By John Harris
Is this a Japanese translation?” asks Damon Albarn, staring at a set of his lyrics balanced on a music stand. “All it says is, ‘I talk/I talk/I talk/ The picture.’ ” It’s a Tuesday lunchtime in north London. The four members ofBlur are in a tiny rehearsal room, free of both fresh air and windows. As a crash course in their own history, they have decided to rehearse five of their seven albums in their entirety: today, it’s the turn of 13, a record made with the producer William Orbit which captured the long hangover after Britpop, the end of one of that period’s most celebrated relationships, and the unsettling, troublesome aspects of youngish London living.
“That was quite a difficult time for everybody, and it reflects that,” Albarn tells me later. “And it’s quite hard to play live.” A smile. “Because we don’t really remember making it.”
13 was released in 1999. Four years earlier, Blur had been at the height of their success: thanks to the album Parklife they had won four Brit awards in one night, been launched into the mainstream, then boosted their new celebrity via their infamous battle with Oasis for number one on the singles chart. Meanwhile, Albarn and Justine Frischmann – the singer with the Britpop group Elastica – had become a kind of proto-Posh and Becks for the indie-rock constituency, while the members of Blur reacted to their new fame in wildly different ways. Albarn seemed ambivalent: fiercely ambitious one day, anxious the next. Drummer Dave Rowntree was alarmed at how indifferent he felt. Guitarist Graham Coxon was troubled beyond words, and bassist Alex James apparently rejoiced in every minute.
In 1997, they released a self-titled album which was hyped as a difficult goodbye to Britpop, but was actually an open and surprisingly friendly record. 13 really did, however, mark a difficult turn. Fuzzy and abstract (“sedated”, Albarn calls it today), it was put together via endless editing, so that precious little was released as it had been performed. Today, by way of reminding themselves what eventually crash-landed in the public domain, they have to keep listening to a CD.
Meeting these four some seven years after they last worked together is a reminder of how singular Blur’s mix of personalities always was. Back then, their average age was hovering around 33, and they were decisively starting to pull apart. Now, with Albarn, James and Coxon all 40, and Rowntree just turned 45, they have reunited, but with more divergent lives than ever.
Albarn is the restless mind responsible for – among other things – the cartoon-fronted pop project Gorillaz, and the acclaimed Anglo-Chinese production of Monkey: Journey To The West. Any time now, after recording part of a new Gorillaz album in Syria, he will start work on a ballet with music played by Cuban performers.
Coxon has a solo career that began with dissonant, US-influenced indie rock, took a much more accessible and successful swerve, and has just given rise to an acoustic folk album. James is a columnist for the Observer, the Spectator and the Independent, and runs a cheese-making business from his farm in Oxfordshire. And forget any drummer jokes: Rowntree is studying to qualify as a solicitor, driven by an urge to help some of society’s most blighted people. At the next election, he will be the Labour parliamentary candidate in the new constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. His chances there are negligible – it’s a very safe Tory seat – but he seems open to the idea of eventually becoming an MP.
For the summer, however, they will be Blur again. Today, 13 June, they will play to an invited audience at the East Anglian Railway Museum in Chappel, near Colchester – where they made their first public appearance. Two weeks later, they’re at Glastonbury. A week after that come two giant concerts in Hyde Park, followed by a headlining appearance at the Scottish festival T In The Park.
The story of how they arrived here can be cast in two ways: it is either the tale of the band reforming or, to be more technically accurate, that of Coxon rejoining. If you want to be even more reductive, you could think of it as the revival of the friendship that once linked him and Albarn, before it came to grief and led Blur to take a six-year break.
It is quite a tale, the most penetrating observation of which is dispensed by Rowntree. “Deep down,” he says, “the problem with our band has always been founded on the fact that all four of us have got one sister and no brothers. We’ve become each other’s surrogate brothers, and that brings with it an ability to understand each other very deeply – and an ability to push each other’s buttons at will. That was always going to boil over at some point. But in the time we spent apart, we all grew up an awful lot.”
I meet Blur’s four members at various places across London. Albarn is first, at his studio near Latimer Road tube station, where he works each day. Whereas he once approached the interview ritual with pre-cooked headlines (“If punk was getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge,” he told me in 1993), he is now a rather hesitant, defensive subject; on paper, his quotes can look tetchy, but they’re often delivered with the knowing wryness of someone who’s spent 18 years as a working musician.
James decides to take tea at his once-beloved Groucho Club (“It’s like a fucking library in here now,” he half-complains) and delivers two hours split between anecdotes and such aphorisms as, “Everyone should have therapy, and a piano and a dictionary.” Rowntree meets me in a pizzeria near his home in Fitzrovia, and splits his time between talking about Blur and discussing a vast selection of political issues. To finish, I join Coxon at a north London branch of Caffè Nero, and am treated to quite the most revealing interview of all – a far cry from the days when he would stutter through his encounters with journalists, and give the impression he’d rather be anywhere else.
Their answers to one question in particular cast light on their very different personalities, their experience of the last 10 years or so. Are they surprised to be back together?
“Yeah,” says Coxon. “I suppose. But the idea had been around, prior to me and Damon having a chat. Alex was always saying things about it, wasn’t he? And I thought, ‘He’s trying – publicly – to disarm a fucking bomb that might blow his head off: I wish he’d trust in something or other that one day his wish might come true.”
“I’d written it off,” says James. “The thought of it never happening was terrifying. There are a lot of parallels with girls, aren’t there? The longer it went on, the more difficult it felt it would be for there to be a resolution.”
“What can I say?” considers Rowntree. “What struck me was that it felt very natural. It felt like it does when you come off tour, and you have a couple of months’ break, and then you go back and rehearse for the next one.”
With a slightly weary air, Albarn pitches his answer well away from Blur’s knotty recent past and on to more positive thoughts. “The main thing,” he says, “is that it’s really nice to know that I can call Graham and he’ll pick up the phone, and it’s all cool, you know?”
About seven years ago, having taken two years off after the release of 13, the band were set to regroup and start work on the album Think Tank. Having spent time at the Priory and begun to adjust to life without alcohol (he had his last drink on 17 November 2001), Coxon failed to show at the first session, contributed to some of the first music recorded, and was then called into a meeting with the group’s manager, Chris Morrison. He told Coxon Blur were now effectively a trio.
“I’d had a couple of awkward afternoons recording, but I got a few things down,” Coxon says now. “I was probably a little crackers, still. And very energetic.”
It seems strange his place in Blur came to grief once he’d quit drinking. “Yeah, I know. But quite often, dipsos are easier to deal with when they’re pissed, not when they’ve sobered up. When they’re sober, they tend to tell the truth a little more. I don’t know if I was behaving a little out of turn, but it did feel awkward for everybody. And in the end, Chris said, ‘Look – the boys don’t really want you to go into the studio today.’ And I said, ‘Well, when then?’ ”
He lets out a laugh. “He said, ‘Well, not really at all.’ It did make my blood go a bit cold. I went into the loo, and I thought, ‘Shit, man – this is like one of those Behind The Music things’.”
The reference is to a long-running series on the music video channel VH1, in which musicians cough up their guts and talk the viewers through drugs, drink, break-ups and affairs. “I looked at myself in the mirror,” says Coxon, “and I was like, ‘I’m sort of being sacked.’ Although Chris said, ‘Look – you’re not sacked. They just don’t want you to go into the studio.’ ”
“I didn’t tell Graham to leave,” says Albarn. “It’s just that the day we started recording, he didn’t turn up. It was like, ‘Well, I know you’ve gone into rehab, but you didn’t even fucking tell me.’ But it wasn’t that dramatic. It was really … you know … me being somewhat petulant, and him just being really inconsiderate, coz he was so caught up in his own problems.”
Blur released Think Tank to appreciative notices in May 2003, and played a run of concerts without Coxon that Albarn says felt “rubbish”. Albarn then made his second Gorillaz album, worked on the brilliant operatic production of Monkey, and eventually recorded and toured with a four-piece band whose de facto name was The Good, The Bad & The Queen, featuring the former Clash bassist Paul Simonon. James began his writing career, published his memoirs, became a father of four, and busied himself on his farm. Rowntree studied, put in time as a Labour party activist, and kept up his musical side via a small-time group called the Ailerons.
Between Albarn and Coxon, the relationship very occasionally became a little bit John Lennon and Paul McCartney circa 1971: the odd barbed word in the NME, and the impression that the rift was too deep to heal. In 2004, for example, Coxon said that being in Blur had latterly felt like being “dragged kicking and screaming all the way around the fucking world on someone else’s megalomaniacal trip”.
“Quite strong words,” says Albarn. “It did upset me, a little bit. It was a bit unnecessary.”
“The thing is,” says Coxon, “I’d misinterpreted what Damon was doing. It wasn’t really to do with megalomania or egoism, or anything like that. Damon’s quite willing to put his insanity aside and see quite clearly that he’s got to do some graft, basically. And I’ve never found it easy to be that way. I can’t put it [the insanity] aside. I took it everywhere, and it was obvious, and it was overflowing. When we were touring, we’d spend quite a lot of time alone, and that’s when he probably allowed himself to be like, ‘Fucking hell!’ and shake a bit. But he was just keeping himself strong, because someone had to.”
And so to the rapprochement. On 22 October last year, Albarn was about to head up another instalment of Africa Express, an on-off enterprise whereby British and American musicians play live with their counterparts from that continent. In Albarn’s telling, his estranged friend unexpectedly turned up at the Koko venue in Camden Town that afternoon. “He showed up, we went round the corner, had an eccles cake, and what was said that needed to be said was said. It took about 30 seconds for it all to be fine again.”
Soon enough, the pair met up with James during the long run of Monkey at the 02 arena in south-east London. “In the end,” says James, “it was just like the lights going on. I got a phone call from our manager, saying, ‘Go and see Monkey – Graham and Damon have been hanging out.’ And I walked in there, and they were arm in arm. It was wonderful.”
These are, if anyone needed reminding, absurdly nostalgic times. The number of groups in the habit of playing in their entirety their supposed “classic” albums – a very odd idea, it has to be said – seems to increase by the week. From Led Zeppelin to Take That, and on to this year’s bathetic re-formation of Spandau Ballet, every passing year brings revivals of more musical ghosts. In the last six months, one observation has become a cliché: that these days, there is perhaps no need to plod through an unbroken career and risk the fate known as “going down the dumper” – a more sensible move is to quit at the top, wait a few years, then return.
Where Blur fit into this is an interesting question. This is not a reunion conceived according to the comic-strip notion of such things: getting the band back together with a promise of selling out Wembley and moving to Monaco, scraping a couple of members off the floor of the retirement home for washed-up rockers, calling in personal trainers and insisting on separate limousines. All of them are adamant they had decided to regroup well before they had worked out what they were going to do, and their medium-to-long-term plans – particularly when it comes to the possibility of new music – remain unclear. They are also adamant that money was farther from their minds than some people might think.
“I think money has to be talked about at some time or another, but initially it wasn’t much to do with it,” says Coxon. “I thought we deserved, as friends, to have a positive chapter in the Blur story – so even if it was the last one, to make it a nice one – for the fans, for us, for whoever.”
“If it was a question of making a few quid,” says Rowntree, “I’m sure we’re all capable of doing that without having to go through what could have potentially been an awful and humiliating experience. I don’t think that’s a particularly good motivation for doing what we’re doing.” He laughs. “I’d rather be poor.”
“It seems crazy, but when we knew that we were going to do some shows, it was like, ‘What shall we do?’ ” says James. “Someone said, ‘Hyde Park’. And nobody knew it was going to sell out that quickly. We’ve sold out two nights: 130,000 tickets – which until Michael Jackson came along and sold a million, looked like a pretty astonishing thing. Apparently, we’ve been offered Madison Square Garden in New York. Blur have never been bigger. Why? Fuck knows. Fuck knows.”
Here, for what it’s worth, is my theory. Blur came into being just as the Berlin Wall fell and our generation was nudged into the decade-or-so of innocence that ended with 9/11. Most of that time was prosperous and thereby apolitical. The result was a culture that was heady and celebratory, but also troubled by the idea that all of a sudden there was not much to hang on to. This is what you can hear in some of the best Blur songs: the portrait of young Londoners in For Tomorrow (1993), “lost on the Westway” and “trying not to be sick again”; the pictures of edgy inertia in This Is A Low (1994) and He Thought Of Cars (1995); the trumpet fanfare in The Universal, from the same year, that somehow sounds both triumphant and fantastically sad.
Thanks to their talent for crystallising their time – and, more simply, glorious songwriting and musicianship – they thus bonded with millions of their contemporaries in a way that only a handful of British rock groups have managed: one hesitates to use a phrase like “our Beatles”, but they weren’t far off. So, when they announced their comeback, there was an entirely predictable rush to see them play the old songs, and then some. In all kinds of ways, there will be a retrospective poetry to this summer’s gigs – thanks not least to the fact that the political project that so defined their era is apparently now breathing its last. (Before Rowntree became a Labour activist, Albarn was famously invited for drinks in Westminster with Tony Blair, John Prescott and Alastair Campbell – he says he warmed to Prescott, took an instant dislike to Blair, and “really objected” to Campbell “standing behind me all the time we were having our talk”.)
When I mention the word “nostalgia”, Albarn affects to want nothing to do with it, though it’s unclear whether he’s trying to argue the unarguable or pulling my leg. “It won’t have any of that revival connotation,” he says. “It’ll just be something in the present that has a resonance with now.” I’m not sure about that, I tell him. “Oh, it’s a complete nostalgia trip,” he says, smiling. “I forgot this was the Guardian.”
As far as their own experience is concerned, they talk with a quiet kind of amazement about the thrill of playing their albums in their entirety, and rediscovering who they once were. “We’re just trying to go through the whole period of being Blur,” says Albarn. “And we talk about stuff: emotions that appear when we’re playing certain tunes, and where our heads were at the time. You need to immerse yourself in all that. Music is total immersion. It has to be.”
He mentions Blue Jeans, a song from Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993), written in the first flush of his relationship with Justine Frischmann. Until their break-up in 1998, the two of them shared a house in Notting Hill and jointly plotted the ideas that initially defined Britpop, before Oasis took it somewhere else entirely. The song mentions Dr Martens and Portobello Road, before a chorus in which he sings, “I want to stay this way for ever”.
“Blue Jeans just makes me feel like being in love, and moving to this part of London, and falling in love with the place,” he tells me. “There’s an innocence to it. It sounds like being 23.”
“Modern Life Is Rubbish is the most evocative of all of them,” says James. “That was when we really discovered ourselves and stood up for ourselves. We were just young and … Not rich, but we did have everything we wanted. All we wanted was to get drunk and play our guitars really loud. And we travelled round the world and were … Just young men, I suppose.”
“I get reminded of things like strange gigs in LA, where all the Anglophile maniac mods on their scooters turned up,” says Coxon. “I get flashes of certain circumstances, like an aftershow party on a big velvet staircase thing – probably in America as well. Just as I’m playing them all, I have some sort of mad Blur slide show.”
“It’s been strong medicine, the last few weeks,” offers James. “That overwhelming thing of volume, melody, memory, friendship. It’s been … strong wine. The most beautiful thing, in so many ways.”
To illustrate just how much their lives have changed since all this music was made, consider a few things. Coxon, Rowntree and James were all heavy smokers: all three have either given up, or are seriously trying to. Whereas Blur were once a byword for reckless drinking, Coxon and Rowntree no longer touch alcohol, and James does, but only a little (Albarn is apparently able to drink and smoke whenever he fancies, and then stop). Coxon talks about sobriety in terms of the opening up of time he wasn’t aware existed – partly filled these days by a passion for motorbikes. “I’ve been all round France and Spain,” he says. “There’s something awesome about it. I ride slower now: I used to do 130 miles an hour, on sports bikes. Insane, but it’s all part of quitting alcohol, really.”
All four recognise break points that separate their lives as members of Blur from the experiences they’ve had since. Albarn describes two months he spent in Jamaica in 2001 with his partner Suzi Winstanley (a respected wildlife artist) and their daughter Missy: “A fantastic, wonderful time; I really felt like I’d escaped the darkness.” James points to meeting his wife Claire, and their move to the Cotswolds in 2003. They have four children: three sons called Geronimo, Artemis, Galileo and a daughter called Sable. For Coxon, identifying the journey from before to after is easy: it was confirmed in double-quick time when he was told to leave the other three be, though, in retrospect, he had been edging away since 1995.
Rowntree, meanwhile, arrived at the end of the 90s feeling very unsettled. “There were a lot of things I hadn’t actually thought about,” he explains. “Clothes was a big example. I’d been wearing Doc Martens for 20 years or something stupid, but I’d never actually made that decision. I used to hate clothes shopping, because I’d been stuck in this huge room, full of clothes, going, ‘Is that a nice shirt or not? How do you know?’”
During this time, Rowntree’s marriage ended, and he started an Open University course, initially in law. Soon, he hopes, he will have qualifications that will make him the equivalent of a law-school graduate. He then aims at qualifying as a solicitor, so he can work in court, representing people he feels a deep drive to help. Right now, as part of his current work at an east London law firm, he spends every Tuesday night as “a police station representative”, advising people who have been arrested. “The more I do it, the more important I think it is,” he tells me. “Because, by and large, nobody is speaking up for these people. Nobody’s on their side. Probably 80% are either drug addicts or have other mental health problems. And society has branded these people evil, so there’s nobody on their side. Society, and the entire criminal justice system, think these people are feral animals who deserve everything they get.”
Back in the rehearsal room, Blur play No Distance Left To Run, the song from 13 that captures the end of Albarn’s relationship with Frischmann, and the troubles with heroin that turned Britpop from a real-life version of Austin Powers into a re-enactment of the late 60s movie Performance, the tale of drugs and borderline insanity in W11. It’s built around quite the most unadorned, straight-ahead lyric he has ever written (“I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life”) which must surely bring on the mother of all Proustian rushes. When we meet a week later, the question is pretty much inevitable. Does he know what happened to her?
“She invited me to her wedding. She lives in California now, with a scientist. The nerdy guy she spurned for the high life, she ended up with. That’s good. I met someone on Chiswick High Road who’s a mutual friend, and she’d gone to the wedding, and she said she was really happy. For me, it’s nice to know that Justine is happy and well and living in California, and it’s great that every Wednesday, I cycle up to Camden and hang out with Graham.”
So what, I wonder, happens now? Will there be a new Blur record? “We’ll see how we feel at the end of the summer. I’ve no doubt we could make a fantastic record together. It’d be very interesting.”
There is one thing, though. No end of once-classic groups have tried it, and their track records aren’t great. Albarn squints into the sunlight, and utters something that captures both Blur’s singularity and part of the reason he is still here: “I’m not interested in other people’s track records.”