Blur’s new studio album was a happy accident: one that rejuvenated the band and the relationship between Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon. In this exclusive interview, Coxon gives NME’s Barry Nicolson an intimate track-by-track of ‘The Magic Whip’…
By Graham Coxon’s own admission, the new Blur album should not exist. As late as six months ago, ‘The Magic Whip’ was still only a jumble of half-formed ideas gathering dust on a digital shelf, a relic of another unsuccessful attempt at re-establishing the band as a creative entity. That they went back to it at all was improbable enough; that it might well be the best thing they’ve ever done is little short of miraculous.
“A happy accident,” is how Coxon describes the album, calling fresh from rehearsals for the band’s comeback show at a west London club on March 20. “It probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place – we shouldn’t have had that time in Hong Kong to record it, for one thing. Then one day I was bored and frustrated and I had this idea of getting [‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, ‘Parklife’, ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Blur’ producer] Stephen Street to go through it all with me. Damon could easily have said, ‘Nah, I don’t like that idea, I don’t want anything to do with it,’ but instead he said, ‘Great, go ahead.’ It was a bit like when you’re driving and you keep hitting green lights all the way home. It felt weirdly like it was meant to be.”
The details behind ‘The Magic Whip’, as announced at a press conference on February 19, are as follows: when the Tokyo Rocks festival was cancelled in May 2013, they found themselves with five days to kill in Hong Kong, where they decided to hole up in a local studio and mess around with some new material. It was all very informal, but the sessions initially went so well that Damon decided to announce their intention to make a new record during a gig at the AsiaWorld-Expo arena that same week. “We had a lot of pressure to record an album, and when the Japanese festival fell through and this opportunity to record for five days came up, Damon felt he had enough ideas on [Mac music software] GarageBand to go in and have some fun with,” recalls Coxon. “We did it just to fill the time, really – I’d actually been looking forward to putting my feet up for five days! We all felt that it could be a start to something, but we didn’t know exactly what. And for a while, it looked like it was going to be the start of sitting in an airing cupboard for eight months.”
Impulsivity soon gave way procrastination, however, and the idea was abandoned until Coxon enlisted Stephen Street. They began the process of editing and embellishing the recordings – most of which took the form of lengthy, unstructured 30-minute jams – into tangible songs. Albarn returned to the process to add lyrics and vocals following a repeat visit to Hong Kong. For Coxon, ‘The Magic Whip’ was not just an artistic opportunity, but a personal one. “Part of the reason why I wanted to do it was to make amends,” he admits. “Damon and I have an increased respect for each other because of this record, and we’re not ashamed to let each other know about that increased respect. But what we also have a lot of is history, and our friendship – like any friendship between two people who are in a band together – has had to go through a lot. It’s been put to the test, and we’ve often let each other down. This record was a way of saying, ‘Sorry for being such a pain in the arse for the last 20 years!’”
Once we start digging into the details of the record, it becomes evident that Coxon would quite happily sit and talk for hours about these songs, the city they were recorded in and the unique way it all fell into place. He’s justifiably proud of the album, even if he’s unsure of whether it will be the first of more to come, or the last thing they’ll ever release. “I’m not saying that it wasn’t difficult at times, or that it wasn’t hard work, but it was a real pleasure to make this album. Whether that means we’re a full-time entity again is another matter, but it was important to me to be part of another Blur chapter – even if it’s the last one, I wanted it to be a positive one…”
There are any number of sounds and styles you might expect the first Blur album in 12 years to include, but you probably weren’t expecting the brass-necked zest and buoyancy of ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ and ‘Parklife’ to be among them. Listening to ‘Lonesome Street’ for the first time, you can’t help but think that it’s been a long time since Blur sounded so… well, Blurry: just try suppressing a grin when Damon chirps about catching “the 5:14 to East Grinstead”.
“There’s a definite familiarity with that song,” says Coxon. “We weren’t in uncharted waters with it, we were well within the realms of the Blur world. It’s got that cheeky-sounding vocal of Damon’s, that perverse nursery-rhyme feel, and it all sounds a bit like you’re careening through a night of chaos.” ‘Chaotic’ is a pretty good way of describing it: this is a song that seems to shoot off in a hundred different directions, a quirk of the piecemeal fashion in which it came together. “When I was listening back to it with Stephen, I thought, ‘Why not go the whole hog and have a really Syd Barrett-y middle-eight in there?’” recalls Coxon. “So I wrote another section for it, which is about the way you seem to ride the tarmac in Hong Kong: you stand on the road, you don’t move, and it’ll take you anywhere you want to go. It’s a very lighthearted way to start the record.”
NEW WORLD TOWERS
Following on from the arch, stylised Englishness of the opening track, ‘New World Towers’, with its retro-futuristic sci-fi textures and images of vast, bustling buildings “carved out of the great white sky”, appears to be very much a ‘Hong Kong song’ – even the title is a reference to a skyscraper in the city’s Central district. For Coxon, however, “it’s not a Hong Kong song at all, because before Damon went back and imbued himself with the city again, it didn’t have any words, it just had phasers. None of the stuff I did on the album was done to the words – the lyrics and vocals all came last. I wanted that song to be a sort of science-fiction ‘Greensleeves’, so I was putting my energy into making it sound very English, but in a slightly off-kilter way. It’s a bit like that weird cylindrical planet at the end of Interstellar – I loved that image from the film, so I was trying to write some chord sequences that sounded quite traditional, but putting these 1970s-sounding futuristic effects on top of them. It’s one of my favourites on the album.”
The first taster from the album, chosen, in Coxon’s words, “because it wasn’t a jolly, winking, over-familiar Blur thing – I realise that a lot of people love Blur because of those songs, and lot of people hate them because of it, and people from the camp who hate us probably don’t know much about the other stuff that we did. ‘Go Out’ struck me as being somewhere between the two – it’s sort of casual sounding, but it’s also quite powerful. For me, it felt like a place that we hadn’t really gone before: it’s mildly familiar because of Damon’s voice, but sonically it’s quite different from anything we’ve done before.”
ICE CREAM MAN
A strange little song, built around a blooping keyboard riff that sounds like it was sourced from an early ’90s Megadrive game. In reality, Coxon pinched it from Damon’s hard-drive. “Damon’s got all sorts of crazy things he’s done on GarageBand,” he explains, “and quite a bit of the album was done by building songs around those ideas and gluing them together with bits of the jam sessions we did in Hong Kong. So that song started as this little chord sequence, then Stephen and I chopped up some improvised vocals and made a chorus out of them.” He also couldn’t resist running with the frozen dessert theme, echoed in the album’s neon artwork: “The bass solo is supposed to be a spin on the Mr Softy tune that the ice cream van played when I was a kid – it’s not exactly the same, but there’s a definite similarity.”
The lyrics are quite oblique, and even seem frivolous at first (“Here comes the ice cream man, parked at the end of the road”) but there’s a sinister Pied-Piper air to proceedings: could the line “I was only 21 when I watched it on TV” be a reference to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, perhaps? As Coxon puts it, “the song sounds jolly enough on the outside, but there are some dark undertones there.”
THOUGHT I WAS A SPACEMAN
For Coxon, the key theme of ‘The Magic Whip’, both musically and lyrically, “is this atmosphere of dislocation that’s running throughout, of these odd sounds that drift in and out, letting you know that you’re not really in the world you inhabit, the one you’re familiar with – you’ve somehow gone somewhere else.” That’s certainly the case with this track, which at a shade over six minutes is the album’s longest. It offers a snapshot of an unfamiliar – perhaps even post-apocalyptic – earth, which seems to bear more resemblance to the surface of Mars: “The desert had encroached upon the places where we lived/ People like me tried to keep the demons hid”. Eventually, in a Planet Of The Apes-style twist, one of the sand dunes the titular spaceman is rooting around in turns out to be none other than London’s Hyde Park – scene of the band’s big comeback gig this summer.
Another track that harks back to the Blur of bratty exuberance and Fred Perry polo shirts, ‘I Broadcast’ starts out sounding like a slightly askew ‘80s pop song before Coxon’s crunching guitar riff kicks down the door. Lyrically, the guitarist reckons it’s all about “when you go to different places, and the people there know a lot about you, even though you don’t think they do”, and the song seems to depict a world that’s growing ever-smaller and more interconnected, where your identity is indexed, your movements are catalogued and you can never truly disappear – “I love the aspects of another city/ It’s got your number and your blood type”.
MY TERRACOTTA HEART
At the Q&A session for the album’s announcement, Damon played it coy on the subject of personal lyrics, insisting that “everything was related to being in that quite claustrophobic island [Hong Kong] with millions and millions of other people.” That may well be true, but the haunting ‘My Terracotta Heart’ is addressed to one of them in particular: “I knew it was going to be an incredibly sad song, which is why I put that crying guitar on there,” says Coxon. “What I didn’t know at the time was that the lyrics would turn out to be about Damon and I, our long friendship and the ups and downs we’ve had.”
If Coxon was driven by a desire to “make amends” with ‘The Magic Whip’, it certainly seems as though something similar was on Albarn’s mind. Looking back forlornly to a time when “We were more like brothers/ But that was years ago”, he lays it all out on the lumpen-throated chorus, asking, “Is something broke inside me?/ Because at the moment I’m lost and feeling that I don’t know/ If I’m losing you again”.
“It’s a lovely song,” says Coxon, “and again, I think it’s new territory for Blur. The four of us have kind of met in the middle with this album – we’ve all been off on our own individual journeys, but when we come together and something like ‘My Terracotta Heart’ is the result, that’s a good marriage of all our different tastes and outlooks.”
THERE ARE TOO MANY OF US
Underpinned by a military marching beat, there’s something ominous and inexorable about this song, which Damon has revealed was partly inspired by the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, but on which the spectre of Hong Kong – one of the most densely-populated cities on earth – is never far away. “There are a million ways you can interpret that lyric,” says Coxon of the titular line, “but for me, when we were in Hong Kong at first, I’d sometimes look out the window and think, ‘Yeah, there are too many of us.’ I started to get quite anxious about that, and the fact that we can’t really go on in this way. I like how the song gets more and more intense as it goes on. I wasn’t really using the guitar on that one – I thought the synthesisers would do a better job, so rather than slumming away on a guitar and a distortion pedal, I was using a lot of these big, fat, death-ray laser sounds.”
“Very much a Damon song,” is how Coxon describes ‘Ghost Ship, and he’s got a point – you can imagine Gorillaz getting to grips with its skinny-sounding disco-soul. Again, Hong Kong features prominently in the lyrics – in fact, the song could even be read as a love letter to the city and the lure it seems to have for Albarn, who returned there earlier this year in search of inspiration before recording his vocals: “I got away, for a little while/ But then it came back much harder”. As Coxon recalls, “when we were in Hong Kong we were going to the studio every day with this kind of rush-hour mindset, going from the hotel through an incredibly weird glass shopping mall to this beautifully-tiled subway area where we’d get on the train. And I guess Hong Kong was sticking to us along the way – we were seeing things, hearing things, and that somehow came out in the music.”
This song has understandably been the source of much speculation – is Damon angling for a spot on Kim Jong-Un’s shitlist? Talking to GQ last year about his visit to the North Korean capital, Albarn likened it to a “magic kingdom, in the sense that everyone is under a spell,” and that quote is key to understanding ‘Pyongyang’, a bewitched metropolis of empty avenues and unspeakable sorrow, where “the pink light that bathed the great leaders is fading”. It’s not the straightforward attack on the Kim dynasty that you might expect, but something altogether more affecting: a portrait of life in a beautiful, but desolate, Stalinist Never-Never Land.
Musically, ‘Pyongyang’ is cut from the same cloth as 2003’s ‘Out of Time’, though it was the product of serious chopping and changing during the editing process. “It started off as a really bleak dirge, with those little ding-ding-ding bells and what sounds like a train pulling away,” remembers Coxon.” It’s got that massive chorus now, but when Steve and I were working on it, there was no chorus in place, no vocal, so I came up with one to fill the gap. Later, when Damon came back, he’d written one of his own – his was better, of course, but you can still hear mine at the end, overlapping with his. It’s actually a very simple song, but it sounds epic – when Damon hits that high note in the chorus, it’s one of those big moments.”
A jaunty, joyous little curveball of a song, featuring slightly wonky Beach Boys harmonies and a chorus that’s just begging to be played at Hyde Park this summer. “It’s a bit of a knees-up,” agrees Coxon. “When Damon did the lyrics and I went to listen to the vocal he said to me, ‘I’ve gone a bit populist with this one,’ but there’s not an awful lot you can do with a song like that: it kind of has to be a beers-in-the-air singalong. The ‘I wanna be with you’ bits remind me of being on a beach and there’s palm trees swaying, the colours are a bit much, you’re feeling a little bit sick, there’s ice cream everywhere and some rock stars scattered around getting sunburnt… it’s like some kind of weird advert for the Bahamas. I really like it, but sometimes a song will ask some weird stuff of you, stuff that you might not necessarily like doing but the song has told you to do it, and so you have to obey!”
After the jollification of ‘Ong Ong’, the album ends on a more contemplative, melancholic note with this track, which is structured around a tremolo-heavy guitar riff that recalls, amongst other things, Arctic Monkeys’ ‘I Wanna Be Yours’. “It’s another of those fairly simple songs, but again, it sounds very big and emotional,” says Coxon. “I’ve always loved playing massive, reverberated chords and bending them with the tremolo arm – I like the dissonance you get from bending the strings, like in Chinese and Indian music.”