Guitar World
"Science Friction"
Written by Christopher Scapelliti
January 2000

How Bush survived the death of grunge, a $40 million lawsuit from their record company and the creative ambitions of frontman Gavin Rossdale to make their new album, The Science of Things

You could almost see it in Gavin Rossdale's face. He wanted to break the guitar to pieces, to smash it on the speaker cabinet into little bits of wood and metal. There was no obvious reason why. Rossdale and his group, Bush, were in New York City, taping a performance before a lvie audience for VH1's Hard Rock Live program, for which they premiered several songs from their new album, The Science of Things (Trauma). The show was going well, and the several hundred fans gathered inside Sony Music Studio were screaming their approval.

But as the last distorted chords of the band's latest hit single, "The Chemicals Between Us," died away, Rossdale lifeted his Fender Telecaster by the neck, hefted it to shoulder height, swung it down and -- blat! -- gave it a half-hearted plunk onto a nearby monitor cabinet. It was a bunt, and nothing more. There were no splinters. No shards of metal. No souvenirs to chuck into the crowd. At best, the Telecaster would need a truss rod adjustment.

Rossdale fumed off the stage, leaving his befuddled band members to smile benignly at the audience for a minute or two.

"Are you having a nice time tonight?" Nigel Pulsford, Bush's gentlemanly lead guitarist asked the crowd. And then we stood there, and waited.

"So what was up with you last night at the end of 'The Chemicals Between Us'?"

It's the morning after the Hard Rock Live show, and Rossdale is lounging in the cavernous lobby of the Mercer, a fashionable Soho hotel that plays home to visiting celebrities. Actor Tom Roth, who as it turns out is an acquaintance of Rossdale's, sits near our table with a friend, chain-smoking furiously.

Rossdale's eyebrows shoot upward. "Hmm?" he says. "What part of last night?"

"When you smashed the guitar. Or rather, you seemed like you were going to smash it, but you didn't."

He squints, and tilts his head.

"You know," I stammer. "And then you, uh, stormed off the stage. What was going on?"

"Oh! Right, right, right. Well, I had to get another guitar, didn't I?" he offers evasively.

And so the real story behind Rossdale's impassioned display will remain a mystery. But then, mystery has suited Bush from the very beginning. Back in 1992, when they emerged from England's alternative rock scene, Bush bewildered everyone who thought America had a monopoly on grunge bands. As Engladn's lone entry in the grunge sweepstakes, they made their mark, selling millions of records in America while going virtually unnoticed in their homeland.

And today, as the Nineties flicker out, Bush remains stubbornly -- incongruously -- alive and well, still selling out concert halls, still landing singles in the top of the charts, still giving the blank stare to stupid questions about their motives. The Science of Things, the group's fourth album, is the latest proof of their staying power, an entrancing mix of the quartet's overdriven rock cross-pollinated with fragments of electronica and hip-hop rhythms. Essentially a concept album inspired by the impending millennium, it si among the most anticipated records of the year's final quarter, and promises to serve notice that Bush are, as Nigel Pulsford later tells me, "not a flash in the pan, that's we've got some staying power." In the light of grunge's demise, Bush's latest success is alarming, like discovering that fanny packs are back in vogue and everyone's gotta have one.

Gavin Rossdale considers this for a moment with a gracious smile, and offers an anecdote. "A friend of mine told someone, 'I've been visiting my friend Gavin in Ireland. He's in the band Bush.' And his friend said, 'God, Bush. They used to be massive!'" He laughs with mock dispair.

"In the whole three years we were out of commission, that was the only time I was scared. I thought, Oh, no, don't tell me that story!"

As it turns out, there are several stories to tell about Bush's extended absence. Early into making the album, the group were having an internal crisis. As the band's lone songwriter, Gavin Rossdale has always had a free hand in shaping Bush's musical destiny. But with The Science of Things, he tightened his grip: enamored of the demos he recorded for the album, he was at first reluctant to abandon them for the group's more democratic vision. Recording sessions for the album were delayed while the group tried to resolve their differences. In the end, Rossdale relented, but not before the band agreed to let him produce the album. As a caveat, Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer, who had produced Bush's 1994 debut album, Sixteen Stone were brought onboard as executive producers, ostensibly to watch out for the interests of the groups's other three members.

More troubles were to come. According to Rossdale, The Science of Things was completed more than a year ago, but problems had been brewing with Trauma, the group's label. The band was still working for the company under the terms of a contract signed in the early Nineties, when Bush was an aspiring hard rock act out from Shepard's Bush that no other label would touch. But in early 1999, with 15 million albums sold worldwide, bush felt compelled to ask for a higher royalty rate. When Trauma balked, the group exercised its strongest, not to mention its most reckless option, and took the Science recordings hostage until a new, more financially favorable contract could be sorted out. Trauma showed their eagerness to comply by filing a $40 million lawsuit against the band, claiming, among other things, that they had tried to sell the new album to another label.

In the end, a new contract was ironed out, and both parties contend that, for now, all is rosy. "We love them, they love us," says Nigel Pulsford dryly. "There's not much else to say except that we should have renegotiated our deal years ago. We were getting an incredibly low royalty rate 'cause Trauma goes through Interscope Records, which acts as a middleman. It was all a lot of legal posturing -- 'our attorneys will talk to your attorneys,' that sort of crap. But it all worked out."

While Bush were muddled in the legalmorass, early mixes of The Science of Things began slipping out to the public as MP3 files on the internet. Listening to the hip-hop rhythms of "The Chemicals Between Us" and the sampled and looped electronica of songs like "40 Miles from the Sun" and "Jesus Online," fans began spreading the word: Bush had jumped bandwagons and gone techno.

The idea of it makes Pulsford laugh. "All this electronic stuff's been going on for decades, since the Seventies with Kraftwerk. And we're not exactly newcomers to it: we used samples on the first Bush demo album, when it was just Gavin and me. And we sampled guitars for 'Comedown.'"

Even so, the band was concerned about how its embrace of techno might appear to their fans. "We didn't want to come off like we were jumping on a trend," says Pulsford. "We also wanted to sound like we were absorbing what was going on around us in music, and not give the impression that we only play guitars, which is a bit narrow. You know, it would have been very easy to make another Bush album."

Very early on, before a single note had been written for The Science of Things, Gavin Rossdale knew he didn't want to make "another Bush album." Sixteen Stone had established their sound with heavily distorted guitars, doomful, introspective lyrics and Rossdale's voice, an entirely musical instrument that frequently sounds as if he's trying to pass a golfball-size gravel theough his throat. Razorblade Suitcase, the group's Steve Albini-produced followup, only served to hone the group's sonic edge further, to a degree that was unrelenting . "Razorblade Suitcase was very, very raw," says Rossdale. "And I'm very proud of that record. It's got a bruised, fragile, pure ambience."

But Rossdale was ready for a change. Grunge was over, and the rock music scene was fractured. A new century was approaching, and the time was right to make a change.

"The Science of Things is our millennium record," Rossdale tells me. "It's sort of a reflective record. And for the group, it's sort of a way of strapping in and getting ready to go into the next century. Everyone around the world has been concerned with this date change that's coming up. While I don't buy into a lot of the hype about the future and how wonderful it will be, at the same time I thought it pertinent to reflect on what we've achieved as a race and think about where we're going."

The story behind The Science of Things begins in Ireland in 1997. In November of that year, shortly after Bush finished its lengthy world tour for Razorblade Suitcase, Rossdale took a trip there to clear his head and think about the next album. As he considered the various themes he could explore -- communication, the internet, ecology, spirituality, the apocalypse -- Rossdale says he was struck by a phrase that kept coming to mind.

Gavin Rossdale: I kept thinking about "the science of things." I thought it was a nice way of referring to how all of those things interact, how everything can be explained by the formulas of our lives, of emotions, of relationships.

Guitar World: Can you give me an example?

GR: Like with behavior: you'll find the same behavior in different people. What you leanr about a person from their behavior can be applied to another person who shows similar behavior. It becomes a way of understanding how people interact with their surroundings.

GW: Did the title come before or after you had written the songs?

GR: Before. I really wanted to start writing the album with a title in mind. I've always named the albums after we've finished them becuase I've always wanted to get a feel for the music and what the actual recordings sound like, and be inspired by that. But each time I've just found mysel boxed in and rushed for time. So this time around I vowed the first thing I would do is come up with the album title, and that would give me somewhere to go.

GW: So this album is about our relationship to technology?

GR: Well, I think we've come into this new age where we have all these wonderful technological advancements. But I've just been thinking, What about remembering some spiritual things? What about accepting yourself? You know, we're constantly bombarded by these ideas that we're not good enough, that we don't have enough. You know, for such a powerful world, we have an unbelievable lack of self-confidence as people, as individuals. And I think it comes down to the driving themes of inadequacy that we get every single day on TV and in advertisements. We seem to think that if we just had the right car, or the right airplane, our lives would be better.

GW: And where is this reflected in the new album?

GR: It's in "Jesus Online." That's my "looking for saviors" song. [laughs] It's a way of saying that as we go into this new age and accept the technological advancements that are making it so brilliant, let's not forget who we are, that we have value about and beyond anything we own. The song is actually the first thing I wrote for the album.

GW: Like so many of your previous songs, these new songs deal with some pretty dark themes.

GR: That's true. There's ecology and pollution in "The Disease of the Dancing Cats," a view of the apocalypse in "40 Miles from the Sun" and the struggle to survive in "Warm Machine."

GW: But there is a very human element in all of it as well.

GR: Definitely. And it's there in "The Chemicals Between Us," which is about the basic differences we have, genetically speaking -- behaviorally speaking, too -- and how they affect our interactions. It struck me that sometimes the loneliest place you can be is lying in a bed with someone you're not communicating with. You're a million miles apart, and you can't think of what to say, and you're thinking the worst things, the meanest things in your head. And so is the other person. And yet no one says anything. And that's a terrible place to be, and I think we've all been there.

GW: Your songs have tended toward introspection in the past. What prompted your shift to a larger worldiew?

GR: While I was in Ireland, I wrote about 30 songs. And I thought if I wrote 30 songs from an introspective, personal point of view, they would get really...tired, you know? [laughs] And being away in Ireland allowed me to look at everything from a distance. It gave me a different perspective. I felt compelled to take a step back and be a bit more reflective.

GW: Is this the result of a personal change?

GR: It's just something new to put in the music. Hopefully I'm getting better at making music and getting better at playing guitar and better at harmony and melody. And in the process of doing that I've tried to attach myself to some different subjects. They're not really that far ranging, but there are a few different themes in there.

In some respects, The Science of Things is two albums: the one Rossdale wrote and demoed in Ireland and the one that Bush ultimately recorded and released this past October. Alone in Ireland, Rossdale decided to try fleshing out his new songs by recording full-blown demos, complete with sampled instruments and tape loops. "It was the first time I'd done that for one of our albums," he says. "I did all the programming and all the playing, using samples and loops. And it was a great experience."

Shortly after finishing the demos, Rossdale packaged up copies of the recordings and mailed them to his bandmates to get their feedback. Although the new songs met with unanimous approval, Nigel Pulsford says he was a bit put off by hearing his guitar parts already written and performed by Rossdale. "Working to a demo is not my favorite way of making music, " he says. "I prefer to hear the songs in rehearsal, and then start writing out guitar parts from there. With a demo, you start competing with what's already on there to try to improve it. And I don't really want to play what's already on the demo. I want to come up with my own part."

By the time Bush convened in England to begin rehearsals, the demos had become a bone of contention. To Rossdale's ears they represented the final versions of the songs, and he tried desperately to convince his bandmates to hear them the same way.

"Initially, the rehearsals were quite troubled," says Pulsford. "Demos always sound great in their own way. But when you record the same songs wtih a band, they start to sound big, and they don't necessarily work in the same manner that they did as demos. What's more, some of Gavin's demos were really good, which made it even more difficult for us to stamp our own character on the songs."

The first weeks of rehearsal were spent in a standoff. "And then," says Pulsford, "gradually, Gavin eased up and allowed the songs to sound like something different from the demos. That's when they started to become our songs."

GR: Well, you know, when we came to rehearse the album as a four-piece band, my heart broke a little bit because I felt very precious about the songs. I'd worked really hard doing a lot of production on my demos. At first, I just refused to give a lot of it up.

GW: So did things get as tense as Nigel says?

GR: There are definitely some tense moments, but that's just the way it works with us. None of us back down, ever, and we just try to follow our hearts. We have an unwritten rule in the band that he who feels strongest will probably get his way. If one of the guys is really passionate about something, unless I can tell him just as passionately why I disagree with him, then he gets his way. It allows the group to be more of a republic than a democracy. You know, it's not so boring that I've fucking got to get four votes on everything. It just can't work that way.

GW: Are you happy with the results of the band's recordings?

GR: Absolutely. Absolutely. Not simply because I managed to keep some of my own samples and guitar parts in the final versions, but certainly because each of the guys really brought something special and uniquely their own to the songs.

GW: Considering how much you liked the demos, did you give any thought to releasing this as a solo album?

GR: Well...[laughs] It's funny, because I played all of these demos to Clive Langer. And Clive is a bit naughty, because he's always seeking out conspiracies. He'll sit there and tell you, "Don't worry, I know what you're going through. Those other guys stink a bit, don't they?" [laughs] So Clive asked me, "Are you sure you don't want to make a solo record?" And what I realized is that I want to produce us. Which is quite a bit different than going solo. I mean, Nigel is a supreme, amazing, excellent guitar player, and he always makes my songs sound better. He's probably one of the most underrated guitar players, because we had such a strange, huge, massive rise to success at the beginning of our career. And [rolling his eyes] my stupid face sometimes dominates certain attention moments. But he's so brilliant, and to be without him would only destabalize the songs a bit. When it came time to record The Science of Things with the band, I didn't want to lose any of what I had done with the demos, but I also didn't want to lose the band. So we figured out a way to have both.

Within the Bush catalog, there is a precedence for The Science of Things. It's Deconstructed, the groups 1997 release on which several producers, including Tricky, Goldie and Derek DeLarge, served up remixes of Bush trakcs like "Comedown," "Swallowed" and the group's first hit single, "Everything Zen." "Deconstructed did influence us somewhat when it came time to make The Science of Things," says Pulsford. "But at the same time, we didn't want people thinking we were dilettantes. You know: 'Oh, we must have a drum loop in here because it's trendy.' So we spent a lot of time experimenting, trying to see how that would work so that it wouldn't sound bogus, so it would sound genuine."

To assist them with the creation of samples and loops, Bush brought in two programmers to sample their instruments, scramble the sounds and then feed them back into the mix as blips and bleeps. "We just wanted to create some textures," says Pulsford, "and I liked that we were about to use our own instruments as the sources for those sounds."

Early on in the production, it became clear that, as for the album's producer, Rossdale was in favor of using samples quite heavily on the record. The Science of Things was recorded onto a hard-disc recorder using Pro Tools, and long after the band left for the evening, Rossdale remained in the studio with the programmers, manipulating the day's work to turm rhythm and guitar tracks into loops and samples. Concerned that the band was going to sound, as Rossdale puts it, "like Depeche Mode, or something," Pulsford and drummer Robin Goodridge sat down to have a talk with their producer.

"They were very concerned that all of their parts were going to be sampled and looped and programmed," says Rossdale. "And I think there was some validity to those concerns. In the end, they helped bring us to a consensus that we wouldn't make the record too 'electronic' sounding."

Rossdale admits that, all gentlemen's agreements aside, he employed samples and programming more heavily on "The Chemocals Between Us" and "Jesus Online," which makes use of a looped rhythm track. "I just wanted ot have a couple of songs on the record that sounded more modern."

GW: Could you have, or would you have, made this album without Pro Tools or some other kind of digital recording technology?

GR: Possibly. But it would have been a lot more difficult. And as it was, this was not an easy album to record, in part because of the technology.

GW: In what way?

GR: In some way it slowed thigns down, because it gave us so many options. A song like "The Chemicals Between Us" went through five or six different stages until we got it to where it is now. There was a little tweaking of vocals or guitars, but then there always is -- it's just that in the past it would mean punching in on a tape recorder and today it means moving a bit of digital information around. But most of the time was spent choosing little sections that were in the mix and trying to figure out what we wanted to use. And we always record guitar guide tracks, and we wanted to keep parts of those in there as well. So mixing the songs involved a lot of jumping back and forth between the different sounds.

GW: As a guitarist, how did you feel using Pro Tools and suddenly having access to so many new sounds?

GR: It was fantastic. The samples were like different palettes with new colors. It was useful to me as a songwriter. I mean, I love music so much, but it's still such a mystery to me. I'ma total, primitive, primal guitar player. Everything I do is based on feel, and based on touch. So the samples added an energy to the song that I couldn't have added through the guitar.

GW: You've improved as a guitarist. Not only are you playing a lot more on this album, but I noticed at the Hard Rock Live show that you've started soloing too.

GR: I am developing. I suppose. They're very kind to me, my band, because they have to acquiesce to my improvements all the time. The better I get at guitar, the less Nigel gets to play, because you can only have so much ina song. Like on the new song "Prizefighter," I got a chance to write lead lines, which I'd never done before. In the past I'd always just present basic, rudimentary chords, and the Nigel had all the fun dressing them up and taking them out for dinner. And I've a sneaking suspicion that some of the things that I'm doing sometimes push him. You know, he has to be the peacock: he has to be that much louder, and he has to be that much more interesting. Which he invariably is.

Gavin Rossdale and Nigel Pulsford do not have the most equitable of relationships. Both mer were responsible for forming Bush, but Pulsford has had to dwell in the shadow of Rossdale, who -- younger, sleeker and blessed with commanding good looks -- has received the lion's share of public attention. A composer in his own right, Pulsford has been forced to find other avenues for his muse outside of Bush. To that end, this past year he released a solo album, Heavenly Toast on the Paradise Road (Collecting Dust Records).

"Gavin and i used to co-write early on," says Pulsford. "But, it's like, Gavin said he doesn't want to co-write -- he just wants to do it himself. So I feel like, 'Oh. Okay. Fine.' You know, I'll do my bits. But" -- he shrugs -- "it seems to work for us."

As for Rossdale's newfound talents on the guitar, Pulsford isn't worried that he'll lose his slice of the spotlight anytime soon. "Gavin's playing has improved loads," he says. "He didn't really play when we started; he just sang, and wrote on the guitar. He's getting really good, and he's very inventive, but it's not like he's treading on my toes." He pauses to consider this, and laughs. "Although he'd like to."

And despite the tension of making The Science of Things, the head-butting and occasionally flating egos, Pulsford says there is no strain between him and his frontman. "Gavin was very single-minded at times, and it did get rough. That's where Clive Langer helped, because he'd come in and smooth the rehearsal out. Suddenly it would start to be okay. I think that did a lot to keep things going well in the band. In the end, I have no bad feelings about any of it. I'll be the first to say that this album is Gavin's baby. He didn't deserve a production credit on the other albums, but on this one he did."

If the making of The Science of Things has proven anything to Bush, it is that they have the strength to weather the hard times of internal struggle. Seven years into their development, the group appears to be much stronger than the forces that have threatened to tear them apart. Certainly, much stronger than grunge.

"We were unfairly lumped in with the grunge scene," says Pulsford. "When I met Gavin, it was Brit-pop time in music, and we wanted to make music that was exciting. At the time, the only exciting music was coming out of the states, from bands like the Pixies. They also inspired Kurt Cobian, and sort of led the way for everything that happened in Seattle music. We were never into being a shoe-gazing band. But, boom! -- suddenly we got lumped in with the whole grunge thing and accused of ripping it off."

The accusations have been more personal for Rossdale, who has been charged not only with writing like Cobain but with co-opting his voice as well. "It was upsetting because it undermined the process of ehat we were doing," he says of the criticism. "It undermined the truth of it. I understood that there were lots of similar elements in our music. And i think there was a generic rhythm guitar motif to our music. And I do have that sense of isolationism that Kurt felt, and I do have a sense of, I hope, a bit of the truth and the contradictions in life and the contradictions in ourselves. But I think that I can sit here now and be thankful and grateful that time and our ability as musicians have allowed us to transcend that issue. It's just a moot point, and may he rest in peace."

As for Bush, where does The Science of Things find them in their evolution as a group?

"It finds us back in action and moving on," says Pulsford. "That's what it's all about -- being able to stay the course. There are lots of bands going down. And we're still here. That's what this album says about us."

Rossdale is equally hopeful, if only less idealistic.

"I think we're about" --and here he pauses for nearly 10 seconds -- "two-fifths of the way through our life span. Because you can't go on forever. But I don't want this to go away. Not just yet."