Blur’s Guide to Hong Kong
By Kristen Yoonsoo Kim
Reuniting a band can be “problematic,” but frying bees and picking out a frog to eat? No problem.
Blur’s latest record, The Magic Whip, would have never came to existence had it not been for one big bump in the road a couple of years ago. A series of will-they-or-won’t-they moments during their 12-year hiatus had many fans believing Blur was at its end, while holding out hope that it actually wasn’t. But a fateful mishap (the cancellation of Tokyo Rocks festival in 2013) had Blur stranded in Hong Kong in the midst of their Asian tour, and it was during these five days that they got in the studio to jam out some new tracks — tracks that would eventually end up on their eighth full-length. The Magic Whip is an interesting return for these English lads. Previously unmistakably British in topic and songwriting style, they’re now channeling Asian influences in sound and aesthetic.
With Hong Kong being a key player in the making of The Magic Whip, Blur’s Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon sat down with Billboard to tell us about weird food recommendations, Eastern influences, discovering China’s history, and more.
I was living in New York when you guys announced the Hyde Park reunion show in 2009 and I bought a ticket. I don’t know why, because there was no way I was going to make it to London. I just got really excited and bought a ticket. I never made it.
Albarn: Oh no! Oh that’s such a sad story.
It’s the saddest story. But I’m gonna make it to your show tonight. Anyway, congratulations on your new album. It’s really fantastic.
Albarn: Thank you.
I think when bands come back…
Albarn: It’s problematic.
There’s usually a lot of skepticism.
Albarn: I think the genesis of it was so… I was pretty hard-lined about not doing anything. And then there was this moment when I said, why not — there’s no pressure really; we’re in Hong Kong. It’s a long way away. There’s only a small studio. I thought it would be a laugh. Literally, there was no pressure. Five days of playing is never a bad thing. Because we weren’t making a record — in my mind we weren’t — we were just mucking around ideas. Nothing was finished. It was just sprawling for 20 minutes, half an hour. Playful, really. I hate to use the word “jam.” It has such bad connotations. I wish there was a better word. We were jamming.
So how much time did you spend in Hong Kong besides those five days?
Albarn: Just five days. I mean, I’ve been there a lot anyway through Gorillaz. We made a decision with the guy we’ve been collaborating with, Tony Hung. My perversity as an artist is I thought that would be great for it to have no evidence of being a Blur record.
Could you tell me a little bit about how being there influenced the sound of the record?
Albarn: I’ve made quite a few records in short periods of time — in Africa mainly, a couple on tour. I love that thing that emerges where you are. And it’s kind of arbitrary where you find yourself. Everything can become relevant in making a musical landscape. My companion is my iPad and I’m always sampling stuff. Inevitably, that comes in. Also the studio was really basic, so the relationship between our instruments we brought and the power sources were not calibrated. So you get weird stuff like that.
You guys have always done a great job with humor. Was there something in particular in Hong Kong that hit you in an abstract way?
Coxon: I don’t know, probably. But it was probably the stuff that would hit me in New York. It just feels different. My experience in New York is mellow compared to my experience in Hong Kong but it was new and unknown. I cope weirdly with the unknown. It makes me want to kind of gingerly walk around. When we decided we were going to make an album, or at least go into the studio for five days, that was getting slightly into the nitty-gritty of things. Mixing with people… All this stuff.
Albarn: I’m the complete opposite. I love the unknown as the context of making music. It’s the best.
Like the foreign language, and…
Albarn: Everything. It allows you to step outside of yourself. When I went back to Hong Kong to work out what sort of story I was going to tell. There were hints of it in what I put down in Hong Kong but it was just sort of abstractions, ideas. I had there, “There were too many of us in tiny houses,” and that was it. That’s not enough. You’ve gotta explain why there are tiny houses, and I probably still haven’t explained. Because I don’t ever explain things clearly.
Albarn: Yeah but tiny houses isn’t just about population. It’s about the Internet, and the house being the computers in the windows, the way we share everything. I mean, this is something I was really seduced by traveling around China. I’ve been to a lot of China — I went five times when I was writing (the musical) Monkey: Journey to the West, and I had very articulate guides. Chen Shi-Zheng, the director I made Monkey with, is a child of the Cultural Revolution. He escaped and was coming back, so I was getting a firsthand experience of what it was like to grow up in the Cultural Revolution, while I was traveling around China. It’s essential insight.
On a more playful level, I love the translations, and the idea of the democracy protest, which I missed when I came back, but was very aware of. It took place in Happy Valley. As a songwriter, you can go anywhere with that, because there’s such tension with what happened and the name of the place… Being British, we have very strong connection.
Because it was a colony, right?
Albarn: Yeah, and if you know your history, absolutely awful things were created by the British through Hong Kong, like opium. The first kind of state drug dealers, really. It’s a fascinating place. And the islands! The fact that you can get on a ferry and disappear, and in 45 minutes you can be on an island and go to fishing villages… It’s so close to this Blade Runner kind of metropolis.
Yeah. I want to get a little bit of the Blur guide to Hong Kong. Was there a certain food you ate a lot?
Albarn: I just ate everything. When you say “Chinese food,” that doesn’t explain anything ’cause it’s so diverse.
So what’s the weirdest thing you had?
Albarn: The most surprisingly tasty thing, which isn’t very PC (but then again a lot of Chinese food isn’t PC), was bees.
Bees? How do you eat bees?
Albarn: I had fried bees, which was really nice.
I was scared you were gonna say dog for a second.
Albarn: I haven’t had dog. I have had frog, but it was presented in an unorthodox way. I mean, it was about freshness and seeing what you were going to eat. The way it came out, it was a live frog. It was a specialty frog restaurant. They brought out the frogs and I said, “I’ll have that frog.” Coming from Britain, we’re very uptight about (and utterly in denial about) the process of the animal turning into food, whereas I think there’s a much more relaxed, earthy take on the process.
How do you pick a good frog?
Albarn: I don’t know! I mean, the key is to not get too attached.
Don’t name it. That’s the key.
Albarn: Yeah, don’t name it, definitely.
What’s your subway tip for getting around?
Albarn: I mean, it’s a brilliant system, really well maintained, always on time, very clear. You don’t really get confused. We were traveling from Central to Jordan, and Jordan I use quite a lot in the lyrics. Jordan to me is the Jordan River. When I was working with Bobby Womack, he used to sing about it a lot, so I think of him. This is the thing… the tapestry you weave is so hard to really explain. As Graham said, it’s about abstract, isn’t it?
I want to ask you about the ice cream imagery and the song, “Ice Cream Man.”
Albarn: The sinister ice cream man with his white gloves [laughs]. I set him in context of the protest. He’s a policeman, and the whip is the state control. But the ice cream man is really sinister…
Coxon: When I was a kid, I imagined the bloke in the ice cream van liked children. I’m older now and I’m not sure if he likes kids. He’s just got a job. And then the other extreme is he’s something far more sinister than that.