Blur Clear Things Up
By Susan Kaplow / Clare Kleinedler
This may just be the start of a whole new beginning for Blur. The four lads who became the poster children of synth-based odd pop several years back have left that image crumpled and torn in a bus stop somewhere between pop hell and rock purgatory.
Blur, the self-titled fifth album by the English foursome, is miles from the band’s previous releases. Out are the quirky sounds of moogs and synthesizers; in are the bare- bones melodies that could only come from good old fashion guitars, man. Even singer Damon Albarn’s vocals are different on this record. Instead of the forced-cockney chatter- singing of yore, Albarn sings with a more laid-back, natural approach. Guitarist Graham Coxon finally gets to show his stuff, and drummer Dave Rowntree and bassist Alex James (who, by the way, has always been the rock ‘n roll element of the band) are heard loud and clear, rather than being drowned out in a sea of keyboard ding-dongs.
Not that there’s anything wrong with odd pop. Blur became the leader of this movement in the early ’90s with the release of their debut album, Leisure. The album took the beloved sounds of ’80s pop and mixed it up with strangeness, and the people loved it. Next came the 1993 follow-up, Modern Life is Rubbish, which gained critical acclaim and started a Blur-wannabe string of bands in Britian. Parklife, released in 1994, got America’s attention with songs like “Girls & Boys” and “End of a Century” and sparked the fascination with the Britpop scene. And who can forget the release of The Great Escape? The 1995 album, along with Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was the most anticipated album of the year, and the media-fueled feud of the two bands thrust both onto almost every newspaper and magazine cover in the UK.
Though Oasis ended up winning the pop-war (according to Blur, they never intentionally competed with Oasis), Blur has gained a hardcore following here in the states. Tours are almost always sold out, and the band has been an undeniable influence on fashion and image among their American fans. Hardcore Blur fans may find this new era hard to swallow, but it shows a growth that has been long overdue. And even more, it proves that Blur, a band that Oasis fans may label “sheepish” or “wimpy,” has the balls to pull it off.
Addicted To Noise contributor (and Seventeen magazine music editor) Susan Kaplow met with Blur singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon at the New York offices of Virgin Records. According to Kaplow, the interview began promptly at 10 a.m., not a particularly opportune time of the day to get coherent comments from the members of a band. Nonetheless, Kaplow persevered, and as the interview proceeded (and the hour grew later), she found them to be both charming and clever. We expected nothing less. -Clare Kleinedler
Addicted To Noise: Why did you decide to call your new album Blur?
Damon Albarn: It felt like the correct use of the word.
ATN: You said that this record is all about the new, improved, less controversial Blur. And I just want to know why in your minds is it more improved.
Albarn: Well, I can answer the “less controversial” [part]. I think what that means is that we’re not prepared to function in the arena of the tabloids now. In America we haven’t got to the point where anything we say means anything… In Britain when you say something it can be quite resonant.
ATN: It’s very refreshing, isn’t it? When you come here, not every syllable that comes out of your mouth gets twisted.
Albarn: It’s just strange, really. It just shows you that it’s such a fine line between being perceived as a big mouth and not really. If no one’s listening, then you’re not a big mouth, are you?
ATN: Right. If one of the Gallagher brothers said something bitter and stupid and just really ridiculous about your new record, would you verbally retaliate to the press?
Albarn: No, not at all. They’ve said everything they need to say about us, really. I don’t think they can come up with anything more abusive. so I’m sure they get a bit sick of it as well.
ATN: A lot of Americans are familiar with the feud between Blur and Oasis, but not familiar with the class struggle of North, South, working class, middle class that was behind a lot of your arguments or headline-grabbing competition. Can you explain a little bit of that for the Americans who have no idea about British culture, so they know where you’re are coming from?
Albarn: Oh, blimey. We have a whole new system which is tabloid oriented. They’re mainly interested in just perpetuating certain things. There are people who have money and there are people who want to have money. Sex, money and sunshine, really, and the royal family and alcohol and that’s all they really talk about. If you become famous in Britain, your life is divided into those compartments, really. What happened with us and Oasis was, I suppose, a lot of that went on and they come from the North, which is traditionally more working class, more oriented to harder conditions than the South, where all the money is and we come from the South. So once we became the tabloid property, we were the privileged ones and they were the ones who were struggling.
ATN: What made you want to make a different sounding album or was it not like that?
Albarn: Soul repair.
Graham Coxon: Yeah. I think it was just sweeping up the backyard. Seeing what was underneath all the leaves.
ATN: Do you have a formula down when you guys work?
Coxon: We used to, which kind of was worrying. But I think with this album, we just threw everything up in the air. It was the first time we sort of jammed. We’ve never really jammed before. We’ve been quite white-coaty, overall about recording, like in a laboratory. Yeah, we did actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting.
ATN: You’ve said that the environment is different now than when you first started making shiny, pop records. How is it different?
Albarn: Some of our songs would work better in a different context like on this musical stage. I just have the tendency, if I allow it, to write songs that are good for musicals. “Country House” is a brilliant song for a musical. But it’s a bit of an odd song if you want to rock in Cleveland. [laughs]
ATN: Because they’re British characters.
Albarn: Well, they’re just characters. There’s quite a strong character in that song.
Coxon: The melody is very mischievous of “Country House.” In that musical way.
ATN: In a cinematic way?
Albarn: Yeah, it’s a bit confusing if you’re essentially a guitar band to have something like that. This is a proper guitar band record.
ATN: And that’s who you are.
Albarn: Yes, it is what we are. it’s kind of,…I don’t know what we are.
ATN: What do you think of U2 and David Bowie jumping on the drum and bass bandwagon?
Coxon: I don’t like it because it’s sort of like your dad embarrassing you isn’t it?
Albarn: If it sounded good then I would have no problem with it. All good music lives as its own. It doesn’t matter who’s making it. But that U2 song [“Discotheque”] is just absolute shit. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who still love U2 in Britain. That wasn’t the case of a band having a lot of ideas. The band really had very few ideas. I know the person who actually recorded that song “Discotheque” virtually all on his own. It’s true though. I’ll get in trouble for saying it. It’s just shit. Some of U2’s stuff does have redeeming qualities but that song has no redeeming qualities. So I think anyone who’s a devotee of dance should be really kind of annoyed by it.
ATN: What do you think of the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers?
Albarn: I like Prodigy. They’re cool. It’s very much a formula thing now. One song doesn’t really seem to sound any different from the other anymore. But they go to #1 in Britain and they do it on their own terms.
Coxon: They’re the first band I’ve ever seen our drummer Dave get excited about.
Albarn: Personally it leaves me quite cold when I see them live because it’s all on DAT. But I do like them. They’re cool. They’ve got their heads together. They’ve got quite a good quality of life sorted out.
ATN: What’s the inspiration behind “Beetlebum”?
Albarn: It’s a vaguely narcotic thing. It’s not really specific. It’s about quite dark things, I think. It’s got a very lazy feel to it. The guitar is almost falling to pieces all the time.
ATN: Is there a specific theme?
Albarn: Well, there is, but I’m not really into explaining things specific with songs. They should exist on their own. They’re songs. They’re not explanations.
ATN: On past albums, you’ve printed lyrics and chords, but on Blur you didn’t. Why is that?
Albarn: We didn’t wanna have to go through explaining what the lyrics are about because they’re quite odd and to explain.
ATN: They are, but some of them are quite clear and beautiful and emotional.
Albarn: Yes. “Death of a Party” and “Strange News From Another Star” are [both] pretty clear.
ATN: Do they have a bit of a message?
Albarn: They’re just sad songs. We’re quite good at sad songs. [“Death of a Party” is] guilt and melancholy reminiscences. [And] just being a male. A drunk male.
ATN: Is “Strange News from Another Star” sort of like that too?
Albarn: Yeah. Same thing. I wrote that entirely in Iceland, the first time I went there. It was very dark at this time of year. This time of year it doesn’t get light until half past 12 and then it gets dark again at three o’clock. So it’s a very strange place to be and it’s very quiet. There’s lots of snow.
ATN: Do you think there’s a saddest song on the record, which one do you think that is?
Albarn: It’s probably [“Strange News”] and Graham’s song “You’re So Great.”
Coxon: [To Albarn] You think that’s sad?
Albarn: I think is sad. I suppose it’s got the sadness but it’s got a little hope.
Coxon: It’s quite hopeful but sad. It’s got an expression on it, like a scolded puppy.
Albarn: I just had an image of you singing under a table.
Coxon: What do you mean?
Albarn: Stephen [Street, the group’s producer] said that you sang under a table.
ATN: Under a table?
Coxon: It’s embarrassing singing in front of people…
ATN: So when you recorded it, you were singing literally under a table in the studio?
Coxon: Yeah, we had the lights out.
ATN: What are you going to do when you have to sing it on the tour?
Coxon: I don’t sing it on tour.
Albarn: [laughs] That would be great if you did.
ATN: Do you think you might do it?
Coxon: I don’t know. Depends how much I got paid on the side
ATN: Do you have favorite songs on the new record?
Coxon: I like listening to “Country Sad Ballad Man.” It has a quality to the sound that really makes me feel good. The real organicness of it, the fact that just the bass and the guitar are so far out of tune from each other. That makes me quite happy. That slickness sometimes can get a bit sickening, you know. Something that felt good even though it was way out of tune. It makes me feel happy.
Albarn: I think the main reason why music gets really overproduced is because radio programmers are just, a lot of the time, they’re not very tasteful music fans. To get into a position of being a radio programmer… I don’t know. It requires a kind of, a fairly, um, I don’t know the best word. They’re just fairly straight people.
ATN: Business people?
ATN: So you’re saying they don’t get it?
Albarn: No, they get it. But I think the reason why so much music is made that has an inorganic sound to it , that just sounds very safe, is because of that, really. It’s a shame because most musicians, if they were recorded in the right way, would sound a lot better. So much bad music’s made just for the sake of the radio programs.
Coxon: Yeah. Square.
Albarn: It just isn’t very good music and they would actually get just as many listeners and the whole culture could be just slightly more alive without the radio programmers. [he smiles]
ATN: Is “Moving On” a kick in the face to Britpop or is it not that literal?
Albarn: That song’s actually about being in heavy metal and playing on MTV.
ATN: Which you say if it doesn’t happen it’s not that important this time around. I mean, you’d like it to happen, sure, but if it doesn’t…
Albarn: Well I mean you know we’re… that’s the British press, the NME pointed out we’re fairly well off people who can afford to make a record like this. that really is the last thing on our minds, “well, we can afford to make a record like this.” I would’ve made this record if I could’ve done when I was completely poor.
Coxon: We made a lot of unlistenable music when we were really poor.
ATN: Do you watch American MTV back home?
Albarn: No, we watch European MTV. Well, sometimes.
Coxon: I watched a bit of MTV last night, actually.
Albarn: It’s difficult to watch MTV for too long. My guaranteed way of sending myself into deep depression is to read music trade papers and watch MTV.
ATN: Have you guys made a video for “Beetlebum” yet?
Albarn: Yeah, with Sophie Miller. She made the No Doubt videos. But she’s great. It’s nice working with a woman in videoland.
ATN: What’s it like?
Albarn: “Beetlebum”? It’s really nice. I really like it. It’s just very relaxing. There’s some animation. Flying into the sky.
ATN: Does it show you at all on stage?
Albarn: Singing. And then we’ve done one for “Song 2″ which we haven’t seen yet but which will hopefully will set MTV alight.
ATN: Did Miller direct it as well?
Albarn: Yeah. She’s got cache with MTV at the moment I think. But that’s not why we use her. Just ’cause we like her.
Coxon: The “Song 2″ video is nice. It’s got the demonic kind of wind. [laughs]
Albarn: And it’s got people being hurled across rooms.
Coxon: The kind of [growls] “Akira” kind of power.
Albarn: It’s a headbanging song. We should have done some headbanging. Should have gotten loads of headbangers in. [laughs]
Coxon: And Hell’s Angels.
Albarn: Next time. It’s time for a headbanging revival.
ATN:Where do you see the band in, say 10 years?
Albarn: We’ve nearly done 10 years. Another 10 years? I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to work in the music business.
Coxon: I couldn’t deal with having to be nice to bands. It takes a lot of effort to pretend to like people.
Albarn: I’ve just done a film in England. A gangster film. It was done with some cool actors. That guy who was in Trainspotting, Robbie Carlyle, who played the nutter. And a couple of others.
ATN: It will be released in America?
Albarn: I think so, yeah. because it’s got American Money.
ATN: Did you enjoy the experience? Would you do it again?
Albarn: Yeah, I loved it, loved it. I don’t know how good I am but I loved it. I did enjoy it.
ATN: Have you seen yourself on the big screen?
Albarn: No, I’ll see it next week.
Coxon: I was jealous.
ATN: Do you want to do some films?
Coxon: Yeah. Only if there’s a lot of tables around.
ATN: The two of you recently went through a rocky time in working with each other. What happened?
Albarn: Oh, it’s terrible. I think it’s inevitable if you achieve all the things that you set out to achieve and you have to go through a period of complaining about everything. I think it’s very natural.
ATN: There were rumors you weren’t speaking to each other.
Albarn: Well, that just isn’t true.
Coxon: That’s over-romanticizing it, really.
ATN: But you corresponded through letters…
Coxon: One letter. But it was quite a long letter.
Albarn: It was the longest letter I’ve ever written.
Coxon: I’ve still got the letter.
Albarn: [To Coxon] You’re a letter writer, aren’t you?
Coxon: I got into writing, yeah.
Albarn: I’m dreadful.
Coxon: It’s a nice art to get into.
ATN: You recorded part of Blur in Iceland. Why there, and how did it affect the writing and recording of the album?
Albarn: We just recorded some vocals there. I have a house there and it’s the perfect place to write because of the light [The sun doesn’t rise until midday]. Not good during the summer because it’s sunshine all the time, 24 hours a day.
ATN: Too happy?
Albarn: Too happy. They’re too happy. Very jolly people, really.
ATN: So “Strange News From A Distant Star” was recorded there. What other lyrics were recorded in Iceland?
Albarn: “Essex Dogs,” “Beetlebum,” “On Your Own.” We tried to do “Song 2″ there but we couldn’t.
ATN: How come?
Albarn: Too blissed out. I had to be in certain places [when recording]. I was genuinely trying to be more emotive in my singing than just sort of crafted.
ATN: How is being on the road now that you’ve adopted a new sober lifestyle?
Coxon: I’m pretty excited about it. I was worried for a while. I think only during the last three weeks, I managed to be able to deal with it. Before then, if I had gone on tour, it would have been difficult. But actually, when we toured for that week in England, it was pretty easy. And then, it gave me a lot more energy to do what I wanted and enabled me to put it where I wanted it instead of forgetting where I put it. So I could play the shows and really enjoy them and really have the energy for them and just be positive. I’m not saying it’s gonna be really easy but it seems to be at the moment.
ATN: Are you psyched to get back on the road and to feel that energy?
Albarn: We’ve just done a small tour of Britain, which was really fun. We played a lot of new songs. That was okay. It was accepted.
ATN: They reacted well?
Albarn: Yeah, they jumped up and down. It’s a really bizarre thing when people jump up and down and cheer you. You go, “Gee, I’ve achieved something.”
Coxon: Ripples of applause. It’s always a bit of a worry after you’ve played your heart out.
ATN: Damon, you’ve talked about the cartoon element of the old stuff, of the old characters, from the old songs. Do you retain some of that when you perform the old material?
Albarn: The only one that we do now that is applicable is “Parklife.” It’s just got such a life of its own as a song we don’t really have to do anything on stage and everybody who comes to see us just goes bananas.
Coxon: I think we could just start the song and then stop playing and then it would just carry on.
Albarn: It doesn’t require anything from us. It’s just so popular.
ATN: When do you hit the road in America?
Albarn: March. We’ve sort of got into this pattern where we do a tour of America, then we see if anything happens.
Coxon: Yeah, we hope there will be this great big neon sign saying “come back. ” The Statue of Liberty shouting over to England…
Albarn: …”All is forgiven.”
ATN: And is success in America more important than it was to you in the past?
Coxon: It’s not as important as it was I don’t think. Because before we thought success in America was essential and I suppose we thought it’d come easier. We thought it wouldn’t be difficult. But [we were] just being very naive. So now we know a little bit more and we can come here and visit America and tour here. We’re used to the level of success we have here and I suppose if that gets any better, we’ll be OK about it.