Commercial favor and radio hits be damned, Blur follows "Song 2" with a new album that is more experimental-and more personal. Jeff Niesel meets Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon on the morning after.
"Do I look like I need a beer?" Blur singer Damon Albarn snarls at a waiter who mistakenly brings drinks to our table at New York's trendy Mercer Hotel.
To be honest, the scruffy-looking Albarn looks like he needs some sleep-it's nearly noon, but he's a mess. He swallows a few aspirin to thwart a splitting headache and fidgets with his sunglasses, which sit crookedly on his nose. "I came down in my socks yesterday and it didn't compute with one of the waiters." Albarn says, shaking his head. "I said, 'Look. I'm fucking staying here alright?'"
Albarn's erratic behavior suggests he's still feeling the effects of a night of hard drinking. The first place where we sit smells of fresh paint and, after Albarn vociferously complains to the maitre d', we move to the hotel's café. As he starts to answer a question, Albarn pauses and listens to the saccharine Latin jazz playing over the intercom.
"This is so faux," he says and stumbles up to find yet another spot, his army fatigues slipping down to reveal blue checkered boxers and a glimpse of the upper quarter of his butt.
Finally situated at a small table, Albarn still hasn't settled down. When the fruit and yogurt he's ordered finally arrives, he takes the silverware and tosses it down on the seat next to him. Slouching in his chair, he proceeds to eat with his fingers, grinning like a mischevious child. When the waiter brings more utensils and explains that Albarn might need them to eat his yogurt, Albarn simply looks at him and makes a scooping motion with his hand, implying that he plans to eat the yogurt with his hands as well. The waiter shakes his head and walks away.
Albarn is acting every bit the spoiled rock star, but he's got good reason to. After a decade of playing together as a band, Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree have reinvented themselves with 13, their latest album. Not that it should come as a surprise. Formed in the late '80s in Colchetser, an English town known more for its military prison than for its music, Blur has made change part of its routine. From the Manchester sound of its 1991 debut, Leisure, to the mature pop of 1994's Parklife, Blur has never stood still for long.
But 13, named after the studio the band uses, represents a drastic change. After all, the old issues-the rivalry with Oasis, the lack of American success-have become irrelevant. After years of struggle, the band finally broke through to an American audience in 1997 with a self-titled album that spawned the Pavement-esque single "Song 2" (you know, the one that starts with a boisterous "woooo-hooooo" and a meltdown guitar lead that sounds like something from Neil Young's Weld). "Tender," 13's first single, stands almost in direct contrast, pairing the London Community Gospel Choir with a blues guitar riff as Albarn turns the title from F. Scott Fizgerald's Tender is the Night into a celebratory anthem and sings the refrain, "Love's the greatest thing," in a deep bellowing voice.
"For some reason, we finally found our real voice," Albarn says of 13. "That doesn't mean that the next record will change completely, but it will be consistent with this new, more personal perspective. It's the first time I've ever sung without characters and just said this is who I am. Love it or leave it.
"All the songs are about love," he adds, then pauses. "About being fucked up and love," he continues, laughing. "Love can really fuck you up. You shouldn't mess with that shit, but you can't help it."
Albarn should know. Shortly before he began writing the material for 13, he and his girlfriend, Elastica's Justine Frischmann, broke up. Albarn says the breakup had some definite impact on his songs, which have a consistently somber tone. The aptly-titled "No Distance Left To Run" is perhaps the most blatant refernece to the relationship, as it relfects the mood of a person who has tried his hardest to salvage a dead-end relationship.
"It [the breakup] would go into any album that anyone was making who was suffering through a painful separation from someone they had lived with for a long time," Albarn says matter-of-factly.
But when I ask about "Tender," a song about the redemptive power of love, his tone changes.
"I was damned if I was going to bail out of that relationship without celebrating," he says emphatically. "In the last five years of my life, things have changed so dramatically for me. The album just reflects that. The Great Escape was the last time I expressed myself in that whole negative English way where you try to say what you mean through other means. With the last record, I was growing confident in the sense that I got close to actually expressing myself an felt kind of all right about it and felt that it was a good thing to be doing."
13 is not without its light moments however.
"B.L.U.R.E.M.I." (E.M.I. meaning the record label) is a carefree, whimsical number that Albarn says gives the album a needed respite from its dour mood.
"It is a nonsense song, but I thought the album was a bit heavy so it needed something light," he says. "I've always loved bands that managed to find balance-not out-and-out comedy, but rather the odd song that has a different dynamic to it. I always distrust bands that get to a level of emotional intensity and then keep on going as if they're coasting on cruise control. I've never been into that kind of thing. I've always thought that there have to be a few red lights and bumps in the road. But then I guess that's what happens when you come from a little country where the roads are bumpy."
Going with the metaphor, Albarn confesses his own poor driving skills-it took him five tries to pass his driving test-and how both his mother and sister are terrible drivers.
"If you see any of us driving down the road, get out of the way," he laughs.
No problem, Damon.
Guitarist Graham Coxon actually looks like he might have been run over. Suffering through what he claims is his "first hangover of 1999," Coxon slowly takes of his jacket, lights a cigarette and sips his coffee while sitting in front of a shelf of books with photos by American pop artists like Richard Kern and Andy Warhol. It's an appropriate backdrop to talk with the guitarist of a group that-since '97's Blur-has started to sound like American rock bands on the fringe.
"I'm actually quite proud of what we did on Blur, and it's perceived as my record, which I guess it was," Coxon says."At the time I was really enthusiastic. I had quite drinking and my head was clear. I'd wake up in the morning like Tigger, bouncing around, and jump into the studio. But for this record , I feel like I've been running around in the woods ahead of everybody and I've reached a clearing and thought, 'Well, this is a nice place, I'll just rest here,' and the others have caught up with me. That sounds really big-headed in a way, but it's not. It's just a fact."
The change was so drastic that Blur hired producer William Orbit and parted ways with long-time producer Stephen Street, making 13 the first Blur album he hasn't helmed. Formerly of Torch Song and Strange Cargo, Orbit who remixed several Blur songs for last year's Bustin' and Dronin' (available Stateside via import), turned the knobs on Madonna's Ray of Light and is generally recognized as a pioneer of the ambient house movement. Fittingly, Blur's new batch of songs are lengthy, textual affairs that feature overlapping vocal tracks, distorted guitars and an array of electronic samples. With Orbit at the helm, the group held nothing back.
"William never said anything like, 'What's wrong with your guitar?'" Coxon says. "If there was a horrible sound, he'd just make a loop out of it and find a use for it. He wasn't the kind of engineer or producer who would control things. We recorded for hours and hours and got to the point where I thought, "This is stupid. We are playing all this stuff and there's a lot of sund going on the tape but there's no songs.' We had to rationalize all the chaos and find all the songs underneath it. We had to strip some of it away. It was like a negative process. It was like a de Kooning process."
"He gave us a sense of space," Albarn adds about Orbit. "We really respected him so when he said, 'That's good,' we knew it was. He was like an editror and you've got to have faith in your editor."
As the album neared completion, however, the group came up short on material and had to dig into the archives to compensate. It pulled out the song "1992" (named after the year it was recorded) off a tape of unused songs Coxon had, and included "Trailer Park," a track they originally recorded for South Park. (It was turned down because, says Coxon, "A lot of the songs were novelty and we took it too seriously.") Coxon was then even enlisted to write the lyrics for "Coffee and T.V." when Albarn couldn't come up with anything.
Simply put, 13 sounds distinctly different from anything else Blur has ever done.
"Really?" Coxon challenges, before rescinding. "Yeah. Yeah. I think that's true, but it doesn't seem unnatural."
So how did the band make the transition from the majestic Britpop of The Great Escape to the lo-fi rock of Blur and the post-rock of 13?
"They're like stations on a railway, aren't they?" Coxon figures. "There's development in between that no on really sees or hears. It's like you've changed clothes between stations and someone looks at you and asks 'What are you wearing know?' Then you cange again and after the next station they give you a really weird look. It's not like we're trying to make a statement or anything. I think we were really scared by The Great Escape. We had taken the twisted pop thing as far as we could. I was getting very frustrated and wasn't enjoying the music. I wanted to start making music I would listen to."
Coxon says he got into American indie rock a few years ago, but didn't get much support from the other members of the band. "I had really been into Pavement and Beck for a long time but I wasn't able to tell the others," he claims.
"We always bring records into the studio when we're recording just to know where we are, and I brought a Pavement record in about '95. And they were just like, "That is shit.' Damon would take the piss out of the vocals and put on a whiny American accent. I figured I would just do what I could in my own little territory and make the guitars as interesting as possible. With Blur, I think my ideas had gotten very strong, but I felt like I was completely ahead of the rest of the band."
"I hated Pavement? That's bollocks," Albarn responds, adding that he's recently been listening to a wide assortment of American music, including Johnny Cash, A Tribe Called Quest and Otis Redding. "Graham's so righteous. The first time I played a Beck record he ignored it. So if he wants to pick straws…."
Albarn and Coxon agree on other matters, namely that the freedom to indulge in side projects has been essential to Blur's longevity. Last year, Coxon released his first solo album, The Sky Is Too High, on Transcopic, the label he runs. Albarn completed the score to recent historical horror flick Ravenous with composer Michael Nyman (The Piano) and Rowntree is producing a television show. While Albarn and Coxon maintain that Blur will not tour to support 13, the group has performed promotional dates in the UK, including one show where they played the entire album from start to finish. Tired of touring, Coxon says the band doesn't feel the need to resort to the usual tactics to sell albums and generate mass appeal.
"I don't like to patronize our audience," Coxon says. "I don't believe that the young girls who go to see rock groups are stupid. They're full of potential like anyone else. They don't just stay 12 years old. They grow up and change their musical taste. Hopefully, some people are still with us. Parklife was four years ago, so those fans who were 12 are now 16. T's not like they stay 12 forever and scream at boys playing guitars or doing dance routines with those funny microphone things attached to their ears."