Nobody celebrated the new Blur album more than bassist Alex James. The cheesemaker and Cotswolds socialite tells John Earls what it’s like being back in the saddle – and if he’ll be voting for his chum David Cameron.
The first time Alex James listened back to the sessions that form ‘The Magic Whip’, he was in tears. It had been 18 months since Blur’s unexpected five days off in Hong Kong, and the bassist had just found a video camera containing lost footage of the recordings. As far as he knew, the rest of the band weren’t interested in returning to the songs, so watching the film back alone in his kitchen was like punching a bruise – a sad reminder of what should have been Blur’s exhilarating comeback.
“Even on my camera’s shit mic, you could hear that what we were doing was fucking brilliant,” recalls Alex. He remembers pouring himself glass after glass of wine; by the end of the second bottle, he was in bits. “It was all this brilliant music and, as far as I was aware, nothing was going to be done with it. I thought, ‘God, what a shame. What a fucking waste.’”
Alex knew the songs were catchy because “they kept popping into my head. Months later, they were the first thing I’d think about when I woke up in the morning.” He singles out the echoey minimalism of ‘New World Towers’ as particularly addictive. “That fucker kept haunting me, but I thought it might be lost for good.”
Then, just three days after his boozy kitchen mope, James got a call from Blur’s manager. Damon and Graham had “bumped into each other” and agreed that the guitarist should sift through the recordings to see what was there. ‘The Magic Whip’ was back on. “It was amazing,” laughs Alex. “I’m not a big believer in fate, but the timing of everything has been so perfect, it does feel like now is the right time for this album to exist. It’s an unexpected baby late in Blur’s marriage.”
Actually, Alex paints Blur as less of a marriage, more like a group of old workmates who can only occasionally organise a night out together due to countless other commitments. Any bitterness has been healed by the two reunion tours and they get on great when they do see each other, but scheduling time to make music worthy of the Blur legacy always proves tricky. “For many, many reasons, Blur is always in danger of drifting apart,” he says. “After Hong Kong, we were all thinking ‘Wow! We’ve fucking done it!’ We were 80% of the way to having an album done. But it’s getting the final 20% of the work done that takes up 80% of the time. None of us want Blur to be our lives anymore. But it’s a wonderful thing to have if we want.”
For the band’s resident big kid, Blur is still an excuse to leave the adult world behind for a while. He jokes that their 2013/4 world tour was an escape from “the endless laundry” that having five children involves. Alex has never been bogged down by the responsibilities of writing songs, cheerfully admitting that he’s happy to leave the hard work to Albarn and Coxon. “Bass players don’t suffer the torment that singers and guitar players do. It’s one of the good things about the job. Playing bass is like bouncing up and down on a big trampoline, and that’s utterly joyous.”
Yet this cheery self-assessment belies Alex’s crucial musical contribution. When compiling their Blur 21 box set in 2012, the band sat around to listen back to their very first rehearsal tapes. “You can tell it’s Blur straight away,” says James. “You can hear our roles being defined. Graham’s guitar and my bass are exactly the opposite, bouncing around each other.” More than a quarter of a century later, nothing much has changed. “I’m still just bouncing away in the opposite corner, really. We’re incredibly lucky to fit so well together. It’s been honed over the years, but the natural empathy we have with each other – musically and as people – astonishes me. As a bassist, you have to know when to step forward and when to hang back. That’s easy to do in Blur.”
Has he ever quizzed Damon on the meaning of the lyrics? “To be honest, I just assume they’re about Graham unless I’m specifically told otherwise!” This smart response, delivered with his trademark winning grin, reveals Alex’s other key role in Blur: the wind-up merchant, the cheeky disruptor doing the opposite of what everyone else wants in order to keep the band grounded and prevent it all from getting too earnest and pretentious.
But there’s doing the opposite, and then there’s hanging out with David Cameron. After being famously photographed together at 2011’s Harvest Festival (along with disgraced TV tyrant Jeremy Clarkson), the Prime Minister was recently spotted at the James family New Year’s Eve party. It’s weird enough to be friendly with such a cartoon villain, weirder still when your band’s own drummer is a former Labour party parliamentary candidate. When Cameron’s name is mentioned, Alex’s otherwise Tiggerish demeanour fades for the only time in our interview.
“Look, he’s my local MP and he’s very supportive of Feastival,” says Alex, referring to the music and food festival he organises with another celebrity pal, Jamie Oliver. “That’s a big deal in my local community, so it would have been weird not to invite him to my party. He was fine, and he didn’t mind when my son tried to get him to do karaoke. But don’t forget, I’ve spent 27 years as half of a rhythm section with a would-be Labour MP. So I don’t think having Mr Cameron over says anything about my politics.”
Does that mean Alex might find himself voting against his Tory houseguest in next week’s election? Alex refuses to be drawn. “I think party politics are best steered cleared of by musicians, really.”
Alex James’ frivolous exterior might also be a way to avoid revealing anything too personal. Rather than express any frustration at his bandmates for failing to move forward with ‘The Magic Whip’, he instead makes light of his apparent lack of control over the situation. When Coxon finally began sifting through the Hong Kong material with longtime Blur producer Stephen Street, Alex says he found himself barred from the proceedings. “I phoned Graham to ask if he wanted me to come down to the studio, and he said: ‘No, fuck off and leave it to me!’” Although Alex was called in a few days later to patch up “a couple of crap bits” in his basslines, at which point he witnessed the album taking shape.
“When I first heard what Graham and Stephen had done, I was overcome,” says Alex. “It was just devastating, really emotional. They’d done such an amazing job of turning it into this huge body of work. When we were in Hong Kong, if something wasn’t working, we’d move on to the next song. You can hear that sense of urgency on the album, as well as us being so comfortable with each other. We’d done ‘Ong Ong’ in an hour, an incredibly simple song. And there it was now, sounding enormous.”
Perhaps Alex’s best work on the record is the filthy bassline on lead track ‘Go Out’. “That song almost sums up why we kept the album secret,” he says. “It’s an album that needed a bit of space, because if we’d made a big deal of it and gone into a big posh studio, you wouldn’t have a dirty song like ‘Go Out.’”
Keeping the project under wraps wasn’t easy, though. “The secrecy was a nightmare,” Alex chuckles. “I couldn’t even tell my kids, because what if they’d told their schoolmates, and it had leaked from there? I didn’t even tell my wife at first, but she was asking me ‘Er, where are you going all the time?’” Having reassured Mrs James that he wasn’t having an affair, James also had to lie to Ben Hillier, the producer of Blur’s previous album ‘Think Tank’, after bumping into him in the studio. “I said ‘Oh, er, um, Graham’s making a record and I’ve, ah, come to see him to say hi.’”
Alex lets slip that the Hong Kong sessions were based on “26 or 27” song ideas Albarn had already stored away on GarageBand. ‘The Magic Whip’ only has 13 songs (if you include the Japanese bonus track), so does this mean that Blur are poised for a relatively swift follow-up? “Not for a while, no. Nobody knew the answer to the question ‘Will Blur make a new album?’ for 12 years, so it’s incredible everyone is asking again already. Whether any other stuff from Hong Kong will ever emerge, who knows? But coming up with new music has never been Blur’s problem. If you get the four of us in the studio in the right frame of mind, we’ll always make new music.”
Other than the big outdoor shows at Hyde Park and Isle Of Wight, plus a few warm-up gigs, Blur are unlikely to tour ‘The Magic Whip’ extensively. Instead, Alex will probably return to his farm to make cheese. For anyone who still thinks that’s just a twee hobby, it should be pointed out that his soft cheese Goddess won a Super Gold medal at The World Cheese Awards last year. “It was only a couple of weeks after winning for Goddess that I got the call saying Damon and Graham were thinking of finishing the Blur album,” he reveals. “I thought ‘Wow, this has been a good year.’”
Cheesemaking might not seem very rock’n’roll, but Alex insists there is some crossover between his two careers. “The cheese awards are boozier than the Brits any day,” he claims. “Although cheese farmers and bass players need very different physiques. I’m trying to re-balance and get my bassist’s figure back.”