Following a hugely successful year, Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell tells us all about their highly anticipated second album, and explains why Vox amps are such an essential ingredient in the band’s sound.
By Susan Wright
VOX: How did your love affair with Vox amps begin?
JB: When I first put Razorlight together, we were rehearsing – they were great times – and a bunch of hippies that I knew were trying to run a rehearsal studio in this little warehouse in Leytonstone. It was right in the middle of nowhere, next to a Jewish butcher on one side – in fact, not even a butcher, maybe even the abattoir. I’m not even sure what it was, but it was literally down a road that isn’t on any maps, just this warehouse and some industrial units. We used to go there.
When we started, we didn’t have any equipment, and I was fairly new to playing electric guitar, so I didn’t really know much about it. I wasn’t really sure what amp I wanted to use, not that I had any choice particularly. I got my guitar, my first guitar, which I still use now, which is a Gibson L6S, and there was this guy at the rehearsal studios who had an amp that was an old transistor Vox, basically a transistor AC30. I looked at it and it just looked so great. It’s an absolute design classic, and I was just so drawn to it. I remember just plugging into it and loving the sound, even of this little transistor version. So basically I haven’t wanted to use anything else since, live or in the studio. Another thing that was really amazing was when we did our first ever demo in Toe Rag studios. In the studio they had these beautiful old Vox amps from the Sixties, and they were phenomenal. Then when we got signed I went out and bought a couple of new Vox reissue AC30s, the proper valve ones, and they just sounded fabulous.
VOX:: What is it about the Vox sound that appeals to you?
JB: The thing about the Vox, the reason that I use it is because I’ve never heard anything that’s got a clean sound like it. It’s got what I call a ‘magic shimmer’. And I’ve never heard it from any other amp. It was only after I started using Vox that I saw some pictures of The Beatles using AC30s. I knew I must have been doing something right. I don’t know what I can call it but it’s a magical sound, so I always call it the ‘magical shimmer’.
VOX: How are sessions for the new album going?
JB: It’s pretty much all written now. We’ve just been recording some tracks with different people and figuring out which producer to go with. Guitar-wise, the thing that I’m trying to avoid on this record is what happened with the first one, which was that every time it came around to the chorus, everybody stands on the distortion pedal, and that’s how you make the chorus big. On the first one, Up All Night, it’s like that on every song. It’s like; we need some welly here, so turn the distortion up. Doing that doesn’t make any sense anymore, so we’re trying to challenge ourselves and go beyond the quiet verse/loud chorus formula.
VOX: What has changed since the recording of Up All Night?
Since I made the last record, it’s such a weird thing to say, but I’ve really got into the power of music. Before, I would dig the singer, or I wouldn’t, and I would understand what he or she was saying, or I wouldn’t, or I’d want to be them, or go to bed with them, or not. If you listen to the first record there are virtually no instrumental sections on it, because it’s just this kid screaming, just trying to make everybody in the world listen. And I’ve kind of realised since the first album that what the singer does is only half of the end result. The new songs still rock like a bitch, but hopefully there’s a bit more depth to them as well. We’re a lot closer as a band this time round, and we’re also writing stuff together more.
VOX: How do you and Bjorn (Agnen, Razorlight’s other six-stringer) split the guitar parts?
JB: I get one solo per album… (laughs). Nah, I dunno; I’ve always been in awe of Bjorn’s guitar playing and I always wanted to play (original Crazy Horse frontman) Danny Whitten to his Neil Young. There are some new songs where I don’t play guitar, and some songs where he doesn’t play guitar, and he plays keyboards and stuff instead. Bjorn is just a brilliant guitarist and he probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves because I’m always being so gobby. People don’t even notice that he’s around, because he doesn’t really play solos as such. But from the very first day we met, we had a very instinctive understanding of the way we wanted our guitars to work with each other.
When you listen to bands such as The Who or U2, it makes you question whether you need to have two guitarists at all, but it’s all about the way you approach it.
VOX: You mentioned that your main guitar is a Gibson L6S. That seems to be a fairly unconventional choice…
JB: It was the first electric guitar that ever had and it doesn’t sound like anything else. I also don’t know of anyone else who has one. It seems to complement the Vox really nicely. I always wanted to keep my setup really simple on the first album, and have just one guitar and one amp. I ended up having two different amps, and that was it, no pedals; I just had the guitar and I’d switch between the two amps. Some things just revolutionise your brain. It’s like the first time you pick up a guitar and play in an open tuning or something. The first time you do that it blows your mind and you write ten songs because it’s so exciting to play different shapes and get different chords. I feel the same with sounds and stuff like that, so I deliberately never used pedals before, because I wanted to save it for such a point as now, so that I can say to Bjorn, ‘see that pedal you’ve got, the green one, can I plug that in?’ And then I’ll plug it in and I’ll get inspired because I’ll be playing the same shapes and different sounds will be coming out. I’m denying myself all the tricks for as long as possible so there’s always something new to discover.
VOX: Having played such big shows as LIVE 8 and the Isle Of Wight Festival last summer, what was your live highlight of 2005?
JB: The Oasis gig (Noise & Confusion also featured sets from The Coral and Foo Fighters) in December in Cardiff. I like big gigs and I like indoor gigs, and that’s the biggest indoor gig you can do.
I was really surprised. I thought that we would go down well, but I was pretty amazed by just how well we did go down. I didn’t know that so many of the people there would turn out to be such big Razorlight fans, which was pretty incredible. It was like it was our own gig.
VOX: What goes through your mind when you’re playing in front of such a huge audience like the one at Noise & Confusion, or at LIVE 8?
JB: The only thing that you think about before you go on stage is that you want to do a brilliant show, and the only thing that you think about while you’re on stage is how you can make the show better and as special as possible. It’s a very honest thing, you know…
Razorlight formed in the summer of 2002. Their debut album, Up All Night, was released two years later, in June 2004. A further two years down the line in July 2006, the band released their second album, the self-titled Razorlight
The album reached number 3 in the chart by July 4 2004. When Up All Night was reissued in 2005, it included the previously unreleased single Somewhere Else, which reached number 2 in the singles chart
The band performed in 2005’s LIVE 8 event, playing at London’s Hyde Park, alongside the likes of Robbie Williams, Annie Lennox and U2.In March 2006 they headlined another charity gig, for the Teenage Cancer Trust, where they were joined on stage by The Who’s Roger Daltre
For details of Razorlight’s new album and other releases, see www.razorlight.co.uk
By Susan Wright