Mod notes: An old article/interview I’ve had saved for years. Unfortunately I don’t have the exact date or source of it. If you have any information please let us know.
Dining With Blur
Dining with Blur. It was one of the last hot Monday nights of the summer when I went to dinner with Blur. New York hadn’t had rain for weeks and it was like downtown Manhattan was one huge fetid smelling Lindenburger. Everyone was out on the street in my nabe, drinking forties of St. Ides and bitching about the heat. I had Blur’s new single “Country House” on the brain; a catchy tune about a wealthy urbanite who escapes to the country. Musically, it harks back to the early ’80s, to bands like Madness and even earlier to the Kinks. It’s nice to hear a Brit band that’s as fey as they wanna be, I thought, as I winked at the cutie at the door of the Bowery Bar and walked straight through to the back bar. Nobody there. On my way back to the front bar, I ran into my friend Tommy, a waiter and dreamboat de la maison. It was the usual crowd, he told me, half Wall Street bozo, a quarter Hollywood automaton, and a quarter local rock star. I told him that I was dining with Blur and he mistook them for Oasis. Yep, I thought. Britpop.
Blur was a pioneer Britpop revival. In England, they are considered pop’s elder statesmen. Suede, Pulp, Bush, Elastica, and yes, Oasis all came after Blur, and unsatisfied with the honor of being the first, they are willing to fight anyone who doesn’t think they’re the best. Their relationships with the British and American music presses have been both hot and cold, and the result is that they are more aware of their image than the most poll-obsessed American politician or the most paranoid Hollywood starlet.
The band started back in the 80s when lead singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon met in southeast England. Both ended up in London, Coxon in college and Albarn in drama school. Pretty boy Alex James and drummer nerd Dave Rowntree stepped on the scene and they formed Seymour. A few shows later they were signed to Britain’s Food Records and renamed Blur. Their sound was simple and sort of dreamy. Echoey songs like “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way” spoke to Morrissey-lovers and swooning girls, and in England there were plenty of those. The boys looked cute and acted stupid and a pop sensation was born with their first album, Leisure. Famous and well-dressed, the band was seen drunk everywhere in London… and they made no music for almost two years. In fact they sort of disappeared.
Then they tried again. Modern Life Is Rubbish was an angry response to bad press followed by no press. Trying harder and digging deeper into British pop history, Albarn spiritually communed with Julian Cope, Robin Hitchcock, Paul Weller, David Bowie, and most overtly, the Kinks and the Beatles. He crafted his new slightly more evolved sound that would form a foundation for the following two albums: not quite edgy, but not as soft as before. Blur was voted best live act, second best band (after Suede) and Modern Life was voted third best album (after the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Suede’s debut album) in the Melody Maker Reader’s Poll of 1993.
But Parklife was Blur’s real breakthrough album. “Boys and Girls” [sic] recalled their first alburn and was a huge club hit, both in England and the U. S. The better songs off of the album, like “Parklife” and “Tracy Jacks,” are tight and round: respectable pop. I liked Albarn’s cheeky attitude that I read in his interviews from that time: “Pop is a higher art form than rock,” he would say. “I’d hate to be a rock band. It’s like saying ‘I only drink beer,’ when I like to drink sherry with ice sometimes. Pop is more cosmopolitan. There aren’t many pop bigots.” His views seemed very post-modern, very advanced, and blatantly pretentious, in a double bluff kind of way.
Blur’s post-modern identity is steeped in the past.
Their new album, The Great Escape, is a veritable catalogue of British pop and rock since the Beatles.
Drummer Dave Rowntree once said that he doesn’t see the ’90s as having a place in history at all. “We’ve progressed as a society to the point where we’ve hit a standstill and the only thing to cling to is nostalgia.” Albarn’s songs lament modern life, but without nihilism. He has no use for angst: “The last years of American music has come from Prozac culture,” he has said. “If you tell a whole nation it’s dysfunctional, it becomes dysfunctional. Tell someone they’re depressed often enough, and they are. But the idea of wallowing in self pity is ridiculous.” These snippets have been taken as an attack on American music, which is a reason many hate Blur and also the reason many love them. They embody anti-grunge.
I just love seeing big pop bands live in relatively small venues. Famous bands usually have such top-shelf equipment and sound peeps so they can really put on a show. Blur’s show (which I saw a week or so after my conversation with them) was a great big show, with very, very, very, fine lighting effects and two cats playing live brass. Their music, which when recorded is heavily produced by the famous Steven Street, comes across faster and fiercer live. Many whu luve Blur’s records don’t care for this raw sound but to me, pop sounds better a bit roughed up. Blur are the kind of musicians that are experienced enough to be great performers and unknown enough in this country to play venues like the Academy. Their show made a fan out of me. They showed me a darker side, a side that is lost on their records. I’ll tell you one thing: Blur are best when they’re playing….
But meanwhile, let’s pretend that it’s still that hot Monday night. I’vc been waiting at the bar for Damon Albarn and bassist Alex James. They come in, we meet, and then Damon turns around and runs out. Alex and I order beers.
Surveying the room, James sips his beer and sighs. “We’re going to get drunk.”
Albarn wanders back in and I realize he’s brought his girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, frontwoman of Elastica. She’s the only one who looks me in the eye when we shake hands. I like her immediately. After a bit of a scuffle about not being able to smoke at our table, we are seated in the center of the room, by the sliding glass doors to the patio with the speaker directly above us blaring The Specials in honor of these British guests: a great place to be inconspicuous and talk quietly.
Alex James: Beer battered fish and chips… hah!
Damon Albarn: Is there a wine list?
Justine Frischmann: It’s on the back..
James: Wasabi sauce. So Damon did you know that this is going to be on the Internet? The wave of the future. No paper. And it’s free.
Albarn: I do have a computer, Alex. I do know about these things. I know how to get into the Internet.
Susanna: Do you go on?
Albarn: Not yet. I haven’t had time yet. I am about to go on-line. I’m in waiting. I’ve got my Apple Mac. I’ve just worked out the word processor because I write for British GQ, NME, Modern Review…
James: You okay with champagne?
Blur won the battle against Oasis, according to singer Damon
Addicted To Noise: So tell me about this big fight between Blur and Oasis.
Albarn: Oh yes there was a fight but we won. In England you can put out a single, and that same week it can chart. Both bands can go straight in at #1. We both put out singles in the same week. One of us would be #1 and the other #2. Obviously the one at #1 would be the biggest band in the country.
ATN: So there’s a lot of “biggest band in the country” competition?
Albarn: Well there shouldn’t be but there is. England is obsessed with pop music and those sort of things matter. Those things really do matter if you’re that sort of um, pop oriented. It matters who’s on top.
ATN: So you sold more records than Oasis..
Albarn: A lot more…. They sold a lot as well. It was good for everybody. It was a ridiculous…
ATN: So it’s like Tyson without the Pay-Per-View.
Albarn: Yes, it’s like sports, exactly like that. Boxing, football.
Frischmann: The whole country really got into the spirit of the fight, I mean there haven’t been so many singles sold in one week in Britain for 30 years. The fervor….
James: There probably haven’t been so many singles sold in one week in America.
Sometimes the glare of success can be blinding.
Albarn: Oh yeah easily. Yeah it’s a singles market in England. Here it’s all oriented around radio play. Our system is an honest reflection of whether someone wants to possess that single, really. Records come and go within a month and they’re on to the next thing. It’s a different culture [raising a glass of Veuve Clicot] but the champagne is exactly the same. We’re probably one of the most critically acclaimed bands in the country. We’re not just popular.
Frischmann: Pop means something different here than it does in Britain. And rock does as well. Here, pop’s a dirty word. There, rock’s a dirty word.
ATN: Yeah, pop is making a comeback here too, though. I mean it’s sort of tongue in cheek, but “power pop” is a term used widely here and not in a derogatory way.
Albarn: Thank god. That has a lot to do with England, no?
Frischmann: It’s incredible what’s happening in England thotigh. There’s been a massive shift. More left field bands like Blur have just taken over. People are suddenly buying records again.
ATN: Left field how? How is Blur left field?
Green Day: Melodic and slightly irrelevant… er, irreverant.
Albarn: As opposed to anything. But it’s all the same. Radio One for God’s sakes. Green Day was the biggest selling album last year here, so there you go. It’s sort of noisy, slightly irreverent music that’s selling more than anything else.
ATN: Is that how you would describe Blur, though?
James: Melodic and slightly irrelevant, I mean irreverent.
Albarn: Melodic and slightly irrelevant music. [laughter] That’s the best description.
Frischmann: They’re playing the Specials! Ska is coming back here isn’t it?
ATN: Yeah, definitely. Rancid is now ska, right?
Frischmann: Sublime. They have big cigars and are fat.
ATN: Ska never died though. It was always going on. Ska bands are always playing the college circuit. How important is it to you to be successfiil in Amenca?
Albarn: Since we’re very successful at home we’d have to he really successful here for it to be exciting. We don’t really mind being a quirky English band. We had a very, very, very, very, very bad record company prior to Virgin, SBK. So we had a very disproportionate view of the country.
ATN: What happened?
Albarn: They just totally top-40 oriented. Their past credits were Vanilla Ice and Wilson Philips and Ninja Turtles and that was it. Oh and Jesus Jones. God forbid we forget Jesus Jones. So we didn’t fit in there at all. Spent the last 3 years trying to get out of it so the last two albums were just us protesting.
ATN: When you come here do you feel more pressure to be British?
Albarn: I think subconsciously yeah, yeah. Yeah, I feel on the defensive.
ATN: When did you start wanting to be in a band?
Albarn: It was a thing to do. It was a proper gang that we wanted. Now it’s become a way of life entirely. It’s totally addictive. Without a certain amount of success it would have been horrible. No way once you’re in a band do you really leave that band until your dying day. You’re f***ed, basically. If you define something in your band and you wait for the day that you really get it right and at home we have. The thing I’ve learned about fame and success is that wherever you are at the moment is how famous and suceessful you feel. If you’re somewhere where people don’t give a f***, you don’t feel anything but lousy. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. If you’re big in Luxembourg while you’re in Luxembourg it’s great.
ATN: But you just said that since you’re successful at home you don’t mind being a sort of quirky unheard of band….
Albarn: This is definitely the tone of all of our interviews.
ATN: Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t want to be like everybody else!
Albarn: No, it is what we’re talking about. We’re number one in Portugal at the moment.
James: We’re big in Luxembourg, the smallest country in the f***ing world, we’re big in Ireland, Belgium, England and Portugal. So between them is slightly less of a population than the size of New York.
Albarn: But they are all independent democracies.
Frischmann: You’re big in Israel and Iceland.
Blur want to be like R.E.M. R.E.M.’s songs get sung at Yankee Stadium.
Albarn: And #3 in Sweden. “Girls and Boys,” which was a sizable hit, was hated by all of our real fans. But we want to have our songs sung at Yankee Stadium.
ATN: It sounds like your old label would have gotten you that kind of gig.
Albarn: There’s pop and there’s pop. To get to Yankee Stadium you need to take your own route. You can’t follow someone else’s plan.
James: R.E.M.’s songs get sung at Yankee Stadium.
ATN: And they’ve kept their integrity intact, right? So that’s the good pop.
Albarn: Clever pop, pop that originated from a brain, is good pop.
James: Pop that stinks of expensive aftershave and breath freshener is bad.
Albarn: We’re pop with bad breath.
James: And spots.
ATN: Does Green Day make you angry?
Albarn: Yes. I could cite 15 bands in the UK that sound exactly like Green Day and they’ve been doing it for years. I’m not saying it has to be fair, I just think that if an American band can get that popular using a British idiom, then I think that we should at least have a chance, you know. It’s only fair.
ATN: [laughing at the contradiction] Do you agree? [to Alex]
James: No, I never agree with him.
ATN: The Details music issue really took a strong stance on the new British invasion and the resurgence of the mods. How do you react to that?
Albarn: It’s bollocks.
ATN: Do you identifie with the mods?
Albarn: There are no mods.
ATN: Well, the mods of yesteryear?
Albarn: I identity with the music and the ambiguity of it all but I don’t really think there’s importance to it. It’s a bit defunct. It follows us around the world but we were never a mod band.
It’s been said that Albarn cherishes his insensitivity to the opposite sex. Wonder how Justine Frischmann (Albarn’s girlfriend) feels about that?
ATN: The Details piece on you said that you cherish your insensitivity to the opposite sex.
Albarn: Well I’m not a new man. I think that’s a fair judgment. I remember that. It comes from talking about my characters. My characterization of them, they don’t really encounter women that much.
ATN: The characters in your songs… don’t encounter women. Is that because you don’t?
Albarn: No. They just don’t have a sexuality They’re not really sexual songs.
Albarn: We know all the American bands in England. F***ing too many.
Blur is bringing Britpop out of the slump.
Frischmann: America’s so big, I mean think of the amount of music that comes out of England. It’s a really healthy scene there at the moment though. The whole Blur/Oasis thing is at the pinnacle of what’s going on there, but there are so many people buying records there at the moment. The first time in about 20 years.
ATN: So there was a slump. You mean in the ’80s?
Frischmann: Yeah it was a massive slump. After Culture Club and Duran Duran, that was kind of it. It’s the first time people are going out and buying non-mainstream music. I mean not Phil Collins you know? It’s really exciting. Non-mainstream music is now popular. Extraordinary. America’s looking for something new as well, I think. I mean I think you’re massive kind of regeneration thing with Nirvana. All of the sudden something that was quite left-field was incredibly popular and young people had something to identity with again that was very very popular and strong commercially. That’s what’s going on right now in England. It’ll be interesting to see if America does sort of pick that up and go with it.
ATN: Yeah people are definitely not afraid to be into a lot of different types of music now. There’s a lot more crossover. Damien Hirst did your video for the new single “Country House” right?
Albarn: Yeah. David Bowie recently rang Damien Hirst up and said “Oh the new video for my single is very much like you. It’s very Damien Hirst.” Damien Hirst replied, “Oh well the video I’ve just done for Blur is very Benny Hill.” [lots of laughter]