Bush’s Gavin Rossdale: “When you’re really successful you get headbutted often, and we got hit a lot! But I’m half-Scottish, I can take it”
There was a time when Gavin Rossdale probably felt like he just couldn’t win.
In the ‘90s, he had the world at his feet. He had achieved global fame and multi-platinum record sales with post-grunge heroes, Bush. He married superstar No Doubt vocalist Gwen Stefani in 2002, going on to raise a family with her, with Hollywood cameos and prime time television appearances along the way. In 2013 he was the recipient of a prestigious Ivor Novello songwriting award for his achievements. By rights, he should be thought of as a national treasure in the British rock scene, being one of the few UK artists to genuinely break America and enjoy mammoth mainstream success. He should be thought of in such terms, and yet he has never been granted such grace.
For a man who could be forgiven for developing a sizeable chip on his shoulder about it all, he appears surprisingly unruffled. The London expat now lives in Los Angeles, where he has shared custody of his three sons, having divorced from Gwen in 2016. Rather than focus on the accolades and dues that have evaded him, though, the Bush frontman prefers to count the blessings he does have.
There are many…
How much truth is there to the rumour that you could have been a professional football player instead of a rock star?
“I was pretty good and I played at some top clubs, but no, it was always about the music for me. I played in central midfield and I had trials for Chelsea, but I’m not sure I was ever destined to be professional. I got injured while we were recording Sixteen Stone. Someone elbowed me in the mouth during a game and my bottom lip was hanging off. So all the guide vocals for it were done without my bottom lip! That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe it’s best that I follow the music thing…’”
When did that musical spark first ignite?
“I grew up in Swiss Cottage, Kilburn and West Hampstead. It was kind of rough, and no-one liked [David] Bowie, who my aunt had introduced me to, so music was like my secret passion. It was the perfect storm of getting introduced to good music and having access to a cool record shop where I’d spend all my pocket money. That’s where I was getting lost in music, but not to the point of actually making it yet – I thought you had to be extraterrestrial to do that!”
When did you start to believe you might possess such extraterrestrial qualities?
“Well, no-one in my family was musical. It was more of a great escape for me. I was in a couple of bands at school, spending more time talking about what covers we wanted to do than playing them, but I sang a bit and then, when I left school, it was really a case of, ‘What can I do that isn’t a real job?’ So I tried singing in another band, and obviously I was terrible and learning on the job. I just stuck around long enough that I found a way through. But I had heart, and that beat everything else. I used to do some decorating and I worked on building sites to pursue the dream. That’s the brilliant thing about youth – you feel like there are no horizons. I knew nothing, but I was so focused and I was hooked. I also loved books and writers. It’s that romantic idea of giving yourself to something just because it feels right, as opposed to thinking it has any kind of future. Yet ironically, here we are, a little later.”
When did the first hints of a future in music become apparent?
“When I began Bush. I was really just finding my way before. I looked for people to work with, but I was like, ‘Everyone’s such a twat!’ I had been playing guitar, I just wasn’t very good and I’m not that good now. Then I met Nigel [Pulsford, ex-Bush]. He was a great guitar player, but he didn’t want to work with me too much. He was making real money off jingles. I took some songs to him, and he was really good at making them sound way better than they were. He just had a way of playing fantastic guitar. I was lying in the bath listening to the demos, like, ‘Fucking hell, this is great.’ That’s when I had the epiphany – when I heard him. I had lost all ambition, and had all but given up on getting a record deal. When I’d started making music in Bush it was liberating, because I thought, ‘Well, the dream is kind of gone now.’ I was also discovering bands like My Bloody Valentine, Gang Of Four and Pixies, so I figured, ‘Just make music that makes you feel good.’ Then it all went what I like to call ‘peach-shaped’. The irony was that success came when I had let go of trying. Eventually, we got the Interscope deal when Jimmy Iovine heard Sixteen Stone. And the rest got me to this conversation!”
Given your low expectations, stardom must have come as a huge surprise. Did it fundamentally change you, did it freak you out, or did you handle it well?
“A combination of all those things. The weirdest thing was that I’d been slaving for enough time that it felt like I was in the right place. Even though that sounds weird to me. I got a sense that something was going on. But it was only when we went to America after being on the radio for the first time and we played CBGB in New York that I was like, ‘Whoa, what the fuck?!’ All I can remember is all these cool dudes and tattooed girls there, and thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is the best night of my life.’ Then we stayed on tour forever, just grinding, grinding, grinding. I was so naïve, but it was all so thrilling. Then there’s the juggernaut of being on MTV. It was otherworldly, like being in a space shuttle. But you need all those things at once to make that nuclear fuel. I think we took it well. We had a laugh, and we got along great. I don’t think we turned into divas or anything, because when you’re successful you also get beaten up. When you’re really successful you get headbutted often, and we got hit a lot. But I’m half-Scottish – I could take it! You need to kill me, or I’ll just get back up and shake it off.”
Did it hurt when some sections of the press seemed to dismissively sneer at Bush’s success?
“Kerrang! was one of the few places we didn’t get murdered. The ones that we had a harder time with were simultaneously peddling the whole Britpop thing. They were annoyed by us outselling all of their bands combined. So it was a little bitter. If you talk to anyone that’s successful, the truth is they all think they get bad press, because the dumb thing about fragile egos in this world is that everyone focuses on the negative. That’s like caring about what one person stood picking their nose and yawning thinks while 99 others are orgasmic while you’re playing. Nothing really matters. The only thing is that some of that press did keep people away, and I believe we could have been even bigger in England. But you’ve got to look at your life on balance. It would be ridiculous to have any complaints. Of course there’s some frustration, but so be it. I’ve lost friends along the way to suicide, drugs, illness, and people have had their lives ravaged by any number of things. So I stand here grateful.”
Did it require to you to develop a thick skin?
“At the time, I think it was really hard and it stings, because you’re so excited about it and all you’ve done is write a song. You’re not a white-collar criminal, taking people’s pension money. So sometimes it was hard and it gets a bit emotional, because people feel strongly about these things. I started getting way better reviews when streaming began and no-one bought records. It beats selling 12 copies and having the Album Of The Year awards from every critic.”
The 2013 Ivor Novello Award must have gone some way to redressing that balance?
“Yeah, that was incredible, and it’s great to have the certificates and things. It was a fun night. My mum came along with me, and she loved it.”
Rewinding a little, were you sad about how things came to a close with Bush in 2002?
“That was never meant to be a permanent thing. I had recently got married, and it was a weird time. I wanted to do the Institute record, which was meant to be a three-month thing, but it turned into a couple of years. And then I tried to get the band back together in 2008, when I did my solo record. I didn’t want to go solo, but Nigel didn’t want to come back. And I never should have done a solo record. I never should have done the Institute record. I should have just kept on making Bush records. But that’s the way it goes. I begged the band to get back together, but Nigel and Dave [Parsons] didn’t want to do it, so I had to get some new guys in, and we’ve had the same line-up since.”
You’ve had an on-off flirtation with Hollywood over the years. Do you enjoy acting?
“I actually just did another little piece for a new movie. I seem to get killed off all the time – everyone wants me to die in these movies! But it’s really fun. I love acting. The only reason I don’t act more is because my three boys live with me half the time. I don’t mind travelling for music when I’m away for a few months across the year, but if you’re an actor, you’ve got to commit to making movies in Romania for four months or something, and I can’t do that. But when the right jobs come up, I love it. It’s really magical making words come to life up off the page.”
In another life you might have become a chef, is that true?
“I’ve actually done some pilots for a cooking show that still might get made, but it’s a bit uphill at the minute. I did a couple of episodes of it for myself, because I love cooking. I’m basically trying to figure out different ways of being able to stay home more. I’m still trying to figure out the single father thing.”
What has parenthood taught you about life?
“Tolerance, patience, and how irrelevant I am. I’m just a stepping-stone. You have these new, improved versions of yourself, and you try to be as supportive as you can. I just want them to play my records and not have to be like, ‘Uh, sorry about my dad’ to their friends. You can’t suck!”
You’ve lived in the public eye for 25 years. What insights have you gained from that experience?
“In a way, [new record] The Kingdom is based upon the self-righteous judgement of most people, especially of anyone in the public eye. One thing I teach my kids is: no judgement. Because you never know what someone’s story is. To me, The Kingdom is this perfect place, free from PC nonsense and gang mentalities. There’s a freedom of mind, spirit, creativity and expression. I find the voracious appetite of people who are fast to judge incredible. Human nature is fragile, because it’s all based on everyone’s insecurities. People love to see others feel bad, because it makes them feel better about themselves. That stuff I’ve found a bit tough over the years. But at the same time, I’ve met people who are incredible, who are interesting and smart, all because of my life. It’s taught me that you can’t take it all too seriously. It’s just life.”
Is there an element of people not really knowing the real you because they only get a public persona version you present as a means of self-protection?
“Of course. But we all get reduced to three sentences, and that is a little taxing sometimes, but it’s nothing that I lose sleep over. If you read anthropology, societies are all based off of gossip. So I totally understand why it exists. But you have to have perspective on it. What are you going to do? For me, the focus has to be on making great music and playing great shows. I never read about myself. I gave up doing that years ago. Your own contribution has to be as good as it can be. That’s all you can control. I can’t control what someone writes. I’d be in the loony bin if I tried to. The passion is what keeps you alive. It’s infectious. That’s the key to your own spirit.”
You were a judge on ITV’s The Voice in 2017. How do you look back on that experience?
“I look back at it fondly, but it didn’t really work for me. The best thing about it by a million miles was befriending Tom Jones. He is a king.”
Do you have any regrets in life?
“If you haven’t got regrets, you’ve really haven’t lived. My main regrets are the things I didn’t do. I mean, obviously, if you could airbrush your life and not have let people down or not made bad decisions that hurt others, you’d take that opportunity. I’m from a family of six marriages, three for each of my parents, and that’s not what I wanted in my life, so it’s a bit weird being divorced. It’s the last thing I ever wanted, and Gwen is in amazing girl. I’m not a Buddhist, but I relate to a lot of their old philosophies, and one is that there are no accidents. Even the terrible, awful things that happen to you, there’s a lesson you’re meant to learn from them. I think the biggest regret would be to go through the fucking car crashes of life and not learn anything from them. I’ve had some pretty bad pileups down the years, but I’ve tried to learn from every one and be a better person. I’m way far from perfect. I’m full of flaws.”
Finally, when it’s your time to go, what epitaph would you like to have on your tombstone?
“I don’t buy into that burial stuff. When I’m gone, I’ll be gone like dust. There will be the music, but no words from me. People can say what they like. They always do.”
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