They Said It Couldn’t Happen Here…

by Gina Morris
May 1997

…Except it just did. Victoria Goodwin on how Gavin Rossdale and Bush brought grunge back to Britain.

“Fuck Oasis, man. Fuck Oasis!” The tall kid with the transatlantic rasp is screaming from the mosh-pit, only just audible above the general chanting. In the lull before Bush come back for an encore, crowd surfers are still bobbing euphorically towards these age like so much tidal flotsam. Venue: Shepherd’s Bush Empire, west London. Occasion: the last gig in a sell-out European tour. Bush at The Bush. The place is rammed with sweaty, adoring fans, and girls are hanging, wide-eyed, over the balcony. Singer Gavin Rossdale, knackered, dishevelled, dripping, yet still gorgeous, walks back on and stares blankly out into the maelstrom. One chord and the place erupts. Fifteen minutes later, on the way out, the crowds are smiling-hundreds of happy punters. But this is Britain. Were it the United States, the queue for the cloakroom would reach into thousands.

Bush, lest we forget, are Rock Gods in America-as big as the Pixies were, the Smashing Pumpkins are, even, dare one say it, as Nirvana were. Connections with those High Priests Of Grunge have been endless. Bush’s first album Sixteen Stone outsold Nevermind, Gavin Rossdale has been called “more than a friend” of Courtney Love by every scandal sheet on both sides of the Atlantic, and the producer of the second album Razorblade Suitcase is US rock guru Steve “Nevermind” Albini himself. Bush have had to contend with years of invective from the British press, who frankly have never been happy with a band doing so well without their say-so. They’ve been labeled “Nirvana Lite” (a phrase coined originally by Damon Albarn), whether they like it or not. The thing is, they just won’t view it as an insult. More of a compliment, really… “No, no,” says Gavin. “It’s not Nirvana Lite anymore. It’s ‘English Slackers,’ apparently. We’re just English Slackers. I like that. I’ve been a slacker for years; always dressed the same, thought the same, had the same level of sadness and depression.”

Popular Myth Number Two demolished, then. (Popular Myth Number One being that Bush are named after west London’s Shepherd’s Bush. “Of course not,” says a surprised Gavin. “My mum got mugged there once. It’s a shithole.”) I meet Bush at That Day’s Hotel, Somewhere, north Holland. It’s past noon before Gavin, looking stylishly scruffy and surprisingly fresh, slopes downstairs. He is casting a wary eye around the lavish pine and floral furnishings. “I had the tuna for lunch yesterday. Got food poisoning. Came off stage last night, threw up. Forget having a couple of days off though, I had to go straight back on for the encore.” You wouldn’t know he’d been ill; he still manages to look stunning. He’s also incredibly thoughtful; offering coffee, making sure my tape will record properly above the chatter of other hotel guest, plying me with fags. He’s so nice, dammit, so bloody charming as well as handsome and successful, that I find myself wanting both to be his best friend and to give him a quick Chinese burn or worse to make myself feel better. I’m getting as bad as the rest of the British press now: people who spent their time knocking Bush for expanding on a sound they just happen to admire (“UK Band Looks Beyond Carnaby Street For Musical Influences Shocker”).

Having settled down with a Marlboro Light, Gavin obligingly launches into his extraordinary life story for the billionth time. His parents having split up, he was sent, at 12 years old, to Westminster, the posh London public school. It was his worst nightmare for at least three out of the five years, and he came close to being expelled twice. Then he cleared his head and scored three A-levels before leaving at 17: “I got into it ultimately, there were so many brilliant teachers, but I ran out of there.”

It’s worth dispelling at this point Popular Myth Number Three that has brought Rossdale another crop of enemies; the fact is, he doesn’t come from a particularly rich background. “For the first three years I was the worst inverted snob. I was privileged to go there but I wasn’t really privileged elsewhere: no flash house or rich parents or anything. It was just really important to my dad-he’d worked really hard to pay for it.”

Living in Kilburn and still at school, Gavin was also hanging out at the hippest of New Romantic 80s club haunts like Taboo and the Mud Club. “All my friends were football casuals. I was really into David Bowie, and you had to be really careful about letting people know that. If you liked David Bowie they all called you a poof.” Cue for a question re Popular Myth Number Four, which nestles in the pages of Boy George’s autobiography, Take It Like A Man. In it George states categorically that Gavin was the then-boyfriend of transvestite and pop tart Marilyn. There’s no doubt Gavin was moving in the same circles and that his was a face known all over trendy London: the type of kid who, back then, would always get in free and never had to pay the cab fare home. But when I ask Gavin whether Boy George is a friend, his lips tighten. “No. He’s too good a Buddhist for me to know now,” he dead pans. I ask whether the book’s allegations are true, adding, with world-class stupidity, that I simply want to get to the bottom of this. “No pun intended,” flashes Gavin, looking as though the food poisoning was a picnic compared with how shit he’s feeling now. He sets the record straight abruptly. “It’s just crap. You know, it’s interesting that I’ve sold 12 million albums around the world and we’re probably the biggest rock band out of England and you’ve asked me about that prat’s book. Haven’t you got any other questions?”

He relents. “Look, I’ve traveled round the world and worked really hard and I’m bored with giving Andy coverage to someone like him. It undermines what I do.” (It doesn’t, but I’m not going to argue that toss right now.) He sighs deeply and looks across at me kindly, almost imploringly. “You can appreciate that, surely? I’m just…tired.”

Popular Myth Number Four has struck a nerve. Or maybe he just is really tired. We have moved on to the beginning of the “and the rest is history” bit. Gavin’s face lights up as he talks about fleeing to America; sleeping in a friend’s car for a week, finding the edge he’d lost. He saw Mudhoney in New York, Nirvana in LA, bought all Soundgarden’s records. A return to London, a meeting with guitarist Nigel Pulsford and the first tracks were outlined in Gavin’s kitchen. Then came ex-Transvision Vamp bassist Dave Parsons and sticksman Robin Goodridge, who famously walked backstage at one of their early gigs and told them their current drummer was shit and they should hire him instead. Gavin admits that the bleak despair that is the band’s trademark can be a little too real sometimes, especially when touring for months on end. “Sometimes it’s a bit like a caricature of David Cassidy-you have thousands of people on one side of midnight and on the other side there’s no one around. I was having a bit of a bad time and was seeing a doctor, which I know sounds ironic because you would assume selling loads of records and making tons of money puts you in a certain frame of mind, but you can’t help being human. Anyway, he told me to get a mobile phone and get out more. I thought that was funny, being prescribed a mobile phone. So now I’m just going to cook the right side of my brain.” He starts laughing. “Radioactively speaking, I’m Mr Microwave.”

Gavin lights another fag and gazes around as the rest of the band filter downstairs and wander into the restaurant. In the background, drummer Robin (the “don’t mess” one) Goodridge, expands on the My Hotel Hell theme to anyone who’ll listen. “I know this hotel is shit, you don’t have to tell me that. Last night I came in and the security guard walked up to me and said: ‘Can I help you?’ I said: ‘Yeah, you can fuck off. I’m a resident.'” Nigel (the bald one) Pulsford, guitarist and co-founder, ambles over with a dodgy-looking Greek salad and we talk about stuff: drugs, Noel Gallagher and Brian Harvey. “Brian Harvey? A complete wanker.” Nigel, like all the band, believes that drugs are strictly personal and that it’s crass to talk about them.

They’re stable, steady blokes, then, Bush, rather than off-the-planet rockers. And agreeing on most issues as they do, it’s clear the band is close-knit. “If we’re on the bus we still all sit together at the back,” grins Dave (the quiet one) Parsons, who is perhaps best qualified to talk about band loyalty in the face of adversity. He used to play bass with reviled glam-punks Transvision Vamp, and has thus been in the two most hated bands in British press history (“Mmm, thanks for pointing it out”).

Such loyalty is probably because of, rather than in spite of, Bush’s global success story. And as they finally make the big time back home, they seem prepared. Trooping upstairs, chatting and laughing for the photos, it’s obvious they’re all pretty happy, even if they do write some of the bleakest rock songs going. The essence of Bush is best summed up by Gavin on the subject of his new love, Gwen Stefani, stunning singer in official “biggest band in the whole world right now,” No Doubt. He enthusiastically leaps on the subject. “She’s good, thanks. It’s going really good. I’m finding out what it’s like to go out with a pop star! It’s just strange for me to have a girlfriend in such a happy band. My style and taste of music is a little bit more intense, although you can be intensely happy I guess. But when I got and see her shows, I’m like, ‘God, they’re all so happy here!’ I went to see her play in Atlanta and it was like a love-in. A love-fest. When they started doing Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, I was like, ‘I thought only Bob Marley could make happy music-what’s happening? Quick, someone, pinch me…'”

Now come on, who on earth would want to do a thing like that?