The Burning Bush
January 1997
Written by Tony Creswell

Gavin Rossdale believes the best way to silence the critics is for Bush to make a tough second album and keep touring. Imagine that - a rock star who likes to play music. Interview by Toby Creswell

The backstage area at Sydney's Hordern Pavilion has less personality than your local Macdonald's. It's a drab linoleum corridor leading to a drab linoleum ante room. All of a sudden the quiet is broken by hundreds of teenagers, mostly girls, all proudly wearing their after-show passes on their pubescent chests. There is a buzz of excitement, a sense of glamour, despite the Politburo ambience of the room. Upstairs, the four musicians in Bush are recovering from their hour plus on stage.

Although the group has been pillored as punk rock pretenders in the upper echelons of the music press, they certainly demonstrate their bona fides in front of an audience. Short on pyrotechnics and theatrical wizardry, Bush put across a huge rock sound, powered mostly be the incisive and aggressive drumming of Robin Goodridge and the taut, angular guitar of Nigel Pulsford. Their songs have enough edge to embrace a post-Seattle aesthetic while still sporting enough of the big rock chorus to cross over. As they power through hits like "Everything Zen" the audience erupts in a roiling mosh pit frenzy. The pit is largely female and mostly teenaged, though some are preteens, other clearly in their twenties. A week earlier, in this very room, Johnny Rotten had repeatedly exhorted the crowd to pump up the adrenalin level. Bush fans don't need to be told.

At the centre of the show is Gavin Rossdale who is, for all intents and purposes, Bush. In his preppie outfit with his torn voice, Rossdale makes a convincing fist of angst while still putting across all the confidence, arrogance and self-possession of a man born to be a rock star. He has striking looks, perfect skin and dramatic, sorrowful eyes, a combination that has made him an instant hit with women but has sometimes worked against his musical credibility. Tonight is his 29th birthday.

Backstage, the girls queue for a look at their idols whilst attempting to stay cool and not gawk. Nigel Pulsford comes downstairs, followed by bassist Dave Parsons, who was last here with Transvision Vamp. The girls are largely indifferent. No one so much as asks for an autograph. Then the birthday boy appears. There is a flurry of excitement as heads turn. Still dressed in his long white T-shirt and slacks, Rossdale signs some autographs and meets contest winners from Canada.

"What did you think of the show?" I inquire of the girl standing next to me.

"He's fucking hot," she says.

"He's a babe," adds her friend, whose eyes are also glazed over. So who needs rock critics? Who needs credibility?

Rossdale has been burnt. He hs been burnt by sarcastic music writers, he's been burnt by his friends and he's been burnt by his lifestyle. The next afternoon, when he arrives for breakfast at Xu, a fashionably appointed restaurant in the hotel, he is wearing sunglasses.

He spent a mellow night farewelling his twenties in the bar of the Kings Cross Hyatt Kingsgate with the band. Rossdale cut the chocolate cake and downed a few quiet ones. "Yeah, I just hung out in my room," he says. "And I phoned people in England, had a club sandwich and watched a tape of the football. But I feel a bit rough, like I've had a realy big night. I'm in a really good mood, but trashed."

The singer has had barely any sleep since arriving in Australia for a whirlwind tour that includes a full schedule of interviews and the like. Bush has only recently finished a two-year world tour and then taken just three weeks to record a second album. As tired as Rossdale is, he knows the frustration of struggling in obscurity and is happy to do whatever is necessary to stay on the road.

Rossdale's main problem may have been being born British. Although his father was a doctor and he was raised in all the comfort that a British upper middle-class family can provide, he fundamentally wanted to rock and the British just don't. "That was always my dilemma," he admits. "The English rock scene, with a few exceptions like My Bloody Valentine - I never grew up on that. I hated it. It made me want to puke. I liked punk when I was first into music, and then I really got into reggae. In the '80s all the bands were terrible in England. There were New Romantics and really horrible things going on. The stuff that appealed to my heart was things like Big Black and Pixies - American music. It reminded me of the punk I'd grown up with, but it was further on.

Despite being massively out of step with his early '80s contemporaries, Rossdale spent his youth sleeping on friends' floors and attempting to get bands together in the competitive British club scene. "In London in the mid-'80s there was a club called Taboo on a Thursday night," he recalls. "At that point I had a band and we'd be wasted all the time and go out all the time. We'd stay up all night every night and we'd take drugs and we'd go out and we'd hang out and then we'd work through from like five in the evening, when we'd wake up. Work on the music and stuff and then go out again.

"It was really funny, but the music never really worked because although the people who were in it are really talented individually, no one had any direction."

For Rossdale it was also a period of fairly heavy drug use. "Tons of ecstacy," he confesses. "But I don't really like to talk about it so much because it's such a private thing. I just never had any trouble with heroin. It's not that I'm being self-righteous, it's just not in me.

"I was a recreational ecstacy user. I was having a really good time doing it, and I probably did get a bit steep into it, but because I was never into heroin it wasn't that level of self-destruction. I did self-destructive things because I behaved in a self-destructive way and it kind of addled my brain. So that's why I don't do that any more. But I did have to go through certain things.

"It is really personal. The last thing people should read is some idiot in a rock band talking about the wonders of different drugs. It is a really personal journey and people should be really careful. And be knowledgeable and be around the right people. I never took drugs with idiots and ended up in housing estates smoking crack, which plenty of people I know did. I love music too much.

"Kids are always going to take drugs. It's so ridiculous. People get so over the top about it when what's really needed is just some measure of control. Obviously drugs will never be legalised. Anyway, forget it - I know nothing about drug use."

Hanging out and soaking up inspiration was almost a full time job, and Rossdale knew there would be no compromise on making music. "I had no money for so long," he says. "But I was plugged in. I could go out, hang, see people. I'd do different jobs - painting, anything that would bring in quick money. I'd work on videos. I had friends who made videos, so I'd go and work on their videos and do different jobs, mainly in the art department and stuff."

The catalyst which brought Bush together was in fact an Australian girl, Suze DiMarchi, the singer with the Baby Animals. She'd been dating Rossdale and also knew of a guitarist who was looking for a band. She introduced Rossdale to Pulsford, who did his best Pixies impersonation as an audition. Rossdale immediately felt he had a soul mate.

"When I first did the demo with Nigel I realised that I was finally in a band I wanted to be in," he recalls while ordering another fruit juice for his throat. "It was also the least commercial band I'd been in because the guys I worked with before were softer, or much more Nigel and I just got into it and clicked sraight away and that same tape is how we got our manager." (Bush's manager, incidentally, is Dave Dorrell, for many years one of Britain's leading dance DJs and musicians who had a huge hit as part of M/A/R/R/S with "Pump Up the Volume" in the late '80s.)

From there the band scored a record deal out of Los Angeles and began their gradual assault on the American charts. In the US a series of singles established the band with a broad audience. In Australia, however, the album languished until midway through 1996, when MCA-Geffen relaunched it and took the single "Glycerine" to Number One.

"Our record was made for America," the singer admits. "The record company is based in LA and they knew we'd be a hit in America. They didn't really care about the rest of the world, but we've done really well here and in Canada, Germany, Holland, Belgium, so there are a lot of strong areas of support all over the world. But as far as America is concerned, they're very proud of their attitude that no where else exists or is in any way important."

The first album, 6teen Stone, utilised Rossdale's eye for hipness with a cover design by David Carson, art director of Raygun magazine and enfant terrible of design. Rossdale also began hanging with the cool school - Courtney Love, Evan Dando et al. It's those same instincts that led to Steve Albini being offered the producer's chair for Bush's second album.

Rossdale has also been linked romantically with Courtney Love - but then again, who hasn't? And being an English gentleman, he's not going to tell. "Well, I happen to know her really well and I think that she's completely brilliant," he says. "She's one of the smartest people I've ever met and one of the most decisive people I've ever met."

"Isn't it funny how people think they know someone because they're famous?" he continues. "It's arrogance for people to sit there and talk about the marriage of people they've never even met with authority: 'Kurt did this,' 'Courtney did that.' Not even my best friend knows what my relationships with my girlfriends have been like. No one knows the actual running for anyone's relationship. When people start mouthing off about Courtney, I'm like, 'Yeah, whatever, she's a witch'."

He laughs and stares back into his cranberry juice. What we do know for sure, however, is that recently Rossdale has been seeing No Doubt singer Gwen Stephani.

While 6teen Stone has propelled Bush into the stratosphere of rock & roll, Rossdale is planning on longevity. Which is why the band, instead of taking a customary break between albums, rushed into making their second album. "I wanted the record out because music is the loudest voice that I've got, and I felt that it was too long since the first voice," he explains. "I felt 6teen Stone was no longer doing us justice as to who we are. We'd moved on. It was time for a new voice."

Rossdale engaged Steve Albini, who produced Nirvana's In Utero and then denounced the Seattle trio for selling out, referring to them as corporate whores. It could also be argued that taking on an outspoken producer whose credits include his own bands Big Black and Rapeman as well the Jesus Lizard and many others was asking for trouble. The result, however, was mutual admiration. Like Courtney Love, Albini is deemed "brilliant - perfectly cynical and perfectly dry and the perfect person to work on the record."

"He's aware of exactly what he wants and exactly why he wants it and that's really brilliant," Rossdale continues. "Plus he only records you, he doesn't try to manufacture it. I wanted to ask him more about the stuff he did with people like Palace. I love those records; there's just one guy and he just does these really really cool songs - bummer, depressing songs. Steve works with him and does all this minimal stuff, which is a part of Steve's repertoire. So many people are ignorant of the breadth of his work. They just think he's worked with Nirvana and the Pixies and the Breeders. I'm really proud to have worked with him. I always thought he had a cool work ethic around him and moral ethic surrounding him."

As is typically the case with Albini, the album, entitled Razorblade Suitcase, was recorded in a matter of only three weeks. "It's no time compared with most records, but it's a long time to do something else," says Rossdale. "To walk, for instance. If you walk somewhere for three weeks it would be fucking long."

Razorblade Suitcase leads off with "Personal Holloway," a suicide tale, and then follows from there through familiar angst territory. Like the first single, "Swallowed."

"I get those kinds of songs every now and again, I have a few per record - a little thought for the day, a mini personal philosophy," says Rossdale. "It was written fairly early on and it's probably more pissed off than the later lyrics. As time went on I sort of let go of that bummeresque thing, the slacker thing. I don't really have this feeling of alienation, but it just happened to be musically the easiest song and the best link between the two albums, so we decided to make it the first single. I like the fact that it starts off in the warm sun because it is positive and it has a little bit of hope and a desire for things to be good - and from then on it's all downhill. It's also quite a universal theme, so I'm proud of it as well."

Razorblade Suitcase confirms Bush's position among the leaders of the new new wave. Which probably suits Rossdale's purposes. He appears to have no aspirations to be the voice of a generation and is almost dismissive of his role as songwriter. "I have a good time writing lyrics, a good time in the sense of how I feel afterward, when it's completed," he explains. "But somtimes it's easy and sometimes it's hard, sometimes you like it and sometimes you hate it. I guess I like the challenge, because when you look at the whole album you've got 13 songs. It's like a little book.

"I prefer direct lyrics," he concludes. "I hope I'm not oblique as Michael Stipe. I think he's great, but it doesn't really connect in the same way Courtney writes. She's an amazing lyricist."

With five million albums sold so far, Bush is Gavin Rossdale's dream come true, and he's not prepared to waste a moment of it. No task is too meagre. At a instore appearance in Perth 2000 fans mobbed the store and kept the band happily signing autographs for two hours.

"We have to do press and play and that's quite taking physically," he says finally. "Aside from that, I love playing. That is the reward. But I've just dont eight hours of work and now I've got 40 minutes here in the hotel to wind down and get ready for the show.

"A band is defined by its records. You have one bad record you're done. That's why I think the lifespan can be pretty short. It looks like we've got this crazy work ethic when all we've done is play music and tour. Twenty years ago, this is how all bands worked."