The Quietus, April 27th, 2015 (Original Article)
Who On Earth Are Blur?
By Jude Rogers
Thursday 19 February 2015, 2pm
In a Chinese restaurant, in London’s Chinatown, on Chinese New Year, Zane Lowe sits in front of a camera and smiles. “The reason we’re here is we’ve got a very special event that’s going to unfold,” he begins. Four men in their fifth and sixth decades walk onto a stage, three in regulation zip-up jackets, one in a more rustic shirt. “Welcome back…it’s so good that you’ve got good news,” Lowe enthuses. “I don’t know if it’s good news,” hams their frontman. “We’ve got news.”
Blur’s return in February was a surprise, but somehow not a surprise either. They’d regrouped before, for a 2009 tour, a 2010 Record Store Day single, two 2012 singles, and a greatest hits gig-run; this began with the Olympics Closing Ceremony and ended last year in Japan.
Their last songs felt valedictory though. ‘Under The Westway’ did in particular, sighing its sad descending piano line, the lyrics signalling one last romantic push to the end: “Now it’s magic arrows hitting the bull, doing one eighty, still standing at last call, when the flag’s coming down, and the Last Post sounds just like a love song.”
And then suddenly here we were, at a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown on Chinese New Year, watching a man who had just finished a solo tour, a man who had just recorded a folk song for a Shirley Collins tribute album, a man planning a music and cheese festival, and a man who’d taken the day off from his work as a criminal lawyer, side-by-side, back together.
Was this Blur now? And who on earth were they, anyway?
For those of you who have been living in a hole for the last two months: Blur have made an album. Or sort of made an album. In May 2013, stuck in Hong Kong for five days after festival dates in Taiwan and Japan had been cancelled, having nothing to do, they went into a studio. Then – for eighteen months, at least – nothing.
In November 2014, Graham Coxon asked Damon Albarn if he could work on the tapes with producer Stephen Street (architect of their imperial phase – 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish to 1997’s Blur); four weeks later, they played their work back to Damon. For 48 hours on the way home from an Australian tour date, Damon made notes in Hong Kong, then spent his New Year in Iceland writing things to fill holes. On February 19, Blur’s album was recorded and ready; one track, ‘Go Out’, was released online, accompanied by a video of an Asian woman making ice cream.
Three months – the speed of it – after eighteen months off, after fifteen years. Like magic, in a way. But is it a Blur album, really?
Wednesday 18 March 2015, 6pm
I’m sitting in Damon Albarn’s studio, near his beloved Westway. Playbacks are weird, unnatural things, brief glimpses into wholly defined worlds, before the veils shimmer down again. A publicist reads out titles in gaps between tracks like disembodied mission statements. ‘I Broadcast’, ‘Ice Cream Man’, ‘Pyongyang’. My notebook scribble says “8-bit sci-fi, eerie, muffled” (‘New World Towers’), “epic, sad, sand dunes, Hyde Park – how was this made?” (‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’), “strings like Cloudbusting” (‘There Are Too Many Of Us’); the mood of these is mercurial, quicksilver, but vastly melancholic. There are disconcertingly chuggier Blur moments too, though: ‘Lonesome Street’ like a bouncy out-take from The Great Escape, kinky British sing-along ‘Ong Ong’ with a chorus built for TV sync deals. There is also lilting Caribbean, Gorillaz-flavoured pop (‘Ghost Ship’), a John Barry mood piece (‘Mirrorball’), and Big Blur Ballad ‘My Terracotta Heart’, which floors me at first listen. It still does. “We were more like brothers,” Damon sings, “but that was years ago.”
At first listen, the album sounds disjointed, full; there’s too much going on, and going off, layers upon layers upon layers, fizzing manically, bubbling over. I can’t work out whether it’s good, or if it’s great, or if it feels like the work of a band, if that matters.
For an old fan, of course it matters.
Friday, 20 March 2015, 7pm
Mode lurks grubbily in the grime under the Westway; ’90s lags will remember it as nightclub Subterranea. These days, it’s “an innovative venue that demonstrate evolving movements through a series of experiential chapters inspired by art, music and culture”. Tonight, it’s just a gig venue, tiny, packed like a sardine can, 300 people tops.
Blur come on, and play the album in order – an audacious move a full five weeks before album release. One wonders why. To treat fans? (The crowd is made up almost exclusively of them, tickets won through Blur’s website.) To show a picture of band solidarity, whether that exists in reality or not? To broadcast these songs onto the internet via a sea of ever-glowing phones, helping the band’s promotional schedule in a 21st century way?
Blur play. They look young. They have hair: so much hair. Backing singers and string-players sit above them like angels in rickety balconies. Damon leaps around, pulling faces, like the acting school student he was, always has been, and is. Dave drums. Graham smiles at Alex, noticeably, once, twice, three times. Miraculously, they sound tighter than tighter than tighter than tight, these new songs coming alive in their hands, in their limbs, in those familiar faces.
For the next week, ‘Pyongyang”s sad, glittery chorus (“the perfect avenues/Will seem empty without you”), ‘Ong Ong”s la-la-la silliness (“I wanna be with YOU”), and ‘My Terracotta Heart”s tentative, cinematic loveliness, burrow their way into my bones. Maybe this is where Blur exist. On the stage, in the air, in the ear, and then everywhere.
Tuesday 24 March 2015, 1.30pm
They don’t exist like this.
We meet in a house, a very posh house, in the city. Or rather, I meet two of Blur – one is there when I arrive (Graham), one is absent (Alex). I am not allowed to speak to Graham yet, being told to wait in a room down the corridor that doesn’t have a light on. (It does have a vintage radio on a ornamental table though, although there’s no means of it being plugged in.)
Graham wanders past on his way to the toilet, head disappearing into his parka neck. “Hello!” I wave. A tiny voice: “Wotcha.”
Through the murk, I see a list of engagements on a desk next to me, divided as follows: “Graham and Alex”, “Graham and Dave”, “Damon”. Dave and Alex don’t seem to have anything on together. I’ve been told I can’t speak to Damon for three weeks.
Alex eventually arrives, but I am told to await a nod – and I get one, stiff and regal, as if meeting the queen. In a huge, opulent lounge I find two teenage boys, albeit with wrinkles somehow, readjusting the furniture to rest their legs on. “Just a bit of Feng Shui,” Alex explains. “I’m ready for my medication now,” Graham sighs. “And my bed bath.”
How was your morning?
Alex James: We did band photos this morning, which was quite jolly actually. Greg Williams getting his smoke and wind machine out.
The whole band?
Right. What mood were you going for?
Graham Coxon: Just like monkeys, really. Damon was being really like a monkey. They were photos for French papers and things. It gets very boring doing that [huddles close to Alex]: ‘Can you get close together?’ So everyone started falling about.
Does it feel weird being back as Blur, as a four-piece, with new material?
AJ: No it doesn’t, and it didn’t [when we recorded], and that’s why it was alright. Recording hadn’t been in diary for months, so being in the studio wasn’t about having to do something amazing. We’d been playing weird places having absolutely rapturous and youthful receptions, which helped. Arriving in Jakarta and there being hundreds of kids at the airport.
Kids – you mean teenagers?
AJ: Yeah. South America, insane. Hysteria. Kids that wouldn’t have been born first time round… Where did that come from, do you think? Their parents?
AJ: The upside of music being free, I think. Kids have very eclectic tastes now. I was only person who liked Wham! and The Smiths in my school, and I was thought a freak. Kids these days just pick anything.
GC [to Alex]: In Jakarta, it hasn’t been long since they could listen to anything, is it?
AJ: In Russia, we played ‘Country House’ and the audience all started crying. We were like, ‘Why this one?’
GC [sarcastically]: That was my reaction to it…
AJ: That was number one when Communism fell, that was the first Western music they were exposed to. Doing that tour was around our normal lives, and it was insane. I was dropping the kids off in school in the week, and on Friday jumping on the plane to Mexico City.
Why go into the studio in Hong Kong? Why not just, you know, have a rest?
GC: Pressure. From fans, journalists. [whiny voice] When are you going to do more? And we were there with instruments, with nowhere to run away to.
Who led the charge?
GC: Damon. I had an amazing hotel room with a round bath, so I wanted to sit in the bath for five days. Instead, ugh, we were in a scuzzy studio…
AJ:[laughs, leans over and pokes Graham arm]
GC: [smiles] It sounds very ungrateful. But I wanted to have some rest. And Damon’s all [Cockney accent, wiggles arms] Let’s go and make a fucking record then!
Where did the initial ideas come from?
GC: Damon. He had all these Garageband ideas, some three seconds long, really crazy. And some chord progressions. That was it. We were playing along to his Garageband. [Looks at Alex, both smile] I don’t always ask many questions about what I’m doing.
Was being in Blur like that before?
[Both in unison] Yeah.
GC: Someone’s got to make the first move, innit. When I start a picture, I know it’s best to make a mess on the canvas first. Just plugging in, doing it, is the best thing. It’s like warming up before you go for a long run – four hours later you’re in the zone, I suppose. Just like that?
AJ [to Graham]: Remember when William Orbit worked with us on 13? He’d just finished Ray Of Light with Madonna, no doubt in some fucking castle in Hollywood. We were in a similar shitty studio under the Westway… and Damon jots down a chord sequence, puts it on the floor, the first time we’ve seen it, and he goes, ‘You play some chops’, ‘You join in’, so we do…and when we finished, William’s going ‘How the fuck do you do that?’ We were like, what? ‘Conjure up an arrangement out of thin air?’ You know, it’s really easy if you just do it every day for 15 years.
GC: Yeah, it’s just practise. And with that comes telepathy.
AJ: But we had that straightaway too. There’s a cassette of our first rehearsal, in 1988, that Graham had in his shoebox…
GC: It’s gone back in my shoebox now…
AJ: And it’s just this 13-minute rambling jam, but you can tell straightaway that it’s Blur. It couldn’t be anyone else. We had this thing straightaway. That’s a really fucking lucky thing to have.
We talk about how distant that time in Hong Kong seemed to be very quickly, as the band members, as Alex says, “got swallowed back into our own lives”. “I wasn’t sure what that time had been for,” Coxon shrugs. “So I just took the risk. Can Sergeant Coxon take tapes away for a while, Sir?” We talk about band hierarchy; they won’t admit it, but there’s an obvious MD. “I think he felt relieved of a burden,” says Alex, a bit grumpily. “I fucking did.” Where are you in the hierarchy? “Where I always am. Sitting in corner with a bass guitar with a smile on my face.”
The Magic Whip very quickly, for Coxon, became “like Frankenstein’s monster”. He didn’t want to think that he was making a guitar record, he explains, or to have any reference points that harked back to rock, blues or the ’60s. He wanted it to be modern, to let melodies breathe in different environments. “Like ‘New World Towers’… I wanted it to be a ‘Greensleeves’ for Jupiter.”
He also wanted to do something else through his work, he admits. It had been sixteen years since Blur made a record as a four-piece, the broken-hearted, widescreen 13. Back then, Coxon was an alcoholic, Albarn had been taking heroin, Rowntree was addicted to coke, and James had released several singles with Keith Allen.
GC: There was an element of wanting to make amends, for the guys, for the fans, for everyone else. I’ve been a bit of a…
AJ: You haven’t, Graham.
GC: Well, we know that, but a lot of people don’t. We had our problems…
AJ: I think we needed to go off and do our own things.
GC: In the ’90s, you couldn’t have a rest if you were in a band. Your record company would be all, [comedy Mancunian accent] everyone will forget you in two yurrrs, you’re fooked. And if you can’t park car to have a rest, you have to crash it. So we crashed it…[sighs] You know, I just knew if there was going to be one more chapter with the band Blur, I wanted to be the one making it happen.
After Damon had added his extra lyrics, Alex and Dave recorded the last, additional sections in January. “And I couldn’t sleep,” Alex smiles. “I was overwhelmed, filled with joy making all this new music. That always happens Blur get back together in rehearsal room, and I feel like this is it.”
A door opens, a nod. A few minutes left. Two last subjects before I go.
How do you and Dave get on, Alex?
I mean, Dave’s known now to have stood as a Labour councillor and MP, while you’ve been famously photographed with the Prime Minister, who came to your house on New Year’s Eve. [silence]
And a certain Mr Clarkson…
GC [suddenly]: You mean Dave Rowntree!
Yes. [To Alex] How do you get on with Dave?
AJ: Dave? How do Dave and I get on? [pauses] Great. [another pause] We’re two halves of the same thing, aren’t we, the rhythm section.
GC: I think she means politically, Alex…
AJ: I’ve never had a political conversation with him in my life.
I babble about James having friends with high places, and how, while we’re speaking, the future’s being decided for Jeremy Clarkson at the BBC. I ask him what he thinks will happen to Clarkson. Another long pause, about 30 seconds.
AJ: It’s got fuck all to do with the album. Has it?
I press him light-heartedly. Silence. I give up. Three weeks later, James tells the Sunday Times‘ Jonathan Dean, “I think you have to be careful who you get photographed with. You know, bedfellows.” The NME report they’re not friends, but he never says that exactly.
Also, how do you feel about accusations of cultural appropriation being levelled at Blur?
GC [sternly]: Because there’s no Mockney accent on there, it’s not about London, it’s about Hong Kong, right?
Well, not exactly…
GC: What, Orientalism, yeah? Making music, singing music, being involved in music is character-acting in a way. When people go on about our Mockney accents in the past, I think it’s an unintelligent remark to make. Accusing us of Orientalism is too…
AJ [to Graham]: What is Orientalism? Chicken fried rice?
GC: It’s going from Arabian countries to the Far East – and Orientalism is a movement in painting as well. It’s about being a little bit stereotypical, if you put it very simply.
Personally, I thought Song’s piece made some pretty big leaps without evidence. But people could argue that the song titles, the cover art, are appropriations of sorts…
GC: Well, I’ve never had an ice cream in Hong Kong.
AJ: Dairy’s not really very Hong Kong.
GC: You know what people are doing, don’t you? It’s the same as when there was this flipping working class Manchester group and this bunch of snobby Southerners – regardless of the fact I’m from Derbyshire. It’s just rubbish.
AJ [slowly]: I think it’s allowed for a band to go to Hong Kong and make a record.
GC: I think we’re obviously going to get some stick, someone’s going to have a pop, but I’m sure those people like to go home and listen to Japan.
AJ [to Graham]: David Sylvian needs a writer’s retreat – do you know anywhere to put him? He’s asked me.
GC: [thinks] Mm, maybe. [to me] We’re big fans of Nick Khan.
Are you saying these criticisms are too reductive?
GC: I mean, come on…
AJ: We’re not really trying to say anything.
GC: We’re talking about ourselves in another city, not making sweeping statements about people in another city. Just us. You know, Damon actually goes and does stuff. Does research. After he listened to what Stephen and I had done, he went to Hong Kong, filmed, made notes, wrote lyrics about this idea of dislocation. The album’s not all, ‘It smells here, the food’s weird, and all foreigners’.
AJ: If we got anything from a foreign environment, it was the sense of time pressure and urgency, the claustrophobia from being in a unknown place overseas….
GC: We thrive on being bewildered, basically.
Monday 13th April, 11am
Three weeks pass. Blur have released advanced streams of ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’, two songs that show off the album’s different sides. I’ve had a stream of The Magic Whip for a few weeks now; every time I listen, I hear something interesting, something new, something lovely. This record warrants time for you to hear it unravel.
And now Damon Albarn’s on the phone. He sounds tired. “Hi”.
He perks up when I mention his old house in Leytonstone getting a blue plaque, and a picture I saw of him in my local paper, hanging out of a window. “Oh God! That was funny. My whole family came… we couldn’t stay too long because we felt bad for the people who live there now. But it was really nice. Yeah!” Out of nowhere, he’s warm; he’s funny like that.
One reason for the long wait to speak to him is obvious: he’s still finishing off his first musical for the National Theatre, wonder.land, based loosely on Lewis Carroll’s story of Alice. He talks enthusiastically about how its subject is identity, how having a 15-year-old daughter’s made it personal, how, bloody hell, it opens in June. “I have to pinch myself it’s actually happening. It’s a dream come true, that. Proper and unabashed!” And in the middle of the early planning for it came a phone-call from Graham.
Your first thought when Graham rang?
Damon Albarn: Honestly? ‘Oh shit.’ ‘Oh God.’ ‘What we going to do?’ ‘It’s going to be really awkward if they do something I don’t like.’ And I didn’t know whether I’d like it or not. How could I? I couldn’t remember what we’d done – it’d been eighteen months. We’d clearly done a huge amount of work that five days. The original Garageband demos I knew, as I’ve still got them. But what happened with them was wonderful. Imagine listening to a record you’ve made that you had no recollection of.
Graham said it was your idea to go to the studio.
DA: Well, I brought in the original ideas. I think it was my idea go to studio too, yes.
So it’s all your fault.
DA: Even though I protest so much…I’m always saying I don’t want to do it. But I actually instigated it.
For you, Blur has been a small part of the last year though, I suppose?
DA: In context, yeah. If it was a balance, it would be a lighter part in many ways.
But was it heavier in others because of the 16-month gap?
DA: Really this record is all about Graham. It’s all about him. Not necessarily all the subject matter…but My Terracotta Heart is. It’s about a grown man singing about another grown man there’s nothing wrong with that.
Is it special now that you wrote that song?
DA: It is. This record is in a way the last piece of the jigsaw of us getting our friendship back together, and writing about that was part of it, how we’d lost it. It wasn’t that dramatic – that sounds dramatic…
But in ‘My Terracotta Heart’, you sing that you worry if “I’m losing you again…”
DA: Absolutely yeah, and I’ve been there. And I’m really happy that we’ve found each other again now. There’s nothing worse falling out with people and not resolving that.
Your solo album, Everyday Robots was very personal too, in the abstract, and you saywonder.land is…
DA: I know! It’s funny how things come together. Like there’s something in the air.
The line about flying over the Java Seas and “your younger man being here with me” – you flew over them after the studio time in Hong Kong, before playing your next gig in Jakarta. Is that about you thinking about your relationship with Graham at that time?
DA: Yes. Touring together after so much time…and going back to Hong Kong in December to try and remember what we’d done eighteen months before…that was weird.
So after you heard Graham and Stephen’s mixes, you spent two days there.
DA: I relived it as a ghost, my life in Hong Kong.
Were you reliving Blur as a ghost too?
DA: In a way, yeah. Although I almost didn’t have time think about it. I knew I had to get this finished by the end of January, written and sung, and that was good. It made it immediate.
What is The Magic Whip?
DA: The Magic Whip is a metaphor for control – it means different things different times it’s mentioned. I mean, it’s quite a political record. There’s references to the last days of the regime in Pyongyang, the protests in Happy Valley, the song Ice Cream Man could be about a policeman, a protestor…
I thought he was a dealer.
DA: Yeah, he could be! The Magic Whip does sound like some sort of hash.
It’s a dark, psychedelic song in some ways.
DA: It is. The album cover’s slightly narcotic too. [laughs] The name actually came from label on a firework I bought in Iceland on New Year’s Eve – because I always have to have a box of fireworks on table when I’m writing, of course. There was just all this stuff. But somehow, together, it worked.
The album starts with a very classic, old-fashioned Blur stomper though. Deliberate, I assume.
DA: I don’t know. I didn’t do the track order.
Do you like that it’s first, then?
DA: Well, it sets the scene doesn’t it. I don’t think it harks back, myself – maybe it’s the phrase “5.14 to East Grinstead” that does that for people. That was actually on the demo that came back from Hong Kong. I’d obviously looked at Graham at that point and sang “5.14”, as we used to have mates that lived down there. So…OK, that is a nod back to the beginning of Blur. Yes it is!
There’s a few other jolly stompers too…
DA: I think that’s important in Blur. It’s integral to the dynamic of band. I have a terrible tendency to drift off into oceans of melancholy, so it’s good to have a few upbeat things, otherwise people think I’m a miserable bastard.
Graham was saying the band have a telepathy.
DA: Yeah, definitely.
How does your relationship feel now? More professional than personal?
DA: Not really. It’s different because Graham and Dave are both profoundly teetotal now. Graham’s happily settled with a lovely partner and beautiful young daughter, and I’m fucking relieved he’s in that place now. Thank fuck. Alex has five kids, but as up for it as ever; he’s a force of nature, that boy. We don’t hang out together, us all, but that’s the same way that it used to be. We always had different friends. I don’t like having to do interviews together either.
DA: It feels very unnatural. And photos….argh!
DA: I mean, fuck we’re nearly 50-year-old men. I don’t mind having natural photos, but having to pose brings back bad memories of Smash Hits covers. I was deeply scarred by all of that!
To talk about other difficult things…what do you think of the criticisms of Orientalism levelled at the video to ‘Go Out’?
DA: That was an idea from Tony Hunt, the graphic designer who worked on all of this. You can accuse him of Orientalism if you like, but he’s from Hong Kong, so that’d be a bit difficult.
What do you think of the criticism, though?
DA: Well, I’ve read Edward Said, and I’m not sure I think that that criticism’s fair. I just think its a fucking load of old bollocks to say this record has element of that in it. It’s just about my experience in Hong Kong. We could have been in Cape Town or Addis Ababa or Le Paz or Guatemala City…we just got together where we did. I can’t be having all of that. If people want a record about me getting up at 6.30, eating porridge, working all day, going home, cooking, watching telly, then going to bed, they can have that. It’d be fucking rubbish, though.
We move on. Albarn loved the gig at Mode. He laughs at my suggestion that getting fans to film the band helps them push their record. “Each year it gets a little less pleasurable seeing myself on camera, you know!” Why? “Getting older. But seriously, if you want to take a film of us on a shaky camera with bad sound and a head in front of you, then fine. Or, you know, you could just live in the moment. It’s just about having a lifestyle totem.” The idea of playing the album live before release came from him too – he’s done that with Gorillaz, he says, plus The Good The Bad and the Queen. “I think it’s good thing to do, an important thing to do. You’re not relying on familiarity, just playing material as it truly is at that time.”
How do you feel about Blur the band now? It’s only a small part of your life, isn’t it?
DA: It’s a small part, yes, but a really important part. Don’t think it’s not. It’s something that I treasure very dearly.
Friday April 17 2015, 4.30pm
Ten days before album release, we get our formidable final man. He’s just negotiated another long sabbatical from leading London law firm Kingsley Napley, and is now combining album promo for Blur with political campaigning for Labour as a party member (in 2010, he ran for MP in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency, coming second with 8,188 votes). “They are very understanding, my firm,” admits part-time drummer Dave Rowntree. “But to be fair on the way in, nearly five years ago, I thought at some point there was going to be another Blur album.” Really? “Yeah. So I put them on notice right from the off.”
Rowntree is easier to talk to than his bandmates. I ask him about a story that’s sprung from the recent Mojo cover interview – that Blur had counselling to help them get back together as a band. “What on earth are you on about?”, he asks, jovially. I read out Graham’s quotes about the band having to go through a mediator, which, it turns out, have been interpreted broadly. “God, no, of course not, we may be unusual people, but we’re not that unusual. That was just part of the legal process of disentangling ourselves when we weren’t together, sorting out legal affairs. That was when we were apart as a four-piece.” Oh, those crazy days, I say. “It’s far more complicated not being in a band together than being in a band, you know.”
The morning before Blur did their first rehearsal for their 2009 comeback concerts, Rowntree had heard The Police’s Stewart Copeland talking on Radio 4. He talks about this in the 2010 documentary, No Distance Left To Run, and how Copeland said: ‘When a band gets together, you’ve all changed, and it’s like you’ve got this jigsaw puzzle and none of these pieces fit any more’.
Do they fit now?
Dave Rowntree: We found out after about half an hour of those first rehearsals that they did, that that feeling hadn’t gone. After the initial half hour of awkwardness – which is natural, of wondering are things really OK – we were back in the groove, like always had been. And being in the recording studio in Hong Kong felt very natural. The idea of doing an album in five days being an amusing idea rather than a realistic target, though!
Are you surprised that an album came out of that?
DR: I think it was quite a shock to us all, listening to those sessions played back. So much time had gone down the line, and it being as good as it was. I mean, we recorded over 40 hours of material during those five days, and some of it was very good indeed. And knowing there was no other time we could have been together like that, really – it had to be then.
Do you get on well now?
Actually, you can’t say no to that, can you!
DR: I know it’s a cliché, but we’re kind of like brothers, still. All of us have one sister and no brothers so became each other’s brothers. And like siblings do, we fell into different roles with each other, got to know each other extraordinary well, and also knew how to push each other’s buttons, how wind each other up. But equally, we do love each other and are there for each other. Even when we’re in downtime… I honestly feel if something terrible had happened to me then, I could have gone round to Graham’s house, sobbing, and he’d have given me a big hug and a cup of tea. I never felt things were separated to that personal level. That’s why I was always really optimistic something would happen again.
What roles do you brothers play now?
DR: [laughs] The days when I would answer those interview questions are long gone!
How do you get on with Alex? Him possibly being friends with David Cameron and all…
DR: I mean, he’s his neighbour, so Alex knows Cameron and all of those people as friends. God’s honest truth is, if you had to put me in a room with people from any political party that get out on the streets, knock people’s doors, try to find local issues and do something about them, I probably have far more common with them than people from my party who sit at home pontificating about how world should work.
That’s very diplomatic!
DR: Well, I’m not wildly tribal – well I am, I’m a passionate Labour Party supporter – but it doesn’t bother me if people want to have a go at making world a better place. I won’t run screaming from the room like I just met a zombie.
[A publicist cuts in ten minutes before I’d expected, needing the line; I wrench some time back.]
How do you feel about the upcoming gigs?
DR: Great. It’s a great excuse to go back through our back catalogue, and play things we haven’t played for years. In rehearsals, we were all, how did that go, all looking at YouTube trying to remember!
And you’ve got more shows coming up?
DR: Oh yes, lots of shows coming up, but because we kept the album a secret, we’ve been struggling to book them – because most big gigs are already booked the Christmas before the next summer. We’re playing catch-up now, having to play where we can. Our goal’s been to get to places we’ve not played recently, to fans all over world, to those we’ve neglected, so we have to play further afield, as well as Hyde Park.
Places like where?
DR: [laughs again] I’ll tell you when they’re booked!
And how do you feel about this record now?
DR: When I think about Graham and Stephen locked in a room for a month, doing their magic… and when I heard all that stuff transformed, I was blown away. Gobsmacked. To rescue a great album from such a big tangled mess of ideas, I was absolutely…[pauses, voice cracks audibly]
DR: [emotionally] Hats off to them, what I’m trying to say.
What are you proudest of?
DR: I like the big ballads – ‘Pyongyang’ especially. They’ve always been my favourite Blur things, and I’m a sucker for a tune. That’s what attracted me to Damon in the first place. He always knew how to write a tune, even when I met him in the mid-’80s. I still vividly remember giving him my phone number, saying if you ever need a drummer, give us a call. And he did.
Dave’s still speaking when the line is demanded back for the last time – Blur are royalty, after all, separate creatures with little portions of time. They’re not a band in a conventional sense, worker-beavers toiling for hours underground, and in that Chinese restaurant in Chinatown on Chinese New Year, they were ghosts of the group they once were. Thing is, their four younger men were still there with them.
Dave’s still going. “To have a record that’s a photo album of snapshots of a week in our lives that could have disappeared completely… that’s very special to me.” And the fact Blur still click, and they fuse, and they exist, well and truly, in the ear, in the everywhere…they’re still whipping magic, essentially. “The four of us, and how it could happen that way, and Graham with us too…” Dave’s finally run out of breath. “Who could have imagined that?”