The band's sixth album, 13 [Virgin], serves up more stylistic
surprises, kicking off with the gospel-inspired "Tender", which
features the London Community Gospel Choir. From there, the album
progresses to the fuzz havoc of "Bugman," the sweet harmonies of
"Coffee & T.V.," the punkish "B.L.U.R.E.M.I.," and the Quaalude-like,
dreamy fingerpicking of "Battle." And then, half-way through the
album, things really get eclectic.
Producer William Orbit's mad-scientist approach to song
arrangements--he's a master at sampling, looping, and digital
editing--certainly enhanced the band's changing moods. As Blur had
already committed to a more spontaneous method of creation for 13,
Orbit was able to take a magnifying glass to the band's five-hour and
one-take toss-offs, and assemble collages of the most winning and
bizarre moments. Yet, despite the cut-and-paste arrangements and
free-form experimentation, 13 is a collection of inspired hooks and
memorable songs. In an exclusive interview, guitarist Graham Coxon
explained Blur's method and madness.
It sounds like you're mutating synths and guitars on this album.
It's not really mutating, but I suppose a lot of the guitar sounds
I created weren't really classic-sounding things. Quite a lot of my
guitar playing can sound synthish, and the real synth playing is very
distorted, so they're almost interchangeable. There was a lot of
craziness on this record. Most everything came out of one-take
jams-especially at the end of "Bugman." That was all improvised,
chopped up, and put back together again. A lot of the strangeness
comes from William Orbit's editing skills.
So you must have recorded the tracks on a hard-disk recording system,
such as Digi-design's Pro Tools?
We'd never worked with Pro Tools before, but most of the record was
recorded that way. There were loads of big boxes lying around the
studio that seemed to make good noises, but I wouldn't be able to
tell you what they were. We started mixing the tracks through a
conventional mixing board, but the consoles are so clean these days
that we were disappointed with the sound. So most of the record was
mixed in the computer with Pro Tools because it doesn't sound so
Did working with Pro Tools change the way you thought about playing
No, not at all. It's still a big red record button, and off you go.
It doesn't matter where the music is going. We basically recorded
everything, so we didn't have to think about "Oh, this is a take." We
ended up with hours and hours of stuff. I hate that word 'jamming,'
but we were doing that, and having our own kind of personal therapy
sessions. This was something we weren't used to because our songs have
always been very organized. Usually, when we go in the studio, we
know exactly what we're doing. It's quite a clinical process, like a
laboratory. This time, we just started playing, so there were a lot
more sparks going on between us.
Given the lack of formal structure, how did the songwriting process
I used to get my parts together pretty quickly, but it can be
uninteresting to create a part and then have to stick to it. I've
started to get out of this bad habit of knowing too much about what
I'm doing, and just jump in at the deep end of a song. It's a lot more
interesting when I leave a lot to chance and I haven't got a clue
what I'm doing.
For example, on "Mellow Song," there was about five hours of
guitar recorded, and we had to get some kind of structure to make the
parts understandable as a song. I was really surprised at what came
out because I had forgotten most of what I'd played. We gave William
the tapes to go through because we couldn't face it. By the time he
got these structures together, and put in the stuff I thought I liked,
there were a lot of good surprises. It was the closest I've come to
hearing something we've done objectively. It was like hearing Blur as
an outside listener for the first time.
With five hours of tape, how do you pull everything together to
make one four-minute song?
There's a lot of editing, looping, and sampling. In some cases, the
result would be chopped up and edited again, and then we'd improvise
over it some more. There was a lot of levels of creation going on.
Even in the solo instrumental breaks, it would be pretty loose and
quite automatic. We never really thought so hard about something that
it became a "learned" part. In the past, I thought our songs became
pasteurized like milk. We were too familiar with what we were playing,
and the performances often seemed to be a little lacking in
enthusiasm. On this album, every note has got the full weight behind
How are you going to recreate this album live?
I always try to keep an eye on what's going on so I can remember
how we should play it live. But I don't believe that live playing
should be the same as the record. Otherwise, there's no point in going
to see a group unless you just want to look at them. You might as
well play a DAT and mime to it! Obviously, the songs should bear some
resemblance to the recorded versions, but I like to hear differences.
On this record, we're not so imprisoned by the parts we've played,
so we can go wherever we want to.
Even though you, keyboardist Damon Albarn, and bassist Alex James
often sit down and work out song ideas on acoustic guitars, you didn't
play much acoustic yourself on the record.
A lot of the acoustics are Damon. I don't enjoy playing the acoustic
guitar in the studio. Maybe that's because our ex-producer Stephen
Street used to have me do endless bloody takes of acoustic guitar. I'd
end up with my hand turning into a claw after a while. So now I think
that's donkey works, and I'm quite happy for Damon to handle the
acoustic parts. In a way, I like his playing better, because I can be
What guitars did you use on this album?
Just my Tele, actually. I used to play Les Pauls a lot, but they
quite limited because they're a rock guitar and sometimes that sound
embarrasses me. Teles can do lots of different things, and they never
really sound like rock guitars-they're kind of like country guitars.
Are you particular about what guitar strings you use?
Only that they're very thick. I typically go with a .013 set.
Really thin strings on a Strat is the most foul sound.
You used to combine different amp sounds to get a particular tone.
I didn't do any of that on this album. The big guitar sound on
"Bugman" is directly into the desk through a Korg Pandora with
everything turned up full-which is brilliant. It's such a horribly
huge sound, and there's no amplifier at all. I think it's quite
obsessive going through lots of amps and trying this sound and that
sound. That used to get on my nerves, because before I could even
play anything, I'd be frustrated by pleasing everybody with the sound
of the guitar. This time, I played as if I were doing a live show,
stamping on pedals with the amp cranked up. There wasn't an awful lot
of that boring cerebral crap.
What's your main amp?
It's a 1969 reissue Marshall. I've also been playing with one of
the brand-new ones lately. They sound nice, but they don't seem to be
able to put up with me in a live situation. I have several volume
levels that I achieve with pedals-each with a more intense distortion
level-and the amp usually decides by the third or forth volume boost
that it doesn't like it and flattens out the sound.
How do you set up the tone knobs on your amp?
I don't like midrange at all. I like lots of bass and lots of
treble-especially if I'm using distortion units. There's quite a bit
of grunginess at the bottom end and sparkliness at the top. You won't
hear much middle from me unless I'm being really perverse.
I've seen you use two Pro Co Rat pedals onstage. Are they part of
your multiple-volume-level equations?
I use two Rats, and I also use a DOD FX76 Punkifier pedal, which is
the most stupidly obscene, over-the-top distortion pedal I've ever
heard. It's painted in camouflage and all the knobs have stupid
names-punk, slam, spikes, and menace. I just use those three pedals,
What other effects do you use?
I'm mainly a distortion freak, but I have a bunch of Boss pedals-the flanger, vibrato, tremolo, analog delay, and digital delay.
How do you get your feedback sounds?
Usually I sit down, turn the strings toward my lap, and bash the
guitar on my knees-it makes an awful noise that sounds like speakers
It seems you warned up to soloing a bit more on this record.
The solos I dislike are the ones that are obvious-like Bryan Adams
or Jon Bon Jovi or some terrible soft-rock romantic solo. My solo on
"Coffee & T.V." is not really in that vein. For one thing, it's a
first take, so it's a little exploratory and less blues-based. I don't
like going over and over solos, manicuring them as if they were a
beautiful set of nails. I think what comes out is pretty much how it
should be. A few years ago, I wouldn't have been confident enough to
do first takes. It takes confidence to realize that there's nothing
wrong with your intuition. I think my first takes have, luckily, been
quite good recently because I've played with enthusiasm. But as soon
as I do a second take, part of the enthusiasm dies.
How did you record the wobbly opening guitar on "Tender"? It sounds
like it's coming out of an old radio?
I played the it the way a singer would sing as soon as he got out
of bed-it's not very together. Also, we recorded the solo into
William's tiny Panasonic Dictaphone, and if you shake those things,
the sound wobbles a bit. Then, we routed the Dictaphone through the board and into the multitrack recorder.
The wobbly bit didn't bother us-in fact William never even told me to
tune my guitar. Not once. He can talk for hours about why things that
are slightly out of tune sound better that things that are completely
What about the weird slide licks in "Battle"?
The big fat guitar that comes in on the second chorus is the
Punkifier pedal. It's pretty mean. I was also messing around with
bottles and Coke cans, sliding up near the bridge and doing little
seagull sounds with echo. There's all kinds of psychedelic. Pink
Floyd-type stuff on that song-things all those '60s children can
There are also some bizarre sounds in "1992."
That song was actually written in 1992, but we'd forgotten about it.
There's a Hohner Melodica through a Tech 21 SansAmp, and lost of
vibrato on the guitar. The huge bit of feedback that starts in the
middle and goes right to the end is the one note we took from a guitar
solo. We added digital echo and reverb and fed it back into the
console. William and I were laughing our heads off because it was just
so mad what this one single note was doing. It's like a UFO appearing
and destroying the whole song. William collected little bits like
that for the entire record. There's probably still hours of this stuff
knocking about on tapes. We'll probably make another album out of
this half-hour piece which sounds like a piano being played in the
middle of an empty palace with lots of really nasty sounds coming in
and out. It could make some really credible film music.
Blur keyboardist Damon Albarn is one-third of the band's songwriting
trust, along with guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James.
"Graham sometimes leaves the acoustic parts on records to me because I
play in a slightly unconventional way," says Albarn. "I'm left
handed, and I always leave the top-E and B strings ringing because I
never learned how to play bar chords. My style can sometimes make a
major chord sound minor, and a straightforward chord sound really
"Also, if we decide to record a song I've written on acoustic, it
doesn't sound quite right if Graham plays it. If you're a songwriter,
you want to retain as much of the feeling you had with the song.
Sometimes the closest you can get to that feel is playing it yourself."
"My main songwriting rule is that I never bring closure to a song.
I don't even consider it finished after it's recorded. The composer
LaMonte Young had this great concept in the late '50s-he believed that
the space between putting down an instrument and picking it up again
is all part of the same bit of music. He held that music is not
something that begins or ends. It just carries on. If you look at it
that way, you can't get frustrated trying to finish a song. You can
let go of it, and maybe pick it up again ten years later. And all that
space in between is part of the same song."
Bassist Alex James is another member of Blur's creative triumvirate.
The members each try to write at least one song per week.
"Inspiration strikes at peculiar times," says James, "usually when
you're washing up or Hoovering. And it usually doesn't happen when
you're having the best time of you life. When I get a song idea, I
usually think, 'This is brilliant. I'll never forget this.' And I
won't write it down or record it, and I'll forget it. Trying to
remember music is like trying to remember dreams."
"I find that I stumble onto the best things when I'm really bored.
Then, it's a matter of just saying exactly what you feel. Be as honest
as you can, and people will understand you. Don't try to be
emotional, and don't pretend to feel something that you're not
feeling. Remember, most big hits take less time to write than they do
to play. If a song is hard work, it usually ends up like crap."
"Some hard rock stuff is so precise that it sounds like a machine," says Graham Coxon. "I like guitar parts to that have personality."
"I'm a keyboard player, but I write 90% of the time on guitar because I'm not a very good guitar player, and that forces me to keep my songs simpler," says Albarn.
"If you go into an expensive recording studio, it's easy to start making good sounds," says James. "The drums on 'Tender' are a cardboard box and two planks of wood recorded with $10 million worth of equipment."