Halfway through a question about the ’90s revival and the surge of renewed interest in Blur that’s come with it, Damon Albarn cuts us off. “Is this the ‘what’s it like to be old’ question?” he snaps, outraged, but he’s putting it on, cackling with the satisfaction of someone who spent his entire adult life in the sights of the gossipy music press. “It’s okay!” he assures us. “It’s great. I’ve been working all day with my orchestra, getting ready for wonder.land,” which is his Alice in Wonderland adaptation that opens at the National Theatre in London on Monday November 23. “I’m pretty lucky, to be honest with you.” As unimaginable as it once seemed, the former enfants terribles of the Britpop scene they invented – who, for a period of time, were as famous for their internal feuds as for their long-running beef with Oasis – have not only made it to middle age but are thriving there. On Sunday November 29, they’ll close the Formula 1 weekend at the du Arena in Abu Dhabi, showcasing songs off The Magic Whip, their first LP in 12 years.
The road the group has taken hasn’t exactly been smooth. After a series of near-splits due to differences between Albarn (the frontman) and guitarist Coxon (regarded by many fans as the band’s creative engine), Coxon finally left the group in 2002. “There were too many late nights,” Coxon tells us. “We were too tired; we felt overworked. We were feeling the pressure. We were young, and that’s what you do: you lash out at the people who are closest,” he says of the band, which formed when he and childhood pal Albarn met Alex James and Dave Rowntree during their first year at London art school Goldsmiths College. “If Alex [Blur’s bassist] wasn’t around, I’d have destroyed a lot more TVs or telephones,” Coxon confides, before clarifying: “But I still did end up throwing a lot of phones across the room.”
The constant hype in the British music press didn’t help things either. “It was thrilling, and then it became sort of ordinary and then irritating,” admits Albarn of Blur’s It-band status. So, fed up with the spotlight and tensions within the band, the outfit disbanded, with Albarn going on to Gorillaz, Coxon to focusing on being a parent, James to cheese making (really) and drummer Rowntree to politics. Cut to 2009 when the group reunited to play a handful of British shows with no plans of recording – at least at the time.
In 2013, they found themselves stuck in Hong Kong after a cancelled festival gig and decided to kill some time by booking a studio. While Albarn was busy promoting his debut solo album, Everyday Robots, Coxon, James and Rowntree continued to work on the material from the studio jam session that eventually became The Magic Whip before showing it to Albarn, who then added his own parts. This idiosyncratic approach not only worked, but it may have been the only way the record could have come about. “It was made by accident,” says Albarn. “It wouldn’t have been as good otherwise. I would’ve been too self-conscious about making another Blur record.” Coxon agrees: “I don’t think we’ve got the patience. If we put aside three months in the studio, after a week we’d be bored.”
This fractured, occasionally sneaky creative process has the kind of easy-going energy and sense of low-stakes experimentation of a bunch of older musicians jamming, but apart from the eased-back tempos, The Magic Whip is, in many ways, the closest the band’s come to dancy LP The Great Escape, released 20 years ago. Musically, says Albarn, “you should get to know what you’re doing by the time you’re approaching 50, and that can really get in the way when it comes to making a good alt-rock record. In a way, we retain that original sort of genius – if we don’t think about it too much.”
The unconventional arrangement, though, works. Coxon is quick to point out that there’s no bad blood. “When we do come together, it’s always kind of a celebration,” he says.
Blur. Sun November 29. Du Arena, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, www.yasalam.ae.