A True Story about Blur, Survival and Laughing at Doomsday
THE ARRIVAL OF THE END OF THE WORLD is nearing and we all know it. This is not some bearded man afflicted with dementia, holding a cardboard sign, screaming out the Bible and selling pencils. This is the real deal. The world is coming to an end and we’re all going down with the flaming fireball. The funniest thing about denial is, know that you’re doing it and still getting fooled by it. Ha. Ha. Ha.
“There’s this kind of worldwide pessimism where everyone’s writing off stock markets, music, the economy, the environment, the world—everything. Everything’s going to end tomorrow. If the world were going to end tomorrow, it would have ended already. People are far more durable than they’re given credit for. The veneer or civilization is rather thin, but there’s a solid bedrock of culture underneath it that’s made of sterner stuff.”
That was David speaking. David Rowntree. He’s the drummer from Blur and this is the story of Blur today, before the dive, before the end, before we all shriek and have sex with strangers and loot. Damon is here too. Damon Albarn. He sings and plays guitar and writes a lot of Blur’s songs. They are very familiar with a sense of doom. In fact, they thrive on it.
“We’ve disappointed a lot of people that we haven’t quit after every record,” says Albarn, with a bit of the demon twinkle in his eyes. “The most consistent prediction about Blur is, ‘Now, it’s all over.’”
We’re sitting in a solitary booth in a tiny hotel somewhere in the middle of America. There’s a single candle playing with our shadows and all three of us are talking about the end of the world, the end of Blur, and how none of it really matters. Blur, you see, have a bit of a con set up with survival. They’re playing their cards underneath the tabletop and their grins are sharp enough to make the sinless tremble. They’re slouching, they’re tired and Damon’s come back from a lap in the pool to announce, “That didn’t work and I refuse to have a third wind.”
Blur have had many winds. This is a band that is perennially dismissed by their own countrymen in the press and have never felt firmly entrenched in the elite foundation of serious British pop music, if such a thing exists. They’ve been doubted (like Jesus) and slighted (like the Milwaukee Brewers) since day one.
“We were terribly bullied,” says Albarn about the recording of the band’s debut Leisure, back in 1991. “We were threatened with unspeakable things that would happen to us. Not with violence or anything like that, but saying, ‘You’re going to fail. If you don’t do it this way, you’re going to fail. Fail. Fail. Fail.’ That record would have been very different if we had been allowed to evolve normally, but we weren’t. We had a very, very strange upbringing with a very dictatorial head of a record label. FromModern Life Is Rubbish [in 1993] on, there were reasons for making records. With the first one, we didn’t have a reason. We didn’t know what our reasons for making records. With the first one, we didn’t have a reason. We didn’t know what our reasons were. We didn’t know who wewere. We were very naïve and we allowed ourselves to be bullied.”
“We’ve done the best we could every time we’ve made a record,” adds Rowntree. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s all the best we could have done at the time.”
“We now know why we made those mistakes, so we don’t make them anymore,” Damon rebuts philosophically. “That’s all you can do in life, is learn from your mistakes.”
From Modern Life Is Rubbish on, Blur have had peaks of brilliance that have had them flirting with the post-Kinks throne of quirk-pop royalty for over a decade now. But all of the accolades—when they’ve been reluctantly handed over by the largely dubious and tight-lipped—seem to come a bit late. Blur is always on the next thing once the rest of us have just started tapping our feet to the last one. That’s not really saying they make revolutionary music, but that their songs are kind of like wet paint in a bedroom—you’re not too fond of the new color until it dries.
The Great Escape came out in 1995 and you were disappointed because it was a bit more “gay” than the Steve McQueen film of the same name. Then you grew up and realized you meant to call it “grandiose pure pop.” No one really liked Parklife at first, but now you can’t find a place to park your Vespa at the local bar’s “mod night” in time to catch the last strains of “Girls and Boys” rattling the lit-up Guinness Stout sign against the windowpane. How many Pavement fans derided Blur for “Song 2” before being afflicted with the kind of amnesia that made them wear ugly sweaters, forgive the band, actually like the track and secretly buy their self-titled record in 1997? Their 1999 release, 13, was dismissed early by many who took to referring to the record as a CD single, calling it “Tender + 12 bonus tracks,” until the rest of the songs started making sense during the long wait for this weird thing called Think Tank in 2003.
“We wouldn’t have had the career we’ve had, and we wouldn’t have a career now, if the music didn’t change,” says Rowntree. “We’re far too bored and have far too short attention spans to repeat ourselves and churn out the same record over and over. Even though we certainly could have translated the Parklife success or formula and kind of repeated it ad nauseam throughout the world and nobody would have thought any worse of us for doing that. That’s what’s made our success last and that’s what pisses people off about us. When it’s too hard to pigeonhole us, or write us off, or figure out what we’re going to do next—those are the three things that the media in Britain certainly thrives on and people get pissed.”
Damon raises and eyebrow, considers this and adds, “If people started really liking us, we’d probably go away. We wouldn’t feel the need to be driven in the way that we are, to be honest. We’re quite driven, actually, to come back from all of that. I mean, a lot of people would have just thrown in the towel and said, ‘Well, I’ve done my bit. I’m gonna chill out now.’ But we’ve never felt like that for one second, even now.”
“That’s because we made such a good record,” Dave says to Damon and they both nod in agreement.
Think Tank might be a sprawling mess. Following suit with the seeming Blur formula, it’s still too early to tell. The story behind it at least, reads like a mess. With the departure of longtime guitarist and songwriter Graham Coxon, Blur has been pared down to a trio. Bands, especially British ones, are hives that teem with rumor and buzz, little of it resounding with anything like truth. Depending on who you ask, Coxon was either flat-out booted, or he left because Damon’s head surpassed the size of a gorilla’s after the overwhelming success of his hip-hop influenced Gorillaz side-project. Or he didn’t get along with Fatboy Slim who was brought on by Damon unannounced as the record’s producer for a few tracks. Or he never showed up for the recording sessions. Or he just plain didn’t feel like being in Blur anymore.
“I think he’s on sabbatical,” says Damon matter-of-factly. “Which I think is a nicer way for it to be. Maybe he’ll come back again, but if he doesn’t, it doesn’t even matter, obviously. Graham made a very deliberate decision. And that’s fair, really. He doesn’t want to be a part of that life anymore and if that’s the case, we have respect for him.
“It doesn’t matter because we’ve shifted the emphasis to just the music now,” he continues after a reflective pause. “So, it doesn’t matter who’s making it. Maybe that’s something I learned in Gorillaz—that it doesn’t matter who’s doing it, if it works, it works. And we choose to work together. That’s the point, you know? We’ve got a very clear policy: if you’re not around and you miss a day in the studio, then you weren’t on that song and someone else would do it. It’s a good rule to have and we all have to abide by it.”
It’s arguable that Coxon’s departure and Albarn’s new “policies” are exactly what made Think Tank such a stylistic leap from anything the band has done previously. Blur’s music has always sounded like they’ve stretched themselves—stretched maybe even beyond their own actual abilities. And that’s what makes Think Tank such an unnerving document of a struggle, perhaps. A struggle to ditch the assumptions and conventions associated with being “Blur.”
“It’s just fucking music,” says Albarn with a calm chuckle. “Who gives a fuck what banner is under us? Either it’s worth listening to or it’s not worth listening to. What is this? An egg and spoon race? It’s music. There’s nothing competitive about it whatsoever.”
But it is competitive and there are winners and losers and when you’re in a position like Blur’s, the world must creep in and it must affect change within the music you make. It was Damon himself who just a few minutes ago proclaimed that the band probably wouldn’t even care to exist if it wasn’t for people wanting them to fail. And there will be people grabbing for the garlic and wooden stakes, calling Think Tank a spiraling experiment gone to the devil. But they’re wrong.
Think Tank comes outfitted in majestic ambition. A song like “Crazy Beat” will appease the mass that glommed onto them after the “Song 2” “woo-hoo” fascination. While “Brothers and Sisters” might drum up some recollection of Albarn’s Gorillaz, with its chanting drug-dipped stanzas (“Cocaine is for murderers… smoking makes you holy.”) Graham Coxon’s guitar work is definitely missing (it might be up to others to determine whether it’s missed), and a song like “Jets” seems to almost mock his absence with a guitar line so childish, it’ll be in your head like a lullaby for days. “On the Way to the Club” tumbles forth on the whimsy of juggled drums, deconstructing itself into ‘80s synth lines that sound plucked from the soundtrack to a cancelled Saturday morning television show. “Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club” features the Damon Albarn proclamation: “Being English is not about hate. It’s about disgust. We’re all disgusting.” Which, incidentally, is destined to become the yearbook quotation of a hundred thousand adolescent wankers. Tracks like “Ambulance” and “Out of Time” serve to open the record with two doses of comparatively straightforward melodic beauty, not quite preparing you for the twists and turns over the course of 14 songs which will literally take you to Morocco and back before you’re ready to admit to your friends whether you actually like it or not. Think Tank is a thrilling listen. Its mess is its virtue.
“All of the vocals were sung outside,” says Albarn, addressing the reasoning behind bringing a portion of the sessions to Northern Africa, to Morocco, and perching himself atop a ratty barn, surrounded by farm animals.
IF THE WORLD WERE GOING TO END TOMORROW, IT WOULD HAVE ENDED ALREADY. PEOPLE ARE FAR MORE DURABLE THAN THEY’RE GIVEN CREDIT FOR.
“It was nice. When it’s nice weather, it’s nice to be outside. I think the big studios are a con. They charge people to make less exciting records. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I mean, recording as it is now, you don’t need studios. You can do it on whatever you want, whenever you want. That’s a great liberation that computers and technology have given us. It basically means that it’s just going back to where it comes from, which is music on the streets and in the houses.”
The idea of bringing music back to where it comes from—back to streets and people and lives being lived—leads to a question for Damon that involves his relevance, his ability to reach into the sphere of strangers and to affect change in the world. Whether it’s a T-shirt, or a message, or a T-shirt with a message, what Damon Albarn does and says is armed with impact. Some people will wear what he wears and will probably think what he thinks. During a time when both his country and ours is enmeshed in conflicts aimed to eradicate evil in the world, what do you do with that box beneath your feet that puts you above the crowd and wrests its attention to yourself, even briefly?
“Clothing?” smiles Damon. “It’s just sort of a T-shirt and jeans, which are not hard to find [laughs]. Well, I have said a lot [about the war in Iraq], but I only feel comfortable saying those things in my own country. I feel, as a foreigner who has strong connections with America now, especially after Gorillaz, it’s not appropriate. Do you know what I mean? It’s very clear where I stand, but it’s not for me to openly criticize somebody else’s affairs. You should be respectful of other people’s cultures and not try to invade in any way.
“It’s a very different kind of significance,” he says about whether his music has a heightened sense of purpose during times of unease. “[Music can change things] but only in the way like when the sun comes up. It’s like weather, really. I don’t know. I just find people infinitely more receptive to what we’re doing at the moment, than they ever have been before.”
Damon says Think Tank is a record of “political love songs.” “[Unease] forces people to value what they’ve got. And that, hopefully, will pay dividends and help change the world to a better place. Hopefully. Touch wood.” And he knocks on the table.
“Sometimes you have to live through trauma, you know? Deal with it.” David Rowntree has effectively settled the matter for all of us in the booth and put a damper on my doom.
This puts me back to this feeling that Blur is on to something. As a band, it really does seem like they never should have lasted this long. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but they’ve been dealt some hand that the rest of us lost in the deck. It’s assurance and ease of purpose and maybe the notion that risk is not really risk, it’s just living. Think Tank is a risk and a lot of people are going to hate it for just that—it’s not easy listening.
There’s that bumper sticker that some dick has on his pick-up and it reads, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Decal wisdom be damned, but in Blur’s case, it’s the obvious adage to drift to. Here’s this world we’ve been handed and it would be an easy out to dance like a wicked banshee in the face of pollution, traffic, garbage, billboards, wars…Jesus, I’m not about to list every thing that can make a globe ache. But to take it all like a blister on your palm that makes the next burn sting a little less, to endure and choke cynicism at the source—these are things that ought to be done and there are lots of things to do. Sitting in a booth in the middle of America with a British band that’s endured and to have a bit of doom taken away like a dirty napkin by a waitress—it makes you want to shave your beard, give away your pencils and recycle your cardboard sign. There’s no use running for your life if the end is already near.
“This is a very privileged job and lifestyle,” Rowntree muses. “And if you can’t be happy doing that, then why bother doing it? Being in a band isn’t that bad. It’s very hard to complain about.”