Blur-ring the lines
A decade down and the kings of Britpop, Blur, are celebrating with a best of album that’s a chronicle of success, invention and cheek. However, as Mike Gee finds out from Damon Albarn in his only Australian interview, the future may sound rather different as Blur reinvent themselves yet again.
Whoo-hoo … unwittingly Blur’s place in music history is assured – at least partially – by committing a simple yell of exuberance to the halls of fame. Who’d have thought it would have been that easy: to get that famous for a line it usually means writing something stunningly revelatory like “hope I die before I get old” or “I can’t get no satisfaction” or “remember what the dormouse said ‘feed your head'” or “roll over lay down and let me in” or “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock’n’roll”. You get the picture. Hell, “whoo-hoo” is even shorter than “yeah, yeah, yeah”. That’s not all though. “Whoo-hoo” also represents what’s best about great pop music and, let’s own up here, Blur are a great band, were a great pop group – the past tense is intentional – and in all likelihood will continue to be a seriously bloody fascinating quartet capable of consistently and intelligently reinventing itself.
Whoo-hoo, the kids are alright. Actually, they’re not kids anymore, even though main songwriter and lead singer Damon Albarn looks about 25 instead of 31 and comes across as even older. In fact, Damon is a serious bloke, these days – with a vaguely self-deprecating sense of humour that interrupts what is a mostly serious conversation. In fact, so serious is Damon that I don’t ask him how come he used to be able to spring two metres in the air as he bounced all over the stage – before he did his ankle in at Glastonbury.
He’s convincing when he starts off about the band’s spunky, they’re-reinventing-themselves rather-nicely-again, quasi-dance with found sounds, new single, Music Is My Radar, that closes out the reason we’re ostensibly having this little natter – Blur: the best of; 18 tickets to ride anywhere.
“See, the new single is a good example of how you can go anywhere with your music,” he says. “It will be in the UK Charts [this isn’t an egotistical statement, just fact] and it’ll stand out a million miles from everything else.
It’s been ages since there’s been something vaguely experimental in the top 10. “It’s good to be in that position where you can throw something leftfield into the commercial arena. We’ve worked hard for the right to experiment. And that’s what we enjoy doing now. “You look at the charts and there’s U2 and us. Their song [Beautiful Day] isn’t really challenging anyone. Maybe they want to go back to making well-formed pop songs, but the older I get the more I want to keep the culture vital. I don’t want to repeat myself. The more I listen to music the more I discover. “Every month I realise I know something new. That’s what keep me going. I’ve got a thirst for new experiences.”
It’s 11.15am in London and Albarn who was expected “anytime between 10.30am and noon” has actually dissected the great possible interview time neatly in half and hits the original schedule dead on the mark. Nearly, half-an-hour later he has me convinced the next Blur studio set will sound like a cross between an African tribal gathering, Jamaican dub reggae, advanced electronica, the Juan de Marcos Afro-Cuban Allstars and the sound of Sunday afternoon at the Camden markets and boozers. This has something to with his revelation that he’s spent some of the Northern summer in Mali playing with some of the world’s best African musicans including the legendary Ali Farka Toure. More of that later.
Albarn is a smart lad: no pretentious git pop star here. He’s got a serious dose of life popping in his veins and the money to allow him to explore it. Lots of money. Lovely pounds Sterling, earned the fair and square way from being a pop serial killer convicted of chart-murdering smashes. “The only advantage of having a lot of money,” Albarn says, “is that it allows you to seek knowledge out wherever you want. I don’t see it as a route to fast cars but rather to strange parts of the world. “I never got into fast cars. I had a brief period getting into fast women. I couldn’t keep up.”
So here’s the stuff that makes for lots of traveller’s cheques. Exactly 10 years after their first single, She’s So High, was released on November 3, 1990, Albarn and his partners Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree give up their past life with Blur: the best of – including a bunch of chart-obliterating singles such as Beetlebum, Song 2 – with, for the uninitiated, that wonderful “whoo-hoo”, There’s No Other Way, Parklife, Coffee + TV, Tender, Girls & Boys, Country House, Charmless Man, She’s So High, On Your Own, and more sublime mood pieces such as The Universal, End Of A Century, To The End and This Is A Low. So many hits, so many sing-a-longs.
An ex-girlfriend once spent a whole year trying to convince that Blur were the sound of real bog standard, stereotyped, Britain. You know, blokes rule, wifey stays at home and minds the kids, the stout, the TV and Coronation Street-type England, where Mr Grunt works down the pit or at the factory or with the council, and comes home for prodigious amounts of sex if he has time between life on the terraces, fish’n’chips and ‘just popping down the local’ (to chat-up and, hopefully, shag the 40DD barmaid). This might be true, in part, of the contents of their first four albums – Leisure, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape. It isn’t of Blur and 13, their last two and arguably best sets in which they gave up paying homage to Britpop (RIP) and said ta-ta to the pack.
By the time, the truly bog-standard Oasis looked up and realised they’d been writing the same two songs for three albums, Blur had blurred the boundaries and by the end of 13 decided that to prove that “no limitations’ wasn’t a record company euphemism for “they don’t know what they’re doing on this album”.
Eclectic? You bet. 13 left them poised to go anywhere with its splendid mesh of mature pop, dark electronic atmospheres, country comforts, punk attitude and noisy experimental splashes of colour.
What that ex-girlfriend missed though was that Blur were sending themselves, England and everything else up while instituting their own brand of classlessness. Like Pulp, Blur ran everyday life through the blender and found that the rich, poor and middle-class were equally as stuffed as each other. The only distinction was money. Or the lack of it. And they aren’t dumb yobs. While the brothers Gallagher were rewriting The Beatles’ songbook and proving over a decade that hedonism ends in divorce, Albarn and co were progressing from The Kinks’ Ray Davies through XTC and the Sex Pistols to William Orbit and echoes of krautrock. The fast life and willy wanderings came and went as fast as stardom became an immutable amusement, accompanied by a few decent drinking sessions.
“You could say that,” Albarn laughs, for a moment. “Fame is what you make of it. Really, it’s a pretty stupid idea. It’s all media-driven isn’t it. Anybody can be famous given the right circumstances.”
As Ray Davies wrote “everybody’s a dreamer and everybody’s a star, everybody’s in show business no matter who you are”. That much was also true for Albarn as a kid. Born on the cusp of Pisces and Aries – March 23, 1968 – to a stage designer (for Joan Littlewood) mother and sometimes tour manager (for the legendary Soft Machine) father, Albarn was always going to be in showbiz. He saw his first concert – The Osmonds – in 1974 and by the time he was 15 had won a regional heat of the Young Composer of The Year competition, formed the short-lived pop-synth duo Two’s A Crowd and was attending East 15 drama school while also working in a London studio which subsequently offered him a management deal after hearing demos he’d recorded using 3000 pounds given to him by his grandfather when he was 14.
The genesis of Blur occurred in 1988 when Albarn performed a solo show at the Colchester Arts Centre to an audience of 15 including former schoolmate Coxon, who was studying for a fine arts degree at Goldsmith’s College, London, and his friend Rowntree (a drummer since he was 11) with whom he’d played in local Colchester bands Idle Vice and Mr Pnag’s Big Bangs. A little later Coxon introduces Albarn to college buddy James and the four teamed up to form Seymour which played a dozen gigs around London the following year.
The band’s first official gig was as the bill opener for New Fast Automatic Daffodils the then leaders of the early Britpop pack. However, their real break came at a subsequent gig at London’s Powerhaus where they were spotted by Food Records’ mainman Andy Ross who – with partner Dave Balfe – was so impressed by the band’s four-track demo (that includes the sublime psychedelic shoegazer She’s So High) that they offered them a contract with Food providing they changed their name from Seymour to Blur. The rest is now officially history. Not that success took long. Their second single There’s No Other Way made it to #8 on the UK singles chart in May 1991 while their debut album Leisure also went Top 10 peaking at #7 that September. However, that suddenly was it and the next two years were lean. The second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, while critically-acclaimed sold only moderately and Albarn earned more press for his relationship with former Suede guitarist and future Elastica co-founder Justine Frischmann (which will last four years) and the band for its notorious drinking binges.
That’s as bad as it got. Rebirth followed in March 1994 when Girls & Boys was released as a single teaser to the forthcoming Parklife which two months later will debut at No 1 on the UK album charts. Girls & Boys after debuting at #5 on the UK charts also gave the band its first dents in the US and Australian charts while confirming their growing popularity in Europe. Parklife dids the rest. Hello, boys. Hello, superstars. 1995 was even more memorable. Albarn performed I Go To Sleep with The Pretenders for an MTV Unplugged and Waterloo Sunset with his idol Ray Davies on the TV show, The White Room. Blur then co-headlined an outdoor concert in July at Milton Keynes with R.E.M., The Cranberries and Radiohead. A month later, at the peak of a media-fuelled feud with arch Britpop opponents Oasis, Blur delivered the decisive blow when the single Country House sold a massive 274,000 copies in its first week of release to debut at No 1 on the UK singles charts to head off Oasis’ Roll With It which could only sell 216,000. The Great Escape followed a few weeks later debuting at No 1 on the album charts. Blur were now arguably Britain’s biggest band.
“I guess we were,” Albarn says. “It’s not really important. You can be that by making boring music and bad songs. This is our greatest hits with the addition of This Is A Low and there’s nothing on it I’m ashamed of. How many people can say that? The best songs – Beetlebum, To The End, This Is A Low, the new single – stand out to me. Traditionally, people have been dismissive of songs like Country House but there’s nothing wrong with doing stuff that’s quite light-hearted. We do both. Being serious all the time would be as boring as being light-hearted all the time. The Beatles could do both with their songs – be funny and then be melancholy.
“Being human is not all about being morose although sometimes you wouldn’t know it. To be honest I don’t listen to pop music much now. Badly Drawn Boy [this year’s prestigious Mercury Prize winner] is the most interesting of the newer bands around that everybody is touting. I’m more into roots-related stuff and that doesn’t come from England.
“That said I’m a great believer in pop tunes. Whatever we do we try to keep it catchy. I am surprised though that your standard rock band can still survive when there is so much honesty in music coming from roots-related stuff. Hip-hop is in good shape outside of the mainstream. The Latin thing has only just begun. And I mean the real Latin revival. The Santana record [which went No 1 and saw the legendary guitarist work with a number of young stars] was a good example of somebody in a record company seizing the opportunity while there was interest in that area. There’s a lot more to do with Latin music.”
He’s now wound up and off on what he really wants to talk about. The Mali trip – “My most extreme musical experience to date” – leads him to reveal: “I also had the chance to work with some of the Buena Vista Social Club.” Phew! It doesn’t end there. He’s been listening to old ’70s dub reggae and dance hall records by the greats – Johnny Clarke, Prince Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the latter of whom he credits with fellow reggae legend Augusto Pablo as “really opening up Jamaican music to me”.
He’s done a track, Automator, with New York hip-hop group, The Guerillas, and two with UK outfit Deltron 3030. In November he’s finishing a record half recorded in Mali. Then there’s the soundtrack (his fourth) he did with Einar from Bjork’s old band The Sugarcubes for the film Reyjavik 101 starring one Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s main actresses Victoria Abril.
Soundtrack work is a favourite but … “They have to be the right ones,” he says. “I don’t do them for the sake of doing them. I’m only interested in the more alternative stuff. It’s hard within the confines of the Hollywood system to make good ones so I don’t bother doing those kind. When it comes to doing a soundtrack I pretty much expect to do the whole thing myself. I’m so tired of hearing and seeing those soundtracks where they stick lots of songs together after the various record companies have done deals to get them on the film and/or the soundtrack.”
Blur: the best of comes at a time when the quartet is in the midst of reinventing themselves. Coxon relatively recently released a second solo set that’s just as eccentric as his first while James has several quirky side projects. But a sniff of the next album is already beginning to find its way into Albarn’s thinking.
“If ever there was a moment to do a retrospective, this was it,” he says. “There was a space. Kids and other projects were occupying us and there’s no point in working together unless we’ve got a lot to say musically. “You have to give that development thing time. People have to grow, find that independence you need in life, try to establish personalities outside the band. That’s important. Actually, I’ve been working solidly. I haven’t been resting while Blur has been taking time out.
“When we’re ready we’ll make the new album although I can say now that it will be a lot more rootsy and raw and live. I haven’t bought a guitar album for two years. Cuban, African, Jamaican music that’s what really excites me. There’s so much to learn about it. From my side that’s what I’ll be bringing to the new album.”
In the year Radiohead broke free of any commercial shackles that may have restrained it with their heavily electronic and experimental Kid A, Blur are now poised to go a step further. Remember, Blur have already visited the Neu-inspired dark and rhythmic side of electronica on 13. Roots music folded into pop and anything else they fancy beckons. Yet, at its most simple, it’s all just part of Albarn’s unsatisfied ambition.
“To make the ultimate Blur record. That’s our motivation,” he says. ” I don’t feel we’re at the height of our creativity. That might come together on the next album and it might not. Ultimately, I’d like to make a record that sets new parameters. Maybe, I’ll feel content then. And maybe I won’t.”
Until then, a trip down the poptastic yellow brick road of Blur’s past may well be a splendid precursor to a magical mystery tour in the future. Whoo-hoo.