It's the third time Damon Albarn's been slated to do this interview, and when he finally calls, the first thing he does is excuse himself to use the washroom. There's a pause, punctuated occasionally by the distant sound of someone plunking notes on a piano, as if to tune the instrument.
When Albarn returns, it sounds like he's munching on an apple. "Sorry it's taken so long to get in contact with me," he mumbles. "It's just, we've been all over the world, and trying to get everything done at once." Blur have been everywhere, it seems, except Britain - formerly their main source of inspiration, and the only country to give them the time of day.
"We have done a couple of gigs in England," he explains. "But England's just only one place for us now. It's kind of where we come from, but not where we exclusively play our music."
Albarn's voice is surprisingly deep for the singer who belted out "Girls & Boys" and, more recently, crooned "Tender." He uses it to give thoughtful responses, occasioned perhaps by the publicist on the third line, or by the number of off-the-wall comments he's made in previous interviews. (This is the man who once told Melody Maker, "I'm interested in having a sense of power over people, to see how far I can go before they crack.")
"As a result, he's constantly qualifying himself, to the point where it can become painful. Sample Albarn phrase: "And I'm kind of a bit, sort of, always a bit, sort of, wary of, sort of… I don't know the best way of putting it, but sort of…" (Most qualifiers have been mercifully excised from Damon's quotes in this story.)
His singing voice, as well, has changed quite a bit over Blur's last couple of albums - it sounds more raw and vulnerable than in the past.
"I think I've got less self-conscious," he admits, "so I've probably got closer to what is my true voice. Once I've eliminated characters and grown in confidence, and feel comfortable with singing about myself, from a first-person perspective - that's obviously helped my voice, because you're no longer trying to get into someone else's head."
Albarn attributes his difficulty in exploring his own head to his English upbringing. "It's not exactly something which id celebrated, crying and expressing yourself," he says. "It's something you have to really discover and work at if you've been brought up in that sort of environment. I'm lucky - my family were pretty expressive and in touch with their emotions; but still, compared to, say, a Jamaican family, they've got a lot to learn. It's something I've had to come to terms with and work at [by] myself."
In Britain, it seems, the band could get away with more than brazen lawsuits, as evinced by the gospel-tinged "Tender" climbing to Number Two on the singles charts.
"I don't see it as a risk," says Albarn of releasing such an atypical song as a single. "Ten years, we've been in the band, and we don't really see things in that way anymore. I think we earned our freedom, so when we put something out, it's not for any other reason [than] that we like it now. So if anything else happens, then that makes our record company very happy, and it's nice for us --cause it's always nice for people to like what you do. But we certainly don't set out to make music for people to like."
Indeed, Damon has been accused of making music to exorcise his demons --13 has been widely perceived as an exploration of Albarn's break-up with longtime girlfriend Justine Frischmann, of Elastica. Nonetheless, there's no reason to see 13 exclusively through such a reductive lens, Its experimental bent, in particular, is interesting, having been cultivated by producer William Orbit, who's best known for his work on Madonna's latest odyssey of blandness - but don't hold that against him. His approach with Blur was to leave the tapes rolling at all times and encourage spontaneity.
"I think it works very well," Albarn comments about the band's new way of recording. "It's always been how we've initiated the creative process. William was recording right at the beginning, so it never got that chance to become too stilted. For our kind of band, who thrive on improvisation and on things being more random, he's the perfect catalyst. 'Cause we get bored very quickly, so if we don't get something down that we've done immediately, the next time we do it, it's not quite as pertinent. I think for us, the best is to be constantly doing new things. Which is probably why there's such a mishmash of genres on our records, because we can't stick to one thing."
"The album recordings often developing," says Dave from behind the brim of his green baseball cap.
"It's so separate live," comments Graham, who's trying to fold a black San Diego Padres cap into itself. "Which is the nice thing about playing live, I guess... but it's really difficult as well. There are so many times when we can sort of improvise, but then because it's so much an emotional record, there's a kind of pressure to get a lot of your frustrations out. So one show can be a lot different from another in that way. But I think pretty much all the shows catch fire in a good way, so that makes you feel really good about what you've done. I was having a laugh playing 'There's No Other Way.' It was like: Relief!"
The night before, Blur had played a raucous show at Toronto's Palais Royale, fueled by their lack of sleep and a fervently adoring crowd. Now, it seems, the band are ready to head back to London, and other pursuits. Rowntree, for instance, can't wait to get back to his animation.
"I definitely believe that it's all additive," he comments. "Any kind of artistic pursuit you take up helps you in every other area, whether it's acting or drawing or animating or learning languages - any kind of creative pursuit helps you. If you know German, it's much easier to draw. If you act, it's much easier to speak Spanish. It's all about learning how to learn, and learning how to open yourself up to learning."
Whether he's attempting to open himself up or to float above his low, boredom threshold, Albarn has certainly been exploring avenues outside of Blur) specifically acting and composing for films.
To him, however, there are limits to what artists can do. Albarn has publicly dismissed an announcement made jointly by Bono and Muhammad Ali at the 1999 Brit Awards, in which they vowed to launch the Jubilee 2000 campaign help cancel Third World debt.
It was difficult for the singer to "be himself" in the world of show-business without using the intermediary of British characters, but these days, Albarn's trying to take the "Ab" out of his anagram alter-ego, Dan Abnormal.
"If you haven't been brought up in that sort of environment, it's difficult to go out and display yourself," he admits. "You do it in a more elusive manner, and I don't think now, with a bit of experience and maturity, that that is the way to make music. I did at the time because I knew no other way, and I think I'm a bit looser, but I don't think that that's something that I was born with."
"Irony is wank, really."
A month after Albarn's pronouncements from London, drummer Dave Rowntree reclines in his hotel chair in Toronto. His soft-spoken point of view is slightly different from that of his singing colleague.
"I don't think we've ever been particularly ironic. We've always had a sense of humour. When we started saying that we were ironic, without ever doing anything that was particularly ironic, in a way it backfired on us. I mean, Damon isn't a particularly ironic person. If anybody just stopped to listen to what we were saying and compare it to what we were doing..."
Rowntree is wary of "reading" irony into any of Blur's music, including Parklife and The Great Escape. "You can say whatever the hell you want when you're in a band and people always find justifications for it in the music. Fair enough - that's one of the things that makes being in a band an interesting thing, because you can hang whatever prejudices or interests you have into being in a band, and get different things out of it. But I don't - irony Bleaaaah. Who needs it?"
Refreshingly, Dave shoots from the hip, although he does so in a very subdued way. Taking things a step further is guitarist Graham Coxon, who sits beside him, looking like he'd like to shrink, turtle-like, into his black jumper. Graham's voice is so faint he's either one step away from catatonia or he's faltering between dimensions. While the word "self-effacing" may not yet exist in Albarn's dictionary, his songwriting partner Coxon is like a Cheshire cat who seeks to vanish - all but his quietly sardonic wit.
Graham laughs when recounting the band's bizarre appearance on MuchMusic a couple of days ago, when they were billed as "Pure Brit' Pure Pop' Pure Blur!"
"It's funny when they get into presenting you like that," he says. "When you're watching this monitor, and it's just like a different band, really. I'm sitting there, not very comfortable with it at all."
Dave leans forward in assent. "They shoot themselves in the foot when they get somebody with a 'rock' voice coming on and saying, 'And NOW ladies and gentlemen, BRAAAAAHHHHH!'... Somebody who sounds like they've smoked a thousand cigarettes a day for his entire life. And they build you up, they pump, up this image of what an exciting WHAM! BAM! occasion it's going to be and there's these four slightly nervous-looking, obviously tired people who don't want to answer any questions."
Rather than being in an "environment" answering (or not answering) questions, the guitarist and drummer prefer to pursue other avenues of expression, such as Dave's computer animation and Graham's painting.
"Definitely," Coxon affirms. "We're into drawing and stuff all the time. But now that people are calling it art, it's no longer a load of---." He pauses to censor himself. "Someone drawing. So you get a picture on the front of an LP, and suddenly you're an artist. I don't mind. It's weird."
On MuchMusic, Blur played in front of what looked like a huge record-store display of the cover Coxon painted for 13. Amazingly, it was created by a fan. "You saw the big backdrop on the show we did on telly," he remembers. "A girl had done that in her bedroom you know, got little bits, and put it all together. When people are doing that, it's amazing, really."
He pauses. "We're going to sue her. We can at least break her door down and confiscate everything she owns."
As Damon remembers, "In context of a big awards ceremony everybody applauding an idea like that, when they're drunk and getting a 30-second emotional buzz out of being together in a cause, and then waking up the next morn-ing and not really remembering anything, and going back to their left, political correct distance - it's just like another drug to me. I understand why they chose that as a stage to present what essentially is a very, very profoundly big idea. But to present it in that context, personally, I think it's the wrong place."
"The idea of talking [about] abolishing third world debt in a room full of a thousand people who were drunk, on drugs, or had eaten too much it was a bit weird for me. And I'm always wary of 'guilt relief.' I think we're let off the hook far too easily through things like that. When in essence, it requires far, far more commitment as human beings than just sort of toasting and saying, 'Yes, I agree."
"I just think it gives people an easy way out of something. For example, if the government said, 'We will take a drop in salaries for two months, everyone. And this will help us go somewhere towards sort of sorting out the debt problem.' Would people be prepared to do that? That, for mr, would be a far biger act of inner faith."
Albarn's come a long way from wanting to push people until they crack. His last comment, before the publicist whisks his voice away for another all-too-short extravaganza, gives the impression that the long-winded lager lout of yore has receded - if he ever truly existed in the first place.
"For me," Damon says, "the best thing a musician can do is to not compromise with MTV - not compromise in any aspect, if possible. So if you don't fit in, then you are in some way activating people's imagination; and if you activate people's imagination, then you're activating their conscience."
Back In the hotel room, Dave Rowntree Is playing with a toy plastic puzzle and putting pop music in context.
"You look back and see pop stars' records on achieving global change I'm very suspicious. Has Sting managed to save the rainforest?"
"He got Stung," quips Graham, before vanishing in a fog of cigarette smoke.
"It's easy for pop stars to pontificate," continues Dave. "Who, out of the people that matter, gives a fuck what pop stars think?"
At this point, Damon's thoughts on "activating conscience" come up. Dave isn't so sure. You'd hardly want to call him aged and cynical, but at 35, he's Blur's elder statesman. In a band that boasts the mischievously charismatic Albarn; beatific pretty-boy bassist Alex James; and Coxon, an unlikely sex symbol for bashful teenage indie girls, family man Rowntree is well-equipped to find perspective from behind his drum kit.
"It would be very naive to think that artistic endeavours always influence personality changes for good," he offers with a wry grin. "Hitler was an artist, wasn't he? This kind of unleashing people's imaginations is a double-edged sword. Notions of good and evil are definitely fluid, flexible friends when you unleash the human psyche - I don't necessarily think that you unleash people's full potential, they'll always do things that you agree with."
At this, Rowntree adds another piece to his puzzle, smiling at the irony of it all.