Blur talk new album, and how they got a record deal on the back of rave review of Irish gig
The release of a new Blur album even shocked the band, as bassist Alex James explains, and he reveals that the band got a record deal on the back of a rave review of an Irish gig
When I enter a swanky West London apartment to interview Blur's Alex James, I am greeted by the sight of his backside. Alex isn't posing naked, but dangling out of a window smoking a sneaky fag in between interviews.
James still possesses the air of the cheeky chappy of Britpop, who reportedly blew approximately a million pounds on champagne and cocaine during Blur's chart-topping heyday.
I'm meeting him to talk about The Magic Whip, Blur's new album, which is launched today. Its release is almost as much of a surprise to the band members as it is to their legions of fans, but more about that later.
Alex has calmed down in the last few years. He has been happily married to video producer Claire Neate since 2003. The couple have five children, boys Geronimo, Artemis and Galileo, and daughters Sable and Beatrix.
Since Blur's hiatus, James has successfully reinvented himself as a cheese farmer and supplier of a range to UK supermarket chain ASDA, a festival organiser, as well as a best- selling author of Alex James: Bit of a Blur - The Autobiography and All Cheeses Great and Small: A Life Less Blurry.
He snaps straight into fondly reminiscing about the first time he boarded a flight to Dublin with his band-mates Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and Dave Rowntree.
"We weren't even called Blur back then, we were still Seymour," James says. "Our very first show overseas was in Ireland for Leo Finlay's wedding, who was the first journalist to write about us.
"I'd only been on an airplane once. We met at Heathrow and we were all incredibly excited. In those days, they threw champagne at you on flights. We were completely sozzled by the time we got to Dublin.
"It was frills all the way. None of us had been to Ireland. It was like being invited into another world and for a very special moment in someone's life. It was absolutely wonderful."
Specific memories beyond that remain blurry. "I think we all got beaten up by another band," James laughs. "Blimey. Can you imagine that now? Leo wrote a rave review of us and on the back of that we got a record deal. Leo was the guy."
Sadly, Finley died in 1997.
Damon Albarn once told me: "At one stage we asked Leo to be our manager, but being who he was, he told us to f*** off. He is still the only person ever to have Blur as his wedding band. I think it was on in the old law courts. God bless him.
"We all got incredibly drunk. I swung out of one of the 18th-century chandeliers and got into a lot of trouble. I fell on the floor and Sinéad O'Connor stamped on my head. That's all I really remember. Leo discovered us, so wherever he is, thank you."
James laughs at Albarn's recollection. "I really, really hope we get to play Ireland on this record," he says. "We're not going to do too many shows and we want to keep them special."
Alex seems genuinely thrilled that Blur has finally managed to release an album after years of speculation.
It is a very impressive feat that they actually managed to keep the album a secret. Was this hard?
"Oh f*** yeah," James replies without hesitation. "It was referred to as Project Miriam in my house and in the office. It couldn't be spoken about or even referred to in an email. At the record company, it was referred to as Graham's album.
"I told my wife obviously, because I had to tell her where I was going but even my kids and friends were totally kept in the dark. It is very difficult to keep a secret in the 21st century and I am absolutely amazed we did."
After a massive Dublin show in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in 2013, most Blur fans assumed it would be the last we would hear from them until perhaps another nostalgic walk down memory lane in a few years' time.
Yet on February 19, Blur stunned their fans by convening a press conference in London's Chinatown and announcing that their eighth studio album was ready to go. We all assumed that the various members of Britpop's Fab Four were busy getting on with their lives. While James has become known as a farmer and author, Graham and Damon have successfully pursued solo careers and numerous other musical projects. Drummer Dave Rowntree is a qualified solicitor and unsuccessfully ran for a Westminster council seat.
"We've all been quite diligent and industrious in carving out other lives for ourselves outside of the band," James says.
"There came a point around 2003 where we all needed to go off and do our own things and be other people, rather than being this four-headed monster. I wouldn't call it animosity, but there was a little bit of ill feeling. We needed time out and to reconcile."
Blur were invited to close the London Olympics in 2012 with a gigantic gig in Hyde Park. "Kids who can't even have been born when we recorded our first single, There's No Other Way, were going mental, crying and singing along," James recalls.
"We thought, 'there has to be more gas left in the tank'."
However, there were no deliberate plans to record new material, but they eventually did through a succession of happy accidents.
Blur were booked to play a festival in Tokyo, which got cancelled at the eleventh hour. The quartet unexpectedly found themselves in a small studio in Hong Kong, jamming and trying out some new ideas.
During Blur's hiatus, Alex James has kept some high-flying political company. His cheerful demeanour cools suddenly when I bring up Prime Minister David Cameron's name.
The PM and his wife Samantha reportedly attended a New Year's Eve party in Alex's Oxfordshire country house. It seems like an unlikely friendship, especially given singer Damon Albarn's politics. In 1997, Albarn turned down an invite by Tony Blair to Downing Street with the withering reply, "I'm sorry, I won't be attending, as I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade!"
Albarn backed Ken Livingstone's campaign to become London mayor, and now is appealing to UK voters to back Ed Milliband. Has he ever said anything to Alex about hobnobbing with the incumbent PM?
"I don't think it has anything at all to do with any of this," James says. "All I'll say is he [Cameron] is my local MP and a big supporter of the festival on my local farm."
James does agree that the members of Blur do still manage to adversely push each other's buttons. "It is very much like a sibling relationship, or a marriage," he says.
"This is a really lovely thing to dip into, because it takes us out of our lives, even though we needed to have lives outside Blur for a while.
"Now, it is the exact opposite. Blur is like a complete release. At this point, which you could probably call our rock gentlemen phase, everything has become very fulfilling and satisfying.
"We needed our downtime, but in many ways, nothing has changed too much in 27 years," the Bournemouth-born bassist concludes.
"The crucial difference is that doing all this now is such a complete and utter joy."
'The Magic Whip' is released today.
A bit of a Blur: in their own words
"I made a point of drinking two bottles of champagne a day for 18 months. England only imports something like 100,000 bottles a year, so I reckon I drank 1pc of England's total champagne import. - Alex James
"We rarely actually finished a gig, completely. There was always a point where everything... I either got trashed, I'd be sick, or some one would get hit over the head, or the electricity would go. It was almost a sort of failure if we got to the end of a gig, really." - Damon Albarn
"There were so many weird things going on at that time. If Damon turned into a lizard with a mod suit, I wouldn't have been surprised" - Graham Coxon
"In our minds we were making reasonably left-field, arty pop music. And yet we were getting screamed at as if we were a bunch of tough guys singing ballads with a dance routine. Graham got upset. Alex liked it. I just thought it was really inappropriate." - Dave Rowntree
"What is 40-ft long, has no pubes, and screams dead loud? The front row of a Blur concert!" - Alex James
"I think everyone should vote for Ed Miliband. My ideal scenario would be Green and Labour, with a serious move to reduce Trident and the armed forces. Ed Miliband is not Tony Blair. I don't know what happened to Tony Blair. It was very cynical of him to get a meeting with me. It was dark. Blair was in front of me, and Alistair Campbell behind me. Terribly controlling. I was too young to know my politics, so they were trying to paint me as something before I had worked out what I was." - Damon Albarn
"I'm really enjoying my 30s. I spent my whole 20s going nuts, but being completely pissed isn't such a good look when you're 32 as it is when you're 22. Wait 'till you're my age and you'll be running round the park." - Alex James
"It seems that Damon and I are going to be in each other's lives musically forever, in some way or other. Whether it's with Blur or without Blur or sort of like the Old Gits, probably. Which is quite an amusing thought. We just get on very well, especially musically." - Graham Coxon