After reuniting in 2009, Blur upped the ante on their comeback in 2012 with a series of huge summer shows, complete with new songs. With ‘The Magic Whip’, their first album as a full band in 16 years, out this week, here’s the moment it became clear the return of the Britpop band wasn’t a once-more-around-the-block nostalgia trip, but a whole new chapter in which new tracks were being slowly and covertly pieced together…
“Hopefully it won’t take quite as long to learn all the songs again this time,” laughs Damon Albarn, puffing on an enormous spliff. “For me personally, it’s a very sober regime. I have to clean my act up completely. I can’t perform with the right intensity unless I do.”
It’s 11am in a west London rehearsal studio. So far, the closest Damon has got to cleaning up his act is dusting the ash from the sleeve of his standard-issue navy Fred Perry jacket and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. For the past hour Damon, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree have excitedly told NME about Blur’s plans to return to the UK capital’s Hyde Park this summer for a bigger, better and even more epic show than their triumphant reunion gigs of 2009. They’ve also vigorously denied that they’re making an album (then kinda admitted they are), owned up to being almost there with a brand new track (then insisted it’s little more than a jam), and proceeded to contradict themselves, each other and every interview they’ve done in the past two and a half years with the odd shrug, occasional barb and the twinkle-eyed charm of four on/off mates limbering up for a massive summer blowout. Sample question:
NME: Will Blur be making a new album?
Damon: “Don’t count on it.”
Graham: “We’ve got commitment issues. But it’ll probably happen.”
Alex: “There are definitely no plans to make an album.”
Dave: “There’s a lot of appetite out there for new Blur music. It’s no secret that we’re working on something.”
The one thing they do all agree on is this: On August 12, 2012 – despite Damon announcing from the stage that their headline set at T In The Park 2009 was “our last ever gig”; despite him telling NME less than three months ago, “I just don’t know if anyone would want to see it [Blur live in the UK] again. Do people genuinely want to go through all that again?” – Blur will headline (deep breath) the BT London Live Closing Ceremony Celebration Concert, the final event in London’s 17-day celebration of the 2012 Games at Hyde Park. There will be 80,000 people in a field going bananas. It will be Blur’s single major live performance of 2012. Excited? You bloody well should be.
“It’ll be brilliant,” beams Damon, huddled next to Dave on a knackered-out sofa at the back of the modest rehearsal space where they’ve been meeting up in secret for the past few weeks. “It’ll be a proper party environment. It’s the closing night of the Olympics. Our raison d’être is to provide another celebration on a fantastic day.”
“I think the shows we did in 2009 are the best we’ve ever done, so this is exciting,” agrees Alex, nursing a cup of tea (NME can confirm that Alex’s makes an awesome cuppa). “Dipping into Blur occasionally is like staying in a really amazing hotel, or going to Paris. If you live there you lose all sense of it. This will be like a…
“… Big knees up,” laughs Graham, looking typically manic. “A flippin’ right do!”
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NME: How is this going to be different to 2009? Will you play any new material?
Graham: “Doubt it.”
NME: So you definitely won’t play any new songs?
Graham: “I don’t know. Maybe. We might have new material, we might not…”
Two weeks before NME joins Blur in their den, William Orbit, producer of 2009’s ‘13’, takes to Twitter. “I’m in the studio with Damon A from Wednesday!” goes the first. “Hi Graham! Loving the guitars you laid down! Vocal session March 3!” comes the excited second. On his Facebook, he’s even more candid. “I’ll be producing a couple of tracks with Blur next week. Just for the sheer musical blast of it. My favourite band in the entire cosmos!”
“Yeah, William Orbit’s been down to rehearsals, and yeah, we’ve been working on a new song,” says Alex, reluctantly. What we’ll discover today is that while the band are more than happy to yap about the upcoming Hyde Park show – even going as far as revealing that they’ll be playing a bunch of as-yet-unannounced warm-up shows that will, in Damon’s words, “start really small and build up” – when it comes to discussing the new track they’re working on, they’re less keen. Graham describes it as sounding “Mossy. It tastes a bit of sea salt. We’re still messing around with some of the flavours of it, how it feels and sounds.” Dave says that “It’s what four minutes of Blur playing together sounds like. There’s no way around that.” As for Damon, “If it’s good then it’ll be self-evident and it’ll be worthy of release.” And if it’s not? “If it’s not, then we’ll just crawl back under our rock and go home.”
“It’s well documented that Blur drove us all mad a bit,” admits Graham. “It became a machine with pressure and everything, and the more success you get the more you have to contain. The more anxiety you get over it. So all of us having our individual obsessions and Blur being a place to experiment and have a bit of fun is a lot more healthy. I suppose we’re loathe to put any pressure on it.”
Damon: “There is no pressure on us. It’s not that sort of arrangement any more.”
NME: If there’s no pressure now, there must have been pressure in 2009?
Graham: “It was weird. It was really exciting, but we were worried. I suppose we were all trying to second guess each other – wondering how we really felt about it, and actually we were all feeling good, but there was something in us that is still asking each other and ourselves ‘Is this the right thing to be doing?’ But the thing is, it was, and the situation we’re finding ourselves in now creatively is that any of that in 2009 – any kind of second guessing about the situation – seems to have totally disappeared, and it feels like we’re allowing ourselves to be absolutely OK and to be ourselves with each other. That’s really great, that’s what we really need.”
NME: How is your relationship with Damon at the moment?
Graham: “I think all of us have a deep respect and admiration for each other. That won’t ever change. We always check ‘Oh what has he got on his feet today, oh right yeah, yeah’, that sort of thing. ‘He’s going down that route today is he?’ Where are we in connection to each other? Are we on the same hymn sheet? And we are, normally.”
Damon; “It doesn’t feel very different really. We have the same issues that we’ve had for 20 years. No-one’s really changed that much. But me and Graham have less [issues] than we’ve ever had. We live very independent lives now, so we’re not on top of each other. It wouldn’t be working if there was anything, and I don’t think either of us could be bothered with that.”
Flashback to 2009. NME’s review of Blur’s Glastonbury headline set declares: “Despite the millions of sales, did [Blur] ever really burn their name into the hearts of the people? No, not really, and they know that. Liam was sexy, Jarvis was smart and Damon was arrogant; that was the Britpop truism… But now, this has all changed. Damon is a British statesman, revered nationally more like cockney Pinter than mockney Suggs and tonight they are erasing the Cool Britannia aberration, without an apology, just with aplomb.”
While you might quite reasonably dismiss the first statement as total bullshit (anyone who ranks Damon in a lower league to Liam must have a one-eyed, monobrowed outlook on life), what’s bang on true is the fact that Blur’s uneasy retreat from the spotlight following Graham’s departure halfway through 2003’s ‘Think Tank’ and the inactivity that followed meant that they’d fallen so far off the radar only the real diehards still gave a fuck. The final single released from ‘Think Tank’, ‘Good Song’, peaked at 22 in the charts, the band’s lowest charting single since ‘Sunday Sunday’ from 1993’s ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’.
Gorillaz and The Good The Bad & The Queen made Damon arguably more famous than he’d ever been in Blur, encouraging the kind of schizophrenic Renaissance Man behaviour that’s seen him grow a beard and dabble in high-brow opera with Dr Dee, whack some baggy jeans on and head out to Africa to record with TEED and a bunch of local musicians, hook up with purple-haired Chilli Pepper Flea and TGTB&TQ drummer Tony Allen for upcoming project Rocketjuice And The Moon, and most recently collaborate with XL Records chief Richard Russell and Lana Del Rey on soul legend Bobby Womack’s new album (NME has heard four tracks and it sounds bloody marvellous). The others? Graham carved out a niche as a lo-fi cult hero doing the rounds at local shitholes, a role he still revels in today. Dave campaigned unsuccessfully to become a Labour MP while furiously feeding his World Of Warcraft addiction, and Alex buggered off to a country house of his own, first to launch a range of delicious cheeses, then to morph into the village idiot by chumming up to top-hatted divs like David Cameron and monumental bellends like Jeremy Clarkson (“I have no personal politics,” he insists. “Dave is the politician.” “The days of one person in the band doing something and another taking offence is in the past” is Dave’s take.)
The point is, in their absence, people had forgotten just how important Blur had always been, and much more than just give a load of ageing nostalgia lovers and a new generation who hadn’t even been born when the band were, as Alex puts it, “swinging from chandeliers and having enormous fun” first time round a chance to sing along to ‘Parklife’, ‘Chemical World’, ‘Tender’ and ‘Out Of Time’, the reunion shows of 2009 cemented Blur in their rightful place as one of the most crucial bands in the history of British music. In Graham’s words: “With us, it’s not about legacy, it’s about lineage. Elements that go right the way back to the ’40s. Big Bill Broonzy coming over here, the English R&B explosion, The Who, The Kinks, Ray Davies, going through the ’70s, punk rock , duh-duh-duh, the ’80s and then Blur in the ’90s. It’s that lineage. That’s where my guitar playing comes from. That’s where the song form comes from. It’s like rolling a snowball right the way through those decades.”
Apt then that in the week that Blur announce their biggest ever show, The Brits bestow upon them a Lifetime Achievement Award. About time?
“We were offered it a few years ago,” shrugs Damon. “But we turned it down so they gave it to Robbie Williams.”
NME: Why did you accept it this time?
Damon: “I felt we should do it, otherwise they…”
NME: Otherwise they might hand it out to someone less deserving? Like who?
Damon: “Well…I don’t know. I wouldn’t hazard a guess to who was next in the line, but the reality is none of us are irreplaceable and if we didn’t accept it somebody else would get it. I tend to take a rather pragmatic view of these things.”
If you want to level a negative against Blur’s big reunion of 2009, it’s the lack of new material. Sure, the following April, one-off single ‘Fool’s Day’ got a limited pressing of 1,000 for Record Store Day 2010, but it was the absence of a new song in the set or a sniff of a new album that left people feeling like perhaps it was less a proper comeback, more a day (or days) in the sun. Which is why every time a member does an interview, it’s always the first question. Every time it’s not a flat “no”, ‘World Exclusive! Blur to release new album!’ headlines pop up everywhere. They delight in spinning things one way and the next, veering from the “not in this lifetime” to, “very possibly” to, as Graham told the Scottish Daily Record last week, “There will definitely be another Blur album”. Which is why NME goes back to the subject, one last time.
NME: Can you tell us any more about what the new track sounds like?
Dave: “It’s quite premature to talk about what it will sound like.”
Damon: “It will either be done or it won’t. Its as simple as that.”
NME: What about the themes. Is it relevant to the times we’re living in?
Graham: “Probably not the obvious stuff that you hear on the news. Damon has a lot more subtlety than that when it comes to getting across a point. It’s not a flippin’ political correspondent on the news, it’s a person who likes words. There’s an element of deciphering.”
Damon: “My own oblique way”
NME: If you’re happy with it, will it make it into the set at Hyde Park?
Graham: “We always used to play underdeveloped things and sort of kick them into shape during shows, but it isn’t really the occasion for that. Obviously we’re not gonna go and play the same set as we played in 2009 but there are things that people always, always wanna hear, and there’s always ones that we wanna play. I mean, I’d be interested in playing new things.”
Alex: “I think we’ll do this new one, and then…”
Damon: “We’ve got loads of songs, so either way I’m sure it’ll be different from the last time we played. But at the same time, it’s a ritual thing. It’s like time travel, isn’t it? Everyone gets in a field and travels through time and finds that’s that things that were felt in the past are still relevant today.”
Graham: “If I talk to superfans, they’re like specialists. Asking them what they want is like asking a journalist from Fast Bikes what’s the best 600cc midrange bike. They’ll get into all these details, but I don’t give a shit about that, I just want to turn the flippin’ thing on and go. So they want rarities, they want B-sides. And I suppose I’m with them in a lot of ways. For me there’s the High Street Blur which most people know, then there’s the back roads. We’ve gotta give people a bit of the High Street so they can jump up and down, but it’s a fine balance.”
NME: Can you tell us what the new track is called?
So that’s it. Only, that’s not it. Interview concluded, NME and Damon step out onto the road outside the rehearsal space while Graham and Alex start tinkering with their guitars. Touring keyboard player Mike Smith arrives, perching on the grubby sofa, while Dave ambles over to the drumkit and plonks himself down. “Are you going to stick around and watch for a bit?,” asks Damon. We nod, totally bluffing it, and wonder back into the room as Damon stubs out his joint and follows us in. Graham, Alex, Dave and Mike are running through an instrumental jam of ‘Colin Zeal’ that segues into ‘Villa Rosie’. No one looks at each other. They don’t need to.
And then it happens. Damon picks up his acoustic and sits on a table facing the rest of the band. Graham starts to pluck an echo-laden, reverby arpeggio, while Damon, very much in charge, very much the conductor, instructs on levels and gives the nod to begin. After all the protestation, contradiction and general dicking around, Blur play the new song in its entirety.
As Graham fades out, Mike Smith’s keyboard – dial set to ‘church organ’ – takes over. A slow and purposeful, almost Spiritualized-sounding elegy fills the room. Dave joins in, his drums like gongs, heavy like marching feet. Alex and Graham tap along, the bass and guitar used sparingly at first, before Graham starts picking out the notes that underpins everything. This goes on for a minute or so, Damon watching attentively, directing with glances, encouraging with nods, before he closes his eyes and breaks into the familiar cracked and vulnerable vocal that only Blur can extract from out of him. Like Graham, whose every notes twangs with frightening intensity, Damon can’t fake it.
Very much ‘Think Tank’ in sound, definitely no trace of Britpop, the obligatory mention of the Westway (approximately 150 yards from the studio door), it’s classic Blur made by a band in harmony, and to these ears, pretty much perfect.
Will it make the set? Impossible to tell. Will it lead to an album? Our guess is yes. One final question, is this Blur back together for good?
Alex “Yes. I think it’ll always be there now.”
Graham: “It was called a reunion in 2009, and that’s what it was, so we are reunited. So that’s it.”
And this time, it really is.