I’ve scanned in another old magazine feature on Blur. This is from Q magazine, cover date September 2012, before their Hyde Park performance at the end of the Olympics. Words: Miranda Sawyer. Pictures: Alex Lake.
The rehearsal room is full. Dancers place their limbs into arse-boggling poses. Singers yodel up and down scales. Scene-makers bang nails, stack chairs. Large concertinaed pieces of paper are stretched and folded back across the breadth of the rehearsal space. They make a shushing sound, like waves on pebbles.
Damon Albarn strides in and takes up a seat where he can see both the rehearsal action and the face of director Rufus Norris. His presence triggers something in the room, a shift of energy and focus, a sense that now things can begin (does this always happen to Damon?). Swiftly the run-through of Dr Dee starts, Albarn’s opera about Queen Elizabeth I’s advisor John Dee, a mystic, an alchemist, a mathematician and the wisest man of his age. We see ships sail, eras pass, people fall from the sky. Dee – overexcited, mad with the power of his mind – slashes at the air, drawing calculations with his fingers. And Damon sings his parts, bangs his foot loudly throughout, as though trying to make things happen faster.
Today, Damon is an opera composer and ensemble musician. Over the past few months, he’s also been a performer, producer, press bunny and film composer. And the lead singer, songwriter and frontman of Blur, with a gig to play, a single to release, an anthology to promote… an album to make? All to fit into a strangulatedly tight schedule.
Can a successful band be something you dip in and out of? Is it possible for Blur to exist – to thrive – if it’s just another one of Damon’s multifarious projects? What of Graham, Alex and Dave? Three-quarters of the band were waiting, tuned up and ready to make a new album. But if we’re to believe tweets from William Orbit, who was producing those sessions, Damon called a halt, for reasons unknown. Are Blur even a band any more? Or are they just individuals who get together when schedules allow, to play old hits and lay down half-formed ideas for the future? Is that a band?
In February, Damon took a week’s holiday and walked alone along the Devonshire hills in Dr Martens boots, to get in the frame of mind for the Blur projects ahead. “I need a long run-up,” he explains. Now there is no more time. Dr Dee is in front of him, but Blur is about to waltz in from the wings.
“You can’t choose what you’re famous for,” says Alex James to me. And if you were to turn Blur into a one-frame cartoon, it would be a single image from 1995. There they stand, Britpoptastic in their DMs and Fred Perrys. The next frame, of course, would be Oasis – and there would be a big “vs.” in between…
The Blur vs. Oasis singles battle in August 1995 was a national event, a game-changer, one of the few moments when mainstream culture was forced to acknowledge the power of pop. Popular mythology has it that Blur won the battle but Oasis won the war Instead it turned out that in the ’90s Blur achieved something bigger. They shifted the mainstream, not by compromising but by compromise’s opposite.
Blur moved from talented, drunk, not-quite-formed pretty boys through gauntlet-chucking grunge-killers to genuine, generation-defining pop stars.When they span out of the other side, soused and curdled by fame, they took the mainstream with them and twisted its tastes, flipping songs about heroin (Beetlebum) and throwaway thrashes (Song 2) to the top of the charts. Gradually they moved further and further away from the centre, until they could only view Britain from afar, and send wistful missives from Morocco that drifted in and landed softly, as if launched from another planet.
Today, 24 years since they first played together as Seymour, Blur are busy men. Damon and Graham Coxon with their music – Graham released A&E, his eighth solo album earlier this year. Alex James runs his farming business, writes columns and presents radio and TV. Dave Rowntree has a proper, turn-up-every-day job as a trainee solicitor. They’re all in long-term relationships and they all have kids, apart from Dave.
There is a lot of Blur about this summer. There’s the huge concert to close the Olympics in London’s Hyde Park on 12 August, with The Specials and New Order. There are the inevitable small warm-up gigs in places such as Margate. There is the release of 21, a dazzlingly complete anthology of Blur’s career including hours of previously unreleased material, DVDs, rarities such as unheard Seymour demos, an aborted Andy Partridge session for their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish, and a track called Sir Elton John’s Cock. And there’s a new Blur single, a double A-side Under The Westway/The Puritan out on limited-edition vinyl on 6 August. Everything requires band involvement: selection of tracks, a yes or a no, logistical discussions, being interviewed.
Meanwhile the Damon Albarn juggernaut rumbles on. There was the Rocket Juice & The Moon album – Albarn, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Tony Allen in a psychedelic African funk-groove – then Bobby Womack’s album, which Damon co-produced with indie magnate Richard Russell of XL Records (“Very important,” says Damon. “Bobby is one of a diminishing group of people who have first-hand experience of an older American community music. Plus, he’s Bobby
Womack”). And Dr Dee, the pretty, pastoral opera soundtrack.
Oh, and there are rehearsals for the opera itself, which has been recast, slightly rewritten and given a different ending. Still to come is an African performance project, which will take place in the UK in the autumn. “If everything goes wrong in the summer, at least I have that to fall back on,” says Damon.
There are rumours Blur will make another album. You have to wonder when, exactly, that could happen.
Graham Coxon is making a most extraordinary sound. “Screearghchkckckkckckk,” he says. “Fffthhtttpppaatrghle.”
It’s not actually him that’s speaking. It’s his guitar, but as several people have noted – producer Ben Hillier, Damon, Graham himself – Graham tends to communicate through whichever instrument he’s got hanging off him. We’re at the soundcheck for his Kentish Town Forum gig and judging by the onstage noises, Graham is wired, cranky, irritated. His new album, A&E, is full of twisted sonics, but joyful and exuberant too. I’m not sure that there’s that much joy onstage.
Afterwards, in that weird time between soundcheck and gig, in a weird room between band and stage, Graham’s mood is downbeat. “I’m seriously knackered,” he says. “I’ve never felt this tired.”
He’s halfway through his UK tour. Lots of little injuries – a lump on his head from a bizarre guitaring accident, blisters on ripped-up fingers – are compounded by “feeling, generally, that I’ve been hit by a truck”. You could blame it on his age – “I’m 43 and behaving like a 19-year-old” – but his not-so-well-being results from low budget gigging. Graham and his band are all travelling, hanging out and sleeping on one tourbus. If they stayed in hotels touring wouldn’t be financially worthwhile. But late-night, bus-bound living is wearing.
“I can’t go to bed,” says Graham. “I was like that with Blur in the mid-’90s. I’d be the last up, in some mad state, blasting an album out. If there was beer in the fridge and a CD to play, then I’d just have a party on my own.”
He hasn’t drunk alcohol for a decade or so, but he’s still the same.
“It’s just so unpleasant, the bunk situation. So I stay up till four in the morning and then finally get in the bunk and read, and then lie awake.And then I wake up early and roll around in the bunk, because the driver’s turning corners… I don’t want to moan, but even the waiting around makes you tired. You go into a weird paralysis, a kind of shutdown. You find it impossible to put the kettle on.”
The highlight of every musician’s day, and the very point of touring, is supposed to be playing live. But, oh dear, despite ecstatic reviews the gigs aren’t all going as Graham had hoped. He made A&E for the kind of kids – teenagers, early 20s – who look cool, get drunk and throw themselves around indie clubs. But they’re not the only ones who turn up to the shows. There are older people too, and “they’re a bit watchy”. “I get pissed off with them just standing there and the only way to do anything about that is to try harder, give it everything I’ve got.” Hence the injuries.
Graham keeps laughing at himself, but it’s clear that he really isn’t happy. On his odd day off on this tour he’s not left his hotel room, just stayed in, listening to music and bathing and showering obsessively, trying to clean off the tour grubbiness. He won’t go down to breakfast, partly because he can’t cope with “strangers eating slimy eggs and sausages” – but also because it’s his tour. “I’m responsible for all these people leaving their homes,” he says, “and so I have to be cheerful, grin and go, Morning!”
What would he rather be doing? “Learning something.”
It was different when he toured with Blur. After Parklife, the band earned money so everything was posher: nice hotels, planes and trains in between. The four of them were so used to each other that they didn’t mind spending time apart. I mention Graham’s mood to Damon later and he says, “It’s not that easy being the frontman.” Alex thinks, “Graham has an amazing ability to make you feel sorry for him.”
He’s certainly in the epicentre of glumness right now. He describes a recent encounter with a fan. Graham was having a cigarette outside a café when a bloke came up and said he loved A&E and so did his wife. So much so that they’d both downloaded it. From Pirate Bay. What did Graham say?
“I said, I would prefer it if you fucking bought it, rather than stealing it. He went all huffy, like, I’ll go and buy it from HMV if you feel like that. I said, Don’t bother. What is it, a privilege to be making music? I wouldn’t have bothered slaving away learning the guitar when I was 13 if it was. I always thought it was what I would do for a living. I would have been a painter if I just wanted the privilege…”
Graham is sensitive – it’s like he has a layer of skin missing – and that can make him moody. He finds aspects of the world hard to deal with: there’s so much creativity around, but nothing really impacts. Graham doesn’t hold on to the past but his tastes are unchanging. He lives in the same Camden house, with his girlfriend, daughter Pepper and Jack Russell, Frankie. He likes the same stuff: Converse, DMs, stripey T-shirts, Levi’s. When you talk to him about bands, he talks about their sonics. He never liked Suede, not because of any beef between Brett and Damon but because their sound was too “middly’.
Mention of the upcoming Blur gigs does not lighten Graham’s mood. “It’s just got to be a good show, hasn’t it? That’s the anxiety. And we’ve done it once. Maybe people aren’t so gagging for it this time. I’d like to do some experimentation, to make it different, some new stuff… But it’s a big show, with other people, so maybe it’s not the right time to do that.”
For the first 10 years of Blur’s existence, music poured out of the band. Before Parklife, they had an arrangement with a studio owner where he would give them £50 between them – enough for pizza and a packet of fags each – and charge it back to the record company as an extra spool of tape. Blur were broke, so they went to the studio all the time.
The rarities on 21 give a taste of those days. The Beetlebum demo has a mournful guitar wandering over it. Seymour’s four track demo is straightforward but tuneful, with Damon yowling his vowels and Graham’s guitar making unexpected noises. Woodpigeon Song is great. And Sir Elton John’s Cock, unexpected1y, is a wistful To The End-style thing. It appears to be about lost friendship.
Alex James’s house in the country – Kingham, West Oxfordshire – is not as big as the Blur song might lead you to believe. It does have a lot of outbuildings, though, and a bit of land, and a proper view over rolling hills.
In the main building Alex has an office, which is a B+ standard tip with piles of books and amps with toys on the top, and a desk with a Mac on it. “I know where everything is!” he says. Nearby, there’s the kitchen with traditional British sandwich fillings – baked beans, fish and chips, chicken tikka – on the table awaiting his Jubilee consideration, for Alex is now a food columnist for The Sun. On the wall there’s a picture of his five kids, Geronimo, Artemis, Galileo, Sable and Beatrix, known as Beetlebum (“There’s a better one where none of them are smiling. They look like Joy Division”) and a large, detailed drawing by Geronimo. It’s of a death factory. Multitudinous stick men travel along moving walkways to areas marked ACIT (acid), LAVE (lava) and PRANAS (piranhas).
Alex guides us through the cobbled courtyard, flipping his hand at some stables. “That one’s going to be a Lego room,” he says. And what are you going to farm in this one? “Au pairs.”
Ah, Alex Not quite so changed, then. Many assume that Alex James has been possessed by an alien being, his louche Soho character replaced by a Cheese-Man-cum-Reality-Show-Star replicant. A lot of Blur fans do not like this. He has stopped living the life for them – shagging pretty ladies and swinging from Groucho Club chandeliers with Damien Hirst and Keith Allen – and begun hanging out with Jeremy Clarkson. Can there be anything more dastardly?
Alex’s career as the drunkest pop-star in the world ended abruptly, when he met film producer Claire Neate during the recording of Blur’s seventh, Graham-less and most recent album Think Tank in 2002. He asked her to marry him. They immediately moved to the countryside, gave up alcohol and started having babies. “I lost all my casual boozy mates and it really rattled all my intimate friendships too,” he says. “It was a massive leap of faith. I was with a woman I didn’t really know. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have a job really, either.”
Post Think Tank, Blur fizzled. Graham was out of the band. He and Damon weren’t talking. Albarn was busy with Gorillaz. Even though Alex was still on good terms with everyone – even though, every so often, he would get together with Damon and Dave and put down a backing track – the band seemed very remote.
But owning property means you have to pay for it. So Alex landed a column in The Independent about his move to the country, and wrote a well-received book about his pop life, A Bit Of A Blur. He did some radio presenting (Radio4, Classic FM) and reality television, including BBC2’s Apprentice-with-batons show Maestro. “My kids thought I was a conductor until Blur played in 2009,” Alex says.
“Being a writer and having a voice was what stopped me going bonkers at the beginning,” he says. “It still does, really. I speak to 15 million people a week through The Sun. I find it hard, but then making music was hard. Anything worthwhile is hard work.” He sort of drifted through Blur, he thinks, because the band had a strong leader but also its own momentum. He’s more driven now, he says – focused on the farm.
I suppose this is the time we should talk cheese, but I hate the stuff. And anyway, it’s not the cheese that people object to, it’s the cheesiness. Alex won’t rise to the bait. There’s a gap in the market for a Great British Cheese-meister and he wants to be the man who can. In many ways, he thinks of it like pop music. “I just want to make the best cheese I can, and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus,” he teases.
But he also argues that food is more rock and roll than rock and roll these days. “Chefs are telling everyone to fuck off and marrying supermodels and buying yachts like Duran Duran in the ’80s! Musicians have to turn up early and do breakfast television and be really nice to everyone. Food is the big story of the last 10 years. It’s all food programmes on Saturday morning TV these days, not pop shows.”
Alex held a food and music festival, Harvest, on the farm last year, which was where he was photographed, infamously, with David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson. He says he was very grateful that they came – Cameron is his local MP – and that it was a brilliant event. “I spent 20 years in a rhythm section with a stalwart of the Labour Party, but then I stand next to the Prime Minister for 10 seconds… I’m not driven by politics at all.” The festival, although a success, collapsed owing money because the production company declared themselves bankrupt. “I couldn’t talk about it because of the legal action. All I’ll say is that the bankruptcy laws are a joke.” But he’s hosting another, with Jamie Oliver, in September: The Big Feastival.
And he still makes music. “I play every day, but it’s a bit sad, like playing football by yourself. I like playing to the kids.” He’s worked with KT Tunstall, Florence & The Machine, Kevin Rowland. Three years ago, he joined Bad Lieutenant, the off-and-on New Order spin-off band comprising Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Phil Cunningham.
Of all four Blur members, Alex seems keenest to make another record. He’s frustrated and sentimental about it. It would only take two weeks of rehearsal for it to happen, he reckons, and he’d hoped it would happen in 2009. Glastonbury had been such a success and everyone was so emotional that Blur were back. But it didn’t.
“We need a grown-up record and Blur can do it,” he says. “Bands like the Foo fighters are still trying to appeal to teenagers. It feels to me like there’s more gas in the tank for Blur, but I don’t know. Sometimes I really do think that this might be the end. Still,” he smiles, “plenty of operas for you to go and see.
When I meet Dave Rowntree, in an almost empty bar in London’s Barbican Centre, he’s wearing a suit and tie. The effect is not shocking, exactly, but it is a complete overhaul. An update. Dave 2.0. This is who Dave is these days.
Blur’s drummer is in the later stages of his law training, and is working for Kingsley Napley, hoping to specialise in criminal litigation and defence. “Not legal aid, no. More like City boys gone wrong,” he says. He enjoys it. “It’s complicated, and it means something. That’s what got me into music, as well. It’s complicated and it means something.”
We go inside to eat and, as we sit down, I make the mistake of referring to law as Dave’s “day job”. “It’s my job,” he says, shortly. “I don’t have a day job and something else.”
Dave stumbled into law when he helped a lawyer friend with some technological evidence. After Blur he’d run a small animation company which won awards and made a couple of late night series for Channel 4. Then he became involved in local politics. “I’m an activist, not a politician. I go round knocking on people’s doors, listen to their problems.”
He discovered that he enjoyed helping people, changing their lives for the better. Music betters people’s lives too, he thinks, but musicians never see that for themselves. Politics and the law are hands-on. “It satisfied a yearning in me that I didn’t know I had,” he admits. “I never knew what I wanted until I stumbled across it.”
Dave still makes music. “I’ll always be a musician, but I might not always be in a band.” At the moment, he’s writing tunes for his law firm’s choir. And he’s pragmatically positive about Blur’s future. They are working together, but one of the problems of being in Blur is that you can’t plan the future because whenever the four of them are together, they don’t plan – they just record. But you need two or three months to record an album, and then you have to do a tour… Dave would love to do it, and thinks an LP is “reasonably likely”, but he also has sympathy for Damon’s position.
“There has to be a reason for it. Anyone can make a shit album, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Millions are sold every year, I understand. Well, thousands. But, you know, making good music means having good ideas beyond the music, a conceptual element, and that’s a really tiring thing for Damon.”
At the moment, Dave is fitting Blur into his allotted holiday time: 25 days a year. He doesn’t believe you can do something properly unless you’re fanatical about it – whether that’s music or law- so it’s unclear what he’ll do if Blur commit to something more than a one-off gig. Still, unlike most musicians, he actually enjoys touring, loves the travelling and the playing. I imagine he’ll cope.
He’s an interesting man, Dave Rowntree. Always thinking, and not always about what you’d expect. His dad was a radio engineer in the RAF and he taught young Dave how to build a wireless. As a kid Dave spent hours tuning into fascinating foreign stations like Radio Moscow. Dave has recently returned to his childhood obsession, building radios and talking on amateur radio worldwide. “I’m one of those voices wafting around the world.”
Expanding on his theme, Dave explains that the cost of putting satellites into near-earth orbit – a recurrent Blur obsession – has become much cheaper recently. It now costs only about £25,000. Soon it’ll be around £10,000. You can only put something small up there for that price: say, a radio transmitter big enough to cover an area the size of Southern France for a few seconds at a time before it sails on by. So: you can talk to a huge area for a few seconds at a time. What do you want to say?
We finish our tapas, and I think: you don’t get that kind of conversation with many drummers. Except, of course, Dave isn’t just a drummer any more. It makes you wonder what we want from a band like Blur – from any band that we liked when we were younger. Do we want them to stay the same forever, to remain running on the spot? Even though they changed completely, even in the time they were in a band together? I think we do. It’s a way of holding on to our own youth, of ignoring how our own lives have changed. “They’re exactly the same!” we say, with a sigh of relief.
That’s why Damon’s musical career post-Blur and Gorillaz is still treated as a series of pretentious side-projects (“a minor addition to the Albarn canon,” said one review). It’s why everyone hates Alex’s cheese, why people laugh sideways at the idea of Dave getting involved in politics or law, and why only Graham seems to have credibility – because his tastes don’t change, because he’s remained stubbornly faithful to the indie cause. Pop music is the ultimate job. You are not allowed to leave it behind, to grow out of it, to grow up.
These days, it’s hard to meet Damon Albarn anywhere other than at 13, his West London studio. His working life is here, on different floors: a studio, a small office, a shower, a kitchen-cum-hang-out room with enormous window-doors that open on to a balcony overlooking a train track. There are always people around: scruffy blokes in the studio, efficient women in the office, and often someone Damon doesn’t really know who is busily doing something to do with him. A marketing person. A cameraman. Someone from the record company.
Every day, when Damon arrives (usually around 10am), he whacks a load of knobbly fruit and veg into a blender for a juice. Beetroot, ginger, carrots, oranges. Today, he does it with extra force. He is annoyed. It has just been announced that the Olympics opening Hyde Park gig will have a line-up of Paolo Nutini, the Stereophonics, Snow Patrol and Duran Duran. Damon feels that this will reflect badly on Blur’s closing gig.
He’s probably over-analysing – do people even associate Blur’s Hyde Park gig with the Olympics? – but of course it is his job to care. Anyway, before that there is Dr Dee to worry about. Like his previous musical/opera/whatever Monkey, Dr Dee was premiered at the Manchester International Festival and, like Monkey, it wasn’t entirely complete at the time.
“I’m a blind novice with all these things,” Damon says. “I just have to go with where I’m at. Some people would never reveal their work at the stage I do.” Damon talks the talk of a creative, these days, rather than a pop star. It can make him sound obtuse, even pretentious. He insists he’s not trying to be. He just puts work onstage – DrDee, Monkey, even Gorillaz as a live experience – assesses it, and then tweaks it to make it better. Dr Dee began as a song cycle and is a strange dual project, because it’s a personal record. “It’s emotionally how I feel, I am baring my soul on it.” But it’s also about the life of a 17th-century mystic. Can we tell which is which?
Damon goes into his studio and comes back up with a large, old book, wrapped in a scarf. It’s one of Dr John Dee’s actual notebooks, written in 1689. Damon bought it at a Christie’s sale. Amazingly, he was the only bidder.
It’s quite something to see John Dee’s actual writing, his notes from his communions with the spirit world. Dee was a proto-scientist, a gifted man who believed in ghosts and mathematics and the notion that the world was something more than it seemed. As we leaf gently through the pages, scrawled with diagrams and slanting script, it reminds me that Damon’s dad used to send him letters written entirely in maths.
How does Damon feel about playing old Blur songs?
“You can’t change your old stuff,” he says. “If you play it, you have to play it how it was then. And that’s strange, trying to align where you are as an individual right now, with something that represents essentially the beginning of your whole journey.”
Damon knows, too, the restrictions of playing big gigs. He learnt from headlining Glastonbury first as Blur, and then a year later as Gorillaz. Blur was a huge success, Gorillaz, less so. For the latter show he fatally mixed lesser-known songs with the hits. “It doesn’t work,” he concedes. “That size of audience are not interested in that. You’ve got to shoot them right between the eyes, and you’ve got to keep shooting them between the eyes for however long it is that you choose to be on that stage.”
Will Blur do another album?
“It’s very much on my mind. I feel very… torn between a lot of different emotions. I’m undecided about how I feel. The problem is, I’m constantly asked about it and I don’t really know. Genuinely, as a human being – not as Damon Albarn, whatever that is – as just a person, I don’t know how I feel. There’s part of me that would love to be able to bring it into our 40s and our sort of family world. But does it belong in that world? That’s the other side of it. Do any of us need that? And I have got so many more interesting things to do.”
The biggest pull, for Damon, is his relationship with Graham. They began their journey at school when Damon was 12, and Damon’s daughter is 12 herself now. Imagine looking at it from her eyes, he thinks. Meeting someone who will prove to be more than just a friend, knowing that your destinies are going to be tied together from that point.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” says Damon, “butI do like to stand on my own two feet. And I did very well with Gorillaz, but that’s in hiatus at the moment… [Damon and Jamie Hewlett fell out over the last album, supposedly because Jamie felt that the music was superceding the visuals]. I suppose I feel a little more vulnerable than I did prior to that happening. If there was ever a time for me to soften in my stance, then I suppose it’s now.”
Does he realise how hard it must be for Graham, Alex or Dave, waiting for Damon to make his mind up? Or is he waiting for something else?
“I don’t want to just do gigs,” he says. “I want to do something that has some genuine resonance and helps explain to me why I am there. Something that explains to everyone who is in the field why they’re there. I do believe in the spirit. It’s what drives me, it’s what has driven me to explore all of this mad, esoteric stuff with John Dee.”
He finds the popular reaction to his non-Blur activities frustrating: oh, what the fuck’s he doing now, it’s really complicated. But Damon doesn’t think it’s complicated. “It’s about magic, and striving towards those rare moments of magic in your life. Like when Torres went round the keeper and scored against Barcelona…
“When we are all gone, there will still be a few atoms out there which have got that little electricity. And that’s magic.”
In a white-painted, high-ceilinged factory, Blur are having their picture taken. They stand together, facing forward, their shoulders and limbs overlapping in that confrontational, intimate way that photos require. They don’t talk to each other much. Damon throws out some banter to the room (“The first 10,000 photo shoots are the worst…”) but otherwise they just do the job. With a practised ease they’re probably not even thinking about, they stand there: being Blur.
When Damon arrived and saw Graham, he lit up, in various senses. His face creased into a smile and they went outside for a smoke. Dave stayed and talked about the stars. He wants to visit Nevada, the new Silicon Valley of space exploration. Alex placed some samples of his cheeses-in-progress – “they’re demos, they’re white labels” – in the fridge and joked about whether to wear plus fours.
When they come together they stand like they’re supposed to – like an all-male family, like a scrappy team. For a few moments, time bends back on itself: I’m standing behind the camera, making notes while Blur pose for pictures, but it’s 20 years ago.
The session ends quickly. They leave together. A band. For now.