Now this ambitious four-piece, comprised of Borrell along with Swedish ex-pats Bjorn Agren and Carl Dalemo on guitar and bass and Andy Burrows on drums, are ready to conquer America. A January U.S. tour is helping them to generate even more buzz in the States, where they're weathering the inevitable Strokes and Libertines comparisons and winning over a growing American audience with their anthemic take on bluesy, Stones-style rock.
Johnny Borrell filled us in on how the band got off the ground and how he's handled the pressure of already being known as one of rock's cockiest frontmen. He also recommended some of his all-time favorite albums past and present; click here to read the list.
Razorlight was first started by you and Bjorn Agren. How did the two of you first meet?
I put an advert out in [British music magazine] NME in London for a lead guitarist who knew pentatonic scales. And he was the only guitarist in the world who answered the advert.
You asked him if he knew what now?
Pentatonic scales. Which is what every guitar player does. I thought if I said that I’d find somebody who had their own way of looking at playing the guitar.
That term probably stumped a lot of rock guitarists out there.
Absolutely. And I think Bjorn just saw it and went, “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” So he came round, and I had a few songs and he just played along. And he played these really great lines. And that’s kind of what our relationship’s always been and always will be.
And then how did the other two guys get involved with the band?
Well, Carl [Dalemo] is from the same little town in Sweden. They’re both from this very small town in the middle of nowhere. And he was coming over to England. And he was a guitarist, but he basically got Paul McCartney’d into playing the bass.
And I understand your original drummer dropped out of the band, right?
After you recorded Up All Night or before?
Just after we recorded the album. It happens quite a lot, more often than you’d think. Who was Nirvana’s first drummer? Chad Channing or something. And Pearl Jam went through the same thing. I think rock ‘n’ roll is strewn with drummers that probably had some good ideas about playing the drums and then found out what actually playing the drums in a successful band means. And then ran away screaming.
I guess Pete Best is the original example of that.
Well, there you go, yeah.
But it sounds like you guys were quite pleased with the replacement that you found.
Andy Burrows. Yeah, he’s wonderful, he’s great. I mean, the first time that he played with us, the very first time, he came in and played “Golden Touch” and it sounded ten times better than I’d ever heard it. It was pretty amazing after spending a month trying to get these drum takes out of Christian [the band’s first drummer]. It was the kind of thing that really made you want to bang your head against the wall.
How many drummers did you audition?
It was like, 80 or something. Over two days. A lot of pizza and beer went into that.
You were one of the hottest bands in the UK before you even released your first album. Was there a lot of pressure when you finally went into the studio?
Yeah, there was some, definitely. It’s like before you walk onstage, you get a little bit nervous. I mean it gets less and less, but I think if you’re gonna be good, you’re gonna get those nerves. I wasn’t interested in making a half-assed album, you know what I mean? I wasn’t interested in making an indie record. I wasn’t interested in making anything less than something I could definitely hold up against every band I’ve ever looked up to and say, “Our debut record is at least as good as your debut record, if not better.” And I stuck my neck out and said that it would be great.
But I just knew when I was doing it, if I could do it my way, it would sound right. That makes me sound like a control freak, but it kind of goes with the territory. I mean, the point of Razorlight is not for it to be like that. The point of Razorlight is that you have four people all taking it in a slightly different direction, which creates a whole, which is the essence of a good band. [That’s] what makes a band special, as far as I’m concerned. So I knew that "if I had my chance, I could make those people dance." But it came out and it went in the [UK] charts at number one, it was number one all week, finished the week at number three. That was pretty mind-blowing, really.
Your album [Up All Night] has a very live feel to it. Had you played most of the songs in front of big crowds before you recorded them?
Amazingly big crowds, sometimes. We’d been playing them live for about six months. I wanted it to sound like four people in a room. As simple as that, but as interesting as you could make it with four people in a room, without going and sitting on the piano or getting the mandolins out. Most of the overdubs are backing vocals and stuff like that. Like the first Pretenders album or something like that. I just wanted it to sound....
Raw, maybe? Not overproduced.
Yeah, but production is a strange word. When you produce something, it doesn’t mean that it necessarily sounds slick. In fact, the album took a lot of producing. It took a lot of producing to make it sound right. It’s always gonna sound like a band playing; it wasn’t Pro Tooled and stuff like that. The production really comes in the pre-production and the arrangements of the songs and stuff like that. Yeah, I just wanted to make a good rock ‘n’ roll record. [laughs]
Do you have a favorite song on the record?
I don’t know, actually. My favorite one to play live is usually “Vice,” I think.
One of my co-workers, Doug Kamin, just walked into the room and he’s giving me the “thumbs up” sign. That’s one of his favorite songs on the album. He actually wrote the review and gave it four, four and a half?
Doug: Four and a half.
Four and a half stars.
What do we have to do for the other half-star?
Doug: Come play live in the office. Think about it.
Doug: I can’t give out five stars. That’d be like giving out all credibility. [Four-and-a-half] is essentially like giving out five, you know that, right?
Everything has to be just shy of perfection. If you’re a music critic and say “perfection” too often, nobody takes you seriously.
That’s actually a true thing, as well, with making music. You are striving for what you see as perfection, you know what I mean? Of course you always fall short of it. In somebody else’s eyes it’s a wonderful thing. I mean, probably whatever albums you love, the person that was making them was going for something that they didn’t quite get. But that’s the beauty of it.
There’s always room for improvement and that’s what keeps you going, right?
What kind of music did you grow up listening to? What are some of your influences?
So many things. I don’t really see it as tied to genres and stuff. You know, I like people that sing and sound like they mean it. And that could be anything. It could be Leadbelly or it could be Joe Strummer. It could Aretha Franklin or Lou Reed.
Do Bjorn and the other guys have influences that are very different than yours? Does everyone kind of bring something different to the table?
Yeah, I mean, the point was always that everyone would sort of drag it towards their own corner. The worst sound in the world is the sound of a bored musician. You can’t really tell people what to do. We always fight about it, but it’s good to have that fight. And it’s good that I generally win it. I don’t always win it, if you know what I mean. Or I win it halfway. You can’t just have people being told what to play, it doesn’t quite work. Not for rock ‘n’ roll anyway.
It has to be a full collaboration.
Yeah. You can hear [that] when you put on a Led Zeppelin record or something like that.
You mentioned that Bjorn and Carl are both from this small town in Sweden. Have you guys had a chance to go play a gig there yet?
No, not yet. We’ll do it at some point.
Does the band actually have a following in Sweden?
I don’t know, really. We haven’t played there.
You have played in the U.S., right?
Yeah, we went across the whole country in November.
How do American audiences compare to UK audiences?
Well, the next London show we’re doing, we’re doing two nights at Ally Pally, which is 14,000 people, and we sold it out in two weeks. The next show we’re doing in America is the Bowery Ballroom [in New York City; capacity: 550], which is the biggest show we’re doing on the next tour, probably, and nobody knows who we are. So it’s almost impossible to compare. But actually comparing American audiences with English audiences in the early days, there’s not all that much difference.
Do you have much spare time these days?
I haven’t had a day off all year. Apart from when I got really ill, and then they had to give me a week off. It’s just like, stuff comes in all the time. It’s ridiculous.
It sounds like you’re having fun, though.
Yeah, you know. Yeah.
Click here to buy Razorlight's new album, Up All Night.
Johnny Borrell's essential albums:
The Pretenders, The Pretenders (1980)
"I love that record, I really do. That record really exists somewhere that not a lot of records do."
Kings of Leon, Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)
"It just sounds like they’re honest and they don’t give a f*ck. They’re just doing their thing. They’re not sitting around going, 'Oh, should we write some singles? How are we gonna follow up the last one?' I don’t know how it was made, I might be completely wrong, but it sounds like they’re just...playing."
Tom Waits, The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
The Beatles, The White Album (1968)
The Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed (1969)
Prince, Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Dexys Midnight Runners, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels (1980)