Damon Albarn says it's not the end for Blur
Blur – never has a band name become more apt as time goes on than those four simple letters.
Some 22 years after fledgling, baby-faced indie-pop noisesters Seymour celebrated putting pen to paper with equally young independent label Food Records by changing their name to that vague one lower-case word, it remains as hard to pin-point or "Stereotype" their sound and vision as ever.
At different times, they have toyed with and been labelled everything from doe-eyed shoegazers to baggy wannabees, psychedelic post-punk noiseniks, art-school poseurs, pretty boy pop stars and at the same time even, both Britpop saviours and revivalists. Yet as they proved once again at last week's triumphant Hyde Park reunion reunion (no it's not a typo), they are simply the most deliciously diverse and uniquely talented British pop band of modern times.
"Bang" in the middle of that musical and, at times, cultural conundrum is Damon Albarn, one of the most judged, labelled and enigmatic artists of this and any generation. Despite or perhaps because of his success not just with Blur but Gorillaz, The Good The Bad & The Queen, Mali Music, two operas, a new collaboration Rocket Juice & The Moon with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, producing an album for soul legend Bobby Womack and his latest, ambitious new African Express project, he has been described at varying times as moody, aloof, arrogant, a control freak and, most hurtfully to the man himself, as a pretentious, privileged, middle class southern softie.
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Having interviewed the man several times over the years, I can tell you that now as then, the Damon Albarn who stood before me again in London last week is none of those things.
He is a man at peace with himself and, after Hyde Park, both assured and exhilarated at his position within a cultural Britain still buoyant after the runaway success of the gig as the celebratory climax of the London Olympics.
Clearly emotional throughout the gig itself, with tears flowing during the encore rendition of The Universal and a heart-thumping farewell at the end, Damon said: "It was brilliant really. The whole thing was very special.
"What an extraordinary couple of weeks it's been. The whole Olympics has been brilliant – a tonic for the whole country – and it was an honour to be a part of that.
"I love this country and I love this city. London is our city and I live just round the corner from Hyde Park so when I was given the invitation to do the gig, I jumped at it really."
That is a view shared by cheese-making bass player Alex James, who has lost none of his own infectious enthusiasm, saying: "The 2009 gigs (the band's last reunion shows, also in Hyde Park) were among the best shows we ever did and we didn't want to tarnish that so it had to be something special, a trigger like the Olympics, to get us to do it again."
But, as with the country as a whole, Blur – and Damon in particular – have not always been so happy to embrace such a united mood or 'feelgood' factor, even among themselves. And there have been times that their mutual love and respect for each other, so evident throughout both reunions in 2009 and 2012 has been stretched to the limit. One of the worst periods came ironically as the band basked in their all-conquering post-Parklife pre-Great Escape glory but then found themselves not only embroiled in the infamous 1995 Britpop war with Oasis but also fighting among themselves.
Damon recalls: "It was horrible. I didn't like being set-up as middle class and privileged because it wasn't true. I didn't go to private school or have any money – my parents were art teachers – so it wasn't fair but every time I tried to do something about it, I just dug myself deeper in.
"And it got worse and worse inside the band too. It was no longer us against them. It ended up we didn't like each other either."
Out of such adversity of course, came the landscape-changing genius of the eponymous fifth Blur album in 1997, followed two years later by 13, only for troubles to reappear around the recording of Think Tank in 2003, and this time the wounds cut deeper, climaxing in Graham Coxon's exile from the band. And again it was outside pressures and success that fuelled the internal fires.
Damon recalls: "I was still all over the place and would be for a few more years really. Gorillaz had taken off, which was a big change and I was going to Africa, making Mali Music but felt like I had to make another Blur album for everybody else, even though it was the last thing on my mind. But then Graham was too much in his own zone and I asked him to leave. It was partly me being resentful about doing it so I just became a bit belligerent really.
"We made the album without him – and did pretty well really – but it could have been better and that's because we didn't have Graham. It's obvious."
But playing live was a different matter, as Alex recalls, chipping in: "It took at least four people to replace what he does." So much so in fact that many people thought the Think Tank tour would be the band's last. And so it was until, after numerous diverse solo antics, the dust and feathers had settled for their first capital homecoming in 2009.
Despite their roots in Essex – although they actually joined up as a foursome at Goldsmiths College in 1988 – Blur have always had a love affair with London, as shown by their Hyde Park stage set built to resemble the Westway overpass, and celebrated in new single Under The Westway, a personal highlight of last week's show.
And it has been the response to that song, and fellow new track The Puritan, that has eased many fans' fears – and those of the band itself – that Hyde Park may have been the their last hurrah.
"I think they are both strong Blur tunes – both sides of Blur really. We wanted to prove that we are still evolving because we have never stood still," said Damon.
"The world is a different place – almost unrecognisable – to when we started and the times when Blur fully existed and so are we. That's the whole point.
"Yes, It's a full stop for now because we've all got other stuff going on – Graham has another solo album due out, Dave is busy with politics and being a lawyer and Alex is combining making cheese and running a farm with his life as a media whore while the African Express sets off round the country this week – but to say it's 'The End', that's not true at all.
"We've talked about it privately and I have my own idea of a scenario but it probably won't be that either because you can't be that clear about such things because you just don't know."
Alex was more succinct, pointing out: "If Hyde Park had been s**t, that would have definitely been it, but it wasn't was it? So here we are again, just don't ask us for any definite answers. We can't do that!"
And there you have it, 22 years later and the vision is still no clearer than ever. It's still Blur-red – and I for one like it like that.
Parklive, the live album of Blur's gig at Hyde Park, is available from shop.blur.co.uk along with latest single Under The Westway.