After ‘The Great Escape’ Damon Albarn was depressed, disillusioned with fame and sick of the movement he helped spawn, Britpop. His relationship with Graham Coxon was crumbling and, well, things looked bleak. Now, in the first of a two part Blur special, John Mulvey finds out how he and the band re-shaped their lives to record their fifth, enormously brave, album.
He’s been very well-behaved, has Damon Albarn. Here, tucked into the corner of a photographers basement studio, with all the make-up and mirrors and spare bits of furniture, he has talked very nicely about his new lifestyle, his new state of mind, his new record, even, and hardly mentioned ‘that other band’ at all. Yes, he has been honest, decent and calm... perhaps perfectly Zen, if you take his martial arts-trained and Icelandic sojourn-birthed new hippyisms at face value. He's talked about how ambition sometimes got the better of him in the past; about how he regrets, a little, how competitive he's been. Ostensibly, we are dealing with a reformed and slightly humbled character.
Earlier, his drummer, Dave Rowntree, describes he new, improved, less calculatingly controversial fur. "In the past we've been guilty of making enormous headline-grabbing statements," he says, his gentle and unflappable way. "We're not going to do that now. I think it's a sign of insecurity, looking back."
And Damon agrees unequivocally. Once a gobshite, not always a gobshite, it appears. Until... We are discussing the new Blur single, Beetlebum', and its writer is happily admitting that, yes, it really is very reminiscent of a certain popular 60s combo: "I thought the most unfashionable thing for us to come back with was a song that founded like The Beatles," he teases.
But 'Beetlebum' is not a moronically chirpy facsimile of The Beatles, nothing like the shallow, conservative takes on Merseybeat we've grown used to over the past year or so. No. 'Beetlebum' – in its harrowingly lovely harmonies, in its stealth, craft and insidiousness, in its slightly destabilising air of otherness - understands the true adventurous spirit of The Beatles. Pop music, for sure, but pop music with a brain that stretches our expectations of that polite little genre. Fine, just fine. Then, unprovoked, he goes and does it:
"I want Noel to listen to ‘Beetleburn' and realise hat it is... closer," he seethes. "There's still no love lost between us. He wished I'd died of Aids, and he an go i—himself, basically. It's not a musical thing or anything, but as a person he did something... I don't care if he apologised for it. He never apologised to me for it."
Do you think he ever will?
"No," he replies sharply. "I don't want him to."
Let's face it, he's really going to want to twat you now, isn't he?
He laughs. "He can try. I've got to keep the ante up a little bit, haven't I? I can't turn into a complete f—ing hippy. I've been pretty nice, but I haven't had a lobotomy. I haven't had my balls cut off..."
"I don't believe in me/All I've ever done is tame/Will you love me all the same?" - 'Strange News From Another Star'
FOR MOST successful bands, the moment they become wilfully perverse, uncomfortably personal and, often, intensely self-pitying about the nature of fame is usually around the third album mark. Blur, however, have been much more resilient: they've waited until the fifth.
Sure, 'The Great Escape' harboured a certain emerging melancholy, as Damon started coming to terms with being depressed: after all, the first line written for the infamous Number One, 'Country House-' often forgotten amid the prevailing corblimey knees-uppery, was, "Blow, blow me out I am so sad I don't know why". But when the final promotion of that album was finished last April, Blur began again.
For starters, there were relationships within the band that needed drastic repair jobs. Then there were new songs: written in the first person, unambiguously exploring Damon's severe disillusionment with fame and the indigenous musical r-evolution - yep, Britpop - that he inadvertently triggered. It was time, so he figured, to go against the grain again, to shake things up again, in the same way that 'Modem Life Is Rubbish' had inspired a generation to reject the prevailing grunge hegemony.
And so we come to Blur's fifth album - titled, with inscrutable reductivist logic, 'Blur'. It is, frankly, a remarkable album, although whether it represents a revolutionary step forward for the British mainstream or just plain old commercial suicide remains to be seen. Instead of wry, deceptively jolly vignettes a la 'Parklife', we're faced with brutally honest anatomisations of Damon's predicaments - sung in his own softer accent rather than the broad stage Cockernee he's often adopted - and set to dark and frequently bizarre music.
As ever, the band have carried out a smash'n'grab raid on British musical history, although, crucially, the emphasis this time is on the moody innovators rather than the grinning traditionalists: more Bowie, Roxy and Tricky than music hall, Madness and The Small Faces, if you like. There's also a healthy dose of American influences, the very stuff Damon so enthusiastically sneered at in the past. The well-documented love of Pavement is there, but there are traces of Sonic Youth too, in Graham Coxon's unfettered guitar-abusing and, with 'Song 2', a fabulously gonzoid 'Nirvana’ homage. Near the end, as the deep, droning Hoover noises kick in big style on 'Essex Dogs', we might as well be listening to some kind of mind-curdling slice of avant-garderie - a Tortoise spin-off project, maybe - on Chicago's unfeasibly cool Thrill Jockey label. When Damon says, "It's different," he's not joking. When he seems clearly, outrageously delighted with it, he's entirely right to be.
But, anyway, that's for later. First, there's the little matter of the general public's stereotypes of Blur to slay - to set the scene for'Blur'. Beginning with the notion that they, in the midst of'Parklife'generated madness, championed a British way of life, rather than satirising it.
"It was always a celebration of the fall of a culture, as opposed to a resurgence," stresses Damon. "I've always said that. But I think I created such strong characters that I started to live in their shoes. 'Parklife' took me over a bit. It didn't worry me at the time, because it all felt good, y'know? It was all so new and such virgin territory."
Do you regret a lot of the things you did around that time?
Erm, I think I fell victim to some..." he pauses, starts again. "I made some silly decisions and I... I don't think I really had the sense of moral and personal responsibility that I have now."
Did ambition get the better of you?
“Yes " he says emphatically "Well I think everyone who’s got to real icon status in this country has allowed ambition to get the better of them We're through that and we're on to something else now, but I’m waiting to see everyone else get through it.
You mean Oasis?
"Well Pulp as well.”
You think that’s hapening to Jarvis now?
I hope so, because I think he’s got as swered up by it as I have. It’s impossible to go all the way if you’re intelligent. You can’t beleive in these things, that whole value system. I never had those values, I was just intruiged by the whole thing.”
But that makes you sound like a dispassionate observer at superstar parties, when you were frequently pissed as a fart.
"Yeah, but I was never out of control... Well, actually, thats not true. I was sort of out of control. I wasn't aware of what was going on, but now I am. It was just intruiging. You go to these parties becaus eyou’re curious about what that kind of life is like. But just by being curious, you end up being involved with it. You start off with a visit to (names flashy westend nightciub) to score your coke, then go somewhere else, then back to (that club again) then off somewhere else, again. That kind of scene draws you into the tabloids, because those places because those places are where all the tabloids hang around.”
Did you have a good time?
"In parts, yeah, but I also felt quite guilty because there was a voice that became stronger and stronger inside my head that was pulling me away from that. And this record is totally related to healing that.
"I went through shit. I got myself into such a state. I went from someone who could sit under a tree and fall asleep to someone who could not sit under a tree, and now I’m back to someone who can. And for me that is the most valuable thing in the world to be able to do, to be able to have that direct, unaffected peace."
"Under the pressure/Gone middle of the road/Fall into fashion/Fall out again/We suck together/'Cos it never ends. - 'MOR’
NOWADAYS, DAMON Albarn is a strange, albeit beguiling, mixture of confidence and penitence - "a mixed-up f—er, really," as he puts it. The old bullishness is still there, of course, especially when he talks about his new record. But, simultaneously, there's a sense that one of the new record's key functions is to atone for past sins. To restore a sense of dignity to proceedings. To remind people that, beyond the tabloid-friendly displays of bravado, quite a bit of brain was actually at work. But this is a man, remember, whose last appearance on a British stage was just over a year ago, dragged up as that well-known symbol of the revolutionary intelligentsia, the pantomime dame.
"That was the end of something, very much, he accepts. 'We'd taken it as far as we could do and feel comfortable. I have a real love of music hall and that whole tradition, it's something I love and feel very akin to. Looking back on it, the cartoon side of 'The Great Escape' and 'Parklife' would make a brillian musical. Put them on the West End stage and 'Country House would bring the house down. And that's where it should be.
"But it doesn't satisfy a growing part of my psyche. You just can't help to realise, as you get a little older, that you’re not that important, and you need to make things count a lot more: I don’t mean count in a classic pop single way, I mean count in a way of learning about yourself.
I suppose I saw everything in a vaguely cartoony way, and that's why we made cartoon music. But there've always been hints, on every single record of what this record is: things like 'Sing' on 'Leisure’, It's always been there. In our minds, it doesn't seem odd to have made this kind of departure."
Was it designed to alienate pop fans?
"No. It was the only thing we could possibly make without having just stopped and gone our separate ways. I feel Graham had gone a long with with me. I've known him for so long that I couldn’t not be sensitive to his... I write good songs and I have a different kind of musical sense to him, and when the two are put together properly it's really really strong. But sometimes one overtakes the other. We really tried on this record to make a balance.
"He's growing up as well. We just happened to make a leap at the same time. And him giving up drinking was massively important, because it returned our relationship to what it used to be an I could communicate with him. I got really frustrated and upset... I never stopped loving him like . Well, he's like a brother, really. Yeah, I just got very frustrated, because it was just impossible to be r ational. "
Did you feel the band was stalling because of that breakdown?
"Yeah. I'm not blaming it on that, but towards the end of 'The Great Escape' it was getting virtually impossible to plan anything or know exactly how the next day would turn out. '
He laughs hopelessly. The way 'Blur' has turned out, however, is - one suspects - like the record Graham Coxon always wanted to make. Always a startlingly odd, dissonant guitarist given the chance- check his angularly 'anti-rock' solo on, of all things, 'Country House', it is as if Damon and producer Stephen Street have finally given him the go-ahead to run atonal riot across the songs. Thus there is much feedback. There are many clangs. And there is the unmistakable sound of a very happy man meticulously getting away with murder for the first time in his career.
For a while over last summer, though, he and Damon - with whom he, for once, seems to agree with - could barely communicate.
"We wrote letters to each other after we toured." Graham remembers. "It was easier to write; we got everything straight like that. We'd recount incidents on tour where it had got a little bit too much, where it seemed quite possible we could never be friends again. There weren't arguements. but something would trigger someone to shout and scream, and then there'd be silence."
“lt was a good way of starting again," explains Damon, of the letters. "That's just what happens in bands, that's what happens if you spend month and months relying on someone to be responsible and them relying on you to communicate with them and be sensitive to how they feel."
Were you too responsible sometimes?
"Yeah, but I had to be, because no-one else would be."
So the relentless drive, the competitiveness...
"It was my fault, definitely. My hang-up, yeah. Justine's always been really critical of that with me as well. I've had it from every angle," he grins. "But it wasn't something I was going to modify until i understood why I felt like that."
And it was wise not to stop behaving like that until you'd made a substantial amount of money and could afford the luxury of making a more experimental record. It's a rich man's whim, isn't it?
"Yeah, I suppose so. There's a lot of truth in that, but we've always made the music that we're capable of at the time. When we started our record company were too keen to make us right for the time. If we'd made our first album the way we made our first B-sides it would actually have sounded a lot more like this one.
"That was early on, but that set a kind of method of working and a sense of responsibility to people around us that its taken a long time to shed. But I think we still have a drive. We were just planning our touring for next year, and its hard, so that sense of realising you have to work for everything in life has not gone at all.
“This is the music/ And we’re moving on, we’re moving on.”- Movin’ on
There are at the very least, two ways to look at ‘Blur’. On the one hand, it’s an enormously brave record: a kick in the face to the Britpop monster they created, a fearless bid to stay creatively potent whatever the commercial repercussions. On the other hand, it’s an enormously cowardly record: a retreat from the battlefield, an admission that Blur can’t compete with Oasis on the terms that they once set themselves, an acceptance of failure...
‘Hmm,” ponders Damon, “ Y’see, that’s not how I see it really.”
But you can understand why people might see it that way?”
He pauses. “Yeah... but... having got to a point where you sell millions of records and sell-out stadiums- OK, not huge stadiums, but medium-sized stadiums- I think you are entitled to... reassess things. Because we’ve acheived what most bands will ever acheive as far as status is concerned. We created a movement: as far as the lineage of British bands goes, there'll always be a place for us.
"So l think we genuinely started to see the world in a slightly different way. And it did become blatantly clear to me that, at the end of the day, it's got to be the records and nothing else - that the status and record sales are not as important as the records. That is just a fact you can't escape from. "
Justine said in last week's NME that you still believe your music could change the world.
"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I'd hate to lose that. I'd chop me head off if I did that. But I don't think you can tell people how. It's worked in the past, I have to say. And I know how to do it that way, but I just want to change myself again. I always knew we'd make a record like this. I knew what we were. I think you have to be very careful because 'knowing' stuff is interpreted as being clinical and detached " ,p> And a lot of this record is composed of the things you used to rail against?
"Yeah, I'rn very aware of the contradictions .."
Self-pitying whingeing up its own arse with silly noises over the top, a complete absolving of commercial responsibility...
"Yes,' he smiles ruefully, "but you could say that about The Beatles. They were doing that towards the end of their career. I think English bands don't take enough risks once they've got a formula together. And that's why The Beatles are the best band of all time, because they did do that. It's just a forgotten art. That's why it's depressing at the moment.
"And that's why we haven't made a shiny pop record, because the environment is the opposite of what it was when we were making shiny pop records. We have our own integrity, and that's what keeps us strong and what keeps us together, and it doesn't always fit in with the present wisdom of what is cool and what is not cool.''
Welcome, then, Damon Atbarn, mystic, calm Zen master. With the odd notable exception, the headline-grabbing vitriol has gone, the boundless energy channelled into healthier pursuits. Some might say his edge has gone. Others might conclude he's got a life.
"I do martial arts, tae kwon do," he says. "That's been quite important. Once you start to really get involved, your desire to mouth off diminishes. It just teaches you that that is not the way to be. It's not training to be a killer... I mean, when I went for my first grading last year, I was a white belt and I had to go there with lots of young people. Virtually everyone in the room knew who I was, and you have to call everyone 'sir', so it's a very humbling experience.
"And I've spent some money and bought a house in Iceland. When I get back I'm always so chilled out and open-minded. I think anyone who spends time out of London feels like that."
Are you sick of London?
"Yeah, I don't want to live here any more, really, I just don't want to live in a city any more. Justine loves it, so l haven't got a great deal of choice, but I really miss being able to just walk and be quiet, things like that."
Then it figures that 'Blur' is all about you, rather than about London and the suburbs and the characters that fill it- its easily the most blatantly personal and exposed, in fact, that you've ever been.
"Yeah," he concurs, "it doesn't worry me now, because I'm more equipped emotionally to deal with it. But you've got to be careful when you start singing about yourself. Songs have a magic to them, they have a sort of power that you can't mess around with. If you sing about things they tend to come true, because the fact that you've even written about them means that, deep down inside, you know that's where you're going to end up. There's examples all the way of people who've written about their own future, so it's quite scary."
Were you suppressing the urge to write directly about yourself?
"Yeah, definitely. But I just needed to. I got to the point where I had to."
There's a song on the B-side of 'Beetlebum' called 'AII My Life' that is, perhaps, more painfully autobiographical than anything even on 'Blur'. Left off the album because, Damon claims, it sounds too much like 'old' Blur; its killer melancholic line is, 'England my love, you moke me look like a fool".
Do you resent the fact that you used England, and then, much more ruthlessly, it used you?
"Well, I suppose so," he sighs, "but it was inevitable once all the tabloid demons came out and it became North/South, working class/middle class. Up until that point, everything was different. At that point, I found it increasingly difficult to play along with the cartoon persona, and my true self had to come out because they were really trying to destroy it."
And, until Oasis came along, it was easy for the tabloids to take you at a ridiculous face value.
“Yeah, exactly. The media was in on the joke with us. The records weren't jokes, but what was happening in the culture was funny, and everyone was going," he sniggers, : "'It's really funrry.' We were all being quite elitested about it, and then Oasis came round and...”
Maybe they did you a favour?
"I think they did. I don't regret it now, because it's drawn us to somewhere where there's a real clarity about what we are. But I really am less cynical.
"And we've always been this kind of band,' he says, returning to his favourite new theme, "it's just that one of my quirks happened to take over the band. I don't feel there's going to be another band of our size who’re going to do anything remotely like this."
The Boo Radleys had a go...
"Yeah, but the thing with The Boo Radleys is that when they made their pop record they just went too far."
Hang on, you can't make much more of a pop record than 'Country House', whether you're me ntioning Balzac in it or not.
"Oh no, y’see, that's the difference," he says triumphantly. "That is the essential difference, and that is what has kept us from turning into an uncontrollable pop f- up."
Your intelligence saved you?
"Oh definitely, definitely. It's left British music andit's got to come back."
HERE HE is, then, the most unfasilionable man pop, progenitor of a'90s musical renaissance and, more recently, its most conspicuous victim - and still, if the truth be told, a bit full of himself. This is the way, it seems, that Damon Albarn likes it again: to be in a position where he can subversively try and kick over the statues rather than triumphantly sit aloft them. "It's very important for us to sometimes feel that everybody misunderstands us and that we've let ourselves down," he says, always one for a challenge.
When Blur were seeking to re-establish themselves, to create something traditional but new around the time of 'Modem Life Is Rubbish', they posed for a series of publicity photographs titled 'British Image'. One showed them as blazered, archly genteel toffs, another as mod-ish yobbish geezers. In 1997, though, one suspects that Damon prefers 'British Anti-lmage' sessions: simple, be-yourself, hanging-out shots and strictly uniform-free.
Because, after having taught a generation of British bands how to talk a good fight, how to package their bands down to the last detail, it's as if he wants to make underground values commercialbly viable. To dress casually- comfortably. To do your own thing. To feel relaxed being a middle-class Home Counties boy instead of pretending to be an Essex tearaway. To concentrate on the music to the exclusion of everything else, and be able to say things like, “I always knew that, at some point, we’d really egt down to the buisness of making records,” and get away with it.
Perhaps Damon Albarn, at heart, would love to make good records- and ‘Blur’ is, undoubtably, a terrific one- and be a boring dullard in interviews. The trouble is, he just cant do it. See, he can bodly cast off all the other affections of Britpop teen-screem superficial superstardom but, well, once a gobshite...
“The thing with Oasis is over,” he says as the session wraps up, returning unprompted to the subject of his betes noires. “The bands are destined to do very different things. I think they did us a huge favour... But...”
And his timings still impecable, his gift for the grand gesture not disappeared completely, his grin just as bring-em-on michevous... “But I’ll still twat him!”