He is best known as the drummer in Blur but Dave Rowntree also played an important role in the push to get a British lander to reach Mars. Laura Drysdale reports.
Dave Rowntree has certainly lived a varied life. From solicitor to local politician and television and film composer, he has turned his hand to more than most in his 55 years - and all this alongside his three decade (and counting) musical career with one of Britain’s biggest bands.
“I’ve done a lot of things,” the Blur drummer says, in rather an understatement of his accomplishments. “I am endlessly interested in the world and what goes on in it.”
He is stood by his telescope as we speak, a nod to a passion that has remained constant throughout. He would happily while away the hours gazing at the sky, if only he could find more time in his days.
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“Jupiter and Saturn are at their most amazing at the moment,” he tells me. “Two of the most beautiful planets in the universe are at their most beautiful.”
His fascination with space developed in his early years, whilst growing up in Colchester. “I guess it came from me having been bought a telescope when I was a child and spending long winter evenings peering through it at the stars and planets.”
His secondary school had its own observatory too and he would spend many an hour there, learning from the knowledge and experience of students his senior. “That was another firing up for me,” he recalls.
This lifelong enthusiasm for astronomy and astrophysics will be the focus of a talk Rowntree gives when he visits Yorkshire later this week. He will be in conversation with Terry Dobson, vice chair of the Rosse Observatory in Pontefract, as part of Wakefield’s Festival of the Moon, a two-week programme celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing.
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Rowntree will tell of his involvement in the Beagle 2 mission, the British led effort to send a lander to Mars, and how he and bandmate Alex James helped to turn the vision, by the late planetary scientist Professor Colin Pillinger, into a reality.
In 1997, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced a mission called Mars Express, following recommendations by a study group, at a time of great interest in the possibility of life on the Red Planet. The idea of it carrying a lander dedicated to looking for life and conducting scientific analyses was put forward by The Open University’s Prof Pillinger.
Rowntree says he and James became involved after visiting Houston’s NASA space centre and taking a behind the scenes tour. “We were struck by how many of the people we met there were British and we were wondering why they had to go to America to do space research and work in the industry.”
Back on home soil, they began to look at space research in the UK. They came across Beagle 2 and pledged to support it. The cost of the lander project at the outset was estimated at £25m and in Prof Pillinger’s own words in his book on the mission: “The idea of Britain providing the landing spacecraft and the instruments to look for life on Mars was dismissed out of hand...At that stage, the doubters not only included the ESA, but the British government itself.”
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“For Beagle 2,” he continues, “the turning point was not the intervention of one man but a group - or to be precise, a band - Blur, and with them they brought the artist Damien Hirst.”
Rowntree and James joined the Beagle 2 team in 1998 to help with PR. “We started talking the project up to anyone that would listen. When you are in a band, you have got a lot of interviews...and we started saying that we wanted to talk about this space mission. We got a ton of column inches for the project and to some extent took it into existence.”
Industrial partners, technology companies and university groups gradually got on board with the development of parts and instruments for the lander and, as Prof Pillinger writes, after years of lobbying, the Government and ESA eventually agreed to help finance the project. The Mars Express mission, carrying Beagle 2, was launched in June 2003.
The orbiter reached position on December 25 that year and since 2004, has provided scientific analysis about Earth’s neighbour. The Beagle 2 lander had been released from the spacecraft towards the surface of Mars six days prior, but lost contact with Earth.
More than a decade later, in 2015, the UK Space Agency announced that the lander had been identified in images taken by a NASA orbiter and said it did successfully touchdown as planned.
Blur had written its signature tune, a call sign to be beamed back from Mars to announce the lander’s arrival. Hirst had produced one of his trademark spot paintings to be used for the calibration of Beagle 2’s cameras.
“Blur wrote a sequence of notes to play back, which became the theme tune of Beagle 2,” Rowntree says. “In the same way that Damien Hirst got the first artwork on Mars, we got the first music on Mars.”
“It was a wonderful time,” he enthuses, as he reflects on their contribution to the project and its team. “It was a real shame that we did lose contact with the lander.
"There was a lot of typical British finger waving and ‘I told you so’ but the reality was that no country has ever made it to Mars on their first attempt apart from us. Everything worked - it got to Mars, the parachutes worked, the air bags worked, it landed on the ground safely.”
Back on earth, and today, Rowntree’s current focus is on writing music for films and TV shows, with forthcoming BBC surveillance thriller The Capture, among his most recent projects. He splits his time between London and Norfolk, where he is a Norfolk County Council councillor.
“I have always been involved in community politics and for much of my life I have been a member of the Labour Party,” he says. “Part of my community activism is knocking on people’s doors and seeing if they’re okay.”
He won that council seat in 2017, but has suffered several losses when standing both in council and general elections. “It’s not demoralising if you stand knowing you aren’t going to win,” he says, “but knowing you will use the opportunity as a platform and to get things done.”
Being able to make a difference is what stood out to Rowntree during his five years as a solicitor too, a job to which he has not ruled out a return. “The people you meet are very interesting, the cases are very interesting, the way the law works itself is fascinating. You get to make a real difference, the same way you do by knocking on the doors of your neighbours.”
He has worked on everything from shoplifting to murder and says the vast majority of offenders are not “inherently evil” but have “made poor choices”. “You get to hold people’s hands and get them through the process and it’s a real privilege to be able to do that.”
In Conversation: Dave Rowntree and Terry Dobson takes place at Wakefield Market Hall at 4pm on Saturday. Visit www.experiencewakefield.co.uk for tickets.