“To play acoustic guitar and front a band is my idea of slow torture”: Gavin Rossdale on why Bush have embraced metal

Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale on getting into the Octagon, why new album The Kingdom sees the band still asking questions after almost 30 years together, and why he’s always the one bringing the chaos.

Nostalgia is sticky, sweet and immensely satisfying – for a moment or two. It’s also quicksand, a slow death for artists who give up trying to reinvent themselves and instead settle for the fading light of former glories. The lure is there for Gavin Rossdale, who can look back across three decades of music and pick out platinum certifications, but the Bush frontman isn’t ready to give in yet.

The band’s new record is called The Kingdom and, while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it asks some fresh questions. Chief among them is this: what if Bush were a metal band? Having spent years as the light relief among heavier acts on festival bills, here Rossdale leans into his love of Tool, System of a Down, and Deftones in an attempt to prove that Bush can hang with these bands on wax as well as on stage.

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Picking up the phone in Los Angeles, Rossdale delights in the noisy, riff-heavy mess he’s made. “To play acoustic guitar and front a band is my idea of slow torture,” he says, with a laugh. The touchstones he lays out for his approach to the record range from the confrontational to the esoteric, from shoegaze legends My Bloody Valentine’s eardrum-splitting wall of noise to the Glenn Branca-fronted avant-garde guitar orchestra that helped launch Sonic Youth.

“What I get turned on by at the moment, especially after all this live work, is seeing the power of cyclical things,” he says. “I grew up loving Neil Young, The Beatles, and the beginning of punk, and it’s an interesting challenge for me to find melody when you’re using heavier riffs and heavier cycles. It’s about finding a way through – often you’re on one chord, so you’ve got to work to find the melody. But somehow you unlock things.”

Getting your hooks in

The new album, though, doesn’t always sound like the sum of its influences. Rossdale has taken his share of critical licks over the years but he’s a savvy and self-deprecating songwriter who has enjoyed much success in the realm of commercial rock music. Duly, he hasn’t set aside the tools with which he made his name. From the soaring chorus of album opener Flowers On A Grave onwards, it’s clear that the Bush blueprints are still important. “Even though it’s heavy, it’s not heavy metal,” he says. “You have to have your own sound.”

Here, that sound is polished and uncluttered. The riffs, delivered in tandem with lead guitarist Chris Traynor, are given the space in which to work, with Bush setting side the buzzsaw noise of their Steve Albini collaboration Razorblade Suitcase and the electronics of The Science Of Things in favour of monolithic distortion and a well-drilled rhythm section. “You try to be as sonically pleasing as possible,” says Rossdale.

“Chris and Corey [Britz, bass] are incredibly clean and precise players. I’ve always brought a bit of chaos to it, especially live, with the way I play. I’m really rhythmic but I’m more like regular earthly people. That provides a nice balance. I’ll always play to the drummer, Chris will always play to the click, and we’ve agreed to disagree for 20 years. But when you put me and him next to each other, and when you split it up the way that we do on the rhythm tracks, it just works. My playing goes intrinsically with how I sing, and his playing is amazing architecture.”

Back to the source

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Bush might be entering new territory on The Kingdom but the nuts and bolts of Rossdale’s writing, and his desire to scatter breadcrumbs to remind us of his English heritage, remain. Riff-wise, he’s a fan of picking up a bass first before fleshing things out. “It just feels more London, more dangerous, more dancehall, even though you’re in a completely rock environment,” he says. “You put all these weird memories and influences together and that’s what you get. I love Massive Attack more than I love Slayer. I can’t help it. There’s always that push and pull of trying to get some of my roots in there.”

Everything starts with words on paper. Rossdale needs his lyrics to light a fire under the rest of his songwriting process, and underpinning the noise here are screeds that see him trying to tap into some of the anger and disillusionment of the age without mounting a soapbox. “Political music is hard anyway,” he says. “There are very few bands that can do it with any tunefulness. God bless Billy Bragg. I don’t want to be didactic, like, ‘Gather round, people, and let me tell you a little story…’ I just can’t do that. I’m not good enough.

Gavin Rossdale
Gavin Rossdale and Robin Goodrich of Bush perform at The Greek Theatre on 6 August 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Image: Michael Tullberg / Getty Images

“My lyrics give me direction, they give me a reason,” he adds. “I write in blocks. At the beginning of a session, if I’ve got six fertile lyric pages in front of me, I know that I’m good for about seven songs. Come the ninth song, when I’m going into work and just churning out riffs and sitting there all day, I lose direction. I did some co-writes on this record as well, so there are other times when I get someone to write a riff for me just to change it up.”

Alongside his work with Traynor, Rossdale enjoyed a fruitful collaborative period with composer Tyler Bates after connecting to work on album track Bullet Holes, which featured on the soundtrack to Keanu Reeves punch festival John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. “I’d done a bunch of writing on my own as usual and I was like, ‘Why?’,” he says. “I’m surrounded by really good people, so let’s see if someone wants to throw me a riff, throw me some music. Nothing matters except making it great.

“I had a great time with Tyler. I was like, ‘Wow, it takes half my job away if I’m not the only one doing music’. It was quick and inspiring. Chris and Tyler are better players than me, so they might give me a riff that I’m not good enough to play. It works the other way around too – if I have a chord sequence you could fit a riff into, someone will put the riff on afterwards.”

Tools of the trade

Rossdale immerses himself in the writing process. He composed much of The Kingdom between stints on the road, sequestering himself in his studio and experimenting, falling back on a combination of well-worn gear and interjections from his Axe-Fx rig. “I have a Kramer Travis Bean[-style], with a really punchy sound,” he says. “I have a custom Strat with some humbuckers that Fender made me, and I have a few amps set up – an old Hiwatt, a Diezel, a Silver Jubilee, a Fender Bassman – with a thousand pedals.

“Once you hit a good rhythm sound, that’s your sound. In the studio, I like to have everything ready. I’ve always got a microphone, a bass, guitars, and keyboards on. Programmed drums are so good now, and you just get into this thing where you try to be as free as possible. The better it sounds at the start, the more inspiring it is to play.”

Gavin Rossdale
Gavin Rossdale of Bush performs onstage during day one of KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium on 10 May 2019 in Arlington, Texas. Image: Rick Kern / WireImage

Having recently spent time on the road with fellow alt-rock survivors Live celebrating the 25th anniversary of Bush’s debut LP Sixteen Stone, Rossdale sees his studio interludes as vital to keeping the band alive creatively. He’s happy to acknowledge past successes but doesn’t want to live in the 1990s forever. As with most artists, these days Bush make the lion’s share of their money by touring – but they don’t see that as an excuse to phone it in.

“If I’m going to be playing live a lot, I don’t want to be creatively or morally bankrupt and just write ponderous mid-tempo rock songs that won’t make the set,” says Rossdale. “You’ve got to get in there like it’s the UFC: get in the Octagon and take on a few big songs.

“Our goal was for people to listen to Flowers On A Grave and get the record but know nothing about the catalogue,” he adds. “If you can’t make a record that stands on its own merits, which is basically the bottom line, then you shouldn’t be putting it out. We all wish we had the hindsight to look back at what we’ve done and maybe do it differently, but each record is a snapshot of a particular time. That’s what they end up being. With every record, I can remember what was going on in my life emotionally, physically, who was around and where I was.”

The Kingdom is out 17 July on BMG.

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