- 26 Aug 22
31 years ago today, Blur released their debut album, Leisure – featuring tracks like 'She's So High', 'There's No Other Way' and 'Sing'. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting a classic interview with the band – originally published in Hot Press in 1994.
LORRAINE FREENEY becomes the envy of every school-girl boarder when she gets to hang out with BLUR...
Lara from Greystones would like it to be known that she would appreciate the opportunity to “have Damon's beautiful babies.”
She’s not alone. Backstage at Féile, there are girls and boys lingering hopefully around Damon Albarn. I didn’t share Lara's urges to go forth and reproduce at the prospect of being in a room with Damon and bassist Alex James, but I admit I did go around with a big, shit-eating grin on my face for the day.
It’s pathetic but true that 1994-model Blur have the power to provoke the most extraordinary responses. People I know, people I respect, people I drink with on a regular basis, have developed a worrying tendency to display all the hallmarks of juvenile madness – the kind of symptoms usually left behind when you cancel your subscription to Smash Hits – whenever Blur crop up in conversation. Eyes glaze over. Hands flail uncontrollably. Tongues loll. A woman old enough to know better sits down next to us mid-interview, introduces herself to Damon and Alex – though not, unsurprisingly, to me – and it takes Damon pointing out me and the tape recorder as evidence of an interview taking place to interrupt her stream of praise.
“Am I in the way?” she gasps, at last.
Obviously you’re in the way. Go home. Get a life. Leave me to make a fool of myself in private.
“Yes,” says Damon patiently.
After a couple of hours, she leaves.
Like Suede, Blur have an estimable talent for really getting up people’s noses. Alex acknowledges that they’ve always been too friendly, too clever, and too good-looking for their own good. Now, on top of all that, they’ve released Parklife, the most acclaimed album of the year. What bastards.
Success has rubbed off much of their abrasiveness, it seems.
“It’s made us far more relaxed,” agrees Damon.
Alex is looking particularly relaxed this afternoon. “We’ve got twelve hours off,” he announces happily. With his lanky frame sprawled elegantly over the table, cheekbones almost touching the page of the Féile programme that features a potted history of Blur (he must be short-sighted poor lamb) he gurgles delightedly about how fond he is of enthusiastic band profiles.
“I love the hype that you get in these things I do enjoy reading them,” he says with a sigh. He waves a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne around nonchalantly. “The queen drinks it,” he says, knowingly. Blur only came off-stage half an hour ago, but Alex already seems a little distracted. A little playful. A little pissed. It’s only when I play the interview back later that I realise that at one point, while Damon is talking, Alex is mumbling French in the background.
Well, there’s no reason why Blur shouldn’t be feeling cheerful. They’ve just notched up their “second consecutive number one in Israel this week. Which kind of makes you a bit more relaxed,” says Alex. Two years ago though, not even the most optimistic pundits, certainly not those with an intelligence quotient running into double figures, would have predicted that Blur would release something as wonderful as Parklife. They arrived on the tail-end of the baggy phenomenon and mustered up one hugely successful single, ‘There’s No Other Way’. Debut album, Leisure, followed, and a second hit single was squeezed out of it. Then they disappeared, ostensibly to drink themselves into oblivion. Was there a stage when they thought they’d blown it?
“Quite a few,” says Damon dryly. “For about a year.”
“We never thought it wasn’t going to happen,” disagrees Alex. “We just kept getting pissed off. We always knew we were good enough, we knew we were better than all the other shit.”
Damon goes into sensible older brother mode and interrupts before Alex has a chance to launch into one of his rants about Blur’s innate superiority to all other life-forms.
“No, I think if you want a concise explanation for it all, then the first album was driven by our desire to just appear and get somewhere. It was justified by having one hit single that journalists could get into because it was good pop and we were young, et cetera, et cetera. The rest of it was quite unexceptional, although it was what we were capable of then.
“And then suddenly, the new Blur was an entirely different animal. It had a lot of lyrics, and it had a very clear manifesto. Not many bands go from A-Z quite like that. But Leisure was what we were at the time. We were stupid enough, or arrogant enough, to make our first album in quite a cynical way. We learnt that that wasn’t really what it was all about.”
“What had happened was that we had sort of ridden on the crest of a wave that had gone out of fashion,” adds Alex, “and we had to be a little bit capricious. The things that we were talking about maybe took a little while to filter through. That’s just the way it happens if you’re going to be a market leader rather than a market follower. You have to stand very still and shout very loud. Initially, people want to be on telly because they want to be on telly. That was what Leisure was. We just wanted to be on your telly. That was the end.
So what was the turning point?
“It’s just a case of growing up and doing something that’s worthwhile,” suggests Damon. “America I suppose had quite a lot to do with it. We felt silly in America. It was quite cynical, what we were doing at the time, and Americans didn’t see us like that. They saw it as genuine product, which it wasn’t. So it messed us up a bit. We had to do something that was genuine otherwise going back there would be a nightmare. Going anywhere would be a nightmare.”
Alex, who has a habit of talking about everything in gastronomic terms, offers his perspective. “What you’ve got to do is look in your cupboard, see what’s there, put it all in a big pot, sprinkle some grated cheese on top and bung it in the oven. That’s what pop music’s all about.”
“I think we probably played up that image of a drunk, arrogant band who were destroying themselves,” continues Damon, “but we had a record company who were convinced that we were making all the wrong decisions. It’s become sort of irrelevant now to be honest with you. It was a series of events that ultimately worked to our benefit.”
It’s true that if Blur hadn’t lost most of their earnings from Leisure thanks to some unfortunate dealings with a former manager, they might well have settled for believing those who advised them to follow in the footsteps of, say, Jesus Jones. Instead, fuelled by a desperate desire to prove their worth to themselves, the public and, inevitably, Suede (more of which later), they forced themselves to release two albums within the space of a year. Parklife picks up the Anglocentric thread which Alex attributes to their time spent in the cultural vacuum of America, from Modern Life Is Rubbish, but whereas the latter was sun-drenched and bright, Parklife is seamier, juicier and more than fulfils the promise of its predecessor. They have every right to feel that they’ve vindicated themselves, but instead Damon has chosen now, of all times, to embrace reticence.
“I find vindicated too strong a word really,” he says. “We’re happy with what we’ve done and it makes everything quite pleasant. And I suppose we did spend quite a lot of time talking about ideas that nobody seemed to be interested in at the time. “But I’ve no doubt that somebody will come along with a better idea and we’ll be old hat, so it’s just one of those things, you know. Having seen both sides of this wonderful industry, we’ve become quite ambivalent to praise or criticism. Of course there is always the problem of where they can go from here. Their status as one of the biggest (“I’d say we were the biggest,” smiles Damon) bands around is based largely on the strengths of Parklife so how do they follow it?
“It’s very difficult for us,” he concedes. “all we’re concerned about now is our next one. This year we’re promoting this album and we know what the reaction is going to be wherever we go. But trying to maintain it for the next two years that’s the thing.
“We’re constantly in a state of fear and anxiety about the future, and it’s got a lot to do with the fact that we spent the first five years of our existence skint through bad management, bad decisions, so we’re still even at this point where we should have some money in the bank and we haven’t. I’d be lying if I said that we won’t have at the end of the year, but do you know what I mean? It’s not something that’s happened overnight at all. So, we feel constantly on the run and we need that. We need to have a sense of fear.
“The thing is – this is ridiculous – but when I go on stage, there’s a lot of people singing and going bananas, but I’m worrying that when I jump up and down I might look like an idiot, or whether my hair’s going out of place,” (with a nod to Alex) “or what I’m having for dinner tonight. I really enjoy it but, when you say we seem confident it’s true, but there is another side and it’s very necessary to have that. I mean, what sort of person would you be otherwise?
“We’re the biggest only because everyone else has either, I don’t know, taken too many drugs or split up . . .”
Alex laughs, and we know why. It’s no secret that one of the more significant factors in Blur’s renaissance was a motivation to win back the thunder Suede stole from them in 1992/3. Suede had the cover stories that Blur believed should be theirs. They had the feted debut album and the “best British band” market all sewn up. The fact that Damon’s girlfriend was Brett’s ex Justine, former Suede guitarist and singer with Elastica, probably didn’t help either.
And now . . . well, Suede’s new album, due in October, may prove as wonderful as reports suggest, but sadly, it looks unlikely there’s going to be a band around to take advantage of it. Blur are probably sick of talking about Suede by now, but what do they think of the Brett/Bernard split?
“We don’t mind talking about it at all at the moment,” grins Damon. “It’s quite an amusing subject.”
Did the split come as a surprise?
“I knew a long time ago, he says flatly.
And is it the end of Suede?
“It should be the end. They should split up now. Time to do something else, I think. Bernard wrote all the songs, so . . . I wish them all the best, all the luck in the world, but they really didn’t have to suffer. I’d have understood if they really had the pressure on them, but they didn’t. They didn’t seem to demonstrate a lot of staying power. I feel sorry that Bernard feels so messed up inside that he’s done that. He had a good opening in life. You have to be very disturbed or something to want to throw it away so soon.”
If Suede were forged around a Smiths-like ‘pop-star singer/enigmatic and moody guitarist’ partnership, Blur are a band. They party together. A lot, if the way they’ve taken up residence in gossip columns is anything to go by. Guitarist Graham Coxon and Damon have been best friends since school. It’s a closeness that may well be their salvation when pressures mount again. Expectations are so high at the moment, and there’s a bloody long way to fall.
“I think being close protects you from a lot,” says Damon. “We’re thinking about the new album all the time. There tends to come a moment when suddenly all becomes very clear. It’s especially difficult in Britain. We’ve set the standard for this year and before this there was always someone else setting the standard. It’s going to be a little trickier to set a new standard when people follow you anyway. “Everyone I’ve spoken to has said, well, you should just make another album in a similar way because you’ve got a chance to really consolidate, but I’m not sure that’s the answer. I’d like to think it will be different.”
He pauses. “It will be different,” he continues forcefully. “We just won’t put it out as a record unless it is.”
But Alex prises himself away from his champagne for a moment to offer one more pearl of wisdom.
"Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose,” he says meaningfully.
Well yes. There is always that, I suppose.
Revisit Leisure below: