‘I’d rather be a tramp than reform my old bands’: Lawrence on life as Britain’s music’s greatest singer | India

Jhe most uncompromising figure in British pop has an urgent question: “Do you need the toilet?” Meet Lawrence (no last names, please), the mastermind behind Felt’s bodied good looks, Denim’s slick glam-rock and Go-Kart Mozart’s earworms, now renamed Mozart Estate. As we walk to her council flat in east London, I promise her my bladder is empty. “Are you sure?” it persists in its Midlands air. “Do you want to try going to the cafe?” No one is allowed near his toilet. “A worker was around the other day, and he used it without asking. Oh my God, that was “awful!”

Lawrence wears his signature baseball cap with blue plastic visor and a vintage-style blue Adidas sweater. His skin is pale and papery, his eyes small but lively. He is now 60 years old and has dreamed of becoming a pop star since he was a child. “I used to sit in the bath and pretend to be interviewed, ‘So how does it feel to have your third number 1 on the trot?’”

Only one of his songs ever charted: Denim’s It Fell Off the Back of a Lorry, straight to No. 79 in 1996. Summer Smash, a BBC Radio 1 single of the week, might have done well its lyrics (“I think I’m gonna come / Straight in at No 1”) if its release in September 1997 had not been abandoned following a certain car accident in Paris. As Lawrence shows me around his ramshackle flat, which he’s been decorating for about 12 years, I spot a grotesquely bad portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales tucked away in the corner. “My story is pinned to his forever,” he says sullenly.

We perch on wooden stools in the cluttered, dimly lit living room. Around us, piles of books and vinyls, assorted trinkets (quill pen, magnifying glass) and a mustard-colored togo chair – a rare extravagance – still in its plastic wrapping. The white blinds are down; a leak has dyed them yellow with urine like a child’s mattress. “I don’t think anyone has had as much bad luck as me,” he said. “It goes from one disaster to another.”

“If you were an indie band in the 1980s, you couldn’t do it without the support of John Peel”… Lawrence with bandmate Gary Ainge (left) at Felt in 1982. Photography: David Corio/Redferns

And yet Lawrence of Belgravia, the 2011 documentary about him now out on Blu-ray, remains stubbornly inspiring. It’s the story of a born non-conformist who refuses to either give up on his dreams of success or lower his standards to achieve them. “You see so many musicians reforming their old bands,” he says. ” I can not do that. You need to go forward. He knows what it’s like to be let down by his idols — “I couldn’t get over it in the 1980s when Lou Reed had a mullet” — and is determined never to sully his own legacy, regardless. regardless of the amount of money offered. “I’d rather be a bum than reform Felt or play my old songs,” he says.

He put his lack of money where his mouth is. “There came a time when I learned to live on nothing. I’d have two pence in my pocket and find a bench on King’s Road hoping someone would sit next to me so I could ask for a cigarette. Nobody ever did it because I looked so tough.

Lawrence: 'It's such a shame it didn't happen to me.  I would love to try on the celeb for size, see what it looks like.
Lawrence: ‘It’s such a shame it didn’t happen to me. I would love to try on the celeb for size, see what it looks like. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

Lawrence of Belgravia alludes to addiction problems and legal troubles: we see bottles of methadone and stacks of court letters. At the start of the film, he is kicked out of his old apartment. But it’s still an affectionate and hopeful study of someone for whom fame – symbolized by limos, helicopters and Kate Moss – has never lost its appeal. “It’s such a shame it didn’t happen to me,” he says. “I would love to try on the celebrity for size, see what it looks like.” How far did he come? “There was a period in the 1990s when I could take a taxi. It was as good as it gets. There’s a fame ladder and I’m near the bottom. I always have been and I accept it.

The documentary helped me a little. “It’s a real movie, and it took me up a few rungs,” he says. “It legitimized me.” He has rarely been disrespectful: he counts Belle & Sebastian’s Jarvis Cocker and Stuart Murdoch among his fans; Charlie Brooker chose Denim’s The New Potatoes, with his Pinky & Perky vocals, as one of his Desert Island records. He also began to be recognized on the streets – “which shows you’re going somewhere”. But he has a little grumbling: “People who come to me listen to all my stuff on Spotify. I tell them: ‘Buy a fucking record!’ Some of them don’t have turntables, so I tell them, ‘Put it on the wall.’ »

His bad luck story began when Felt failed to win favor with DJ John Peel. “If you were an independent band in the 1980s, you couldn’t do it without Peel’s support,” he says. When Lawrence formed Denim in the early 1990s, he seemed ideally placed to ride the burgeoning Britpop wave. “Except that I made a great mistake”, he underlines. “I thought the live music was over so we didn’t play live at first.” He thought it would add mystique if fans couldn’t see Denim in the flesh. “I wanted to be a cartoon group. But that turned out to be the start of the live boom. Indie suddenly went mainstream. I didn’t see that coming.

Denim, at Lawrence in 1992.
Denim, at Lawrence in 1992. Photography: Dave Tonge/Getty Images

If Blur’s tough tastes stole a march on Lawrence, it was another Damon Albarn outfit that propelled him to the job with the “comic book” idea. “I couldn’t believe it when Gorillaz arrived,” he mumbles. “I was like, ‘That’s what I wanted to do!'”

Shortly after the Summer Smash debacle, Denim was dropped by EMI. “We had to resort to making records for nothing, to curry favor with friends.” Go-Kart Mozart was meant as a stopgap, but the songs, many of them musically upbeat and lyrically harsh (When You’re Depressed, Relative Poverty, We’re Selfish and Lazy and Greedy), kept coming for more than two decades. The name change to Mozart Estate reflects, says Lawrence, “the most difficult times in which we live”.

Even he was surprised when he checked out the lyric sheet for Mozart Estate Pop-Up’s new album, Ker-Ching and the Possibilities of Modern Shopping, due out in January. “Every song has something horrible about it,” he says. One track features the line, “London is a dustbin full of human waste.” Another is called I Wanna Murder You. “I will never get PRS money for this,” he says. “Still, it’s very catchy. Turns into a nice chorus.

Lawrence: “Indie has become mainstream.  I didn't see that coming.
Lawrence: “Indie has become mainstream. I didn’t see that coming. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

It’s too much for some people. When Go-Kart Mozart’s debut album came out, he got a call from Alan McGee, his Felt-era Creation boss. “Alan said, ‘What’s that Sailor Boy song, then? Jean Genet falls on you? I don’t understand Lawrence. I don’t understand what you are doing!’ He looks happy as a punch.

Lawrence of Belgravia director Paul Kelly thinks the singer is in a healthier and more optimistic state now than when he made the film. Production took eight years, largely because Lawrence kept disappearing for months. “First I’d be frustrated, then I’d be worried,” Kelly says. “When he finally arrived, he acted as if nothing had happened. He has this disarming personality so you always forgive him. I think he was afraid that when we were done there would be nothing else. He didn’t want to let go of the film.

These days, Lawrence has his fingers in countless pies (felt reissues, a limited-edition folder of collectibles, and a 10-inch EP, all ahead of the new album). He is bubbling with ideas: he wants to write a play for the Royal Court, collaborate with Charli XCX, be directed by Andrea Arnold. “Do you know her?” he asks hopefully. “I want to be in one of his movies and write a song for him.”

an image from the Lawrence of Belgravia documentary.
“He didn’t want to let the film go”… an image from the Lawrence of Belgravia documentary. Photography: BFI

His greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the larger-than-life pink marble bust that sculptor Corin Johnson is making of him: “He came to see me at a concert and said, ‘I would like to make a statue of you .’ A month of sessions later – including one spent with straws in his nostrils while his head was encased in plaster of Paris – and it’s almost ready. Nick Cave, one of Lawrence’s heroes, is working in the same shipyard on a ceramic project on the devil. “He keeps saying, ‘When are you going to finish this? “”

Even on Lawrence’s old-fashioned cell phone, which is no bigger than a Matchbox car, the images of the bust look imposing. A hood is pulled up over his baseball cap, sunglasses are fixed on his face, his expression is surly and defiant: it is a literal monument to his artistic purity. “That should take me up a few rungs on the ladder of fame,” he says, awestruck by his marble lookalike. I think he’s in love.

This article was updated on July 27, 2022 to correct the spelling of Charli XCX’s name.

Lawrence of Belgravia is now available on Blu-ray and BFI Player.

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