‘Institute’ of rock: Gavin Rossdale sheds new skin

By Mark Guarino

After the first Bush administration and before the second, the rock band Bush ruled both arenas and commercial radio in the mid to late-‘90s. The British band was one of the few of the post-grunge era that could maintain indie rock credibility while at the same time enjoy multi-platinum album sales. The focal point was singer-guitarist Gavin Rossdale who, four years after Bush went on permanent hiatus, became a familiar tabloid face as husband to global pop tart Gwen Stefani.

Rossdale’s return is Institute, similar to Bush due to the driving paranoid sound, but much heavier. “Distort Yourself” (Interscope), their debut in stores Sept. 13, was produced by Helmet frontman Page Hamilton, who fleshed out deeper dynamics for Rossdale’s voice while surrounding him in a wall of sound. Institute is currently in the midst of a back-to-basics club tour. Rossdale, 37, and I talked this week about his past and present. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.

Q: When I first heard about Institute I was surprised because I wasn’t aware Bush broke up. What’s the status of that band?

A: I just don’t know. It’s cryogenically frozen is how I think of it. When I began Institute, it was potentially this side project to try and do something to surprise myself and challenge myself in certain ways. And this side project became a main focus really. So I just wanted to keep working, is the truth of it. Bush just didn’t seem like it was happening.

Q: So it’s not like the lid is completely shut.

A: Not at all. Having said that, it seems a really natural time now to do this. I’m pretty sad about the fact that … I really wanted to do the R.E.M. thing, just last it out and let the quality rise up to the surface. But I guess we fell by the wayside like most people. So it’s a bit disappointing on that front because I don’t like it when things break down. Ultimately it changed because (guitarist Nigel Pulsford) didn’t want to tour. That really makes it difficult and you can’t really have a successful band when you limit the touring because you limit the potential.

Q: Does that mean Institute won’t be covering Bush?

A: Yeah, we’re playing a few Bush songs. I think it’s crazy not to. It kind of takes the pressure off a little bit. Because people want to hear them. I don’t not want to play those songs ever again. Those songs gave me my professional life. I met my wife through some of those songs.

Q: I was also surprised to hear that Institute is a much harder band than Bush.

A: It comes natural to keep it harder. And I wanted to make it slightly more athletic and more live and more muscular than Bush. There’s a different sound to it. And you really hear that when you play one track against the other .. It wasn’t like I wanted to go the more softer route. I just felt it was still nice to get crazy and dramatic and passionate so I wasn’t ready for the full mellow record yet;

Q: Think you’ll ever be ready?

A: I think in time there will be one and I want to do that. Sparklehorse or Elliot Smith or Will Oldham, these are people whose records I love and treasure. I’m totally into that. It’s just that every time I’m in a band doing that … the band wants to be just as powerful and rocking as anyone they’re playing with. Rage Against the Machine was probably the last band that was terrifying to be on the same bill with. Now it just feels it’s down to Shellac.

Q: Are you a big Shellac fan?

A: Huge Shellac fan.

Q: I always liked your lyrics because they were so fantastically paranoid. You aim for this hyper sense of drama. Where does that come from?

A: In 1867 my family came over from Russia, they were Jewish. So maybe there’s a sense of persecution that goes throughout my life. The truth is, a lot of things don’t come easy to me. It took a few years to get the belief from everyone around me to get this going. We really had to fight for this record. So I suppose that paranoia and that struggle is just the acceptance of this reality most of us live in. It’s not exalted existence where you can, in some dilettante way, choose life like a box of candy. Everything’s a struggle, but in a natural way. I suppose that comes through the work.

Q: The last time I saw you, it wasn’t onstage but in the film “Constantine.” How serious are you as an actor?

A: I always loved films and always loved the idea of trying to be in film … It wasn’t like, “hey, you want to try be in ‘Constantine’?” That comes after trying out for a couple of years, reading scripts, meeting people, feeling like it’s never going to get anywhere and along come three in a row. So it was fun dong that. It inspires me. It was also fun to do something creative that I didn’t have to think of.

Q: You’re married to one of this year’s biggest pop stars. What’s it like balancing two careers across the globe?

A: I think we’re so used to it, it’s taken its stride. It’s inspiring and obviously Gwen is on fire and has been for some time and there’s no sign it’s going out. And she just does her thing and I do mine. We’re in such different worlds. The only connection is reggae music and lyrics. After that, we’re in different universes. It can be inspiring to each of us and basically keeps us sharp. By hearing what the other one’s doing. It doesn’t affect it the way people may assume. We just sort of are used to it. If she wasn’t doing that, it would be surprising to me and vice versa.

Q: In the beginning of your career, Bush was more successful in the U.S. than in the U.K., the complete reversal of how it usually goes. Why do you think that was?

A: To be honest there were elements of that, but the truth is, we did get balance more right. We found a balance. Where in Europe I’d play to 60,000 people. We got it back up. Definitely at first it was harder. The thing about it was, the first record was severely punished by England on a press level. They set these bands up of who (will be successful in America) … and obviously (some of those bands) didn’t have that kind of success. I always felt we paid the price for people not liking those other bands. I felt it was pretty mean spirited. When things are going so well, (expletive) always goes wrong. The stakes are so much higher when you’re so lucky to be in that position to be traveling and having that degree of success. You have to accept that the criticisms and the problems that people will have with you will be that much amplified. We never would have pissed some of the people off in England if we hadn’t been successful here. But the attention on us was massive. Because we had the audacity to get out there and be liked by people.

Q: How much did the Nirvana comparisons hurt in the beginning?

A: It was just really unfortunate. Because the linage was there for everyone. Every single fantastic musical act that has ever been — you take Tom Waits and hear Captain Beefheart, you take Iggy Pop and hear Jim Morrison — you have to come from somewhere. There was great inspiration which there was, from Kurt … Isn’t that the idea, that you make music and you inspire? I mean I love it. I get people coming up to me in my shows, in my life, five times a week saying, “you inspired me to do this, you inspired me to do that.” I don’t get pissed. I don’t see it as incredible imposition on me. I think that we got through it and I think it’s a convenient kind of way to beat us up. Our band’s successful. When you have a song on or first album called “Comedown,” that doesn’t go down to Nirvana, that’s closer to being more like Massive Attack. I got as much inspiration from the Pixies, from Fugazi, from Massive Attack and Public Image and all these bands. I think obviously the reason for that was Kurt had been the main grunge, for lack of a better word, superstar. And when he took his life, he took his music, in theory. That would be nice way to bookend that movement. But at the same time, people enjoyed passionate rock music. That was it. It was very sad for me. I loved that band, Nirvana. And I felt guilty ever listening to them, enjoying them or ever going near them ever again in life. Now if I ever hear a track of his, I can appreciate his genius. Yes, there was great inspiration from there but I’m far from alone with that. And again it came down to size. We wouldn’t have gotten so beat up about if we hadn’t been so successful. If we sold 100,000 copies of the album, people would like it. There’s nothing worse for the major watchers of music than the people who have a lot of success.

Q: The last time through Chicago you played the Allstate Arena and now you’re back in the clubs. Is playing a club after so long a time led to any rediscoveries about making music?

A: The best part is, it just slipped back to where it meant to be. Like, in a like in a total bad rock show, Shirley Temple kind of way. I love being on stage! (laughs) I love it, it’s not something that freaks me out and gives me anxiety. I realized how unhappy I’ve been internally. I’ve been working pretty nonstop at it, just to find a way through. To find the right band, to find the right label, to find the right songs. Between living in Los Angeles and living in London, I would keep connected to my family and connected my roots and my friends there and also go on this whole voyage and being married. I’m a perfectionist. I want to be a good husband and you have to be around. It’s been hard. Just finding out new ways to live. It’s been an amazing time and a struggle. Great highs and some lows but I’m loving being back onstage.

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