Former Goldfrapp Drummer Becomes University Lecturer
After his years as a drummer with electronic dance band Goldfrapp, Rowan Oliver is now a lecturer in popular music at the University of Hull.
“I get to see these young people making some inspiring and original music of their own, and having a part in that development keeps things special.
“As I approach middle age they are keeping me young and hip. Each year they come up with new genres I’ve never heard of.”
Rowan, who lives in Scarborough with his family, is speaking to the Mail in the university’s recording studio.
Based for part of the week at the university’s Scarborough campus – the popular music department is gradually being transferred to Hull – his life is now focused on lectures and his PhD thesis.
While his early years with the band might seem somewhat distant, he cannot help but grin as he recalls them.
Rowan, who studied music at York University during the mid-1990s, became involved with Goldfrapp through the web of contacts that makes up the music world.
Introduced to lead singer Alison Goldfrapp through mutual friends, he was invited to provide percussion for an album she and collaborator Will Gregory were recording.
“Instead of hiring a big, lavish studio they used the budget to hire a bungalow in the countryside near Bath,” said Rowan.
“It meant they had a more relaxed environment but it was also a slightly funny set-up.
“The recording room was in the kitchen, with the mixing desk in the sitting room.
“Between takes they would open the serving hatch and say ‘Can you try it again?'”
At that point, Rowan said, it was uncertain whether the album, Felt Mountain, was a one-off or the start of a regular project.
“You could hear, though, that it was a special sound and Alison’s voice was unbelievable,” he said.
He began joining the band for live gigs, while continuing his day job at a central London record store – where, he admits, he opted to have much of his wages paid in vinyl.
At the point when he was regularly calling in to say he could not attend because of gigs, Rowan realised he had made the gradual transition from shop worker to full-time musician.
“Initially the band was popular on the continent, particularly France and Germany, so gigs were there but then it started to snowball,” he said.
“As the second and third album developed, as it goes with all these touring shows, it turns into a bigger stage production.
“Lighting and staging and what people are wearing becomes a bigger concern, with outfits that probably look best when the lights are fairly low.”
He recalls with particular fondness Goldfrapp’s three sold-out nights at Brixton Academy, a venue he had regularly frequented as a punter, and their appearance on The Other Stage at Glastonbury.
“We were on as the sun was setting,” he said.
“I remember looking out over the crowds and thinking ‘This is what I had hoped would be like’.”
His time with the band drew to a close in 2006.
By then, he had fallen in love with Charlotte, who is now his wife, and they opted to move north to her home town of Scarborough.
It was partly for the slower pace of life and partly to be closer to her family.
“My wife and I had our first son while I was still in the middle of touring,” said Rowan.
“It dawned on me as he was nearing his third birthday that I was away for nine months of the year.
“I was having a lot of fun, but was beginning to feel that if he was going to start remembering me being away maybe it was time to be around more.”
Having played on four of the band’s albums – and taken part in the 12 to 18 months of touring after the release of each – he decided to move on.
“By the time the fourth album was ready for touring I thought, as much as I loved it, that it was probably time to say no,” he said.
“There were things I could contribute, but ultimately my role was long-term session musician rather than fully-fledged member of the band – the band was and always will be Alison and Will.”
He went to see them play a recent gig at the Barbican in York and went backstage to meet them.
“It was lovely, it was though I hadn’t been away,” he said.
“Will has been over to Scarborough to visit so the connections are still there. I can’t imagine a time when I would want to go on tour to that extent again but being open to the possibilities of future recording, I’d like to keep that door open.”
Could he ever have imagined standing in front of a lecture hall?
“I always had an interest in music that went beyond the playing of it,” Rowan said.
“I think for all musicians that alongside the practical side there’s an intellectual side to it as well.
“In the quieter moments when I was away from the stage I would be thinking about the sounds I am interested in.
“It makes you think the two careers are not as different as people might believe.”