Interview: Blur on healing rifts, teenage fans and ‘The Magic Whip’

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They’re one of the most celebrated British bands of the last quarter-century, both a critical and commercial success, and they’ve recently released their first album in 12 years. Ahead of their show at HKCEC, Blur speak to Time Out about recording The Magic Whip in Hong Kong, the city itself and finally growing up

The reason The Magic Whip has been hailed as a rousing return for British music legends Blur is apparent within the first minute of the album’s opener, Lonesome Street. It’s a foot-stompingly assured slice of Park Life-esque familiarity, tempered and made new – the swagger of Albarn’s early musings, remoulded with a signature Coxon riff egging on prose about provincial English living and pride in suburban mundanity. Classic Blur then. 

It’s a fitting intro to an album that opens out to embrace the changes the band’s undergone in the 12 years since their last release. It’s the same sound that made them so popular, but with some added gravitas – the album tackling issues from mass globalisation to the band’s own fractured past. But, it’s the astounding New World Towers that Hongkongers should have on repeat – beautifully encapsulating the city’s unique aesthetic – it’s a reverential sister song to Gorillaz’ haunting, arguably confrontational Hong Kong, swapping musical allegory on Chinese industrialisation for that feeling that only Hong Kong’s skyline can give you.
Yes, our beloved city has played a heavy role in the creation of The Magic Whip and the long sought-after coming together again of this legendary group. But ask them what keeps Blur going, and you can see why the media finds them such contrary buggers...

What keeps you together?
Damon Albarn: Spending as much time as possible apart. 

The new record is great. Has making and playing it brought you closer again?
DA: I feel that what we started in 2009, as a sort of public way of repairing aspects of our relationship, is now complete with this album. There isn’t that tension within the band any more. It’s a very specific kind of chemistry the four of us have.
Alex James: It’s really weird to spend your whole life defined by something that happened to you when you were young. It happens to sportsmen. I thought I’d played my last Cup Final.
Graham Coxon: Whatever you say about it, it’s magic to make people jump around and smile. The only time it goes wrong is when you think: Graham, you’re 46 – you look slightly ridiculous. 

Are you pleased with it?
DA: Yeah it’s a good record. I had sort of a strange relationship with it in a sense that I did that week in Hong Kong where I just – it was such a spontaneous thing – I just dialled up stuff from my iPad and we worked from that – stuff I hadn’t necessarily written for anything in particular, and we did 40 hours of recording. Then I abandoned it, essentially, and it was only because of Graham’s dedication that it was crafted into a record. Then obviously
I had to take charge of it again.

Did you?
DA: Yeah, I had to because it only had sort of stuff that I’d sung in Hong Kong, which was about 20 percent coherent, and the rest was just sort of me making it up as I went along which is always a great start, but you can’t… It got to a point, [where] I wanted it to be articulate, so I went back to Hong Kong, which is luckily on my way home from Australia. It’s a town – and a part of the world – which I have got quite a strong emotional attachment to because I’ve been there a lot. And it was just an interesting challenge to make something coherent out of the city, and I like doing that – like I did before – and it was like ‘Right, I’m only going to allow myself each three hours I have before the show to make each song and not go back to them or anything.’ And on this occasion it was ‘I am only going to write in context of Hong Kong and see if I can make it a story out of that.’

Despite obvious nods to the band’s most famous albums, there’s a more considered, more proggier sound to a lot of the tracks on The Magic Whip...
Dave Rowntree: Every album we’ve put out we’ve tried to make sound different. We’ve found that changing small things in the beginning can have a butterfly effect. We were in an entirely different environment, the language, the culture is different – all these things permeated the album – the sound, the structure. 

Expanding on that… how did Hong Kong come to influence the album?
DR: The contrast of the place is overwhelming – the dense urban areas and the rural areas, shockingly beautiful hills and the temples and cable cars. Neon is something people are so used to in Hong Kong but people aren’t used to it elsewhere, little details like that we tried to put in to the album and in to the cover.

How do you compare Hong Kong to London?
DA: Hong Kong’s a coastal town, [London’s] got the Thames, but Hong Kong… You’ve got the outlying islands that have amazing ferries that are constantly in between one or many islands. And then you have the walkways that allow you to never touch the pavement, the escalators instead of stairs on streets… It’s very different, much more fluid. And I like the fact that it’s a little speck in the bigger picture of mainland China that’s been allowed this kind of slightly decadent character. And its history – it’s fascinating. I’ve travelled around China a lot too, and I’ve been to Korea a lot. It’s funny, when I first went to Beijing, I thought that was a pretty foreign city; then I came back to Beijing after Pyongyang on my way home, and it seemed so familiar and sort of decipherable. Pyongyang’s really a trip, there’s nowhere else on Earth quite like it.

Does it feel weird bringing all these foreign-inspired songs back to fans in Britain?
DA: It doesn’t really matter does it? As long as there’s a heart, that’s the most important thing, and there is a heart in this record, so I don’t think it matters. It’s done spectacularly well in Hong Kong… 

Did that surprise you?
DA: Yeah. It’s sort of unheard of to be number one in Hong Kong, because it’s a very Cantonese-centric market there. It’ll be interesting to see what reception the live concert’s going to get because Hong Kong’s really taken the album to heart. 

Do you still get nervous ahead of big shows like the recent British Summer Time gig in London’s Hyde Park?
DA: Not nervous. It’s more about being physically fit enough to do it as it needs to be done. Before 2009, I was heavier. I’d been doing Gorillaz and it hadn’t been necessary to be very public. I wasn’t overweight, but I was a couple of sizes bigger than I am now. Since then I’ve trained constantly – a whole variety of things from boxing to cycling. 

Hyde Park’s becoming your second home...
AJ: Well, there’s particular resonance with Hyde Park for Blur, because of our connections with London. Blur are the quintessential London band, really. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how blessed we are in England, a tiny fucking country, to have one of the best cities in the world. Anything can happen to you in London. Graham was the first person I saw when I arrived: that’s the absolute truth. The best guitar player of a generation, getting out of his parents’ car.’

Graham took the lead in putting this new record together. Was it difficult to hand over control to him, Damon?
DA: No, I was delighted. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for Graham to really reinstate his position, which – as far as I was concerned – was as my partner-in-crime in Blur.

But it seemed from your recent slot on The Graham Norton Show that you’re really keen to take a back seat in the band these days. You barely said a word!
DA: Well that was fucking hilarious. The stars from X-Men or whatever it was [Avengers, in fact] , were delayed because of their premiere. I put my feet up, had a couple of drinks and watched the football until suddenly they were like: “You’re on telly again.” When I got on to the couch I realised that I was drunker than I thought I was. Noel [Gallagher]’s really good in those situations. However awkward, he can always conjure up something that dissipates any tension. Whereas I just absorb all the tension and manifest it until it gets more awkward.

Despite TV clangers, your popularity never seems to wane. You’ve got a whole new generation of fans now, too.
GC: Wherever we go in the world, it’s like they’re still there: they’ve sort of been cryogenically stored and rolled out again. But it isn’t: it’s people that are 20 years younger who have discovered the group and like it.
DA: Maybe it’s because we disappeared for a decade, so we were frozen. There’s a good balance: in some parts of the world our fans are exclusively teenagers.
AJ: I think that was part of why we thought: Well, maybe we’ve actually still got something to say.

Alex, you’re a father of five. Do you shudder if any of them say they want to be a rock star?
AJ: No, it’s not the worst thing they say. One of the boys taught the youngest one to say: “I’ll bite you on the penis,” so we’re having to deal with that at the moment. She’s three. It’s actually really funny when she says it.

Damon, you’ll soon be premiering your Alice in Wonderland musical  – how’s that shaping up?
DA: Well, Wonder.land is a bit of a nightmare at the moment. [Director] Rufus Norris had to miss a rehearsal recently because he was at the Tony awards. I’m really excited about it – it’s very ambitious and the costumes are insane. I just hope that we get enough done in time.

Dave, you’re a lawyer. How do your employers feel about you going off to be a rock star again?
DR: I have to bribe them with guestlist tickets.

 Finally, can you pinpoint exactly when you became an adult?
DR: About 40, probably, when the band wound down. There’s no sense in which being an adult is compatible with 100,000 people having bought a ticket to see you and somebody walking around behind you asking: “Do you want a dessert?”
DA: It’s questionable whether I am an adult.  

Blur Wed Jul 22, HKCEC. Tickets: $480-$1,080; hkticketing.com.

SEE ALSO: Blur documentary: 'The Magic Whip - Made in Hong Kong'

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