Blur find a stripped down U.S. sound
The mosh pit at K-Rock’s Dysfunctional Family Picnic, in Forest Hills, N.Y., is packed with rowdy teens and testosterone-addled frat boys. Plastic water bottles fly through the air, and bare-chested ruffians slam-dance themselves into a violent frenzy. Two years ago, a crowd like this would have eaten Blur alive: Jaunty, theatrical songs about feeding the pigeons and drinking at the pub just don’t cut it with kids who claim grunge-wannabe’s Bush as their favourite British band of all time.
Blur, however, have changed. Following four albums of whimsical pop, their latest release, simply called Blur, is looser and more stripped down than their earlier records, fueled by the same kind of ragged experimentation as American indie-rock bands like Pavement and Sebadoh. In fact, Blur’s 30-minute set in Forest Hills shows few traces of the group’s Brit-pop roots. Vocalist Damon Albarn, wearing baggy blue pants and a pair of Converses, hams it up with spastic karate kicks and rock-star leaps while the rest of the group – guitarist Graham Coxon, drummer Dave Rowntree, and bassist Alex James – keeps the rhythms churning behind Albarn. Even Blur’s Eurodisco hit, “Girls and Boys,” is delivered with the raw fury of the Ramones, and when the band launches into its seismic MTV staple “Song 2,” the crowd members explode, bouncing off one another like billiard balls and drowning out the group with “whaaa-hooo” shout-alongs.
“It’s unique to America, this kind of running around in circles and hitting each other while a band plays,” muses acerbic drummer Rowntree, sitting in Blur’s trailer after the show. “I’ll never understand that behaviour – but whatever gets you through the day. I don’t have any contempt for them as long as they buy our record.”
And kids are buying Blur. Since its release, in March, the album has sold over 250,000 copies in the U.S., more than all four of the band’s previous albums combined. Ironically, Blur’s current single, “M.O.R.,” will be heating up the airwaves at the same time that the new Oasis record is released. While that might have caused tension two years ago when Blur and Oasis were locked in a much-hyped British battle of the bands, these days, Blur are trying to put the Brit-pop wars behind them.
“The whole thing became really personal and stupid,” says Albarn. “Whenever I see Oasis, I think I’m 15 years old and I’m back in school, and we’re in different gangs. Liam [Gallagher, Oasis’ singer] always comes up and talks to me when he sees me, but it’s this kind of competitive thing about who gets the last word in.”
Class warfare has long been a component of the British rock scene, and that helped to give working-class Oasis an edge over Blur, whose members come from middle-class backgrounds. Albarn, whose father is an author and an art professor, is incensed at accusations that his privileged upbringing makes his music somehow less authentic. “I just don’t understand that argument,” he says. “Is Jon Spencer authentic? He comes from wealth, but that’s not an issue in America. If something sounds good, people will accept it. But in Britain, our music became suddenly not right. We just got completely fucked over.”
Blur nearly split up during the backlash that followed their 1995 album, The Great Escape. Albarn sunk into a severe, prolonged depression, and Coxon’s drinking problem got out of hand. That’s when Blur decided to change their game plan. “Nothing in Britain was interesting anymore,” says Albarn. “We’d always been fans of bands like the Pixies, the Beastie Boys and Pavement. [Their music] had more life and intelligence to it than Brit pop, and we just began to relate more to those people.”
But if Blur have realized a bold new sound, relations among the band members have suffered. They chide each other frequently backstage, and even childhood friends Albarn and Coxon admit that they’re not as tight as they once were. “Damon is a self-centered fucker sometimes,” says Coxon flatly. Albarn pins the blame for their strained relationship on the guitarist’s former drinking problem. “It totally wrecked our ability to get on with each other,” Albarn says. “When he was drunk, he’d be likely to tell a journalist to fuck off, or I’d hear reports of him being unconscious at 4 in the morning somewhere in London. That was upsetting because he’s my closest male friend.”
Coxon quit drinking last summer, after nearly getting into a fistfight with Albarn during a drunken sound check. Coxon sings about the experience in “You’re So Great,” the only song on Blur that Albarn didn’t write. “It’s a minor miracle that I stopped drinking,” says Coxon. “Alcohol made me relaxed enough to have the most awful fights with people. I was very negative, and I would lash out because I was angry about feeling terrible all the time. I had lost a part of myself. Now that I’m sober, I’m very glad to have that part back.”
Another factor that has contributed to the turbulence in Blur is Albarn’s bout with depression. “I was in a state of constant agitation for nearly two years,” he says. “I had heart palpitations, and I thought about death virtually daily. I had a real physical sense that the off button was going to be switched at some point very soon, and that was very upsetting to me, because as a teenager and as a child, I was very relaxed and happy.”
Albarn says that the condition disappeared when Blur went to Iceland to record part of the new album. He liked the country so much that he bought a house there. “I’d love to live there,” he says, “but I don’t think Justine [Frischmann, his girlfriend, who is a member of the band Elastica] would like that.”
“I feel very much like two people sometimes,” Albarn continues, sipping chamomile tea. “Half of me is into living somewhere like Iceland and having kids, and being really simple, and the other half likes the wildness of life in a rock band. It attracts me, but there’s something that always pulls me back.”