Interview: Rapper Example on fame, excess and giving up drugs

Example is on a health kick and cites Coldplay's Chris Martin as a possible role model. Picture: PA
Example is on a health kick and cites Coldplay's Chris Martin as a possible role model. Picture: PA
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HE’S given up the drugs and the womanising, but Elliot Gleave still wants to be much more famous, he tells Chitra Ramaswamy

A few things I’ve discovered recently about Elliot Gleave, aka Example, London rapper, singer, chancer and, according to the NME, “the toast of Britpop royalty”. Last year, following the mammoth success of his third record, Playing in the Shadows – a raved up love letter to drugs, girls, and nights out that went to No 1, and then went platinum – he went and got completely and predictably carried away. He split up with his girlfriend because he couldn’t stop cheating on her. He took too many drugs, told too many girls he loved them. He became a victim of his own excesses. He should have listened to his mother more. And then, as the story (or you might say the cliché) goes, the fun dried up. He went into therapy. He’s sorry. Oh, and he’s getting better.

Example is on a health kick and cites Coldplay's Chris Martin as a possible role model. Picture: PA

Example is on a health kick and cites Coldplay's Chris Martin as a possible role model. Picture: PA

All this and more I know from listening to The Evolution of Man, Gleave’s fourth album and – according to him – the one that’s going to send him through the stratosphere.

“I based it on three key events,” he tells me as he power walks along the Thames on a drizzly weekday morning. He’s only just recovered from a damaged Achilles tendon – the result of playing a whopping 60 gigs over the summer – and has spent the past three months resting up in London, mostly gorging on junk food and films. (I know this from his exhaustive and very entertaining Twitter feed, which boasts more than a million followers).

“One was me at Glastonbury, completely off my face on all different kinds of drugs,” he goes on. “I was pretty f***ing monstrous and my sister, who I’m very close to, witnessed it all. She was worried about me and told my parents, who live in Australia, so then I had a face-off with them.”

And the second? “I started cheating on my girlfriend,” he says cheerfully. “Even though I wasn’t proud of it, I just couldn’t stop myself.” Erm, why not? He laughs his head off. “I know! What a cliché! But I didn’t want to be that person any more so the third event was going to see a therapist; this guy who specialises in talking to egotistical twat males from the music and movie world. Oh, and footballers. They’re known to be twats.” Another booming laugh. “Anyway, thanks to my mum, dad, and sister I sorted myself out. But don’t worry. I’m not completely boring. I still like a good time.”

The only problem is that now he’s all cleaned up and loved up, he hasn’t got a clue what to write about. “I’m really worried about it,” he says. “All my biggest records have been about heartbreak, partying, and drugs. Now I’m drinking smoothies in the morning.” He laughs. “I can’t write about that. I’m going to have to start making things up. But then I look at Chris Martin and think, ‘Well he’s a vegetarian and he can still rock out.’”

Interviewing Gleave, 30, is something of a guilty pleasure. His album may be peppered with the kind of braggadocio and bicep flexing that makes you want to throttle him (sample rap on album opener Come Taste the Rainbow: “I’m no role model, but I’m rolling with models”) yet his steamroller confidence and cheeky-chappie charm are irresistible. His ability to constantly send himself up before anyone else gets the chance is infectious. The outcome is that, despite your better judgment, you just can’t help but like Example.

Take what he says about meeting his fiancée, Erin McNaught, an MTV presenter and former Miss Australia. “I was on a bit of a rampage with women at the time,” he sighs, I suspect more out of nostalgia than remorse. “I had decided to just get it out of my system for a year and that was when I met Erin. She was the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen and when my manager said she liked me I was like, ‘No way! She’s successful, beautiful, she has her own career. Why the f*** would she want to be with me? I’m the funny-looking guy!’”

His music has a similarly annoying capacity to win you over. Whether he’s fooling around with hip hop, electro, rave or – on his new album – grunge rock, the Example sound is big, bouncy, and relentless. He can be contrived and portentous one moment, hilarious and clever the next. Somehow, and with that surprisingly deep voice and silly hair, he makes it work. He’s like a Radio 1 friendly Plan B, and in fact the two of them are good friends.

The Evolution of Man is a game changer. The synths have been swapped with guitars, Graham Coxon guests on four tracks, a whole host of hip electronic producers have come on board, and the sound is, if anything, even bigger. On tracks like U2-sized new single Close Enemies and the Nirvana-inspired Snakeskin you can almost see 70,000 mud-encrusted 16 to 25-year-olds throwing their hands in the air.

“It’s a natural step,” Gleave says. “My attitude to music has always been more rock’n’roll than hip hop, even though I can’t actually play guitar.” He chuckles. “You know, my first album on Mike Skinner’s label was quite laddy and cheeky hip hop and no-one bought it. And I never really felt at home doing that. I feel much more comfortable singing big emotional rock songs than I do rapping about going to Pizza Express, which is basically what my first album was about.”

His ambition continues to grow with each album. In fact it has been described as, at best, limitless; at worst, gimlet-eyed. But he has pulled it off and then some. Three years ago journalists scoffed when he boasted he would be headlining arenas. This year Example sold out a 14-day arena tour and played the main stage at V Festival alongside Noel Gallagher and the Stone Roses, with a bigger crowd than either of them.

“I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I just knew I belonged on that stage,” he says. “No-one ever talks about me as the best rapper or singer but I can sing and I can rap and I don’t sound like anyone else. Also, my contacts book is one of the best in the industry. I can call up Graham Coxon. Gary Lightbody, Ed Sheeran, Calvin Harris… I’ve used all of that, my ambition, and my stage show to propel me to the next level. The stage show is what I love doing the most. It’s how we convert people.” I tell him he sounds like an evangelist and he laughs and says, sounding pleased, “I do!”

So what’s next? “Next year, second on the bill at all the main festivals,” he says without hesitation. “The year after that, headlining festivals. And the year after that, our own festival, like Knebworth. The plan is to keep releasing albums until I achieve that. I’m not going to stop.”

His ambition comes from his dad’s work ethic. “He used to drive to Birmingham for work every day, leaving at 5am and getting home at 10pm,” he says. “I always thought if he does that, I will too.” The family grew up in Fulham, West London, and Gleave was “a geek at heart”, diagnosed with Asperger’s at school. “I got all As and A*s, took maths A-level a year early, and had a photographic memory. I was useless at music though.”

He was also bullied, which fuelled his ambition further. “People took the piss out of me so much. It was the way I looked mostly. By the time I was 18 I had all this pent-up energy. I had been turned away by girls for years. All the kids at school were like, ‘Look at your teeth, your nose, your mouth, your face.’ I got so used to everyone saying ‘you’ll never do anything’, ‘you’ll never get picked for the school football team’, ‘you’ll never get that girl’. As soon as I left school I took on a new persona. I decided to go out and prove everyone wrong.”

He still gets regular abuse on Twitter. “But now when I get an 18-year-old saying I look like a horse I think, ‘Well, I’ve sold millions of records, had 15 Top 40 hits, travelled the world, and I’m going to marry Miss Australia next year.’”

Gleave pauses, for once embarrassed. “I don’t mean it in a big-headed way,” he quickly adds. “I’m just really happy. And look, the fact is I get 100 tweets a day that are nasty and 10,000 telling me I’m god. It’s actually nice for me to get some abuse considering my past ego problems,” he says. “It’s good every now and then to be told you’ve got a s*** haircut.”

• The Evolution of Man is released on 19 November.