Five albums into their career, British mega-stars Blur can’t get arrested in America. Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon tell Randee Dawn their new record is destined to make them big – at least in the eyes of Beavis and Butt-head.
What is the resounding sound of American indifference? Blur have a pretty good idea. They’ve sold millions of albums in their native Britain, where they’re pin-up stars and the nemesis of Oasis. Lead singer Damon Albarn and his girlfriend, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, have had to duck out of their shared home wearing disguises. But on the opposite end of the pond the barrier to cracking it big has always remained elusive. After five albums in six years, Blur remain small and obscure.
“It’s silly talking about fame over here,” says Albarn, “because nobody knows who I am. We’d done all the other stuff, which was selling millions of records and being famous. So for this album, what was left was to really concentrate on the music. Otherwise, what’s the point of carrying on?”
That’s precisely the question the four members of Blur (who also include guitarist Graham Coxon, drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James) faced when they took to the studio for their self-titled fifth album. And yet, Blur have always seemed to be concentrating on the music. Their 1991 debut Leisure was cute, fun, Mancunian dance pop. Modern Life Is Rubbish, released in 1993, was cute, fun, electronic dance whiz-bangery. The following year brought Parklife, which spawned the cute, fun, retro-dance number, “Boys and Girls,” and then to 1995’s The Great Escape, which helped to generate the cute, fun Britpop phenomenon. Obviously, there’s a theme here, but Blur have done their best to muddy the waters in an attempt to avoid any label affixing to their music.
In making a conscious effort to concentrate on the music, Blur jettisoned the cuteness. With most members only a few years shy of 30, Blur really, like, want to be taken seriously. So eliminate the dance and cuteness factors – as well as the Britpop – and you get Blur. The melodies are still there, but they’re buried under layers of near cacophony and jarring guitars.
“We had a great desire to push ourselves a bit,” says Albarn, running a hand through his shaggy hair. “We didn’t want to use brass or strings on this album; otherwise everything else would go away. In a way, that limited us; it took away a lot of our more familiar sound, which is this brass harmony and strings. And if you take that away, in many ways, that’s what defines the Britishness of the songs.”
Such pronouncements sound a little odd coming from a band who were one of the primary proponents for the resurgence of quirky British popp, a wave that spawned almost as many imitators as grunge did in Seattle.
“We’re doing odd rock now,” says Albarn. “Pop’s not pop anymore. I think U2 are completely out of touch. I’ve heard ‘Discotheque,’ and it sounds like Jesus Jones to me. Jesus Jones with Bono going, ‘Dis-co-tek-huh-huh.’ The 80’s are over.”
And in an ideal world, says Albarn, Blur’s fifth album might be considered their first by some of the less aware American buying public. That’s why they had “saved up” the use of their band name for an album title. Says Albarn, “I think it’s important to call it that because it’s the first record some people will buy of ours.”
“Beavis and Butt-head,” says Coxon, with irony.
“We’ve made a Beavis and Butt-head single,” says Albarn, already looking uncomfortable at this turn in conversation.
“Beavis and Butt-head,” Coxon continues, “said we were the sort of band that wanted to be pissed on.”
“‘Song 2′ is the single,” says Albarn, steering carefully away from that topic.
“It’s a headbanger song,” Coxon insists, “I used to think banging your head was unsophisticated.”
Albarn sighs. “For this album, we just relaxed and jammed. Words like ‘rock’ and ‘jam’ were not in our vocabulary until this record, and now I feel quite at home with them.”
“Though,” Coxon tweaks him, “[rock] not with ‘n-roll’. Headbanging.”
“I like that word now,” says Albarn earnestly. “I’m very comfortable with headbanging.”
Paging Lars Ulrich…