Blur release their ninth album, The Ballad Of Darren this week, an at times nostalgic, but also melancholy record that sees the band head into their middle years with a maturity and heart that might have been absent on some of their mid-‘90s triumphs. You can read MOJO’s verdict HERE. Ahead of the band’s triumphant two-nights at Wembley Stadium earlier this month, guitarist Graham Coxon spoke MOJO’s Victoria Segal about the album, Blur reuniting, sounding ‘like men’ and navigating three decades of friendship…
Blur initially reassembled to prepare for this year’s live shows – was an album always on the cards?
I did feel a little bit awkward about doing live shows without anything new to play. But then Damon said, ‘Well, I have been making some demos on my travels’ and I thought, Yeah, an EP or something, something new to play when we go out and about – but then it seemed there was more and more. He was writing early in the year as well and that was added to the pile – songs he’d been writing while touring with Gorillaz. Then it was, ‘Well, it’s January now – when can we start recording, how can we finish this before these shows?’ It was quite a hurry. We called James [Ford, producer] and he was up for it, and we just got in the studio as soon as we could.
Was there one “eureka!” song where you knew it was coalescing into an album?
They were all, for me, very hard. They took a lot of thinking and a lot of playing – an awful lot. Just to find my place and carve out the identity of the songs. But St Charles Square – that’s a bit of a stomper. When I got that one going – this weird tune on the guitar, the slapback echo, maybe I thought about Scary Monsters a little bit – that seemed to work immediately. It kind of starts with a bit of a Parklife ‘Oi!’, doesn’t it? Because the record does look back over our career and our friendships, I did try to tackle some guitar sounds that I haven’t really looked at for a long time. Especially Goodbye Albert – that I would relate back to songs like Peach and Bone Bag [1993’s For Tomorrow B-sides] that I think are some of Blur’s finest moments, when we were finding our way out of baggy to a place we felt was our own.
Alex [James, bassist] said you still surprise each other. Did you feel surprised?
Not surprised, relieved. Relieved we were capable of these songs, that Damon could write these songs – he doesn’t always have to write songs like this, but it makes my job a lot better when he does write songs like this, songs I can really get inside of and expand on. It might not be noticeable, but it wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination to make the record. We did have a time limit, so we had to work really fast and it was very intense. Finishing the backing vocals, that was the first time I realised it was sounding really good. I think when Damon put his vocals on, and I put my backing vocals on – that’s what makes Blur Blur. Suddenly, it’s like, ‘Woah, it sounds like Blur’. But sort of more like men.
(Laughs) I think the voices are deeper, maybe richer. There’s a strange vulnerability, but there’s sort of a strength. It’s an interesting thing to be a part of. But extremely positive. I thought we were getting on great – there was lots of laughing in the studio, lots of being silly. We had to laugh and be silly because it was intense. You’ve got to have times when you’re just being an idiot.
Was it a return to the earlier days of Blur, then?
No, I think we felt the pressure almost more earlier. We didn’t feel like we did in the early days - that we had to prove anything to anybody. We were making it absolutely in secret and for ourselves as four people who have been making music together for a long time, who have been through a lot over 30 odd years. It was only towards the end when we sort of came out and blinked in the light that we thought, Actually, some people are going to really like it and although it’s emotional it’s very welcoming. Anybody that listens to it is going to feel some sort of support, like it’s a good place to be. There are some jarring moments but it’s important to be jarring – I don’t think music should always be a pleasurable experience.
How does it reflect your friendship and the band?
The Narcissist is a lot about picking your way through this strange life you’ve signed up for without knowing what exactly it was about or what was going to happen to you. I think it touches on a lot of relationships. Luckily Damon is pretty vague about it because as we all know, vagueness is best, it leaves a lot more space for the experience of the listener. But those lyrics about regret and relationships and melancholy, we all have that - and a little bit of bitterness. And with St Charles Square there’s a little bit of paranoiac stuff going on. It was very important with that one that tempo-wise, it didn’t get too fast and turn into a punk song. It had to have a smudged awkward gait, like a zombie, an old-school zombie.that walked in a lumbering - but sassy! – way. I like the way that Far Away Island could be about long-distance relationships, it could be about spirits, dryads, whatever. It could be about turning your back on something that’s been familiar for so long. I haven’t really talked to Damon about the exact meaning of any of these things. We all just glean meaning from it ourselves and that’s the way it should be, because none of us have experienced the same life, although we’ve been in each other’s lives for so long. I like that creaky seafaring woozy atmosphere.”
It doesn’t always feel rooted in the real world…
I don’t think it is in the real world really at all. I think it’s all in a strangely subconscious world… beyond the veil a little bit. We all see things in the trees, you know!
The Ballad Of Darren is out July 21, via Parlophone