Blur | The Star – February 1999

Moving to serious stuff

British band Blur is all about changes these days. Change in their music, a new producer and quite possibly a change in attitude too.

From a phone-interview with drummer Dave Rowntree last month, it’s obvious that Blur is heading towards the new millennium with a different outlook on life and music. Talking about the band’s new album, 13 (to be released early next month) Rowntree seems happy that Blur has finally ventured into more serious music. “The days of trying to be light have gone. We’re trying to sound a bit more serious, well not really serious, just something that we can still relate to seriously, because it is a serious business,” said Rowntree.

Can Blur’s music be labelled?

“Pop’s a funny word, it means different things in different countries. If you ask somebody in France, they’d give you some kind of weird arty electronic music In America, pop is a group like New Kids On The Block. If that’s what you mean, then the answer is no, we’re not a pop group,” Rowntree said.

13 is Blur’s sixth album since stamping its mark on Britpop almost a decade ago. Apart from Rowntree, the other members of the band are frontman and keyboardist Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James and lead guitarist Graham Coxon.

“This is by far the best thing we’ve ever done, the most imaginative and the one that interests me most. It’s also the best placed and the best produced,” said Rowntree. Although 13 still exhibits the usual angst ridden and anthemic tunes for which Blur is famous, they’re no longer the theme of the album. In fact, some of the songs written by the band are very “out of character” and will take you by surprise. Tender, for example, is hymn-like and very melodic, while Battle and Mellow Song blend in different types of music styles like trip-hop, rock and pop. So much so you can’t really label them. Yet, like Rowntree said, this probably is the best album Blur has ever come up with.

The name 13, in case you’re interested, came about because the band worked at a recording studio with the number 13 on it. According to Rowntree, it also has something to do with the number of hours the band worked every day on the album.

One of the changes the band administered was its decision to work with producer William Orbit, after ditching Stephen Street, the only other producer it has ever worked with since She’s So High in1990. Rowntree insisted that working with Street has been a great experience for everybody throughout the years. However, he added that there were few surprises left. “We got a new producer hoping that it would change the way we’ve always worked We wanted to start from scratch if we had to.

“An album, in our case, is very much like a photograph. If we were to make the same album again now, it would sound pretty different again I’m sure. There’s no point in remaking the same kind of music,” explained Rowntree.

With Orbit at the helm, the boys were able to get more involved in the making of the album. Rowntree said making 13 was particularly rewarding, in a way the other albums hadn’t been. “Musicians spend all their time trying to put the finishing touches on their product. That’s what I was able to do this time … (add) my own perspective, my own work on the album. All the drumming is there for a reason now. I’m actually over the moon by it.” He compared this to the production of the previous album, Blur (1997), which he felt was more like the band running a marathon, like it was the last race. “It wasn’t much fun to do at all.”

However, Rowntree’s excitement over 13 and the fact that the band has matured is apparent throughout the interview. “We’ve completely improved, in ability and attitude, and we’ve also become more ambitious to achieve more things, better things.”

Part of the reason why the band has “decided” to grow up is because of the individual work that all of them have been venturing into. Blur had about half a year off to themselves after the promotional tour of Blur ended. Alex James joined a group called Fat Les Combo, and released the World Cup single Vindaloo in Britain. Graham Coxon formed his own label, Transcopic, on which he releasod a solo album entitled The Sky’s Too High early last year. Damon Albarn has taken up acting and was seen in Face, a movie which actually ran in the local cinema for too short a period. Meanwhile, Rowntree has found another hobby – computer animation.

“Being in a band of four, we’re always relying on the other three people. That’s why we kind of went off and did things that we could do as a one band operation, that we could do for ourselves.” Having been together for a decade could have been stifling, but not for Blur. Rowntree said, “Everybody does what they want so it’s okay. But it’s a very long time indeed. I’ve never been able to hold a job down for more than six months even. I dunno how to put it, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times I guess.”

He added that even though each of them are starting to do their own thing, everyone’s still happy working together and that there’s no sign of breaking up. Blur will be doing little touring for 13. Rowntree says the best thing anyone could hope for is that “we’ll be coming to a TV screen near you.”

With 13 already getting rave reviews from music pundits, it certainly seems that the band is getting off pretty well this year. “people can really be satisfied with this album I think. I know I am. I dunno, everyone else seems happy, so I guess do. Do I sound happy? ‘Cause I am.”

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