blur: “It’s only when we get back together that you go wow, people really do care”

Some bands exist outside of the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day noise. With their latest big return, BLUR aren’t just sailing the breeze on the nostalgia circuit, though. With a run of chaotically brilliant tiny shows under their belt, plus a pair of massive headline dates at London’s Wembley Stadium, they’re about to drop their ninth album, ‘The Ballad of Darren’. Sounding the best they have in a decade or more, there’s life in the old dogs yet.

Words: Jamie MacMillan.
Photos: Reuben Bastienne Lewis.
Live photos: Phoebe Fox, Tom Pallant.

The rumours had been swirling round for a while, but a fair amount of The Internet Has Broken still greeted blur’s ‘surprise’ announcement of their return towards the end of 2022. When frontman Damon Albarn hinted in an interview a few months back that “2023 is my year”, maybe we could have guessed that he was talking about more than the confirmation of a huge Wembley show or two. However, the news of a ninth studio album, ‘The Ballad Of Darren’, was altogether more surprising and threw up one of the most important questions of our time… who the hell is Darren?

We’ve been here before, of course. This latest return is the third ‘surprise, we’re back!’ moment of the last few decades. But this time feels different. Their comeback single ‘The Narcissist’ revealed a band fully at ease with themselves, their age and their place in the world. But as the handful of warm-up shows they played in relatively tiny venues showed, this would be far from a simple trip down memory lane or a money-grabbing exercise. This was A Proper Band Again, enjoying each other’s company amidst the grime and sweat of playing in small rooms once more. Grinning and laughing throughout each show, it’s apparent that being back together on stage means much more than you would expect with a band this far along a career not short on high points. Being in blur meant being in the full glare of paparazzi flashlights and on the front pages of every newspaper. Even the serious ‘grown-up’ ones. Think your current favourite band has a lot to deal with? These guys ended up on every TV news programme in the country just because they released a single in the same week as a rival band. 

Why, though, Dear Reader, should you care that blur are back? The last few years have seen the Nostalgia Train billowing out smoke like never before, and they’re not the only ones to return from the Age Of Britpop. Jarvis Cocker has been wiggling his hips all over the big stages with Pulp for a few weeks now, another band that soundtracked an entire generation before seeming to disappear as quickly as they entered the national consciousness. Meanwhile, the rumours and shadow of an Oasis reunion have been hanging over us ever since they first fell out – at least until Liam opens his mouth on Twitter to provoke another ‘nope’ from Noel in an unending cycle of brotherly ‘love’. That brief period of music and culture in the mid-90s has become almost a tiresome cliché, such is the frequency those who lived to see it (and can still remember it) insist on dragging it back up. The story of how Britpop emerged from a period of musical angst and despair, riding hard on the grungy heels of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, has been told a thousand times over. “’British pop, that will never work!’” bassist Alex James laughs, recalling the initial reactions to the world that blur’s breakthrough second album, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, was born into. Full of eccentricities and weird characters, the record set the musical tone for the next five years and beyond. 

As well as defining an era musically, blur, at the very least, renewed, if not reset, the template for every band you love that came after. Live shows that permanently teetered on the very edge of chaos led by a frontman who was always getting himself in trouble during interviews? Sure sounds familiar to at least a couple of groups these days, while Carl and Pete’s Libertines bromance wandered into view following the familiar footsteps of Damon and guitarist Graham Coxon. Speaking your lyrics over a bouncy indie banger instead of singing them? It’s got nothing to do with your Vorsprung durch Technik. But let’s be honest, it all comes down to the songs. ‘Parklife’, ‘The Universal’, ‘Song 2’, ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘Beetlebum’, and yes, even ‘Country House’ – they came to define what is an Indie Banger as well as being the soundtrack to an age when guitar bands ruled the roost. So yeah, when a group as important and era-defining come back with some top new tunes, it’s worth getting very excited indeed.

The only thing faster than the big bang-like explosion of Britpop was its rapid collapse a few years later. For blur, the good times initially ended in 2003, a full stop Alex once described as “the best thing we ever did.” While he concentrated on making cheese and running Feastival (“I’m in a great band, I don’t want to start another one,” he laughs), drummer Dave Rowntree moved into politics and became a Labour councillor, as Graham juggled a solo career with providing soundtracks for The End Of The F***ing World and, recently, becoming one half of The Waeve. Damon, of course, became bigger than ever with Gorillaz while managing to set up about nineteen other bands and projects in his not-exactly-spare time. Their first reunion in 2009 led to one of the most iconic Glastonbury headline slots of all time before what again seemed a possible permanent ending to the story in 2015 following the release of their eighth album, ‘The Magic Whip’. It looked like there was finally no distance left to run. Until now.

It’s comforting that not only do they seem to be back and surrounded by their old magic once more, but the air of chaos that was always present with them is still there – with Graham having disappeared, roaming across five floors of an Amsterdam hotel looking for a toilet at the exact time our interview is set for. Currently juggling being on tour not only with blur but with The Waeve too, he is giving Damon a run for his multi-tasking money. You wouldn’t know it, however, as he smiles happily through our chat. A thoughtful interviewee, he regularly pauses to think about what he wants to say, cheerily admitting when he doesn’t have an exciting answer to avoid simply making one up. Bassist Alex, meanwhile, is ridiculously excited throughout, laughing and bouncing in his seat and talking at a rate of at least a million words per minute – often answering the next three questions before there’s even been a chance to get the first one out. In short, they couldn’t be further away from the jaded music veterans one might expect. The reaction to their return and the euphoria surrounding those warm-up shows has played a big part.

Both Graham and Alex nod in full agreement when asked if they were surprised at the response. “Yeah, it has surprised me!” laughs Graham. “It’s made me think, well, where the hell were you last time? Maybe I shouldn’t have been amazed, but it does feel like there’s a massively more renewed interest in the band than there was a few years ago. It might be because the 90s are meant to be in, or guitar bands are meant to be in. I know younger musicians are listening to blur a lot more. Maybe it’s ignited culturally in peoples’ brains more than before.” 

“I think it surprises all of us,” nods Alex. “You never really know until you’ve put a show on sale, but eight years is half a generation. You don’t know whether anyone’s even going to buy a ticket. But last time, people would say, ‘My mum and dad like blur’, and now it’s ‘My kids love blur’. So there was this sense that maybe the songs had found a new audience.” 

The band are painfully aware of their Elder Statesmen position in music, of course. “It’s as long now from blur in the 90s as it was from blur in the 90s to the Beatles,” points out Alex. “It’s a bloody long time, and a lot has changed. But a big one is still a big one. People like Adele are impossible to escape. She’s like a black hole. And Taylor Swift is bigger than The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Madonna put together. It’s bonkers. It’s a lot harder for a band to thrive and survive the way that we did in the early days.”

“It’s a lot harder for a band to thrive and survive the way that we did in the early days”

Alex James

For a solid week over those warm-up shows, social media was awash with scrappy and sweaty videos of blur back in action. Plainly delighted to be back on stage and in each other’s company, it was a balm to anyone worrying that this was a quick cash grab. All four seemed to have reverted back to their former selves, with Damon becoming a chaos magnet once again as he wandered around the stage, a patient sound guy permanently on duty unwrapping the rest of his band from his mic lead. Graham and Alex again can’t stop grinning as they talk about the shows. The latter, in particular, was happy to finally receive some praise from his teenage daughters. “Normally, all I get at home is ‘shut up, fatty’, and that’s on a good day,” he says sadly. “But after the Eastbourne show, they were like ‘you’re so cool; we’re so proud of you’. I had to say that that isn’t all I do. I also make some good cheese, you know!”

He returns to a more serious note. “I never know if any show is going to be our last, but I think we’ve all realised that blur is something that none of us can walk away from and nor would we want to. There are always some terribly depressing divorce rates getting published, and the divorce rate with bands is 99.9%. Most bands end up hating each other, so I guess it’s a testament to all our patience that somehow it’s just always worked when it’s the four of us in a room.”

Not that there weren’t a huge amount of nerves going into this comeback, though. Alex talks of meeting Dave outside Damon’s studio before their first get-together in December and describes the drummer as “pale, scared and shocked”. “He was like, ‘I don’t think it’s gonna happen,” he remembers, “but we played a couple of songs, and everyone came bouncing out going WAAAAAH. We’re doing a new record and the show, and it’s suddenly from nought to light speed in a heartbeat.” 

“I never really expect to make any of the records that we make,” admits Graham. “We’ve never really liked doing shows without having something new to play. It feels slightly fraudulent in a lot of ways to just go out and do shows with nothing new to talk about or listen to.”

At first, the guitarist thought it would be just a new EP, but it seemed that Damon, as is his way, had been beavering away on his own writing the tracks that would become ‘The Ballad Of Darren’. “He’d been writing songs on days off throughout the Gorillaz tour,” explains Graham, “I don’t know whether he was writing it with blur specifically in mind, but a lot of the songs seemed to fit. I think writing songs for another band while on tour with someone else was an interesting thing for him to do.” 

Damon himself admits that the songs came in a flurry. “Opposite my hotel room was a fantastic mural of Leonard Cohen,” he said just before their first show back, “I just didn’t think about it. I wrote from the heart. When I got back, we just started, and we crashed into the studio in January.” 

With this batch of demos plonked in their laps, it seemed easy to switch their minds to making a new record. “What ended up being ‘The Ballad’ had been around for a long time as ‘Half A Song’ [a track featured on Albarn’s 2003 vinyl-only collection ‘Democrazy’], but it hadn’t found a chorus,” Graham remembers. “But that arrived with a lovely chorus which was great news. Then a few more arrived, and some new ones. And so that was it. We thought we better just get on with it.” 

Get on with it, they did, landing in the studio just a few weeks later with no pre-production. Graham and Alex still admit to feeling the nerves beforehand. “It’s slightly daunting making a new record at this stage,” admits Alex, “because what if it’s rubbish?” 

Meanwhile, Graham nods knowingly at the prospect of a beloved band returning with sub-par work. Alex describes those early days in the studio as “the world falling away” when the dynamics that have served the group so well for 35 years came flooding back immediately. “It was joyous, effortless and weightless,” he grins. “I think guitar players and singers maybe need to feel like they’ve suffered a little bit for their stuff to work, but for bassists, it’s just like riding a bike. The record’s not trying to tick boxes or trying to be anything. It just sounds like four guys expressing themselves like friends.” 

It’s something Damon has addressed with what seems like a sense of awe. “I think the most amazing thing is we managed to write a record, rehearse it and put out a tune two weeks after finishing it,” he marvels. “That’s how I kind of dreamt it should always be.”

Their hands forced by that lack of time, Graham describes making ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ as an intense but equally relaxed challenge. Deliberately understated, it isn’t the sound of a band trying to recapture the past, instead embracing where they are now. “I think we’re a good judge of what is good and bad,” he says. “We’re quite harsh on ourselves. The thing is, we have to think that what blur have done is good enough. And Damon obviously has to feel that way, like he said what he needs to say.” 

He says he was pleased when he realised how emotionally open and less vague Damon’s lyrics were this time round, even if he was still having to second-guess them by writing his guitar pieces before they’d been finished. “When he put the vocals on the album, I was like, ‘fucking hell, he’s singing really beautifully’.” 

There’s a poignancy and melancholy to the lyrics to ‘Barbaric’ and ‘Far Away Islands’ that make the heart itch, while ‘The Heights’ is a beautiful tribute to the fans that have kept them going for so long on a track that Graham describes as “more anthemic than blur has ever been before”. The band are buoyant at this stage of the album’s pre-release, though Alex laughs as he says the band are famously not good at spotting what’s in front of them. 

“One thing I’ve learned is you never really know what you’ve done until about five years later,” he grins. “We all thought ‘Song 2’ was a B-side because you can’t really hear the words, and it’s less than two minutes long, so useless for the radio. None of us even thought ‘Country House’ was a single! But this feels a bit like when ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ came out in that we’ve actually done what we fucking wanted, and we don’t care what anyone thinks.” He immediately contradicts himself with a chuckle. “Well, actually, we do care what anyone thinks, but when you feel like you don’t, that usually means you’ve done something great.”

“We’re a good judge of what is good and bad. We’re quite harsh on ourselves”

Graham Coxon

It can still seem like a miracle that the band even got back to this point. The relationship between Damon and Graham was one of the defining images of the Britpop era – one that seemed fatally wounded when the guitarist left the band during the stormy sessions that surrounded ‘Think Tank’ back in 2003. With their friendship long since patched up, one of the joys of the first shows back this time around was seeing them back giggling at each other on stage. There’s a long pause, but an even longer smile, when Graham is asked if he had missed his stage presence. “I do miss it, and I really enjoy it,” he says eventually. “Being on stage is really about living in that exact second. And I think because we are having a good time and it’s relaxed, we are clowning around a little more. I can sometimes look at him and think, ‘I feel VERY awkward’, but he does a fantastic job. He has a job that he has to do, and he does what he needs to do to get through that song and be entertaining. Sometimes what do you say? Sometimes you say something really weird, and that’s what Damon’s for.” 

The frontman memorably managed to lose his gold tooth during the Eastbourne show, somehow spitting it out mid-song. Graham rolls his eyes dramatically when asked for the latest gnasher update. “I’m not sure about the saga of the tooth…” he sighs. “I think it’s back. But I tell him all the time! The thing is, I’m missing that same tooth, so now we talk a bit about dental work every now and then. I don’t think I’ve even lost a shoe at a gig. I might have done. I do like to have everything quite organised, no loose items, really. It’s a bit like going through an airport, everything on a little grey tray….”

Now, here’s an exciting fact for you. The tooth was retrieved by blur’s long-term security guy and general fixer of calamities, a chap by the name of Darren Evans (* INSERT SHARP INTAKE OF BREATH*). “Darrens come from a certain place in time,” muses Graham whenasked about the titular Darren before wandering down a cul-de-sac as an answer. “Growing up, there were Darrens, but obviously, Damon being called Damon meant he came from a certain type of background. Graham’s quite neutral, I think. I’m not quite sure how fashionable Darren is as a name now.” 

We never quite manage to get a firm answer as to why the album was named after Darren in the end. “In a similar way to how ‘Ernold Same’ was every commuter that you used to see on the train, but it is loosely based around Darren,” he nods. “His face is on some of the t-shirts. So it’s kind of pretty much about him. But it’s not about him?” That’s that *definitely* cleared up, then. Cheers Graham. 

Damon wasn’t much more help in a radio interview when the album was announced either (“Darren is many people, it is directly one person,” he said). Later, he revealed at a show that the album was indeed named after Evans – partly because he nagged him for years to finish ‘The Ballad’. What a ride.

There’s a stack of reasons why so many legacy artists eventually come back around – many of them cash-based – but the power of nostalgia can be a wonderful thing. blur carry some serious history with them, and when you bring it up with them, they embrace it fully. None of that playing it cool malarkey here. The evidence is widely available online – especially in the cult video ‘Starshaped’ that came from following the band on the road in the early 90s. Freely available on YouTube, it came to define that period in indie with its no-holds-barred content that a lot of bands nowadays would get warned away from showing unless it made a good TikTok. 

Both Alex and Graham grin when we bring it up. “’When was the last time you were sick outside an airport?’” says Graham self-mockingly, shaking his head about one memorable moment. “I haven’t watched that for ages! It reminds me of a very strange year for me when I went through a heartbroken time and was hitting the beer quite a lot. Rightly or wrongly, we’ve never been afraid to make fools of ourselves and to be human and absurd. Because it IS absurd. We’re very serious about the music, but there has to be some awareness that the whole thing is absurd.” 

Alex remembers that period as being “chaos and carnage”. “I think it’s all more sort of controlled, more carefully marketed and cleverly husbanded now. But this was all just pure fucking chaos and manure. But great, great things came out of it.”

“You never really know what you’ve done until about five years later. We all thought ‘Song 2’ was a B-side”

Alex James

Graham picks up the thread as well. “When blur was beginning, we looked back at bands like The Who,” he remembers. “We liked the chaos, and we were scruffy. And that sort of chaos and abandonment isn’t really there in a lot of music now. It’s to be quite smart and organised and business savvy nowadays, but that approach didn’t really exist when we started. All your heroes were drug addicts and alcoholics, pretty much. They were all maniacs. So that’s how we thought it was done. That doesn’t mean we’re drunk and high when we’re playing, but there’s a sort of level of intensity you have to have. Otherwise, there’s no point. You’ve gotta commit! All kids want the chaos. That’s what they want.”

With Pulp also back on the road, there’s just one band from The Big Britpop Three of the 90s who still need to get their act together. There was a period when blur and Oasis were rarely mentioned without the other popping up in the same sentence, so you’d imagine that all sets of Gallagher eyes (and brows) are firmly fixed on what’s happening here. 

“It’s just such a terrible shame that all my favourite bands seem to hate each other,” says Alex. “I don’t think New Order and Hooky will ever be friends, Johnny Marr and Morrissey… It’s such a shame that bands tend to end up alienated from each other or exiled from their most popular material. It’s all so messed up that bands end up hating each other and feeling that they don’t want to play their big hits, you know?” 

So, is that ‘Country House’ at Wembley confirmed? “I can not confirm or deny,” the bassist laughs. “It’s just such a shame that songs that define you kind of become a ball and chain. I guess because we don’t do this very much, we’re just doing it for joy and for shits and giggles.”

Juggling setlists after nine albums has even been a pleasant chore this time around, with the band employing someone to mediate and pick it for them. “It’s actually brilliant,” says Alex. “Because the main thing is keeping Damon focussed because he has a very, very short attention span. If we don’t keep him focussed, he’ll be off writing another fucking opera, and we lose him for another ten years.”

For now, having fun is more than enough. “I think we’re really enjoying the playing,” says Alex. “There’s a kind of effortlessness to it, without wanting to sound like a wanker. You walk on, and you go, wow, that’s a big crowd. And by the time you walk off, you’ve completely shrunk it in your heads. So Wembley should really be a homecoming.”

Damon describes the prospect as blur being at “our most purest and most uncomplicated.” We ask Graham what he thinks about Wembley, and of course, he doesn’t go down the obvious route, more excited at the prospect of how high he can chuck his (doubtlessly priceless) guitar. “This photographer, Phoebe Fox, was taking photographs, and she managed to get a picture of me throwing it 20 feet,” he ponders. “There’s a lot of height at Wembley, so I’d like to get 30 feet. That will be great. That wasn’t the question, was it?” 

No, it wasn’t Graham, but it’s fine. 

“You forget it’s not just the reunion for us,” smiles Alex. “It’s really touching and wonderful. It’s only when we get back together that you go wow, people really do care. It’s wonderful.” 

With our chat coming just a couple of days after Glastonbury, where rumours continued to swirl around secret sets or future returns to the headline slot, the bassist is pretty firmly dismissive (without denying it outright). “Glastonbury was a very, very special gig the first time we got back together,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll ever top that. And I mean, if blur were gonna do one festival in Britain, it should be fucking mine, quite frankly.”

Whatever happens in the future, the band seem set on just existing in the moment. “Even when we actually did split up, it didn’t take us this long to get back together and play some shows,” says Alex. “So I think I’ve come to realise it’s very precious what we’ve got, all those years playing together. It’s a gift.”

As the saying goes, some gifts just keep on giving. ■

Taken from the August 2023 edition of Dork. blur’s album ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ is out 21st July.


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