Guitar Player:05/99
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Guitar Player:05/99

Spontaneous Creation: Blur Stretches Out, Gets Loose, and Plays with Abandon

By: Kyle Swenson
Nearly dismissed as part of the dying Manchester pop scene after the release of their '91 debut, Leisure [Capitol], Blur made like chameleons and transformed the colors of their mutual skin. In the last eight years, the band has continually reinvented itself with the Brit pop of "There's No Other Way," the mod-tribute "For Tomorrow," the new-wave dance song "Girls & Boys," the poignant ballad "To the End," and the lo-fi adrenaline anthem "Song 2."

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 clean.

Did working with Pro Tools change the way you thought about playing the guitar?

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 unfold?

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 it emotionally.

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 too precise.

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, really.

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 dying.

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 in-tune.

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 understand.

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.

Damon Albarn on Doing it Yourself

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 odd."

"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."

Alex James on Inspiration

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."

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