Words: David Cavenagh
Photography: Richard Faulks
All scans by and courtesy of Lib, please visit her Blur gif blog (graphampls.tumblr.com)
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Everything has changed. Where yesterday it was all cor blimey pigeons and the “greatness” of Britain, today it’s sidewalks, Pavement and CNN. David Cavanagh escorts Blur through the New York minefield, Graham attempts to smoke and Damon insists, “I’ve won!”
London SW6, April 1995
As producer Stephen Street calls up a backing track, Damon Albarn lies on a settee in the pool room at Maison Rouge Studios, under the shadow of Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge, poring over the lyric of It Could Be You. A cynical look at Lottery fever and cartoon bulldog Britishness, it is the last song to be recorded for The Great Escape. Shortly prior to recording his vocal, Albarn talks distractedly of an upcoming business trip to the United States, where Blur are to “sound out” record companies.Their original contract with SBK, a label which Albarn feels badly misunderstood them, has recently lapsed and Blur are going looking for a sympathetic ear, a champion and a fresh start.
The problem is, the two worlds of Blur and America appear wholly irreconcilable right now. As the final album in the band’s ‘life” trilogy, The Great Escape is an exquisitely produced English pop record, full of parochial tunes and polished ennui. It virtually comes with its own message to American listeners: Oh, leaving so soon?The only remotely US-conscious aspect of Blur is guitarist Graham Coxon’s tireless love of hardcore punk, lo-fi spontaneity and the innovatively-tuned Sonic Youth.And this indulgence, like some untreatable medical condition, is regarded by Albarn as Coxon’s Aberration. For Blur to make a disorganised, American-influenced record emanating from the gut? Well, you’d be insane to predict such a thing.
New York, late January 1996
Touring the Great Escape around America,Blur can only watch helplessly as (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? climbs inexorably towards the US Top 10 with sales of 100,000 a week. Damon Albarn now knows that he has lost his public battle with the Gallaghers: his own album will sell 122,000 American copies in total. Albarn, who knows he has written himself out on the subject of British culture, wants the follow-up to The Great Escape to be musically and emotionally the polar opposite. With an enormous Blur backlash looming on the honzon,the last thing he needs is lurther ridicule.But it comes only a week later, when a quote he gave to Q shortly before Christmas is published on February 1 for all to see: “The only thing we’ve got in common with Oasis is the fact that we’re both doing shit in America.” Oh, Damon, you and your beloved soundbites. (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? has just entered the Top 5.
New York, February 6, 1997
The Loeb annexe of New York University is situated on Washington Square South. Glass- fronted, covered in flyers for Tai Chi classes and dial-a-counsellor, it looks much like any other students’ union: it could be Manchester, London or Essex. A girl in a college sweatshirt stamps the hands of those going in. The American rock band Pavement are playing here tonight. Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon enter an upstairs dressing room and are welcomed with matey handshakes. Albarn crouches to talk to a seated Steve Malkmus, Pavement’s bespectacled leader. Coxon converses with Kim Gordon and her husband, super-tall Thurston Moore, also of SonicYouth. Jaded with what they saw as the boorish dregs of British culture – football’s coming home; How To Get Your Leg Over With A Stewardess – the two Blur boys really only needed someone to talk to. In Malkmus and his circle, they’ve found musicians who, as Albarn recently explained to the Guardian, “are slightly over-educated, quite at home with discussion”. The appreciation seems mutual. Staying at Albarn and Justine Frischmann’s London home last year, Malkmus told Albarn that Blur had a good reputation on the US alternative scene, where they are viewed as odd, isolationist, instinctive and eccentric.That’s as close to Blur’s current self-image as you can get.
“Pavement are such a great live band,” enthuses Albarn.Two years ago, this would have been one of those least-likely-to-say quotes in Pass Notes. “You’ll love them.They get hallway through a song and just stop and say, Oh, sorry, we’ll do another one. And he laughs, as though there is no higher recommendation.
New York, February 4, 1997
Albarn, Coxon and Blur’s manager Chris Morrison arrive in New York a few hours before President Clinton delivers his State Of The Union address and the jury returns its verdict on the Goldman-Brown civil suit against O.J. Simpson. The Blur members’ luggage includes one acoustic guitar, but they have come to talk, not to play. They are doing what Coxon refers to as “bloody promo”: three days of interviews with US alternative and college radio stations,TV networks and rock magazines. This advance publicity for the new album, Blur, will be read and heard by several million Americans. The record will then go on sale on March 11 (a month after its British release), by which time the band will have returned to tour.
At 9.30am on February 5, Coxon and Albarn climb into a black limousine outside the Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street.With them are Chris Morrison (who also manages Elastica) and a press representative from Virgin Records to whom the band signed in 1995. The destonation is Sony Worldwide Networks, who feed taped interviews to 80 radio stations across country. As they cut through the morning traffic, Albarn – loosely dressed in pairs of canvas trousers smelling, as always, of Jovan aftershave – fiddles with car radio, trying to find a classical station.The more withdrawn Coxon, an alcoholic who I cold turkey cure last June, reaches for a small bottle of Cola. Smiling, Albarn apologises expansively for the limousine.
“It’s for Chris’s benefit really,” he chides his 50-year-old manager, a rock vetran. “All those years looking after Thin Lizzy. He’s never really been able to shake off those affectations.”
“Phil never went anywhere without a limo,” Morrison agrees.
The route takes the Blur contingent past the offices of various NewYork labels, or two agents of disaster in the group his wrangles with SBK, Morrison would argue that Blur’s best chance of national exposure lay college radio. The label’s policy, however, was to aim for Top 40 radio airplay. Minnows in a sea of MOR predators, the early Blur singles received no play at all.Worse, when SBK heard the tapes of Modern Life Is Rubbish, they asked the band to re-record the entire album with Butch Vig.
“And can you believe they delayed the release of Modern Life Is Rubbish for seven months because their alternative department had closed down?” Morrison asks incredulously. “When I asked them why, they said it was because the girl had left.”
For the record, Blur had already practically self-destructed on their second US tour in the spring of 1992. Albarn compares that over-long, joyless venture to “crawling along a sun-parched road with terrible dehydration”. As well as inspiring Albarn to write three albums about Britain, it instilled in the band a contempt for everything American, from the bland, functionalist non-beauty of Midwestern shopping mall architecture to the the American pronunciation of “food processor”.
Amplifying their art-school Englishness with more and more overt and preposterous vaudevillan touches as the tour went on, they added the music hall knees-up Daisy Bell to their setlist. One awful night – he’s forgotten where – backing vocalist Coxon found himself singing, in an antagonistic East End whine, “You’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle up your arse” ,over and over, daring the jock-stuffed crowd to boo him off.
The urban myth has it that Blur’s chances of cracking America died with that tour, but it’s more complicated than that. Proving Morrison right, Girls & Boys became a Top 5 playlist hit on college radio in 1994. Pockets of Anglophile diehards have attended Blur gigs since their first American tour in November 1991. The band sold out the 3,000-capacity Roseland Theatre in New York: not exactly Madison Square Garden, but not exactly ignominy either. While sales of The Great Escape appear low, they’re not bad for such an idiomatic, English-sounding album. Moreover, on Blur’s last visit a year ago, MTV informally notified them that all they were lacking was the right video.
“We’re not idiots,” emphasises Albarn. “Deep down we knew that Blur records weren’t tangible to Americans generally. But once you take out the commuter-belt and the oompah elements, we stand a pretty good chance.”
“It’s a mixture of two things,” elaborates Coxon. “We’ve taken out the production elements that might be construed as sophisticated and we’ve made the music more primal.” With their new album, they have indeed given themselves a fairer crack of the Western whip than before. Although the record was not made with American success in mind – Blur are too headstrong to offer an olive branch unilaterally – it’s no secret that sonically, lyrically and even titularly, the record is a fresh start for all concerned. In a new mood of serenity, Albarn will even concede that it’s the first Blur album most Americans will like.
Arriving at the studios of Sony Worldwide Networks, Albarn and Coxon are greeted by their DJ host, a long-haired, fresh young fellow named Darren Dressler. They sit facing each other across the desk, headphones on, as the sun streams in from the window. “You guys look pretty jetlagged,” smiles Dressler sympathetically. They look nonplussed. No, they’re not jetlagged. In fact, they were just saying how totally not jet-lagged they were.
Dressler won’t be the last interviewer to assume that the Blur twosome are shagged out. Both speak in unusually quiet voices (Albarn’s is an octave deeper) and can come across as listless and evasive. Albarn, once a two-soundbites-a-minute man, is a softer and more circumspect interviewee these days.
It’s agreed they’ll play a track off the new album – Country Sad Ballad Man, one of the best songs – which involves wheeling in the acoustic guitar for Coxon. Albarn sends out for hot lemon. Coxon, who hasn’t played it very often (he did the album version in one take), seeks advice on the chords. Finally, they’re ready.
To those Americans whose last taste of Blur was the bouncy Apeman jocularity of Country House, Albarn and Coxon’s shambolic performance would come as a shock. It calls to mind a grizzly old bluesman sitting on the steps of a trailer in Tulsa, singing into his knees in a desiccated falsetto. It’s hard to imagine it as the work of two schoolfriends from a Colchester comprehensive. After thanking them politely, DressIer asks them about 25 questions. Many of these relate to Blur’s current treatment at the hands of the British media, which they answer with wry economy (Albarn: “Our last album was hailed as the most important release of the decade. That didn’t turn out to be the case”). When Dressler inquires about record company interference in Britain, Albarn calmly points out that Blur are million-selling artistes back home, not some malleable new act. Then Dressler asks them about Oasis. “I don’t have an opinion about them any more,” shrugs Albarn quietly. “It’s pretty obvious,” cuts in Coxon unexpectedly, “that you don’t have to have a brain to play that kind of music. Oasis are pretty thick people, but if what they do sells a lot of records I don’t mind.”
Finally, Dressier asks them to describe Song 2, a two-minute explosion of angst which Virgin are releasing as the first American single off the album. Albarn, taking simply ages, decides that, “It’s a sort of… I suppose you could headbanging song. It’s about banging your head.” This is not a man who has come to give America the hard sell. Back in the limousine again, they head off towards Virgin’s office, 1790 Broadway where they’ll spend the next couple of hours in a boardroom, giving telephone interviews to college radio stations which have been supportive of Blur in New York and Virginia. Later, over dinner at their hotel, they will talk to a journalist from Pulse in-store magazine of Tower Records is putting the band on its next cover.
Meanwhile Albarn, having noticed the limo has a phone, is busy dialling number. Coxon sniggers. “If Alex was here,” he giggles, “he’d be phoning his mum on that. Hello Mummy, I’m in a limo in New York…”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Albarn admits, listening for a tone. “Oh no, she’s got the answerphone on.”
As post-dinner entertainment, the Blur posse have arranged to attend a small club gig by Moby, the East Coast techno boffin who has done a remix of Beetlebum. “Very ambient and minimalist,” muses Albarn. Aside from Moby, Thurston Moore has remixed Essex Dogs and John McEntire of Tortoise has had a go at Theme From Retro. All three have passed muster with Blur. However, Moby’s current album, Animal Rights, is strictly non techno.Tonight he’s returning to his early ’80s roots and playing rhythm guitar with a hardcore punk band. Entering the venue, Coxon is delighted to hear the DJ playing David Watts by his former idols The Jam. When this is followed by Devo’s version of Satisfaction, the guitarist feels even better.
A diminutive, anxious man with a shaved head, Moby fronts a tattooed, combative-looking three-piece. The first song, an anguished scream accompanied by frantic metallic thrashing, lasts about a minute.The second song is even longer. All of them seem to be about committing suicide. When, in a panic-stricken voice, he introduces a song about committing suicide after having anal sex, Chris Morrison turns to Coxon and says, “Subtle”. Albarn, now sufficiently hardcore-literate that he recognised a Mission Of Burma song in Moby’s set, heads off into the far darkness of the club where someone will offer to introduce him to David Bowie. Albarn, who has already met Bowie and found the experience somewhat unnerving, will decline.
With Coxon back at the hotel, the singer continues to drink, his outlook growing overcast as an apparently new DJ plays records by Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller Band, Cheap Trick and Joe Walsh.
“What’s this?” he gestures scornfully at a familair riff.
It is Shattered by The Rolling Stones.
A Virgin Records employee intervenes. “Don’t you like the Stones?”
“You are fucking sad for liking this,” answers Albarn, enjoying himself. “In 1978 we had punk and you were all listening to this bollocks. Everything that band ever did after about 1972 was crap.”
“What about Goats Head Soup?”
Albarn: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Come on, they rock.”
“They fucking don’t.”
Too bellicose for further analysis, Albarn consents to a taxi and soon rolls up at his hotel. The street magazine vendor outside the Paramount is originally from Brixton. Albarn, who bared his arse on-stage at the Academy there in 1992, gives him $10 and vanishes into an elevator.
February 6, 1997
This morning they talk to another few million people. It just doesn’t feel like it. Seventeen, a young women’s magazine, has a circulation of 2.1 million readers, while Addicted To Noize is an on-line music magazine with a (potentially) vast constituency. But this is nothing compared to WTN (Worldwide Television Network), which reaches 200 million on a daily basis. As the WTN camera crew is setting up in the Virgin boardroom,the first British broad-sheet reviews of the new album are coming through on the fax. They’re mixed: The Guardian loves it, The Times is ambivalent and The Independent is hostile. “What a cunt,” snarls Albarn. Coxon’s view of this album is that it contains all the “whims and little ideas” that Blur, in a bid for the perfect mix, would once have discarded. The abrasive textures of Essex Dogs and Strange News From Another Star seem pretty startling, but the band’s B-sides in the period 1990-’92 were similarly successful experiments in cacophony and primitivism. In Blur’s forgotten past, songs had titles like Inertia, Bone Bag, Hanging Over (as in hungover) and Resigned; ill-sounding and passive, they skirted a point between sickness and death. Even now, for all the band’s gleeful image in certain videos, Albarn reckons he has only written one cheerful song – To The End – and even was booby-trapped with ambiguity.
Having found themselves on the new album, back on the visceral tack that they’d neglected on Parklife and The Great Escape, they decided to re-introduce two very early songs, Inertia and Sing, to their setlist for a short British tour in January. The new songs, along with their riot of melancholic spleen, also underlined the band’s firm commitment to opt out of, not only the long-running Blur vs. Oasis to-and-fro, but conventional British pop per se.
Which is perhaps why, right from the first question posed by WTN interviewer Melissa Smith in a hushed boardroom, Albarn categorically refuses to play ball. “How would you say this album sets you apart from your British pop contemporaries?”
“We haven’t got any contemporaries,” ripostes Albarn.
She looks mildly curious.
Albarn (with an unwavering stare):”Which 1 think says it all really.”
Coxon joins in: “We’ve been very courageous. I don’t see any of our contemporaries being courageous with their music at all.”
“So what exactly do you feel you’ve achieved with this new album?”
Coxon (after a very long pause): “We’ve cleared a path through the driveway and seen what lay underneath.”
And this will be broadcast to 200 million people? As if their replies were not nebulous enough (although they seem to part from Smith on good terms), Albarn is growing increasingly sick of answering questions about Pavement and is virtually refusing point-blank to talk about Iceland, two subjects on any good interviewer’s list. Iceland, a country Albarn first visited in March 1996, is where Blur recorded parts of the new album. Albarn has since bought a house there, as well as investing money in a drinking club. Tomorrow evening he will fly to Iceland for the weekend, prior to a week-long hike across a glacier in March.
“They have a sense of community there,” he explains later.”which, coming from Essex, I never had before. But I don’t like telling people about it. It’s turning into a Clothes Show special.” Why Iceland? Was there method behind the decision to go there? “Method?” he sighs exasperatedly. “Fucking hell, I should be running the government, shouldn’t I? I’m so calculating about everything, if my critics are to be believed. It’s like the whole thing about Steve Malkmus. He’s got people telling him, You know Damon’s only talking to you because he wants to use you for his own evil ends. Which is ludicrous considering how random our meeting was.” Unquestionably, Albarn has found peace in Iceland. His new frontman creed seems to be: no soundbites, no controversy, no playing the pop star game. “There are a lot of people who thrive on the sort of media attention I was getting,” he tells Melissa Smith finally. “But I’ve realised that I’m just not one of them.”
If Graham Coxon has read any Walt Whitman, it’s possible that the words of the great American poem Broadway are right now foxtrotting into his mid-morning brain: “Thou, like the part-coloured world itself – like infinite, teeming, mocking life! Thou visor’d, vast and unspeakable show and lesson.” Or, since the guitarist is 20 floors above street level as we speak,could it be that the voice he hears is not Whitman’s, but that of the late Karen Carpenter: on the top of the world, looking down on creation?
Then again, as Coxon is terribly frightened of heights – and as the metal rail on this minuscule balcony does not inspire confidence – he could be reminded of the profane tones of Dudley Moore at the pianoforte on Derek & Clive Live: “Jump, you fucker, jump.” As a smoker in America, Coxon is given the deluxe pariah treatment wherever he goes. Another cigarette; another tiny balcony; another 400-foot-high view of Central Park. “Hello boys,” trills the Virgin receptionist from the window of the ladies’ toilets. “What are you doing?” “I’m filling my pants,” mutters Coxor turns to Q. “I’m glad Damon’s not here. He walking along that rail trying to scare us. He’s awful with things like that. Pretending to over-balance and stuff. He has no fear.”
His cigarette concluded, Coxon grins sheepishly, flattens a steadying palm against the wall and negotiates the tricky three paces to the door. This afternoon is earmarked for a photo session for the cover of Pulse, so back in the limo they hop. There is something vaguely wrong looking about Albarn. It’s hard to know what. Anyway, the radio station in the car is having, aye aye, a Modes Of Transportation Hour – all songs are linked by a travel theme – and the lads embark for the photographer’s studio to the gossamer strains of Fifth Dimension’s version of Up, Up And Away. It’s followed by Every Mother’s Son’s Come On Down To My Boat, a US Top 10 hit from the same year, 1967. Chortling away merrily so far, Albarn now groans in agony as he hears the saffron first chords of Peter Paul & Mary’s Leaving On A Plane. It’s reminded him of Justine and he laughs with despair as each line of the song brings a further reminder of the distance between them. Eventually the radio has to be switched off.
“There’s something tragic about driving around in a limo,” he decides. “Have you ever seen Motley Crue’s on-tour video? Ninety minutes of LA hedonism. A true classic of its time. They have a limo with a bath-tub in their back.” At the sixth-floor Visions photo-studio the American copy of the Blur album (with its extra track, Dancehall) is on the CD player. The first course of action, before photography can be considered, is to order lunch. Coxon requests a hamburger. Albarn and Morrison, after leafing through pages of takeaway Japanese menus, order a complicated selection of sushi. Coxon is once again forced out on to the balcony to smoke. By the time the food arrives, Parklife has replaced the new album and we’re well into Jubilee on the second half. “God, doesn’t it sound chirpy?” scowls Albarn, pulling a face. He and Coxon are led upstairs to have their photos taken on the roof. Albarn walks right to the very edge of parapet and leans over. Morrison freaks out. Coming back downstairs, he jokes half-heartedly about phoning for insurance – “Honestly, if I stay up there, he’ll start to show off” – and goes to find a ski shop.
Minutes later, he’s back.
“They’re playing Bank Holiday in the ski shop! There’s a bloke in there who says he played with Damon at Glastonbury!”
As we stroll the two “blocks” to the ski shop, walking behind Albarn, Q finally realises what’s wrong with the singer’s appearance. His shoelaces have been undone all day. He’s been messing around on the edge of a rooftop with undone shoelaces.
“Thank you for drinking Tsing-Tao beer,” says a mysterious gentleman to Albarn, handing him a complementary scratchcard. The singer places it on the bar of the orangely lit pub, rubbing away with his thumbnail. Coxon looks on interestedly. The idea is to get three sevens in a straight or diagonal line and skip home with $50,000.
“I’ve won!” howls Albarn, peering at it with avaricious intent.
No,Damon. You have three sevens, for sure, but they are all in different places.
“But it says three sevens on any line.”
Yes, and yours are all on different lines.
“Oh,” he realises. “Well, anyway, cheers.”
He and Coxon clink glasses. It’s their final evening in New York and they’ve stepped around the corner from Pavement’s dressing room at NYU (where alcohol is banned so that under-21s can be admitted) to this little side-street establishment where patrons are invited to grab handfuls of monkey nuts from a vast bowl and fling the on the floor. Crunching nutty detritus under one heel, Albarn pipes up:
“This is Alex’s last night in Miami.”
Alex James is in Miami? What a somehow terrifying thought.
“He’s playing bass on the new Marianne album,” Albarn explains. “He got the the job thorugh one of his Groucho Club connections. And being Alex, he decides to wear something white for Florida. So he bought himself an England rugby shirt.”
It’s a peculiar irony that the new Blur album, sounding so morose and unloved in places, was constructed in a far greater spirit of camaraderie than almost any of their previous albums. Although they had begun 1996 at each other’s throats – Graham experiencing tension with Alex; Damon losing the ability to communicate with Graham – they managed to iron out most of the snags in the first six months of the year, appearing to be at reasonably full harmonic strength at their only British Isles gig of the annum, in Dublin in June. That evening, a few hours after England had narrowly defeated Spain in the European Championship, Blur debuted the two most sonically frazzling tunes off their semi-completed album (Chinese Bombs and Song 2), symbolically putting Blur’s Phil Daniels era to bed. Only one task remained, and this was taken care of some days later when Coxon swore off alcohol for good.
“In my head I had the sign of the pint glass and the wine glass with a big red X through them,” he recalls stoically. “After the Dublin show I got pretty destroyed, but I knew it would be one of the last times.” This now means that 50 per cent of the band is teetotal. Drummer Dave Rowntree packed in the drinking some years ago. Would they ever lay a similar ultimatum on Alex James? “Oh God,” squeals Albarn, “it’s not a case of… Look, he’s a very different character to Graham. I’ve always got on well with Alex and he’s definitely slowing down. He’s gradually returning to planet Earth.”
“Alex isn’t very enlightened,” argues Coxon.
“Alex gets a hard deal these days,” continues Albarn, “because he’s very much the most pop person in the band. Inevitably he gets a rough ride, since that’s not what the general feeling of the band is now. But you know, Alex’s bass playing is as good as ever on this record. There’s no sense of him not contributing or anything.” “Alex used to listen to Joy Division before he went to school in the mornings so he could spend the day feeling miserable,” claims Coxon. “He’s just as contrary as me, really. A lot of the tension in the group is between him and me, a lot of the musical tension. I sometimes wonder how we all co-exist in Blur. We just do. There’s a good balance between us. It’s always going to cause tension but it’s also probably going to keep us together.”
So there’s no truth in the recent allegation that James had been “bollocked” for missing gigs?
“Alex has never missed a gig,” declares Albarn. “I don’t know where that’s come from. Oh, he did miss a plane once for a TV programme in Italy. Unfortunately, Graham was moving house that weekend,so it ended up as just me and Dave.We had a cardboard cut-out of Graham, which kept falling over, plus Smoggy, our securityguard, having the time of his life miming the bass in a posh Italian theatre full of people in dinner suits. There’s very few bands who could do that.”
Have Blur retained a gang mentality?
“We’re four very strong characters,” replies Albarn. “We have a gang mentality when we’re together. But we’ve also got our own lives.”
“And whenever we meet up we wear moose antlers,” concludes Coxon, probably untruthfully.
New York, February 7
The limousine’s radio is tuned once again to classical music as the Blur party heads for a televised interview with CNN. Albarn is struggling to recognise the piece. The longer it lasts, the more convinced he becomes that he has to own it. “It could be Hindemith,” he ponders. “It’s definitely 20th Century.” (It’s actually Gorecki’s Symphony No.3, recorded in 1973.)
The previous afternoon, he and Coxon spent a couple of hundred dollars on CDs at the Other Music record store on East 4th Street. Albarn, shopping catholically, scarfed up items by Ween, Big Star and John Cale (whom Chris Morrison managed during the mid-’70s). Coxon, searching for but unable to find Metallic K.O. by The Stooges, spent lavishly on Suicide, Ornette Coleman, The Flying Lizards and a second-hand vinyl copy of No New York – featuring Lydia Lunch’s 8-Eyed Spy and others – which set him back $40. His tastes are getting more and more wild. “Well, you had that ambition, didn’t you?” Albarn prompts him. “Still do. I want some day to make a record that nobody likes or understands. It’s a pretty tough thing to accomplish, if you think about it – there’ll always be some weirdo out there who enjoys it. I think No Pussyfooting by Robert Fripp & Brian Eno, from 1973 would be a good example. Or there’s a Peter Maxwell Davies organ fantasia, O Magnum Mysterium, which I bought at Christmas.”
Would they have been upset if everyone had reacted negatively to the new Blur album?
“Yeah,” frowns Coxon. “We would have been dropped by the record company.”
Albarn rocks with laughter. “They wouldn’t drop us, Graham. Not for one record.”
The interview with Adam Kluger of CNN’s Showbiz Today programme, begins late at 10.30am. With studio time at a premium, Kluger tries to hurry them through his list of questions. Once again Blur’s responses are muted and imprecise and it seems unlikely that this will make for riveting television. On their arrival, they knocked CNN’s production woman off her stride by refusing to sit for make-up. Nor can they understand why Kluger keeps asking them about Beck. In the afternoon, Coxon has an interview with Guitar Player magazine, which is he is joking about cancelling.Three further interviews – a radio industry trade publication, an alternative music monthly and the gentlemen’s arts-and-fashion mag, Details – wrap up the itinerary.
Neither Coxon nor Albarn knows where Blur will take it from here. The only certainty is that Albarn will recommence writing once Blur are on the road, with pre-recording their sixth album to follow at the band’s own studio in London. As to whether the self-probing, nerve exposing songs on the new record show a once-and-for-all move away from the characters and apercus of the “life” trilogy, he admits that he has little more to say with any enthusiasm. Along with his realisation in early 1996 that Blur needed a complete overhaul, he faced the unwelcome home truth that he had painted himself into a corner: the successful young British pop star who makes a living commenting ironically on the news headlines. That was the Blur that was. It is now nearly 18 months since Albarn listened to a Kinks record and almost a year since he fell into step with Graham Coxon’s outre’ record collection. On stage with Blur he retains – exceeds, even – his old level of electrifying pin-up watchability. But off stage the haughty braggadocio has dissipated and the lambastings have been curbed. At one point, after skilfully refusing to be tempted into a discussion about Suede, he even utters the words, “Live and let live, that’s my motto.”
We are left with a man who mistrusts acclaim in Britain, having seen it turn into postdated condemnation for The Great Escape; who despises the tabloid media for its intrusions into his private life; who dreamed of Parklife being the start of an – ultimately unconsummated – surge in intelligent British pop; who wondered if there was even a point to making a fifth Blur LP. “It was just too much emotion,” he admits. “I couldn’t handle it any more. For my own sanity, I thought this might have to end. But in any situation you go through periods where you think, Oh, this is it, I’m going to go tomorrow, I’m off. But tomorrow comes, and you’re not.”