The Uncut dated September 2023 features a four-page review of Blur‘s new The Ballad Of Darren album, including a lengthy Q&A with Graham Coxon. Here’s the full, unedited transcript of our chat, in which Graham discusses the speedy recording, the difference between …Darren and Modern Life Is Rubbish, and why a bit of vagueness in songs is good: “The thing is to not always think that you know what the subject matter is, because you can be quite wrong…”
Is it exciting to be back talking about a new Blur album after eight years?
Yeah, it’s nice! The experience obviously was very quick, six or seven weeks in the studio, so not long. It was a really nice time recording – it seemed to spring out of nowhere, but I have to resist saying that because it was it was quite an intense time working.
When did you know there was going to be a new record?
In January, I think. Damon says, “I’ve got a few songs.” Dave, Alex and I had been rehearsing, to see if we could still play with each other, and I’d felt a certain unease of having some shows to do but nothing new to play. So when Damon said he had a bunch of tunes he’d been writing as he went around on tour, that was quite good.
Had he been writing these with Blur in mind?
Maybe… I don’t know whether it was with Blur in mind, I know that songwriters write whetever they are. I know Damon doesn’t like doing nothing, so he used his time to work – that’s his affliction, I suppose. So we had a few demos and then some new ones came along in the early part of the year too. So we had a good load of demos to look at. We were going to have a sort of a period of pre-production with James Ford and Damon and I just sort of sifting through, but then we thought, ‘Well, sod that, let’s just get everyone in, we haven’t got much time, let’s just make a start. Let’s just get a song up and get on with it.’ We just did that really, we just got our heads down and before we knew it these songs were taking shape. I really felt the pressure being the guitar player to really give a lot of the songs some sort of different identities. The songs were inhabited by similar sounding things really, you know, bass and drums. I found it hard work because they’re not these simple two-chord songs that you can just get a big fat riff over, you know? There was a lot of chords and there’s a lot of music in there, and quite often they’re not just simple major and minor chords, there’s major sevens and other sort of jazzy chords and other lovely bits and bobs going on that I really wanted to get inside and amplify, and make as nice as possible. When the vocals were going to be eventually recorded and lyrics written, I really wanted there to be a recognisable difference between the songs sonically, so that capsule of a song could carry the words and lyrics in a nice palatable way.
How did you approach the guitar parts, then?
Every time I put any guitar down, it really had to be musical, it really had to communicate something about how I was feeling as well. There’s a lot of very mellow sounds. I suppose it’s not a particularly contemporary sonic concept, necessarily – it’s pretty trad, although it feels kind of relevant, because Blur always sing about the world they find themselves in. So I suppose the relevance is in those lyrics and also the sort of universalness of the subject matter. It’s quite open and emotional. It does offer communion, if you know what I mean – it’s not about some bloke on the train who you don’t give a shit about, you know, it’s really about bigger feelings than that.
You certainly make some weird sounds, but they’re subtly integrated into the songs.
I kind of limited myself, we all did, but it didn’t stay that way. Damon had an electric piano, a couple of Russian synthesisers and a Chamberlain thing, and I had my Manson guitar and my Jeff Beck Strat and a Pink Flow pedal by Jam, and that was it. So all of the sounds are pretty much from that. So it really had to come down to what you were doing with the fingers. In the end, we did get a brass section and we got some strings, but a lot of those lovely [synth] sounds are still there. There’s a lot of sounds on the guitars on “Albion” that shouldn’t be there, that should have been deleted, but they’re still there.
The Darren of the title, is this specifically [longtime band friend/bodyguard] Smoggy or is it a wider thing?
I suppose Darren is the symbol of somebody we have talked about or lived alongside for decades. It might be just that person who’s a similar age to you, lives up the road, who you don’t know much about. It’s kind of everyone really, isn’t it? But I realised that Darren is a man and there’s a sort of a man on the cover. But it really is, I guess, a representative of the human race going through what they have to go through each day, each week, each month, each year of their life to survive this insane world.
The songs are very emotional – there are a lot of hints at a break-up. Is this a concept album… fictional… autobiographical?
I think there are some loose concepts in everything that Blur do, in as much as any album could be looked at as a concept album, whether it’s a sonic concept or something to do with the lyrics. I suppose conceptually it looks over the years – I think it goes right back to mine and Damon’s musical friendship and how it started in 1982 or 1981. I mean, “The Narcissist” starts way back in the early days of Blur, and there are a few references to landscapes, landmarks, personally and physically. I suppose there’s a sort of relationship business in there, but the thing is to not always be too heavily personal about and to not always think that you know what the subject matter is, because you can be quite wrong.
Before the album was announced, there was a lot of stuff on your social media about 30 years of Modern Life Is Rubbish, and you’ve been playing a lot of noisier Modern Life Is Rubbish live, but then the album comes along and it’s quite different.
Both albums are overall kind of melancholic. There’s definitely elements of melancholia that are sort of paranoic and bitter, so that is there bubbling away as well. I think “St Charles Square” has a pretty paranoid view; there’s a lot of regret and loss, but I think with Damon it’s never as simple as singing about one thing, it always encompasses a lot of things. Like “Faraway Island” seems almost to me to be a song that is sung from a ship, to the dryads on some island somewhere. I wanted it to be quite a seafaring-sounding track with the acoustic guitar on it. Someone listening to it completely simplify it and see it as about an ex, or a long-distance relationship. I think keeping a type of vagueness to the subject matter is the best thing, to invite people in to experience the songs in their own ways. Otherwise it’s a bit dictatorial.
On “St Charles Square”, you’re unleashing some proper Fripp-style mayhem!
Yeah! It’s not a new thing for me to put slapback echo on, but that’s not a tuning I’ve used an awful lot – it’s my own kind of weird tuning where I have to bend one string every time I play a chord so that it’s in tune. That dictates whether it’s a major or a minor chord, and actually it allows you to play a major and minor at the same time, which can be a little bit too much, but I thought it called for that. That one did come together pretty quick, once we found that that was the vibe – if we’d have been doing a Modern Life Is Rubbish-type thing that would have been faster and it would have gone into a lot less of a swing, a lot less of a sassy kind of tempo, and it would have been a bit more snotty. As it was, I really wanted to keep it in a weird way sassily lumbering and menacing. If you played it a little bit faster then it would lose that and it would just be like a punk thing. It was important that it wasn’t like that. It’s the old-fashioned idea that whatever is menacing is lumbering inexorably towards you, in a very awkward, crooked way. You know, we’re describing this God-knows-what that’s within the walls and under the floors, and I really, really got what Damon [meant], because I had a similar experience in a flat.
With all these demos that were flying around, is there anything left over?
I’m not sure whether there were more than 15 or 16 songs that were knocking around, but it became apparent quite quickly which one’s were going to work and which ones should be put aside. I don’t think there’s unfinished business, I don’t think we’d be going back to any of those. The ones we attacked were the ones that really we should have attacked.
You and Damon have both worked with James Ford before – he was clearly a big part of this record?
Yeah, he’s great, James, because he’s just there as a musician. He isn’t an authority figure or a sort of uncle or anything, he’s an equal. What’s nice about that is that we’d be recording and he’d just get up and start playing something on a keyboard. He’s just great with drums. He’s a good laugh, he’s very relaxed, and he really is there for the music and for no other reason – that relaxed approach got absolutely the most out of us. It did on my other encounters with him too. I thought Damon did great on the vocals – I think his voice sounds really, really lovely, and I think that shows how relaxed we were. We felt like we were really making this for ourselves, as four people now getting together again to make music. That was the spirit in which it was done. When we were finishing it, and I was putting the last backing vocals on it, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s two or three songs on here that could be absolutely huge songs.’ There’s really something about them, something anthemic or almost simple, but very emotional. I was like, ‘Crikey, yeah, I think it’s pretty good.’ That’s a nice thing to discover about something you’ve been so inside for such a long time. I think people are gonna really get a lot out of it.