Yup, the 'whoo-hoo' band have become the 'boo-hoo' band, what with Damon splitting from Justine and aan all. Still, it's made for a cracking new album and yet another reinvention for Blur.
Out of context but fun - it's Blur in crisis! "Are you really doing this interview this interview about how this album is Damon's catharsis?" snarls Graham, suspiciously.
"It's like I can talk for hours and it's really interesting stuff and then I read the article and it's - Damondamondamon damondamondamondamon - and then this tiny little quote from Dave," says Dave.
"Before the last album I felt like I was running ahead through a forest of crap," says Graham.
"I know that the last album was our biggest seller ever and that 'Song 2' was like this huge international selling record, but I never felt I was ever right in there," says Damon.
"Damon's not an easy person to like." says Graham.
"Alex is easy to like but he's very easy to despise as well," says Graham.
"It's very easy to think of Alex as a complete spoilt snob," says Graham.
"Damon kisses too many arses," says Graham.
'Fat Les?" smiles Dave, rolling his eyes.
Listen, kids, word in the biz is that Graham hates Damon and Damon hates Alex and Alex hates Damon and Damon hates Graham. And so does Dave. And let's not forget that Alex hates Dave. And Graham too, probably. And they're going to split up. Soon. Really soon. So, no change there then.
Nah, hey! Come on, where's your sense of humour? WE'RE ONLY KIDDING! Graham's right, this is gonna be about the album Damon wrote when he got chucked by Justine and NOT about the palace coup that's due in abou 2010 when Graham'll replace Damon, rename the band Sidewalk and bring out the album 'Whoo-Hoo 2'. You'll have to wait a bit for that.
You want the glib soundbite? OK, '13' is Damon's 'Boo-Hoo, My Bird's Left Me! album. There are a million bog-standard 'Boo-Hog, My Bird's Left Me!' pop songs but 'No Distance Left To Run', the penultimate track on the new Blur album '13', isn't one of them. It's open-heart surgery. Every line throbs with the pain of emotional bereavement. He means it, meaaaaan!
Blur are onstage at a 'secret' gig at an Oxford college. Damon has his eyes closed. All the usual cocky bounce gone. "And I can't go back, let it flow, /et it flow/l sleep alone/l sleep alone. ./That s just the way it is/That's just the way it is". It's painful. And it's delivered against a rising hubbub of student chatter, a constant barrage of "whoo-hoos!" and, from a predominantly rupby-shirted male voice choir by the bar, the repeated first chorus of 'Parklife'.
"I noticed, like in the quiet bits of 'Battle', this Hoovering going on," says Graham, the day after the gig. "Sod it. It just took me back to being a student."
We meet Graham in one of the many Camden pubs where Blur built for themselves their unenviable reputations as Oliver Reed-lite, no-brakes pissheads.
"I think being a student is very strange," says Graham. "You're very conscious of how people are thinking of you. Yeah, reinvention. Alex reinvented himself at college, didn't he? He changed his name, started using his middle name."
People think of Graham as the reticent and invariably miserable Yang to Damon's gobshite/extrovert Yin-tongtiddle i-pot The Ernie Wise to Damon's Eric Morecambe. People are right.
On the subject of reinvention, Graham, surely that's one of the main functions of rock'n'roll? But these days you've got to know your place and be '4 Real' and any reinvention. artifice or playfulness is sneeringly dismissed as 'unauthentic'. And surely Blur have always been a quintessentially unauthentic band...
"What - because it's easier to be who you're meant to be and it's harder to be somebody else, you mean? It's more interesting to be someone else. But Damon's great big thing, and that always bothered me, was that it was all 'theatre'. His whole bloody music-hall thing. His private jokes that nobody else gets. That got us in such a mess by the end of the blatant pop records, by the end of 'The Great Escape'. Perhaps I've always tried to be as normal as possible - I couldn't take it seriously. I couldn't be like Keith Richards because I always think he's looked completely daft. He has! I think he's always looked stupid..."
Well maybe if you were fronting the band rather than Damon then you'd be more like, say, The Bluetones?
"Yeah. I'm pleased Damon's like he is but sometimes it embarrasses me how much he'll try and prove to a camera or a journalist - he kisses too many arses when he doesn't have to. He doesn't have to prove anything to anybody, y'know? He doesn't have to prove anything to me, for God's sake. I've known him since he was 12..."
Shy, bespectacled Graham first saw Damon onstage at school assembly, singing 'Gee Officer Krupke!' from West Side Story.
"I thought, 'My God! That boy!' He was really going for it - full on! He was like he was already on Broadway, he was already there. He was a star, you know? He was singing, i'l ve gotta social disease!" at the top of his lungs. Iike a complete fucking star! And I thought, 'This guy's insane, he's so confident'. I'd never seen anything like it.
"And then I bumped into him by the music block and we were both wearing these brogues and he had these real rude-boy brogues, the ones that were dear, and I had these like worker's, fatand acid-resistant and I was fucking proud of them. And he was like, 'Them, they're fucking rubbish brogues! They're the fucking cheap shit! Look, I've got the proper ones on' And he was looking at his reflection in the glass, doing his hair constantly while he was telling me I was basically as low as a dog compared to him. And then he walked off, leaving me feeling even smaller than I did already."
You get the feeling that if Blur were the Spice Girls then Damon would be Ginger. Scary, Sporty AND Baby Spice. And Graham would be, well, Graham. And desperately wishing he was in another band.
OK. FF 18 years to the Oxford gig. Blur are back onstage for the encore and trotting effortlessly through the tubthumpingly awesome punkgrungeheavymetalterrace-anthem 'Song 2'. And the students who yakked through the gut-wrenching new stuff are lapping it up, dancing like electrocuted epileptics and singin' along and giving the band their full attention for the first time since they got bored halfway through 'Swamp Song' about half-an-hour ago. Whoo fucking hoot Pearls before swine? Yeah, well maybe.
But this is Blur remember? The cheekily ironic art school prankster chappies with the lopsided grin, the skewed world view and the crafty sideswipes at life's amusing little absurdities? What ho! And there's Damon sobbing his guts up - the rubber boned Jack-ln-The-Box of pissed-to fuck po-mo pop coming on like Romeo ten seconds after he's come to the conclusion that Juliet isn't all stiff and cold just because she's forgotten her cardie - and all of a sudden we're supposed to take him senously? Duh! What the fuck! Category error!
They've done it again. They've hopped genres. They've zigged when they should have zagged. They're fucking with our brains big time- again. It's as if Radiohead were to hit us with an album of jolly cockernee rub-a-dub singalongs about how luvverly life is. Because that's what Blur do. In a pop world chocka with one-trick ponies, the aptly named Blur move. And so, this time round, Blur (the cheesy ironic' fakers) surprise us once again, this time by delivering an album in which Damon carves '4 Real' on his forearm with a blunt chainsaw. There's nothing even remotely cheesy' 'ironic' or fake about '13'. And that's deliciously ironic, if you think about it.
"OK, yeah, but it's a different kind of irony," says Damon. "OK - so we can still talk about Blur and irony. So the world is still as it should be - ha ha ha ha ha!"
Are you now completely over the process of grieving?
Damon is hungover to hell, slumped or a sofa, sucking on a snaffled Silk Cut and squinting in the bright photo studio light.
"Yeah. I mean, yeah yeah yeah. Yeah, I'm getting on with my life. Completely. But you can't live with someone and have such an interactive career and emotional relationship without, y'know - it follows me around all the time. Every time I talk to anyone, her name's mentioned so it's not something which I can disentangle myself from that easily..."
So you're over the grieving but at the same time you're talking your tiny bollocks off about the songs that you wrote when you were grieving. That must feel peculiar.
"Yeah, it's new. The whole thing is uncharted territory but I've got nothing to hide or lose so I don't feel defensive. Ultimately the record is a celebration. I see it as a protracted farewell."
How many times in your life have you been through a serious break-up?
"It's the first time. But I'll tell you what it's done to me - I think you have to have been broken-hearted properly to actually really start to get to grips with it. I feel music so much more now. It's a hard thing to explain. I've done everything in reverse, y'know? I've become everything that I should be as a musician the older I've got. I dunno, perhaps that's the way it should be but there's this weird cult that pop music has instilled in the culture where everything is better early on."
Well, look at Weller!
"Yeah, well, pmft!"
It's impossible to hear several of the tracks on this album without thinking of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' and the way that it so clinically identifies that hideously subtle moment when intimacy dies, the moment when you probably should split up but you never do...
'No, well, yeah, exactly. And that's what this album's about - those degrees of separation. And the longer it takes the more painful it gets... I've learnt to separate what I think from my music. My music is a heartfelt thing now. rather than a head thing. Maybe that's what the split with Justine was all about. I've managed to find my music and still managed to keep my personality intact."
It's odd that Blur seem to have stopped commenting on 'Englishness' just as things have started to get really interesting.
"Yeah, I know what you mean."
If you look at footage of Pre-Blair, Pre-Dead Di, Pre-Hoddle Britain - it's like a foreign country. It's like looking at an Ealing comedy or a '50s newsreel.
"Yeah, the country's changed. That's what I felt on 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', I felt things were changing really rapidly. Those records were really angry. They don't probably sound it but they were. they were very awkward and very, I dunno, it must have some similarity to punk in the sense that it was angry and it got completely misinterpreted and got turned into something very commercial. 'The Great Escape' was just too bitter for its own good. It was just too cynical. But we just felt that Britain was sinking. In the sense that what we'd grown up with as a culture was just disappearing, was just being obliterated. And that's what those songs were about, they were cheerfully nihilistic. But the whole thing got completely hijacked by Labour, by the music business, by everything."
And by jingoism?
"Yeah, unfortunately. But I still find myself wearing a Fred Perry and feeling comfortable with it. even after all of that. I still want to go back to that. I still want to go back to 2-Tone - in fact even more so. I think this record is the closest I've got to that sense of mixing things, without being too self-conscious about it. y'know? Because that was my first love - The Specials, 2-Tone. The Specials were my idea of what I wanted Blur to be..."
So when are you going to make your ska album then?
"Heh heh heh heh! Well I'm really into salsa at the moment so I'm kind of getting there."
Meeting Blur face to face individually can be alarming. Dave, who doesn't drink or do any drugs any more, has the rigid posture of a teenage Californian straight-edger - he leans in at you until his nose is mere inches from your own. Frightening. Graham is shyness personified, rarely keeping eye-contact for more than a few seconds and - here's the really weird thing - in his hesitant diction and slightly nasal delivery, he sounds uncannily like ex-Manic Richey.
Damon's like a restless puppydog, forever flipping and tossing and fidgeting to find an even more relaxed posture and Alex - Alex has the effortlessly aristocratic languor of a young guards officer who's just discovered the illicit joys of marijuana. Never mind the subtle and not so subtle backbiting - the body language alone tells you that these four boys are the last people on earth that you'd pick to be in a band together.
Flashback to Blur's other recent secret fans-only gig in l ondon at The Depot rehearsal studio in Camden. Damon is literally vomiting with nerves.
"He was spewing up something he ate, probably something healthy," speculates Graham. "Probably prunes, lentils or chick peas or something like that. I've often been very close to Damon whilst he's been sick. He's that sort of person. he's very oral."
Close up, Damon strikes you as an incredibly unlikely sex symbol. His face is composed of a tight little cat's-bum mouth, Wolfman-style meet-in the-middle eyebrows over iceblue berserker Viking eyes and a pert and turned up plastic surgery-accident nose. Add to that a complexion so girlishly peaches'n'cream that he insists on being unshaven in photographs, the way he habitually dresses like a homeless Oasis roadie, the trademark shagged-through-a hedgebackwards bird's nest hair and the same bouncy boneless dog body language as the baby in Harry Enfield And Chums and it's like - you actually prefer him to Alex, the floppy-fringed pretty boy 'Keanu Reeves of indie pop' bassist? Or Graham - the moodily magnificent Smash Hits hunk-of-the-month plankspanker? Are you fucking MAD!?!? And he's called Damon! For fuck's sake!
The skinheads at Damon's school had seen The Omen so they knew he was the son of the devil. They used to drag him into the bogs every break time and write '666' on his forehead in black marker pen.
"Dad?" says Damon, covering his forehead with his hand.
"Yes, son?" says Damon's dad.
"Why the fuck did you call me Damon? Eh? I mean it means 'devil', for fuck's sake! What the hell were you thinking off?"
"Well, as I'm sure you've realised," says Dad, "it spells 'nomad' backwards."
"Well, that's great!" says Damon. "So my name means 'walking to hell backwards'. Thanks Dad!"
Graham's a 100 per cent indie stud-muffin too. Every female the hack knows - from a nine year-old Spice Girls fan to a boiled-in-thebag lipstick lesbian - suddenly turned into Billie at the mention of his name. "Ooh! You're meeting Graham from Blur? Really? Does he have a girlfriend? Can I come? I won't say anything, honest!" It's pathetic, it really is.
"Youth culture died in 1979 when Thatch got in," states Graham, halfway through his second pint of genuine cockernee geezer-style lager-top.
Surely it was The Smiths that killed it?
"Well that was for the delicate people. . . "
Who have now taken over.
"But they haven't! Now, because The Guardian says it's alright to like football, everybody's drinking beer and saying 'birds'. Men seem to be so insecure that they need to be told how they can behave by the fucking Guardian. So it's OK to drink loads of beer, say 'bird' and watch football but only if you think about it. It's like do you know why you drink beer? Do you know why you say 'bird'? Do you get an intellectual kick out of going to football? Do you know what's going on? And they'll all go, 'YUH! Get 'em in!'- and it's so fucking trendy."
Which is exactly what you were accused of when you were goin' dahn ver dogs.
"Well yeah, but I went down there 'cos Andy (Foss, head of Food, Blur's record label) has always done that. And it's nice, I like dogs. And I like it all being taken so seriously by these men and women who are dripping with fucking gold and eating their scamp) and chips and it's a posh night out and it's just simple pleasures, isn't it?"
You get seen as patronising dilettantes, a band who pick up and discard masks.
"It's ignorance when people accuse us of these things. And I think it's laziness as well. We've had this 'progressive rock' thing thrown at us as well and it's like fuck, think about it!"
Eclectic is a word that springs to mind...
'Eclectic? Our albums are always eclectic. A lot of ideas are presented on this album and thankfully the new ideas are a little more easier to get to grips with than a lot of the old ideas we've stopped messing about with. ."
Could you be more specific?
"Well bloody 'Parklife'. 'Girls And Boys'. That arrogant take. That arrogant and sort of superior sort of view on life.. "
"Condescending!" snaps Graham, seizing on the word. "Yeah, condescending! I think Damon's mouth gets him in a lot of silly situations. He takes it on himself to make these silly comments that are quite generalised. And then I think he wonders why he gets such a hard time from people. But I think he's stopped doing that now."
So are you happy with the fact that this is going to be seen as Damon's emotional grief album?
"I dunno, really, none of us have an easy time all of the time. And I wasn't thinking of Damon's emotional state of mind when I was putting my fingers across my fretboard particularly. But I just don't want Damon getting... going... y'know... He's showing a vulnerable side rather than his cocky thing. So I don't want him to do with his vulnerable side what he does with his cocky side. Getting himself into a lot of bother blabbing too much."
Given the British public's fondness for underdogs and its distaste for cocky upstarts, in marketing terms this rolling over and showing the vulnerable side might be considered a brilliant move.
"I'm a complainer and I think I've always been a complainer. I've always said I'm pissed off and I've always said I'm depressed and I think you do get more support if you're like that. Maybe Damon's trying a Graham, I dunno. I don't know what I'm talking about. But if you're talking about stuff like that about being chucked - everybody knows what that feels like, or everybody should, I think Damon's feeling more confident to be vulnerable, whereas maybe before he thought it was a weakness."
But it sounds like, 18 years and six albums later, you've sti// not resolved the tension that you first felt wher~ he slagged your cheapo brogues. Would you ever want to?
"No, probably not, it's not a bad tension between me and Damon, it's just like any kind of double act, realiy.The nasty bastard cocky fucker and the bloke whose really friendly and warm - and that's kind of what me and Damon are like. But we interchange because sometimes I can be bloody nasty and poisonous and he can be really nice."
Er, actually, people have warned me about you. They say watch out - Graham's the mean one!
"The mean one!"
And he fucking hates NME.
"Well, of course I do! But I'm miserable, y'know, there's just a lot of this job that I really hate doing and it's not just NME. It's everything! It's making videos, it's photo fucking sessions. It's people making us do two photo sessions and then making us travel to bloody Oxford and then expecting us to do a good show. I have a real problem with feeling that I'm not getting any respectand when I feel like that I just start snapping."
So you want money, adulation and respect?
"Yeah! I dunno, one of the reasons I quit drinking was because I didn't feel I was being taken seriously I mean, NME, I don't read papers, I know that sounds really thick of me but I just can't be bothered. I think you learn more about the world from The simpsons than you do from reading the news. What, they really think I'm mean? I'm just not a bum-licker. I mean what's the point of licking Steve Sutherland's arsehole?"
Something I've always wanted to ask - that 'Country House' video. When you were lying on your back in a bath full of asses' milk having Joanne Guest polish your nipples, what was going through your head?
"I dunno, my epitaph' probably -'Not sleeping, just stone cold fucking dead."'
But Graham's, right. This is all getting a bit arselicky isn't it? So let's try and lure Damon into an Ian Brown/Crispian Kula Shaker/Bez style controversial statement. Should be a piece of piss.
What about Hoddle's ningnang-nongisms, Damon?
"His quasi-Hindu-Buddhist thing? I was brought up like that."
You and Crispian Kula Shaker.
"No," barks Damon.
Sorry. Look, please don't stare at me as if you're going to hit me.
"Why did you say that? Where is the comparison between him and me? I mean, gah! I'd just like to find one similarity between us, apart from the fact we've both got blond hair. But what else?"
Please don't take offence...
"No, but I'm interested..."
It was just a cheap shot.
"Yeah, but that's the problem You just don't do that..."
Hey, I was just trying to keep the tone light
"I just really don't 'dig' him. I really don't 'dig' his 'scene'..."
Well I assumed that. That's why I mentioned him. So we could have a giggle
"Yeah, but sometimes NME doesn't see the funny side of comments like that, do you?"
Heck! This lad is sharp! Let's try Alex instead.
What did you think about the Ian Brown air-rage incident?
“Well, I mean, fucking bands on aeroplanes is a nightmare!” admits Alex. “I’m amazed nothings ever happened to us because you’ve got 30 of us, all badly behaved alcholic nutcase nightmares with big fucking attention span problems. It so often gets ugly.”
Whats the ugliest its got?
“I remember Graham seeing how many quail’s eggs he could get up his nose in the bar of first class coming back from Japan.”
That is so decadent! Some unemployed Blur fan in Scunthorpe is going to read that!
"Ha ha ha ha ha! No, but the great thing is that anyone can afford to go anywhere. Don't give me shit that you can't 'cos even if you're on the dole you can save a fiver a week and go somewhere in a year. If you want to go somewhere, you can and that's one of the great things about the late 20th century..."
What are you on about? People on the dole bringing up kids?
"If it's what you want to do, you can do it."
What? Just dump the kids?
It sounds a bit rock-star dilettantish, that statement.
"Fuck it! Ha ha ha ha ha!"
Well that was easier. Enjoy the whirlwind, Alex.
OK, time for a little skewed perspective. Remember the Brilpop Wacky Races? Damon was squeakyclean Peter Perfect, Elastica's Justine was a punkier Penelope Pitstop, cocky Jarvis was Professor Pat Pending and Noel and Liam, of course, were Dick Dastardly and Mutley. "I hope you get AIDS!" snarled Dick. "An' I'm gonna shag your bird!" snickered Mutley. "Well I'm going to put my single out at the same time as yours and get to Number One before you, so yah boo sucks!" said Peter Perfect. So he did - and the race was on!
Sweatily authentic, grunting oiks versus genre-hopping flibberty gibbet Hampstead fops. Man City versus Chelsea. Stones vs Beatles Pistols vs Clash. Bullies vs swots. It was a thousand years of bitter, twisted, niggardly and nit-picking British class struggle conveniently condensed down to a clanging match between a couple of scruffy pop bands All hyperbolic bollocks, of course Oasis being vaguely upper-working and Blur being solidly lower-middle but it was great fun!
So Blur went into the lead with 'Country House' and then Oasis kicked their ass with '(What's The Story) Morning Glory?' and then Blur tripped up with the rest of 'The Great Escape' (which was pretty rubbish) but then Pulp took the lead with 'Common People' and, look! Coming out of nowhere! It's monkey-faced iiber-proles The Stone Roses! They're back and ready to kick Britpop ass! My God! What a nail-biting, trouser shite-ing, dead exciting race! Um. has anybody seen Elastica?
Except that it wasn't all that exciting after that, was it? The Roses, Oasis and Pulp delivered albums that only their hardcore fans thought didn't suck shit from a dead dog's arse and Elastica, well Elastica got kidnapped by aliens or something (nobody's quite sure) and Di died and the drugs stopped working and Liam turned into Rod Stewart and Meg became Tara Palmer-Tomkinson in all but name and not-so-cocky now Jarvis was reduced to giving posh Sunday Supplements interviews about his pepper grinder and everybody else mutated into paranoid androids.
And then Blur- now unquestioned kingpins of the Britpop phenomenon that had us arrogant limeys crowing about the death of smelly Yankee ‘grunge’- knocked us all sideways by releasing what was, when all’s said and done, an album of smelly Yankee grunge - whoo-hoo! And in so doing they didn't so much put the final nail in Britpop's coffin as drive a stainless steel stake through the mouldering bastard's broken heart. Now was that class or was that CLASS!? And '13', if anything, is even classier.
But we're not here to talk about 'them' are we, Damon? We're here to talk about your new album, '13', chockful as it is with songs about your break-up with Justine from Elastica...
"I think we do demand of our fans an eclecticism that, um, some bands don't," says Damon.
No names, no packdrill.
"No no no no no, really, there's nothing like that any more..."
"I've completely cleared my system of that "
We won't mention 'them' again.
"Well, no! Them! Them! Them! Them! Them!" says Damon and he suddenly leaps up and starts looking under the sofa, just in case Dick and Mutley might be hiding underneath. Lee Evans eat your heart out.
Graham still squirms at the memory of 'ironic'-Blur - "the bloody music-hall thing".
"It was a hideous, hideous time - I nearly went bloody mad."
He wasn't the only one. 'Parklife' might have sold shiploads, but all that Blur go dahn ver dogs an' 'ang art wif professional cockernee Phil Daniels. coo lav a dack! cack fucked off millions whilst 'Girls And Boys' was generally interpreted as rank snobbery. An Damon a pop star who'd virtually made a career out of his allegedly acute and perceptive analysis of the British character, should have known better. Mayb he saw the Gallaghers as the skinheads who used to beat him up at school. Who knows? He got his head k eked in again anyway.
"That whole Britpop thing really re established the whole class system in a very, very frightening way," says Damon. "It polarised people's opinions, mainly because the two bands expressed themselves so crassly... but it still fucks me off how we were portrayed as posh. I mean I've spent my whole life with people trying to put me in my place. I think we are a really classless band I know that's probably a really rnaive and stupid thing to say, but I think we've learnt some very tough lessons in our ten years together and naturally it's evolved into this record."
But you've gotta be glad he fucked up. It made pop matter, gave us a whole slew of witty urban-folk singles in the tradition of The Jam and The Kinks and then forced Blur into making two quantum leap killer albums and none of that would have happened if Damon had learnt to keep his big mouth shut.
“We’re one of the last art-school bands,” says Damon. And he’s right to be both proud and angry. Thatcherite philistinism, now aided and abetted by New Labour’s insane jihad against free education, has virtually destroyed the hotbeds that gave us these three decades of great rock bands.
“Punk rock was art school for the masses,” says the hack.
“So what the fuck are we then?” asks the popstar.
It’s time to go- Parklifers and Whoo-hooers both. Move on. The time for emotional grieving is over.