Blur: Holding on for Tomorrow

Interview Blur: Holding on for Tomorrow

Back with a stunning new album following their enormous stadium tour, Blur’s Graham Coxon and Dave Rowntree tell us why Blur are still the least nostalgic reunion band around.

For a band whose sporadic reunions consistently provoke gleeful fan furore, whose back catalogue sits objectively within the top tier of Britain’s best and who sold out Wembley Stadium’s 90,000 tickets in literally two minutes for the first date of their current comeback run, Blur have never been interested in being a nostalgia outfit. Their last get-together in 2015 brought with it ‘The Magic Whip’ - the band’s first album since 2003 - and now comes ‘The Ballad of Darren’: a melodically-rich addition to their canon that continues to push the quartet’s story forward.

“We like to have something out if we’re gonna do shows otherwise it’s like we’re doing it for the money or something - which is not true actually,” says guitarist Graham Coxon, aggressively ruffling his hair as if trying to expel even the notion of a reunion cash cow from his head. Joined on Zoom today by drummer Dave Rowntree, it’s not that the pair aren’t proud or interested in their past, but they’re just far more invested in the present. As Dave puts it: “We’re not wistful people. We don't sit around going, ’Remember that time…’ We’re rather more in the moment than that.”

As such, ‘The Ballad of Darren’ is marked by a relatively speedy conception period that saw the band working hard and fast to meet the deadlines sprung upon them. Having secretly had the Wembley shows in the works for a number of years, a series of pandemic-based delays meant that, even as recently as last autumn, their viability was still up in the air. “It was a longstanding plan to do Wembley and I thought this year it wasn’t going to happen again - maybe it would be pushed to next year - but then suddenly the venue released some new dates and we got this phone call from our agent going, ‘It’s on but we’ve got to put the tickets on sale tomorrow!’” recalls Dave.

“So it wasn’t really much time to make an album. To do that, we had to start immediately and everything had to work,” he continues. “There wasn’t any time to fiddle around, we had to get going and it had to be good and it had to happen now. None of that was guaranteed and it never is, so the stars aligned really. Sometimes you’re playing tennis and your tennis racket seems twenty feet across and every shot goes in, and your opponents applaud at the end of every point. It kind of felt a bit like that. Everything just worked.”

Blur: Holding on for Tomorrow

“When you listen to a lot of [music] these days it’s very embellished, and it’s like polishing a turd.”

— Graham Coxon

Starting life as a series of demos written by Damon Albarn while on a recent tour with Gorillaz, ‘The Ballad of Darren’ finds Blur working together as four musicians relying solely on each other - and a little help from producer James Ford. It’s a back-to-basics album in a way; one written with limitations in mind (the initial demos would have no strings, no brass) that instead puts all its chips on Damon’s intrinsic way with a melody and the band’s longstanding chemistry. On ‘Russian Strings’, layers of backing harmonies and richly chiming guitars create the heavenly backdrop; ‘Barbaric’ is all choppy, poppy tempos, while recent single ‘St. Charles Square’ harks back to the band’s scrappy youthfulness in a way that feels magical. There’s no tricks, it’s just Blur doing what only Blur know how.

“When you listen to a lot of things these days it’s very embellished, there are a lot of choral arrangements and vibraphones on some types of music and it’s polishing a turd, it really is, because the song underneath is as flimsy as it gets,” argues Graham. “So I think the limitation we had of it just being us four to begin with was a good decision.”

Describing the sessions as ones that were less chat and more “pick up your instruments and get on with it”, Blur began work on their ninth in January and finished it just two weeks before releasing lead single ‘The Narcissist’ in May. Embracing the vibrancy and fertility of ideas that came from this shortened timeframe, it’s the unexpected moments that also make the record such a fresh listen. “There’s what I would call mistakes or things that didn’t go to plan - especially with the guitars, like when I lost control or lost my place,” recalls Graham. “On ‘Goodbye Albert’, it was like freefall, but then those parts took on a life of their own; that’s why I like working fast.”

30 years on from second album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, there are parallels of Blur in 2023 that hark back to that game-changing time. ‘Modern Life…’, says Dave, was a “sink or swim” record for the band. “The head of the label was so disgusted by it that he said if it wasn’t successful he was gonna dump us. So it was a leap off into the abyss,” the drummer remembers. And while there are no such pressures these days, a similar sort of instinctive musicality seems present, of going against the predominant radio landscape into “something that was a lot more traditional… when instruments just sounded like instruments”. “It’s a good album,” decides Graham of their second before adding: “It’s great that, 30 years later, people are celebrating it so much because they didn’t back then…”

Blur: Holding on for Tomorrow Blur: Holding on for Tomorrow

“We’re not wistful people. We don’t sit around going, ’Remember that time…’ We’re rather more in the moment than that.”

— Dave Rowntree

Though both Dave and Graham note that the public have a far greater appetite for these sort of anniversary celebrations than the quartet themselves (“It’s an interesting way to feel old,” summarises the drummer of his feelings towards the matter), there have nonetheless been plenty of recent opportunities for romantic reflection, should they have wished it.

In May, the group kicked off a short run of warm up dates at Colchester Arts Centre, in the town where Graham, Dave and Damon all grew up before forming the band properly - alongside bassist Alex James - in London. It was, says Dave, the venue where he first met Damon “after a gig of his in some other band, so it was quite surreal [to come back and play it] really”. “I remember how big it looked as a teenager,” he continues with a chuckle, “and thinking, ‘Wow imagine if you could sell enough tickets to sell out this place…’”

There’s still a lingering trace of those young musicians, embarking on an uphill battle to success, present when they talk about their forthcoming fixtures too. “The idea of a band like us at the ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ time playing Wembley Stadium is almost laughable,” says Dave. “I remember there being a column in the NME making fun of our lofty ambitions to want to be anything more than a tiny little miserable indie band still signed on the dole, making fun of the fact that we might even be successful. And it genuinely was funny, the idea that a little indie guitar band would ever be in the charts; they used to have the Independent Chart to make it look like people were doing something and we weren’t even in that.”

They might prefer to be firmly focussed on what’s next, but the members of Blur are clearly aware of their singular trajectory; that, 35 years on from those first steps, to still be this beloved by so many is a fate bestowed on only the very, very few. As long as people keep offering them exciting new opportunities, says dave, the band could still keep going. “There must be some kind of shady committee somewhere - the Blur Carrot Committee - that meets every five years to dangle something tempting in front of us,” he laughs.

“I didn’t even think into next week when I was 21 or 22, so to be approaching middle-50s and have this going on…” Graham smiles quietly, “I’d have been quite amazed.”

‘The Ballad of Darren’ is out 21st July via Parlophone.

Tags: Blur, Features, Interviews

As featured in the July 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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