Nick Churchill’s Interviews Alex James

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Nick Churchill Interviews

NC: It’s late autumn in the year 2000 and the Britpop party was over long ago, leaving its most creative mixers with almighty post-Millennial hangovers. One of its most dedicated bons vivants, Alex James is sitting at his glass-topped kitchen table in the basement of his home in Seven Dials, off Covent Garden. Over there is the double bass he used on the previous year’s hit single Tender, as copious tea and too many cigarettes (his Camel, mine Silk Cut) fuel a lively, chatty conversation of many things, of cabbages and kings.

Blur have spent most of the year on a break as reports emerge that dark forces have been threatening to swamp the band. However, a new single – the musically adventurous groove of Music Is My Radar – is on the cards and Blur: The Best Of compilation is due on October, affording hungry critics (if not the band itself which saw the release as little more than another piece of ‘product’) the chance to review Blur’s sonic progress and considerable achievements since their 1990 debut, She’s So High.


They didn’t tour in support of the compilation and it would be another year before they reconvened in London to start work on the album that would become Think Tank. Not long after, guitarist Graham Coxon was asked to leave and the remaining three members continued recording in Morocco and finally in Devon.

By the time the album came out in 2002 the musical landscape was barely recognisable from that of the mid-1990s that had been Blur’s hitmaking peak. Parklife, Country House, There’s No Other Way, The Universal, even Song 2 had fused punk, 60s psychedelia, music hall and pure pop to provide Britpop with a cor-blimey soundtrack and the band lived lives to match.

The songs on Think Tank though captured a more mature band of musicians, in control, deep in thought and anxious to explore a vast musical palette that would inform singer Damon Albarn’s subsequent music with Gorillaz and The Good The Bad & The Queen. It was a record made by three men (and a cast of collaborators) who had completed a long and riveting journey over the previous 12 years and needed to go their own ways – Albarn deeper into music, drummer Dave Rowntree into politics and the law; and Alex into starting a family (he married Claire Neate in 2003), farrning and cheesemaking.

Blur’s reunion in 2009 was one of the most welcome of recent years and saw Graham happily back in the fold. For now, their future remains unwritten.

The full extent (and maybe some more) of Alex’s partying was revealed in his rock ‘n’ rollicking 2007 autobiography, A Bit Of A Blur, as was his most public apology to his long-standing then-girlfriend Justine with whom he’d been in a relationship since they were teenagers together in Bournemouth, but on that autumn day in West Central 2, Alex was presenting the acceptable face of being young, gifted and good looking in the wake of London’s longest and grooviest party since the swinging sixties.

Especially as his mum is going to be reading this in the Echo!

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NC: How’s things?

Oh, mum’s really excited, I feel like a 21st century Max Bygraves!

Blur’s history is really that of the 1990s. We’ve all seen the headlines, heard a few of the rumours, partied to the hits and sweated at the gigs. We’ve been having a ball, but it looks like you’ve been having a bigger one.

I guess popular culture is inevitably analysed in terms of decades and fortunately we formed in 1990. But there’s been two babies arrive in the band as well so I think we all kind of thought we’d have a bit of a break this year, an underline if you like. Graham and Damon both have little girls. Things have changed. I’ve had 10 years as a pop star, it’s my normal life.

So, you’re pretty used to it all then?

Yes. Yes. You get used to everything. Camus said that after three weeks in prison you stop thinking about everything else. I’m sure he’s right. Even in the ridiculous days of when we were on the news all the time life still takes on a routine. When you’re on tour it can it is brilliant, but your time is organised so effectively that the only choice you end up with is what you want to eat. It can be like that, but you learn how to organise yourself. It’s really bad manners to moan. I’m not moaning. Pop stars who moan, it’s just very bad manners to do that.

But the life is alien to most people – it seems incredibly glamorous – so can it ever be just a job?

I don’t know if it is just a job actually. Being a musician is easy. All you’ve got to do is think about music 24 hours a day. It’s never really felt like a job.

You did well at school, Bournemouth School, and went to Goldsmiths to do French, you weren’t destined for music. Or were you?

It’s funny that it is something that if I told my careers officer I wanted to do this he’d’ve told me to get a fucking life, but the point is that music is actually Britain’s fifth biggest export industry. It is a viable thing to aspire to. It’s kind of taken as a given that you know what you want to do and it’s actually one of the hardest things you have to do is decide what you want to do.

If you know what you want to do you’re really lucky. I worked in Safeway for a year – horrible!

Probably in a town like Bournemouth there aren’t the possibilities that there are somewhere like London. Blur are very much a London phenomenon. It’s the old story: people come to London and meet each other. That’s the hardest thing to do is to meet the people.

You were a regular face in the crowd on the Bournemouth music scene of the mid- to late-1980s. Things were pretty good for a while back then weren’t they?

There was a brilliantly vibrant music scene in Bournemouth when I was growing up. It wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t. I still keep in touch with some of the Readers Wives and some of the Farkle Family. The bass player from the Farkle Family is an A&R man at Echo Records, Darren Woodford. He’s done really well, he’s got Moloko and they’re really good. A lot of people are teachers, which is worthy.

Did you have ideas to be a professional?

No, I always told everyone I was going to be a rock star. Wanting to do something is kind of 80% of it, it really is.

What about when Blur got together? In the early days you were called Seymour and you’d been in bands in Bournemouth, did it feel like a long term band?

I don’t think we’ve ever sort of envisaged the end. Especially when you’re young like that you think everything’s going to last forever. We formed as friends really and that’s the best way really for these things to happen I think. It has to be on that basis. It would be unbearable to be anything else, it just can’t work. You can’t be in a band with people you hate. It’s horrible when people do fall out – usually about power struggles.

There have been all sorts of reports about tensions in band as you moved on from The Great Escape into the darker waters of the Blur album.

Yeah, but during There’s No Other Way me and Graham we having fights with each other in people’s cars and in radio stations. There’d be punch-ups and we got all that out of the way quite early on. I think all you want to do when you’re 21 is getting fucking pissed and show off and you’re given unlimited capacity to do that with big amplifiers and loads of booze!

Which you may have embraced more readily than the others?

Well, the whole of the music business is carried out in pubs and bars. From the moment you sign the deal the booze starts flowing.

Silly question, but was it fun?

It was Operation Fun, I think it has to be. I think people can tell when you’re bored.

As a fan it’s always interesting to watch a band grow up. You follow the songs and hear a bit about how the people involved are growing as people. Other things become important. There are marked changes between the Blur of The Great Escape and the Blur on the Blur album and again into 13 which seem incredibly personal.

The words were the last thing to get written on that record. I think what we were trying to do with that record was convey some attempt at emotion. If you can do that then people… I think you’ve just got to keep yourself interested and once you learn how the industry works you can operate a lot more effectively and efficiently. You got to keep thinking of new reasons to get up in the morning. The only thing you’ve got to go on in making music is your state of mind and it’s a natural thing to do to change.

It’s inevitable really. All great bands do it. You have to be bold but you can get into trouble, especially kids –  they can tell if you mean it. That was something that ended up becoming a bit of an albatross really when it escalated with Oasis when sales became the ultimate test of whether something was good or not. The bands that I liked when I was growing up – The Smiths, New Order – I suppose Blue Monday sold a lot but The Smiths never sold many records, but they’ve gone on to become the most influential band of the 80s probably, especially amongst American bands. I don’t think they ever even toured America, did they? They’ve gone on to become, you know, you couldn’t have REM without The Smiths.

Did Blur set out to make something that would last?

When you start out you’re just absolutely convinced of your own genius. Even when I was in bands in Bournemouth I thought they were the best band in the world – and, who knows, they may have been, but… All novices want to destroy the machinery and then become part of the machinery. I am an old fart! The last part of growing up.

It wasn’t long ago you were writing columns like Alex James Is Unwell for Select magazine, and something similar in The Idler.

I can’t remember writing that. I think we all walk very close to that line, don’t we? “And so far from satisfaction,” Joni Mitchell.

Can life in Blur be a bit of bubble? Is it difficult to take yourself out of it? You still visit your parents in Bournemouth quite often, is that your great escape?

Definitely, being in touch with some kind of some kind of normalness. The great thing about being in a band is that there’s four of you to keep each other sane, in no matter what kind of petty way. It is a playground, the music business – it’s all ‘He doesn’t like him’, ‘They’re a gang’, that kind of thing.

Any regrets?

Je ne regrette rien. Depending on how you’re feeling today you either regret everything or you don’t regret anything.

So there’s no middle ground?

If you’re happy then there’s an infinite number of ways of getting to that point.

Do you feel lucky, punk?

Yeah, you think it’s fucking lucky I bumped into these guys, but then you think it’s a fucking good job my parents met. So, yes, I feel fucking lucky.

I try and analyse it and I think all you can say is that you’ve got to take your chances. None of us had any idea what a life in the music business had to offer really, we just had some vague aspirations of being paid for being drunk and gorgeous! We all took a risk really. To find something you like doing you have to. You do meet, you can have everything, but something’s got to happen as well, something extra’s got to happen; I think what that extra thing is that people have got to like it!

There’s a lot of mystique attached to the music business but the longer you go on doing it, intellectual property is just as substantial a commodity as bricks and cement. I’m all for debunking the mystique of music really. We’ve spent a long time playing together and we’ve got good at it.

How long can it go on, can Blur be this generation’s Stones?

I like the way Marianne Faithful [with whom Alex wrote some songs] has aged more than the Stones. I think she has always kind of reflected how old she is in her music. They’re a nice bunch the Stones, god bless ‘em, but I think REM have done it very elegantly, thank fuck for REM. They didn’t really go globally massive until about their seventh album.

You’re 31 now, do you worry about dignifying your age?

It doesn’t matter how old you are. It’s not something you really contemplate. It’s not something I contemplate very often. As long as you’re willing to adapt to the way you feel you can’t go wrong. The future is top secret isn’t it? We’ve all become in demand as songwriters and producers. There’s plenty of ways it can go. I wouldn’t trust a record producer under 30.

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Country House – can you explain that?

What were we doing there? It just all got a bit… It was our baroque period. I think! What the hell we were doing taking that round America, it was complete blind optimism. It is a beautiful little cul de sac in the history of pop culture, but it’s a fucking odd record.

An oddity?

It’s veering towards a kind of musical, The Great Escape was a musical really, it wasn’t an album. It was a stage musical with a chorus line.

Strange tour too with Damien Hirst’s stage set design incorporating those giant burgers and pill. Was that done to get up the noses of Oasis – even a little bit?

When we making that record we weren’t thinking about them at all. That just came to light afterwards really and then we kind of made our bed and it wasn’t something that was ever going to… It’s an odd record, very sort of doom-laden. It’s the bleakest record we’ve ever made. Country House is up, but it’s about this guy who’s a knackered, twisted, failure of a man who has run away from everything.

Not just your record company boss Dave Balfe then?

He was chuffed to bits actually. Noel Gallagher lives in a big house in the country now, doesn’t he? It’s kind of ironic.

You’ve recently acquired a euphonium, why?

The truth about that was my dad wanted a euphonium and I got them to give me a free one if I had my photo taken with it, so it seemed a fair trade. I have a blow on it when it comes out at Christmas. Sugar Town by Nancy Sinatra, that’s the best bit of euphonium playing and it just gets better.

How’s your musical? [* It had been reported Alex was working on a musical with songwriter Jez Ashurst, with whom he later co-wrote ex-Coronation Street actor Richard Fleeshman’s second single, hit Hold Me Close]

I’ve seen Jez a few times, but it’s a three year project that will most likely break a man! That’s something to do for when I go bald I suppose. It’s a genre that needs reinventing I’m sure, but it’s a lot of work though. It’s like drug habits or something – everybody’s got one. How’s your musical? Talking about your lumbago!

What’s next for Blur?

I will definitely make another record. We’ve got expensive lifestyles to support. Probably around Christmas-time I think. It’s been good. We’ve all gone off and done our own thing so we can bring that back to the band. It does feel like coming home. I’m all for everybody doing that.

Is it daunting to step off the rollercoaster and take a break?

It was only a six-month break. There’s so many things you want to do and you haven’t got time because you’re always on fucking tour.

You don’t always get as much time to make music as you’d like?

That’s very true. It only takes three months to make a record and 18 months to market it and the cost of the thing. It costs. You can get…

[breaks to arrange lunch with a friend] (in faux American accent:) Let’s have lunch: that’s life in the music business!

So, you can get a top producer for two grand, you can get a studio for two days for around a grand a day, that’ll get you the best studio. You can make a number one record for four grand. But you can’t get it to number one unless you spend another two hundred grand on a video, marketing, touring, doing TV shows always costs the record company money.

The product itself doesn’t take much time and energy – four grand when you think about you sell half a million of them. It’s the great thing about pop music. Something that films suffer from is that it takes two years to make a film and there’s so much money at stake but by the time the thing comes to the light of day it has been focus grouped to hell, I mean, they change the ending if focus groups don’t like it, so there’s very little freedom.

But four grand? Fuck that, get on with it. It’s all about just having one great idea; and, you know, I’ve done it and that’s a bloody great thing.

The 90s was a decade that was defined by its music in a way that the 80s wasn’t I think. Three minutes can change your whole being. JK Rowling said that in the Harry Potter books, that music is the strongest magic of all – maybe I’m a fucking magician!

There have been questions about your fidelity to Justine…?

We split up for a year or so, but we’re back together. Known her since school. It’s still the person I will spend my life with – that’ll look good! It’s been said before but fame is an aphrodisiac, I’ve not really been made famous in the way that Damon has. If you want to dedicate your life to shagging you can, you don’t have to be in a band to do that… Hello darling! (Right on cue, Justine comes in upstairs.)

So, would you say you are more sensible now?

Yeah, balanced. You have to have something to come home to otherwise you just drift around the world, don’t you, if you don’t have that sense of home?

What are you excited by?

I’m perpetually thrilled by everything and awed as well. I think it’s important never to lose your sense of awe. I’d hate to be jaded.

You have some fairly stellar circles of friends, but do you still have the eyes of a fan?

Yes, but I’m sure they do as well or they’re not fucking human.

But some of them get so huge they must lose touch forever, how about the Stones?

There does come a point when you think: ‘Actually it’s not going to stop, I’ll be living in La La Land forever’ and once you’ve worked that out then you can carry on.

Are you there?

Yeah, maybe.

Could you envisage doing something other than music – writing or acting perhaps?

I’d like to write, writing’s good [he does a monthly column for Q magazine]. More than act I think. It’s that old thing of falling into the trap of thinking you can do everything just because you’re good at doing one thing and a lot of offers do come your way. I like to work in food, become a food scientist and research the properties of seaweed.

Can you cook?

Yeah, Yorkshire pudding. Like all men I can cook one thing. My grandad was a cook – at the [five star] Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth.

How often do you get back to Bournemouth?

Four or five times a year. My sister doesn’t live in Bournemouth any more, she lives in Farnham, at college. It’s just really evocative and as you get older you start to really cherish childhood. I can’t imagine a better place to grow up than by the sea. People are less tainted.

You were a regular at the Hot House [club, now Sound Circus] a few years ago.

That was great. Bacchus was good, that’s a shame that’s gone. There’s a lot of nightclubs in Bournemouth. It definitely did me good growing up in a kind of pleasure haven, but I guess this is a tourist resort where I live now.

Are your wild days behind you?

I hope so. It’s not so elegant to be wild in your 30s is it? When you’re younger it’s like being put in a speedboat and you say: ‘How fast can this go?’ I think everyone has a fairly wild time in their 20s – your 20s are for getting drunk and as long as you know when to leave that behind you’ll be all right.

Do you, or did you, have a problem with drink?

That’s a thing you’ll have to ask the others! I think if the work’s getting done. Getting drunk is fun, but you have to stop drinking sometime. As long as there’s someone drunker than you then you’ll be all right. Some good advice – as long as you take one day off a week to phone your mum.

How did your parents react to those reports?

Well they’d go: ‘Are you drinking too much?’ Then they’d come up here and get absolutely hammered in the daytime! I don’t think it was a problem, but there’s booze everywhere you go.

Anything stronger?

Not really, I think booze is the best rock ‘n’ roll drug, especially when you’re travelling as it just levels everything out and increases your sense of possibilities.

You’ve said there’ll be another Blur record, but what about the long term?

For sure. You have to take it one record at a time. I think the reason we’re not touring anymore is I think it’s the records you are remembered by, ultimately.

So, will you tour?

Yeah, you know. That is something we will do but we’ll be more relaxed about it. Because of the global nature of the industry when you’ve had hit records you’ve got to be everywhere at once so it does get a bit mental. I reckon we’ll just get a bit more relaxed about it and get on with it.

What do you do for kicks?

I fly aeroplanes. I’ve been into Hurn a few times and got really shouted at last time for taxi-ing the wrong way. I fly little ones, I’ve got a real old banger of a plane. There’s a discipline to flying planes which I like. Getting a pilot’s license, there’s a lot of Zen about it – you learn a lot about yourself and being responsible. It’s a good way of touring as well and you can smoke in your own plane!

The drummer was flying and we had to go to Manchester or something and we said can’t we take your plane and he said yeh, and we got in and it was 40 minutes to Manchester, fucking hell! This is great!

I had a go. I’ve got a real old banger for an aeroplane, nothing flash.

I wouldn’t say I wake up in the morning and go ‘Where am I going to get my kicks today?’ not like when I was 25. I read a lot.

Do you get bored?

Probably, I must do.

Are you dangerous when bored?

I think I have a lot of my best ideas when I’m bored; or at least idle. Let’s set The Lord’s Prayer to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, that was a good idea.

Ever fancied doing the rock star thing and living abroad?

I’ve always liked France. I was doing a French degree when I was at college. I don’t have loads of homes. People who have lots of homes and don’t live in them are silly – you can only live in one place at a time. Something about France though, everybody’s got another country don’t they?

Maybe after the second best of album?

Goodness knows, but it’s kind of nice just to be in one place for a reasonable length of time. I always imagined myself living in the country when I was little, but I’m a total city mouse. New York, Barcelona, Paris, London … cocktails! It’s very damp in the country, have you noticed?

Purbeck, that is one of my favourite places in the world. Kimmeridge is somewhere that I’m drawn back to again and again and again. It’s just so utterly timeless and kind of austere. The Purbecks are a lovely secret that we shouldn’t tell too many people about. I’m drawn there as much as anywhere really.

Can you foresee fatherhood?

Yes, I do actually. Two of the band have just become fathers so I don’t want to look like I was just joining in there! I think people are having babies later in life and I would like to have kids one day. Maybe we should get a dog first and see if it dies!

How are you with gadgets?

I rejected and refused to acknowledge technology for years, but now I’m just completely up for gadgets these days – anything that requires a battery I’ll have one! The internet’s not quite as good as watching telly yet; I think it will be soon. We’re kind of Stone Age cybermen, aren’t we? It’s very exciting.

Dave’s our computer faculty really. I’ve become very fond of Japan actually in the way that everything is designed to last you two years and is then thrown away. It’s a different way of doing things to us but it’s equally valid if the technology is going to be better in two years.

We’re an old country, resistant to change.

Yes, and we’re obsessed with our past in a very smug way with Americans!

Do you think the internet will bring everyone closer to everything?

It’s just one more media, it’s great. It’s just going to make it easier for everybody to have access to stuff.

How you do deal with getting recognised in the street?

I usually put a hat on. When you‘re hatching your little schemes you don’t want to be noticed, but it takes a lot of energy. But then everybody’s famous these days. How many people are in the national papers regularly every year. Probably something like one in a thousand people is in the papers every week, it’s not that unusual.

More people are famous for being famous though, what do you make of Big Brother?

That was a brilliant job, I loved that show.

Have you earned your fame?

I’m not really famous though, I’m in a famous band. It’s very convenient really, I only get recognised by people who like the band.

So you get the pluses and not the minuses?

Hopefully, yes! I know famous people and I’m not like them.

How do you judge if it’s all worth it?

I still feel like I want to get out of bed in the morning to do it. I don’t think you ever get to the point where you feel like you’ve achieved anything. As soon as you do achieve anything, you’re on to the next thing to the point where you just go: ‘rRght, finished’. Memory is not what the heart desires, you’ve got to keep it coming.

Is that a pressure?

Some people react badly to pressure and some people don’t. You would say this is a high-pressure business.

How do you contribute to writing Blur songs?

It’s pretty much like you see it, the drummer plays the drums, the bass player plays the bass, Damon sings and Graham plays the guitar.

Damon will turn up with something usually as he writes most of the stuff on acoustic guitar, so it’s like a vocal melody probably with no words or maybe one line and then we just bash it around. The new single, [Music Is My Radar] he just brought in a little squeezebox thing he’d bought for 99p or it came out of cracker or something and it was that and a rhythm.

You just become a production team, on the new record the drums are brilliant. Everybody’s really pulling their weight on it.

I think we just all enjoyed hammering it out together. We thought we were making a b-side. We’d recorded what we thought was going to be the single so there was no pressure at all and we were just able to go in there and totally let our hair down. You can make music, or you can make records like that these days because it all goes onto a computer and you just edit the best bits together. That’s how this record was made, half an hour jam.

We’re so familiar with each others’ sense of musicality or whatever and you can communicate after playing together for such a long time. Damon is the driving force, but there’s only room for one of those in a band really.

Is Blur a democratic band?

No I don’t think so. Anyone who tells you a band is democratic is lying. I think we’re all totally flying. There is a dynamic there, there has to be, but there’s always a point where he’ll just say fuck off!

That’s why it’s relevant that we’re a band. There’s something about the four of us playing together that works, there’s a chemistry there that’s genuine and as long as that exists we’ll continue to make good music. Who knows how long it will last for? We’ll know when it’s not there.

Any chance of a solo album or project?

The thing about music is that it’s a very collaborative process. Even if you wrote and produced or whatever on your own you’d still have to have a record company or a video made or whatever. Normally you are collaborating with a band or you are collaborating with a producer. Learning how to collaborate is a big skill to master. It’s not one person.

Does music excite you in the same way in always did?

Yeah, if not more because I kind of know more about how it all works. We’ve always got lots of other collaborations on the go, about half of which work. Just odds and sods appearing in a record shop near you soon!

You mean like Fat Les?

I think we might do the French football song. I’d quite like to enter Fat Les in Eurovision, I think that’s the future of that band. It’s a good cast. Fat Les will probably end up being a musical, you got a good cast for a musical there. God knows what’s going to happen there.

Fat Les does Country House?

No, Jerusalem – a 200-year-old poem and an orchestra! Yes, it’s a bit Country House in spirit. I think the Country House video – Graham hates it – but it’s very colourful. But you know if you’re going to get an artist to make your video you know you’re going to get good colours.

Would your parents give interviews?

I’m very nervous about my parents being exposed. I’m sure my mum would like to do it, but let me talk to them. I feel like I trust you but it’s very easy for them to look foolish.

They are obviously very proud of you.

I’m proud of them. I try and kind of keep them away from it all – it’s not a real situation. It’s fucking ruthless out there.

If you’d only ever had one big hit, what would be your legacy?

Well, Song 2 earns the most, so that would be it. It’s on its third car now, I shit you not! The Americans want to release it again, it’s still being a hit in America. It’s crazy, four years later. It’s just ridiculous. If you get a couple of records away in America you’ve made it. It kind of has a knock-on effect in all these weird places like Madagascar.

The industry and our perception of success are very western-centric.

A third of the world doesn’t have electricity so how do they play their guitars?

If it ended tomorrow, would you owe anything? Are you comfortable?

You’re never quite comfortable enough, you can always get a bit more comfortable. There’s a guy called John Kennedy who runs one of the big labels, used to be lawyer – a lot of people who run big labels are lawyers, particularly in America. He said the only way to make a lot of money out of the music business is to write your own songs, record your own songs, be able to play live to a lot of people and sell a fuck lot of records for a long time.

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You mean like Chris de Burgh?

Lady In Red. It’s my mum and dad’s favourite. I think it’s a beautiful song, I wish I’d written it, but I’d change the rhyme dance and romance.

He meets his market?

I don’t know if you can do that, but you have to believe in it. I’m sure Jackie Collins thinks her books are brilliant, but I think you’ve got to believe what you’re doing is brilliant otherwise it just doesn’t wash. I’ve tried doing music that way, but it doesn’t work.

I don’t think The Great Escape was any more contrived than Blur was really, The arrangements were a lot more elaborate, but the core of the thing was there were more devices involved, singing about a third person or whatever, but you can only sing about yourself really and there’s only about five things you can say: I love you, I hate you, I’m bored, I’m angry and vindaloo!

Where did you get your first bass?

Southbourne Exchange & Mart for 50 quid, sold it when I was at school. It’s a real shame some of those shops have gone.

Was Graham he first person I met having got out of the car at college?

Yeah, stupid isn’t it? Scary. But when you look back at the whole of your life you think your parents might not have met.

You changed the name from Seymour to Blur, did that sound like a big band’s name? Did you still have that confidence?

Oh, totally. You’ve got to have. It doesn’t happen unless you’ve got that confidence.

So you sit in the pub, talking about being famous? Did Seymour do the same?

Yes, so did [Bournemouth band] The Rising. If you talk about it seriously enough it will become real. As well as actually talking about it you’ve got to become pro-active and take what is the next step. The old drive thing.

You can sit around being a genius all day, but you’ve got to stick yourself in people’s faces. That’s what cuts the mustard. It’s amazing, the quality of the music that is made In this country is amazing. You can go to Camden on any night of the week and see three great bands, fully formed. They need to get money spent on them. It takes a million quid for a major label to launch a band. It’s a lot of money.

Do you fancy finding a protégé?

I ran a label for a while, but if you have a failure with that kind of investment, any kind of failure will sink the whole thing and that’s what happened to us. We tried to compete with major labels at Christmas time with a record that was never going to get on the radio. It was all good but proteges are all very well but you can’t really control creativity at all. That is just kind of learned, it just happens.

You’ve got more freedom in Blur though.

You have to earn that. Certainly, early on, it was very regimented and the purse strings were being held by other people. You’ve got to go into the studio and do this…

When people are doing that you either learn how to stand on your own two feet or you get knocked over. It’s very easy to see the transition in the life of the band between the first album which does have some great moments but it was A&R-ed in a very particular way to fit a market that existed at that point in time, which we benefited from no doubt.

Modern Life Is Rubbish, the second album was just completely against the grain of everything that was happening, but that is the only way to proceed. I think you have to make your own world and live in it. If we hadn’t have had people saying exactly what we should do we probably never would have worked out what we wanted to do, so it cuts both ways.

Modern Life Is Rubbish seemed to herald a change that nobody was expecting – is it your best album?

It didn’t have the singles on that Parklife did, but three of the songs on that record were done on the same day. They were great times actually, believe it. When you first thought you’d found a direction and you’ve had a vision and you were totally convinced of it and you don’t care who else believes you or what anyone thinks.

It was the first Britpop record. The American label wanted us to re-record it with Butch Vig who made Nevermind and we said no! Why? Because at that time there was just nothing else happening in this country. There was Suede I suppose, but they were never going to be our pals were they?

Probably not, but it had kind of foretold the Blur v Oasis thing.

It had. It’s a fucking playground, I told you.

Who hates you at the moment?

I think we’ve all grown up a bit and grown out of it.

Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill has written professionally for more than 25 years. Currently a busy Journalist undertaking a wealth of celebrity interviews and human interest features to writing speeches, generating web and media content and production scripts. His first book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth – got great reviews. He has also worked on projects for Duncan Bannatyne, Harry Hill, James Caan, Scott Mills and Peter Dickson, the voice of The X Factor. His obvious passion for words and natural genuine integrity is most refreshing.

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Ian Dury reviewed by Nick Churchill

Ian Dury

The Vinyl Collection – Edsel Records


Knock me dahn wiv a fevver…! Vose ’ard working gells an’ geezas over at Edsel ’ave only gorn an’ rahnded up Ian Dury entire back pages.

Well, almost. It’s only the albums that came out on vinyl. If I was being a clever bastard I’d say they could have gone the extra mile and included the posthumous Ten More Turnips from the Tip. But I ain’t. So I won’t. But I wish they ’ad. Oddly enough, you can get all the albums in a CD set with a bonus disc rounding up the hit singles.

Anyway, what this all adds up to is a stonewall case for Dury’s status as a true great of late 20th century English songwriting. Surrounded by a killer band in the Blockheads and their various post-1981 derivatives until the reunion for 1997’s blinding Mr Love Pants, he found the perfect foil for lyrics that would give Oscar at his best a decent run for his bread and honey. Harrow’s answer to Noel Coward could cross swords (and fists and tongues) with anyone and everyone if he had a mind to and his songs are littered with references to his own shortcomings.

That moments of self love are almost as common as those of self loathing is testament to the brutal honesty he both revelled in and recoiled from – “I’m up to the armpits in self-esteem” he crows on Delusions of Grandeur from 1980’s Laughter album. Elsewhere there’s an unsettling vulnerability – “Well thanks for looking in on me/I’m really glad you came/Cos it was good, wasn’t it?” on Really Glad You Came from 1984’s 4000 Weeks Holiday.

The hits: Rhythm Stick, What A Waste, Reasons To Be Cheerful, I Want To Be Straight, Superman’s Big Sister, how he knew more than knew his way around a pop tune, but the fella had a feeling for a groove as well, messing about with words as their own rhythm stick on the brilliant Mash It Harry from Mr Love Pants, or the deft poetic wordplay of The Bus Driver’s Prayer from 1989’s Apples.

He pays tribute to his former art school mentor Peter Blake on Peter the Painter and salutes a merry cast of Hogarthian types and tropes from Billericay Dickie, to Byline Browne, Plaistow Patricia, to Percy the Poet, another highlight of the under-rated 4000 Weeks Holiday set.

There’s plenty of anger as well, not least Spasticus Autisticus, humility (My Old Man) and downright silliness masquerading as social comment (Poo Poo in the Prawn).

The funk-jazz-soul stew gets a bit treacly after a while, but dipping in and out of this lot over a few days is an absolute joy. Whether on stage, in person or in song, Ian Dury made little effort to disguise his failings. As a man he could be a marvel or a monster. As an artist he made the records he wanted, not what he was told to – witness the bonus disc of hits, just two of which are actually on albums.

Showman, spokesman, leviathan, Ian Dury had it all going on… and much more besides. We don’t see his like very often.

Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill has written professionally for more than 25 years. Currently a busy Journalist undertaking a wealth of celebrity interviews and human interest features to writing speeches, generating web and media content and production scripts. His first book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth – got great reviews. He has also worked on projects for Duncan Bannatyne, Harry Hill, James Caan, Scott Mills and Peter Dickson, the voice of The X Factor. His obvious passion for words and natural genuine integrity is most refreshing.

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Idlewild – Nick Churchill’s Interviews

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Nick Churchill Interviews

Reformed indie rockers Idlewild are to play their only mainland UK festival date with an acoustic show at Purbeck Folk Festival on Saturday the 23rd of August.

The Scottish band released their last album Post Electric Blues in 2009 and since then frontman Roddy Woomble has released two solo albums, while guitarist Rod Jones has released material under his own name and with his band The Birthday Suit, most recently the excellent A Hollow Hole Of Riches in March.

Idlewild formed in 1995 and have released six studio albums to date including the breakthrough 100 Broken Windows (1999), The Remote Part (2002), which spawned the hit singles You Held The World In Your Arms and American English and Warnings/Promises (2005) with the top 20 single Love Steals Us From Loneliness (2005).

Singer Roddy Woomble released his first solo album My Secret Is My Silence in 2006. Produced by John McCusker and featuring Kate Rusby, Karine Polwart and his wife Ailidh Lennon, it topped the UK folk charts and was followed in 2008 by Before the Ruin, recorded with John McCusker and Kris Drever, featuring Radiohead drummer Phil Selway and Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub. His third album, The Impossible Song & Other Songs (2011) has a sleeve drawn by Mairi Hedderwick, creator of Katie Morag, and his latest solo record, Listen to Keep, came out in March.

Purbeck Folk Festival runs over the Bank Holiday Weekend, 21-24 August, on a 600-acre sheep farm in the heart of the beautiful Isle of Purbeck. Having won the Fatea Music Award for Countryside Festival Of The Year, it offers four days of fine music, great food, fancy dress, art interventions, film and magic on Dorset’s stunning Jurassic Coastline.

A firm favourite with young folks, families and old folkies alike, it also boasts a beer festival with 40 local real ales, 20 ciders and even a Dorset pils lager!

Idlewild join previously announced headliners Turin Brakes, Lloyd Cole, Eddi Reader, The South, Nizlopi, Chris Wood and Emily Barker & the Red Clay Halo.

Roddy, thanks for taking time out to field these questions …

We’re thrilled to be able to welcome Idlewild to Purbeck Folk Festival and you’ve got a tour of the Highlands and Islands planned, what’s the idea behind playing unexpected venues?

No grand plan really. We wanted to get out and about and do some gigs while we are working on our new record, to get back into singing the older songs and start trying out the new ones. I love the Highlands and Islands so any excuse to spend time there is fine by me. Purbeck is a place I’d never been to. So it’s all worked out really well.

Why is now the right time for a new Idlewild adventure?

It felt very natural to start working on an album. Five years is a good time away from anything. It was no more complicated than asking Rod if he fancied making a new and interesting Idlewild album. He did and that was the starting point. Over a year has passed since then and we are now about half way through recording, so it’s a good time to play some gigs.

How did the Idlewild regrouping happen after five years of doing other things?

Of course we all still kept in touch and saw each other, so it was just a question of organising some time to write songs. We always had a plan to make a new record, we just all needed a break from the cycle that we had gotten ourselves stuck into, which was bringing everyone down, and not helping the music.

How’s the new album shaping up?

Like I say, we’ve been taking our time with it, producing it ourselves in Rod’s little studio, and also up in Mull. It’s more experimental than other Idlewild albums, shades of a country/folk influence, but largely quite noisy and guitar based. Good tunes throughout though.

Will you approach the band in the same way as you did before, or are these older heads also wiser – I wonder if you’ll be wary of record company interventions for instance?

To me it is a new thing now, which is what is exciting. Rod and I are still the driving force, creatively at least, but having new members (multi instrumentalist Lucci Rossi, and Andrew Mitchell on bass) has made it feel different and taken the songs to a new and interesting place. Sales-wise we will probably do almost everything ourselves. We are very lucky to have plenty of fans, so we will sell the record directly to them.

There must have been some amazing experiences along the way, but if you had the time again would you do anything different?

It was a shame that the band basically fell apart when we at our most popular, commercially at least (2002), but we were young and didn’t really know what we were doing, so no, it was all a part of the learning process.

You and Rod have both said you’ll keep your other activities running alongside Idlewild, how will you know which is a solo song and which is an Idlewild song?

I write my solo material generally with Sorren Maclean and Idlewild songs with Rod, so it’s quite easy to separate.

How does running a band that backs your solo work differ from fronting Idlewild?

Good question. They feel very different from each other, to me anyway.

I think you’re playing the festival as an acoustic set up without a drummer, how have you adapted older material to suit the line up?

Playing acoustically is very natural to us as it is how our songs are written and developed. Colin Newton (drummer) won’t be with us for these shows, mainly because drums tend to force the songs into a place they don’t need to be, acoustically at least. They also make everything too loud!

I play most of my solo band gigs without drums so it’s a line up that I’m used to – lots of space for the melodies, and a nice laid back feeling.

Away from music what gets you up in the morning?

Children… and B&B guests!

What do you know of the Purbecks?

Not much, but there is a pub close by – the Square and Compass. I’ve always wanted to go there for a pint.

Web Links:

Photo Credit: © Simon Murphy


Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill has written professionally for more than 25 years. Currently a busy Journalist undertaking a wealth of celebrity interviews and human interest features to writing speeches, generating web and media content and production scripts. His first book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth – got great reviews. He has also worked on projects for Duncan Bannatyne, Harry Hill, James Caan, Scott Mills and Peter Dickson, the voice of The X Factor. His obvious passion for words and natural genuine integrity is most refreshing.

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J-Walk reviewed by Nick Churchill

J-Walk: Off Beat

Tracks: 10, Website:

Label: Wonderfulsound

Having all but invented Gnarls Barkley at the turn of the century, long before Messrs Mouse and Green had got off the cheese board, Manchester’s soul shakedown groove machine J-Walk channelled vintage skeletal Stax and ballsy bossa nova funk on the dancefloor’s shining light of the year 2000, the stonewall classic Soul Vibration.

While Martin Fisher and Martin Desai have no doubt found plenty to fill their time over the last decade or so, they just haven’t called any of it J-Walk, but here they are again with new material, a new label and a new mission to get us on the collective good foot.

Delving into the squiggles, scratches, beeps and squelches of vintage analogue tech they’ve applied a forensic attention to detail in order to resurrect only the dustiest music library breaks and beats as they unfurl a brand spanking new map of rootsy electronic art in the shape of Off Beat.

Yes, it’s chock-full of samples and beats made by plugging stuff into a power supply, but make no mistake, human hands are all over this record. Not only is their cover of Paddy Kingland’s BBC Radiophonic classic Vespucci an absolute blinder, you’ll wonder why people don’t stroke beards and smoke pipes when this stuff is on. Perhaps they do.

Do not adjust your set, these crackles put the snap and pop into some wonderful melodies that revile digital simulation, they want only solid state sounds – a kind of ‘trad’ electronics if you will, electro-folk. Anyone who ever doubted the geek shall inherit whatever they ruddy well like need go no further than the cut and dried grooves of Mexicali Hoodoo or Fuzzy Dunlop to know the boffins got the best tunes and to hell with the rest.

Yesterday’s Crowd soundtracks a crazy heist caper that involves a getaway in a souped up Lotus Cortina and Swinging Brick sounds like the opening music to an Open University programme about urbanisation from the 1970s, but We’re Not Alone is a chill out stroller, all socks off, sandals and finger clicks down by the water’s edge. Electric Dancing Song is more buzzy – like Moroder toying with Mike Oldfield while The Sonics’ Larry Parypa knocks out some riffery. The aptly titled World Inaction, on the other hand, makes you feel all fuzzy like the bright new morning after the night that never happened.

Strange, crazy, but decidedly true. BUY HERE!

Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill has written professionally for more than 25 years. Currently a busy Journalist undertaking a wealth of celebrity interviews and human interest features to writing speeches, generating web and media content and production scripts. His first book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth – got great reviews. He has also worked on projects for Duncan Bannatyne, Harry Hill, James Caan, Scott Mills and Peter Dickson, the voice of The X Factor. His obvious passion for words and natural genuine integrity is most refreshing.

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The Monks Kitchen reviewed by Nick Churchill

The Monks Kitchen: Title: Music from the Monks Kitchen

Tracks: 16, Website:

Label: Wonderfulsound

Having dropped a superlative set of foxy folk flavoured hipster grooves and moves on their 2007 debut, The Wind May Howl, The Monks Kitchen were on their way – or so it appeared. Paul Weller/Noel Gallagher producer Stan Kybert was in the driving seat, the sound was as louche as it was lush, they were on the road with Badly Drawn Boy, playing Glastonbury, recording for the Beeb … in other words at least eight of the whole nine yards.

But then it went quiet. Completely quiet. For six (count ’em!) years.

Until late last year when a hazy daisy version of Sam Cooke’s Shake popped out as a single that nobody but the band themselves was expecting. And now an album, more than half of which is instrumental. Not that it matters. For this is a complete listening experience from beginning to end, the instrumental interludes serve as scene setting for the next vocalised tale of oddity and peculiarity.

Faultlessly melodic, the influences are as likely to arrive from far out in leftfield as they are from the plumb centre of the middle of the road. Thus, dusty cowboy chords giddy up next to Weimar cabaret moves and outback drones make their presence felt behind a grainy Ivor Raymonde string arrangement as apple pie vocal harmonies stretch Stylophone melodies and vintage guitar decoration.

The sound is so lo-fi it’s practically no-fi, but always beautifully presented. The songs exist in the cracks between folk and pop, riffing on gentle themes that don’t always resolve into traditional structures involving verses, choruses and middle eights. The very thing that may frustrate some about Music from the Monks Kitchen – that it’s a bit like spinning through a sketchbook – is actually
its greatest strength.

Only in this context can the musical setting of Poe’s The Raven make sense next to the gossamer weight whisper-thon that is Whirlwind and the jingle jangle Smiths-beat excursion of Bluebird. Hollow of the Night flirts with Spanish eyes, while Instrumental X takes a tango down the main street of Blackgang Chine and I Wanna Go sounds like a long lost Roger McGuinn demo for The Monkees.

Wide-eyed and wondrous in its scope, Music from the Monks Kitchen is a monument to making music without the rulebook and is both literally and metaphorically among the most unexpected albums of the year. BUY HERE!

Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill has written professionally for more than 25 years. Currently a busy Journalist undertaking a wealth of celebrity interviews and human interest features to writing speeches, generating web and media content and production scripts. His first book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth – got great reviews. He has also worked on projects for Duncan Bannatyne, Harry Hill, James Caan, Scott Mills and Peter Dickson, the voice of The X Factor. His obvious passion for words and natural genuine integrity is most refreshing.

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