I have spent much of the year trailing Blur across several continents. I was there in Morocco when they recorded Think Tank. I’ve seen them play half a dozen times on tour, including the tense first American date in Austin, Texas, when the Iraq war was about to kick-off and Alex James was missing because the American authorities had refused him a visa. I’ve interviewed frontman Damon Albarn at length, including in his west London home, and come to regard him as the most interesting and creative pop star of his generation.
It has been an extraordinary year for the band. The former Britpop champions began 2003 with many doubting their will and capacity to survive. Guitarist Graham Coxon had left in acrimonious circumstances and Albarn appeared distracted by fatherhood, his cartoon hip-hop group, Gorillaz, world music projects, his role in the ‘stop the war’ campaign and anything else he could dream up to escape his allotted role as a tabloid-fodder pop star.
Yet Blur end 2003 on a high. Think Tank, the album the group eventually released in April after a four-year hiatus, may not have sold in quite the numbers that records such as Parklife shifted at the height of the Britpop war with Oasis. But it has been widely hailed by critics as the most challenging and adventurous of their career and has just won a prestigious Q award as album of the year.
Much of this year has been spent on a sell-out world tour promoting the record. Between the sound checks and the tour buses, bass player Alex James found the time to get married. Even Britain’s attempt to land a spaceship on Mars, a project co-sponsored by James and drummer Dave Rowntree, is on target. Only the bid to stop the Iraqi war can be deemed a failure. But on that, the group was divided, anyway. “I’m from Colchester, which is a garrison town,” Rowntree points out. “So I didn’t necessarily take the same view as Damon.”
You might imagine that getting back on stage with Blur again and reconnecting with the band’s legions of adoring fans might have rekindled Albarn’s appetite for the trappings of stardom. But not a bit of it. His latest wheeze in his seemingly endless desire to deconstruct his own pop celebrity is the release of Democrazy, one of the most extraordinarily non-commercial albums a major artist can ever have released.
Recorded last summer while on tour in America, it consists of a wasted-sounding Albarn warbling a bunch of improvised, unrehearsed and half-formed song ideas into a four-track tape machine in his hotel room. Untouched by subsequent studio tinkering, it’s not so much lo-fi as no-fi. The tracks can’t even really be called demos, for they’re several notches below even that level of non-sophistication. One of them is called ‘Half A Song’, which is a considerable exaggeration. Another track sounds like he’s recorded his hotel room door chime. On yet another, you hear what sounds like someone using the bathroom.
Albarn makes no effort to sing in tune and the lyrics are spontaneously random observations (“I was at the Niagara Falls today, and they really didn’t make me want to jump in, that’s good’). The instrumentation is rudimentary – acoustic guitar, melodica and up-turned wastepaper basket for percussion. He knows it’s going to alienate mainstream Blur fans, which is why the record is appearing on vinyl only in a limited edition of 5,000 copies. When his old Oasis enemies Noel and Liam hear it, they will fall about laughing, convinced Albarn has finally lost his marbles.
And yet there’s another view. Listen closely and you can detect how these inchoate ideas could easily be worked up into mature songs, for within them are snatches of great tunes and cleverly inventive rhythms bursting with imagination. It’s maddening to hear them left so undeveloped. But then you realise that every great Blur song from ‘Country House’ to ‘Beetlebum’ must have started life like this. And heard in that context, Democrazy is a fascinating insight into the raw stuff of the creative process.
Whether you regard it as hugely audacious or incredibly self-indulgent will depend on your view of Albarn. But few artists of similar stature can ever have exposed themselves quite so fearlessly. When I first heard Democrazy, I was shocked by its nakedness and his neck-on-the-block bravery in releasing it. So when I spoke to him on the way to a Blur gig in Madrid, I felt compelled to ask what on earth had possessed him.
“It’s a mad idea, I know,” he answered. “But I felt it was time people should put records out like this because it deconstructs everything the music industry has built up. I didn’t pre-write anything at all. I just turned the tape on and ran with what ever came into my head. So it’s all first takes and it’s amazing what you can come up with.”
The record is not coming out on EMI’s Parlophone label, Blur’s regular corporate home, but on Albarn’s own boutique imprint, Honest Jon’s. What does EMI think of it? “Well record companies are bound to get terribly nervous about something like this,” he concedes. “That’s why it’s coming out in a very limited way. I don’t want to upset people because I know they’ll find it hard to listen to. But there are tunes there that you could turn into hits. I thought it would be really interesting to show people a whole side to the music-making process they never get to hear. I hope this gives other artists the confidence to do it. I’d like to make it a series.”
That Albarn has emerged as the smartest and most adventurous British pop star of the past 10 years has caught many by surprise. At the time of Britpop, he appeared just another brash and bumptious pop star with plenty of flash and attitude. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was widely held to be the cleverest of the Britpop crew, the ‘arty one’ who was most likely still to be making interesting records in 20 years time. Yet disappointingly, Cocker has come up with little of note since his 1995 Mercury Prize-winning album Different Class and it has been Albarn who has enthusiastically expanded his musical horizons far beyond the insular world of Britpop.
Unlike Suede, Pulp and Oasis, all of whom have seemed content to repeat themselves with ever diminishing returns, Albarn sees music as “a journey”. “The day Blur make an album that’s not better than the last one is the day we quit,” he says. “I get impatient with people who repeat themselves because if you have to do that it means you didn’t say it clearly enough the first time. You have to go out and find your sense of identity as a musician. I’m still looking for that and I expect I’m going to spend my whole life doing it. I don’t think you ever arrive. But hopefully through that process of searching, you find yourself.”
These days that search means Albarn is as likely to be found at a concert by the Brodsky Quartet or Africa’s Orchestra Baobab as at a rock gig. In the gap since Blur’s 1999 album 13, he wrote a film score with Michael Nyman, created the hip-hop off-shoot Gorillaz (which in America has out-sold Blur by several millions), started his own record label, travelled to Africa to record the world music album Mali Music, duetted with the Cuban star Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club fame and collaborated with Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Many wondered if he would ever make another Blur record.
Then came Think Tank, which confirmed his capacity to absorb new ideas and come up sounding fresh and different every time. Yet when his non-Blur activities are referred to as side-projects, he’s swift to issue a correction. “To me it’s all music and all the records I make are equally valid. I like white rock music. But its insularity sometimes annoys me. There’s a much bigger world of music out there and it’s shortsighted and blinkered not to embrace it.”
Today Albarn looks back on the chirpy cockney character of Blur’s earlier work with something approaching distaste. He dismisses Parklife as “a joke, a satirical record that should be filed in the record shop under comedy, alongside Monty Python”.
And he denies Blur were part of a movement that set about creating a specifically British pop identity in response to American early 1990s grunge. “I was simply trying to paint a picture of what Britain was becoming with the lottery and karaoke and everything. It was an imaginary Britain but it became true and it saddened me to see what was happening.”
With the benefit of hindsight, that there was more to Albarn than met the eye should have become evident when Tony Blair attempted to hijack Britpop to New Labour’s ‘cool Britannia’ cause. While Noel Gallagher was flattered to accept an invitation to Downing Street and appeared on newspaper front pages sharing a joke and a glass of champagne with the Prime Minister, Albarn declined on the grounds that he felt he was being used.
“I met Tony Blair privately and he wanted to know what ‘the youth’ felt. I told him he should ask them. He said that as we were selling so many records, we could do business together. Now what does that mean? It was totally cynical. They were trying to use our energy to the greater glory of New Labour.”
If that left a bad taste, by last winter Albarn was on a total collision course with the New Labour establishment over Blair’s support for American military action against Iraq. He was due to speak in Hyde Park on the rally in March when a million people took to the streets of London in protest at the imminent war. In the event, he was too emotional to deliver his speech.
“My grandfather was a conscientious objector in World War Two when it really meant something. People threw eggs at him in the street and called him a coward. He was a qualified architect and they took away his practice.
“My dad, who also refused the draft, was with me on the march and we started talking about my grandfather. He died in an old people’s home. He went on hunger strike because he didn’t want to go on living. I’d never really grieved for him properly and it all came out.”
Albarn has been careful to portray his political views as his own and not those of Blur. “I’m not going to turn round and contradict him in public,” Rowntree says. “But anyone who knows us knows we’re not Damon’s poodles.”
Yet since Coxon’s departure, it is clear Blur are now almost solely a vehicle for Albarn’s vision. “We’re just here to support Damon, basically,” Alex James admitted to me one day in the recording studio in Morocco. Both he and Rowntree agree that Think Tank, the first album without Coxon, was the easiest and most conflict-free record Blur have ever made. It is pretty obvious the reason was because without their former guitarist, there was nobody willing to contradict Albarn.
The singer himself insists Blur are a democracy. But he appears to contradict this view when I ask him about Coxon’s departure.
“We weren’t fighting. But Graham got to a position where he just wasn’t comfortable with me calling the shots,” he says. “That’s why he’s not in the band any more. He wanted to call his own shots, which is fair enough. For me it was no shock when we came to the parting of ways.”
The rest of the band sensibly know it’s in all their interests to let Albarn push Blur in whatever new directions he thinks fit. As Rowntree puts it: “You have to have one person who enjoys standing up there and saying, ‘Look at me.’”