The Thoughts of Chairman Albarn
The fight with ostracised guitarist Graham Coxon is over, new album ‘Think Tank’ is Britpop and man can’t survive on cactus juice alone. Fresh from Blur’s trimphant five-night stand at the Astoria, Damon Albarn has plenty to share with NME. But fisrt, a stiff drink…
There’s a beast on the hunt around coachella. Half a barrel of vodka broke open its cage and now it’s bounding through teh artist’s enclosure – past the circle of sycophants sniffing Cameron Diaz’s a skirt hem; past the Charlatans’ Tim Burgess taking on the Libertines at shuffleboard; past a conversation that goes, “Hello my name is Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist”, “Hey, they call me Snoop” – and sniffing for NME blood. Out in the guests’ area it dodges a come-on from one of the Donnas (“Hey, your set was so great…”) and lunges for the main arena.
“Sir,” says an armed cop at the gate sternly, “please use the appropriate exit.”
The beast goes for the jugular.
With no fear for the consequences, Damon Albarn’s minder Smoggy leaps into his path, bundling Damon backwards with his chest.
“It’s not worth it!” he hisses as the cop goes for his Mace. “He’s a policeman and he’s got a gun!”
“But I can’t believe that funckin’ bloke!” Albarn argues, chin squared, fists up. “I hate that about american festivals! All this fuckin’ authority!”
In a day of protecting Blur at Palm Springs’ Coachella festival, Smoggy has only had actually to protect Damon from himself. Without Graham Coxon around to pick fights with his own reflection, with Alex James having swapped his tree bottles of Möet habit (according to conservative estimates Alex has blown a million on champagne since 1991) for painting and yoga, you take more notice of how Damon, Blur’s only remaining drinker, is such a gloriously unpredictable drunk.
Rewind half an hour and Blur are a vision of ragged charm and sophistication, relaxing in the friutskin-and-Dorito-dip wreckage of their Winnebago after a brave and brilliant ‘Think tank’ centric twilight set. (Damon, onstage: “These songs were recorded in a desert, so it’s nice to play them in another one.”)
They’re all jetlagged and struck down with the Taco Squits that have blighted the camp since their recent visit to Mexico City as part of a continent-hopping promotional tour. Alex makes a quick golf buggy jaunt with NME to watch Queens Of The Stone Age, shakes off a couple of goth girls pleading for the adress of his hotel and heads for bed with a passing quip – “Festivals are just the aceptable face of a stadium rock. Hneeear!” In five days he marries video producer Claire Neate in London and there’s still the stagh do to organise, the flower girls to dress and half the Groucho to invite.
He and drummer Dave Rowntree hop the 9.30pm bus offsite, leaving only Damon to play genial host and cocktail-maker to the stars (like Tim Burgess, who pops in for a vodka cranberry). Eschewing recent fashion errors that would have had Trinny and whatserface gagging on their Yves St Laurent maternity corset – the tweed-capped rag’n’bone man and bling-laden bovver rapper ‘looks’ to name just two – he’s decked out in a circa ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ suit. He looks healthy and svelte, has the hair of ten Molkos, and is charmingand cheerful to a fault.
Half a gallon of vodka later, however, and ‘refreshed’ by four trips to the caravan’s rickety lavatory, he’s the Britpop Patrick Bateman: friendly and intense of manner but with eyes of sheer, bloody murder. He decides to take your correspondant on an hour-long trawl of the festival site in search of NME‘s Steve Sutherland to “discuss”. Steve’s recent Coldplay article which cast Damon as a pointless experimentalist, and also Damon’s misguided belief that an editorial decision was made that Damonmust be called fat and bald in the pages of NME through 2001. Having failed to track El Sutho, Damon lightens up and decides to nip up onto the side of the stage to watch his mates the Beastie Boys.
Except a security guard tells him that only the band’s family are allowed up there. And out leaps Nasty Damon once more.
“THIS IS AN AFFRONT!” he huffs. “I’ve been up on that stage and given a piece of my soul tonight ! I MUST see the Beastie Boys!”
We hoof it to the main arena, arriving after 45 minutes as Damon gracioulsy stops for pictures and autographs and hugs old US touring buddies. Once we’re finally stage-front though, damon watches approximately 45 seconds of the Beasties before declaring: “My ears aren’t hearing anything they haven’t heard before. Let’s go and get a drink.”
Reverting to Nice Damon again as we prowl backstage, eyes peeled for bald fromer NME editors in cowboy hats, he drawls: “I really love the Beastie Boys. But I wouldn’t want to be in the Beastie Boys because they don’t have any soaring moments.”
True, but perhaps they know the risk of doing a new album set in front of a festval crowd in a country that isn’t exactly tired of your old material.
“We could go out there and do a solid hour of hits,” Damon states. “but we believe in our record. We decided right at the beginning, that we’d put the emphasis on this record and hopefully the strenght of the songs would carry it through to an audience that were basically neutral. I know the Beastie Boys and they don’t really want to be doing this sort of hits set. They’d much rather be playing what they’re doing now.”
Back at the trailer Damon holds forth enthusiastically for an hour on the Irak war, The Libertines, NME, conspiracy theories, the Pixies, 3-D and David Blunkett before entrusting NME with the remains of his vodka barrel and heading off his hotel. (NME nicks the barrel, obviously) – We’ll nick anything.) At dawn, still ranting, he’ll climb a hill to watch the sunrise, suddenly get really thirsty and fall foul of the lies they tell you on Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival. “I thought, ‘Cactus! They’ve got water in them!’ “he recalls ruefully, a week later.
“So I tried to break open a cactus and I got cactus spines all my hand. For anyone who wants to try that in the future, I didn’t find any water in it.”
And fatherhood is supposed to mellow you. This post-natal crazy beast Albarn is bombing even though he is the bomb.
In the time between Coachella and NME‘s next meeting with Albarn at London’s Westbourne Studios a week later, Blur have reformed and split up again. Turns out Graham Coxon was booked as DJ for Alex’s wedding months in advacnce, so an awful lot more bonding went on than the hloy nuptials of bass twiglet and wife.
“God knows how nervous Alex must’ve been,” Damon explains, “the idea of all of us filling five or six hours together in a confined space and getting married. But it was all good, we all got on alarmingly well, just to counfond our critics yet again. We had our photo taken, a mini photo-shoot with all of us back together, which was funny. Odd, nice. We still looked exactly like a band, it was like he’d never been away. Nice to see Graham; he was on good form.”
Did the two of you have a heart-to-heart ?
“We had a few quiet words, so the future is certainly just as ambiguous as it’s ever been. We’ve always said that it probably isn’t permanent and after the wedding I would say it’s probably as impremanent as we suspected it was.”
There’s a reunion on the cards so soon ? Damon flashes on his halogen lamp grin. It’s blinding. Damon Albarn has a grin that annihilates any Liam sneer in a second. It’s a grin that makes you realise that at 35, the man is still ludicrously pretty. But even when sober there’s a touch of the Jekyll and Hide about him, switching instantly between snappy irritation and glowing good humour.
“Well, y’know, dysfunctional families always get together at weddings and funerals and it defines their next period. If they have a break and they get back, they’re either in the right place again, or they’re not, but once you are a family the familiarity is there anyway. It’s about everyone feeling comfortable.”
There’s been much speculation over the murky truth behind Graham Coxon’s unexpected departure from Blur. Some claimed that Damon wanted Coxo’s grubby hands off the reigns for good. Others suggested that Alex and Dave couldn’t work with the recently-out-of-rehab booze fruitloop. So who made the final decision to tell Graham he wasn’t needed any more ?
“The chronlogy of it was,” Damon says, “We started in November, he didn’t turn up, didn’t tell us he wasn’t turning up and subsequently wasn’t around for nearly two months, within which time ‘Think Tank’ came into being, really. Then he came in and were really thoroughly out-of-sync by that point because we’d spent two months working solidly and he’d been doing his own thing and it was difficult. The only thing that seemed to have any substance that we did together was ‘Battery In Your Leg’. Everything else wasn’t working and we’d done all of this work and, y’know, the consequence of him not being there in the beginning was that we had to finish it on our own.”
Was he angry that you didin’t tell him yourself ?
“We did talk about it…”
Across the studio café a cappuccino machine goes bersek, like the spirit of Graham sending a sliver of feedback from Sackedville.
“We talked about it,” Damon continues, “but if we’d been able to talk about properly, we wouldn’t have felt the need to part company at that point. It was only about communication, it’s not about whether we get on with each other. He felt left out and we felt let down, it was a combination of that. I would’ve hoped it would happen to anyone in the band if they’d behaved the way he had initially. It probably wasn’t managed in the perfect way at the end, but it wasn’t managed in the perfect way at the beginning.
“We’ve fallen out so many times before, this isn’t anything new, y’know ? It used to be weeks and weeks we’d go without talking to each other and now it’s just been a year. But all I can say is it was very nice at the wedding and confirmed the feeling we all have deep down that we’re lifelong friends. It probably isn’t the right record for Graham to work on but it certainly doesn’t mean that once we’re in the right space again, all of us, we won’t be able to make another record together. I d’ont expect anything but I look forward to it.”
Joe Strummer said that as soon as you lose any original member of your group then the band is over.
“I don’t think that we’ve lost Graham,” says Damon, getting stroppy again. “It’s what it is. It’s not trying to relive anything from the past, we’re happy with what it is at the moment and whether it’ll be like that next year remains to be seen. that’s an absolute and it didn’t stop Joe making music afterwards and thinking it was any less important than the music he made before.”
What about the story that you were driving through Camden, saw him walking down the street and you all shouted “WANKER!” at him.
Damon looks appalled: “NO! A few months ago we were going to a photoshoot and we were going really fast in a cab and we saw him walking up Parkway, so we went, ‘WEEEEEAAHHH!’ We didn’t shout ‘Wanker’!”
It’s extremely good karma (as Alex would no doubt put it these days) that Blur and Graham Coxon should bury their various hatchets right now, just as Blur’s seventh album ‘Think Tank’ is being hailed as one of their greatest artistic triumphs. ‘Difficult’ it may be. ‘Parklife’ it certainly is not. But the defence put it to this court that experimentation is the very lifeblood of alternative music; without it they’d all be morris dancing down Trash. It just depends how you use it: throw yourself blindly into new forms and species of musical wobbliness without keeping hold of a shred of the identity that made your band special in the first palce and you’ll end up like Radiohead, simply treading water in your vast new musical pools. But Blur are masters chameleonic adaptation, always striving to absorb new cultural and intercontinental influences while remaining, at heart, three (possibly four) blokes in a bloody great pop band.
Hence ‘Gene By Gene’ has as much of a debt to pay to the Clash’s ‘Sandinista’ as any Marrakesh bazaar, and ‘We’ve Got A File On You’ and ‘Crazy Beat’ are classic Blurpunk whether the pipe music tracks could be used to herd camels or not. And while it’s considered naïve to take Blur’s reinventions at face value – ‘Think Tank’ was only made in the hope it might broaden inter-cultural understanding in a time of war – surely, artistically, Blur have one up on Radiohead this year ?
“I’m glad that Radiohead exists,” says Damon. “they’re interesting and they’re independent in the true sense of the word. Which is an issue I’ve always had since right at the beginning because we signed with a major label, albeit through a quasi-indie, and when we started it was C86, the zenith of indie music, and we always felt that independence was something…
‘Parklife’ was a very independent record. It happened to be very commercial but independence isn’t defined by how many records you sell, it’s how you think and act and conduct yourself.”
Unlike, say, Coldplay. Didn’t you recently join the rank of not-quite-as-successful-as-Coldplay acts to have a pop ?
“No, I wasn’t having a go,” says Damon.
“What I actually said was that, having been asked to make a speech at the Brits, they gave us just one soundbite. I just felt that was a bit half-hearted, considering what’s been happening and what will continue to happen.”
It was a speech which should’ve been made at the anti-war march. But you were too drunk to make it.
“Well I did have a bit to drink at the march and I was really ashamed of myself for that,” Damon admits. “But you’ve got to remember that half of the source of that over-emotional reaction was that my grandad, who was an original conscientious objector, went on hunger strike at the end of last year and died at the age of 90.
I was with my dad and my sister and we were starting the march and I was really, really remembering my grandad and feeling very sad about it and wishing he’d have been able to see this march because it would’ve have meant an enormous amount to him. No story that’s reported is necessarily the full picture and sometimes I don’t give the full picture because I don’t want to divest that much of my private life, but that is the truth. It was a combination of drink and being upset about private things and I didn’t portray myself in the best light and I totally admit that I’m sorry if I let anyone down.”
Great bands capture a generation: The Stone Roses, Sex Pistols, Nirvana, Coldplay, Legendary bands, meanwhile, capture a generation twice – Bowie, The Beatles, the various incarnations of Joy Divsion/New Order, perhaps. And Blur. Blur, more than any contemporary group, have the firm melodic identity and envelope-pushing incentive needed to become one of those bands that not only change the way music is appreciated, but change the way music is recorded.
The problem is, according to Damon, that Britpop’s not finished yet.
“I feel that Britpop is so inextricably linked to Blairism,” he says, “that until the end of that we’re gonna have Britpop. It’s just another development of it. What’s come to replace Britpop ? I think UK garage was the next thing. That still firmly had a very british identity, so therefore that was Britpop as well. I’m still Britpop, this record is Britpop. How can you revive something that hasn’t finished ? That’s why that film (Live Forever) was an ultimately empty experience , because it’s not revolved until President Blair steps down.”
Or maybe we’re talking about President Albarn. We hear that the most poppy Blur songs were held off the album. Were they saved for Gorillaz ?
Damon shruggs: “It’s very cult to like Blur in America. With Gorillaz it was very nice because all I really had to do was concentrate on the music. I didn’t have to do thousands of interviews and I didn’t have to go through a daily cross-examination. So obviously, if you’re talking about something of global proportions, that’s preferable because the hardest part of making music for me is the cross-examination. Where I’ve always failed is through a combination of being over-emotional and quite straight-talking; people are highly suspicious. But in a way, if you’re a cartoon, just by the nature of that medium, you can’t be suspicious of a cartoon. Cartoons are wonderful things because they’re exempt from a lot of the things that human politics demand of you.”
So it’s official! Blur suxxx and Gorillaz rulezzz! And Damon has it all sewn up – he’s a worldwide pop phenomenon with Gorillaz while keeping Blur on to prove he’s an Important, Ground-Breaking Artist. Right ?
“I’m not denying it,” he huffs, beatifically.
“It’s just…as I say, I’m a highly emotional person, so I react very strongly to things that I either fall in love with or I feel the need to express some sort of conter-opinion to. The world, as the last few yearshas shown us all, is highly combustible and being someone who’s sensible to undercurrents that might come to the surface doesn’t mean you have a masterplan. I’d like to see myself as a Dr Evil, though.”
NME hereby offers the podium to Mr Damon Albarn. Sir, will you take the mic ?