‘I’d rather be a tramp than reform my old bands’: Lawrence on life as British music’s greatest also-ran | indie

The most uncompromising figure in British pop has an urgent question: “Do you need the loo?” This is Lawrence (no surnames, please), the mastermind responsible for the coruscating beauty of Felt, the knowing glam-rock of Denim and the bargain-bin ear-worms of Go-Kart Mozart, now renamed Mozart Estate. As we walk to his high-rise council flat in east London, I promise him that my bladder is empty. “Are you sure?” he persists in his lilt his Midlands. “Do you want to try going in the cafe?” No one is allowed near his toilet. “A workman was round the other day, and he used it without asking. Oh God, it was ‘orrible!’

Lawrence is wearing his trademark baseball cap with its blue plastic visor and a vintage-style blue Adidas jumper. His skin is pale and papery, his eyes small but vivid. He is 60 now and has been dreaming of pop stardom since he was a child. “I used to sit in the bath and pretend I was being interviewed: ‘So what’s it like to have your third No 1 on the trot?’”

Only one of his songs has ever charted: Denim’s It Fell Off the Back of a Lorry, straight in at No 79 in 1996. Summer Smash, a BBC Radio 1 single of the week, might have made good on its lyrics (“I think I’m gonna come / Straight in at No 1”) if its release in September 1997 had not been scrapped following a certain Parisian car crash. As Lawrence shows me around his ramshackle flat, which he has been decorating for the past 12 years or so, I spot a grotesquely bad portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales stowed in one corner. “My story is pinned to hers forever,” he says glumly.

We perch on wooden stools in the cluttered, dimly lit living room. Around us are piles of books and vinyl, assorted knick-knacks (feather duster, magnifying glass) and a mustard-coloured Togo chair – a rare extravagance – still in its plastic wrapping. The white blinds are pulled down; a leak has stained them urine-yellow like a child’s mattress. “I don’t think anyone’s had as much bad luck as me,” he says. “It just goes from one disaster to another.”

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

And yet Lawrence of Belgravia, the 2011 documentary about him which is now being released on Blu-ray, remains stubbornly inspiring. It’s the story of a born maverick who refuses either to abandon his dreams of success or lower his standards to make them a reality. “You see so many musicians reforming their old bands,” he says. “I can’t do that. You’ve got to move forward.” He knows what it’s like to be disappointed by your idols – “I couldn’t get over it in the 1980s when Lou Reed had a mullet” – and he is determined never to sully his own legacy from him, no matter how much cash he is offered. “I’d rather be a tramp than reform Felt or play my old songs,” he says.

He has put his lack of money where his mouth is. “There came a point where I learned to live on nothing. I’d have two pence in my pocket, and I’d find a bench on the King’s Road hoping someone would sit next to me so I could ask for a cigarette. No one ever did because I looked so rough.”

Lawrence: 'It's such a shame it hasn't happened to me.  I'd love to try fame on for size, see what it's like.'
Lawrence: ‘It’s such a shame it hasn’t happened to me. I’d love to try fame on for size, see what it’s like.’ Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

Lawrence of Belgravia alludes to addiction issues and legal woes: we glimpse bottles of methadone and piles of court letters. At the start of the film, he is evicted from his previous flat. But it is still a fond and hopeful study of someone for whom fame – as symbolized by limousines, helicopters and Kate Moss – has never lost its allure. “It’s such a shame it hasn’t happened to me,” he says. “I’d love to try fame on for size, see what it’s like.” How close has he come? “There was a period in the 1990s when I could get a taxi. That was as good as it got. There’s a fame ladder and I’m near the bottom. I always have been, and I accept that.”

The documentary has helped a bit. “It’s a proper film, and that took me up a couple of rungs,” he says. “It legitimized me.” He has rarely wanted for respect: he counts Jarvis Cocker and Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch among his fans; Charlie Brooker chose Denim’s The New Potatoes, with its Pinky & Perky vocals, as one of his Desert Island Discs. He has also started being recognized in the street – “which shows you’re getting somewhere”. But he has a little grumble: “The people who come up to me are all listening to my stuff on Spotify. I tell them: ‘Buy a bloody record!’ Some of them haven’t got a turntable, so I say, ‘Put it on the wall.’”

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

Denim, at Lawrence's home in 1992.
Denim, at Lawrence’s home in 1992. Photograph: Dave Tonge/Getty Images

If the hard-gigging likes of Blur stole a march on Lawrence, it was another Damon Albarn outfit that pipped him to the post with the “cartoon band” idea. “I couldn’t believe it when Gorillaz happened,” he splutters. “I was like, ‘That’s what I wanted to do!’”

Soon after the Summer Smash debacle, Denim were dropped by EMI. “We had to go down to making records for nothing, getting favors from friends.” Go-Kart Mozart was intended as a stop-gap but the songs, many of them musically upbeat and lyrically harsh (When You’re Depressed, Relative Poverty, We’re Selfish and Lazy and Greedy), have kept on coming for more than two decades. The name-change to Mozart Estate reflects, says Lawrence, “the tougher times we live in”.

Even he was taken back while checking the lyric sheet for the new Mozart Estate album Pop-Up, Ker-Ching and the Possibilities of Modern Shopping, which is to be released in January. “Every song has something ‘orrible,” he says. One track features the line, “London is a dustbin full of human trash.” Another is called I Wanna Murder You. “I’m never going to get any PRS money for that,” he says. “Still, it’s very catchy. Breaks into a lovely chorus.”

Lawrence: 'Indie went mainstream.  I didn't spot that coming.'
Lawrence: ‘Indie went mainstream. I didn’t spot that coming.’ Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian

It’s all too much for some people. When the first Go-Kart Mozart album came out, he received a call from Alan McGee, his Creation boss from the Felt days. “Alan said, ‘What’s this song Sailor Boy, then? Jean Genet going down on you? I don’t get it, Lawrence. I don’t get what the fuck you’re doing!’” He looks pleased as punch.

Paul Kelly, the director of Lawrence of Belgravia, thinks the singer is in a healthier and more optimistic state now than during the making of the film. Production took eight years, largely because Lawrence kept disappearing for months on end. “First I’d be frustrated, then I’d worry,” says Kelly. “When he finally turned up, he’d act as though nothing had happened. He has that disarming personality so you always forgive him. I think he had a fear that when we were finished, there’d be nothing else. He didn’t want to let the film go.”

These days, Lawrence has fingers in umpteen pies (Felt reissues, a limited-edition folder of collectible bits-and-pieces 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 her films by her and write a song for it.”

a still from the documentary Lawrence of Belgravia.
‘He didn’t want to let the film go’ … a still from the documentary Lawrence of Belgravia. Photograph: BFI

His greatest enthusiasm is reserved for the larger-than-life-sized pink marble bust which the sculptor Corin Johnson is making of him: “He came up to me at a gig and said, ‘I’d like to do a statue of you .’” A month’s worth of sittings 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, has been working in the same yard on a ceramics project about the devil. “He keeps saying, ‘When are you going to bloody finish that?’”

Even on Lawrence’s rinky-dink, old-school mobile phone, which is no bigger than a Matchbox car, the pictures of the bust look imposing. A hood is yanked up over his baseball cap, sunglasses are clamped to his face, his expression is surly and defiant: it’s a literal monument to his artistic purity. “This should push me a few rungs up the fame ladder,” he says, marveling at his marble doppelganger. I think he’s in love.

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

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

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