Look out! The pop nerds are back. And this time they mean business!
Mod notes: I still need the source of this interview.
Words: Eva Kvanta
Damon Albarn is British pop’s most impotent sex god. And about as normal as a man in his position can be. Eva Kvanta met him and Blur’s guitarist Graham Coxon to discuss the new album “The great escape” and the difficulties in leaving “the late obstinate age” behind them.
“Other people would turn around and laugh at you, if you said that these are the best days of our lives” (Best days)
Every time Blur have to rummage through their memories from the year nineteen-ninety-two, it’s like pulling off a big old plaster which takes the scab with it and leaves a half-healed wound. What they’d really like to do is, of course, to forget it all, they’ve had enough of their past and nineteen-ninety-two in particular, but it isn’t as easy as that. Just understanding is difficult. For those of us who have always perceived the band as four cheerful guys at “the late obstinate age”, it’s almost impossible to grasp how a measly annus horribilis could turn Damon into a Prozac-crunching psycho. Or how the same year could be behind Graham’s legendary capacity for drink. It just doesn’t make sense. Not when they’re so good-looking, in their freshly-pressed suits and sparkling Smash Hits smiles.
On the other hand, saying that nineteen-ninety-two gives Blur no peace would be an exaggeration. After all, it’s history, a time which pales with every new, amazing proof of their popularity. “Parklife” has sold two million copies so far and the new album “The great escape” is proof as good as any that Blur are flying up and on. Even if today, it’s a bit wobbly.
“Damon pretends that his microphone is a c**k. Damon bangs his head against the speaker. Damon is an idiot. Blur are one long sneer. They don’t have anything to offer, except malicious pleasure. And people lap it up, like all the other crap that’s cast in their direction, because they’re too numbed to care.” (Live review in Melody Maker, August 1992)
Graham Coxon, guitarist and the main cause of the recent swarm of Fred Perry boys in granddad glasses, is sitting foetal-style. At five o’clock in the afternoon his hair still looks like he’s just got out of bed – it must’ve got late at the Mixer last night. He apologises with a twentieth hollow cough: “I’m sorry I’m not more lively. It would’ve been easier if it hadn’t been for the disgusting environment. I hate places like this.”
The disgusting environment in question is a fairly typical record company office with stereotypical furniture, lead-grey carpet and haughty glass doors. A place which has conciously been made inhospitable to make you feel submissive, lower down in the hierarchy than you actually are. Graham’s gaze flickers unhappily behind his glasses and he pulls his knees closer to his chest.
“I’d rather sit in a pub and talk… Apart from that – theoretically – it’s fine, the way it always should have been. Just take the way the magazines come to Blur instead of the other way around. Melody Maker have been going on for ages about doing a big cover story, but we’ve just sulked and been difficult generally.”
What, exactly, did they do that was so awful?
“They’re horrible to bands! The don’t seem to understand that a band, if you happen to be a member of one, is a very important of your life. To have that insulted in a completely meaningless way by bored journalists and ordinary people is… not very nice.”
Why do you care what journalists write?
Because you want to be liked.
“Dan Abnormal, not normal at all … has dirty dreams when he’s asleep, ’cause Dan’s just like you and me.” (Dan Abnormal)
Dan Abnormal himself, who looks pretty normal in blue-and-yellow eighties Adidas trainers, old top and baggy jeans, has always found his own ways of cultivating his oddness. Underneath it all he’s a pretty uncomplicated guy, a good drinking-pal with a sensitive side. All of his life has been spent in artistic environments, and this has given him a picnt eccentricity. On top of this he’s bright – he knows exectly how he wants other people to perceive him and lately he has also managed to acheive this. Basically, he’s become a mature and self-confident young man.
“I’ve always been fascinated by normality”, says Damon, in a tone usually reserved for things that are… fascinating. “In fact, my main driving force at the moment is the will to become more balanced. Although I don’t think there’s much chance of my becoming completely normal, if I go to the pub and get drunk something unusual always happens because I’m famous. But I’m not interested in going out to expensive restaurants, although I do go to a few clubs which I guess are mainly for famous people.”
“No, I don’t go to Browns. I’ve been there, but I definitely don’t go there regularly. I move in… normal circles.”
He’s in a funny mood, is Damon. Admittedly, his eyes glitter like prisms whether he’s talking about Michael Stipe’s career curve compared to his own or about Japanese women’s legs (“They’ve got awful, crooked legs. It’s because of all the in-breeding.”) and he often lets out a clucking old man’s laugh. But he still seems anxious.
Later, in the taxi, he’s really distant. He talks of being worried about the cats – one of them is upset that he and Justine are hardly ever at home and has started pooing his revenge in their beds – but his attention is elsewhere. He’s also skimming through a bunch of photos of grand, manor-type houses, but seems unable to decide which of them is to be used for the “Country house”-video. Just before he lets me off in the hotel ghetto in Bayswater, he informs me that he’s on his way to hospital to visit his sister. She was supposed to give birth a week ago and now she has to go into labour artificially.”Family troubles”, says Damon and smiles bravely.
Somewhere, beyond all common sense, it’s hard to admit that pop stars have their share of everyday worries. You’d really like them to live together in a fairy-land full of aestethics, passion and naughtiness in a wild union. “Even I believe that”, says Graham seriously. “My sense of reality is pretty weird and I’m not very good at taking responsibility. But at least now I’ve got a car, and I’ve also got a bit better at socialising. I can put on an act sometimes.”
“You’ve got to have the best tunes, or that’s it, you’ve blown it.” (It could be you)
“Excess”, says Damon with emphasis. “That’s basically what the whole record is about. But not rock’n’roll excesses, it’s about a more everyday phenomenon and how you try to escape from it all. I’ve worked harder on “The great escape” than on any of the three earlier records, and now it’s finished I’m much more relaxed than when I was doing it.” “We’re not as assuming any more”, says Graham, and adds that he’s very happy with the guitars. “I’ve been listening to a lot of violent music which is more about sound than songs and I’ve got a lot of inspiration from that. I like American punk, little groups like Fugazi, Pavement, Lucious Jackson and Unwound. We’ve done one song called “Entertain me” which could be described as industrial. “Country house”, our new single, is on the other hand is very typical of Blur as people usually see us. A bit like “Parklife” and “Sunday Sunday”, strutty and unsophisticated. But we can be sophisticated too.”
When you listen to “Modern life is rubbish” and “Parklife” it’s hard to believe anything other than that they were produced – with one year between them – from sheer creative zest. According to Damon, though, Blur’s second album was preceded by “a sixteen month hell” and that “Parklife” was recorded to stop them from ending up sitting in the gutter in Camden and begging for the money for a bag of chips. Damon, you see, has experienced the slightly unusual phenomenon of a pop group going broke. Yes, it can happen. Especially if you – like Blur – start off your career with a three-thousand-pound record deal and then lose your modest earnings to an evil manager. “We didn’t really have any money, at least not proper money, until March this year.”
Are you rich now then?
“Let me put it this way – I could buy myself a mansion and a Rolls Royce tomorrow. But I don’t want to do that, I’ve put my money away. One day I might need it. At the moment I’m not very interested. But it is nice to be able to go out for dinner whenever you feel like it.”
You and Justine have been together for a really long time, considering the circumstances.
(The circumstances, in case you’ve spent the last two years in Siberia and don’t know – are as follows: Damon lives wih Justine Frischmann, lead singer in Elastica. Because of Justine’s androgynous, dominant image she gets a lot of indecent proposals which she often accepts. Damon has a reputation for being a bit of a casanova, although he has improved recently. The fact that they’ve sold one and two million albums respectively, and that they are hot stuff in the British gutter-press doesn’t make the situation any less tense.)
“The fact that it works probably has a lot to do with the fact that we spend so much time apart. I don’t actually think either of us is very good at spending long periods of time together, say six months in a row.”
What’s it like living with a woman who publicly says you’re one of the most asexual men she’s ever met?
“But it’s true, at least partly. Anyway, I thought it was quite a funny thing to say.”
“We reflect our generation. A generation that can’t find anything positive in life. An emptiness.” – Blur, interviewed by SLITZ in august 1992.
“The great escape” isn’t a “F*** you!” to the doubters. It is perfectly finished for its own sake and has little to do with the past.
1992 has been packaged elsewhere. The documentary “Starshaped” is a monument to self-destruction, a sarcastic 90’s version of Staffan Hildebrandts anti-drugs [alchohol, tobacco and narcotics] films, but more convincing because this is real. Now you can watch Damon Albarn puke up his tax-free booze at the airport in Hultsfred. In ultrarapid. Backwards.
“That film…,” says Graham, shaking his head ominously. “It terrifies me. That’s why I never watch it. At the same time we’ve always liked the idea of being weak and put-upon. In the beginning we always were. Then the audience was usually inattentive, which made us work harder. But it’s hard when they give you too much work to do. Last year it snowballed, we were constantly on tour and all the time more gigs were being booked. After a while Damon started to behave pretty weird, the lack of sleep made him over-emotional. But we’re adults now. We can’t act like kids any more.”
During the past hour Graham has been slowly and methodically smoking half a packet of Kents, gone on with my Silk Cuts and fingered his way through every loose item on the conference table. When he spots a pen he immediately starts attacking the interview schedule, where “Evan” Kvanta’s “Face to face interview” has been scheduled last, after the telephone interview with Javier Cervantes from Brazil. Graham presses hard with the pen and lets jagged, angry flowers and symbols from playing-cards appear. The only time he stops fiddling is when we talk about mods, then he uses both hands to illustrate descriptions and theories.
“I’ve been getting quite interested in skateboards recently. I always seem to be into something or other.”
Have you any idea how many people are going to be heart-broken when they read this?
“Oh, everyone’s basically a mod anyway.”
How do you make that out?
“To most people I know it’s important to look OK. Although I have to add I don’t feel like that today. Right now I look like shit.”
“He’s knocking back Prozac … It’s the century’s remedy” (Country House)
When Damon hears that his story – the one about the handsome young pop sensation who almost let alcohol and cocaine take him down into the swamp of despair, but who was saved in the nick of time by the three P’s (Prozac, psychologist and principles – not forgetting cooking) – has been given a whole spread in Sweden’s second biggest tabloid, he laughs heartily.
“Yeah, I mentioned that in passing. And the reason was that I wanted to balance out the excessive glamourisation of cocaine and – more worryingly – heroine. That’s not what music is about. And it’s important to look after your body. People tend not to care and they end up looking like shit. And feeling like shit. But I’d also like to point out that I’m not some reborn Henry Rollins-type.”
The fact that Damon likes to “expose” himself, almost as much as he likes to talk about doing it, has been noted before. Today he’s not in a playful mood, but that isn’t about to stop him. It’s just going to be exposure in a more literal sense.
“On one occasion I pulled my trousers down during a show. It was in Canada and it has actually been documented on film. It was shown on Canadian TV as well and since then we’ve done really well there. The “Starshaped” video is full of scenes where I pull my trousers down, but more metaphorically.”
You through up in it too.
“M-hmm, noone’s done anything like that before! We’re going to make another film like that this autumn, but I don’t know if it’s going to be as successful. We’re a bit more timid these days.”
“Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” (Blur fans in Wolverhampton 1994)
“People have to see you suffer in order to be able to take you into their hearts.”
Damon sounds pretty objective when he says this, there isn’t a trace of disappointment in his voice.
“No, I haven’t the energy to be angry. Two years ago I was, but this is a new time and I myself am completely different. Before we played the Roskilde festival I watched all the material that was going to be clipped into the “Starshaped” video, among other things a one-and-a-half hour recording from Roskilde three years ago. It felt completely unreal. It’s amazing how quickly things get pushed into the past. And you have to pick yourself up again. It’s not impossible, we’ve done it.”