The Sun, 1st May 2015
‘It’s like having another child after a 15-year gap’.
DAMON ALBARN calls it “a miraculous record.” Graham Coxon says, “We all feel purged.” Alex James confesses the song Pyongyang “made me cry.” And Dave Rowntree affirms, “We still sound like Blur.”
As their eighth studio album, The Magic Whip, heads for No1 this Sunday, all four have given individual takes on Blur’s surprise studio comeback. The seeds were sown in 2009 when guitarist Coxon returned to the fold for live shows but a chance break in 2013’s touring had even bigger implications.
Blur used the time to head into a cramped studio in Hong Kong, take Albarn’s song ideas stored on his iPad and fashion them into expansive jams. Then nothing until late last year when Coxon took the tapes to Blur’s old producer Stephen Street and an album began to take shape.
An enthused Albarn returned to Hong Kong for lyrical inspiration and…bingo!
ALEX JAMES often says “I’m just the bass player” when talking about Blur. But he shouldn’t be so self-deprecating because his infectious spirit and good humour gives the band its soul. For him, life is a whirl of cheese-making, being dad to five kids, organising his annual Big Feastival with Jamie Oliver, writing engagingly about food . . . and, of course, being in Blur.
I soon discover he’s thrilled about the latest chapter in a music career stretching back to those first sessions which produced She’s So High.
So how did you keep The Magic Whip a secret?
It was known as Project Miriam in my house, it was referred to as Miriam because we couldn’t tell the kids. It’s difficult keeping stuff secret in the 21st century.
Was the old Blur chemistry still there?
It’s shocking really how it does snap back together but it was there right from our very first rehearsal together in ’88. There’s this cassette recording on which you can hear the genesis of She’s So High. You can tell straight away it’s Blur and it couldn’t be any other band in the world. We were just really lucky to find each other.
Did you find it tough when Graham left?
Making records was OK because by that point we’d all been making them on our own and it wasn’t like making a record without Graham, it was like making a record with Damon. But live it was difficult. It took five people to replace Graham – three backing singers, an acoustic guitar player and an electric guitar player.
Nobody else could work out how to do There’s No Other Way.
Was it good seeing the reconnection between Damon and Graham?
There was a moment five minutes into The Magic Whip press conference when I just looked over at this album that I’ve longed for and just thought, ‘F***’, it is like a marriage. ‘Why can’t you put the lid back on the toothpaste?’ Be careful what you wish for. But you play the music and there’s something just wonderfully healing and joyful about it.
I couldn’t sleep the first couple of days we were rehearsing the record. It just filled me with so much joy.
What’s so special about being in this band?
A lot of people in bands end up finding the other members really grating. I really f*****g love the people in my band. We also drive each other absolutely mad . . . like your wife and your kids do.
Do you set an example to other bands that can’t get their heads together like Oasis?
There’s so few bands . . . I guess it’s cheaper to get a solo artist, there’s only one person. So the fact that we’ve just spent so many years playing hours, days, weeks, months, playing day in, day out, just having that sense of each other’s timing…
How do you sum up The Magic Whip?
I think it’s everything. It’s not a melancholy record but you definitely need that bitter-sweetness and the music expresses that feeling just wonderfully. There are moments of “let’s rock” and there are moments of “I’m in love”.
I think every Blur record has got lots of different centres, really. This sounds exactly like Blur in 2015 smashing the hell out of it in Hong Kong.
What’s your favourite track?
Pyongyang made me cry. It’s just beautiful.
WOULD we have Blur’s eighth studio album if guitarist Graham Coxon hadn’t had faith in the Hong Kong tapes? Probably not. He took them to producer Stephen Street, who worked with the band for most of the Nineties, and they fashioned something truly special. Next Coxon needed Damon Albarn to buy into the project and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Magic Whip is his first full album with the band since 1999’s 13 and I find this engaging, unassuming character keen to set the record straight about his departure and the subsequent reunion.
Is it fair to say you’re the driving force behind The Magic Whip?
It was a bit like when a car goes into the pit. We all know what job we like doing on the car at that point . . . someone loves to chuck the fuel in, someone likes to change the tyres . . . so I think I was like a general mechanic.
You must have spotted amazing potential in the Hong Kong material?
I think it was obvious to me, if not all of us, that we went somewhere every day. We got to the point, whether it was half an hour or four hours, where you’re supposed to go when you jam. You go into another place where you have absolute focus and everything else disappears. Going back to the hotel after every session, we all felt purged, like we’d got something out of our systems.
Why did you turn to Stephen Street?
I thought we needed a producer or some sort of grown up in the room. Stephen was the only person for it because of his history. We trust him and we can say exactly what we think. He’s meticulous, enthusiastic and has total respect for the material we record. I don’t know whether Damon thought it was an obvious choice but when I told him my reasons, he saw my point and he seemed quite relieved that the material was fantastic.
Were you worried about bringing the material to Damon?
I thought he would totally understand to be honest, which he did. We’re so English we don’t like to ask these questions but I thought it was a risk worth taking – what could I lose?
The four of you seem to have healed any rifts . . .
I think it was the pressure that tore us apart. You don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s great to be a teenager and want to be a guitarist in a group like The Who, which is what I wanted. But I didn’t quite realise how much it was going to hurt being in a group like The Who.
No matter how many books you read about bands, new ones are never going to learn from the old ones’ mistakes. They’ve got to experience it themselves and it puts you through an awful lot. Your friendships and your professional relationships suffer. You get more time hanging around in airports and less time actually writing music and if you’re not in the frame of mind you’ve got to get yourself in it pretty quick.
How do you think history will judge Blur?
Lots of people dislike us intensely and I can understand that because we’re sort of annoying. People don’t quite understand what we’re getting at. They don’t quite employ a sense of humour when listening to music or don’t believe that pop music is absurd. If you think back to Blur v Oasis, fans get partisan. They’re the hooligans, not the groups. The groups are getting on fine in the dressing room of Top of the Pops but the fans are having a big fight outside because they’re very protective.
Did you find it hard to keep The Magic Whip secret?
After three or four days of the first week me and Stephen were fiddling around, I was like, “This is going to be fantastic.” I couldn’t do anything and I was lying to my friends, and family…
What was your code name for the album?
Mine was just “work”. If you say it with a certain firm tone of voice, no one asks you what the work entails. But when Alex came into the studio, it got tricky because there were two members of Blur blushing and lying so badly.
FACE to face with Damon Albarn just before Christmas, I thought I detected a mischievous grin when the subject of Blur came up. I realise now he was keeping the unexpected album under his hat but, as he goes on to explain, there was good reason.
This year finds him juggling Blur gigs, including headline slots in Hyde Park and at The Isle Of Wight Festival, with wonder.land, his musical interpretation of Alice In Wonderland for The National Theatre, and his commitments to his favourite musical cause Africa Express.
Just back from a bender in Paris (who says rock and roll is dead?), he manages to be entirely coherent when we talk The Magic Whip and he even plays me some fascinating early demos from his iPad mini.
So let’s clear up why you wouldn’t tell me about the album before Christmas?
Do you know why I wouldn’t say? Because I hadn’t f*****g done it. I wanted to finish it before I started saying, “Yeah, yeah we’ve got an album coming out.” In addition to doing Alice, there was a very small hole in a very small needle of time that I had to get it done. I knew I really only had January.
Can you put the album in context with Blur’s history?
Yeah, it’s a miraculous record in many ways. With a hiatus of 12 years with the two of them (Alex and Dave), 15 years with the three of them (Graham, Alex and Dave), the prognosis was not always bright about how it would pan out.
Graham’s the only other full-time musician so the odds are stacked against us. The point is everyone has had to really allow this into their heads.
It’s like being in a relationship and 15 years after having a family, you suddenly have another child.
What’s your take on that lengthy hiatus?
I don’t think the years of radio silence were really because we didn’t like each other. It was just about being too reliant on each other and that was scary. When you rely on people and they let you down, it’s terrible. So we re-calibrated ourselves and came back not relying on each other.
Compared to the others, was The Magic Whip easy to make?
By far the easiest for me and all the annoying bits like sitting around and organising stuff, Graham did.
Are you pleased to get an album out of your reconnection with Graham?
It’s great. It’s not very often something just lands in your lap like this. I don’t want to sound too blasé but it is just another album. For me, that’s what I do. I make one album, then I make another. Sometimes they’re really good, sometimes they’re not as good. I put as much into every single one.
Graham and me? It’s still like playing together at lunchtime in the Portakabin outside the music department at Stanway Comprehensive School in the early Eighties. On a cold Wednesday in February when the heating’s not working. That’s what we have.
Would you like to do further projects together?
I would like to do something that is not necessarily a record but involves that same process we employed. Something other, a film score would be nice. We enjoy playing together.
Would there be a new Blur album if it wasn’t for those few days in Hong Kong?
No. There had to be that element of chance even though it was my idea to record. I brought in ideas on my iPad. It’s just standard GarageBand which is a fantastic thing. I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of things knocking about. We played loads and the ones they responded to, we ran with.
Tell me about Pyongyang, inspired by your visit to North Korea?
It’s about the day I spent visiting the mausoleum of the Great Leaders and the trees were talking to me: that’s what I call propaganda! The noise from the trees is gentle and there’s music. It’s disconcerting because you can’t see the speakers, unless there’s a species of North Korean tree that actually speaks.
Are you finding it hard to juggle your commitments?
As long as everyone’s OK about me having the odd crib sheet around because I can’t do those two things at once. I have that hat for one day and that hat for another.
What’s the hardest bit of your summer?
Four gigs in four countries in two days, with different bands. We’ll see how it goes. It might end up in disaster but at least my demise will be doing what I love doing.
WHEN I meet drummer Dave, he, like the rest of Blur, is suffering after a whirlwind promo trip to Paris involving a seriously late night. “I can barely speak at the moment,” he tells me sheepishly. But this thoroughly decent bloke warms up nicely to explain how he’s put his other career as a criminal lawyer on hold for Blur while still finding time to campaign for Labour in Norwich’s two marginal seats.
With the album coming out, are you in a good space personally?
I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve got the security of having a life and my s**t together in my lives outside Blur. I’m comfortable in my own skin really for the first time ever, which came about because I was forced to confront my own skin as a result of all that stuff (Graham leaving and the band’s long hiatus).
But now I’ve got my brothers back together. We still push each other’s buttons and yes we still get on each other’s nerves but we’re doing the stuff that we do.
After Think Tank, did you reckon it was the end of Blur?
At the beginning, I didn’t know what was going to happen. There were open wounds and I wasn’t sure which way it would go. I think if you’d asked me on day one, I’d have said, “That’s probably it”.
You tried to get selected by Labour to fight Norwich South, might you try again someday?
If I’d had no other interests at all and was just a kind of policy nerd, I’d have gone round the country trying to get elected everywhere else but all I had was that time. It was that or nothing.
Why did you keep the new album secret?
It was no secret that we’d done some recordings in Hong Kong but it seemed a bit of a laugh to keep the album secret. I didn’t imagine we’d be able to keep it . . . it’s the digital age, nothing’s a secret. Also, we didn’t know what form it would take. We’ve started a million things in our career but it’s finishing something that’s hard.
It must be nice to have something to show for the reunion that began in 2009 . . .
Yeah, I’m the eternal optimist. I was always relatively confident we were going to have another record. It seemed like an obvious thing to do for me. There was nervousness in us all that if we got back together, the spark would have evaporated . . . but clearly it hasn’t.
What was it like in Hong Kong?
The studio wasn’t a particularly alien environment, recording studios are the same the world over, but Hong Kong was a very different atmosphere, a very different place. I’m prone to claustrophobia and I find Hong Kong especially claustrophobic. It’s like Manhattan but with incredibly narrow streets.
The Magic Whip feels so much like a Blur record but is the fact that you’re all older and wiser reflected in it?
We’re the same people. If you stick us in a studio, we’ll make records that sound like us. A lot of people have been surprised that it still sounds like Blur. I would be gobsmacked if it didn’t. The next thing is always, ‘It sounds very different to the last record,’ but you could say that about every record we’ve done.
That’s a Blur trademark.