“It’s like a baby born in a car park; it took 20 minutes and, oh my God, it’s beautiful” – Blur sit down with HUNGER to discuss ‘The Ballad of Darren’

As the Britpop heavyweights' tour continues, we take a moment with them...

“Even when we actually split up, it didn’t take us this long to get our shit together,” says Alex James, sitting in a newly done-up barn, smoking cigarettes and keeping the same hairdo he’s had since the early days of Blur out of his eyes. It’s taken eight years, to be precise, for arguably the biggest (or rather longest-lasting) Britpop band to ‘get their shit together’ and make a comeback. Of course, life gets in the way. Whether it’s cheese-making, Japanese operas, that small venture known as Gorillaz, or solo records pretty much across the board, Blur may have been on the back burner for Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree and, of course, Alex James. Until now, that is. 

By the time 50% of the band speak with HUNGER to talk about their newest record – an album of self-reflection laced with early Blur nostalgia – they are still riding high on the news that their Wembley show sold out in minutes. Naturally, a second date was put on sale, and the excitement of a new offering continued to effervesce after the release of their single, ‘The Narcissist’.

Did they even play the single on their first night at Wembley? Who can remember. Their newest track at the time, ‘St. Charles Square’, was the opener, which was understandably met with a few blank faces, flicking through the Blur collection in their minds wondering if it was some missed track on The Magic Whip or 13. It had only been out for a matter of days and much changed after hearing the opening riff of ‘There’s No Other Way’. That isn’t to say everyone was just there for the hits and to see Phil Daniels swagger out onto the stage in the middle of some theatrical spat with Albarn. But Blur is a band that only comes around every 5-8 years, like a meteor shower in the shape of four middle aged men still carrying with them the essence and heart of a Britpop group that continues to strike chords with new listeners of all ages.

It seems for the majority of the band that a new record wasn’t necessarily a burning desire. It wasn’t until the possibility of Wembley – “some of [their] biggest shows yet”, according to James – came up that the band piled back into the studio, pale with doubt that an album, and a good one, might come to fruition. But a record as fulfilling and as Blur as The Ballad of Darren (artwork by Martin Parr, no less) was never going to miss. The four still gel like a band that hasn’t had years apart, doing crosswords in their very big houses in the country or penning new solo tracks. They still take the piss out of one another, they still like each other, which is rare for a group that has been around for as long as they have. 

Here Coxon and James break down just why Blur are back, and why it took so long…

Ry Gavin: So, why now for the new record? 

Graham Coxon: I don’t know. It could be any year. No one was doing much. We had a few spare months. We thought there’s some shows booked in. We’d like to play some new stuff. So we went in with a few demos and recorded an album. It’s weird. It is like, why? Why anytime? Why bother? There’s things to say. I suppose Blur might get together every now and then to make something because there’s something to say about our environment or ourselves or where we find ourselves in the present. It’s as good a time as any other.

Alex James: Even when we actually split up, it didn’t take us this long to get our shit together. For me it’s always kind of like, why not? The thing about Blur that makes it special is that the four of us spent so many years doing it for hours and hours every day, day in, day out, week in, week out, for 15 years. In December we all went to Damon [Albarn]’s studio for a meeting to see if we fancied it. We went in and we played a few songs. It was like, wow, this is amazing. We put Wembley on sale and it sold out in two minutes flat. The first week of the year we just piled into Damon’s studio and started looking at new stuff and it just happened so quickly and effortlessly. The whole process was joyous. 

Damon Albarn said that the album is like a mirror to like into or a window to look through. When you realised you’d be making another record, what did you want to focus on for it? 

AJ: I would’ve been happy just to get back together and play the songs and have thousands of people sing along, and that would’ve been worthwhile. So I suppose at first it’s slightly daunting, because if we are going to make another record at this stage, it’s got to be fucking good. I suppose there’s quite a lot of pressure on. It wasn’t like I was gagging to make another record until we actually started doing it, when it became a very enjoyable process. If you can express yourself in some way, it makes you feel slightly less shit about everything. It’s satisfying. And what I love about what we’ve done is that it’s not trying too hard. I think that’s the great gift of experience… It gives you the confidence to do less, actually. 

Credit: Reuben Bastienne

It’s simplistic in a very effective way…

AJ: In many ways it’s a really simple record. It’s stripped back. There’s not much embellishment or frills on it. It’s just the sound of four guys who have known each other for a very long time letting loose, and it feels very relaxed and evolved. For any relationship to work, not just a working relationship, personal relationships as well, in order to endure with any meaning you have to be capable of surprising each other, occasionally. It happens with my wife sometimes, or my kids, actually! I think everyone in the band really surprised me this time with what they’ve learned. Everybody’s got better at playing and singing. I was expecting it to hurt more, for it to be more of a struggle, but it was actually like a baby born in a car park; it took 20 minutes and, oh my God, it’s beautiful. 

Graham, what about you? What did you want to focus on for the record? 

GC: I just see what Damon’s trying to talk about or try to guess what he’s talking about before, usually long before he’s written lyrics, and play what’s appropriate. For me, it’s sort of a test of my musical cognition really. I’ve had years and years having to back up whatever I think Damon is trying to say and also stretch myself a little bit and have fun within the chords and the structuring of some songs. I suppose there were things I wanted to approach in a way that I used to in a certain space. Since maybe 30 years after Modern Life is Rubbish and thinking there are some sounds I made years ago that I wanted to revisit a little bit.

When you say you have had to back Damon up, did that shift at all in any way for this record? 

GC: Not really, no. I guess it seemed to me quite quick that he was going to be more emotionally open on this album. I don’t know whether that makes me play more emotionally or not. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference. I need to make sure that with each song that, if you see it as an aircraft, what I do with guitars and backing vocals and all the rest of it, are preparing the landing strip so that his vocals and the words have a good, palatable place to sit and that will help, like the capsule that the drugs go into to make it easier to swallow. But, it’s just chords in the end… 

Alex, the beautiful thing that has come out of something quite spontaneous is a very rare thing… as you say, like a baby born in a carpark. 

AJ: Absolutely. I said to the drummer before we went on the other day, ‘fucking hell, this is easy’. He said, ‘you’ve been doing it for 35 years, mate’. I suppose the fact that we don’t do it very often means that we are all really up for it. It was all we did for 15 years or so. We must have rehearsed more than a hundred songs. And we’re really mixing it up. It’s a lot of songs, but it does keep us on our toes musically. And it keeps you engaged, which is really important because Damon’s got a famously short attention span, and if we can’t keep him interested he’d be off writing another fucking opera.

But when you aren’t together, and you in particular, Alex, are away doing something pretty different… 

AJ: I think music’s a big part of all our lives. We’ve realised that Blur’s something that none of us could ever walk away from. I think it’s a terrible shame that most bands end up hating each other. The divorce rate with bands is like 99.9%. All my favourite bands hate each other now. I can’t see Johnny Marr and Morrissey ever getting back together and Bernard and Hooky are strained. It’s a terrible thing. I think if success is going to come to you in the music industry, it tends to come quite quickly at quite an early age, and that can give you a second act problem. What do you do with the rest of your life? I didn’t choose for Blur to stop being a full-time thing when it did, but I think probably spiritually it was the best thing that could have happened for all of us. We were young enough at that point to have enough energy to pursue other things and. All of us have managed to have a second act. Blur isn’t the thing that defines us exclusively. That’s probably the reason why we can come back to it with open hearts and just enjoy it because we’ve all got other stuff going on.

Credit: Kevin Westenberg

Graham, you said that you wanted to make more beautiful sounds with this album… 

GC: They definitely weren’t songs where a riff was going to just be easy to come by. Or maybe I’m just not that sort of guitar player anymore. I was using different guitars, different effects. But it was so thick with music and I think Damon had written most of them on piano, so harmonically they were denser and richer. I think really I took more of a supporting role along with some of the keyboards and every now and then doing a little bit of lead. But the thing is, that’s what I’ve always done. So I’ve always just done what I’ve done on this record and every Blur record. Each song really demands its own set of approaches.

That chimes quite nicely with what Alex said about it feeling quite effortless? 

GC: It would for him! He only has to play the bloody bass [laughter]. I suppose what I meant about playing things that were a little prettier – I didn’t wanna be decorative necessarily – I just wanted to accentuate the beauty of some of the chords. It was hard work and I had two and a half weeks of just guitars, maybe playing every song a hundred bloody times. That’s because I get fussier in my old age and everything I play has to really count. Thankfully, stuff like ‘The Narcissist’ isn’t very hard. I thank myself for not getting too complicated on that every time we play it live. 

Alex, one final question. What’s a story that encapsulated Blur’s heyday? 

AJ: You know, it’s hard to pick a heyday, man. These are the biggest fucking shows we’ve ever done. I suppose the times that you really remember with the most fondness is the first time something happens. Going way back, the first time we really smashed it. I was still at college. I got my French language exam results and I got 2% and it didn’t look like my academic career was progressing very well. I met the guys in Kings Cross and we got in a hire van and drove to Dudley. I didn’t even know where it was. There was a guy who was very pleased to see us and he kept bringing us crates of Newcastle Brown, which we kept drinking. People started arriving and they all seemed happy to see us as well. We went on and it was the first time that we really smashed it. And that man was Darren, who the album’s named after. We met him that night. So, it’s the first time you heard your song on the radio when you weren’t expecting it, the first time you saw your picture in the paper, the first time you really smashed it, the first time someone threw their bra at you. What a thing to be able to play music with all guys that I’ve been doing it with since I was fucking 19-years-old. But I wouldn’t want to do it all the time [laughter]. 


Listen to The Ballad of Darren here

WriterRy Gavin
Banner Image CreditKevin Westenberg