Elliot Gleave: A good example
Chart-topper Elliot Gleave talks to Ed Power about the strain of fame, Mike Skinner and riots
Speaking through a hangover so terrible it's almost metaphysical, Elliot Gleave is outlining the dark side of fame. "I'm not complaining. I'm very lucky to have this job," says the bestubbled Londoner otherwise known as chart-slaying pop star Example. "But man, it fucks you up."
Installed Don Corleone-style in a dimly lit alcove at Dublin's Morrison Hotel, Example is in a tender frame of mind. It's a little after midday and he was up partying until 7am. You will forgive him if he's feeling shaky and maybe a little sorry for himself.
"All of my mates in the business have gone through the same thing," he says. "They either turn to drink and drugs, or they break up with their girlfriend. It's so easy to feel lonely. You are surrounded by people all the time. Then you get home to your flat and there's nobody there."
It's a subject upon which he ruminates at length on his latest album, Playing In The Shadows. Recorded as he transitioned from cult rapper to a mainstream peer of Tinie Tempah, Chase and Status and Katy B (artists he considers both friends and rivals), the record is, sonically and thematically, rather a downer (he describes the single Changed The Way You Kiss Me, with its wump, wump bass and lurching tempos, as "proper nasty"). Not that this prevented it leapfrogging to the top of the UK charts, shifting a nifty 200,000 units in the process.
"Nobody knows what it's like to be famous and nobody ever talks about it," says Example (29). "Well, maybe Amy Winehouse did on Back to Black. And there's Lily Allen 's second album... I've tried to be really honest. Becoming famous has put my personal relationships under huge strain. Because of my job it's caused stress with my parents, my friends, my girlfriends."
Musically, Example is something of a moving target. Early on he saw himself as a hip-hop artist, his songs heavily reliant on samples of other people's hits. With his new record, however, he has reinvented himself as a soulful pop star, alternatively rhyming and singing as supremely catchy beats yammer in the background. It's an aesthetic that feels equally fantastic blasting from the radio and rumbling in the pit of your belly at one of his concerts.
Though it contradicts everything he has been saying for the past 10 minutes, Example insists he doesn't want you to think he's moaning about his lot as a chart-topping musician. On his new album, he is at pains to put his problems in a wider context, so that the average punter can empathise. Nobody, he says, needs another whining celeb.
"I've not said that I'd rather be at home having a quite night in rather than up on stage pissed. People can't relate to that. I've tried to be clever and give it mass appeal, to talk about things in general terms so that they have mass appeal. When you go on about being famous it alienates people."
For a guy who clearly revels in the adoration of his audience, Example can be surprisingly introverted off stage. He may have been one of the surprise successes at last summer's Oxegen festival, ramming the huge Green Spheres tent early on Friday. But when the spotlights dim, he seems to shrink a little. Pass him in the street and he could be just another lairy Londoner in an over-sized tracksuit.
"I'm the opposite of Tinie Tempah in many ways," he says, referring to the dapper British rapper who has become a chum. "A lot of kids, whether they are rich or poor, can look up to someone like Tinie, because of the way he dresses and what he talks about. He's an aspirational character. It wouldn't suit my background. I'm quite a raw, rugged male. I'm not into my designer labels or spending lots of money on drinks and cars... If Blur were doing dance music, that's what I'd be like. Damon Albarn... he was cool but he'd turn up
in his jeans and T-shirt and Adidas. That's my vibe."
Starting out, Example was perceived as a novelty rapper. Built around a Britney Spears sample, his first hit, Toxic Breath, was a snarky ode to a girlfriend who drank too much. He then released a parody of Lily Allen's Smile called Vile.
"It all happened too quickly for me," he says. "I put a song out, it got played on [the UK's] Radio One and a couple of weeks later Sony, Island and Mike Skinner [of The Streets] were offering me deals. My lyrics were quite clever, but essentially the whole thing was a bit of a joke. I didn't know how to package myself and I didn't know how to write songs. All I'd done was written a couple of raps and stuck a chorus in. On my first record there's a song about nuclear war, about birthday cards and about college girls. It's really disjointed."
As the clamour for his signature turned frenzied, he plumbed for Mike Skinner's boutique label. A huge fan of The Streets, Gleave believed he would be learning from the master. However, they didn't really get on and the partnership quickly fizzled out.
"Songwriting-wise, I picked up a lot. As a person, though, he's quite strange. He was coming to the end of his career and going through a lot of life changes," says Gleave. "Don't get me wrong, [The Street's 2002 debut] Original Pirate Material is one of the most important albums of the past 20 years. Without Mike Skinner there would be no Lily Allen, no Alex Turner, no Pete Doherty. You speak to Adele, she loves The Streets. In terms of the way he conducted himself and his business -- I didn't like that. He 's really intense. I found him to be a bit of a nutter, to be honest. He was very hot and cold with me. One day he'd be my best mate, the next he'd ignore me. I don't like people like that. I don't get it."
A UK wide-boy direct from central casting, Example grew up in Fulham. Bordering Chelsea and Kensington, this west London suburb is generally regarded as a bastion of the chattering classes. The way Gleave tells it there are quite a few 'naughty' areas too. For that reason, he wasn't surprised when riots erupted across the British capital in late summer.
"Somebody got shot for supposedly carrying a gun," he says. "Now, I'm not saying he deserved to be shot -- but he took that risk, didn't he? Live by the sword, die by the sword. If you carry a gun, you can expect to shoot or get shot."
Sitting forward, he elaborates. "I think a lot of people were using it as a chance to vent their frustration at the police. I went to a mainly black and Asian school. I'd walk home through the park and see a lot of my mates being arrested and searched. They never stopped and searched me. I'm not saying I understand the struggle behind the riots. But I know what people go through. On the other hand, what happened was just an excuse for violence and destruction and thieving really. Parents should tell their kids when they are four or five that thieving is wrong. Then again, a lot of people don't have parents. They are brought up by grandparents or aunts or their sisters. It's hard to comment. Everyone's story is different."
The album Playing In The Shadows is out now. Example plays Olympia, Dublin, on November 30
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