Band blurs line between British and U.S. rock

Photo courtesy: Chicago Sun-Times

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
March 30, 1997

Sitting in their dressing room at the Riviera Theatre, Damon Albarn and Alex James  had about two hours before they would headline their recent sold-out show.

“Fans are queued up outside the venue?” vocalist Albarn said, looking at his equally photogenic band mate James. “It’s cold out, isn’t it?”

Bassist James nodded wearily.

It’s not that the British band isn’t appreciative of their fans. If anything, Blur knows that this core group of Anglophiles has sustained its U.S. career. While Blur may be a supergroup at home – with Albarn and his girlfriend Justine Frischmann (of Elastica) regularly showing up in the gossip columns – it is best known here as the band Oasis loves to hate.

Now on the strength of their most accessible album, “Blur,” which was released earlier this month, the musicians are poised for success. The record is less focused on Albarn’s quintessentially eccentric British characters and has a harder edge to it that seems better suited for U.S. alternative radio.

The first track, “Beetlebum,” is a catchy number that sounds like it was plucked from a Beatles  record. But they follow that track with 13 other songs that incorporate bits of hard rock, trip-hop and lush pop. After six years of being hyped as the next Beatles,  Blur may finally break big in the States with this eclectic record. Still, the musicians aren’t holding their breaths.

“We’ve spent three albums being quite bitter” about  the lack of success in America, James said. “But then British music just started (ticking) us off. Before we started to make this album, we found ourselves listening to more Pavement and Beck, and I suppose the kind of music we made ended up sounding like what you (Americans) listen to.”

Not that any of their cuts will be mistaken for a Pavement outtake. Blur’s calling card, Albarn’s distinctive voice and exaggerated accent, remains the same.

“I think it has taken us ’til this album to sort of be trusted in America,” Albarn said. “I know it’s the first time college radio has got behind us. It’s so different in America because bands spend a lot longer just being underground. In England, you can play three gigs, get signed within two months and then be playing on `Top of the Pops.’ ”

Blur’s Virgin Records label mates the Spice Girls are living testimony to Albarn’s theory. The female version of the New Kids on the Block, the much-hyped Brits are huge Blur fans. The feeling isn’t mutual. During a recent Blur performance in England, a couple of Spice Girls jumped onstage to sing “Girls and Boys” with the band. Blur had them removed.

“Oh yeah, that was true,” Albarn said, smiling. “Then they went back to the balcony and the audience threw cans at them. As if all that weren’t enough, they came to our after-show.  They weren’t allowed in.  They finally got in and then they got drunk and left.

“When you’re in the biggest band in the world at the time, you can do whatever you want. But longevity is really the only thing that counts because it means you’re there or thereabouts all the time.”

Blur – which also includes guitarist Graham Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree – is not as abrasive as Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, whose wish that Albarn and James contract AIDS and die was blown up to front-page news in England. Gallagher downplayed the statement, saying the quote was taken out of context and that Blur was OK.

Albarn’s not buying it.

“I don’t believe he said that,” he said.  “He has had plenty of opportunity to say that to me and he never has.  We’re not friends.”

But the angelic-looking singer doesn’t mince words when it comes to criticizing his colleagues.

Steve Albini, who produced the Pixies – one of Blur’s favorite groups – lost credibility in the band’s eyes when he recorded Bush’s latest album, “Razorblade Suitcase.” As for Bush, the Brits can’t even be bothered to comment on their popular  compatriots. “How can you take (Albini) seriously after he works with them?” James said in disgust.

And of Sheryl Crow, whose work he admires, Albarn had nothing but disdain when told she was using guest musicians such as Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz and the Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan at her concerts.

“That sounds pretty uncool to me,” he opined.  “Maybe if we did things like that, more people would know about us. But not succeeding in America doesn’t mean anything to us now because it’s been such a long time.  It has always been the case, so anything else would be a really nice surprise.

“I’m not surprised that in the past we haven’t done well (here). I think we deserved to do well because we’re as good as anybody live, which is probably the reason we’ve always managed to sell out quite reasonable-sized places without any MTV or radio support.”

Added James, “It’s fairly obvious to most people why we’re not bigger (in America). We’ve always done something that’s been sort of exclusively British.”

Now that they’ve adapted to American rock, are they prepared to tackle techno, which is being touted as the genre that will make alternative music obsolete?

“They said that in Britain a long time ago and then us and Oasis came along,” Albarn said.  “Kids do not just want to listen to techno music, nor do they want to just listen to guitar music. They want to listen to what they consider to be good music and it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. You’re not going to kill off guitar music.  No way.”

Blur will be back this summer to tour America.

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