There’s a great moment in Razorlight’s hit single, ‘Who Needs Love’, when lead singer Johnny Borrell, worked up in a fit of emotion, shouts out seemingly spontaneously ‘Come on Andy!’, which prompts a manic drum roll before Borrell’s wailing and shouting reaches its climax. Particularly in outfits with big characters for lead singers, glimpses of the other band members can be fleeting, and drummer Andy Burrows might well have considered this name-check his best hope at personal fame; a brief push into the limelight before returning to the anonymity of his position behind the drum kit. There are notable exceptions of course, but I’d bet you’d be hard pressed to name the drummers in more than a handful of bands.
But Burrows took no back seat in Razorlight, co-penning some of their biggest hits in their glory days, including number one ‘America’. I wonder if the famously egotistical style of bandmate Borrell made it difficult to give his clear creative talents free reign in Razorlight, but Burrows is quick to dispel these thoughts. ‘I’d never written a song before Razorlight, there was a feeling that I was just a drummer. I learned a lot off Johnny, and now I’ve made up for lost time.’
He left the band in 2009, a decision he describes as the biggest he’s ever had to make. ‘It was frightening, but I feel super happy. And it wouldn’t be normal and human if I didn’t look back and think, wow, that was pretty impressive. But it’s been nice over the last couple of years to have time to write, and have various outlets, the Scientists [Burrows now drums for We Are Scientists, who he describes as ‘an awesome band’], I Am Arrows [his solo outfit], and time to split between projects.’
It’s Burrows’ latest project that we’re primarily discussing, an album made in collaboration with pal Tom Smith, lead singer of Editors. The pair have taken time off from the day jobs to put together a collection of covers and new material with a Christmassy theme. I’m not sure what’s more incongruous, the idea of listening to a Christmas album before even Oxford’s version has really got going, or the picture on the front cover of said album, Smith and Burrows’ Funny Looking Angels: two rather tired, dishevelled looking men perched on a park bench on a grey day, angel wings strapped awkwardly to their backs. But listening to the album, nostalgia for Christmas begins to seep over me, and it’s clear that Burrows shares the feeling.
‘As a kid I was stupidly excited about Christmas,’ he says enthusiastically, ‘And the meaning changes, and now it’s more about the pub than the lounge, but it’s a time of great togetherness and bizarre optimism – it’s the one time we’re allowed to think next year’s going to be great.’
It says something about our society that a festival which started out as religious has now become one primarily focused on indulgence, whether financially, in the commercial hype that leads research to suggest that the average Briton will spend a whopping £868 on Christmas this year, or in the temptation to eat and drink far more than normal. But Burrows agrees that the festival’s meaning is really what you make of it, and retains a charming lack of scepticism: ‘Of course the commercial side’s a pain, it’s very annoying and sad, but I’m not too bothered by it – it’s always been about family and friends. It’s a time when almost everyone traditionally has two days off and puts heart and soul into meeting up.
’The state of the Christmas music scene is a point against which the pair hope to rail, with so much Christmas music these days either apparently tongue in cheek or crass commercial offerings from the flavour of the moment which won’t last any longer than the Christmas dinner leftovers.
‘We’re fans of the old school battle for the number one spot – it was exciting, unpredictable, and great songs came out of it. People used to put lots of effort into writing exciting music for Christmas. And I know chance of big success for us is a David and Goliath situation, but it’s good to offer up a real alternative. But it’s also meant to be a bit of fun.’
I’m reminded of the 2009 battle to get Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ to number one in place of X Factor winner Joe McElderry, and the sadly thwarted 2008 attempts to push the Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen versions of ‘Hallelujah’ ahead of Alexandra Burke, all showing that the integrity of the Christmas number one spot is clearly a matter at the forefront of the public’s consciousness.
The X Factor hopefuls this year will face competition from a Facebook campaign modelled on the 2009 one, attempting to push the 20 year old Nirvana classic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to number one, which has received over 85,000 ‘likes’. Other arguably more depressing competition comes from the cast of TOWIE’s version of Wham! hit ‘Last Christmas’ and a Mariah Carey and Justin Bieber collaboration on ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. While Smith and Burrows may not be realistic competitors for the glory spot, attacking the X Factor bandwagon through music that genuinely attempts to capture something of the atmosphere of the season seems to me an extremely laudable enterprise.
Despite the strong Christmas theme running through the beautifully crafted album, which starts with a slow version of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, Burrows insists the plan was not to make a record that was ‘all Jingle Bells and joviality’. The theme came after they’d already recorded a few songs, which they thought ‘started to sound a bit festive.’
‘It wasn’t always the idea to make a Christmas album. The first track we recorded was ‘Wonderful Life’ (by Black), and then Tom’s manager suggested we do ‘Only You’ (by Yazoo), and ‘On and On’ (by Longpigs) has been a long time favourite of mine. We tried other covers that didn’t work, like ‘Viva La Vida’, and some other Christmassy songs, but we didn’t want it to be cheap and cheesy.’
That’s an accusation that can easily be levelled at so many self professed Christmas albums. While one-off hit singles can get away with it, a whole album of Christmas themed songs can fall into the trap of being repetitive or tacky, hence so many Christmas albums which are just compilations of hit singles, destined to be played as background music at the school disco rather than appreciated in their own right. Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas is an example of an indie album that successfully mixes original and traditional songs to produce a beautifully crafted whole, and Smith and Burrows are following in these formidable footsteps.
Burrows’ enthusiasm is infectious, and it is touching how this record seems genuinely to have been born out of real love, both that for the festive season itself, and the friendship of the two men. Smith and Burrows (the clue is in the name) had been friends and pub buddies for years, before they decided to book a studio and record something together.
‘We always talked about things it would be fun to do one day. We tried our hands at DJing and that was appalling. And once we just had a free day and we booked a studio.
’The lifestyle of a musician seems hectic, especially for one with his fingers in so many pies. The pair plan to tour Funny Looking Angels around Europe before both heading separately to LA (it’s a hard life) to record with their respective bands.
‘But I love the idea of coming back to this. We should do a non-seasonal album at some point. The most exciting thing for me about this record was that it includes the first proper song we wrote together. And that’s a bit of a boundary in a friendship to get over, and we’re both super proud.’
Funny Looking Angels by Smith and Burrows is released on November 28th