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Q Magazine: March 99

There Was No Other Way...

They had to sack their fifth member, Damon had to leave Justine and Graham had to survive mad cow disease in order for Blur to make another album. Now they're underwater, in love with music skating through dogshit and going to Mars in 2003. "There's a fashion bunny explosion tonight!" they tell Danny Eccleston.

It is the penultimate week of January, 1999, and one pop song- already over two-and-a-half years old - still rules America. It was recorded in London in June 1996 in less than half an hour; the guitarist played some of the drums on it, the bassist can't remember it and the singer never bothered to write proper lyrics. Deemed "a laugh" by its creators, it was touch and go whether it would make it onto the album it now graces, Blur by Blur. Now it'swoo-bastard-hoo-ing everywhere.

Song 2 is the biggest financial fact in the 10 year history of Blur and here in the US, for better or for worse, they are "the Woo Hoo guys". The track has been rented out to Labatt's, Intel, the US National Hockey League, the Starship Troopers movie trailer, and now, to the band's delight, the Superbowl episode of The Simpsons. It has made them over £2 million and it could have made twice that, since the US military offered the near-equivalent of Guatemala's GNP for the song to be played at the unveiling of the new Stealth bomber. The band toyed with the idea of securing a couple of tins of Stealth paint for their cars ("We'd have been totally invisable to speed traps," smiles Graham Coxon), then turned therm down. They didn't need the money.

It is teatime in Manhattan's sleek Mercer Hotel and Damon Albarn - like the Queen - isn't carrying any cash. He taps up his jolly US PR for a fistful of dollars, and then, tut-tutting his niggardliness, a few dollars more. This evening, an already fatigued Albarn is planning on "'Avin' it" somewhere in New York's fashionable demi-mode, and such roistering will require outlay.

The Mercer's lobby is muted and sombre. Successive waiters adjust tall vases of daffodils and squeeze the petals. This being New York an Arto Lindsay record plays quietly in the background. In onc corner, Graham Coxon and his Swedish girlfriend - wearing matching clogs - kiss avidly. Blur bass player Alex James floats by, lookin pleased with himself...

Albarn: "Why are you so fucking chipper?"

James: "I'm just... in New York."

Albarn: "(Wearily) Oh, you cunt."

James: (Leslie Phillipsly) "There's a fashion bunny explosio tonight. Fashion bunnies, I love 'em. I fucking love 'em."

Lovely models are just a part of New York's cosmopolitan allure however. Unbelievably, James has bumped into a woman he used to be in a band with in Bournemouth over a decade ago. Naturally, she’s now living less than a hundred yards away with one of the Propellerheads This he imparts as he floats happily away, looking to score the eight pizza of his three-day-old visit.

"Gawd bless 'im," winks Albarn. "He's not sure where he play on the album."

MORE THAN ANY other Blur album, there is a whiff of Yea Zero about the forthcoming 13. 1997's Blur LP may have seemed scuzzily, Yankily radical at the time, but it swiftly became Blur's global best-seller and Blur seem to have taken its popularity as evidene that they hadn't gone nearly far enough. In 1998 Albarn prised the band away from their lifelong record company PR and sacked producer Stephen Street, to many eyes the "fifth Blur". Based on a remix he did of Blur's Movin' On for 1997's stopgap Bustin' & Dronin project, William Orbit, ambient dance stylist and producer of Madonna's Ray Of Light, was piped aboard. In London and Iceland, between July 20 and November 19, 1998, Orbit and the band exorcised the last vestiges of Lionel Bart, Kurt Weill and Ray Davies from Blur's music and - feeding hours of playful jamming into Orbit's Star Trek sampler console - fashioned a hardcoredub- folkSunRa adventure.

"Adventure's the right word," says Albarn, eyeing his tea - a plate of fruit. "Everything is moving on and it can't go back now. There's a nice sense of lolloping forward. At last. In unison."

Was sacking Stephen Street diffcult?

"Yes, it was difficult. He'll be forever part of what we are, and ironically, he gave us the tools we needed to go it alone. I don't know how he feels, but I think he's cool about it. I had to do it, though. It was such a personal thing going on, we needed to have someone _ who didn't really know us... William was a bit of a psychiatrist through all of this."

In 1988, on hearing Damon Albarn's songs for the first time, Alex James said "Sing about something that's closer to your heart, you cunt." Ten years on, Albarn has finally done just that. His famous "character songs" dispensed with ("It's so English, that, pretending you're someone else to express something you feel"), Albarn has struggled to address the dissolution of his eight-year partnership with Elastica's Justine Frischmann as frankly as he could.

"I hope that it's a good thing for all involved," he sighs. "I'd like to sign off that particular part of my life as. . . you know, it's a tribute to how important she was in my life. It's a celebration of love found and lost but not forgotten."

Will she see it like that?

"I think she's heard it this week - someone gave it to her. I don't know (nervous laugh) what she thinks. It's not going to be easy really, but I hope she finishes her record really soon, which I think she will, and then. . . well then it becomes public all over again doesn't it? (Despairing laugh)"

You haven't written many love songs before.

"No, but I'm not going to write anything but love songs from now on."

Ten random observations. Damon Albarn snorts when Radiohead appear on the television. He has disarming teeth. He claims to "forget to eat" for days on end. He is very cockney talking to waiters. His "s"s are ssso sssibilant they make the tape recorder distort. His underpants are from M&S. He likes The Beta Band. He wears two badges. One reads "Hope Is Impcitant", a slogan of the band Idlewild. The other bears the logo of the anarchist punk group, Crass.

Despite efforts to rein himself in, Damon Albarn is getting increasingly angry about England.

"The way I see it," he protests, "Parklife was a really angry record. It was saying this country has got some really shit things about it, and yet Parklife turned into the launchpad for fucking New... New Everything. It was totally hijacked by the press and everyone... With a bit more maturity and hindsight it was really quite sick what they did to us and to Oasis."

Dave Rowntree says Number 10 rang you and "threatened" you to get on board.

"I've talked about going to see Tony Blair before the election and being troubled after meeting him. Emotionally there was very little connection. I just felt troubled. All those things that went on at that time troubled me..."

You felt implicated?

"At the time it just felt normal to be introduced to the leader of the Opposition. That shows you how fucked up it had become. I'm not a filcking radical, but I do believe that everyone deserves a bite of the apple and I was naive enough to think it was possible to join the dialogue. Now I feel I was completely pushed out. They pushed me out."

Damon Albarn says that he's been "smothered" and "trampled on" - odd things, perhaps, for a millionaire pop star to imagine. Sometimes "They" are the press, sometimes the political establishment, sometimes a conflation of the two. Yet Albarn's anger is understandable enough: in January, The Sun newspaper printed a phone number for readers to ring if they knew the name of his new girlfriend. Feeling hounded here, Albarn has applied for dual British/Icelandic nationality.

"I'm very concerned that this sounds para... I really wouldn't want it to come across as... (Frustrated) Look, it all, you know, I dunno. This record has nothing to do with anything. It's nothing like Parklife. That was a political record, this is an emotional record. This is a soul record."

TOMORROW ALBARN FLIES to Utah where he is attending Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, supporting Antonia Birds's frontier cannnibal movie Ravenous, for which he has written the music with composer Michael Nyman. There he will hook up with the very dangerous "Ray” (Winstone, with whom he creditably starred in Bird's grit-heist movie Face) and "Bobby" (Carlyle) and "'Ave it" some more. He'd be pleased to pick up a little extra soundtrack work, he says, but he’s no longer interested in acting because there's too much music to make. Albarn has a non-famous girlfriend ("thank God no-one knows who she is") and shares a West London house with comic artist Jmaie Hewlett, creator of Tank Girl. "I'm so much happier than I've been for years," he says, seeming surprised and relieved. "That's not so much to do with finally splitting up withJustine. It's because I understand now what it means to feel music, properly. After ten years I'm really in love with it now. Before, I could do music, but now I really feel it."

That was always the criticism of Blur by other bands: that you didn't feel it..

"Yes, I know."

Did they have a point, then?

"Well, I apologise profusely |to Bobby Gillespie. I hope this record doesn't confuse him too much. I hope the order of the universe remains the same for him. I honestly hope he likes record, and I hope we could just stop being narky with each other. It's not pleasant, I don't enjoy not getting on with other musicians. They're people that speak the same language as me, fuck's sake."

What about a rapprochement with Noel Gallagher?

"It would be nice if we could all get on. I'm not being a fucking hippy here but it would be nice if there was a harmonic thing musically in Britain. OK, I know I'm probably the missing link and everyone has been getting on famously, and it's just me who hasn't on with anyone. (Sadly, looking at shoes) Maybe been me all along."

Is "We can do whatever we want" something that bands have to keep reminding themselves?'

"Yes, every day. Anyone who's involved in a creative loop should remember that. You're just a passenger unless you're doing what the fuck you want. That's the whole point of it isn't it? Freedom. (Jamaican accent) Liberayshaan."

What's been the worst time in Blur?

"The Great Escape was a hard time. Because the whole Parklife thing had just gone wrong. I couldn't fucking walk down the street without|someone shouting, 'Oasis!' I couldn't go into a shop... I used to walk down the street and, literally, people would open their windows and turn up Oasis. Imagine that. It was insane. It was a nightmare, but it taught me a lot. It made me realise that, emotionally, I had a lot of catching up to do."

Are you tough as old boots?

"I don't know. I feel a lot less tough. I don't fight as much as I used to. I feel a lot more... gentle."

Could nothing break up Blur now?

"There's a lot that's been thrown at us. The one thing our enemies haven't done is take us seriously. Now that might really fuck us up."

Poised above the water is a metal box, about eight foot by four foot by four. The box has a "door" - ie a big hole - and three "windows" - ie three very much smaller holes - currently bolted shut.

Strapped inside this no-frills reconstruction of a Aerospatielle Super Puma helicopter is Dave Rowntree, qualified commercial pilot and drummer in Blur. In the seat next to him is Q, here at Southampton's Andark Diving Centre "for the ride". Dave Rowntree is slightly claustrophobic, but enclosed space is the least of his worries, since any second now the box and its occupants will be thrust underwater by powerful hydraulic pistons. Water will then roar through every one of its apertures as it is rotated through 180 degrees. Completely submerged and practically blind, Q and Rowntree will hold our breaths, locate and open a window, struggle to detach our over-complicated seatbeltage and, ha ha ha, swim out.

From "crash" to "escape", the exercise will take - estimates survival instructor Dave Dowds - no more than fifteen seconds. No amount of instruction, however, could prepare one for the intense reality, which goes something like: sickening, ear-bending splash... boiling wall of water sprints towards rotating head... drummer out of Blur engulfed by same... "Dave! Dave! Dlub! Glub!"... Can't see... Don't breathe... drowning?... where's instructor?... Is Dave out yet?... DROWNING... Don't care if Dave's not out I'm off. . . Feel windowsill... tear off harness... reach for wobbly light... People! Air! Gasp! Phew!

A rock lyric comes to mind. It is, ironically, one by Oasis: "Please don't put your life in the hands/Of a rock'n'roll band."

Afterwards, a dripping Dave Rowntree is no more qualified a commercial pilot than he was before, but he does have a nice certificate and he knows what to do if he and his rock band should fall into the sea. Even so, he's not sure if Blur would be any good in such a crisis. ~ . s;

"Would I be any good?" he ponders. "Who would be the jelly? In war films the weak character is the one who gets redeemed in such situations..." he pauses... " but I'm not sure which one of us that is."

According to GrahamCoxon, Rowntree is "a really sane bloke". Ruining the effect, Coxon also describes him as "a psychopath". The Blur drummer admires Old Labour pinup Tony Benn and, since the close ofthe Blur tour in December 1997, he has taught himselfcomputer animation from scratch. He is clearly a singular fellow. Alex James alleges that if there were a Guinness Book Of Records entry for "Most Arrested Rock Star" Rowntree would be it; I also thinks there isn't a better drummer in pop.

"Dave's never open with us," Coxon says. "We have to read the interviews to see what he really thinks. But he s a good myth filter. Like that stuff about mobile phones giving you tumours, he says that's rubbish and I trust him."

If he were forced at gunpoint to share a house with another member of Blur, Dave Rowutree would rather be killed.

"We’re together for the music," he sighs, peering over his spectacles. "We wouldn't be great friends if we weren't in a band and it would be stupid to pretend otherwise. Because we all get on each other's nerves. You’re bound to after ten years.”

What's it like being teetotal in a band of drinkers?

"It's easier now. At the time I gave up it wasnt particularly pleasant. They didn't seem to understand why I did it. I'd have been the same if it had been someone else, because it's quite threatening to drinkers to have one in your midst quit. That's making you ask a lot of questions about yourself "

Did you go to Alcoholics Anonymous?

"I went to two meetings. One was quite hardcore, quite upsetting. But it's useful, 'cos you look around the room and you go (laughs), I'm better than you, I'm much worse than you. You realise that you're not the only one with problems and they're all solvable. And that's half the battle, I think. Once I'd got that message into my head and I'd got over the shakes, I was fine."

Dave Rowntree has the edge on everyone else in Blur in at least one category: he has the most insane laugh. Where Albarn offers a wide grin and a deep chuckle and James throws his head back, teeth flaring, for a generous HAHAHAHA, Rowntree's is a cartoon, gulping, K-yuk-yuk. Mostly, however, he is dry. Dry and content.

"I've never enjoyed making records particularly," he admits. "But this one was a lot more satisfying. It's like an explosion, I think, this record. Once everyone realised that no idea was going to go wasted we became these idea machines. . . these idea machine-guns, k-yuk-yuk."

A REHEARSAL COMPLEX IN London N7. Blur are onstage, exploring the groove and holes and interesting plateaux of their new sound; learning to play songs at least partly constructed inside one of William Orbit's computers; making, in the words of Graham Coxon, "a racket". With equal assiduousness, Alex James rehearses the angle of cigarette dangle he will be modelling when Blur play live in three days' time.

As 13's Bugman moves into its groovy, garagepsych second section, Albarn hops down off the stage and stands 20 metres into what would be the audience. He nods his head in time.

Albarn: "How's the sound out front?"

Soundman: "I think it's fine."

Albarn: "I don't want 'I think'."

Soundman: "It's fine. It's good."

Albarn: "Hmmm."

Onstage Graham Coxon teases out the insectoid riff of Bugman as if operating a mangle. Occasionally, taken by a whim, he turns toward his amplifier and elicits a note of arresting, distorted counterpoint.

It has become the thing to write in Blur interviews that Coxon is an excellent guitarist, though it is hard to fathom quite why this needs saying. Certainly, he is Blur's avant-garde conscience, the Blur member who quickly and vocally turned against the "chirpiness" of Parklife. Maybe it's not a surprise to learn (from Alex James) that Co: was initially the hardest to convince that what Blur needed was Madonna's producer. Now - hunched in one of the rehearsal centre's arse-freezing dressing rooms - he is filled with proselyte zeal.

"Working with William was like having a makeover on Richard &Judy," he giggles, "a complete surprise. It was like feeding your personality into a computer and it saying: Here's your sound Mr Coxon. Looking back, our methods were so structured before. It was like. . . pop jail."

Coxon is a man of careful phrases and pop concepts, elegantly expressed in a tiny voice thats sort of country Essex. "Sound just does what it wants to do in the end," he declares at one po "Ego-less playing is the most profound," he s even more strikingly, at another. He can, concedes, be ''poisomous'' when he's drunk, so he drinks far less these days. Ludicrously for a man of his age (29) he skateboards. There is probably a key to getting on with him and you may have it, but you may not know you have it. Alex James recommends buying him presents.

"A lot of 13 was done in very intense moods,” whispers Coxon. "I got in a couple of bad moods and didn't talk for a whole day -just played, thats why there are so many angry sounds...

What's going on in your head when you don't speak to the rest of the band all day?

"Complete embarrassment really. You know when you get into a mood because something's happened that morning? Say you've skated through some dogshit on Primrose Hill. . . (Angry) They complain about you skateboarding then they let their dog curl one down on the pavement. So you're in a mood, and you're embarrassed about being in a mood, so you choose nopt to communicate. It's like a mouse stuck in a jar with slippery sides. You want to get out, but you can't. Damon always thinks I'm in a mood with him, but I'm not. The truth is I’m suffering from acute embarrasment. (Nervous smile)"

Why do you always give the impression of being out on a limb, if Blur are a democracy?

"It was always democratic, but I'd always have a problem in being insistent on stuffthat concerned me. I'd feel I was being a pain in the arse if I asked for something more than twice. If I was told twice No, then I'd shut up about it. I realised after 11 years that this was quite unhealthy"

Blur have been very honest about their past disagreements. On the US tour of 1992 you all came I to blows...

"But that's not to do with anything other than.. . stress."

But how do you deal with it afterwards, having punched someone?

"I suppose you do a show and get pissed and cry. I suppose you laugh about it."

Who says sorry?

" (Laughs bleakly) I suppose as we get older we find it possible to apologise. Yound people find it quite difficult to apologise. I certainly did. And the not-being-able-to-apologise embarrassment got me into these strung-out moods. It's good to learn to say sorry"

BLUR WILL NOT be touring 13. They have decided - rather like R.E.M. last year - that there is no need. Given their on-the-road history, you wouldn't begrudge them a rest. Their notorious 1992 escapade - chronicled in their vomit-flecked tour film Starshaped - nearly broke them. A subsequent 44-date jaunt, undertaken to sell enough T-shirts to offset a career-threatening £40,000 debt, dealt a further battering. By the end of The Great Escape tour of 1995 they were, recalls Coxon, at the end of their tethers.

"The year before last it became normal to be out on the road and a freakout to be at home," frets Coxon. "I never wanted that to happen but it did and it's really horrible. Just going out to the newsagents for some milk is a major trauma... a major chicken korma."

So this is Blur's Year Zero. No touring. A new way of making music. Stepping back from the pop race. Living sane lives.

"There's no way back," agrees Coxon. "When we started we were kids doing kids' music, then we had to put these records out, which meant being serious, but we weren't very good at being serious, so we got very neurotic and these weird albums came out. I think The Great Escape is our most difficult record to listen to. It's so fucking doom-laden. I listened to it recently. It's supersuper-mad. A mad cow disease record."

The most popular theory about Blur is that there's a fault line between you and Alex: the dour muso versus the flighty popinjay. Does Damon have his hands full keeping you both on-board?

"Probably, Damon has had a lot on his plate putting on his I'm A Friend Of Alex face and then his I'm A Friend Of Graham face. But it's nothing bad between me and Alex. It's just to do with sense of humour. We're very similar. If he wants to try and be in The Average White Band then I'm going to be in the Gang Of Four. I'm cutting against him all the time, because he's, like, a sexy musician and I feel... shy and clumsy. So I try and fuck up his funk. It's basically teenage party jealousy"

What do you remember of your first meeting with Damon?

"Black mac. Very white shirt. Small Cary Grant tie knot. White socks. Very nice rude boy brogues. Always messing with his hair, pouting in any reflcctive surface."

Damon seems to realise that he winds people up, but he's not sure why...

"I don't think he likes being disliked. But that's a funny charm of his: if you don't know him he can be quite offensive. He can seem a bit weird in that sometimes he seems to try too hard. And people take that as an opportunity to knock him down."

What are you afraid of?

"Cancer. Getting old and lazy and cynical. Also spiders and big insects. I had this really fucked up dream that was very real. I dreamt that I'd been spiked with LSD, a horrible combination, a lot of potential for freakiness. So I saw huge dragonflies and beetles the size of cars. The idea of going to a rainforest and coming across. . . Sting, hee hee, terrifies me."

How close has being in Blur come to sending you mad?

"I'm more resilient than I thought, and a lot of that's down to my reserve. I let other people have the big worries for me... stuff like sales. Having another means of expression - the painting - probably helps."

What really angers you?

"Cruelty to animals. That Renault Scenic advert. Not getting respect. One of the reasons I cut down on drink was being taken seriously"

Will this album match the success of Blur?

"I think it will. Basically, I just feel massively relieved that the album is as good as I hoped it would be. I was going to say better, but no, it's good... as good as I wanted it to be."

Graham Coxon's mobile phone goes off. It rings and - if you can imagine this - at the same time it groans.

When two neutron stars orbiting one another succumb to the gravitational pull exerted by their colossal densities, they slam together. One theory has it that the result is a massive bolt of gamma radiation, detectable on the other side of the universe. Another that this is accompanied by the formation of a black hole. AlexJames knows of no better metaphor for celebrity.

"Celebs are drawn to other celebs by forces beyond their control," he purrs. "Then, Then, the more celebs there are in one place the more celebs drawn to it. Evcntually they reach a critical mass and the outcome is... oh, horrible and brilliant.”

A week and a half after formulating this thery, AlexJames is at the Mullard Radio Astlmlo Observatory, an outpost of the University of Cambridge, peering into the giant white wok that houses their Cosmic Anisotropy Telescope (CAT) The CAT's job is to monitor minute fluctations in the universe's Microwave Background, looking for clues in this faint tapestry of radiation to how the first galaxies formed, nearly 20 billion years ago. In other words we are watching it watching the birth of everything.

Around us there is the enthusiastic natter of scientists. One is talking about "Dark Matter’ Another thinks that Dark Mattcr is poppycock. There is discussion of the big argument in curret cosmology: will the utliverse cease to expand and eventually fall back on itself, or will it carrying expanding until there is so much space between its constituent parts that the night sky will empty. "Pop music seems a bit silly when compared with the beginning of time," whispers James.

People who call Blur middle class dilettantes and think this is a bad thing have a field day wid the faddish Alex James. This, after all is the man behind the horrible Fat Les; the manl who spent a month on the floor of a friend’s brother’s Cambridge student bedsit, insensible on vodka and lime cordial and writing a musical; someone moreover, who gets his mother to OK his press photographs. Today James is extravagantly hungover from a scorching Oxford gig the night before (bravely, Blur played 11 of 13's 13 tracks) and wears an overcoat that makes him resemble a more rakish Nosferatu, but he is insistent that Q comes to Cambridge to meet Professor Colin Pillinger, the source of his most recent and sincere enthusiasm.

What the earthy and affable Pillinger is up to is building BEAGLE, a 27kg package that, if things proceed to schedule, should leave the earth's atmosphere in a European Space Agency rocket at the end of May 2003. On December 26, 2006 it will plunge toward Mars, decclerating from Mach 30, and bounce down onto the surface of the Red Planet, unfold itself and start drilling into the surface. On top of the information it'll send back about Mars's geology and atmosphere, Pillinger believes it may find organic matter. Life on Mars: it's the best-selling show.

Persuading cash money out of businessmen at "drinky do's" have been Alex James and Dave Rowntree, PRing like mad and putting together music for Pillinger's fund-raising video. "He's a good boy," says Pillinger of James, with a twinkle that suggests he knows that he isn't.

"It's the millennium," says James. "We should be building spaceships. (Arthur C. Clarke voice) They're the cathedrals of the future."

James talks sadly of the current paucity of applicants to teach physics in secondary schools and bubbles about building his own five grand radio telescope. He is very furrowed-brow and edumenical. Where is the disreputable pop tart of legend?

"Can you smell my breath? I've got something decomposing in my mouth."

Oh, here he is.

ALEX JAMES IS one of life's genius swearers. Once, and for his own good, Q had to censor him when he described a much-loved elder pillar of the music community as a "fucking yokel cuntface". On the train between Cambridge and London, in spite of his advancing jadedness, he nearly tops this by dubbing Damon Albarn an "arrogant fucktwat". For the more genteel, he has a similarly fertile way with an aphorism, and in less than an hour of conversation he comes up with. . .

"Bass playing is just about joining in "

"You can't make an album of ten singles. You might as well just make ten singles."

"Fame is just another sort of money"

And the best: "My life is a Gide novel."

The first time Damon Albarn took acid, veteran James held his hand and guided him around New Cross shopping centre. Were Blur doing something similar during the recording of 13?

"Well, Damon's not a man who needs a lot of support," demursJames. "He's a gushing geyser of a geezer. But yeah, the emotional currency of the record is him splitting up with Justine. It's Damon plumbing the depths of his soul and there's blood on the tracks."

You're all very honest in interviews about the way you feel about each other. Has that ever caused problems?

"It's all you've got really, and when you're being scrutinised all the time people find out when you're telling fibs very quickly. You've got to tell the truth, you really have, otherwise there's no point. If you give someone a spiel every day it becomes a meaningless procession of bullshit. And that stuff eats into your soul."

Is that Graham's picture of you on the LP sleeve?

"I thought it was me. Then I realised that that was because it's good, and you always think that good art is about you, don't you? Graham insists it's him."

What would you be doing now if you hadn't joined Blur?

"I'd be running Saatchi & Saatchi darling."

How famous do you feel?

"I get recognised by people who like the band. Damon gets recognised by people who fucking hate the band. It's a big difference. When you walk into a room with Damon, two minutes later everyone in the room knows that he's there. It's a big deal if you have to have that in your life."

What's so great about flying your own plane?

"You can smoke on it."

What's your first memory?

"Oh. Standing on a bridge near some water. Very vague. Sunny. There was a girl there. And mum. And the girl's mum."

How are the famous pube-free Blur fans to relate to 13?

"Oh, they're five years older now. And anyway audiences change just like that. We went to Spain for the Great Escape and it was all girls. We back for Blur and it was all boys."

What's your favourite Joy Division track

" DAN GLER-dang! DAN GLER-dang! They keep calling me!"

Dead Souls?

"Definitely. Really fucking loud. I think is some Joy Division on this album actually; Damon's been listening to Division recently. It's so primal. And it's proper poetry.”

What was the best moment during the recording of this album?

"I remember walking into the studio in Reykjavik feeling like shit for reasons I wont go into and hearing the vocal to Tender. I just felt better again, like it was assuaging my terrible feelings of guilt and horror. That and William teaching me to play ray Of Light on the guitar. Its the same chord as Boys Dont Talk you know."

Two of you arc 30, Dave is 35. Does the pop star phase of. bandhood end here?

"Yes, I think so. It's Pink Floyd time."

So it doesn't matter if you get all fat now.

"Thank fuck.

WHEN BLUR VISITED Israel for their last album, recounts Dave Rowntree, an apoplectic journalist accused the, of "betraying the youth of Israel” by not being Britpop any more. Since the youth ot Israel are so heavily armed, this underlines the dangers of playing with pop audiences expectations.

Still, what does the youth of Israel know? 13 may play hard to get but when it delivers, it delivers beautifully. At times, it is as if Orbit has taken the bonnet off Blur and we are thrillingly privy to its workings. Damon Albarn describes this phase as "not an ascent, but a nice plateau” and accordingly 13 has the rugged aspect of tundra, pocked with the sad, scuffed, stoic poignancy that is the preserve of the slightly-less-young-than- they-were. In the penultimate song, a twisted waltz called No Distance Left To Run, Albarn sings “Its over. There's no need to tell me / Hope you're someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep.”

"It's strange," says Albarn. " There seems to be sucj a different feeling in the way we make music now, its hard to imagine going back. It has to get more freeform from now on.”

In their own very separate ways, Blur are finding space.

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