The Sunday Times – 16 April 2015
A bit of a blur
They transcended Britpop, but split acrimoniously. Now, almost by accident, Blur have made a new album to rank among their best
By Jonathan Dean
When, I ask the four members of Blur — who have made an album together for the first time in 16 years — did this all seem most unlikely? Was it in 2004, when the guitarist Graham Coxon (fidgety, frail) said being in the band was like being “dragged around on someone else’s megalomaniacal trip”. Or, perhaps, in 2007, when the singer Damon Albarn (beaming, alleged megalomaniac) said Coxon hadn’t stretched himself and “that bothers me”. Maybe it was after the photo of the bassist Alex James (gregarious, cheese) with David Cameron near their Oxfordshire homes. As for the drummer, Dave Rowntree (wary, busy)… Well, he’s a solicitor.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Coxon says, quietly. “Well, it was least likely when we made Think Tank, as there were three people in the band at that point,” Albarn booms, factually. “God. The longer it went on, the less likely it was,” James frowns. Finally, Rowntree shrugs and says: “I thought it was going to happen. I’m baffled why everyone didn’t.”
The new album is The Magic Whip, and it’s Blur’s first full set since their melancholy masterpiece 13 (1999), an album that broke new ground and broke the band. By Think Tank (2003), Coxon was on only one track, whereas the highlights of the new recording either feature his prominent, dysfunctional guitar (the stunning, trippy Thought I Was a Spaceman, the raucous I Broadcast) or, on the acoustic ballad My Terracotta Heart, tackle Albarn’s relationship with his old friend. Key lyric: “When we were more like brothers, but that was years ago.”
The past two decades are stuffed with vitriol and denial. When I ask Rowntree — the calm one — how much attention he paid, he holds eye contact (rare for his bandmates) and rolls off a lengthy theory about dishonest interviews. He doesn’t really focus on the question, but then he is in politics. As well as practising law, he is also a Labour activist in Norwich.
“When does this come out?” Albarn asks me. This Sunday, I reply. He had noticed a photo of the “too ridiculous” Nigel Farage on the front of that day’s paper. “Well, I think everyone should vote for Ed Miliband,” he continues, despite not being asked. “In the media, when they portray people as a caricature, they’re probably the opposite. My ideal scenario would be Green and Labour, with a serious move to reduce Trident and the armed forces.” Is it like 1995, I moot, when he was approached to support the PM-in-waiting, Tony Blair?
“Well, Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair,” Albarn says. “I don’t know what happened to Tony Blair. It was very cynical to get me to have a meeting with him. It was dark. Blair was in front of me, and Alistair Campbell behind me. Terribly controlling. I was too young to know my politics, so they were trying to paint me as something before I had worked out what I was.”
It’s just past 10am in his west London management offices, and the polymath behind Gorillaz, a couple of operas and last year’s successful solo album, Everyday Robots, is in crackling, loudspeaker form. Leather jacket, old T-shirt, ancient phone, his reputation for being surly left for another interview, he is every inch and glint how Smash Hits described him in its first piece on the burgeoning band in 1991: “Big blue eyeballs and remarkable confidence”.
The new album is the headliner here, but there are support topics to shift first. Such as the lack of politics in today’s pop. As “nefarious” as the 1990s were, when top bands had drinks at Downing Street, at least, says Albarn, there was involvement.
“But look at music now,” the 47-year-old dad of one says, tapping the table, tipping back on his chair, on a roll. “Does it say anything? Young artists talk about themselves, not what’s happening out there. It’s the selfie generation. They’re talking platitudes. What are any of them saying? I don’t hear anything other than ‘This is how I feel.’ Which is an important part of songwriting, but we’re talking in the context of the election — and they don’t have anything to do with it.”
His phone rings. “Hi, Mum! Mum, I’m in an interview. I’ll call you back a bit later, all right? Lots of love. Bye.” He hangs up, and that crooked magazine-cover grin widens to show a gold front tooth. “Back to the dark machinations!”
The Magic Whip was recorded in two stints; the first, four years after Blur buried the hatchets in 2009 to play Hyde Park and embark on a sporadic world tour. These buoyant gigs were all old songs. Parklife, Beetlebum, Tender, hollered back by tearful fans. But the band, Albarn in particular, are anything but nostalgic, and so, in May 2013, on an unexpected Hong Kong break, they spent five days jamming ideas the singer had on his iPad. Eighteen months and a London session with the producer Stephen Street later, and Coxon presented finessed tracks to his preoccupied singer.
“This,” Albarn recalls, “is what I thought, ‘Oh shit.’” He was, he says, excited, but rehearsals at the National for this year’s wonder.land musical, based on the Alice books — “the biggest thing I’ve ever done” — were nearing, and sometimes even a man who has made 12 records in 12 years can spot a logjam. Thinking as only a globetrotting rock and opera star can, he came up with a solution to finishing the lyrics.
“The only logical thing,” he says, “was to go back to Hong Kong.” It was just before Christmas, and he was in Sydney the same week as the chocolate shop siege, before flying to Hong Kong as that city’s protests were wound up. “So I started accumulating things. And the year before I’d been to Pyongyang…” Really? “Yeah, but I’m not sure I can go again. And anyway, I spent loads of time in China and never articulated it, and this was a perfect opportunity. Also, you know, it’s about my relationship with Graham and how that blossomed again.”
I meet the none-more-indie Graham Coxon, 46, in a chain coffee shop near his north London home. He’s in a pinky-orange sweater he bought secondhand back in 1992. It’s falling apart. There’s a complex, highly personal backstory to the end and beginning again of Blur, but the guitarist is as blunt as his playing. “Basically,” he says. “We went to Hong Kong, had a jam, came back and edited it so human beings could emotionally react to it. That’s it.”
The two takeaways from time with Coxon are that he smokes a vaporiser with a digital readout and likes to hide behind metaphor. On Albarn and him: “There was music and friends, two sides of a coin, rolled across a table, about to fall off.” Britpop, meanwhile, was: “Austin Powers: bad teeth and horrible suits.” On how Albarn finds a song spark, and he finishes it: “It’s an Airfix kit for me, music. I like it to be there, I provide the glue.” On taking The Magic Whip from jams to coherence: “We loaded the plane up, and I had to fly it.” On finally starting the thing in the first place: “It was like the end of each level on Super Mario. There was Alex, then Dave, then Damon at the end…”
Coxon’s favourite bit on the album comes during a euphoric soar at the end of Thought I Was a Spaceman, when he introduces a B flat. “I went over to Damon,” he says of playing it to him, “and said, ‘Can I hold your hand?’” When it comes to interviews, he is happiest talking to guitar magazines.
Back in Colchester, where the two key members of Blur met before art school and the discovery of James and Rowntree, Albarn and Coxon would drink by the river — wine that the former left dangling from roots to keep cool in water. That tenderness remains. I ask if Albarn is difficult. “Damon is mad,” says Coxon, in that distinctive old-aunt voice of his. “Something funny about him. I don’t know if it’s his left-handedness. He’s abrupt. Energetic. A hose on full.” Do you ever get angry or loud? “I don’t allow myself, because I was told it was wrong.”
For the record, Albarn was sweet about Coxon, too; proud of their work on My Terracotta Heart. “I’m really glad I did that,” he said. “It’s as honest as my oblique style can muster, really. It’s as innocent as that sometimes, and sometimes it’s a lot darker and more complicated, too. Such is life.”
Alex James, 46, lives in Kingham now, five miles from Chipping Norton. David Cameron is his MP. We meet in Maidstone, where, last week, Blur opened the umpteenth series of Later… with Jools Holland. The bassist was, for years, the coolest in the band. Lanky and dashing, floppy fringe and permanent cigarette, he seemed a little removed, delighted at the friends he chanced upon and the success they brought him. His own life started normally enough in Bournemouth, where his dad worked for the forklift truck outfit… Coventry Climax.
It’s hard to explain how magnetic his company is. He laughs in the middle of sentences, like a caricature of an anecdotalist farmer always on his second glass of wine. He’s dressed in Aubin & Wills, a family man who says listening to his children singing Uptown Funk is “better than playing Glastonbury”; but he is fond of his past, too, admitting he longed for this new album and would listen to scratchy video recordings of those Hong Kong sessions, thinking, “What a shame”, when 18 months passed and The Magic Whip seemed to melt.
He makes a loud raspberry noise three times to explain the rush of music in that week in Hong Kong. He’s buzzing, describing Blur’s sound as “Damon singing something odd. Graham playing mental guitar. Me doing the opposite.” (Dave on drums.) They are, he says, his three best friends, and while there was a moment at a recent press conference when he looked over and thought, “Oh my God, I remember you c****,” he then couldn’t sleep because he was too excited.
Was it difficult, I ask, going from his Alex James Presents cheese range to creating music again? “I don’t like this…” he begins. “This ‘because you make cheese, you can’t be a musician’ thing. Monks make cheese in the morning and sing in the afternoon.” He found being back in Blur exhilarating and healing. “It’s really nice to have something in my life I don’t have to think about too much,” he says, with a stilton-strong smile. “As almost everything else, I do. Like cheese.” He’s funny like this and, for a while, he was my most open ever interviewee.
Then, I mention that photo from 2011, at his food festival, with Cameron. He goes quiet and tries a few sentences that don’t work and drops long pauses for a man who doesn’t much pause. “I think you do have to be careful who you get photographed with,” he eventually says. “You know, bedfellows…”
An hour later, in the studio, I wait to watch Blur rehearse. It’s a surprise they’re back together. The band once appeared on Italian TV with a cardboard cut-out of Coxon and a man called Smoggy miming along on bass (James had overslept). Yet in the Maidstone studio, there they are. Coxon, sitting on stage fiddling with his guitar, Rowntree on the phone, while a Malian band wait to say hi to Albarn, who has temporarily disappeared. James lopes up to me.
“That photo was a weird one,” he says. His local MP had turned up at his festival and he didn’t want to be rude. “I should’ve moved to Wales.” He wanders off again, a ribbon of a man, offering to make the backing singers cups of tea.
The rehearsals are scatty. Two live musicians are missing, and Albarn and Coxon are frustrated. They’ve come to Maidstone for this? Still, it’s behind closed doors, so it doesn’t matter. On record, the songs are strong. Bleeps, abrasive guitar; lyrics about ice cream and Tiananmen Square. Come the summer shows, watch the fans to see if they sing along to the new, or only the old. Because, to many, these 20 years have been kind to Blur. Looking back, what they, more than Oasis (one-note) or Radiohead (abstract), so clearly offered was a lifestyle; something innovative yet accessible, romantic but realistic.
To the end, then, and how every Blur interview must finish. Is there more? Tantalisingly, James says there are two albums left in the Hong Kong material. But then, in 2012, Albarn had said, “Don’t think so”, when asked if there would be another record. He also once called Coxon a “profoundly ugly drunk”, while, in return, Coxon called him a “self-centred f*****”.
Maybe it’s best not to hold too much of what anyone in Blur says too close to heart. They don’t.
Damon Albarn on Blur in America
“I’ve had two careers, vastly different in their outcome. One that was just a lot of touring and not a huge reward for it. It seemed however much Blur did there, we never did as well as we thought we should be doing. And then, with Gorillaz, it was multiple arenas everywhere in America. With Blur, it’s a small tour bus, and with Gorillaz, it was, like, 10 tour buses. It was just always thus. When we first went over with Parklife, every single Anglophile in America jumped on it, so there was this sense it could go somewhere, but you realise that’s a very cult thing. Then there was a moment with Song 2 where that was a big hit in America, but it was disembodied as it was just ‘That band that had the “Woo-hoo!” song’. It didn’t have a name. It never really materialised and we became profoundly disillusioned with the whole idea that you spend months and months touring in America. I mean, for some bands, it’s been incredible. Such as Radiohead. For Oasis as well, it was a similar sort of outcome to ours, really. There just wasn’t that connection that we got everywhere else in the world. I never understood. I mean, I can’t speak for Noel [Gallagher], but I just never really understood. It’s hard to reconcile when everywhere else, people go crazy. It’s just odd because we speak the same language.”
Damon Albarn on his and Graham Coxon’s hiatus in the Think Tank era
“Graham and I had that because we’d made an agreement to make another record. I’d just done the first Gorillaz record, which was massive round the world. It sold more than I’d ever done in Blur, by a long, long way, and I was, like, well, I want to do this. I’ve done a band for 10 years and I’m loving doing this. It’s just very different and I’m really enjoying it. And I’d just had a child and it seemed like I wouldn’t have to go on tour a lot. Everything seemed better, being in Gorillaz. I didn’t have to do loads of TV. I didn’t have to do press. I didn’t have to go on tour, but I could make music and it was selling. So, I thought, having a young child, this is the perfect scenario, isn’t it? But we’d made a commitment previously to make another Blur record and I’m one of those people who, if I say I’ll do something, I do it. So we started that and that’s kind of how I lost patience with Graham, because it’s, like, Graham, I’ve stopped something in its tracks that’s doing really well and is really working for me, to come back and do this, and you’re not playing ball. You’re not even really prepared to even turn up. And that’s why we had that hiatus.”
Damon Albarn on his time with New Labour
“With a 20-year distance for objectivity, it was a very dark and cynical move to get me in there and have a meeting with Tony Blair. They assigned me a liaison officer, who had a special pass, and I’ll never forget being in a nightclub with him… This is the dark underbelly… And then the paparazzi coming up and he showed this badge and they left. All these slightly nefarious machinations unfolding in front of me and I realised, what on earth?”
Graham Coxon on being called posh, along with Damon Albarn, in the 1990s
“We’re so not posh. We’re arts-and-crafts, really. We’re not working class. We’re not Tories. But that was perpetuated by journalists and perpetuated even more thuggishly by fans, particularly Oasis fans, who are more prone to being gobshites.
Graham Coxon on what it was like when Blur performed without him on the Think Tank tour
“Of course I kept a little eye on what they were doing. I was pleased when someone would say, ‘Look how many musicians they have on stage to replace Graham.’ That did my delicate ego some good. But at the same time, they were like my lost brothers.”
Alex James on how they ended up in Hong Kong, making The Magic Whip
“So, I took the kids to school on Friday, went down to Heathrow and got the plane to Mexico City. Hundreds of people at the airport. Thousands at the hotel. People with our names tattooed on them, trying to speak to us, but they couldn’t because they were crying. We were loving playing… And then it was fortuitous, really. We were supposed to do a gig in Taipei, but the promoter got shot, or something, and there was a last-minute change of plan and we were stuck in Hong Kong. We were all there with nothing to do, and Damon was, like, ‘Shall we have a go then? Try to make a record?’”