Les Inrocks France, N°1010, April 2015. Thanks to Legless Owl from the Veikko forum for the translation.
How does it feel to come back to Blur 12 years after the last album?
Damon: To me, it’s just an additional album. Recorded with my oldest friend, Graham Coxon… I keep on recording albums, with a lot of people, in very different styles. When I work on them, I’m fully invested. There is no hierarchy within my projects, I am equally involved in them, I give everything I have. I don’t keep ideas under my hat to favour Blur… I don’t consider myself more part of Blur than I am of Gorillaz or of the Malian bands with whom I play. What I always find exciting is the next step. Besides, even if I live daily with that new album since we are rehearsing and will soon be live, to be honest, I’m already elsewhere… I’m currently working on a musical about Alice in wonderland for the National Theater in London. But please don’t believe that I took that Blur album lightly! It was settled in my head though: I was sure there would never be a new Blur album. I didn’t need it. Hence my surprise. I even long to play those songs live. We’re going to play at le Zénith de Paris but I don’t want to go on a huge tour, play every festival, be forced to postpone the opportunity of a new Gorillaz or Africa Express album… Or even a movie soundtrack. I cherish my freedom.
How were those new songs born?
Damon: We were in Asia in 2013 and a date in Tokyo was cancelled. Instead of going back to England, we decided to see if we could still write songs together. Everything was done within five days, in Hong Kong. At the time, we didn’t realize something that intense, that collective, was happening. It felt really good to be back together, with no stake, no aim, in a small messy studio. We went there every morning by the underground, spent ten hours in that sauna and then went to bed. Three of us are now fathers so that would have been difficult to find that freedom, that concentration in England. That also would have been impossible to start from scratch again, in such an obsolete studio. There, we rediscovered the joy of playing songs in ten minutes, ideas were flowing between us…
Graham: Things always go off well between us when we’re working on a common project, when there are concrete things to handle. That’s when we start screwing around, feeling the idleness, that everything goes wrong. But we didn’t have the time to get there. Damon came up with fresh ideas, with exciting sequences on his laptop. No one knew we were recording and we deliberately chose the intimacy of a tiny studio: this created very particular conditions, very relaxing. It all seemed natural, a true miracle after all we had been through.
Where did those tunes come from?
Graham: I came to the studio with the carcass of the songs recorded with Garageband’s programmed sounds. Many of those raw and minimalist sounds actually ended up on the album. That’s very funny to mix a programmed guitar sound with the sound of a real guitar: the dialogue between those two distant cousins is fascinating.
Damon, one year ago, you were telling me about your solo album, swearing Blur would never do anything of these Hong Kong sessions…
Damon: I had no intention to. I had locked them in a drawer in my head. That moment was over: trying to revive it would only be being nostalgic. I had mourned those songs, those moments. It wasn’t such a big deal: I have several unfinished, abandoned albums in stock that would also need to be taken in hand, to be given some meaning. That’s what Graham did with those Hong Kong recordings. He called me one day and said “Do you remember these tapes? I’ve got nothing to do right now. Would you mind me having some fun with them?” I was curious to see what he was going to do with them, which direction he’d take, which vision he’d have. And it personally made me happy to know Graham was really back into Blur, that he was going back to being a creative force within the band. So he spent four weeks with the tapes in the company of our dear old producer Stephen Street. Then they came back to me to make me listen to the album as it exists today. It only missed my voice and some keyboards. I couldn’t believe it: we had recorded those songs and I had forgotten them! I rediscovered them completely.
Was it some kind of relief not to be the only motive force in Blur anymore?
Damon: Yes, that was a real joy. In a band, each member has to contribute: that wasn’t the case anymore. We have rediscovered that dynamic. If only for that, finishing that album was really worth it. That triggered a chain reaction, like this summer gigs which would have been emotionally and spiritually unthinkable had we not been certain that we were a band again.
What is particularly stunning is the lightness of this album. How do you explain it?
Damon: To be honest, I don’t know any band who is able, after twenty years, to release such a light, carefree album. As we were playing without any structure, the songs are really free.
Graham: We played a lot with the sounds, especially the synthetizer’s ones. To me, Hong Kong evoked some sort of science-fiction, that’s why there are a lot of robots’ sounds and flying saucers in that album. There is a lot of Space too. Maybe the influence of Talk Talk… The tunes are very simple but there are things in the background, sometimes a bit twisted, which deviate the songs. That’s what happens in There are too many of us, which evokes a sci-fi march.
Have you hesitated to call on Stephen Street, who actually fixes Blur in their past?
Graham: I knew he would always be positive and respectful towards our work in progress. I also knew his meticulousness, his precise musical ear. Unlike many producers, he never imposes a sound or his own ideas – he is in the service of the songs, even if I’ve tried to push him into more perversion (laughs)… He never tried to saturate the songs which were rather pared-down. When one of them got too repetitive, I just recorded a new line of guitar or of synthe… We took some parts from one song to ‘glue’ them to another, I love proceeding that way, it reminds me of sculpture. So this album is the sum of Damon’s demos, Hong Kong’s recordings and of the modifications made in England. I had never worked that much on the dynamic of Blur’s songs. Actually, I had never been that involved in one of our albums. Stephen and I felt like kids who would have been entrusted with the candy shop’s keys. That said, I really felt uncomfortable the day Damon listened to the result. Whenever I went to see him after that, he had added keyboards, ideas… The creature became richer and richer, thicker and thicker, both peaceful and wild.
Damon: I was very sceptical about working with Stephen again. But Graham really needed him to edit and set in order hours of recordings. Some songs were more than half an hour long! Stephen even came to see me while I was recording my singing parts, which upset me – we hadn’t worked together for centuries. But in the end, I was delighted. Just like for the rest of the album, it happened without stress, without any pitfall.
Was it that easy to go back to writing lyrics?
Damon: That’s always laborious. Those songs were nearly two years old… The rough versions of lyrics I had recorded at the time had lost their meaning. But I had to stay faithful to the Hong Kong’s spirit which had made the birth of these songs possible: so I revisited that spirit, in the way a ghost would. I insisted on recording the lyrics there, to get back to that atmosphere and loop the loop. It was psychologically vital. Many memories bring me back to Hong Kong: family holidays, Gorillaz gigs, the genesis of Monkey, Journey to the West opera… For an Englishman, there is some very dark face tied to that city, to colonialism… During more than a century, we sold opium to the Chinese through Hong Kong. At that time, Queen Victoria was probably the World’s biggest drug dealer (laughs)… Today, I admire Hong Kong’s people fiercely independent mind. The album title, The Magic Whip, is a reference to their ability to brave the whip that tries to control them. I also like the ambiguity that lingers on the album through the word ‘whip’ (weapon/whipped cream). If you gather the lyrics, you’ll get a kind of patchwork, of mosaic, which faithfully portrays all those Far East sensations.
Graham: Damon’s dark and yet innocent stories resonated very strongly inside me, as if we were telepathically connected. He expressed what a 45 year old man feels in 2015. His fears echoed my fear of internet, of information overload. That makes me claustrophobic.
Damon, in those lyrics, you mention an unexpected journey in North Korea…
Damon: I went there to do some research, to further my project on Alice in Wonderland… But in the end, I haven’t used anything of what I had brought back with me. I was wondering “Where on Earth is there a country where, just like in Lewis Caroll’s book, we can fall down a rabbit’s hole and come out on a parallel world?” There again, the notion of “magic whip” is particularly accurate: everyone in North Korea seems hypnotised. It is a fascinating place, both frightening and crazy. It is impossible to know what your interlocutor thinks. A lot of things remain unsaid there.
How do you feel when people still mention Britpop despite your career?
Damon: It infuriates me to realise that whenever I put on my ‘Blur suit’, everything else disappears. It is unfair to restrict me to Britpop… But what can I do?
The album contains a lot of nods to different phases of Blur. Was that kind of ‘treasure hunt’ deliberate?
Graham: We couldn’t release an ordinary album. In the end, I’m really proud of The Magic Whip, this album is sort of my baby, it’s a way to apologise to Blur fans after all my erring ways.
Damon: I remain the same songwriter, I can’t change from one album to the next. Blur actually represent twenty-five years of my life and I can’t believe the energy and the excitement that band still brings me. We have all grown up, we can finally make both adult and innocent music.