where I want to be,” he said. “County council services are the ones which have been hit the hardest.”
He sees politics as a way to tackle injustice. “I knock on every door in the ward twice a year, not asking for votes but asking how I can help. People have burning issues they want to talk about. Blur is not usually what they want to talk about.” That said, students can be delighted that the rumours of “the bloke from Blur” calling round are actually true.
Blur has never broken up, although there was the hiatus, which Dave used to train, and then work, as a lawyer. “I decided to qualify when it looked like the band wouldn’t be together. That all worked fine until we released an album,” he said.
“It was an immensely stressful job. The crazy situations that people find themselves in. There are a lot of people I wouldn’t have otherwise met. (And a lot of people I wouldn’t have chosen to.) Some of them are inherently evil. I certainly did meet some evil people. But some are just people who had made some poor choices early on, not thinking there would be consequences and things just spiralled out of control.”
He is not working as a criminal lawyer right now, or actively working on a project with Blur although the group are in regular contact as friends – which might not have been the case if they had stayed together 24/7
“The band most definitely isn’t over, but it’s no longer a full time job,” said Dave. “We will get back together again when someone has an interesting idea.”
In the meantime he has different interesting work.
Almost everyone who watched it will recall the jaw-dropping 2018 documentary Bros: After The Screaming Stops, charting the tragi-comic run-up to a huge reunion concert for 1980s boyband, and identical twins, Bros. Dave composed the soundtrack for that, and for last autumn,s BBC1 drama The Capture, and he is now working on the score for a Netflix crime drama.
“I never think of myself as a drummer. I’m a musician,” he said. But he’s a politician too.
“If I had to choose between the two [music or politics], that would be difficult. Luckily I don’t have to.”
And what if he had to choose a favourite of all the Blur songs, so far?
“I love all of them equally, as if they were my children!” he said, before admitting his secret favourite is Caramel. “It’s got such an amazing, haunting tune. I’m all about the tune.”