‘Music is the most powerful magic of all’
Despite losing their inspirational guitarist, Blur have made one of the most innovative albums of the year. Neil McCormick asks each of the three remaining members what gives the band their enduring sense of purpose.
Earlier this year, I went to the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. More than a thousand bands descend on the city to perform in front of representatives of the music business, making it a prime event for discovering new talent and identifying emerging trends. It has become the launchpad for that holy grail of pop, The Next Big Thing.
And so, like the rest of the media pack, I scoured the streets of Austin for something that would squeeze my heart and blow my mind, watching hundreds of unknown musicians parade their wares with a kind of desperate energy that was ultimately self-defeating. So many young pretenders try so hard to catch attention that they wind up packing all their ideas into three minutes of mayhem, as if they might beat audiences into submission.
As I reported at the time, only one band really grabbed hold of me, a nine-piece outfit who delivered a set of intelligent 21st-century pop that was emotional, experimental, beautifully paced, daring and consistently interesting, ranging from loose-limbed dub to melodramatic torch songs to full-force, hardcore rock. But these were not a group of young pretenders: the band in question were Britpop veterans Blur, playing a comeback gig after an absence of four years.
It made me think about this group, who have been around since the start of the 1990s, when artist Damien Hirst pronounced them “the best British band since the Beatles”. They have certainly proved one of the most creatively ambitious and musically diverse, their journey encompassing baggy dance music, highly commercial but lyrically caustic Britpop and dense, bleak, lo-fi, experimental art rock.
Their sixth studio album, Think Tank, released in April, reinvented Blur once again, embedding a multitude of colourful musical influences (shimmering trip-hop, wonky electronica, shining Africana) into deceptively bright pop songs whose serious subject matter is offset by lyrical wit, emotional uplift and snaky musical twists and turns.
When one compares this with Blur’s last outing – the William Orbit-produced 13, a dark, self-consciously avant-garde drama of broken hearts and twisted guitars – this hardly seems like the work of the same group. Band leader Damon Albarn’s voice remains the most identifiable ingredient, but we have heard it more recently emerging from the mouth of a cartoon character in his side project Gorillaz, a group who have enjoyed even greater commercial success than Blur.
Otherwise, there is only a certain pop sensibility and guiding intelligence that links this with the group who were once viewed as chief rivals to Oasis. The latter may have won the battle of Britpop, but in terms of creativity and artistic development it would appear that Blur have been waging a different war altogether.
There was something else particularly notable about the gig I saw in Texas. It only featured two members of the original Blur line-up: Albarn and drummer Dave Rowntree. Guitarist Graham Coxon went AWOL during recording sessions and has since become estranged from his former bandmates, while bassist Alex James missed the show because of visa problems.
The live line-up of Blur was expanded (to include keyboards, backing singers and horns) by session musicians. This is not unusual in rock’n’roll, yet it does lead to philosophical ruminations on what gives a group its unique character and identity. What makes Blur Blur?
“I have always said that if I could get someone to play bass, I would,” claims the famously nonchalant James, who has since been restored to his position in the live set-up. One of the most eloquent individuals in pop, James argues that it doesn’t really matter who is in Blur.
“You start off as a small, tightknit unit like the Beatles in Help and you end up like the crew of the Starship Enterprise. It’s a production team. What it is changes, but it does actually end up becoming more and more about the music. The only real crime when you’re in a band is making crap music.”
“The only motivation, really, is to be interesting,” believes drummer and multi-instrumentalist Dave Rowntree (all of Blur tackle a variety of instruments). “That’s the sieve everything must pass through. Even more so than ‘is it musical?’, is it interesting? That’s really the thing that drives us: it’s Damon’s dynamo. It is the ‘interesting’ issue that makes Blur sound like Blur.”
“For me, I’m just doing whatever I do, wherever I do it,” says Albarn, the songwriter whose material provides the starting point for a Blur record (although Albarn composes both lyrics and melody, writing credits include all members of Blur).
“I just threw the best tunes that I had in, because I do hoard music and put it out in different places. I love music to take yourself and everyone else by surprise. With Blur, it has always been fantastic the way the music develops when we are all together.”
I met and interviewed each of the remaining members of Blur separately, which proved an interesting experience. It would be hard to imagine a group made up of three more intelligent, strong-minded and articulate individuals. All in their mid-thirties, they each have outside pursuits.
Aside from Albarn’s noted musical sidelines (which have recently included an African music collaboration, Mali Music, released on his own label, Honest Jon’s), Rowntree runs a groundbreaking computer animation company, Nanomation, while James indulges in a spot of journalism (he’s an excellent writer) and is involved in a mission to send the first British space probe to Mars (which is a whole other story).
“One of the things thrown into sharp relief by the time we took off was that we didn’t actually have to be in Blur,” says Rowntree. “So if we were going to make another Blur record it had to be the best thing we could do, because there were plenty of other things we could be doing instead.”
Indeed, one member did not appear for the sessions at all. “It wasn’t the best of days when we gathered in my little studio around the corner and Graham didn’t show up,” says Albarn, who has been friends with the guitarist since they were children. “It’s like turning up to get married and the person you’re marrying doesn’t come. And then getting married anyway!”
Curiously, Albarn suggests the guitarist’s absence had a beneficial effect. “From day one, it had to be very positive because it’s the only way to keep it going. We all had to bite our lips a bit but, like most things in life, if you actually stick to principles it ends up being better than if you don’t. So that’s what we did. We just said, ‘Right, we’re gonna make this record now.’ ”
“Plug me in, turn me up, pass me a plectrum!” says James. “We were in a studio with a producer and some ideas, so we said let’s get some beers and just start rocking. There’s nothing like making music. JK Rowling says in the Harry Potter books that music is the most powerful magic of all. It’s fucking true!
“In an instant a song can change your whole state of mind. So what could be a better job than making magic? The only pressure was that we had to come up with the best thing we’d ever done. Otherwise, it would be really boring just trying to justify our existence without Graham. The way to have an easy life is to make a good record.
“So it was a year in the making. We had to find out where the boundaries were without Graham. I think we’ve all grown up quite a lot since we last worked together. We became a lot more professional in how we approach making music.”
“When you’re in the studio making music, you are forced to confront something quite scary: the limits of your creativity and the uncertainties of whether what you are doing is any good,” says Rowntree.
“They’re the fairly basic kind of things that torture musicians and can put peculiar pressures on people and make them react in ways they wouldn’t normally. On this record, we said fairly early on that we were just going to try out all ideas and not take the piss out of them, they’d either work or they wouldn’t work. And that’s kind of radical for Blur. It may sound like common sense, but it was a big departure. It freed us up, really.”
“When we started off, Blur was like a gang, the coolest people in class, a little clique at Goldsmith’s art college who happened to make music,” says James. “We used to pump ourselves up by getting really pissed and staying up all night, just make ourselves insane and tape it.
“Then you ingest whatever you can get your hands on, stranger music, stronger wine, and make the most intense and purple thing you can. But as you grow up you get more confident about letting the music flow out of you. This album was recorded from 9 to 5. There are good physiological reasons for working those hours, you know, it does make sense. What remains unchanged is that it’s always a visceral thing, making music, because you are basically trying to amuse yourself.”
Albarn describes the experience of making Think Tank as one of “blissful isolation”. They recorded on portable equipment, in environments of their own creation. “It allowed me to be with my family all the time, making the record, and I can’t think of a more blissful existence than combining the two.”
Halfway through the process, they decamped en-masse to northern Africa, “just in the name of trying to feel alive”, according to James. “You can churn it out like somebody writing a score for a film, basically a space that has to be filled up, but we weren’t sure what kind of a space we wanted to fill.”I think in the past our music has had its genesis in discontent and anger and dissatisfaction and contempt, and this record really springs from a hopeful, warm, benevolent place. The last album was about love gone wrong and this album’s about love gone right, if anything.”But I think we worked that out as we were going along. Maybe we didn’t even know why we went to Africa until we got back! Sometimes it’s just about being generous: the more you give, the more you receive. The more energy you put into something, the more surprises you get back.”
The whole experience seems to have had a profound impact on Albarn, who declares himself wary about re-entering the sphere of pop celebrity. He ruminates on the hysteria of live performance and talks passionately about the Western world’s disconnection from music as part of the fabric of family and society.
“The climax of a Blur gig is everything I ever wanted, in some ways: communication with people. It’s wonderful. I just don’t think that it’s healthy to get too reliant on that, because if you’ve got 50,000 people screaming at you it informs every aspect of your life and you can’t possibly be balanced.
“I have spent time in places where the audience and the musicians are a lot closer. The reaction is just as intense but less extreme because they don’t have to break through this huge, great barrier. That’s why stadium gigs are so bizarre. The reason why that sense of adoration exists is because it’s so difficult to connect.
“It’s a kind of primeval thing: the audience has to make that noise to feel like it’s present, so the speakers have to be bigger and everything just has to get AAAAGH! But what’s it actually doing to our psyche? What’s it doing to mankind? These things concern me quite deeply.”
Albarn has a reputation for being spiky and combative. Perhaps he has changed over the years but, gently engaging and relaxed throughout our encounter, he strikes me as a deeply, genuinely artistic soul. Whatever lust for stardom may have driven him during the heady days of Britpop, music has always been his prime motivation and the guiding force behind Blur’s continual metamorphosis.
“I was brought up in a household where there was not much else other than art or music,” Albarn explains. “Music is just completely and utterly how I feel I best express myself in every aspect. I drive my daughter mad with my inability to say things without music. “There’s instruments all over the house. Everything’s either got a rhythm or a tune to it, even cooking is sort of musical to me, but I don’t think that’s necessarily weird. I really do believe that it’s such an important language, something which we all share.
“I’ve been informed all my life by music. I’ve learnt so much about people’s cultures, politics, human relationships. I think we’ve lost a sense of community throughout our society and you cannot help but feel the pain of that loss when you go to Africa. But what Africa gives you in return is an incredible rejuvenation for your whole psyche, because you see it’s still happening, the musical connection is still possible.”
Albarn does not feel Blur’s musical eclecticism serves them well commercially. “If this is a reinvention, it’s one that has steered us out of the mainstream. In the world at large, I think people find change very disconcerting. The homogeneity of music is what people want.”
So, to return to my earlier query, what makes Blur Blur? I asked this question three times. And got three different answers. “If you chop a bit off an apple, is it still an apple?” ponders Rowntree. “That’s a question that’s been taxing philosophers’ minds for thousands of years, and you’re expecting a drummer to come up with the answer, are you? Blur is what we say it is. There are now nine of us on stage, so you have to do a bit more subtracting before you start noticing huge differences. We are diffusing our ego into a larger pool these days.”
“Ultimately, Damon doesn’t need me to make records, I don’t need Damon, Dave doesn’t need either of us, and what you’ll get without Graham is just a different record, not necessarily better or worse,” says James. “But as long as it’s great it doesn’t really matter, unless you’re Graham. If Blur’s better without me then I’d say carry on. It stops being Blur when it’s shit, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I’m quite idealistic about what I feel music should be, what it should do to people and how it should work in society,” says Albarn. “But I’m just one of many, and Blur is one of the things I do, and I do it the best that I can. I can’t really express it in any other way.”