カテゴリ:interview( 25 )

Super Fuzz Big Guff

From Sounds magazine, 7 July 1990. Article by Leo Finlay.


Blur have been British music's worst kept secret for months. They've attracted rave reviews from all quarters, been hailed as The Next Big Thing, and now they're on the cover of Sounds. All without the benefit of a record or a full year's experience! But anyone who thinks this is the result of record company (in this case Food) hype, has obviously yet to see the band play live.


They are, of course, breathtaking. Comparisons thus far have been drawn with everyone from The Stone Roses to The Undertones and My Bloody Valentine. Needless to say they sound bugger all like any of the aforementioned, but share a skill for writing classic pop tunes and turning them into dynamite live.


I first saw Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave almost a year ago when they were operating under the name of Seymour. Then it was singer Damon hunched over a mini-keyboard, plinking out an insane piece of Satie-esque doggerel, while the others built and demolished a wall of noise, that caught the ear.


Their set was astonishingly tight and imaginative for a debut gig, and even headline act New FADS - probably the only UK act who can touch them live - found it hard to follow. But just as they were starting to get a name for themselves, Seymour vanished and the guys were back as Blur.


What's the difference between Blur and Seymour, then?


Damon, in typically forthright mode, is unequivocal about the answer: "The difference is Blur are going to be hugely successful."


Alex: "Seymour were just this big esoteric thing."


"Whereas Blur is more focussed," adds Damon without a hint of a smile.


Seymour was a very anoraky-type name.


"Oh, yeah," mumbles Damon, "it was given to us by someone in an anorak."


"Blur was just a good name, and that's important for getting into the press. We just moved away from the idea of people in college being in a band."


"We weren't aware that Blurt existed really," he adds.


"The first time I saw their name in a paper, I thought it was a misprint and it was us," continues Dave, drummer and the band's old timer at 25.


******


Blur are convinced that they are going to be massive. They find it inconceivable that they won't sell millions of records. And while their arrogance seems to echo that of the pre-hysteria Stone Roses, they've got enough charm to carry it off.


So you see yourselves as a big chart act?


Damon: "Yeah... it's inevitable. We're just a band who are gonna sell records to people, and the only way you can gauge that is through the charts."


Graham: "You don't play with the charts in mind, but they are something that happen."


Damon: "Put it this way, we'd like a lot of people to buy our records... and they will."


Holed up in a Willesden studio, Blur are spending up to 18 hours a day recording their debut single. As yet they're undecided between 'She Is So High', a majestic rhythmic classic, and 'I Know'.


Damon: "It's gonna be played in the clubs before it's released to get a bit of a vibe going, but it won't be a dance remix or anything."


Graham is equally adamant: "We wanna be in control of the sound, we don't want anyone else fiddling around with it."


"Our idea of a 12-inch is playing ten minutes of a song and packing loads of ideas into it," insists Damon. "Obviously the music is paramount. We have no intention of duplicating our live sound. The record should be something great, while live is more of an exhilarating thing.


"There's gonna be more mileage on the record. Live we can't play more than four instruments at a time, but here we're able to overdub and get a brilliant sound. It's just nice that we've gained all this experience playing around without having a record."


"We'll be disappointed if it doesn't chart," finishes Damon, and the nods and grunts around the table prove it.


******


All the band are big music fans, but are reluctant to name names.


Graham: "We talk about The Who and The Kinks and The Beatles, but you can't do that all your life."


Damon picks up the thought: "We're not about telling people what they already know, we wanna tell them about us. That's why we're in a band, this band... that's why we're doing interviews.


"I'm not really interested in other bands, I don't enjoy going to see them. I do like music, but it's not important to us as Blur. It's not relevant. Of course there have been great songwriters, but we're just trying to start it all over again."


Damon takes credit for writing the songs and lyrics but states, "It's not me saying, This is how it's going to be guys. I finish writing the songs, and then Graham takes over and makes them psychedelic," he adds before collapsing in laughter.


"No I don't make them psychedelic," Graham says haughtily. "I just use my head for music and nothing else, he (Damon) does the other job."


It's easy to believe this: Graham is one of the country's finest guitarists. He won't readily accept the accolade, but Blur's sound on any given night stems from his six strings.


A recent Bath gig saw him whip up a demon psychedelic rage, caused in part by an excessive intake of Newcastle Brown, while on other occasions he and Alex have come up with the kind of dance rhythms that Happy Mondays could only achieve with a flock of so-called producers.


Live, Blur are one of those bands where you just have to check out what each member is doing. They may be tight as f***, but there's always room for improvisation, and Dave (whose drumming hero is My Bloody Valentine's Colm O Coisoig) never fails to get the beat going.


Damon, however will always be the star of the show. Current shows find him dividing his time between a 19th Century harmonium and centre-stage dancing lunacy. In his more excitable moments he has been known to knock both bassist and guitarist offstage, and the only mystery so far is how he has avoided serious injury from his antics.


"I'm a bit embarrassed by it really," he admits. "But I just feel like doing it. It's not very ordered. I'd like to be able to dance properly, but jumping around like a lunatic is the only thing I can do with any feeling.


"These days I steer clear of Graham cos I'm terrified of him killing me. Alex just pushes me off the stage. One gig we did, I jumped up on his shoulders, the stage was about four feet high and he just decided to jump. It was like a double stagedive with bass guitar, everyone got out of the way... and I got quite badly damaged."


If I didn't think it would backfire on them, I'd claim Blur have the potential to be Britain's biggest export since The Beatles, but what does that mean anyway? They've got the looks, the attitude and the songs to be massive.


Only an ill-conceived tour of post-tremor Iran can stop them.
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-03-20 17:01 | interview

Same again?

Well, yes - but then again, no. Blur are something more than just your average indie, dancey, jangly, one-syllable-namey new pop band. "We have," they announce, "a natural strangeness about us..."

From Q magazine, October 1991. Article by John Aizlewood. Photos by Chris Taylor.


"If you say that again, I'm going to hit you hard. Really hard." Blur's singer Damon Albarn issues a deadpan threat to Blur's bassist Alex James, who's just leaned across his various spiced delicacies to whisper something offensive. James does it again. And Albarn hits him hard. Really hard.


Everyone laughs and orders more Indian lager.


Despite three sprightly hits (She's So High, There's No Other Way and Bang) and a splendidly accomplished debut album, Leisure, life for Blur is not as easy as it may seem.


"No, it's not," asserts Albarn. "We have to put up with each other. We're four very different personalities and it's difficult if you come heavily laden with your own personality. But there's a fundamental chemistry between us and it makes things work."


As the assorted starters begin to disappear, it becomes as plain as a non-spiced popadom that Albarn (whose father once managed Soft Machine) is Blur's leader and spokesperson. Exhibit A: "There's nothing more up to date and relevant than Blur. We're like The Jam, The Smiths and The Stone Roses were in place and time. Next year we'll have to recreate ourselves and we'll either be clear enough to know what's going wrong to get it right or we'll be too detached."


Exhibit B: "I feel an all-consuming feeling that we're laying our world to waste and there's little I can do about it except say there's nothing I can do, and eat Indian curry."


The other band members, to labour the analogy, represent something of a thali. Graham Coxon, guitarist, is more remote and detached than Albarn. His head swims with Beatles/Blur comparisons and, for a 22-year-old, he is oddly familiar with Ten Years After.


"Imagine picking up a great big marrow at the end of a gig," he mutters in awestruck reverence, with apparent reference to Alvin Lee's combo, "and saying, This is my gift from me to you, and just going off stage..."


James was the last to join and, unlike the others, hails from Bournemouth not Colchester. His role seems to involve provoking the others or making them laugh ("Responsibility? Knickers ... I want to travel at relativistic speed."). Dave Rowntree graduated from the Charlie Watts Silent But Nice school of drummers. He's the only one to finish his curry. "He's lovely," explains Albarn before delivering the Blur manifesto.


"We say nothing," he says, straight-faced. "Dave just says nothing. Alex says nothing in an Alex way. Graham says nothing in a very negative way. I say nothing in a roundabout way."


Blur, they recall above the gentle sizzle of many main dishes, began saying nothing in Coxon and Albarn's bedroom.


"The first thing Damon ever said to me was that his shoes were more expensive than mine," remembers Coxon. "Eventually he went off to work in drama school in London."


Coxon went to university in London. Albarn had met Rowntree while doing a "very theatrical" one-man show in Colchester. Meanwhile, guitarist and bassist were student friends.


They became Seymour, a none-too-wonderful indie group, named after the Salinger story of the same name in which Seymour gets married, goes on honeymoon and blasts his brains out.


"We killed Seymour and changed our name," claims Albarn. "Seymour was our obtuse side. It's like if you're schizophrenic and spend six months in an institution; they cure you by leading you to the conclusion that you're better off with one side of your personality than skipping between two. I didn't think we'd do well with our obtuse side, so we made less of it. Half our personality is latent, like the sort of relationship where the physical side works best if you both dress up in leather."


There is, unsurprisingly, a simpler explanation.


"When we signed to Food Records," admits James, "one of the conditions was that we changed our name."



"It was inevitable we'd end up in the Top 10," states Albarn, wrestling with a tandoori king prawn and summoning the courage to order a creme de menthe. "I'd been brought up in an off-centre way, so I understood the whole machinery. We're early '80s nuclear children, a product of our times, and our time is now."


"We're a very post-modern thing," he extemporises philosophically. "There's a line in Repetition, Try try try, all things remain the same, so why try again?, adapted from Beckett. I sensed that one Christmas morning when I was 18 being chased across my old school field by my old girlfriend's irate father. I was drunk and had wanted to tell her I loved her. There's an enormous emotional reason behind that song, but does the world give a f***?"


The creme de menthe arrives. He wisely decides against it.


"At the end of the day," he concludes, confidentially, "not only do we write great songs, but we have a natural strangeness about us that makes us interesting."


"It's like electricians," smiles James. "They know everything about electricity except what it is."


"Alex just tries to be contrary," offers Albarn.


"I am contrary," he says, hurt.


"No, you're not," declares Albarn, "because you try. And that's contrary to contrariness."


Blur will continue, they predict impressively, until one day, when they will stop.


"It's easy to say this now," concludes Albarn, "but we find this very stimulating on a cerebral, physical, and a very spiritual level. As soon as one of those disappears off the equation, it's over."
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-02-15 15:22 | interview

Lambretta from America (part 1)

From the NME, 8 October 1994. Article by Keith Cameron. Photo by Kevin Cummins.


Rudy Salinas has driven his scooter all the way from Pasadena, zig-zagging through the Sunday morning traffic for the best part of 45 minutes. His friend Colin has come along, too. It is, they insist over coffee and cigarettes in the lobby of Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel, no problem.


After all, they know the route well from the night before. Then, Rudy and Colin had hared it home from The Palace just round the corner from here, drenched as much with euphoria as sweat, on a sense-smooching high from seeing their favourite band play an awesome show.


Not only that, but their heroes had spotted Rudy's bike parked up against the fence by the backstage entrance to the venue. It was hard to avoid: a secondhand Lambretta, not unlike the one Phil Daniels rode in 'Quadrophenia', painstakingly customised to incorporate a red, white and blue arrow motif and the name of Rudy's favourite band stencilled on the visor. It would, his favourite band insist, make the perfect prop for the next morning's photo session.


Bands, by definition, are always late; similarly their fans make a point of being early. So Rudy and Colin sit in the Roosevelt lobby and talk. Their conversation revolves around England, of which the two young men have a meticulous knowledge typical of obsessives who have yet to set eyes on the object of their obsession. The recently acquired football results are dissected. "Manchester United lost to Ipswich?!" Rudy shakes his head in disbelief. He asks whether Camden Town's mod mecca Blow Up is as good as it appears from the magazine articles he's read. And how is Carnaby Street these days? A tourist trap? He nods and smiles but the look in his eyes says he'll go and check it out all the same if - no, when - he comes to visit.


Rudy's heroes arrive and we make our way outside. On the way, Rudy points to the football on the television and says he much prefers the version that originated in England in the 19th Century and was soon embraced with enthusiasm by virtually every country on the planet, with the notable exception of the United States of America.


Yes, he had been to see some of the World Cup matches. "My father's Argentinian," he smiles. "So it was real exciting. We saw them play Greece, y'know, when Maradona scored? They had a good team but without him they totally lost heart."


Suddenly, under the glaring Hollywood sun, the wonder of what is happening becomes apparent. This Argentine-American kid is besotted with the music and culture of a nation his father's countrymen were sent to wage war against a mere 12 years ago. His Lambretta is adorned with several Union Jack flags, that nation's most potent, and confused, symbol of identity. And sitting admiringly on his scooter is his hero, the singer in his favourite band, England's pre-eminent purveyors of post-Modernist pop.


"It's very kind of you to have brought it all this way," he says. Rudy's face glows with pride. This is the 1994 reality of Blur in Los Angeles and it feels bloody magic. Just ask Rudy Salinas.


******


The 1994 unreality of Los Angeles is hitting Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree firmly between their hungover eyes as we stroll along Hollywood Boulevard. Seeking to clear the collective head after the rude early afternoon wake-up ordeal of a press conference held for the benefit of local college media pups, they are instead bombarded by a succession of quintessential LA booby traps.


First, it's a polite "thanks but..." on the vast selection of OJ Simpson paraphernalia, from tapes of the 'OJ Rap' ("free!"), to maps of the murder scene, to a huge range of pro-OJ T-shirts; even the most outrageously pro-OJ designs which more or less say, 'The bitch deserved it - we love you, OJ!'


A little further on, Alex, Damon, Dave and Graham stop to gawp at a shop window displaying an exhaustive, nay exhausting, range of flimsy linen scraps apparently intended for use by women as underwear. A video screen confirms that those of the species who have chosen against enhancing their breast size with the latest radioactive compound need not apply.


Then, a man wearing a T-shirt that reads 'F*** God. God can suck my little black dick' warmly greets us and asks to have his picture taken with Damon. He then inquires whether anyone would like a game of chess. All around, the food is fast, discs compact, petrol unleaded.


Perhaps inevitably in this environment, some of the so-called freaks and weirdos seem a good deal better adjusted than those deemed by mainstream society to be 'normal'. At a pedestrian crossing a well-dressed man sidles up to a young woman and tells her that his dinner date for the evening has blown him out but he'd be happy to take her instead. The girl ignores him. "C'mon," he says, in all seriousness, "I'll pay you!"


Damon, unusually, is lost for words. Not so Alex. "Imagine this for nine weeks," he says, negotiating a generous slice of pizza, his American tour sustenance of choice. "It f***ing does drive you nuts."


So nuts did America drive Blur two years ago that ever since they have taken positive steps to ensure it will not do so again. Most pertinently, they decided to have nothing more to do with that archetypal totem of Stateside roadlife: the long, gleaming, silver, tinted-window penis substitute that is the tour bus. Now they fly. LA is the third port of call on a short nine-city hop that encompasses most of the major, relatively cosmopolitan population centres: New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto,...


All are selling out well in advance. Audience reaction varies from enthusiastic to hysterical. And Bumfluff, Idaho is conspicuous by its absence from the schedule. For the good of their health, Blur have decided to leave America's homogenised heartlands in blissful ignorance of their charms.


"We'd rather pay a little more money and retain our sanity," says Damon, back at the calm of the Roosevelt's David Hockney-styled pool. "I suppose it's just that we don't have that romantic idea of getting completely wasted and travelling across deserts. I mean, we have done it and it is a mad spin but we're not in search of anything here. A lot of bands come in search of something they haven't found at home - we're quite content with what we've got at home and this is just a bonus. We're just not that kind of band. The word was used at the press conference today, but we are quite 'civilised'. We're what we are. I'm a middle-class, educated white. I'm looking for different things out of pop music, not what it appears you should be looking for... But you've seen it from being around us for just 24 hours how it can wear you down."


In that short space of time Blur had shown the sort of form that helped salvage their career from the doldrums of 1992 and sent them on the way to their current happy situation: namely, an inexhaustible taste for being Blur at all times. Barely two hours after checking in at the hotel following a five hour flight from New York, Damon was happily whisked away in the NME's snazzy rented Chevy convertible to Santa Monica beach. There he braved the surf for some drenched-jean photo-ops (as indeed did 'All In The Line Of Duty' lensman Cummins) and generously got the ice-creams in.


Stopping over briefly at the Roosevelt for a change of trousers and to collect Alex, Dave and Graham, it's then off to Pasadena for a live radio interview at KROQ, LA's "world famous" "alternative" radio station. Like many establishments in this city also claiming global renown, it's debatable whether KROQ's fame really extends much beyond the boundaries of the US, or even California, far less the entire planet. Such is the hubris of a nation whose multi-ethnic patchwork has left it prone to the delusion that most of the world now lives here anyway - and why the hell not, buddy?!


What is beyond dispute is that KROQ provides gainful employment to one of LA's rock'n'roll institutions, who also happens to be a major Blur fan. Back in the '60s, Rodney Bingenheimer was Davy Jones' stand-in on The Monkees, but would soon make his name as Ligger To The Stars. The GTOs, Frank Zappa's groupie protégés, immortalised him in one of their earliest songs: "We have a friend named Rodney Bingenheimer / He has a dutchboy haircut and he's five feet three... He's so amazing you should see his walls / It just screams 'Get in there with the pop stars!'"


Over a quarter of a century on and these details still apply. Rodney is a little guy with bobbed hair and he insists that Blur come and see his KROQ locker, adorned as it is with snapshots of himself with stars of the brightest magnitude, from Elvis Presley down. Actually in most of these "with" translates as "slightly behind and to the left", but it's an impressive array nonetheless. The impulse to enquire whither the incongruous inclusion of Twiggy sitting on a giant radio is tempered by the suspicion that Rodney was in fact there all along, but obscured by the radio.


Blur pose for the obligatory photos with Mr Bingenheimer, stoical in the knowledge that when Rodney is 70 he'll be pointing them out to the bemused class of 2015 and saying, "There's that Damon Albarn - what a guy he was!"


While at KROQ, the band successfully negotiate a pre-recorded interview with Rodney, as well as the on-air stint with a DJ known as Sluggo. This proves enlightening for several reasons, not least Sluggo confirming the status - in America at least - of 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' as Blur's lost album by raving about the huge change in style between 'Parklife' and "the last record 'Leisure'."


Also revealed is the boys' aptitude as agony uncles. In an attempt to whittle down the number of callers vying for free tickets for tomorrow night's show, they suggest repeating the formula of the Lovelines show they had done the previous day in New York. Cue Misty, a girl who lived on the same street as Guy Of Her Dreams and thought he shared her feelings but just wasn't sure. What should she do? "Well that's a hard one, guys," guffaws the gamely irreverent Sluggo. "Whaddya say?"


"Flash yer tits at him, love," comes the response of tall, sensitive, doe-eyed Alex. We make our excuses and leave.


The evening's festivities took us first to the Rainbow, a moderately obscene restaurant popular with Hollywood's teased hair and tits brigade. Apparently we had narrowly missed sharing airspace with the drummer from Motley Crue, but all was worthwhile when Alex caught the fancy of a gaggle of the aforementioned TH&TB (Ladies Chapter).


"Bachelor party?" enquired one, hopefully.


"Yeah," replied Graham, "it's Alex's last night of being a bachelor."


"Him? Oh wow!" She returned to her posse, fluttering eyelids and muttering to the effect of "what a waste!"


At the special request of one of its weaker-willed members, Alex's party then moved on to The Viper Room, the allegedly cool celeb hang-out owned by Johnny Depp and forever doomed to be remembered as the place where River Phoenix took one hit too many of crap drugs.


Until the members of Blur visited, that is. As far as they are concerned, The Viper Room will forever represent an over-priced piss-poor suburban disco with knucklehead security. As Kevin C got into big trouble for daring to take a photograph and the less than star-studded crowd shimmied uncertainly to an old Prince record, Damon observed that he didn't need to come to LA for a night out like this.


After roundly booing the Viper, alternative plans were hastily drawn up to visit a bar-with-DJ affair called Smalls. Here it was more like business as usual, as locals of varying degrees of loveliness strived desperately to impress each other while the drunken Brits staggered around, against their better instincts, being impressed. A noble scene that your reporter would have missed thanks to the doorman's petty minded insistence that ID be produced in order to gain access to his illustrious establishment, were it not for Alex smuggling me his passport.


The only trouble then was to convince our local friendly enforcer that the cherubic chap with the cheeky grin could possibly have been me at some point over the past 15 years. By no means surprisingly, he was having none of this, but eventually relented out of boredom and granted access to this gilded place of sin.


My reward? The chance to drink mini-bottles of Newcy Brown and frug desperately to 'Neat Neat Neat' by The Damned. "I think I've turned into a donkey," said Alex as I returned his passport. Time for bed is ever I heard it.


******


America has long been regarded as Blur's nemesis. It was here in 1992 that their tour disintegrated into alcohol psychosis and brought the band as close as they have ever been to splitting. In interviews it has been pilloried as the exporter of junk fashion and sub-standard standards of music, while on record it has been blamed for the slow asphyxiation of England's essentially decent indigenous culture.


The sole instance of crassness on the otherwise superlative 'Parklife' is 'Magic America', a pointedly snide dig at the place "where there are buildings in the sky and the air is sugar-free".


How, one wonders, do Blur's American fans take to it? Are they aware of the ironies? Or do they think this is a song saying America is magic?


"I can't believe they would," says Damon. "You've got to remember the audience that comes to see us are... I mean, they drive around on Lambrettas! They're slightly out of place as it is. I think that's what we like about them. The Blur audience in America is the most dysfunctional of all the dysfunctional tribes."


A close appreciation of Blur's LA tribe was afforded at soundcheck time on Saturday afternoon. Left with the task of transporting the band to the venue on time, we cram the four of them on to the back shelf of our Chevy and set off on the short drive from the Roosevelt to The Palace. "Great fun, this," enthuses Alex. "Just like The Monkees."


Matters turn a good deal more Monkee-esque as we approach the Palace. Noticing a sizeable gathering of diehards, here four hours before the start of the gig solely to catch a glimpse of the band, our folly becomes apparent. He we are, with the hottest British band in America virtually standing up in an open-topped car, thinking we could casually drive up and stroll in unmolested. Oh no...


"OH NO!!!" the band chorus in horror. "Kevin!" yells Damon. "Get us f***in' out of here!" To the anguished screams of several hundred, predominantly female, Blur-ites, Cummins puts the foot down and we speed away from the gig, pursued down the street by a string of excited fans who aren't about to give up on their quest so easily.


We turn the corner and for the car park via the back entrance, but this ruse has already been spotted and Blur are authentically mobbed as we pull up. Girls are quivering with hormonal agitation, and the lads ain't so steady on their pins either.
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-02-15 15:19 | interview

Lambretta from America (part 2)

In the safety of the dressing room, Alex reveals that such instances of teen mania are not unusual.


"In Chicago I went out of the gig and got in a taxi, and the car got completely swamped. The driver couldn't move and the police came along and arrested him for obstructing the highway!"


"Toronto's like this," considers Damon. "Probably worse. It's only in areas where the record has been big. You know what it's like in America, we're big in LA but you go 50 miles down the road and we're completely meaningless. In Canada 'Girls And Boys' was a Top 20 hit, so it's a sort of teeny thing there."


"People get the mickey taken out of them here if they say they like us," chuckles Graham.


"But it's great to be seen as exotic," adds Damon.


Which is ironic when you consider that the modern notion of America grew originally out of human seeds transplanted from England.


Damon: "It's great landing at Newark Airport. My grandparents live near Newark in Lincolnshire and it's extraordinary to see this sprawling metropolis and think of a little market town in Lincolnshire.


"Sometimes, like today when we were walking down Hollywood Boulevard, I just suddenly realised how impossible it would be to live here. I get scared."


Graham: "I don't think I'd ever go out. I haven't really enjoyed going out in the evenings here either. I don't understand the bars here."


Damon, sympathetically: "They're not like The Good Mixer, are they? It's just that in Britain you do to a degree have a choice whether you go to McDonalds or not. But here there is absolutely no choice, however you try and avoid it. This is their culture, they haven't got an alternative. This is what they are."


And you do still have a choice in England?


"Well, I don't think we necessarily have a choice, but it is very clear that it's something that has grown over something that's a lot older - and not necessarily better, but a lot older. There are just more layers, whereas here it's one mass." He sighs. "But I'm tired of making those pre-elementary comparisons between the two."


Because you realise it's more complicated than that?


"Yeah, I do. I think on 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' it was a little naive, the sloganeering. I mean, it worked, to a degree, for us. But this album has moved on from that now. It's not really what we're saying anymore. In a sense the rebellions have happened and are happening. Kevin's car was sitting there today and this black guy was walking past. I literally walked towards the car and he said, "I'm not gonna steal it'.


"There's these mechanisms that everyone in this country has. I suppose it's just their way of dealing with it. But this is a culture where everyone's just dealing with it. You don't get the sense that anyone's got any idea of how to change it or how to improve it. So everyone's got these defence mechanisms constantly going off."


Your antipathy towards the so-called Americanisation of English culture is well documented. Isn't there a sense of guilt here, because you realise that a lot of people back home find it attractive and seductive?


"Yeah," sniffs Damon, who sounds like he might be coming down with a cold after yesterday's ocean frolics. "I think everyone finds it attractive. In that sense, America's willingness to share its culture with everyone has resulted in everybody being American. The whole world is American. And the only reason that happened is because Americans were such a disparate bunch of people. Everyone is American."


"It's strange how Americans find European things glamorous," ponders Dave. "I was thinking about the shampoo bottles at the hotel - they say 'European Shampoo'."


It's an attempt to convey sophistication. You see it in other countries originally colonised by England, like Australia where the TV ads for upmarket products will often have English accents but for stuff like beer or cheeseburgers the local patois takes over.


"In England too, even," observes Alex. "The Mr Kipling ones are the most intelligent, where he says 'exceedingly good cakes'. You know nobody with any taste eats f***ing Mr Kipling cakes, but it kind of made you feel secure."


So are we looking at an irreversible trend here?


"Oh completely," says Damon. "It's no longer a trend, it's a way of life. And in a sense we're making our living out of giving an occasional rant to the press about it. I just wish I could understand what I was really angry about. I'm not really sure. But I don't think any of us are anymore, and that's the reason why it's so all-pervading, the sense that we've arrived in the future but none of us know exactly why we did arrive here. We stopped being optimistic as a species."


How else are we supposed to live with the chaos we've created?


"Yeah. When the body suffers pain endorphins are released. So these are mental endorphins we're living on."


The preliminary title of 'Modern Life' was 'Britain Versus America', wasn't it?


"Probably would have sold twice as many over here if it had America in the title!" guffaws Alex.


Blur aim to start recording their next album in December or January. They already have 15 songs written for the mooted final part of the 'Life' trilogy and anticipate it will be out by early summer 1995. Three albums in three years - an atypical work rate these days when record companies prefer to milk each album dry for up to two years at a time. They ascribe the phenomenon to single-mindedness, discipline in the studio ("We get there are 11, have lunch at one, finish at 10 and go down the pub") and the fact that they don't do serious drugs.


"Well, I just hope we never have Evan Dando pestering us," says Damon. "We're not really in a band scene at all and it is mostly because of that. It's just the way we choose to live our lives."


"We're just boozers, really, that's what we are," shrugs Alex. "It's as bad as anything else but you get spared the claptrap. It's a good pop drug."


"And," adds Damon, "the best thing about it is you can't even pretend to be creative on alcohol, because you just wanna go down the pub!"


Isn't it odd that heroin is somehow regarded as a glamour drug here, whereas popular British culture deems junkies the lowest of the low?


"Like smokers over here!" laughs Alex.


Exactly! You read about junkies in LA who won't smoke because they think it's bad for them.


Alex: "It's a no-smoking taxi of a place."


Dave: "They're very big on getting you to turn the sound down as well. All the club-owners are permanently paranoid they're gonna get sued by someone who goes deaf."


Damon: "Everyone can sue everyone. And unfortunately the rights that people tend to make the most of are the ones that enable them to make money. Like the woman who sued McDonalds for $2.4 million because her coffee was too hot. It burnt her lap, she tried to open it as she was driving along in her car."


Dave: "Basic human right, isn't it, to drink your coffee while you're driving!"


Alex, fuming to the subject: "And what the f***'s going on with the milk here as well?!"


"But in Britain," counsels Damon, "she would be the one in the wrong. Here it's McDonalds. It's an insane set of opposites that apply here."


******


Maybe so. Nonetheless, Yankee and Blighty seem united in their fulsome appreciation for the Blur-band right now. They do admittedly lay on a quite magnificent show - and the Palace crowd had been warmed up to singe-point by the estimable Pulp, support act for the whole US tour - but as 'Parklife' spirals into the hearts of a generation as 'its' album, Blur are obviously on hem-tugging acquaintance with Him upstairs. What can possibly be beyond them now?


Alex: "This sexline show in New York with people phoning in their problems - the answer to every question was 'talk to the other person!'"


Damon: "Yeah. 'I think my girlfriend's a man'. 'Have you discussed it with him or her?' 'No'. There was one brilliant woman who rang in saying, 'I like to swallow - I just wanna know, how many calories is it?'!"


Graham: "She could tell what the bloke's diet was, as well. We told her it was a pleasurable way to go on a diet. Stay on the spunk!"


"So you see," says Damon, "we are interested in this country. And maybe one day Blur will do an American album which is all about American people and it'll go on and sell as well as 'Parklife' has in Britain. David Bowie did it brilliantly with 'Young Americans', and I've always thought at some point that will happen. But it can't happen until it's right, otherwise it's... Primal Scream."


Ha! You're not seriously thinking of betting against 'em are you? 'Central Parklife' - they'll lurrrve a bit of it.
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-02-15 15:17 | interview

Long player


From the Times magazine, 19 April 2003. By Nigel Williamson. Cover photograph by Peter Marlow.


Morocco, October 2002. Above the door of the barn which is serving as Blur's temporary recording studio, someone has chalked the words "Think Tank". Inside, surrounded by banks of computers and a mixing desk half the length of a cricket pitch, Damon Albarn and producer Ben Hillier are recording the dark and menacing vocal to The Outsider, one of the 28 songs under consideration for the band's new album. The song's mood is further enhanced when Albarn decides to try recording the vocal through a walkie-talkie. He takes it outside into the Moroccan night to increase the sense of detachment. Back in the studio his disembodied voice floats eerily through the monitors and the effect is brilliant.


Taped to the walls are sheets of paper listing the 28 tracks, with comments written alongside each one. Most do not yet have titles and are merely numbered. Next to one unfinished song listed as track nine, Albarn has written "De La Soul style". To which his girlfriend, the artist Suzi Winstanley, has added the graffiti, "you wish".


With most of the backing tracks completed in London, Albarn has decamped to Morocco for a month to write the lyrics and record the vocals. With him are bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree, both licensed pilots who flew themselves to Marrakech in their own plane. On the mixing desk is taped a headline clipped from a newspaper which reads: "Only Norman wins in this sleazy tale", a jokey reference to the presence of Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook, who has joined them to co-produce two tracks.


Albarn is still not happy with The Outsider, when Winstanley appears in the studio. At the time, he's doing a headstand on the studio floor in the hope that a rush of blood to the head might give him inspiration. He tells her he thinks the problem lies with the lyric and that the second line doesn't scan properly. She suggests a minor alteration and demands a co-writing credit. Their two-year-old daughter Missy arrives and the lyric has to wait. As he bids her goodnight, I pick up his handwritten lyric sheet. Across the top, like a schoolmaster marking an essay, he has written in bold, "Improve".


To finish their first album in four years, Blur have taken a month's lease on a splendidly appointed palace, a 20-minute drive out of Marrakech at Dar Nejma. The main rooms are grouped around an open courtyard, although at night an electrically operated sliding roof encloses the space at the push of a button. There's a swimming pool and a tennis court and meals are taken communally - mostly spicy tagines cooked by the Moroccan chef.


Daylight hours are passed in leisurely fashion. Alex James - once a notorious bon viveur but at present not drinking - has installed his personal yoga teacher (dubbed "The Guru") and spends much of the day working on his karma. Dave Rowntree fills his spare time with Arabic lessons and gentle exercise on the bicycle he has flown out from London.


Albarn is a relentless bundle of energy and good humour. He's first up in the morning, beating the Berber rugs scattered around the Think Tank studio. He's there to give Missy her breakfast. Then he goes for a swim, before he bullies everyone into the daily game of Venice Ball - a Blur invention that is a cross between soccer and volleyball. Albarn, stripped to the waist, is by far the most enthusiastic player and disputes every point. To everyone else's amusement, he ends up on the losing side almost every day.


But he's here to work. By afternoon he's in the studio, where he stays until 3 or 4am. He's the first up next day. "I never thought the 'getting it together in the country' approach to making music worked," he says. "I thought you had to be in a city to get that energy. But we've found it here and I think we've made a great record."


In a few more days, the record is virtually complete. James takes a hire car to the Moroccan seaside resort of Essaouira for a holiday. Albarn flies to Bamako in Mali to meet some African musicians he hopes to record. And I take the British Airways flight back to London with Rowntree. On the way, he suggests it has been the easiest, least conflict-strewn record Blur have made. "Damon's so much more relaxed these days," he says. Then he chuckles. "But he's still so competitive. If he was here and I wanted him to carry my bag on to the plane, I'd just say, 'This is really heavy. I bet you couldn't carry it.' And he'd say, 'Who says I can't? I'll show you.' He falls for it every time."


Indeed. In June 2002, five months before the Morocco trip, I bumped into Albarn at a party. He asked what music I was listening to and, knowing the reaction it would produce, I said Coldplay, adding that their new album was the best British rock record since Blur's last release. It worked like a charm. "Right," he said. "If you think that's good, you're coming down the studio tomorrow to hear our new stuff." At 11:30 the next morning, I turned up at his Ladbroke Grove studio. Some of the tracks were little more than demos, yet it was instantly obvious that his confidence was not misplaced.


The invitation to Morocco offered a further insight into the modus operandi of the man who has emerged as the most intelligent and interesting British pop star of the past decade. For in the four years since we last heard from Blur, it has been remarkable to watch Albarn expanding his musical horizons far beyond the insular world of Britpop. These days you're just as likely to see him at a concert by the Brodsky Quartet or Africa's Orchestra Baobab as at a rock gig. There has been a film soundtrack with Michael Nyman and spectacular success with his hip-hop off-shoot Gorillaz (which has out-sold Blur by several million in America). He's set up his own record label, released the acclaimed world music fusion album Mali Music, sung with Ibrahim Ferrer of Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, collaborated with Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and travelled to China to hear the split-tone singers of the Mongolian steppes.


In many ways, his startling development has come as a surprise. Seven or eight years ago, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker was widely held to be the cleverest of the Britpop crew, the "arty one" most likely to be doing interesting things in 20 years' time. Yet, disappointingly, he has come up with little of note since the 1995 album, Different Class. It was more predictable that after their early triumphs, Oasis would end up repeating themselves. Yet who could have imagined from the chirpy mannerisms of Blur's Parklife that Albarn would mature into the David Bowie of his generation, with a seemingly endless capacity to absorb new ideas and come up with something fresh?


Now, after all the various extracurricular activities which he refuses to call side projects ("to me it's all music and all the records I make are equally valid"), comes Blur's seventh album and first since 1999, Think Tank. Following the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon, who was controversially sacked last year, the group is today more than ever a vehicle for Albarn's musical vision. And the result is the most adventurous, challenging and finest record of Blur's career - something virtually no other British band has been able to say seven albums into its career since the Beatles released Revolver


To Albarn, this notion of linear progress is of crucial importance. "The day Blur makes an album that's not better than the last one is the day we quit," he had told me in Morocco. Four months later and on the verge of the new album's release, I remind him of the comment, as he cooks lunch in his west London home.


"I'm not doing it for the money. I couldn't justify the chaotic life I lead if I wasn't producing something decent at the end of it. It wouldn't be worth the hassle," he reasons. "I get impatient with people who repeat themselves because if you have to do that it means you didn't say it clearly enough the first time. You have to go out and find your sense of identity as a musician. I'm still looking for that and I expect I'm going to spend my whole life doing it. But hopefully through that process of searching, you find yourself."


When talking to James and Rowntree, I had been told that the official line on the departure of Graham Coxon is that there is no official line. They simply don't discuss it. But Albarn goes off-message to reveal that it was an old-fashioned power struggle. "We weren't fighting. But Graham got to a position where he just wasn't comfortable with me calling the shots. That's why he's not in the band any more. He wants to call his own shots, which is fair enough. For me it was no shock when we came to the parting of ways." Are they still friends? "I'd love to get back to the relationship we had when we were younger, because we were amazingly good mates. But it's been a long time since Graham and I were close," he admits. "People decide to go off and do different things. It's not a big deal. Most people just listen to the record and don't even know who's in the band. I think that's the way it should be, really."


Yet Coxon's departure has undeniably changed the Blur sound and the dynamics within the group. James and Rowntree are an accomplished rhythm section, but, without Coxon, Albarn is now "calling the shots" more powerfully than ever. Was that his intention? "I do what I've always done. The only thing is I've had to play a bit more guitar because there's no guitarist. And apart from Graham, the only guitar players I've watched closely are the Africans like Lobi Traore and Afel Bocoum who played on the Mali record. So I think some of that has rubbed off and makes it sound different."


But he concedes that without Coxon, Think Tank was the "easiest" album Blur have ever made. "It's so childish saying 'I did this on the album' or 'I did that'. The only thing that matters is what comes out. The focus on individuals in our society is all wrong. How on earth are we going to get on with each other in this world if we can't all see each other as equal?" He laughs at his own question. "I know that's a ridiculous thing for me to come out with in my huge kitchen in my big house in west London. But I don't know what else to say."


Modesty is an attribute few would have associated with Albarn earlier in his career, when he put in more than his share of time as a bumptious pop star with plenty of attitude. It would perhaps have been odd if the craziness of the Britpop years had not turned his head. But pop stardom either makes you into a tantrum-throwing monster for life, or you get over it and come out the other side a better and wiser human being.


As he chops the onions, cooks the spaghetti, conducts an interview and attempts to keep Missy amused, it is obvious that Albarn has opted for the latter course. he'd moved into the house only three days earlier and unpacked boxes are everywhere. In three days' time, he's off to America to play Blur's first live dates in more than three years. Yet after lunch, he plans to spend the afternoon putting up a bed in one of the spare rooms. In terms of the use of his time, it makes no sense. Except that it keeps him grounded, a quality he has learnt to value.


Four years ago, after he split with long-time girlfriend Justine Frischmann (a break-up which he chronicled in some detail on Blur's last album", he met Suzi Winstanley. Unlike Frischmann, the singer with the now disbanded Elastica, she was not part of the rock'n'roll world and has undoubtedly brought stability into his life, particularly after they had a child.


"Being a dad is the best thing that ever happened to me. There's nothing that compares to that and of course it's changed me," he says, as Missy demands to know if lunch is ready. "Soon," he reassures her. So how does he feel he has changed? "I'm a lot less insecure and I've become a lot more committed to what I do. That has made me better at my chosen craft, which is writing songs. I try to live my life with my family as much as possible. You have to make it as normal as you can for them, so there won't be any more huge tours. But I still haven't been able to shake off the need once in a while to get horrendously drunk and make a tit of myself."


Albarn insists his other projects have enhanced his work with Blur. "It's a journey and everything you learn along the way is added to what you do. Dave and Alex should go out and work on other people's records. They're a brilliant rhythm section and they're playing better than ever without Graham. He is such a strong musician, I think it was a bit intimidating at times for them."


Albarn is dismissive of Britpop and Blur's early work. "Parklife? That was a joke," he says. "It was a satirical record. It should be filed in the record shop under comedy, alongside Monty Python." And yet the record helped to define an era, as film-maker John Dower documents in his recent Live Forever, which features Albarn, the Gallaghers and Jarvis Cocker talking at length about the Britpop years. The Blur singer is not enamoured with the film, which takes its name from an Oasis song. He also takes exceptions to comments made by his old sparring partner Noel Gallagher, who once said that he hoped Albarn would contract Aids and die.


"Why was it called Live Forever? It should have had a neutral title," Albarn complains. "And it's the same old bullshit. Noel has got Tourette's syndrome whenever my name is mentioned." He goes into an hilarious impersonation of Gallagher effing and blinding.


In the film, Gallagher complains that the over-privileged southerner obviously didn't have a paper round as a kid and, therefore, Oasis were somehow more "real" than Blur. "It's like a comedy show, isn't it? I'm not going to respond by saying whether I had a paper round. It's ridiculous." Paper round or not, much of the resentment towards Blur stems from an inverted snobbery in the rock world which objects to the fact that they are nice, middle-class boys who did not, like the Gallaghers, grow up on a council estate, and spend their time breaking into cars and stealing radios.


The class divide still rattles Albarn, whose father was a lecturer in Islamic art and whose mother was a theatrical designer. "Yes, I was blessed because my family stayed together and there were lots of books in the house. But I grew up in Leytonstone. It wasn't a country mansion with servants. It irritates me that people think that."


Books in the house? Another commonly voiced criticism is that Albarn is somehow "too clever for his own good". "I don't even know what that means," he says contemptuously. "Are they saying it's better not to be intelligent and have no knowledge of other things outside pop music? So let's close all the schools and burn the books. Let's have more shopping malls and mindless television and give everyone free sedatives. How can anybody be too clever?"


His recent role in the anti-war movement has also attracted criticism. Most of his critics are probably unaware that he comes from a long line of peace activists and that his grandfather was a conscientious objector in the Second World War. "People threw eggs at him in the street." Albarn was meant to speak at the big anti-war rally in London in March but grew too emotional to take the platform. "My dad was with me and as we marched we started talking about my grandfather. He died a year or two ago in an old people's home. He went on hunger strike because he didn't want to go on living. I'd never grieved for him properly and it all came out."


Needless to say, he doesn't subscribe to the view that pop stars should keep their meddling noses out of politics and leave such concerns to the chattering classes. But he does believe that if you're going to speak out, you should know what you're talking about.


"If people ask my opinion I have to say what I think. It's about democracy and it's our life and our world. But when I saw people like Chris Martin saying 'No war' like a slogan at the Brits, it was pathetic. That's what gives musicians a bad name. These are serious issues. People shouldn't reduce it to a soundbite."


At that point, Missy reappears and lunch is served. This is going to annoy all his critics like hell. But not only is the middle-class, too-clever-by-half Damon Albarn the most interesting, creative and thoroughly decent pop star of our times. He's also a rather fine cook.
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-02-01 18:25 | interview

Damon Albarn interviewed

From the Daily Telegraph, 1 September 2005. Interview by Craig McLean.


It's a fair bet that Damon Albarn didn't tune into BBC4's recent celebration of the Blur/Oasis chart battle. If he had spotted his floppy-haired younger self, introducing an old documentary round-up of his "favourite" Britpop bands, he would no doubt have cringed. Musically, Albarn has come a long way from the days of perky guitar pop and Cool Britannia. Nor is he likely ever again to wear a deerstalker and plus-fours when singing Blur's Oasis-trumping number one, Country House.


These days, the 37-year-old enjoys a very different kind of renown. As the voice and musical brains behind cartoon four-piece Gorillaz, he is responsible - along with illustrator Jamie Hewlett - for one of the most innovative bands of the past few years. And one of the most popular: Gorillaz' 2001 self-titled debut sold six million copies. In America, Albarn has latterly enjoyed considerably more success than he has ever achieved with Blur.


Gorillaz make cutting-edge pop that mixes singalong melodies, reggae, electronica, hip-hop and world music. On their second album, Demon Days (released in May), these musical ideas are applied to Albarn's thoughts on the "dark" times in which we live. This wide-ranging creative ambition is fleshed out by guest vocalists such as actor Dennis Hopper and (on new single DARE) Happy Mondays vocalist Shaun Ryder.


But all this serious musicianship is fronted by four brilliantly realised characters oozing attitude and style, including moody singer 2-D and a 10-year-old female Japanese guitarist called Noodle. Gorillaz look great, sound great, and inhabit a world straight out of a video game. No wonder kids have gone ga-ga for Gorillaz.


"We don't sit around thinking, 'This'll be great for kids' - it just happened to really appeal to them," says Albarn as he sits by the back door of Hewlett's west London design studio. "We try to be as radical as we possibly can in every sense. But it doesn't matter what we do, the combination is really appealing to active young minds. That's the essence of the [music] industry, isn't it? Unfortunately in the wrong hands it's constantly abused. Record labels and less scrupulous producers will hoodwink the kids with shit. Because it's easy."


Hiding his true self behind cartoon characters was particularly appealing to Albarn, who pronounces himself "loads happier" with his new, lower profile as a musician. Gorillaz are, he says, "essentially, for most people, anonymous. It doesn't feel like that in Britain. But everywhere else I go, when people ask what I do and I say, 'I'm a musician, I'm Gorillaz', they go, 'Oh you're the guy!' They don't really know white British art rock that much around the world," he says drily.


Albarn isn't sure when he'll get back to making white British art rock with Blur. The departure of guitarist Graham Coxon in 2002 is still clearly an open wound. "It's a struggle playing with a band where one key member has left."


Will Coxon ever rejoin the fold?


"Well, whatever," Albarn sighs, evidently tiring of being asked the question. "I think many harvests will be sown and reaped before Graham comes back. There's no point in waiting for somebody who..." he stops himself short, something the old Albarn might not have done.


In the meantime, his creative urges are being satisfied in all manner of different directions. He and Hewlett are up to their eyes in the preparations for a one-off Gorillaz live spectacular, and he's also recording another album. He won't go into details, but says it's a continuation of the last Blur album (2003's Think Tank), features contributions from "a lot of interesting people", and incorporates the African influences he fell in love with while making his Mali Music album (2002).


"In the middle of doing the Gorillaz album, I took a month out and went to Lagos in Nigeria with some of the guys that are on the album we're doing now. We played at the old Fela Kuti studio for weeks. And some of the tunes didn't necessarily work that well there but I came back and did them again for the Gorillaz album. All Alone came out of a jam we were having."


Albarn says his interest in Africa and its music goes deep. "I never really want to leave it as an inspiration; I just can't get enough of it." Hence his outspoken criticism of the bill of the London Live8 concert for not featuring any African artists.


"African artists don't play songs that are two minutes long then you can go to the advert," he says. "Sometimes if they're in the right mood they can play songs that last for three-quarters of an hour."


But wasn't the purpose of the Hyde Park concert to grab the attention of people in the West in the most immediately effective way? "Well, we agree to disagree on whether that's the most effective way. I think time will reveal whether I was just talking rubbish or I had some point."


But the Live8 concert at Cornwall's Eden Project (featuring solely African artists) didn't seem very well-attended.


"That was the problem. That was a direct response to what myself and other people had pointed out as being a really obvious oversight on the part of the organisers. It was a token gesture, unfortunately. Yet again it looks like the Africans are failing. And yet again I think the missionary zeal of the West is blind to the fantastic potential and sheer lust for life that exists in Africa."


This is vintage Albarn: opinionated, combative, and with a hint of self-righteousness. But, for all his periodic chirpiness, fatherhood (his daughter Missy with artist Suzi Winstanley is now five) and international success seem to have mellowed him.


"After 15 years being in a band and touring, I found myself to a lesser or greater extent a borderline addict - of a lot of things," he says. "Being famous was one of many. People tend to think being an addict is drugs or painkillers or alcohol. But no, no, no," he says smiling ruefully and shaking his head, "there are many other kinds of addicts. You can be a shoe addict, a sex addict. Or an attention addict."


So what has the whole Gorillaz experience taught him? "Ah..." he ponders. "Not to be an irritating self-obsessed little twerp!"
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-02-01 18:25 | interview

Altered States (part 1)

Melody Maker interview with Damon, 21 June 1997. By Mark Sutherland.

As moments of looming cultural significance go, the timing couldn't be better.


You join us on Virgin Airlines flight V009 from London to New York, where we are tuned to the in-flight 'CD Review' service. As luck would have it, this month's featured album is none other than 'Blur', the latest album by the band of the same name, and the reason Melody Maker is on this flight in the first place.


We've been in the company of 'Blur' on and off for over five hours now. We've chortled as Graham Coxon declared, "This album will scare small children," just before the dreamy pop of 'Beetlebum' leaked through the headphones. We've cracked open the Red Stripe to the snarling rock soundtrack of 'Song 2'. We've flicked over to watch 'Men Behaving Badly' on Channel 12 as the atonal racket of 'I'm Just A Killer For Your Love' threatens our aerodynamic equilibrium. Mere minutes ago, we sucked on a complimentary Werther's Original and pondered the majesty of the Hudson River as we began our descent to the oddly comforting drone of 'Essex Dogs'.


We've come a long way with this album. Quite literally. So, we know that anyone who listens to 'Blur' all the way through usually ends up a tad confused. Anyone who listens to it on Virgin's 'CD Review' slot, however, is in danger of suffering permanent bewilderment.


Why? Because, after 'Essex Dogs' has finally muttered and Hoover-noised its way to a halt, you find yourself confronted with something even weirder than the hidden track that usually follows it.


'E lives in a 'aus, a very big 'aus in ver count-er-ee...'


Yes, they've decided to jolly things up a bit by including some of the band's greatest hits. Specifically, the chirpy, cheeky, Cockernee knees-up hits that represent some of the best pop music of the 20th century, but those that Blur would rather we forgot about now, thanks all the same.


Fortunately, on this occasion, the pilot is on their side. Just as 'Country House' strikes up, the in-flight entertainment system is shut down and their none-more-POP! albatross is severed with an almighty screech of 'underground'-friendly feedback. Two minutes later and we've landed in America. Where Blur, conversely, are just about to take off.



Today, Damon Albarn is King Of New York. Yesterday afternoon his band played alongside REM, The Beastie Boys and Alanis Morissette at the city's Tibetan Freedom Festival. Despite the heavyweight competition, it was Blur's spiky set that proved the highlight of the day. As proof, New York's 24-hour TV news station has spent this morning pumping out an hourly bulletin which states, seemingly without irony, that they "rocked", "kicked ass" and generally "ruled".


Meanwhile, a few channels down the dial, MTV regales its army of Beavis & Butthead-esque viewers with an hourly heavy rotation Buzzbin alternative-crossover screening of the 'Song 2' video.


As a direct consequence of such things, this week another 50,000 US citizens will allow the off-kilter charms of 'Blur' into their homes, sending sales of the album soaring towards the half million bare minimum requirement for gen-u-ine Stateside success.


Damon is smart enough to know that, by this evening, The Big Apple will probably have clasped someone else to its rotten core and proclaimed them il capo di capos. But, for the next few hours at least, he is The King Of New York and, to celebrate, he has come dressed as an American.


If you want to know just how seriously the 'ex-kings of Britpop' (© every magazine in the world, ever) are about finally making a dent in the American consciousness, you don't need to interview them. You just need to look at what they're wearing. In fact, you need look no further than Graham Coxon's chin, where a few gingery hairs betray his imminent acquisition of the ultimate Stateside alterna-rock status-symbol. Yup, Graham Coxon, erstwhile Ace 'Face' On The Camden Mod 'Scene', is growing a goatee. They'll never let him in The Good Mixer again. If only because the one-time Patron Saint of the all-day session has packed in the sauce all together. Blimey.


All right, so stout-hearted drummer Dave Rowntree still sports the Colchester Geezer look he had made his own, but will you just look at Damon. The one-time purveyor of football terrace casual chic now dresses like one of those B-Boy wannabes you see in the background on 'Beverly Hills 90210'. He looks cool, of course, but clad in floppy Kangol hat, swimming goggle shades and the sort of voluminous skate 'pants' that could conceal an Uzi automatic, a Big Mac and a cherry red Corvette convertible (whatever that may be), he's more East Village Dude than EastEnd Boy. Yikes.


Still, here comes bassist Alex James, fashionably late and floppy of fringe as ever, to save us and - yesss!! - he still dresses like a particularly seedy member of the sixth form at a minor English public school. He, at least, can surely be relied upon not to cop any US underground straight-edge 'attitood' or NYC-style accessories.


"I've given up drinking," he states, dramatically. "But I still can't get rid of the twatty affectations that go with it."


And then he lights up a Big Apple-sized cigar and suggests we walk to the photo shoot. The horror!


All this comes as a bit of a shock, quite frankly. It was only five years ago, after all, that a tour intended to break Blur in America ended with America very nearly breaking Blur instead. Even less since Blur press photos consisted of dressing up in a series of 'British images', while the accompanying interviews consisted largely of vitriolic attacks on "Yankee mall culture". At the height of their UK notoriety, if Damon had started going on about 'Big Apples', we'd have thought he'd lapsed into Cockney rhyming slang to describe a particularly large staircase. Then again, only one year ago, he famously opened his mouth, inserted his foot and mumbled through a gobful of toenails: "The only thing we've got in common with Oasis is we're both doing shit in America."


The States fell for the Gallaghers about five minutes later. Now, it seems, America finally loves Blur and Blur, at last, have learnt to love America back. Nowadays, when Blur declare 'There's No Other Way', the way in question is the American one. And the questions in the way are: How did this happen? How did they get here? And: do you want fries with that, buddy?


"Yesterday, I felt like I'd arrived at a totally new place, both emotionally and musically. I finally left that whole headspace of Britishness."


Today, Damon Albarn is the happiest bunny in the whole of Manhattan. Curled up on the Philip Starck-designed sofa in the lobby of his swank midtown hotel, he exudes good health, mental confidence, proper pop star charm and personal contentment.


But this is not the old Damon Albarn. He no longer spits out soundbites left, right and centre. He regularly thinks long and hard before he speaks. He's humble about even his most spectacular achievements and honest about his mistakes. Later, he'll even be quite nice about Noel Gallagher. Sort of. But for now, he's enthusing about America like a native.


"It's so exciting coming here nowadays," he grins. "It's nice to be seen as a new, young, up-and-coming band and have 16-year-olds think 'Song 2' is our debut single. In the past, we've come over here, played to our friends and consoled ourselves with the fact that we're a cult. Now the gigs are just full of... punters."


And not many, one imagines, of the same 'punters' who bore witness to Blur's disastrous US tour of 1992, when record company politics, personal disarray and public disinterest pushed them so far over the edge that they could only recover by making three whole albums about how rubbish America is.


"Yeah, it is a bit different over here now," ponders Damon. "There's a fraction of the drinking, which helps, obviously, and we're not deliberately spiting ourselves. And we don't have to do all those meet-and-greets and in-stores which drove us up the wall. Not that I remember much. I've erased all memories of the early Nineties."


Well, let's refresh your memory. At one point, your hatred for the place was so strong the original working title for 'Modern Life Is Rubbish' was 'Britain Versus America'.


"I know. God. And we were going to call 'Parklife' 'London'. Phewee, eh? God knows what I was thinking."


Damon claims his new-found love affair with America actually began at the end of the 'Parklife' era and was triggered by leaving their American record company and actually acquiring some American friends at their new label. As a result, one of the best tracks from 'Blur' urges us to "Look inside America/It's all right".


The admiration is mutual. 'Blur' has already sold more copies in America than all Blur's previous albums put together. Although, ultimately, that's not really very many. The US success of Oasis, let alone Bush and the Spice Girls, is still a long way off.


"Well, yeah, but I don't want to be THAT massive. The thing is, you can sell one million records here and not really be that big. We've got credibility here, and I don't want to lose that. Same as I know we're cool in England again - and to get that back from being in our position is incredible. It's taken me a ludicrously long time to realise this, but all I really want to do is make the music I want to and not get so uptight about being the best and the biggest."


In other words, Blur just do what they do and if one million Americans like it, that's a bonus. If one million Brits like it, however, they'll be very surprised.


"'Blur' will never sell a million copies in the UK," asserts Damon. "It's just too darned good."


Well, so were 'Parklife' and 'The Great Escape' if you ask this journo, and they secured Blur back-to-back million sellers in their homeland. But this time around, 'Blur' is still limping forlornly towards single platinum status and is already perilously close to dropping out of the UK Top 50. Still record sales most bands would kill for, obviously, but practically a flop by their standards.


But then 'Blur' is an awkward bugger of a record, obscuring the band's traditional strengths (cracking tunes, ironic pop swagger, the usual) under an avalanche of influences from weird-beard lo-fi folk that no one's ever heard of. True, it's got Blur across to people who always hated them previously (including half the Maker office and John Peel - who has never played any previous Blur record) but it's also confused the hell out of the teenage girl and terrace lad element of their fanbase.


Which was almost certainly the idea, but at what cost? Britain was booming - why let Blur blow it? Time, surely, to put Damon in the dock and try him for crimes against Britpop.



Accusation 1:

That you did wilfully and deliberately tailor your music to the US 'market'!


"I just don't understand that. I mean, 'Song 2' is the song doing it for us here and I never imagined for one minute that Americans would like that. It hasn't even got a title, for f***'s sake - that's how throwaway it was.


"And, y'know, we've also cracked the German market for the first time with this album. I suppose we deliberately geared it to the Germans, did we?"


Well, there was the much touted Krautrock influence...


"Oh, piss off. We've made it in Spain as well, but there aren't any flamenco guitars on it, are there?"


OK, not guilty. But wait, there's a counter-charge (possibly from your record company)...



Accusation 2:

That you did deliberately attempt commercial suicide without due consideration for the knock-on effect on the British economy!


"Oh, come on. It's sold nearly 300,000 copies and given us one Number One single and another Number Two - and that was only 800 copies off being Number One, actually. At the time, I didn't give a f*** if it was commercial suicide, but if it had gone completely down the toilet I would have found it pretty traumatic. I mean, I did used to think, 'Well, we're going to be as big as U2 around the world soon,' which just seems insane to me now. But, even so, by the end of this campaign, this album will have outsold all our others worldwide. That's a lot of records for commercial suicide."


OK, we'll let that one slide. But there's still more to answer to The Maker. Let's try this one then.



Accusation 3:

That you insulted your loyal teenage fans who made you millions by assuming they only want to touch your bottom and won't 'understand' all this Pavement gubbins.


"I have no problem with 12-year-olds screaming at me and I believe it's totally possible for them to grasp what we're doing. I hope they do. But at the same time, we made this record for ourselves. Why should I give a f*** if people are insulted? It's none of their business, really."


Hmm. We'll call that one a plea bargain. But surely you must cop for this one. Right then,



Accusation 4:

That you did spoil the Britpop party by making a 'we are weird' album and causing everyone from Supergrass to Radiohead to copy you.


"In the past, I probably would have claimed that everyone was copying us but I know full well they were making those records anyway. Anyone with any sense realised that Britpop was getting to be an embarrassing MOR thing. And all it requires is for this LP to end up being successful and people won't be making bland conservative records in Britain, because they won't have to."


Damn it all! But this one will get him...



Accusation 5:

You're a right cocky little bleeder, aren't you?


"I'm aware that people think that about me, obviously, but I don't really understand it. The funny thing is, I'm a lot more genuinely confident now, but I don't seem to wind people up as much. But cocky? At what point was I 'cocky'?"


Well, the 'Country House' point certainly springs to mind.


"Ah, yes. The thing is, at that point, there was a genuine chemistry between me and Liam. We were these two larger-than-life characters vying for attention. In any other walk of life, if we were at school or something, we'd either have had a big fight, or we'd have become mates. But because of who we were, it went on 'News At Ten'. Within my own persona, I understand what was going on but, yeah, if you look at it from the outside, it just looks like I was off me head."


Gotcha! And while we're here, what about...



Accusation 6:

That you shamelessly adapt yourself and your music to whichever way the Zeitgeist breeze is blowing. In other words, you are the Tony Blair of pop.


"Oh God," he stutters, "I don't like that at all. I mean, I do these things before the climate changes, rather than afterwards. I can always see these things sort of coming. But I suppose, having met Tony Blair and had a G&T with him, I can relate to that side of him. It made me smile to see him with Clinton and Yeltsin because that's all it takes to get there - having the ability to understand what's going on and what people want. But does that make him a great person or a great leader? Probably not. Maybe I have been guilty of that way of perceiving things. But now I'm just interested in being honest."


Ha ha! Guilty as charged! Clap yourself in irons and go directly to Britpop jail! Or, as an alternative punishment, go and 'check out' Radiohead live.



Oddly enough, considering a couple of years ago the two bands were practically polar opposites, Damon sees Radiohead - who he does, indeed, 'check out' at New York's Irving Plaza this evening - as one of Blur's few kindred spirits on the UK scene.


"We've got a lot in common, actually," he smiles, while at the show. "We're similar sort of people, and we've got the same sense of adventurousness in our music. Every other British band is so loutish."
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-01-25 01:06 | interview

Altered States (part 2)

Mr Albarn has precious little enthusiasm for anything else 'happening' back home, though. He "doesn't understand" the fuss over the Spice Girls, although he does have a favourite ("Mel B - she's the best looking by miles"). He can't stand New Grave ("I had enough of Goths when I was trying to avoid them as an 18-year-old in Colchester. That Marilyn Manson guy was at the Tibet gig, ordering champagne. And I'm like, 'Champagne? F*** off! You should be drinking cider and black like the rest of your kind!'") Oddly, the one person he does have a little sympathy for is Crispian Mills.


"Not too much, though. I mean, he does come across as a bit of a twat, doesn't he? But I'm very grateful to him for replacing me as everyone's favourite whipping boy. At least, he's a proper public schoolboy - that was the only thing people have ever said about me that wound me up. I don't mind being called middle-class, but I didn't go to f***ing public school."


Aside from that, it seems, nothing much bothers Damon Albarn these days. Tonight, he's relaxed in the company of the most stellar guestlist ever created (Winona Ryder! Courtney Love! U2! REM! Jamie Theakston! How did he get in!), even when Liam Gallagher spots him in the crowd and ambles over to mumble the usual variations on 'I'm mad for it, me!'


Does this mean there's a truce, then, Damon?


"Well, we're not big pals or anything. I don't relate to them at all. But it's a bit different over here - they're mere mortals like the rest of us. We're playing on the same bill as them at a couple of gigs, which is fine by me. We'd never do it at home, but it's a chance for a less partisan crowd to judge us on our playing abilities."


For a minute, it looks like the old Damon might sneak in through the back door, but instead he clamps his gob and heads off to do a radio interview. Professional at all times, that's the new Blur credo. Even when they later attend a party thrown by Rock Chick Inc - a group of New York lasses apparently on a mission to take the word Anglophilia to its natural sexual conclusion. In days of yore, you might have expected Alex James to stay here roister-doistering till dawn. Tonight, he goes home on his own, just as most people are arriving. The old Damon might have got legless and into a ruck about something, but tonight he just gets pleasantly tipsy and chats about football.


Make no mistake, this is a happy man. A far cry from even the start of this year, when a series of interviews saw him talking about his clinical depression.


"I'm just starting to really sort myself out," he says now. "It takes ages until you can actually identify what you want out of life. I don't even think the information is available until you've been through a lot of different experiences. Occasionally, the symptoms of my depression come back, but I know what they are now so I can deal with it, whereas before they scared the shit out of me."


Good. For a while there, what with Justine complaining about her press treatment, the Coolest Couple In Rock were starting to look like the Whinging Couple Of Old Camden Town.


"The Whinging Couple Of Old Notting Hill, purlease," he smirks. "We've never lived in Camden. But when you're being interviewed you either completely lie, don't say anything or open yourself up a bit. All three will land you in the shit one way or another. And, y'know, Justine has had to face her own demons.


"But we have a unique relationship. Justine's a very relaxed and open-minded person. Which makes me a very lucky man."


Blimey. Is that wedding bells I hear?


"I don't know. All I know is I no longer want to be the biggest band in the world. I just want to be happy, have a family and be good at carpentry. But I've got to get off this world tour first."


You could always have a quickie marriage in Vegas...


"It's funny. I admire Noel for that cos he actually seems stimulated by the big classic rock'n'roll gestures. Like having that bit of stained glass saying 'Supernova Heights' outside his house."


He's got a new house now. Well, mansion, really.


"Where?"


Oh, Buckinghamshire or somewhere.


"Ooh, very nouveau. That's what you do when you're rich, buy loads of houses but never live in any of them. It's ridiculous. I've got three now - one in Notting Hill, one in Cornwall and one in Iceland. I'm a millionaire but I don't feel like it cos I've been in Melody Maker since I had 5p."


But it's not all happy families, wedding plans and property investment chez Albarn & Frischmann. Otherwise the new Elastica album wouldn't be taking so bloody long, surely?


"Oh, I think they just want to make sure it's absolutely right and allow everyone to speculate wildly while they're doing it."


And speculate wildly they do. Wild Saloon Bar Theory No. 1 for the day is: you write all the songs for her.


"Well, I don't," he snorts, looking annoyed for the only time all trip. "They only say that because she's a girl, don't they? They'd never say 'Oh, Justine writes all Blur's songs'."


Well, if that one gets your goat, how about Wild Saloon Bar Theory No. 2: that the reason for the delay is both you and Justine are heavily into heroin.


Oddly, the reaction is anything but angry.


"Oh, I heard that one," he smiles. "There's quite a lot of spicy gossip about us, isn't there? Well, of course I'm going to answer 'No'."


Why "of course"?


"What else do you think I'm going to say?"


Well, you might get angry. Have you ever taken heroin?


"Er. Um. [Huge pause] Er, I can't answer that really, can I? No. The fact that you ask a question like that... it's implicit that I'm guilty."


Well, are you? You're saying no, but the way you're saying it...


"...suggests I'm shooting up? Well, here are my arms," Damon smiles, proffering limbs with nary a pockmark on them.


There are other places to inject.


"Well, yes, you can, but I couldn't. I'd faint at the sight of a needle. My pulse rate rises uncontrollably whenever any surgical instrument comes near me. But you know, this goes back to what we've been talking about all day - it's a life choice whether you want to just play music or do all the other stuff that can help sustain your career. In the past, I've let the other stuff do the job, manipulating the media to my own ends, but I don't want that any more. I don't want people camped at the end of my road again.


"But I would say that, as far as heroin is concerned, I've seen so many people erase huge chunks of their lives as a result of it... I just think it's a very dangerous drug for people to take."


You don't seem that bothered by the rumours, considering your vitriolic attacks on people you suspected were using it in the past.


"You mean Brett?" queries Damon. "Well, I do regret that and I've said, on many occasions, that I was wrong. But I'm not puritanical. I've been through a lot in the last few years - all the things the tabloids love. But I've never taken a lot of drugs. I'm one of life's moderates. I'm actually very lucky - I'm one of the few people I know that can take drugs then walk away from them.


"I agree with the whole debate that was kicked off by the Brian Harvey thing because he actually spoke for a huge number of people. There really isn't a huge problem with taking E every weekend - I used to do it. I don't do it any more, but I used to. But then again, I come from a very emotionally stable background and a 16-year-old hasn't got the experience I have. I... I just wish you hadn't asked me that question, really."


Weird. Damon is clearly far too healthy, alert and driven to be abusing any drug at the moment, let alone smack, the ultimate fool's choice. Yet he can't bring himself to give a straight 'No'. Oh well. They don't call him the Tony Blair of pop for nothing.



"It's brilliant, America. All you do is play all your punk rock songs and they love you. It took us eight years to figure that out. Mind you, this set we're doing now reminds me of being in Seymour - fast songs played aggressively with lots of spazzy dancing from me. The only difference is we're not f***ed up, pissed-up and 18 any more."


Damon Albarn is about to go onstage at Philadelphia Electric Factory. His mission: to use punk rock fury to scare the life out of the mall honeys and Britpop wannabes that constitute Blur's old US fanbase while thrilling their new MTV alterna-rock converts. Only a few Britpop chestnuts survive. The message? Never mind all that bollocks, here's the Essex Pistols!


And they're brilliant. The likes of 'Girls And Boys' and 'Stereotypes' actually benefit from the sonic rocket up their arse, while even the weirder songs from the new album finally begin to make sense. They even play 'She's So High' in a style that's alarmingly close to Oasis ("It IS an Oasis song!" Damon smirked earlier. "Just six years before they did it"). By the time they get to 'Song 2', the jock-friendly chorus of "Woo-hoo!"s is deafening and Blur have passed the first serious examination of this American campaign with flying - nay, hurtling - colours.


Afterwards, everyone is so excited they actually go out to a club - except for Damon who has one puff of a spliff, gibbers briefly about Paolo Maldini's imminent arrival at Stamford Bridge and then feels so giddy he has to go to bed. Aw, bless.


Meanwhile, those that do stay up late are treated to the unusual spectacle of an utterly sober Alex James heading off to a drum'n'bass club.


"Just because I'm not drinking doesn't mean I can't chase girls and make a fool of myself," he grins, sagely.



Despite the teetotalism breaking out around him, Damon is the only member of Blur to make breakfast the next morning.


"I wish I was going home today," he says fuzzily, eyeing your correspondent's plane ticket.


No, you don't.


"Well, no, I don't really," he admits. "After all, I do want to be in a position soon where I can say, 'The only thing we've got in common with Oasis is we're both doing great in America'."


Any day now, surely. Blur, this is American Air Traffic Control: you are officially cleared for take-off. Have a nice day now, y'all.
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-01-25 01:04 | interview

"We were business partners. That's what Blur became."

From the NME, 19 October 2002. Article by Sylvia Patterson.


Graham Coxon is wearing the biggest smile he has ever worn in the public domain. Certainly, it's a grin NME has never witnessed in over a decade of knowing the man, vaguely, through several interviews with Blur and the odd night-on-the-schmind in Camden. So much so, you find yourself staring at his teeth, not sure you've actually seen them before (good teeth, too, very big).


"Right now," he's saying, sipping a coffee, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights, "I feel like the guy at the end of 'The Shawshank Redemption'. Out of the shit-pipe and plopped into this rain water and it's, 'Uuuh!' Fantastic."


As the man said, "You can get busy livin', or you can get busy dyin'."


"Absolutely. That film is amazing, to see the restraint by which he goes about his business in prison."


And now you're working on your boat by the open sea. Completely free.


"Yeah. That's exactly what I am doing."


Graham, 33, looks fit, slim and well, wearing baggy-arsed jeans, a checked brown shirt, a dark brown suit jacket, two light blue pens clipped onto his pocket, skate-kid amber-gold through his dark brown hair. He looks you straight in the eye with his gigantic chestnut-brown eyes, something he never did before, because he couldn't, as the world's most permanently embarrassed person. We're in a café in Camden Town, home of a million tales called 'Graham From Blur's Gone Mad Again'; the tramp he gave £20 to for dancing in the street ("True, but I don't remember it"); trying to take people's trousers off, possibly gone gay ("I'd just get rather amorous! I did go through a phase of wanting to take my own clothes off, a lot"); carrying a cooked sausage in his pocket ("For one night, I got obsessed by Greek sausages, I threw it at a band and it got thrown back at me"); wearing a denim skirt in public, and on it goes. Last summer, he was socked in the jaw by a butcher on the high street, for attempting to liberate the meat from his stall.


"Fly, drumsticks, run for your life!" he guffaws. "Just being an idiot, really, nothing to be proud of. But I have been hit by a butcher wearing a denim skirt. A lot of people can't say that. People report these things because in a way they celebrate this madness. England loves its eccentrics, especially its weird eccentric off-the-rail rock stars."


But that's all over now. Graham hasn't had a drink since last November, when he checked into The Priory for a month, and hopes never to drink again. A "socially inadequate" person, skewed by "huge amounts of self-doubt", he'd spent a lifetime drinking for artificial confidence. Now, he's kicked the crutch away, no longer able to delude himself, "saying you're doing it for some reason: '(Theatrically) I'm drinking because I need to experience this darkness. That's f***ing killing me.'" He was saved, literally, by his friend Helen and ex-girlfriend Anna (mother of his two-and-a-half year old daughter, Pepper) who "grabbed me, sat me down and said, 'It's time to do something about this.'" It was his second time in rehab after a brief spell the previous March.


"They saw it more as depression than alcohol, so I got away with it that time," he says, in the matter-of-fact way addicts are. "But in November I thought, 'I can't hide from this any more, this bingeing, I can't stop.' I was getting very, very frightened. That I was gonna kill myself. That day when I sat down with my friends, I was in The Priory by four o'clock in the afternoon. Shitting myself."


What pushes a person to that 'it's now or never' limit?


"I've no idea. I have some idea. (Massive pause) When you feel like your soul is black. Or you haven't got a f***ing soul any more. And you look into the future and it's black as well. And you think, 'I don't really wanna live any more.'"


Last year, Graham split up with Anna but they remain good friends ("We're happier apart, it's not easy but deep down we're good people who love our daughter"). They're practically neighbours, and share their time with Pepper equally. Graham's fourth solo LP, 'The Kiss Of Morning', is by several dimensions his most confident and intensely personal; an emotional, frequently beautiful, often demented, folky, bluesy "little sketch-book" detailing loss, regret and hope: "There is light, definitely light, a way out."



The last song, 'Good Times', is an acoustic, piano'n'pedal steel heart-breaker, genuinely moving, a simple song about accepting there were good times and accepting they're gone. It's about Anna, but it could be about Blur. These days Graham is "a total Luddite", records on ancient equipment, no computers, and considers himself an amateur.


"There's no way I would want to be a professional," he says. "Professionalism is a total lie."


For 12 years in Blur, Graham was the accidental pop star, the awkward one, the musically discordant foil to Damon's pop sensibilities: "Playing live, I'd exercise my anger on this pop music. I wanted to endanger it, almost." By 21, he'd achieved his dream, from when he was nine years old, to be in a band, on 'Top Of The Pops'.


"From then on," he says, "the whole of my 20s was wondering what the next dream was. And that was the big problem. I didn't have any dreams except for some peace and stability. And that was impossible."


His 28th birthday, he spent agonising about turning 30.


"You think you're gonna be old, ugly, past it," he says. "I was going, 'I might as well be 30, I can't become 30!' In some ways, the last five years have been about turning 30. It's crazy to me now. And not accepting it caused me a lot of sorrow and frustration. I'm 34 next, for f***'s sake. 40. I'm 40! I'm f***ing 40. I'll be living in a trailer, singing about spuds."


As far back as the early '90s, before Britpop and the success which nearly broke them all, the members of Blur were punching each other in the face, out of their heads, in America.


"It's hugely complicated," says Graham. "Twelve years of all sorts of things. Honesty and communication is very important if you wanna keep a group healthy and Blur never had that. Never."


You put a very good front on it, the lot of you.


"Well, we were having fun, y'know," he muses. "But it became work very quickly. It just does. You sign to a record company and it becomes work. When we were punching each other in the face, it was turning into some mad job and it wasn't funny any more. I was a mad-arsed brat, basically. But I wasn't the only loony drinking a lot around Blur."


A lot of the blame for the current situation has been put on your 'erratic' behaviour.


"Hmm."


But you've been erratic before. And the guys always stood by you. So what changed?


"I think they got more... serious about what Blur was in a more professional, commercial way," he says, "and I guess I don't have much respect for professional and commercial. Blur and me shifted. We were always shifting but perhaps that was one shift too far this time."


This May, the long-sober Graham turned up at the studio less than two weeks into recording Blur's seventh album, and was asked to see Blur's manager.


"And I was dismissed from the studio, basically."


You were sacked?


"You could see it as being sacked," he says. "Sacked is a funny word. I guess... dismissed. I was told that they didn't want me in the studio. And that was the end of it. I thought, 'Bloody hell.' It was a bit of a shock. So I got some legal advice. And I'm bloody glad I did. If I'd known this was how they were feeling when I was in the studio, there's no way I would've been there."


You didn't know they felt that way?


"No I didn't. Last time I'd spoken to them it was all smiles and 'See you on Monday.'"


But these are your buddies you grew up with.


"Yeah... y'know... I can't say too much, with the legal stuff. But you know, it's just the truth."


It's inconceivable that they wouldn't talk to you themselves.


"It was to me. I would've preferred that. I think I deserved more. But if that's how they wanted to deal with it, I have to respect that."


The time will come when you're in the same room as them again. Are you dreading it?


"I am a bit. 'Cos it's gonna be embarrassing."


Like being in a room with three ex-wives.


"Yeah. Heh heh. Yeah it is! Oh, I'm glad they're the ex-wives. (Camply) Ex-husbands, actually. It's divorce. It is divorce. It's the same thing as divorce. And all the Blur children are going, 'What's happened to our parents?'"


Do you consider those three to be your friends?


"No."


Graham insists that he didn't have a problem with Norman Cook.


"I've got nothing against Norman. Jesus, I thought it was just him and Damon having drunken arguments about dance music, but maybe my shyness was mistaken for some kind of attitude."


Neither did he have a problem with Gorillaz.


"It's just contrived and pointlessly commercial, but then I'm an old fogey."


The new Blur album he says, is "very different, very eclectic, traditional stuff then lots of ideas and suddenly you hear this guitar and it's fantastic. Heh heh! I'm on four songs, but I don't know if they'll be on the album."



He's now looking forward "to seeing Blur live. I've never seen Blur live. Maybe they'll be brilliant without me," he says. "I don't think the story's over with them. They'll carry on. Personnel is now... secondary to what Blur is."


It's tragic, though, after a lifetime, not even to have any friendship.


"Well, they haven't particularly acted like my friend," says Graham, after a lengthy pause. "I don't think they acted as friends would. I probably haven't for years. It's kind of good I don't have to pretend any more. To like... certain people. I think there was a lot of pretending to be friends. I remember Dave said years ago, 'If we weren't in a group together we wouldn't be friends.' We were all (feigns hurt) 'Dave?!' But he's f***ing right."


Were you really never friends? You called Damon your "musical twin".


"Yeah, but in the end we were business partners. Basically. And that's the f***ing truth. That's what Blur became as a band."


Is that what they are?


"I don't see how else it could be."


You wonder why they're bothering. They don't need the money.


"Maybe they do."


They don't have anything to prove, particularly.


"Maybe they do. And I don't feel I have to prove anything to anybody any more. Maybe that was the problem all along."


So you don't actually like these people any more?


"Blur? I really don't know whether I know them any more. It got so complicated. I'm not sure we actually, really, even know each other any more. At all."


Today's Graham has few burdens, feels the breeze of "freedom", boss of his own Transcopic label, delighted that "I don't have to do what record companies tell me." He's bought a home in Kent, somewhere to escape to from Camden. The self-consciousness now manageable.


"I still get it," he says. "I still can't stand cameras being pointed at me. I'm just better. I couldn't look anyone in the eye because I was a shitty person. Now I don't feel like a piece of shit. I'm really happy. Maybe the last time I felt this clear-headed was when I was eight or nine."


He's all excited, now, is Graham. His PR has brought the artwork for 'The Kiss Of Morning', hand-drawn by Graham, a child-like landscape, somewhere in space. He bounds over, picks it up, holds it for the very first time.


"This is the universe, man... a sunny day... trees... light... silver clouds... planets. I like planets... there's a booklet too (also self-illustrated)... a bird with a love letter... a fairy... looking a bit downtrodden? Well, it's carrying a very heavy pencil..."


And what's this here (on the back sleeve, in tiny type): it says 'File under psychiatric'?


"Oh god," he blinks, "they kept that on. It was a little joke. Well, they used to say 'File under psychedelic', in the olden days. Now it's 'File under psychiatric'."
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-01-25 01:03 | interview

"WE'RE MORE THAN JUST THE NEXT BIG THING!"

They've gatecrashed the charts, their gigs are near-riots and they've done it all themselves. Arctic Monkeys mania is sweeping the nation...and it's right mental!

from NME, 29 October 2005
WORDS: Tim Jonze PHOTOGRAPHS: Dean Chalkley


There's a riot goin' on - right in the middle of the Astoria. A couple of guys have bashed into each other during the pre-gig soundtrack and now they're hungry for blood. Insults are traded. Fists start flailing. A few more people get swept in and start landing punches and kicks. This could break into a full-scale riot if someone doesn't do something soon.

KABOOM! Suddenly, a roar so deafening you'd think The Beatles had just arrived for their comeback gig. With John and George resurrected on guitars. And God playing keyboards. Backwards. Everyone swings towards four skinny lads onstage. The first riff cranks up and nothing else matters. Scrap? What scrap? The same guys who wanted to rip put each other's eyeballs have now got their arms around each other...


Once in a while, there comes along a band who unite a generation - a band who sum up what it is to be young, lost, broke and British. The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, The Libertines...Arctic Monkeys might tremble at the prospect, but they're that kind of band. Hailing from Sheffield's healthy indie scene, they've got the gang mentality, the cocksure swagger, the ability to sum up a young lifetime's torment in one neat line. No wonder that by the time you read this, they'll already be proper chart stars. The likes of Kaiser Chiefs might make great tunes to throw yourself around an indie disco to, but Arctic Monkeys are something else entirely - they're a band you can believe in.

Want proof? Check the scenes at London's Astoria, where the band have arrived for the fourth sold-out date of their UK tour. It's a gig that's been upgraded due to demand. Twice. Outside, tickets are changing hands for over £100. When NME hands our spare ticket to a fan she looks like she might burst into tears.

"They mean everything," gabbles Tom, 16, as he queues up. "You can feel the love in the room! Everyone's together! Everyone's united! Everyone knows all the words!"

Before he can finish we're gabbles by Alicia, 16, and her gang of Monkeys fanatics.

"Alex Turner is the best lyricist since Morrissey! He tells the truth, about getting chucked out of clubs and prostitutes. Who else talks about that?"

And the gig itself? A blur of crowd-surfing, singalongs and mass pogoing right to the back of the venue. People are taking pictures with their phones, just to prove to their grandkids that they were at that gig. It's something the band have gotten used to- ever since their first show at The Grapes in Sheffield saw people going berserk from the off. It pains us to do this lads, but Arctic Monkeys are - deep breath - The Next Big Thing...

"I like to think we're more than just the nest hype band," reasons Alex Turner in his Sheffield rehearsal space a few days earlier. "We were striking a nerve and having a fair bit of success before all that started. So the hype's not just hype - it's chasing something that's actually real."

Did you ever guess things would work out like this?

"Obviously you can never really expect it on this scale, but..." He breaks into a cheeky grin: "I think we always knew we were alright, like."

What's been your favourite 'fucking-hell-this-is-getting-weird' moment?

Alex: "Noel [Gallagher] were talking about us on radio. That was weird, that he even knew who we were. He said, 'I'm not having that name for starters!' We were pissing ourselves! That's what everyone says. But when that many people slag you off, you have to stick with it, don't you?"

So why have you struck a nerve?

Andy [Nicholson, bass]: "Good-lookin' bass player."
Matt [Helders, drums]: "Good sense of humour!"
Andy: "Twat!"


The story of Arctic Monkeys forming isn't a simple one. It is, in fact, a very simple one. They met at school, became mates and realised that being in a band beat being bored. The lads fret that this story isnz7t sexy enough, but they're wrong. All the best British bands - from The Beatles to Oasis - formed through firm friendships.

"I always feel we're disappointing people when they ask about how we got together," laughs Alex, "especially because everyone's always like, 'I can really tell there's a lot of pain in your words.' Sorry, but it's not like that."

Jamie 'Cookie' Cook [guitar]: "Someone asked us once if we were outcasts as school and I were like, 'No, we had loads of mates!' We're not like these American bands whining on about being bullied. They're all 25 now anyway - get over it!"

You don't need a history of eating disorders or a habit of scratching 'Ritchy' into your arm with a rusty compass to realise why Arctic Monkeys are special. You just need to have grown up through the '90s and realised that being young's not always that sweet. You don't always get with the good-looking girls ('I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor'). There's always a bigger brute with a Vauxhall Nova waiting to pinch your girlfriend ('Bigger Boys And Stolen Sweethearts'). And there's not much glamour in getting your head shoed-in on a Saturday night ('A Certain Romance'). While Alex Kapranos busies himself namechecking Aleksandr Rodchenko, Arctic Monkeys write songs for you and me. For the people who've grown up in towns where "there's only music so that there's new ringtones". For people who aren't from New York City. They're a band who tell you about your life. A band who won't, as one rise man once noted, give you any fake tales of San Francisco.

"Most bands these days probably just write lyrics because they sound good without thinking," says Alex. "But I don't want to be a band like Kaiser Chiefs. I think if we're next year's Kaiser Chiefs, we'll quit!"

What type of frontman are you?

"I like to think I walk the tightrope between Mike Skinner and Jarvis Cocker..."

Because the songs are all about real life?

"They're all from real experience. Except for the early demos, which were a load of bollocks. But I worked in a venue which gave me the inspiration for 'Fake Tales Of San Francisco'. And songs like 'When The Sun Goes down' are first-hand from living in Sheffield."

You see prostitutes on the streets a lot, then?

Alex: "Oh aye, you do round here. We had a practice room down the road and you'd see them all the time. That line about 'subtle propositions' is about when Andy got accosted on his way there. She said, 'That guitar bag looks heavy.'"

Andy: "I were like, 'What? Do you do all sorts of things? Cos I've got an amp over there if you wanna roadie.'"

It was a couple of guitars, given to Alex and Jamie as Christmas presents, that initially spurred the band into action. Fancying a piece of the action, Andy and Matt jumped onboard. Initially Alex gabbled any old nonsense over the songs, but after a while he let the others into a secret - he was a lyrical whizzkid. Such skills came from a youth spent listening to hip-hop with his mates - from Roots Manuva to the stuff on the Rawkus Records and Lyricist Lounge compilations. They'd also shunned Britpop's tired white-boy playlists by getting into the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Parliament. In fact, before Jamie joined the band, armed with some choice Smiths, Oasis and QOTSA records, the band were way funkier. Jamie stopped them becoming Jamiroquai, but there's an undeniable Roses-like groove that remains.

With the band all in one place, there was just one small task ahead: get massive. But how did it happen so fast? To put it simply, they got their music out there - handing out demos at gigs to anyone who wanted them. It wasn't long before the demos were plastered all over the internet. The band are clearly shrewd marketing bods as well as ace musicians, right?

All: "We didn't do that! We didn't even have the internet!"
Alex: "Other people did all the online stuff for us. We thought rather than send our demos to record labels, let's just give them to fans and make the gigs better."

So when did you realise that something strange was happening?

Alex: "It were a gig at The Forum in Sheffield. People were cheering from the minute we went onstage. It were a right good gig until this fight broke out between a load of bouncers."

Bouncers?

Matt: "They'd been out on some bouncers Christmas do! It were like the ultimate fighting championship. You could hear people shouting, 'Gimme a leg up - he's getting his teeth kicked in!'"

From this point on, Monkeys Mania sprang into action. When they played The Boardwalk at the start of this year, everyone knew the words to songs that were just demos. Alex was so taken aback he burst into hysterics onstage and had to start again. An unannounced gig on a wet Monday night in Wakefield ended up being "fucking rammed" with footprints on the roof from all the crowdsurfing. Even during these early days, the band spotted familiar faces. Fans from Aberdeen were makong eight-hour drives to see them in Yorkshire; a hardcore crew from Nottingham were turning up at every show.

Matt: "The guys from Nottingham turn up with a bag of wine and a straw, so thsy can crowdsurf and sip at the same time!"

Are they in the, ahem, Arctic Army?

All: "No! That's you lot stirring things up that is!"
Alex: " And it's not Monkeys Mafia either, before you get any ideas..."

It's hardly surprising that, come May, every label in the land would have pleasured a tramp for their signature. Their first London gigs saw them turning prominent A&R men away at the door. Why invite the industry, when you're already got sold-out shows? After singing to Franz's label Domino things only got hotter - with this year's slot at the Carling Weekend: Reading And Leeds Festivals turning them into bona fide rock stars. Naturally for a bunch of northern lads, their mates couldn't stop laughing.

All: "They take the piss out of us!"
Alex: "My mate Pete were caught the other day with an 'Alex Turner Is God' badge on. I thought, 'You cheeky bastard!'. And when our mate Clarkey sees us he'll scream, 'Oh my God! It's Arctic Monkeys!' At least they let us in the Leadmill for free now."

Is that the indie equivalent of getting the keys to the city?

Alex: "Aye, it is."
Cookie: "We never use it, though, it's just our fucking mates. They had 12 people turning up as guitarists from Arctic Monkeys the other week!"
Alex: "Weird thing is, it cant't get any more successful than it did on our first tour, when everyone were stagediving. It can only get bigger."

It's time for one last question. Arctic Monkeys have gone from underground heroes to the most talked-about band in the UK - all in the space of 12 months. So...where do you think you'll be a year from now? Selling out Knebworth for five nights? Ending famine in Africa?

Andy: "Dropped!"
Matt: "On the scraphead!"
Alex: "With loads more people slagging us off..."
Andy: "...and saying this new band who sound like us are loads better!"

That's a pessimistic viewpoint...

"We'll be the same as we've always been," concludes Alex. "You just worry sometimes about other people's perceptions changing. That's why it's so special that we had our followers way before people started writing about us. Because ultimately, next year will be the true test. If we're still intact when people stop banging on about us, then we'll know it really meant something."

Believe hype? Arctic Monkeys don't need the hype.
[PR]
by scummy | 2008-01-24 14:55 | interview

memo


by scummy

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