Blur – one of the most important British bands of the decade – wrap up their 1997 world tour and Ben Harrison finds himself being welcomed into their insular world. Together with a lot of alcohol he makes a Great Escape with guitarist Graham Coxon, lives to tell the tale and gets Blur into focus. Pictures by Little. This article was published in BigO #145 (January 1998).
There was a time when Blur seemed anything but. The Englih adjective wasn’t applicable when it came to describing this band which appeared so self-assured and focused that the members often came off as being downright arrogant.
At first their cockiness was only partly justifiable because – despite showing they had a knack for vibrant pop tunes like There’s No Other Way – Blur’s 1991 debut album, Leisure, didn’t really fulfill the band’s potential.
The following year, Blur then appeared to be floundering when it came to maintaining their initial impact on the British music scene – especially when compared to the much-hyped arrival of Suede. But even so, none of their lippiness abated when they went into a boozy slump as singer Damon Albarn could always be counted on to provide a scathing soundbite, even when he and cohorts Graham Coxon (guitar), Alex James (bass) and Dave Rowntree (drums) were supposedly at their lowest ebb.
But then the band began to live up to its own acclaim with a trilogy of calculated, pristine albums, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape. Each was more successful, both critically and commercially, than its predecessor and confirmed Blur as bona fide pop stars. Blur were unashamedly at the vanguard of the “Britpop” phenomenon, and you’ve probably heard enough about the time they went head-to-head with arch-rivals Oasis in ‘95 and bookies took bets on which one of the two would be the first to top the chart.
It wasn’t until early ‘97 that the public got to see the “blur” being put back into Blur. Their moniker became appropriate when they released a self-titled album that boasted a fuzzy logic not normally associated with the group. The band had never sounded so unrestrained, or, as Alex James puts it, “unshaven.”
For guitar wunderkind Graham Coxon, the appropriate gesture that marks all this could be how he adapted the logo painted on the head of his Marshall amplifier. It used to read “Mod,” but now it says “Moo.”
The notion of blurriness also seems to be part-and-parcel of any band’s touring experience and, on their world tour last year, there were more than a few occasions where Blur felt just that.
When we first hooked up around last October, Coxon really did sound as if he was talking from the other end of the world. Granted, he was in a hotel room in Houston, Texas, but the sense of distance had nothing to do with the quality of Telecoms. Across a crystal clear phone line, Coxon’s staggered – at times virtually whispered – delivery, measured up to his reputation for being the quiet one of the band.
Despite his initial diplomatic claim that “usually we mostly have a good time touring America,” the disorientation of the whole experience was definitely in full effect. Although he was excited by the promise of “some decent veggie food there,” $ingapore seemed a long way down the road for Coxon.
By the time we’d fixed a date for “a bit of a natter and a few beers,” he’d also made disconsolate confessions about “not feeling hugely happy with myself. It’s hard to get motivated.” Although he’d round off with a self-effacing laugh and the typically English pronouncement of “Mustn’t grumble,” his sentences had become punctuated by huge gaps of uncomfortable silence.
Obviously his claim of having “a good time” in America wasn’t ringing true anymore. Nor was it accurate when he reflected on Blur’s earlier American tours.
“We were quite angry at the time. Our impressions of the States had been coloured pretty nastily by bad experiences which were mainly due to bad touring and being on a record label that had no understanding of anything except Vanilla Ice. It was very difficult. We did a two-month tour when Smells Like Teen Spirit was huge, so it was a waste of time. No one was going to listen to us, so we got pretty screwed-up about it for a while.”
The prospect of a whole continent’s worth of dates to play led Coxon to wax lyrical about where he’d much prefer to be: “Oh God, I’d rather the studio right now – but that’s the old cliché as I’m on the road right now, so the studio seems more attractive.”
He then came up with an even more preferable antidote to his road fatigue: “Actually, I’d like nothing at the moment. I’d like to earn my crust by doing nothing. I don’t want to go into a studio. I don’t want to be on the road. I just want a year off or something – just see what my life’s doing. I’ve just been touring quite a lot this year.
“Mostly on our last American tour I didn’t even want to go home. It was really weird but I was quite frightened of going home. And now I don’t know whether I miss England anymore. This time I’m not really going home anyway. I’m going to be staying in California until we go out to Korea and $ingapore, so that’s strange.”
Perhaps the British music press was also picking up such vibes from the Blur camp which, when coupled with the band’s announcement that they won’t be playing any more live dates in the “foreseeable future,” meant they had enough material to begin colourful speculation about “tension” within Blur. Even more pathetic is that they should consider Coxon not refusing alcohol as being newsworthy.
“Every band hates each other to some degree at the end of a world tour,” Damon Albarn says with a glint in his eye, but even when they’re quibbling over the punk rock merits of Coxon’s beloved Minutemen versus Albarn’s Wire, the scene is the antithesis of anything remotely connected to “hate.”
It’s several weeks since we first spoke, and Coxon is in $ingapore. And whether sprawled on his hotel room floor listening to the latest BigO Singles Club CD, chowing down aloo gobi before grooving to Bhangra in Little India, or generously picking up the tab for another endless round of drinks, he’s in considerably better spirits than he was in Texas. This is understandable as all of Blur are probably buoyed by the knowledge they’ve got to the end of the world tour.
“I was expecting $ingapore to be quite exciting, quite crazy and quite hefty on the sensory department. I heard about some crazy fires and some bad, bad air; so I was wondering what’s going on: ‘Why isn’t anybody stopping the fires? Is it just going to burn until the planet’s burnt out?’ I was just hoping that we’d be equipped for everything mentally because we’ve been going through all sorts of weird stuff, so we’re all pretty knackered. It’s just been… mentally… weird.”
One of the unexpected events of the American leg was the sudden departure of the band’s tour manager. When we first spoke, Coxon’s deadpan expression was almost unnerving as it turned out he was sitting at the eye of an on-the-road storm. “Yeah, the tour manager just left the tour when we were playing. He just kind of… quit!” His voice breaks into a short, unhinged chuckle. “Disappeared! So we felt like the cat’s away.”
So how do you deal with something like that?
“I usually spend a lot of time on the phone and listening to music in my room, stuff like that. And now I’m writing a lot of stuff myself… something just to record on my own; my own songs that I’ve been writing. But I don’t know if anyone gives a **** about that.”
Coxon’s song, You’re So Great, is one of the highlights of the last Blur album, and many of the audience had hoped to hear it as part of the set at Blur’s $ingapore show. However, Coxon sighs they’ve only performed the song live in Japan “because there are so many ‘Graham obsessives’ over there.”
Not only is You’re So Great the first song totally written and performed by just one member of the band (he recorded the vocals hiding under a table in the studio), it’s interesting because it presents something more far personal than the Damon Albarn songs which make up the vast majority of their catalogue.
“Damon usually writes the lyrics to his songs, and when there’s a tune that I want to do something with, he has said: ‘If you like this tune so much, you write the bloody lyrics to it, because I can’t’. So I am writing lyrics. I’m writing them every day. But they’re for my own things – not for Blur things.”
So, honestly, what do you make of Damon’s lyrics?
“I like his nonsense lyrics the best. I like it when he’s sad. I like his melancholy stuff more. When he likes to get clever it gets a bit weird. He gets to be bit of a smarty-pants about it.”
Don’t you find a lot of those “smarty-pants” songs patronising?
“A little bit maybe. That’s why I like his personal stuff better… like the Blue Jeans (from Modern Life Is Rubbish) kind of things. It’s more interesting to me hearing what’s on people’s minds rather than hearing smart-arsed comments about where they live.”
Having been in the company of his bandmates for an extended period, it’s inevitable that cabin fever should set in, and Coxon made no bones about his dissatisfaction with the way things had been going… “With these shows, I’m really just a bit tired of the songs at the moment… Even the new stuff that we’ve been playing. I really just want to improvise for an hour.”
So Blur don’t “road-test” new songs that might get written as you tour?
“Damon is writing new songs, but no, we don’t; except we’re playing this song called Swallows In The Heatwave, which is one we wrote recently. But that’s just a kind of slow spaz rock song. I’d like to change the set quite radically, but there’re bass-players to please. And our bass-player just likes playing crappy pop music.”
One thing that Coxon will enthuse about is playing at last year’s benefit concert for a Free Tibet, an experience he describes as being “great…,” and not just because it meant he got to hang (albeit nervously) with heroes like Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
“It was very spiritual. It seemed very special to be there and to be involved. I enjoyed it and it gave Damon a chance to say he likes Tibet. There was a lot of good feelings happening and a lot of different music (being played) with a really good cross-section of everything.
“But it was also quite a freaky concert though as there were a lot of people I quite admire around, watching the show. So it was very scary for a while.”
So despite being a recognisable “pop star” yourself, you feel daunted by people you’re into and admire?
“Yeah. These people are so nice, I shouldn’t be like that. But I always feel like a dork. That’s just the way it is.”
Coxon reaffirms this at another point when we’re talking about how audiences differ in different parts of America. For the most part he reckons he has no understanding of the audience there, while Washington DC stands out for being “dangerous… very dangerous. There’s a lot more crazy punk kids there that don’t know if they’re going to survive another week.” Talkin’ DC then leads us to raving about Fugazi and he shudders to think of the prospect of actually being in the same place as them.
“I imagine it’d be really stressful for me meeting them. I mean Guy (Picciotto)… He’s fantastic. As a guitarist and as a performer, he blows my mind, he does. I’ve seen them quite a lot. And super records they make, by golly.”
Are you in a position where you’d consider any other musicians to be your peers?
“I don’t feel part of any gang. I’d quite like to have a few friends but not really have a ’scene.’ There’s a severe lack of friends and too much ’scene’ going on in this crappy business. I suppose some friends would be quite good. A lot of people I feel closer to musically maybe are American, but I can never really be part of that. Maybe people like Radiohead, I guess I’ve got empathy, sympathy, or some kind of ‘…thy’ with.”
Two other bands that Blur have been spuriously connected to are Oasis and, more recently, Pavement. All three of you have released albums this year. Which would you rate as the best?
“Um… ours because I can just about listen to it all. I think Pavement’s and ours are pretty good. I don’t think it’s Pavement’s best and the Oasis one is CRUD (loudly)… But that’s just a matter of opinion.”
The Oasis one is shite. And it’s made worse by the fact that I’ve not seen a bad word against it, anywhere. What’s going on? Do you think journalists are scared, intimidated by Oasis?
“I think people are just waiting for someone else to say, ‘Look, this is crap. What are we talking about?’ Then everyone’ll do it. I was really ****ed-off in England ‘cos it went on sale and it was all about how many people bought it. It’s just like: ‘What’s this country coming to?’ It’s just a ****ing great, big lie – egocentricity on a huge, vast, scale. I don’t understand it. I just can never understand it – their attitude towards themselves; their attitude towards their music and their audiences. They’re complete… I dunno. It’s supposed to be rock and roll, but it’s just styleless and… ”
It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes.
“Of course it is. I reckon any minute everyone is going to start laughing their heads off.”
Another thing the press cooked up is that the latest Blur album is a big departure for the band. But was it really? Weren’t a lot of the things that people have picked up on this time round already there in the first place?
“Yeah. I don’t think it is much of a departure. I just think it’s all rubbish to say it’s a huge departure and that it’s all influenced by American music or whatever. Anyone who knew our stuff wouldn’t be so freaked out by it… if people knew the group. I know not everyone can be obsessed with Blur and our b-sides and everything and shite like that, but this new record seems to have confused people even more.”
But when you came to release something like For Tomorrow in 1993, the first single off your trilogy, did that feel like a departure?
“Yeah, it was the first time we were using strings and stuff like that; expanding the sound in that way; and getting influenced by other more grander things like Scott Walker, Jaques Brel, Francoise Hardy and people like that. We mellowed out a lot more too. I think we’re super mellow now. We have crazy, spazzy half hours, but we’re much more quiet these days.”
When each new Blur album comes out, are you able to predict what people are going to pick up on about it?
“Not really. I don’t think we even have a clear idea what it is so I don’t think we can really know. Like after we played MOR on the road, it turned into something a bit different to how we recorded it for the album. So we re-recorded it for a single. It’s just natural. We recorded it off-the-cuff in the studio – it wasn’t really ‘written.’
“That’s what changed for this record – we improvised a lot more and jammed. Essex Dogs was like a jam which I started up and Dave joined in. I was messing round with delays, echoes and stuff on pedals, and we cut it all up and put it together. I think Theme From Retro was the same.
“For me that’s some of the most interesting stuff on there, like the end section of – what’s that song? – Strange News From Another Star. I had a weird idea we should have two drummers, so me and Dave played drums on two different kits and I had this little tune which I played over it. I think we had more confidence to just go with ideas like that, see if they worked, and go with them until they worked. That’s the difference with this record.”
Do you think you’ll maintain that direction now, for your next album?
“Maybe. I suppose the next record will be even weirder. Once we recorded it, the last one didn’t seem very weird at all. But I think we’re going to make a weird record next because – if what we’re listening to is anything to go on – it’s going to be really strange… But it’ll probably end up being pretty Blurry.”
So what music are you listening to?
“Well, Damon’s listening to Lee Perry – a lot of dub stuff. And I’m listening to a lot of free jazz – Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. I like a lot of old blues stuff. Music that makes me feel good. I like Yo La Tengo a lot – I kind of wiggle around my room to that. I’m actually enjoying listening to music a lot more these days.”
With dubbier and freer influences creeping into Blur’s music, it should come as no surprise a remix album is to be released (though only in Japan), including recent mixes by Adrian Sherwood, William Orbit, Moby, even Tortoise’s John McEntire and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
You’ve referred to this “white-coatey” approach you have when it comes to recording. It makes sense with earlier albums because they do have such high production values. But did that approach really go out the window this time round, as it’s been made out?
“I’m into it as far as doing things so I’m not staying up all night. I like getting in at a reasonable time, having lunch at lunchtime, having cups of tea and being quite civilised; and not getting stupidly off your head and thinking you’re going to create genius because you’re stoned, because that’s a load of crap. Thinking, using your brains and experimentation – I suppose we think more in that way in terms of our music now.”
Before this some of Blur’s priorities were obviously different, and not all of them were musical. When you first started making records did you feel an opposition to everything else at the time? I remember Jonathan Ross (British TV presenter) being sarcastic about how you looked in your debut video, She’s So High. Did that rile you up?
“Well, we were being the Stone Roses. Every time I see Jonathan Ross now I bait him about it. It’s been about three or four times, and every time he creases, crumples up, apologises, and is very embarrassed. But it’s just fun, isn’t it? He was probably off his head on what he suspected we were off our heads on anyway. Who knows?”
Then, a few years later, the Anglocentric side of Blur was played up, which is when Parklife was a triumph at the Brit Awards. How important was that kind of public recognition?
“No one liked English music you see. So we were determined we’d make people – in England, in America, wherever – like English music for a while. And we made people like English music. And English music has now turned into crap so we’re doing something else. We’re not exactly a loyal bunch of people with any kind of music. If I was that, I’d still be listening to my Smiths records.”