'I would be leaving the studio every day feeling really good about the album, but I had to say nothing special was happening' - Blur guitarist Graham Coxon
Blur, one of the most important and popular bands of the last 30 years, took everyone by surprise a few weeks ago when they announced their first studio album since 2003. Guitarist Graham Coxon talks about the strange internal dynamics between the members and how this new phase began with a chance meeting in Hong Kong
When a big-name pop band gets back together after a long gap it sometimes counts as more than a music-industry event or a news headline. For those people who fell in love with a group during their youth, the reunion can feel like meeting up with their younger selves again. Vocals and sounds that once defined a mood are suddenly back in currency.
So the members of Blur - singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bass player Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree - trod very carefully and quietly as they put all the pieces in place before going public with news of their album The Magic Whip, the first they have made together for 16 years. In the 1990s, their band stood for a cocky, clever sort of dissent and, as Coxon says, they did not want to say they were back until they knew what they had.
"It has helped that we have been able to keep it to ourselves to the last minute," he said. "We had only just mixed it and mastered it, and two weeks before that Damon was still doing vocals. I was very aware the process was fragile right up until the announcement, and I didn't want to tempt fate in any way."
So Coxon behaved as if nothing was going on, despite his excitement. "I would be leaving the studio every day feeling really good about it, because the recording process is my favourite thing. But I had to say nothing special was happening."
Whatever the verdict of fans and of critics when The Magic Whip comes out at the end of this month, its release marks a great achievement in artistic and personal understanding between musicians who have been apart for a long time. Four artists with tastes and interests that have only become more distinct over the years, and yet who felt compelled to work together again.
Coxon describes their new music as familiar, but different; there is a trademark Blur sound, yet produced with greater maturity through a fresh process. "It is partly because I was in charge for a while, but I was restraining myself. I have a default setting to go to guitar, but this time I tried not to smother it."
The Coxon chords are there, he says, together with a recognisable "strolling tempo and a very cheeky vocal line", but there are also "moments where it floats off into very fluid bits".
It was Coxon who provided the momentum behind the album, putting his tangled history with fellow band members aside. But he is not daunted. In fact, he says he feels relieved.
"I feel less alone and less redundant, even if it is for only one album. My solo stuff has been just me, and sometimes that is not easy. It is a relief, because I have absolute faith the record is good and I know I did everything I could to make it good and Damon did everything he could."
The Blur comeback brings them closer to Monty Python, Coxon suggests, than to rock veterans such as the Rolling Stones. "We can't take ourselves seriously and we haven't been afraid to make music that feels a bit foolish at times."
Like all British pop stars worth their salt, recent interviews proved they were still funny together. "We still have the ability to bewilder each other with what we say, and that is important. The scary thing is that we have not come together to make a record as a four-piece for 16 years. Is our sound and what we are saying relevant to anybody?"
Musical comebacks are not rare now, but are often uninspired, he admits. "Lots of groups come back and it doesn't really set the world alight. Even diehard fans are slightly unenthused. Yet, it is a weird idea that simply because you are past a certain age, you stop. This isn't the 1950s, the era of the teenager, any more. I always think of the old blues men carrying on making music and having children until they are 80. Pop music doesn't have to be a fleeting, age-related thing either."
Bassist Alex James has referred to The Magic Whip as a miracle late baby, something that has "brightened our lives". Coxon sees it as a happy accident. "It has been a series of fortunate events, because every hurdle I could have come across in making this record didn't appear."
Even the chance circumstance that first threw them together for five days, in a recording studio in Hong Kong in 2013, now looks fated. The cancellation of a festival date in Japan meant they had nowhere else to go. It also meant that "Damon's overwork and my very bad work ethic" could no longer keep them apart.
Then, last autumn, Coxon became increasingly frustrated about not working. "I kept thinking about the recordings we had made in Hong Kong and remembering how good it felt. I wouldn't have forgiven myself if I hadn't had another look." On Albarn's advice, he worked on the recordings with producer Stephen Street, relying on his uncanny sense of Albarn's musical intentions.
"Communication between us has got to a point where it is like telepathy. I am comfortable in my role as sonic interpreter of what I think Damon is getting at. Sometimes I get it wrong, sometimes I don't.
"I was very respectful of the sounds we had made in Hong Kong, and careful that phrases were reappearing as I structured it and added things. I wanted to change the musical environment in such a way that would still support those musical lines. It was a real learning curve for me."
All the while, Coxon was dogged by the worry he might be seen as "an upstart": "Blur, I guess, is quite hierarchical, and I am not sure sometimes about my place and what I am allowed to do. But Damon was quite enthusiastic about me taking the recordings and taking it off his shoulders. I still had to think of him at every turn."
The fact that Albarn has since declared that as soon as he heard Coxon's work, he felt unable to walk away is, the guitarist says, "pretty cool".
Albarn promptly returned to Hong Kong to write lyrics that would fit. The result is a remarkably cohesive take on the city and on the modern world, that Coxon describes as a bit "sci-fi".
"The recordings we did during those five days there are imbued with the noise of the Tube and the sounds of the street. The electricity is different, the air is different, and we made the studio quite small by crowding in this hot little room and working quite intensely.
"We didn't have our usual arsenal of instruments, either. I was trying out this new Stratocaster that my road tech, Steve, had made. We were in a very intuitive, open place, so everything around us was seeping in."
The band members, he believes, have not been creatively corrupted by living 'rich pop star' lives and, in any case, have always relied on narratives and fantasy to inspire them.
"We have never had much interest in singing about lifestyle or aspirations," he says, adding that his reputation as one of the most talented guitarists of his generation has not affected him either. "I have no trouble keeping grounded. I know my own bad habits on the guitar."
There is a place, he thinks, for a wider range of pop music today, and a mature Blur album may help.
Agreeing with old rival Noel Gallagher's recent comments, Coxon argues against the dominance of what he calls a "self-pitying and lightweight" variety of singer-songwriting at the moment. "I am kind of with Noel on that. I don't mind a bit of sentimentality, but a lot of it is so commercial now. There needs to be room for beautiful mistakes, that is how the best music gets made."
'The Magic Whip' is out on April 27