“I’m the best songwriter of my generation. Ask me in 20 years about The Libertines.” Johnny Borrell arrived with a bang in 2004, letting NME know his true worth – and the relative lack of it in former bandmates The Libertines – just as Razorlight’s ‘Stumble And Fall’ broke the top 30. As debut solo album ‘Borrell 1’ hits the shops, here’s Johnny and his career in quotes.
“Firstly I’m a genius. Musically, culturally, everything. I’ve written two more albums. I’m writing a film which I’m going to star in and score the soundtrack. I can’t stop… It’s like [Bob Dylan and The Band’s] ‘The Basement Tapes’; it took years for people to hear them.” It’s January 2004 and we have the new artist of a generation.
Still, life wasn’t all a bed of roses. “The girls are starting to become a problem. They’re following us around the country and it’s beginning to make things a little, shall we say, complicated…”
And just in case Dylan wasn’t fully appraised of his place in the grand scheme of things: “Well, put it this way, compared to the Razorlight album, Dylan is making the chips, I’m drinking the champagne.”
The debut album was going to be something special: “It’s a concept album and it’s the tip of the fucking iceberg, just the start.”
“I’m Paul Simon and Iggy Pop.” Iggy’s pure, tremulous voice; Paul’s torso.
Sexy? That’s not what Johnny Borrell’s all about: “I don’t think it’s my job to be minxy.”
Johnny would be a fan of Johnny though: “If I saw me I’d want to speak to me, too – I’d think, ‘That guy looks like he’s from Mars, he’s somehow strangely compelling.'”
Even in those bullish early days though, Johnny still allowed himself a trace of vulnerability. “Sometimes I feel so confident. I’m on top of the world 50 per cent of the time. And the other 50 per cent it’s just dizzying fits of insecurity, confusion and traffic in your mind.”
And computer games were almost his undoing. “When I was young I used to think I was Maradona. I even lost a girlfriend to one of those computer football management games. It got to the stage where I was lying so I could play them in secret. One night she turned to me and said, ‘If it was porn, I could understand.’ Then she walked out.”
He would never have lasted long in The Libertines: “I’d probably still be a drug addict if it wasn’t for the fact that I find doing drugs all the time so fucking boring.”
Following the release and top three success of Razorlight’s debut album ‘Up All Night’ in summer 2004, Johnny had an intriguing plan: “I’m going out to America and I’m not coming back until I’m king.” What would unfold?
By early 2005, promo had taken its toll: “It’s so hard being on tour, but spending so long without talking to anybody outside the band, you do get quite isolated. I had a lot of baggage I’d built up and I just had to fuck up in order to shed the skin.”
But there was still time to reminisce about those Libertines days: “That sort of scene was a cocaine scene to me, and I’m not a big fan of cocaine. We could’ve gone down and played the Rhythm Factory and got fucked up with everybody and kissed Peter [Doherty]’s arse and kissed Carlos [Barât]’ arse whenever they walked into the room, which frankly a lot of those bands did.”
“If 20,000 children die of poverty every day and if I’m worrying about my credibility or somebody else’s perception of my fucking credibility, that would be the height of bullshit.” So stop banging on about that white-top-white-jeans combo at Live 8.
Early 2006, big things are about to happen – No.1 album, No.1 single – but Johnny’s worried about the hangers-on: “People kissing my arse happens frequently, and it pisses me off.”
But he’s not doing any arse-kissing of his own. Here’s his measured take on The Kooks: “And that record is the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard. I sounds like the band are literally rolling over, sticking their arse in the air and begging Radio 1 to fuck them.”
A year on, some Carl Barât memories: “We were onstage and I stepped past him to get my guitar and he was pissed and he backed into me. When I pushed him out of the way, he came over to me and said, ‘Don’t fucking push me.’ And I said, ‘Fuck you fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking fuck.'” It’s that power as a wordsmith that’s got him where he is today.
Things in the Razorlight camp are just perfect: “There are some days that I can’t even look at them, and others when they do three or four good things in a row and it’s great. I love them and hate them equally.”
Never give Bono your number: “The last time Bono phoned me, it wiped all my old saved text messages out of my phone it just went [makes Dalek, evaporation type noise] ‘ching, ching, ching, ching’ like that – like a Pac-Man thing. He deleted all my text messages; it was amazing! Maybe he was using Al Gore’s phone or some secret service stuff.”
Speaking of rock gods, what would John Lennon think of Razorlight? “Are you asking if John Lennon would like Razorlight? Of course he fucking would. Because we’re fucking brilliant. Certainly if he was standing at the side of the stage, I wouldn’t change a note of the set.”
There was always a Razorlight masterplan: “When I was a kid dreaming of forming a band I wasn’t dreaming of carrying my own amp up the stairs to go and play the Bull & Gate. That’s the reality and everyone can fucking do that. There are very few people who can take it all the way, and at that time I was dreaming of playing Wembley Stadium.”
In 2011, remembering the now-disbanded original line-up: “I thought about changing our name from Razorlight. But we had two records that were slam-dunks, before the third one missed the target. I couldn’t stand the thought of that miss being Razorlight’s legacy.”
“It was a shared lounge and there were four people on the back. You could go quite fast. I could almost get into second gear,” said Johnny, about the hitherto somewhat implausible tale of him riding a motorbike through then-girlfriend Kirsten Dunst’s living room.
He may hang out with Hollywood stars, but still The Libs are never far from his mind (or interviewers’ question sheets): “Some people will tell me how bad things are for Pete and Carlos, like that’s going to make me feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good. It’s just depressing. It’s just sad. We were really close friends a long time ago. The people I knew don’t exist any more.”
Back to Razorlight, the late-2011 line-up was pretty cosy: “The Razorlight dressing room has been a horrible place to be in the past and that’s not good for anyone. You all have to bring a good energy. I’ve always been positive – I just love being in a band and love making music. I always just wanted my band to get somewhere and as soon as we did I was pretty chilled.”
But sometimes you just have to get away from it all, man: “I went to live on an Hebridian island for four months with a population of 250 people. I wasn’t doing that to be cool, I was doing that because I didn’t want to be around anything to do with making music or anything like that.”
Seven years into a stellar career, some rather troubling self-awareness was sneaking in: “We’ve had some amusing arguments. Very Spinal Tap. We were Spinal Tap from the start, before we’d even sold a record – it was amazing. It was like, I thought I asked for a hotel room with a bath in it, not a shower… before we’d even put a single out.”
He even had time to consider his three biggest mistakes: “The first two were probably haircuts – I had a James Dean phase when I was 18 and the 1950s quiff didn’t really suit me.”
Now he’s a changed man, out on his own with ‘Borrell 1’, there’s a chance to look back and take stock. Johnny’s (sort of) remorseful: “I’m sure there were times when I was obnoxious. But that’s rock’n’roll, you know?”