The thing is,’ Alex James says, leaning in, ‘I should just never have been photographed standing next to Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s 1am outside a Marriott hotel in Glasgow and Blur’s bass player is telling me why The Guardian hates him. Later, when he turns in, he’s planning to proudly flout the hotel’s no-smoking rule, which comes with a £150 (Dhs857) fine. Apparently it’s only £30 (Dhs171) in Wolverhampton.
The press have been putting Blur in a pigeonhole since the days of Britpop: boiling down their four personalities to the point where James is a libertine, Damon Albarn is arrogant, guitarist Graham Coxon is withdrawn and drummer Dave Rowntree is simply quiet. But, as their song says, ‘There must be more to life than stereotypes’ – and so it is with Blur. What’s rarely mentioned is that they’re completely and utterly on fire. Right now, Blur are as good as they’ve ever been. Not only have the band never sounded better, their audience is growing, and not just older. As well as being a triumph, this year’s surprise new album The Magic Whip has stopped Blur becoming merely nostalgia-peddlers. No retread of past glories, it’s fresh and original. Maybe a bit wiser.
This is a band that have come through break-ups, public humiliation and a recent toe-clenchingly awkward sit-down appearance on The Graham Norton Show with remarkable ease and a genuine fraternal love for one another. But ask them what keeps Blur going, and you can see why the media finds them so contrary…
What keeps you together?
Damon: ‘Spending as much time as possible apart from each other.’
The new record is great. Has making and playing it brought you closer again?
Damon: ‘I feel that what we started in 2009 as a sort of public way of repairing aspects of our relationship is now complete with this album. There isn’t that tension within the band any more. It’s a very specific kind of chemistry that the four of us have.’
Alex: ‘It must be really weird to spend your whole life defined by something that happened to you when you were young. It happens to sportsmen. I thought I’d played my last Cup Final.’
Graham: ‘Whatever you say about it, it’s magic to make people jump around and smile. The only time it goes wrong is when you think: Graham, you’re 46 – you look slightly ridiculous.’
Graham took the lead in putting this new record together. Was it hard to hand over control to him, Damon?
Damon: ‘No, I was delighted. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for Graham to really reinstate his position, which – as far as I was concerned – was as my partner-in-crime in Blur. We essentially started the band together at school. For The Magic Whip, we just did 40 hours of recording in Hong Kong over five days. Then I abandoned it, essentially, and it was only because of Graham’s dedication that it was crafted into a record. Then obviously I had to take charge of it again…’
Your popularity never seems to wane. You’ve got a whole new generation of fans now, too.
Graham: ‘Wherever we go in the world, it’s like they’re still there: they’ve sort of been cryogenically stored and rolled out again. But it isn’t: its people that are 20 years younger who have discovered the group and like it.’
Damon: ‘Maybe it’s because we disappeared for a decade, so we were frozen. There’s a good balance: in some parts of the world it’s exclusively teenagers.’
Alex: ‘I think that was part of why we thought: “Well, maybe we’ve actually still got something to say”.’
Damon, you’re premiering your Alice in Wonderland musical soon. And Dave, you’re a lawyer. How do your employers feel about you dropping everything to be rock stars again?
Damon: ‘I’m really excited about it – it’s very ambitious and the costumes are insane. I just hope that we get enough done in time.’
Dave: ‘I have to bribe them with guestlist tickets.’
Finally, can you pinpoint exactly when you became an adult?
Dave: ‘About 40, probably, when the band wound down. There’s no sense in which being an adult is compatible with 100,000 people having bought a ticket to see you and somebody walking around behind you asking: “Do you want a dessert?”’
Damon: ‘It’s questionable whether I am an adult.’
The Magic Whip is out now and available on iTunes, www.apple.com/ae/itunes, www.blur.co.uk.