RAZORLIGHT'S Johnny Borrell can't help but feel a little jinxed when it comes to Los Angeles.
The British band's last two attempts to play here were thwarted, leaving him looking with great anticipation toward Friday's show at the El Rey Theatre.
"Until I'm on that stage, I'm not counting on anything," he says by phone from Toronto. Los Angeles is "the one place I've really, really been wanting to play in America the last three years, and it's been taken away from me."
The first cancellation came two years ago on an ill-fated tour. Borrell had exited a show in Denver with acute stage fright; then, the day before the El Rey gig, he lost his voice. The second date fell through last fall when Keane, for whom Razorlight was opening, postponed its tour after lead singer Tom Chaplin entered rehab. The group's only L.A. gig remains a 2004 stop at the Troubadour.
Pulling the plug on the El Rey concert "was the lowest point of my career so far," says Borrell, who immortalized his feelings on "Los Angeles Waltz," a winsome track on the band's current album. "I saw a doctor in Los Angeles, and he told me I had to rest my voice for a month. I got back to Hampstead in North London and sat down at the piano and wrote that song."
Borrell has become a lightning rod in the British tabloids and music magazine NME for his often brash comments -- he proclaimed Razorlight to be better than Arctic Monkeys (which he now denies saying) and accused the Kooks of selling out (remarks he says were off the record). Even when he keeps his mouth shut, he gets in trouble: During 2005's Leeds Festival, former friend Pete Doherty (he of Libertines, Babyshambles and Kate Moss fame) barged into Borrell's dressing room and head-butted him, seemingly unprovoked.
Refreshingly, Borrell concedes he brought some of the drama on himself. "The first time I did a load of interviews, I just thought I'd go in and just be as controversial as possible and upset as many people as possible," he says. And when he did just that, he then realized such actions can leave an indelible stain: "I was naive in the sense that I didn't realize it would be quite difficult to outrun that."
Razorlight is one of many British rock acts that have sold millions of albums in their homeland but have hardly registered here. The group's 2004 debut, "Up All Night," has sold 46,500 copies in the U.S., while the current self-titled CD, out on Universal Motown since August, has only moved 19,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
But if Borrell has his way, he'll become just as famous stateside as he is at home.
"You don't grow up dreaming of being No. 1 on the Belgium charts," he cracks. "We're like a big international rock band, and I'm a big international rock star. Great. That's really cool. But on the other hand, you know you're not doing the whole thing unless you can do America as well."
But the America of his dreams and the America of reality proved to be different creatures at first blush. "The first time we came to America as a band was in 2004," he recalls. "I think Bush had just been reelected and everyone was so depressed. We got into Boston, and I remember turning on the radio and the first person I heard was ... Rush [Limbaugh]. I'd always dreamt of turning on the radio in America and it's going to be Led Zeppelin, and it's this guy instead." That experience also found its way into a new Razorlight single, "America."
OUTSIDE America, the quartet has opened for the Rolling Stones, the Who and Oasis and earned the plaudits from no less than U2's Bono and from Nelson Mandela, who invited them to play an AIDS charity event in 2005.
"I did ask [Mandela] if he wanted to come play tambourine for us. He said he was more into playing bass," says Borrell with a laugh. But Mandela will get another chance when the band performs at Mandela's birthday party this summer in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In time-honored fashion, the British tabloids constantly speculate on when the band will split. But Borrell knows he's to blame for that one.
"We aren't breaking up," he says patiently. "I suppose it's because I was quite honest in certain interviews and I just sort of said if I had to sit in a taxi with [guitarist Bjorn Agren] for three hours today, then this band would be over. I don't feel like that now, but I did at that point, and I suppose it's a pretty brutal thing to say. But I think we'll be dealing with that one for the rest of our lives."
Borrell can forget about such speculation as Friday's show in L.A. approaches. "It's the one thing I'm looking forward to more than anything," he says. "There's a huge weight I have to get off my back. We're locked and loaded and totally ready to go."
Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Price: $15 (sold out)
Info: (323) 936-4790; www.theelrey.com/venue.shtml