Damon Albarn was a strawberry picker. Long before he was the face of Blur — the iconic English band that have just released their first new studio album in 12 years, The Magic Whip, to some of the best reviews of their career — Albarn worked in the fields of his hometown of Colchester. Picking strawberries.
Graham Coxon — Albarn’s guitarist, foil, and best friend — was in those fields, too, mostly on pea-picking duty. They were at Stanway Comprehensive School when they first met. Coxon had recently seen, and been intimidated by, Albarn’s performance of “Gee Officer Krupke!” at school assembly. Albarn had spotted and was unimpressed by Coxon’s knockoff ska brogues. He made sure to tell him so.
They collaborated on a song in the music practice portacabin. Not long after, they got drunk for the first time — “legless,” Coxon recalls — via a bunch of wine bottles that Albarn had hooked with string to a tree and bobbed in the river. It was homemade stuff, elderflower and elderberry wine, whipped up by Albarn’s dad.
Eventually the vices became more extravagant — champagne, cocaine, heroin, even store-bought wine. By the mid-’90s, Blur would rise and reach the stratosphere. Eventually, the band would combust. Things got boozy and tortured and bad, a few times over. But when Blur finally made their return, with a series of triumphant live shows in 2009, everything was simple. Albarn and Coxon patched up a relationship that had begun when they were in primary school. Now they’re together again.
When they sat down on a random stoop in London in 2008, Albarn and Coxon split an Eccles cake and realized almost immediately, Yeah, OK, this is fine. No: This is good. Looking back, Albarn would give one of the loveliest quotes in the ugly history of rock reunions. “The main thing,” he said, “is that it’s really nice to know that I can call Graham and he’ll pick up the phone, and it’s all cool, you know?”
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The Blur reunion has come in fits and starts. In 2009, the band headlined the Glastonbury Festival. Later that year, there were the first big gigs at Hyde Park. In 2012, there was a career-spanning boxed set. Then they closed out the London Olympics. Was that it? A glorious decade of wrestling with pop music, capped with a victory lap of unimaginable highs? Well, no. Early in 2015 came the surprise announcement: an actual new Blur album!
Back in 2013, the band found themselves marooned in Hong Kong. A planned festival date had fallen through, and five days suddenly appeared on the schedule. So they locked themselves in a studio and bashed around. Then they let it all sit. Why rush now? Eventually, Coxon took the initiative, wading through the material and shaping it into some kind of palatable form. He presented it to Albarn, who knew that what he was hearing was too good to go unheard.
And so now they find themselves in an oddly familiar position — pushing a new Blur record. Today’s pit stop: 30 Rockefeller Center, for a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
The hallway is lined with framed photos from sketches1 and bobblehead versions of the Roots. Clothing racks sit half-empty. A curly-mulleted metal bro yanks chairs around. A woman absentmindedly plays with Chrissy Teigen’s face superimposed on a placard. One dude keeps playing “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music on his iPhone, promising to do so until someone murders him.
The Blur crew spill out in the hallway. There are the craggy, veteran roadies in Fred Perry zip-ups, shaggy-haired survivors of the Britpop wars. There are the backup singers, buoyant women with gospel training and striking neon dye-jobs. And then there are Albarn and Coxon, sitting almost side by side in a tiny dressing room lined with whimsical bird portraiture. “Completely ornithological,” Albarn notes.
Coxon plays with his hair, ostensibly fixing it forward, mostly just jabbing at it. He takes pulls off his chunky vaporizer. He’s wearing his thick glasses and his tight striped T-shirt, something that became an accidental trademark over the years. In person, he’s broader than one might expect, and more clearly possessed of an off-kilter rock star vibe. He smiles more, too — a modified scamp smirk.
Albarn smiles brighter, locking eyes and showing off his whole mouth, most notably the glint of a gold front tooth. It’s accented nicely by the little hoop in his left ear and his garish green socks. He drums his fingers on the bench, knocks on the wall for no reason — still a hyperactive fellow trying to keep himself entertained. In the ’90s he was beautiful. He’s thicker now, in the end more handsome than pretty, and more approachable for it.
Ask about the early Colchester days, and Albarn begs off at first: “Oh my god. That’s … bloody hell.” But eventually the two are rolling through the reminiscing together. They remember tea and biscuits and Mike Leigh movies after school. Specifically, they recall their favorite: Meantime, a class-strife drama. Later, they’d nab its star, Phil Daniels, to holler out the verses on their chummy piss-take classic “Parklife.”
“I wanted to be like Keith Moon,” Coxon says. “I don’t know who you wanted to be.”
“Uh,” Albarn answers, with purposeful pretension, “I wanted to be me.”
“He got me into books,” Coxon says.
“He got me into” — weighted pause — “pop music.”
Later, they’d get into scraps at the pubs. “The young farmers used to take a dislike to Damon.”
“And the squaddies.”
“The young soldiers,” Albarn explains. “Because unfortunately in Colchester they have the biggest military jail. They’d get locked away for a week for some misdemeanor and then be allowed out on Friday pretty pissed off. And the first sort of gangly looking art-student person they saw” — he smiles, gold tooth shining — “they’d kick the shit out of.”
“I was always very apologetic. And he wasn’t,” Coxon says. “He’d look at people that way. I don’t know if he meant to look at people that way. That’s just how they took it.”
Alex James, Blur’s bassist, was Coxon’s friend at university. Dave Rowntree was a seasoned drummer on the local scene. “The first time I laid eyes on David Rowntree, he was working at Colchester Town Hall, coming back to work after his lunch break, wearing pajama tops, very tight jeans, 18-hole DMs, and a ginger mohican,”2 Albarn recalls, “so drunk he literally crawled up the steps.”
A few years back, James played himself a scratchy tape of their first practice. “It’s a 13, 14-minute rambling jam, and it’s astonishing. It sounds like Blur, straightaway. You’ve got Damon singing something off-center, Graham making a racket — it couldn’t actually be any band apart from Blur.”
Within a few years, Blur were huge. A remarkable Q Magazine feature from 1996 describes the band at their apex. Rowntree, already sober. Coxon, teetering. Albarn, embracing his poet-warrior-hero moment. At one point, James, the consummate lad about town, offers up the definition for the word roistering. “That word is actually in the dictionary,” he says. “‘Indulging in unrefined merrymaking.’”
In a typical after-show scene, we see Coxon downing a bottle of “feisty red” in the dressing room, then another on the tour bus, where he plays “a CD of incidental cartoon music and begins to bite people’s legs.” He goes on to “a small student venue where … triple Scotch and cokes are two quid” and “winds up, by now incoherently, back at the hotel bar with a champagne and lager finale, during which [he] loses the plot completely and thumps an innocently bystanding [friend] square in the face.”
“Being in a band is just being young but with all the volume and contrast and everything turned up,” James says now. “It enables you to do everything longer and harder.” Now, he lives on a farm with his wife and five kids, pals around with Jamie Oliver. He makes cheese most days. By consensus, he is the most “untroubled” member of the band. And in his forties, he might somehow be getting better-looking.
So, the night before the Tonight Show taping — set free in the glinting metropolis of New York City — what did the band do?
“We went to the Russian and Turkish baths on Avenue A. Oh, it was brilliant. I do love a good steam.”
All together? Did anyone recognize you?
“None of the rabbis in there.”
“We were having dinner.”
“And then I went to Duane Reade with Graham.”
“I live in the countryside,” James laughs. “I get quite excited about the idea of being able to go to a chemist every now and then.”
In late 1991, after their debut, Leisure, debts began to mount, and so Blur agreed to play their first American tour, sponsored by a T-shirt company. It was a disaster. Dozens of shows were scheduled to flog the apparel, but with grunge newly dominant — Nevermind dropped the day they arrived in the U.S. — fans happily ignored Blur’s then still half-baked twee Brit sound. The press was equally unkind.
“We did radio interviews,” Albarn says, “and there’d be appalling silences. We got terribly self-conscious and embarrassed every time. And then, heads hung, we’d slouch out. You could see the director of the station screaming at our rep.”
“Or we’d end up swearing,” Coxon says, “and getting chased out of the stations, scared out of our wits.”
“America was in the throes of a new guitar movement,” Albarn says, “and had a real strong sense of its own identity at that time. We just came across as being slightly rude, sarcastic, and difficult. And bullshit.” He considers. “We never had any problem with New York and San Francisco and L.A. It was the details of America that were a little problematic.” He laughs. “The details, shit.”
But as with any great herculean labor, this shaped the band. “There’s no such thing as not going through it,” Albarn says. “To define yourself. It clearly made us the band we are today. As a songwriter, it transformed me. I suddenly realized I had a lot to say. As opposed to … nothing to say.
“When we did the first record, it wasn’t really on my mind. It was just about getting a band going. The visceral energy of being in a band is what I was interested in. And during that period [in America], I realized that, being in a band, you could express things that weren’t necessarily visible to everybody.
“What people don’t really know about Blur is that we spent a long time in America, working,” Albarn continues. “But totally under the radar. And when we got back [to the U.K.], you could see the culture — the McDonald’s and the shopping centers growing. It was the same kind of imperialistic process of the Romans with their roads and castles. It really gave us a starting point.”
Over Blur’s ensuing triptych of albums — 1993’s hearty and deeply British Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1994’s Parklife, and The Great Escape, from 1995 — Albarn rolled out droll, cutting observational sketches. The scenes and characters — nude civil servants gone mad, drunken bank holidays — were vividly recognizable to the band’s countrymen. The songs were resonant, some massively so. With a strong sense of their own identity secured, Blur became the biggest band in Britain.
Not long after, a few factors irrevocably changed their lot. The first was Oasis becoming The People’s Champion right under their noses. Next to the Gallaghers’ pub sing-alongs, Blur’s more considered songs suddenly felt like stuffy comp lit. The tabloids played up the obvious, fashioning Oasis as the roughened Northern working-class lads up against Blur’s effete Southern gentlemen. It was reductive, but also crushing; for a long while, Albarn would enter shops and be greeted by smirking clerks hurriedly throwing on Oasis.3
The second was the end of Albarn’s tumultuous eight-year romance with the musician Justine Frischmann.
He’s spoken openly of their conjoined heroin days, saying, “I turned up at my house and there it was, made on the table. What should I have done? Leave my life and reject it or stay in my own house with my girlfriend and somehow assimilate it into my life?”4
He shared the pain of that broken relationship in his songs. On 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, third-person perspective shifted to first. The bounce was gone. It was raw, and thrilling. Coxon pushed the band toward noise. He once said that he wanted to make music no one would want to hear. “But the pain in the arse is that Damon writes really good songs.”
“When you’re coming down, think of me here,” Albarn sang. “I got no distance left to run.”
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
It’s chilly in the Tonight Show studio, but the herded packs of jolly tourists — from Thailand, the Netherlands, Long Island — don’t seem to mind. The warm-up comic crushes. Fallon’s every guffaw is hailed. Scarlett Johansson comes out to play something called “Box of Lies,” and the room is cacophonous. This is not Blur’s crowd. They’re game, though, the moms and their gawky teen sons in boat shoes. “‘Woo hoo! Woo hoo!’ That song!” one woman explains to her friend, futilely.
There is a through line that connects this moment to ’92 and the general peaceful unease the band has always had with the U.S. — and by extension, with other, more famous bands, too. Specifically, compatriots who have fully conquered the territory.
Safely ensconced in their forties, Blur no longer seem bothered by naming names. Coldplay: “No, let’s not go to that band,” says Albarn. On Radiohead: “They’ve turned into a kind of liquid,” says Coxon. U2, however, gets it full bore. Albarn reels off a story, to Coxon’s great enjoyment, of being at the Grammys with his other band, Gorillaz, and having his view blocked by Bono’s giant Stetson.
“I couldn’t fucking see anything!”
“Can you just go, ‘Come on, Bono! Knock it off!’?” Coxon wonders. “That must have been as tall as him.”
“It gave him at least another foot. It was him sort of appealing to Christian Middle America …”
“The Assassination of Jesse James kind of hat …”
Spurred on, Albarn attempts to channel Bono: “‘Hey, guys — I understand your roots, and I’m with you, you know, here in the desert, with one of these hats on. And we’ve got a cactus here.’”
“They always liked a cactus, U2.”
The two are enjoying themselves, the weight of having to toe a line or play the right way long ago lifted. “We’re not good at doing chat shows or anything,” Albarn explains. “If the moment is right, we’re funny … we are! But if we sniff any eau de bullshit, anyone pretending, we’re out of there. We shut down. That was always perceived as us being grumpy and difficult. And it’s not. We’re really just super sensitive. We’re just not good at pretending.”
“It’s far too tiring,” Coxon says. “Really exhausting.”
“And that’s why,” Albarn says, smiling happily, “we’ve never achieved anything.”
When it comes time to perform, Blur roll out, “Ong Ong,” the poppiest number on their new album, with a stinger of a performance. It’s big and boisterous, lots of la la las for everyone to swallow up. At the end, when Fallon comes out to do his gushing, Albarn sticks his acoustic guitar between his legs, with the neck protruding, a big sheepish grin on his face, and pretends to hump the host with it.
These days, Coxon and Albarn’s relationship is repaired, for the most part. Which isn’t to say it’s the same as it ever was. When Coxon walked off — was pushed off? — the recording of the last Blur album, 2003’s Think Tank, a certain tether had come undone for good.
“The most important thing now is that there isn’t that same sort of dependency,” Albarn says. “Because with codependency of any form comes vulnerability. We’re not really here because we need to be here. We’re here because we choose to be here. And the door is always left firmly open.”
“Wedged,” Coxon adds drily.
“There isn’t that sense of claustrophobia that there was at one point,” Albarn continues. “Bear in mind that we got to know each other at age 11, and that was continuous until we were 30. And then other shit happened. We had a nice break.”
“I was still 9 years old in my head in the ’90s,” Coxon says. “It was crazy, and I didn’t really have the emotional apparatus to cope with it. Just fucking having tantrums. It’s a bit different now. [The Magic Whip] came out so casually, without any pressure. It was not coaxed or prodded out, in the way that it used to be in the ’90s — that sort of treadmill. It was music that wanted to exist. And it ended up existing.”
In recent years, the familial ties have deepened. Albarn and Coxon’s daughters are around the same age, both of a musical bent, and they get along quite well. Albarn’s plays the harp and the piano and the bass, he quietly notes. And she has a lovely singing voice as well.
Rowntree still embraces the cliché, to a degree: “Damon’s the older brother and we take turns being the kind of younger tearaway, the kind of stroppy middle one … but it’s rather more complex than that. What you need in a relationship as intense as a familial relationship is space, and work.”
“There’s an element to that, the fraternity, definitely, still,” Albarn says. “But, I mean, families grow up, don’t they?”
“They’re my best friends,” James says. “They’re the best friends I’ll ever have. It’s best when it’s the four of us.”
The night after Fallon, Blur play The Magic Whip in full to 500 frenzied fans at a hastily thrown-together quasi-secret show in Williamsburg. It’s their first time playing New York City with Coxon in 15 years. When they first reunited, Albarn had said he wanted them to play the best gigs of their whole careers. He wasn’t kidding. After a whimsical little run on the xylophones to start the show, Blur go in.
Albarn shouts, sneers, and does his best to instill real menace into his reckless water-bottle splashes; he squeezes out every possible last ounce of petulance. Blur were never a punk band, but onstage, Albarn does his best to pretend otherwise.
Coxon’s guitar sounds as slippery and sharp as ever. In the Tonight Show dressing room, Albarn had joked that Coxon’s favorite thing was the look on people’s faces when he kicked on that third distortion pedal. “I’ve been trying to be nicer and all that recently,” Coxon answered, smiling. “But I think tomorrow, yeah, fuck it.”
At one point onstage, Albarn and Coxon quickly huddle. Then, by way of breaking it up, Albarn wraps Coxon up in a hug. Perhaps feeling the awwws rising, Albarn trots over to give James one. Then he hops up on the drum riser to corral Rowntree into his arms as well. A beaming Rowntree responds with a quick kiss on the cheek. Then they get on with it.