Time Out caught up with a re-formed and re-energised Blur, knee deep in rehearsals for their enormous summer gigs at Glasto and Hyde Park. We found them in chipper mood and itching to get on stage...
Back on the PopsceneTime Out perches in a north London rehearsal room as Blur run their backing singers through material for their upcoming gigs. The atmosphere can only be described as jovial. The band gently take the piss out of each other, and themselves, as they bash out ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘Chemical World’. Guitarist Graham Coxon exhorts his bandmates to ‘take it up a notch’, and singer/multi-instrumentalist Damon Albarn retorts that the statement ‘sounds like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson – “I say, old bean, let’s take it up a notch, what”’. The two of them grin at each other like Labradors. It’s hard to resist a paternal urge to give them a tray of Sunny D and biscuits then ruffle their hair.
The band are preparing for their two shows at Hyde Park this week, playing to well over 100,000 people. As a result the four of them are on a mini health kick, the band’s non-teetotallers having packed in booze for the duration of their dates, and they look all the better for it: clear skin, bright eyes, glossy coats, wet noses – the works. It’s a sight most Blur fans had resigned themselves to never seeing, believing there was too much dirty water under the bridge for them to reconcile creatively.
The fraught recording of their final album, ‘Think Tank’, convinced the four old friends that it was time to take a break – though it’s worth pointing out that at no point did Blur officially split up. While the band remained, mostly, on good terms individually, the vigour with which they embraced their new personal directions suggested they had little time for looking back.
Coxon and Albarn patched up – or rather, simply explained – their differences after meeting up during last October’s BBC Electric Proms. But even after the rapprochement of the former BFFs, the resurrection of Blur as an entity seemed unlikely. In fact, it only took a matter of weeks before the gang agreed to play as a band again, running through one of their albums every week, just for fun.
Seeing them together, it’s hard to believe there was ever anything seriously wrong: it’s clear that they’re genuinely excited to be playing together once more. And what’s really surprising is that they seem quite happy to be interviewed again.
You chaps haven’t been touring much lately…
Alex James ‘I think it all starts out like The Beatles running around in “Help!”, then ten years later it’s become something a lot more complicated.’
Why did you stop being Blur for so long? Did you feel the need to let your creative fields lie fallow?
Graham Coxon ‘Yeah – that was probably a great idea, it was just one that we didn’t come up with in anormal way. I think we were too scared of each other’s feelings to say that maybe we’d had enough for a bit. We all felt obliged to each other in a way, and that put pressure on. We had a responsibility to each other to do the work. When you have that, it’s very difficult to communicate the fact that anything should ever rest, because the machinery is huge.’
Was there a sense, since you were all distracted by your outside interests, that you should just go and indulge them?
Dave Rowntree ‘It was more that I woke up one day thinking: It’s all been a terrible waste of time! What does it mean, hitting things? It’s funny because people have jobs and dream what their life might have be like had they been a rock musician. Being a contrary kind of bloke, I was being a rock musician dreaming of what life might have been like had I been a lawyer or a politician. By a weird chain of coincidences I ended up working for an East End criminal law firm.’
You all went in divergent directions, musically, politically and dairily. Would you have imagined that those would be paths you’d end up on?
DR ‘Probably not, no, though none of them particularly surprises me. I mean, Alex has always had a passion for cheese, like I’ve always had a passion for the law. Taking that up as a career, that came out as the result of a kind of midlife crisis for me. I don’t know if Alex’s cheesemaking ambitions were the same.’
A ‘It’s been so good in so many ways, this whole thing. It’s been great seeing Graham making Damon laugh – it’s a bit like putting the Blues Brothers back together. We had to bust Dave out of law school and all the rest of it! Ha ha! It’s the right time. It was important for us all to go off and find out who we were, outside of the crutch of being in a big-ass rock ’n’ roll band.’
Blur were very much a gang, but now it seems like you’re a collective of evolved individuals…
G ‘Yeah. Ha ha ha! Well, we’ve gone on our little Troys, and come back with some booty. Mentally, culturally, whatever.’
Damon Albarn ‘Yeah, I think everyone has had an interesting period, you know, a sabbatical. That’s great: rock music isn’t everything – it can be very euphoric and resonate deeply with people, but it’s dangerous if it becomes your entire life.’
A ‘I think it’s good for us all to have done that. And, what did you say, become a collective of evolved individuals? Yeah, we have. I think we could only come back to it once that had happened, in fact.’
What’s it like being in a Blur staffed by grown-ups?
DA ‘I just can’t wait to get out there and see that same kind of energy that we had. If it is there, we’ll harness it. We’re not making it difficult for ourselves to be good, where in the past we did that all the time. We weren’t like Radiohead, for example. They’ve worked very hard at being good at being Radiohead, whereas we made it very difficult for ourselves to be good a lot of the time by excessive drinking and just being awkward. I feel we’re going to fulfil our potential this summer. I think the landscape will be different as a result.’
Life after ParklifeSo Blur, it seems, were done in by drudgery. Drink, drugs, tantrums and recriminations have become hallowed rock ’n’ roll clichés because they’re more interesting than normal life, whereas feeling tired and lost and isolated by the daily grind is all too familiar to most. Blur didn’t fade away so much as burn out. In the seven years since their last appearance as a four-piece, each member of Blur has pursued very different endeavours. Rowntree has been fighting crime. James has learned to make cheese. Albarn and Coxon have made their solo excursions into electro-world-hip-opera (Albarn) and post-Syd Barrett psych-punk-cum-alt.folk (Coxon).
These new directions seem not only to have rejuvenated the band’s spiritual batteries, but also given them time and space to grow up, which can be a difficult thing to achieve when you’re under contract to make money for a major label. All this behind them, it’s a safe bet that the Hyde Park gigs will be spectacular. The warm-up gigs have been eviscerating experiences. James gleefully explains that they are now actively enjoying playing songs which had at one point become fan-favourite albatrosses. The set-list is still being debated, but the crowd can expect long-dropped iconic tunes like ‘Country House’ alongside band favourites such as ‘Trimm Trabb’. They’ll even be wheeling out… what’s that one? You know, the one about the bloke with the pigeons.
It looks like you’re having an enormous amount of fun being and playing together again…
A ‘Yeah, it’s great fun, we all missed it. When we first came in, sat down, started working together, that kind of spark that was there the first day was obviously still there. You know, that spark that we all felt when the four of us first started playing together. You do wonder whether it is going to be.’
You look like a bunch of mates larking about…
G ‘Well, that’s exactly how it feels. ’Cos there’s nothing being promoted, there’s no pressure to maintain any commercial level of success or anything like that. It’s exactly like when we began.’
DA ‘It’s all good, we’re not in each other’s shoes at all, we’ve all got our own lives – families make a big difference, everyone’s got families; everyone’s got their own shit they’ve got to deal with.’
A ‘Like you say, it starts off being the best fun that you can have, being in a band, and then ten years later it’s just work. It’s like luxury: if you stay in it all the time, it’s just nauseating.’
DA ‘As soon as we finish the gigs, that’s pretty much it; there’s no guarantee that we’ll make another record or anything. We don’t need to discuss it, it’s not important at the moment. What’s important is just really representing all that work and all that heartache and all that joy, putting it into something which people can go away from feeling “I love that band”.’
A ‘Nobody’s coming back to it with any baggage, but with open arms and big grins! It’s happened at the right time.’
Has that open-heartedness helped you to reconnect as a group?
G ‘It’s fun to remind ourselves of each other’s idiosyncracies. Because all of our idiosyncracies I think have become more pronounced. Our little madnesses that we all have. We’re not quite so spiky. We’re all pretty much the same: it’s funny when we’re playing, and Alex is grooving, and Dave’s just looking slightly embarrassed and Damon’s aping around a lot. So, we’re fundamentally the same creatures, really. And I think the energy is there, totally. I don’t know what the shows will be like with the adrenaline of suddenly going on, but I’m sure they’re going to be pretty hectic. I can’t wait to throw myself around a bit.’
So you must be looking forward to the Hyde Park shows…
A ‘The Hyde Parks will be amazing. It’s the best thing you could do in some ways, split up for ten years. When we put Hyde Park on sale, it was a punt, really – “D’you think we can fill it? Ah, fuck it, why not?” Then it sold out in two minutes and we were like, “Fucking hell! Really? ”Actually, that was the most wonderful thing – that they were still interested.’
Are you at all nervous about playing massive live dates after more intimate spaces?
G ‘I haven’t given myself the opportunity, really. But no, I’m not worried about them. I have my own lovely vision of sunny skies and happy faces, you know. We’ve just been getting really into rehearsal rather than anything else. I haven’t been thinking that far ahead. I don’t get as nervous these days as I used to, anyway.’
Do you think putting yourself out front as a solo artist has had anything to do with that?
G ‘I think that’s helped me, to put myself in scary situations, playing with just acoustic guitars in front of people. And being older as well: I think I’m more accepting. I’m a little bit more CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] about it. I’m not like, “It must go brilliantly” – it’s not the end of the world if I miss a lick. It’s not going to be “Shit! What did I do?”, it’s going to be “Well, you know, things happen sometimes”. [Alex laughs] It’s just telling yourself that it’s not gonna detract from the experience if you make a boo-boo.’
DA ‘I’m not quite so terrified about going out on stage in front of 60,000 people as I was a month ago. But it’s still gonna be a leap of faith because I switched my stadium brain off many years ago and didn’t really anticipate doing it again.’
It’s interesting that you’ve made mini-festivals out of them, with a lot of new and more esoteric bands playing…
DA ‘I think it represents the kind of evolution of us all as individuals. But it isn’t too far off the beaten track that the people who come to see us are going to feel alienated by it. It gives them flavour of where we’ve been over the last however many years. I’ll just say one more thing: I’m so proud that I’m going be able to sing “Parklife” with Graham and Dave and Alex, which is one of the most familiar songs of the last 20 years, in the park it was written about. You don’t get a chance to do that very often in life.’
Do you think your songs will work on new levels now? ‘Death of a Party’, for example, sounds a lot more prophetic given the decline of New Labour…
DA ‘Yeah, I love that sort of time travel you get in music. And although this is only 15 years ago, the world has changed so dramatically – and I’m really excited to see how we as a collective react to it. A lot of these songs were written right at the beginning of that [the New Labour era of government], and yet they’re still here. Those songs weren’t very positive about the beginning of that period, even though people tried to turn it into “Cool Britannia”. But I think the songs have lasted, and that sort of cynicism in them is quite liberating again, because, well, we know that’s happened: it’s not even a mystery
any more. It’s not a prediction, it’s something that we’re living through.’
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