Blur are no longer the centre of Damon Albarn’s world and he says he finds the idea of turning into a career band like U2 “terrifying” – so is Think Tank the last waltz for the trio?
THIS CHRISTMAS, Blur will be the first band on Mars. As you read this, a tiny metal probe called Beagle 2 is somewhere between earth and the red planet, where it will search for signs of life.
When it touches down, on Christmas Day, it will send back a sequence of nine notes composed by Blur. These nine notes, broadcast across 250 million miles, might be the last we hear from them. On 12 December they play the last date of the Think Tank tour in Bournemouth, bassist Alex James’s home town. Beyond that nothing is scheduled. Perhaps they will regroup for another album, perhaps not. Perhaps errant guitarist Graham Coxon, who left during the Think Tank sessions in what drummer Dave Rowntree calls “a very messy and horrible divorce” will return; perhaps not. “You never know what’s round the corner,” says Damon Albarn, unhelpfully.
Think Tank is arguably Blur’s best album, and their current tour probably comprises their best live shows to date. From the balcony in the Cologne Palladium tonight we can see the crowd’s physical reactions to each song: bobbing like the tide to ‘Girls & Boys’, leaping into the air for ‘Song 2’ and arms outstretched, heads thrown back, to ‘Universal’. If this does turn out to be a farewell tour, it will be a triumphant one. It’s striking how many Blur songs sound like elegies and swansongs: ‘To The End’, ‘End Of A Century’, ‘This Is A Low’, ‘Tender’, ‘Out Of Time’ and, Think Tank‘s ‘Battery In Your Leg’. “This is a ballad for the good times,” croaks Albarn, “and all the dignity we had.” To his right stands former Verve guitarist Simon Tong where Graham should be and – who knows? – might one day be again.
With a keyboardist, percussionist and backing singers also on stage, Blur in 2003 is a nine-person operation. During the recording of Think Tank, producers, musicians and even co-writers came and went. After 15 years of Blur (Rowntree is 39, James and Albarn, 35) what was once a gang, as inseparable as the Beatles or U2, is now an amorphous project.
“You start off running around like the Beatles in Help! and you end up 10 years later like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, all with your own lives and you own concerns,” reasons James. “We’re just really good at making music together. We’re not very good at talking to each together, but we’re very good at playing together.”
James and Rowntree both admit that Blur could exist without them but it’s impossible to see how it could continue without Albarn, and he’s the one whose loyalties are most divided. This month he’s releasing a low-key solo album, Democrazy (so-called because “it stopped me from going crazy, by doing demos”). As if to prove his lo-fi credentials, he unzips a black leather case to display the four-track on which it was recorded in a succession of American hotel rooms.
“There’s some potentially very good stuff on there if I developed, but you have to have an understanding of musical process to be able to hear that,” he says loftily. “I don’t want people to buy something they’re not going to appreciate. I just don’t want people people to waste their money on it.”
Democrazy is not Albarn’s only extracurricular activity. Recently he has been in the studio with Terry Hall & Mushtaq (who are signed to his Honest Jon’s), Fatboy Slim, revered Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen and even the Strokes, although his backing vocals for Room On Fire went unused. There is a second Gorillaz album next year. Are Blur still the centre of his musical world? “No, I don’t have a centre, which sometimes is very exhilarating and sometimes is very confusing.”
Before Think Tank, Albarn had strong reservations about returning to Blur at all. “It’s just so fucking long,” he sighs. “I love it but it’s too long. It requires too much machinery to move it.” He gestures around the Palladium’s parking lot. “For some people, all they want to do is be in a band. Someone like Bono. They amaze me, that band, how they can keep their enthusiasm to do basically the same thing year in and year out. For me, that’s terrifying.”
AT THE beginning of 2001, Blur had effectively ceased to exist. Albarn had Gorillaz, whose album would eventually outsell anything by Blur, and his Mali Music project. Coxon had his solo albums and Transcopic label. Rowntree had his animation company, Nanomation, and James had his space travel, his occasional collaborations (most recently with Sophie Ellis-Bextor) and his time-consuming activities as a Soho gadabout. Blur was no longer entirely necessary.
“To all intents and purposes it had finished, because nobody had said, ‘Let’s make another record’,” says Rowntree bluntly, as dusk seeps through the tinted windows of Blur’s tour bus. “Nobody was crying themselves to sleep over that, and when it finishes no one will cry themselves to sleep.”
You can see the scientist in Rowntree. The way he talks about Blur is pragmatic and rigorous. He scrutinises the phrasing and motive of each question, like he’s peering at it through a microscope. “I’m not on a mission to express myself through my music,” he says, smiling. “I’m a little more straightforward.” The uncertainty over Blur’s future bothered him most, so he took the initiative in reassembling the band.
“I was trying to force the issue one way or another. Obviously, I wanted to carry on but not if somebody felt they had to do it. So it was about finding some kind of common ground.”
Did it bother you that Damon was devoting his energies to so many other projects? “It’s a question I don’t really understand,” says Rowntree. “How could that piss me off? How can Damon be too engaged with the world? How can he be making too much good music? And the unwritten assumption is that when Damon’s off doing something publicity I’m drumming my fingers on the table going, ‘Come on!’. I have several other lives that I lead. I just don’t lead them in the public eye, that’s all.”
He also resents the assumption that Albarn’s pacifist views, vocally expressed during the build-up to war in Iraq, are shared by the whole band (for the record, Rowntree supported the war). He emphasises, as if for the 1000th time, that Blur are very different people but that they are getting on fine. After all, they share the same tour bus and wouldn’t be touring at all if it wasn’t enjoyable; the costs actually outweigh the ticket revenue. For most of their career Blur have been defined by tension, but now they’ve finally achieved some kind of harmony. “Things are a little less frantic. We’re a little more in control, which makes the lows a little less low but the highs a little less high.”
Blur’s greatest highs and lows were compressed into the two-year period which began with the success of Parklife and ended with a shattered Albarn escaping to Iceland. Before then they were, in Rowntree’s words, “ambitious to the point of insanity”, kicking against their record label, America, their rivals (especially Suede) and each other. They had no interest in wallowing in the indie shallows with Kingmaker and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. They wanted to be pop stars and that’s what they became. Except, as we know, it wasn’t quite what they expected.
“You imagine that when you get what you always wanted it’s going to scratch the itch that you could never scratch – and it doesn’t,” says Rowntree. “So that was the rather painful lesson, and out of all of us, it hit Graham the hardest. He never really recovered from that. You discover that you’re looking in the wrong place for those answers, and that drives some people completely mad. You see them in the pubs in Camden, going ‘I was on Top Of The Pops once’.”
So why have Blur survived?
“An almost pathological stubbornness. We’re driven in a way that’s way beyond ambition, in a way that means we never really get to be satisfied. That’s the downside. The upside is it’s very easy to get out of bed in the morning.”
Longevity has taught Rowntree something else: never specify in advance the circumstances under which you would split up. “I’ve done too many of the things I said I would never do to start making arbitrary statements,” he smiles. “Other people may leave the band, other people may join the band. The only thing that is certain is things will change.”
WHEN ALEX JAMES was young he dreamed of living on a farm, “in a beautiful semi-wooded stream-y kind of place”. Then, at the age of 15, he went on an exchange trip to Berlin and fell in love with the glamour and grime of city life. Twenty eventful years later he’s finally bought that farm, just down the road from the one that belonged to the late Who bassist John Entwistle.
“It’s in the bass belt,” quips James, making tea in the tour bus kitchenette, “just outside the stockbroker belt.” In spring he married video director Claire Neate and they’re expecting their first child.
The new Alex James takes some getting used to. Sporting a beard and striped jumper, he looks like he’d be more at home beside a fire in a country pub than in the Groucho club. Except he doesn’t drink at all now. Contrast this with the 1990s when, as a rakish hybrid of Peter Cook, Oscar Wilde and Norm from Cheers, he spent an estimated £1 million on champagne and was one-third of Fat Les, an act that could only have existed under the influence.
“It’s like boarding a transatlantic flight, getting a record deal,” says James. “There’s somebody coming with a drinks trolley all the time.”
Were you an alcoholic? “Well, that’s a very vague word. I mean, you can spend a million pounds on champagne and not to be an alcoholic. The World Health Organisation’s definition of alcoholism, which I learned in my pilot training, is if alcohol harms your professional, social or family life – which would basically make everybody I know an alcoholic.” He pauses. “And that may well be true actually. I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Do you ever look back at your more extreme moments and wince?
He shakes his head. “I always giggle and sometimes go, ‘Oooooh fuck.’ It’s a mask to wear, isn’t it? A persona. But that’s who my role models were – all drunk, genius fuck-ups. I want to be a genius but I don’t want to be a fuck-up and I don’t want to be a drunk.”
James, like the rest of Blur, is not one for regrets. He insists, PG Wodehouse-ly, that “the whole of the ’90s was a lighthearted, gallivanting, roistering, rip-snorting fairground ride.” He would recommend it wholeheartedly. “You’ve got to push the boat right fucking out. It’s like being a kid on the beach poking around rock pools. You want to find out where the limits are. And there are no limits, really. You just have to work out how you want to live your life.”
On the page, James is all snappy theories and pithy bon mots. In person, and un-edited, he is different. Still absurdly likeable, but quieter and vaguer, fidgeting in his seat. No topic makes him more uncomfortable than that of Coxon. Did it surprise him that the guitarist left when he did?
“It’s really not something that I dwell on, but would I like to work with Graham again?” he says, substituting his own question. “Yeah, I would. But it’s not like I’m moping around all day. Maybe he’ll come back on the next one. I mean it’s not something I dwell on.”
It is a big deal, though.
“Yes, I guess I’ve just got used to it. It’s been a year and a half. If I’d been in prison for a year and a half, I’d stop thinking about the fact I was in prison. If you asked … You know, I talk to him.”
He’s my friend. There’s no subject of conversation you have to avoid talking about. People would rather hear that I think Graham’s an arsehole or that it’s all over without Graham. The answer is the thing wasn’t diluted by Graham not being there. It was made distilled for the time being.”
James is annoyed that Think Tank hasn’t sold more copies because he’s convinced (“sans doute“) that it’s the best record they’ve ever made. He’s more ambitious then ever, too. “I wasn’t really ambitious before. It was more like, ‘How can I stand behind Damon?’ You need someone like that in a band. At least half of being good is thinking that you’re good.” But the fierce, often petty competitiveness of old is gone.
“The music business is very much like a school ground,” he expounds. “People aren’t motivated by some incredibly deep thing inside them that they feel they have to communicate. That’s not how it works. It works like, ‘I’m going to write a better song than you because you shagged my bird or ‘cos you really pissed me off or just ‘cos I’m better than you, you silly cunt.’ But eventually you have to outgrow that and find your own reasons for doing what you do.
In the past, the music we made had its genesis in fairly negative energies – in hatred, dissatisfaction and mocking, sneery anger. But this record comes from fundamentally a very warm and hopeful place. Because there is hope.” He smiles beatifically. “I believe that now more than ever.”
ANYONE WHO’S seen the Britpop documentary Live Forever will remember the unintentionally comic scene in which Damon Albarn suddenly produces a little guitar on which he proceeds to strum for the duration of the interview. So, why little guitar, Damon?
“Because I was going to the studio and I had it with me,” he says brusquely. “When I watched it I said, ‘No way do I want to be in this film, I think it’s crap.’ And they got very upset, obviously. If they took out my section they didn’t really have a film. I felt bad, so it was like, ‘Alright’.”
Despite the fact that he may well be the single greatest musical talent to emerge from Britain in the 1990s, Albarn still provokes scepticism. One of the many polarities thrown up by Blur’s chart battle with Oasis was: Oasis, real; Blur, fake. (Incidentally, he tries to be magnanimous about his old foes. “I’m ever the optimist and I’d love to see them come back with a record that was worth playing. But you reap what you sow, young man…”)
The suspicion arises from the speed and enthusiasm with which he adopts new guises. He was branded a mockney circa Parklife, when he said things like, “I started out reading Nabokov and now I’m into football, dog racing and Essex girls.” (Actually, he went to comprehensive school and he was born in East London.) His hip hop makeover with Gorillaz inspired James’s infamously waspish comment that Albarn was “the blackiest man in west London”. Albarn’s creative restlessness is met with raised eyebrows; he’s a dilettante, they say, a chameleon, a poseur. The thing is, he has made friends, fans and collaborators of many of his heroes, including David Bowie, Terry Hall and Ray Davies and Can’s Holger Czukay. These aren’t people who are easily fooled.
He is also engaging company. True, his accent gets suspiciously more cockney when challenging support band the Coral to a football match and, yes, he’s prone to sudden flashes of irritation, but he is smart, thoughtful, funny and even a little humble. He does not, however, take kindly to the reminder that Blur’s former label boss Andy Ross once said that Albarn’s time at drama school helped him play roles as a songwriter.
“That’s bullshit,” he snaps. “That annoys me that kind of attitude – as soon as you’ve been to drama school you’re in some way acting. That’s up there with the idea that I must have gone to public school. It’s an excuse people use for not accepting you for what you are. I think now it’s accepted, but especially in the mid-’90s it was a stigma that we had. A few people in the press and a few people at a certain record label created that whole idea of North/South, all of that.”
You’ve compared yourself to Woody Allen’s chameleon character Zelig.
“Well yeah, it’s bloody obvious isn’t it? One day I’m a cartoon, the next I’m in a village in Mali, then I’m on a flying carpet over Marrakesh and then I’m doing American lo-fi music in hotels in New York. But I don’t blend in,” says Albarn firmly. “I am myself. I don’t change. I’m not a shapeshifter. I’m still me, wherever I go, but I do get about.”
Indeed he does. Next year he’s working out how to push the Gorillaz concept further and going to Nigeria to record with Tony Allen. Tomorrow, Blur have a day off and Albarn is flying home to spend it with his artist girlfriend Suzi Winstanley and their four-year-old daughter, Missy. He writes songs for Missy and burns them onto CD for her ears only. She’s also a big Gorillaz fan. “She was born into the fact that daddy was a cartoon. It sounds like a Sun headline: My Dad Was A Cartoon.” He laughs, a surprisingly deep and geezerish ‘Hur, hur hur’.
These days, Albarn tries to think of himself purely as a musician, not a celebrity. He wants to travel and hear more non-western music. He wants to try writing something that’s 45 minutes long instead of four. He says that there are ideas on Democrazy that could find a home as Blur songs but they will have to wait. “I couldn’t even contemplate another year just doing Blur. Contrary to what I’ve been saying, there are other things in life than music. And next year is very much about them.”
SO IS THIS a new beginning for Blur or a last waltz?
Albarn: “I don’t know if I’ll have time do anything next year with Blur, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t. You can’t have a dependable strategy. It doesn’t work like that. It isn’t life.”
Rowntree: “It could always be either. I don’t know how you would tell. I’d still be talking to you, I’d still be on stage tonight, we’d still bicker about something afterwards and then to bed at three o’clock. I don’t know what would be different.”
James: “Well, I’ll settle for that. That’s a pretty good ambiguity. Is it the beginning or end? Nothing’s certain.”
© Dorian Lynskey, Bang, December 2003