What did it take for Blur to record their first new album in 12 years? Answer: the cancellation of the Tokyo Rocks festival in 2013, the persistence of Graham Coxon and the Chinese equivalent of Mr Whippy.
The band unveiled their eighth album, ‘The Magic Whip’, at a packed press conference at the Golden Phoenix restaurant in London’s Chinatown on February 19 –Chinese New Year.
Guitarist Graham Coxon explained that the Chinese influence on the album comes from the fact that the initial recordings were all made in Hong Kong during a five-day period that opened up after the cancellation of their Japanese tour date. “We had some downtime,” he said, “so we thought we’d find a few days to relocate into a studio to record our stuff there.”
While the band didn’t finish the album in that time, frontman Damon Albarn said it was Coxon who believed they had the makings of a new record. “Graham came to me and said, ‘I think we’ve got something here.’ I was like, ‘Brilliant. Go and have a look at it.’”
Albarn thought Blur had “run its course” and was busy with his solo projects, so admitted to “mixed emotions” when Coxon and producer Stephen Street played him back the new material. “I was like, ‘Oh no, this is really good.’”
With Coxon having quit the band by the release of 2003’s ‘Think Tank’, his influence will be far more apparent on this record – the first full-group effort since 1999’s ‘13’ – although, speaking to NME after the press conference, both of the band’s songwriters say their relationship on this album was more symbiotic than ever. “There were snatches of [lyrics from the original recordings] that you can grab hold of to get some sort of gist,” said Coxon. “It’s always been my job to glean what I can from what he’s saying and put it through a guitar.”
Albarn added: “And then once that happens I’ve got to go back and finish it. If he’s interpreted a word or a sound, it kind of helps finish the words. Basically it’s been a really great process this time round. I’ve never made a record in this way. On this occasion it’s worked really well for us. Whether we could repeat it again? Who knows? Probably not.”
Albarn completed writing the lyrics for the album by drawing on his visits to Hong Kong and China, and his wider travels, too. One song, ‘Pyongyang’, deals with his experiences visiting North Korea, and ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ is not simply about urban overpopulation. “Probably the initial idea came from being in a very claustrophobic city,” he said, “but I actually finished the lyric after having come back from Australia. I was there the day they had the hostage situation in the chocolate shop, which was an extraordinary thing to witness. I was staying in a hotel where I could literally see what was going on outside and watch it on TV. I’ve never been in that position before, and as a songwriter that was a very interesting standpoint to have: to be seeing something on TV, and then out the window it’s happening. Seeing the reality of what was happening and how it was being distorted through the prism of [the camera] was kind of fascinating.”
The album’s title “can mean a lot of things, he added. It’s a folkloric conceit in traditional Chinese culture. It can be an ice cream. It’s a firework. It’s also a whip. The whip, for me, was very important because I always have a sense of the hidden control everywhere in China. I love its multifaceted madness, but you can’t help but get the sense of that element of control.”
The band also announced that they will headline the British Summer Time festival in Hyde Park on June 20, and Albarn revealed to NME that the band will play “gigs around the country prior to that… We’re going to play in Wales, in Scotland and in England.”
Having cited the new album as “the only reason” they’ve decided to play live again, Albarn said he’d like to play as much of the new material as possible at Hyde Park, although “we’ve got quite a few songs that we wouldn’t want to not play in a big field like that. There’ll be an element of editing the new material to work in context with the old material.”
Drummer Dave Rowntree believes the band now has the “challenge of taking the record and transplanting it into the four of us playing live”.
Bassist Alex James thinks it won’t pose much of a problem, though. “I don’t find the idea of that particularly challenging,” he said. “It’s a really exciting proposition to play live, because it’s just the four of us giving it the beans. 2012 was such a triumph, that Olympic show, so how do we take it up a notch from there? Well, here’s a bunch of new bangers. Let’s have a go.”
Originally published in NME, 28 February 2015.