“If you say that again, I’m going to hit you hard. Really hard.” Blur’s singer Damon Albarn issues a deadpan threat to Blur’s bassist Alex James, who’s just leaned across his various spiced delicacies to whisper something offensive. James does it again. And Albarn hits him hard. Really hard.
Everyone laughs and orders more Indian lager.
Despite three sprightly hits (She’s So High, There’s No Other Way and Bang) and a splendidly accomplished debut album, Leisure, life for Blur is not as easy as it may seem.
“No, it’s not,” asserts Albarn. “We have to put up with each other. We’re four very different personalities and it’s difficult if you come heavily laden with your own personality. But there’s a fundamental chemistry between us and it makes things work.”
As the assorted starters begin to disappear, it becomes as plain as a non-spiced popadom that Albarn (whose father once managed Soft Machine) is Blur’s leader and spokesperson. Exhibit A: “There’s nothing more up to date and relevant than Blur. We’re like The Jam, The Smiths and The Stone Roses were in place and time. Next year we’ll have to recreate ourselves and we’ll either be clear enough to know what’s going wrong to get it right or we’ll be too detached.”
Exhibit B: “I feel an all-consuming feeling that we’re laying our world to waste and there’s little I can do about it except say there’s nothing I can do, and eat Indian curry.”
The other band members, to labour the analogy, represent something of a thali. Graham Coxon, guitarist, is more remote and detached than Albarn. His head swims with Beatles/Blur comparisons and, for a 22-year-old, he is oddly familiar with Ten Years After.
“Imagine picking up a great big marrow at the end of a gig,” he mutters in awestruck reverence, with apparent reference to Alvin Lee’s combo, “and saying, This is my gift from me to you, and just going off stage…”
James was the last to join and, unlike the others, hails from Bournemouth not Colchester. His role seems to involve provoking the others or making them laugh (“Responsibility? Knickers … I want to travel at relativistic speed.”). Dave Rowntree graduated from the Charlie Watts Silent But Nice school of drummers. He’s the only one to finish his curry. “He’s lovely,” explains Albarn before delivering the Blur manifesto.
“We say nothing,” he says, straight-faced. “Dave just says nothing. Alex says nothing in an Alex way. Graham says nothing in a very negative way. I say nothing in a roundabout way.”
Blur, they recall above the gentle sizzle of many main dishes, began saying nothing in Coxon and Albarn’s bedroom.
“The first thing Damon ever said to me was that his shoes were more expensive than mine,” remembers Coxon. “Eventually he went off to work in drama school in London.”
Coxon went to university in London. Albarn had met Rowntree while doing a “very theatrical” one-man show in Colchester. Meanwhile, guitarist and bassist were student friends.
They became Seymour, a none-too-wonderful indie group, named after the Salinger story of the same name in which Seymour gets married, goes on honeymoon and blasts his brains out.
“We killed Seymour and changed our name,” claims Albarn. “Seymour was our obtuse side. It’s like if you’re schizophrenic and spend six months in an institution; they cure you by leading you to the conclusion that you’re better off with one side of your personality than skipping between two. I didn’t think we’d do well with our obtuse side, so we made less of it. Half our personality is latent, like the sort of relationship where the physical side works best if you both dress up in leather.”
There is, unsurprisingly, a simpler explanation.
“When we signed to Food Records,” admits James, “one of the conditions was that we changed our name.”
“It was inevitable we’d end up in the Top 10,” states Albarn, wrestling with a tandoori king prawn and summoning the courage to order a creme de menthe. “I’d been brought up in an off-centre way, so I understood the whole machinery. We’re early ’80s nuclear children, a product of our times, and our time is now.”
“We’re a very post-modern thing,” he extemporises philosophically. “There’s a line in Repetition, Try try try, all things remain the same, so why try again?, adapted from Beckett. I sensed that one Christmas morning when I was 18 being chased across my old school field by my old girlfriend’s irate father. I was drunk and had wanted to tell her I loved her. There’s an enormous emotional reason behind that song, but does the world give a f***?”
The creme de menthe arrives. He wisely decides against it.
“At the end of the day,” he concludes, confidentially, “not only do we write great songs, but we have a natural strangeness about us that makes us interesting.”
“It’s like electricians,” smiles James. “They know everything about electricity except what it is.”
“Alex just tries to be contrary,” offers Albarn.
“I am contrary,” he says, hurt.
“No, you’re not,” declares Albarn, “because you try. And that’s contrary to contrariness.”
Blur will continue, they predict impressively, until one day, when they will stop.
“It’s easy to say this now,” concludes Albarn, “but we find this very stimulating on a cerebral, physical, and a very spiritual level. As soon as one of those disappears off the equation, it’s over.”