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'It's Like The Biggest Encore Ever'

From 'She's So High' to 'No Distance Left To Run' - Blur celebrate a decade of singles by playing each and every A-side. Select crash-lands backstage to pose a clutch of crucial questions: are they bored with each other? What's it like playing 'Country House'? And what's with the dominoes fixation?

'Universal' soldiers: Blur toast the end of a century (note Dave's non-alkie can)
'Universal' soldiers: Blur toast the end of a century (note Dave's non-alkie can)

"There were horror stories on the aeroplane. You know, don't have baths because worms will crawl up your bottom. Don't have the ice. And don't go out of the hotel because you'll get stolen."
    A dishevelled Alex James, his thick hair sticking out at angles more absurd than rakish, is recalling Blur's first tour of South America, from which they returned a week ago.
    "But we met a friend of mine in Mexico City whose friend owned the best the bar in the world! And we got absolutely smashed, ice in the drinks, running shouting at people. It was fine after that.
    Later on, the group took an early morning trip to the nearby ancient Mayan temple of the sun, the colossal Teotihuacan Pyramid - nearly twice the size of those in Egypt - to watch the sunrise. "Alex just ran right up to the top in one go, pretty much without stopping," Damon chuckles, shaking his head. "I don't know how he did it. We'll have to leave it to the imagination how he managed that."
    "We bribed a guard to get in," Alex continues. "Then, when we got to the top, we met apparently the only Mexican cop who wouldn't take a bribe. We got arrested and things got a bit hairy. We managed to wriggle out of it, but they were all speaking Spanish, so I don't know how."
    So Alex, how did you - not noted as a fitness freak - make it to the top in one go?
    "Well, we'd been drinking these weird drinks which seemed to have spinach in them. Or maybe it was just the ancient vibes."
    Blur are supposed to be sick of being in a band together. They have apparently lost the will to continue. The word is that it just isn't fun any more.
    These allegations, then, might not be true.

BELFAST'S NEW WATERFRONT VENUE SHARES a promontory into the Irish Sea with the adjacent Belfast Hilton. Together they form a sleek symbol of post-ceasefire prosperity. Both establishments are tonight playing host to the second date of Blur's five-date Singles Night Out lap of honour around the British Isles.
    Dave Rowntree and Alex flew over in Dave's plane earlier, but Select ran into the group's non-pilot members at the Heathrow check-in. Damon sported a few days' stubble and a fetching woollen Lapland hat. Graham, wearing a baseball cap and leather flying jacket, was carrying his skateboard through the security checks as hand baggage. Now, in the mid-afternoon, as the minibus from Belfast airport pulls into the complex, a giant sign advertising a production of Swan Lake hoves into view. Clearly not keen on being upstaged by a ballet, Damon grumpily exclaims, "What the fuck is that?"
    An hour before the gig, Alex slumbers on the dressing floor. He takes little notice of attempts to wake him, one of which includes Graham skateboarding past his head. "If you do that again, I'll chuck that thing out the fucking window," he mutters, ominously.
"I'd no idea how Mickey Mouse we'd become around 'Country House'. No wonder we pissed those other boys off." -Alex James    Initially, then, it may have escaped your attention that Blur are this year celebrating their tenth anniversary. After the boxset, the book, the exhibition and the Melvyn Bragg eulogy, come the gigs. All the singles. In order. Good gimmick, you may think, but being the nation's foremost art-school pop act, Blur are trying to invest this popfest with the demeanour of an art statement.
    "It's another experiment. Like everything else we've done," Damon reckons, now unfortunately shorn of both stubble and headgear, in between bites of salad nicoise in the hotel bar.
    "It does feel very strange," he continues. "It's quite brutal in that you revisit a year for three songs and the move on. "Maybe it'll have a similar effect for people watching it, marking out specific periods in their lives."
    The initial plan - arrived at while rehearsing for their Reading Festival performance - was simply play one Christmas gig at Wembley. "Then, two weeks later it's, 'You might as well do a warm-up show'," sniggers Dave, fresh from his bumpy cross-sea flight. "Then it's, 'You can't do Edinburgh and not do Birmingham.' And so on. The old sneaking-in-a-tour-through-the-back-door scenario."
    The first performance two nights previously in Newport was revelatory, with their bogeyish low-points proving unexpectedly thrilling. Even 'Country House' was entertaining, especially after Damon introduced it with a handstand.
    "The ones that I expected to be really awful weren't bad," Dave claims. "We'd built up 'Bang' over the years into this horrible ogre, but it's just... harmless crap. And 'Country House' was like meeting an old friend you haven't seen since primary school. And who hasn't grown up."
    "I'd no idea how Mickey Mouse we'd become around the time of 'Country House'," agrees Alex. "No wonder we pissed those other boys off."
    The prevailing mood of live-and-let-live even stretches to Graham - a man whose love for his band's A-sides knows quite a few bounds.
    "I ordinarily get pissed off with singles," he mutters, far more relaxed than the fidgety schoolboy on The South Bank Show. "But I've decided to leave all that stuff at the hotel. Leave your angst at the door. Life's too short to be angry. To get through it you've just got to think of Christmas and children, really - this is my Christmas cheer for this year. It's like the biggest encore we've ever done, just one big encore."
    This same freewheeling, slate-cleaning holidayish atmosphere is evident at the soundcheck. Ironically, the two songs they lay into with piledriving urgency are the reviled duo of 'Sunday Sunday' and 'Charmless Man' - black sheep now welcomed back into the fold. While waiting for the latter's keyboard sound to be altered, Graham begins whistling the melody into the mike. "That's good!" shouts Damon.
    "Maybe we can do that for the whole set. Just come out and whistle all the hits!"
    With 'I Know', originally a double A-side with 'She's So High', inaugurating the set, the 23 songs span out to over two hours of dizzyingly great '90s guitar-pop.
    "It definitely works differently to a normal set," agrees Alex. "It's a bit like drinking too much Coca Cola, it does get a bit nauseating."
    For the rumour-mongers, of course, these gigs are all too good to be true. The whole concept could undeniably be read as a winding-down procedure, an exorcising of demons before final dissolution. The greatest singles band of the '90s end both decade and career with a tying-up of loose ends. But such career-plan neatness hasn't characterised Blur's progress over the decade they've soundtracked.
    So will this be the last time you'll play a lot of these songs?
    "Not for me," reckons Dave. "I'll still be in the Blur tribute band. Dave Rowntree's The Blurs. Dave Rowntree's Blur Experience. We'll be playing Greenland."

Vexed on a stick: Damon suffers inner turmoil over the big 'Country House' quandary
Vexed on a stick: Damon suffers inner turmoil over the big 'Country House' quandary

1999 WAS A YEAR OF MID-TEMPO ACTIVITY FOR Blur. While '13' didn't quite see them once again saving the rock, it meant that what Graham has called "a devil worship bad trip Gong album" was sitting reasonably prettily as a semi-permanent fixture in the album charts.
    True, for a band used to considering themselves kings of their corner of the world, this position was occasionally frustrating. "I think the press were stand-offish, not the public," asserts Damon. "All our albums sell around 600,000. OK, it's not a million, but it's enough for me, you know?"
    Woody Allen had a running self-referential joke in Stardust Memories of people saying they preferred his older, funnier films. It's a situation partially mirrored by Blur through the year. The Reading and Leeds festival appearances were undoubted triumphs, but only at the expense of climbing back from their '13'-only sets to include more of the older, tuneful songs. Before that, though, was their T In The Park performance. While the band claims the atmosphere was positive, the resulting reviews certainly weren't. And the whole event was overshadowed by Mogwai's cunning items of merchandising.
    "It was just so random, right out of nowhere," says Damon of his band's latest set of North-of-Watford knockers. "I got a couple of free T-shirts, though, so I did alright out of it."
    A more internal source of conflict was the release of the album's second single 'Coffee + TV'. Graham wasn't enamoured with the idea of exposing his vulnerable voice any further.
    "The only reason I sang it was that Damon had to do lyrics for other stuff," he says. "He said, 'You write a lyric', so I went home and wrote them that night and did the vocal in two takes. But I was scared of singing it live."
    How was the problem resolved?
    "[Snorts] I just had to do it. I didn't have any choice! And it kind of got better."
    The mainly media speculation meant an innocuous phrase uttered onstage at Reading - "We're going away for a bit, then we're going to do... something else" - was presented as further evidence of their supposed forthcoming split.
    "People have been pretty obsessed with our demise this year, but it's all part of the rough and tumble," Damon smirks. "You know, sometimes when you're in front of 80,000 people and the guitarist is taking a little bit longer than he should do to get himself ready for the next song, and you've run out of things to say, you just say the first thing that comes into your head."
    "People have been pretty obsessed with our demise this year, but it's all part of the rough and tumble," Damon smirks. "You know, sometimes when you're in front of 80,000 people and the guitarist is taking a little bit longer than he should do to get himself ready for the next song, and you've run out of things to say, you just say the first thing that comes into your head."
    The introspective, experimental material on '13', already known as 'the Justine LP', was never going to make for gigs with that Ibizan party atmosphere. Indeed, what in the studio felt like genuine catharsis did, over the course of a year's promotion and gigging, begin to feel like a gruelling exercise in raking over sensitive terrain.
    "It got a bit heavy on occasions," agrees Damon, "but there's nothing about that album which was insincere, so anything that resulted from it was fine by me. I don't regret it at all."
    Justine was, though, aggravated by continually hearing 'No Distance Left To Run' on its single release.
    "Well, that's just..." Damon pauses meaningfully. "It didn't stop her from asking me to play on her new record. So it can't have been that aggravating."
    Coinciding strangely with this period, Damon became the first band member to enter fatherhood when his artist girlfriend Susie gave birth to a daughter, Missy. "She's fantastic," he grins. "She's nine weeks old now. It's lovely. It means I get up early in the morning again. Which is a good thing..."
    This development fittingly coincided with their entrance into that pantheon of respectable artiness, The South Bank Show. "I really don't like to see myself as the old guard," Damon says, "but I suppose once you've done The South Bank Show, you have to in some way accept it."
    Alex has more primitive reservations about the programme.
    "There's that bit where I say how we got a record deal because we look good," he cringes. "And I look like a fucking potato."

THE GREATEST PIECE OF AMMUNITION FOR those seeking to bury Blur is undoubtedly Damon's admission that much of the music he now produces isn't suitable for a four-piece band. In his studio, situated virtually next door to his West London house, Damon says he makes new music almost daily. He won't reveal too much about it, although it's a safe bet that he wasn't behind the recent works of S Club 7. So what do the rest of the band think of his admission that many of his musical interests now fall outside the Blur band?
    "That's fine, because it's true," nods Graham. "There's been many times when he's presented something for us to work on and it's like [pulls pained face] 'No thanks.' Just stuff that would have been better with another environment like some small Stravinsky ensemble."
    "Everyone's got their own lives to lead," agrees Dave. "It took me ten years to get a surname. I've been Dave from Blur for a decade. It's nice to be Dave Rowntree."
    Alex responds less enthusiastically. "He's just talking shite as usual," he chuckles, settling back with a post-gig bottle of champagne.
    So just how offbeam were all those break-up rumours last year?
    "Totally," says Graham. "We have been close to having some troubles, but never really close to splitting up."
    "Every sideline is grist to the rumour mill," Dave believes. "There's an Argentinian band that sacks band members when they hit puberty and just gets somebody else. So we were thinking of doing that, when someone gets too old, we can sack them, and then have a perpetual Blur. That way we could always be on the verge of splitting up. We will split up one day."
"We have been close to having some troubles, but never really close to splitting up" -Graham Coxon    Next year looks certain to see Blur regrouping to tackle new material. After all, if 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', 'Parklife' and 'The Great Escape' comprised the 'British trilogy', surely another slice of bedraggled art-noise is needed to slot alongside 'Blur' and '13'.
    "There's probably another one, yeah," reckons Damon. "But I think Graham and my musical tastes are so completely different now that it'll be the most difficult record to make. But I'm not worried about it being an uphill struggle."
    "I've been told they're all pairs, with 'Blur' and '13' being the last pair," Graham contends. "I prefer looking at it like that."
    The next LP will have to be quite a leap, then.
    "Well, if it's not much of a leap, then I'll call it the last part of a trilogy. And if it is, I'll say it's part of a new pair!
    With Graham still listening to Sunny Day Real Estate and Mortician and Damon, following the lead of the 'Buena Vista Social Club' project, developing an interest in Latin music, common ground will prove difficult. What is certain, though, is that 'pop' is not on the menu. "There's no freedom in it," Graham sneers. "It's like a TV dinner, after a while you just want to do the cooking yourself."

TONIGHT'S SHOW IN BELFAST CERTAINLY proves that the concept was a sound one. Damon suggests to the audience that he should wear an interchangeable set of wigs through the set, also explaining his atrocious haircut in the 'There's No Other Way' video. Apparently, the director ordered a window be snipped out of his baggy bowlcut so the camera could see his eyes. At the other end of the set, Graham apologises for his singing on 'Coffee + TV', complaining that "My ears have said goodnight."
    Between these apologies emerges a brazen evocation of the past decade. Two large lads waltz together during 'To The End'. No acts of sabotage are committed, the only noteworthy difference being Damon's impressively improved larynx skills. Finally, 'No Distance Left To Run' strikes an appropriately hushed note of closure. What the set reveals, though, behind the switchbacks and schizophrenia, are the constants. 'Popscene' and 'MOR', say, or 'She's So High' and 'Beetlebum' reach accross the years to offer what Blur supposedly always lacked: stylistic unity.
    Backstage afterwards, Damon relaxs with a can of lager, pondering the curious appeal of the canon's stinkers. "That's just the way it's got to be - warts 'n' all," he laughs. "They're part of what we are. And, you know, you can't polish a wart..."
    The eventual shift from the venue to the hotel next door necessitates descending a ramp down the slope before executing a perfect turn into the lift. He skates a lot, does Graham.
    At the hotel bar, Alex cracks open a pack of travel dominoes. Select foolishly asserts that it's "a game of luck", before being inducted into the subtle layers of skill involved.
    Later on, Alex will pluck a pack of cards from his trouser-leg pocket and show off his latest tricks before inveigling the ensemble into a spot of Newmarket, with bets starting at just one English pound. Before that, though, Select corners each member of Blur alone to ask just who - after all this water-under-bridge-style reflection - is their favourite member of Blur?
    Damon: "Who's my favourite member of Blur? What a funny question... Well, the most reliable is Dave."
    Graham: "[Long pause] They're all pretty scary people, I think. I suppose Alex is very easy to be around. Damon and Dave are very intense individuals. I don't know what they think of me... If Alex doesn't say I'm his favourite, I'll be very surprised. He's always going, 'Oh yes, Graham, I love Graham.' I love them all, really.
    "It's weird being around boys for such a long time. It's just like brothers. It's about life, though, really. Blur just goes along as this thing that's sometimes hard and sometimes easy. And life just gets more complicated as you get older. But Blur's a big laid-back thing now. A docile crocodile. It's rather nice, actually."
    Alex: "[Instantly] Graham, it's always been Graham. I could say anything to Graham. I suppose he's my best friend."
    Dave: "[Shocked and appalled] I've no idea! I get on with everybody at the moment, we're all getting on frighteningly well. Everyone's settled their differences and we're all very happy together. [Pause for effect] And if you believe that, you'll belive anything..."

Ten years of Blur singles - comments from the band
Ten years of Blur singles - comments from the band

Steve Lowe
Typed up by Veikko's Blur Page


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