Like Obi-Wan before them, Blur were struck down, but survived to become more powerful than we could possibly imagine... With their tenth birthday looming and a new, warts 'n' all biography about to hit the stores, they talk Britpop, '13', planes, Justine and much, much more in an astonishingly frank interview.
Interview Garry Mulholland.
As the band crash into another selection from their latest album, and the entire Dublin Point begins to pogo wildly, you can't help but grin at the irony. Because, while the English media have decided Blur have betrayed us by turning their backs on fizzy pop and getting all arty on our arses this huge arena is packed, frantically enthusiastic and - most pertinently - bloody young. So young that I can't spot any over-18s around me on the balcony. Which either means Dublin's teens are easily pleased, or, more likely, that one man's experimental retreat is another boy's great POP! night out. The kids, as always, know best.
And the band? As they hit punky peak after punky peak, you struggle to remember that they've been together ten years, and that they're all in their thirties. That they've survived the nightmares and flops and controversies and terrifying drinking bouts to get here. That they've made enough music to fill a forthcoming 22-CD singles and B-sides box set, and have enough history for an official biography, the savvy and entertaining '3862 Days' by Stuart Maconie. And that guitarist Graham Coxon has upcoming exhibitions of his art, and a solo album, and a record label; that bassist Alex James is in a band called Fat Les with a bunch of famous reprobates; that Dave Rowntree dabbles with computer animation; or that Alex and Dave are both pilots, and are helping to raise money to send a spaceship to Mars.
And then there's the singer. Him with the poster-boy grin and the confident swagger. Him that inspired the most vicious inter-band squabble British pop has ever seen. Him that lots of people admire - for his talent and good looks and charisma - but can't quite bring themselves to like. The band leader, the head boy, the writer of soundtracks with Michael Nyman ('Ravenous', out soon on EMI), the father-to-be with artist girlfriend Suzie Winstanley. Where's Damon Albarn's head these days, as he contemplates the latest album, '13', and its detailed descriptions of his break-up with Elastica's Justine Frischmann? In short - who are Blur, exactly?
I get to interview bassist Alex James in his beautiful flat in Covent Garden. At first, it looks as if Mr James is going to live up to his stereotype beautifully. He welcomes me in as if we've known each other for years. He's just been prancing round the front room to Boney M's 'Greatest Hits'. He is expressing unqualified pleasure at having all his fags bought for him by Camel. And he is offering me a glass of champagne in the middle of the afternoon. Except that, once I've accepted, he strolls off and makes a cup of tea for himself: 'I'm dry at the moment. I was getting fed up with this' (he grips his now-largely-evaporated beer-belly).
'3862 Days' is pretty warts 'n' all for an official biography...
In some ways it's too fuckin' grey! I mean, we have had some fun as well. Mind you, the photos are a laugh. Fuck me, Damon was an ugly teenager, wasn't he? Ha! Dave and me have to put up with that the whole time, Damon and Graham having been at school together, going on about, 'Whatever happened to old Oofie Prosser?' or some such.
You come over as the one who doesn't care what anyone says about you...
Like anything, that has a lot to do with confidence. For example, I was riding around on a girl's bike in Bournemouth last weekend. And people were going, 'Look! He's riding a girl's bike!' But because I know I've got a plane - ha! - it washes off. If I was 15 in Bournemouth and riding around on a girl's bike, I'd be weeping myself to sleep at night. And for people who think: He's a cunt with a plane - it's the best way for me to get to work, you cunts!
Blur hold a relatively unique position in British rock at present. You've gradually become more successful, rather than exploded and then sunk. You've been together for ten years, without splitting, or losing members...
. . . Or any deaths. Yeah. When you look at it, the Charlatans and the Manics are probably the only other two bands to have survived. Fuck, it's this business. No wonder the insurance on the car's so expensive.
Damon talks a little in the book about having breakdowns and depressions during the heights of Blurmania.
Aahhh!!! They were just fuckin' hangovers, like we all got.
So you became the faddish fop who hangs around Soho and gets pissed with famous people.
Yeah, and that's kind of what I wanted. Later, I turned 30 and realised there's something more to life. It's been nice sobering up and having some joy in the mornings. It becomes inelegant, coughing your guts up and feeling shit and talking crap for most of the day. Alcoholism is not a very attractive trait, is it? We definitely are a booze band. There's certainly never been much smack.
Would you accept the irony that, after all the moaning at American rock, your most successful record, 'Song 2', sounds suspiciously like Nirvana?
It's basically Muppet grunge, isn't it? It's pretty funny that it was banged out in 20 minutes while we waiting for some piece of equipment to turn up. We did an interview with BBC Radio Bristol a couple of years ago, and the DJ gets this tape and says, 'You're not gonna believe this.í It was an interview with Kurt Cobain, where he asked him what English bands he likes at the moment and Kurt starts singing 'There's No Other Wayí And we were like, 'Christ! What a nice bloke." Song 2 sounds more like the fucking Offspring than Nirvana - that's the worrying thing.
What are your feelings now about 'the Britpop yearsí?
I remember going round to everyone and saying 'This is my heyday.' Ha! You can't beat that first flush of real success. You walk on water. As far as Britpop was concerned, it was just a reaction to the ruthless, soulless American marketing machine. It was humiliating. In Britain, the music business revolves around being rude to people, swearing a lot, taking drugs and getting drunk and being a genius. In America, it's not enough just to be good. Being a donkey is what sells you a million records. You get the fuckin' art kicked out of you. There, video is more important than the baseline, which is a sobering thought for bass-players everywhere. I didn't join a band to make videos. Actually, I probably did join a band because of 'Rio' by Duran Duran, which is the greatest video moment ever. You can't get on a boat without going down the front and singing that, even if it's a dinghy.
Do you think Damon will make a good dad?
Well, he's been a bit thrown by it, but, yeah. I mean he's been my dad for the last ten years.
You say in the book that Fat Les's fanbase Is made up of 'kids and cunts'.
Some of my best mates are cunts. Keith Allen sees the whole thing as a vehicle for his self-glorification, sadly. Even though 'Naughty Christmasí sold 100,000 copies, we lost all our money on it. You don't wanna buy 150,000 copies, do you?
What about the space programme you and Dave have become involved in?
We were sitting in LA one night, wondering why there isn't a British space programme and if we could fund one. A couple of meetings later, we're sitting with a man who plans to send a spacecraft to Mars. I guess it's a vanity thing, really. But it's 1999 and I think we should be making spaceships.
It's Graham Coxon - the man many of us reckon to be the best guitarist around at present - up next. We meet at Food record label HQ in Camden where he asks one of the staff if they have beer, but then doesn't take one. He is also off the booze. A professional teenager in his metal-band T-shirt and skate punk combat pants, he seems wary and hesitant at first, but goes on to enjoy himself immensely. In attitude, mannerism and speaking voice, it's hard to imagine another thirty something who could be more unashamedly childlike.
You still live In Camden. Didn't Britpop mania make you want to go somewhere less hyped?
I like familiarity. When I go to other parts of London I get quite frightened. There's some pretty grim characters in Camden, but I feel safe here. Posh areas are too lofty.
But the book presents you as the member of Blur least comfortable with fame. If that's true, aren't you just too easy to find in Camden?
Sometimes. And that's why I go on the wagon a lot. The first verse of 'Coffee And TV' is about being in The Good Mixer pub and just wondering what on earth I'm doing here, but not feeling inclined to go anywhere else. Because, if I go drinking, it's the only place where I feel I can get a little out of control. There are a lot of boys in there that I've known for a long time who, if things go funny, will make me feel safe. To the locals it's just, 'Oh, him again.' I do get followed home by tourists sometimes. One night it was a whole gaggle of Italian girls. Now, I know a lot of boys are thinking: Phwoar, that's great! But it isn't.
Is Damon more designed for that sort of attention?
Not really. He gets the more aggressive version. He's had burning paper put through his letterbox, people having a go at him for being middle-class.
Is it true that you were the least comfortable with the whole 'Parkilfe' period, and the whole New Lad, Groucho Club thing that Alex and Damon seemed to embody?
I wasn't very happy. Damon would say things and we'd all be tarred with the same brush. I'm still constantly accused of being a Chelsea supporter, when, if I supported any team, it would be Derby where I come from. And I love Alex, but he's very good at winding people up. At that time, the groups I liked were groups I didn't wanna be bigger than. I wanted to be like Dinosaur Jr or My Bloody Valentine or The Pastels and be on Creation. I remember being on a tube train with Damon when he first said he wanted to put brass and different instruments on our records. And I was like, 'What?!' It took me a lot of time to get used to the fact that we were this big pop band.
For a lot of bands, that's the ultimate dream.
Yeah. But you're 24 and these kids are like. . . ten. You don't know why they're there. We were a pop group, but there was always a bit of weirdness and perversity involved. It was more like XTC. In the end, 'Blur' is where we escaped from the jail called pop. The pop car drew ahead, and the weird car, which, because it is a weird car, doesn't run as well, broke down, and we mended the wheels. That's why I'm listening to a lot of metal recently, like Motorhead. I like extremes in sound.
Your solo album, 'The Sky's Too High', wasn't particularly thrashy...
No. Well, it came out of a quiet period. My highlight of the week was going to a place with a lot of other drunks talking about their drunkenness at Camden AA, which was an extraordinary experience. I'm not sure how public I'm supposed to be about that, but anyway, I don't think I was as bad as I thought. I just needed a kick up the arse.
Any thoughts about Britpop now?
It was horrible, wasn't it? I hate the word 'Brit' and I hate the word 'pop', so Britpop has to be my most hated word. It just meant a mediocre bunch of groups who played in Camden pubs, and people going down the Blow-Up club wearing a Fred Perry with a tie and flares. All the ingredients but all mixed wrong. They reminded me of what Alex says about remixes: it's like giving someone your Labrador to walk and it coming back a poodle.
What's the closest you've been to splitting up?
After touring 'The Great Escape'. Damon thought I wasn't interested, and I thought he was insane and had turned into Tommy Steele. In fact, we were just exhausted and had stopped communicating. That's why 'The Great Escape' is such a depressing album.
Drummer Dave Rowntree and I talk the next day in the gardens of Dublin's Merrion Hotel. He is exactly as the book portrays: straightforward, friendly, and possessed of a dry wit. A perfect grounding influence for the three eccentrics in front of him on stage. He knows that he's the anonymous one, and finds it amusing.
Are you really the most stoical and down-to-earth member of Blur?
People do say that, so I suppose there must be an element of truth to it - though it doesn't feel like it from this side of my face. It's not particularly rock 'n' roil, is it? 'Cor, that Ozzy Osbourne! Isn't he down-to-earth?' Hurhurhur!
As someone from a musical family, did you see yourself becoming a pop star?
My parents were both ex-musicians badly bitten by the music business saying, 'Don't do it for a living. Do it as a hobby. To be honest, I'm still not terribly ambitious. If the band carries on at this level... Iím not thinking, 'South America! We still havnít broken South America!'
When did you make the decision to give up drinking?
Just around the time of 'Girls And Boys. It wasnít a large step to take. Making the decision is the hardest part. And I've never touched a drop since. Chemical addiction is a pretty crap thing, itís pretty weak. It's the psychological addiction that's the hard thing. I gave up smoking just like that too, after reading this book about it. Thereís so much crap talked about addiction. Believe me.
What do you think you would have done if Blur had never happened?
I probably would have emigrated somewhere. Actually, I'm probably gonna do that anyway. Before Blur, I nearly jacked everything in, bought a bus, and drove off with the hippy convoys. I don't think thereís much scope to do your own thing in England anymore. Being in a band is the closest anyone gets. I would have been an outsider in some way.
What do you think Blur's best idea has been?
Putting out that single on the same day as Oasis. It was an inspired bit of marketing. We should have won an award. Mind you, I managed to keep my head down while it all went off. Ha! There weren't too many people going, 'That fuckin' Dave out of Blur - what a down-to-earth bastard!!!'
Damon Albarn plays last man. We are still in the ornate Merrion gardens. He describes himself as 'cynical - and older' than when I first interviewed him just before the release of 'Parklife', and then scrounges a fag. He's naturally matey, but looks tired, and there are a lot of weary sighs.
Is this a good time to be in Blur?
Well, I've been so busy doing this Kevin Spacey film set in Dublin called 'Ordinary Decent People'. I haven't had a day off in six weeks. So I used to find it stressful going on the road, and now it's almost like a day off. I think it's a bit of preparation for fatherhood - being very busy and knackered.
So you're willing to talk about your impending parenthood now?
Yeah. At the beginning, I was just... My girlfriend's just not interested in having that association. She's an artist in her own right. But there's no point in denying it now.
Do you think that being a father is going to dwarf the whole thing of being a pop star?
Well, everything's been one big event this year. I was recording the soundtrack with Michael Nyman in the mornings and afternoons, the '13' album in the evenings. Then we said we weren't gonna tour, and they made us tour TV stations. Ha! I'm not complaining. But I'm a glutton for punishment. I'm working 18 hours a day. Mind you, I just saw this programme about a Japanese taxi driver working 18-hour days, seven days a week. So I'm not complaining.
Are you a workaholic?
[Sighs] Yes, I am. It's a bit frustrating at times. It's an addiction. It can be very productive unlike the more conventional addictions. But it's emotionally quite... I suppose I'm a fervent devotee of my art.
Dave just told me that there's no such thing as addiction.
I disagree. I've seen a lot of it over the years.
The book portrays you as the driving force In the band, as well as the frontman. The person who wanted it more than anyone else.
Ooh, I dunno. What does that mean? Everyone put in the hours.
But there's more to success than just work. There's drive, focus, ambition...
Yes. But, looking at it that way, I become guilty of all our mistakes and our successes, don't I?
Well, it depends. We all do our bit. The only thing I regret is that I made 'The Great Escape' into a record when I should have made it into a musical. The larger-than-life characters would've worked on stage. Then we could've made 'Blur' after 'Parklife' and it would've been seamless. I might still do that and add some things - if I could ever go back to writing those sort of songs. If I got really chipper all of a sudden. Haha!
You all seem pretty pissed off with the press at the moment. Why is it...
. . .that everyone hates us? Heheheh!!! I know, that's not true. But it seems that way sometimes. 'They're good, but. . . ' There's always a but.
Do you think that you wind people up?
[Sighs] Well, everyone seems to think so. It's not a deliberate thing. I just think the English lack of sincerity, the ability to be so two-faced, pisses me off sometimes. I don't think I fit in. In that sense, I'm not very English. Or maybe I'm quintessentially English. I don't know. I'm pretty tribalist. I mean, I lived in the East End for ten years, but I'm not allowed to be one of those. Which I'm not, but I was born there. And I certainly didn't feel part of anything in Colchester. But I'm associated with the middle class, and you're not allowed to be a creative force if you're middle-class and don't come from anywhere. You're illegitimate. I don't think this sort of thing matters anywhere else but England.
Graham said that fame got really nasty for you at one point, to the degree that you were getting burning things shoved through your letterbox. Is that true?
Yes. But that was an isolated incident. I did hear more Oasis than was good for any individual, though. Out of windows, in shops, in pubs. If someone was sitting next to me, they'd turn up their Walkman so I could hear the Oasis song. I dunno. I went through a period when I thought I was a bit of a star. But I don't think anyone would not have got a bit caught up in it all. I don't think we come across as a band who want to perpetuate our star status. I just realised that living on this planet is a co-operative effort, and that no one is any more special than anyone else. Once you've worked that one out, you're no longer a star.
There's a rumour that has circled the London music biz for years: namely, that the reason the second Elastica album has taken so long Is because you wrote the first one. Would you care to comment?
Well...[laughs in a slightly stunned manner] There were loads of rumours like that when I was at school. I dunno. Ask Courtney Love. You know. Ask her if I wrote Elastica's album.
Sorry, you've bewildered me, so perhaps weíd better move on.
Yeah, we should.
What's this I hear about you training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro?
Erm. I didn't know I was gonna have a baby then. [Long pause] I don't know what to say after that previous question, really.
Sorry if I disturbed you. But everyone gossips about it so I thought I'd ask you face-to face.
No, no, no. It's just that everyone says that Kurt Cobain wrote Hole's first record.
Yeah. But I can't ask Kurt Cobain about Hole.
Hurhurhur. No, you can't.
And I can ask you about Elastica.
Well, you can. But I think. .. I've just got a copy of Elastica's new album and I don't know what its going to sound like at all. And I'm really really interested and I'm sure it's going to be, y'know, better than the first record. It seems pointless to have gone through all that agony and to have not come up with something that will heal all that. Itís all about music and if the music's good, does it really matter, y'know, about anything else?
Do you regret admitting that much of the '13í album was about your relationship with Justine Frlechmann? Wouldn't it have been better if people had made their own minds up?
Well, I didn't say it. It was an assumption. I didnít deny it, but I didn't issue a press release saying 'Due to my traumatic break-up, I have been compelled to write these songs. Hur! They're just about being emotionally very damaged. It doesnít matter who they are about, does it? I do feel like I've come out the other end, and a lot of that is down to the fact that I've just worked solidly. And then I met a wonderful person who had no interest, who'd actually been out of the country when all the key points of my fame were happening. Its fantastic, really, to get another chance because if you're famous it's very difficult.
Do you think the band are more comfortable with you writing from a personal perspective rather than the 'character comedies' of 'Parkilfe' and 'The Great Escape'?
Yeah, definitely. You've got to remember I was brought up in a theatre background, which is a really uncool thing to say if you're a rock musician. But I've matured. And I've learnt how to get what I want out of music in a more satisfying way. Iím almost content. Really, being in such a public relationship made it difficult to be direct in the music. I used to get a real ear-bashing if I did anything like that. All I've ever really wanted is a quiet life.
Albarn stays for a while and chats easily, happily. But after the thank youís and goodbyes, as he strides off to the next appointment, he can't resist a parting shot over his shoulder. 'You had a bloody cheek, asking that question about Elastica,' he shouts, still seemingly unwilling to utter the words, 'No, I didn't write the first Elastica album.' So I'm surprised when, after the gig, he greets me warmly and invites me to the after show party in a bar in town. And even more surprised when, after copious beers, he starts to tell me personal stuff most of us would be unlikely to tell any stranger, never mind a journalist. At one point, I ask him if he's daring me to write this, to which he simply grins, and insists that it's 'down to your own conscience'. Complete bullshit, of course, because he knows that no lawyer in their right mind would let us print a word of it. Heís unable to resist stirring the shit, despite his claims to the contrary. One minute generous and affectionate, the next brusque and aggressive, you can see how he can inspire love and loyalty yet complete infuriate, all at the same time. But one thing's sure: if he really wants a quiet life, maybe Damon Albarn should learn how to lie.