To celebrate the Chinese New Year, the members of Blur assembled in a Chinese restaurant in London today… and announced their first album since 2003’s Think Tank. The location was no whimsical choice: The Magic Whip, out April 27, was inspired by the band’s time in Hong Kong, where they recorded the bulk of the album on a whim over the course of five days. Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, Dave Rowntree, and producer Stephen Street joined BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe in a lengthy sit-down/press conference, which was streamed via Blur’s Facebook. They shot the shit, played a moody new song (“Go Out”), and remained non-committal about playing US shows.
Before I rattle off the highlights of the chat, I’ll just add: I’ve already heard groans about the inspiration behind The Magic Whip, about how a Hong Kong-inspired Blur album is likely to be a gimmick. I think those critics are underestimating this band — particularly Albarn, who, in his time away from Blur, has managed to incorporate even more elements into his work that probably shouldn’t work but consistently do (see: Gorillaz). Also, it’s not like Albarn hasn’t been inspired by the energy of specific locations before. London is a consistent lyrical theme, as was the Mideast on Think Tank. Large chunks of Blur and 13 were recorded in Reykjavík, Iceland, which Albarn has said is an inspiring place to create. (And, of course, there’ve also been things like DRC Music and his Mali Music project, inspired by travels even further afield.)
Based on the hesitancy with which Albarn spoke about even wanting to do another Blur record — how this one just happened and he was left cursing how good it was — in addition to the fact that Blur already reunited live and got that big Coachella money in 2013, I am hopeful this will be one of the better reunion records we’ve seen in some time. Anyway, here’s a summary of what we know about the album:
– The album was spontaneous, and claustrophobic. After 2013 reunion cancellations in Japan, Blur found themselves in Hong Kong with five days to spare. They got into a studio and started jamming, despite obvious constraints. “We didn’t have much [equipment]; it was like back when we first started recording stuff,” Albarn said.
– As members went their separate ways and Albarn geared up for his solo debut, last year’s Everyday Robots, guitarist Graham Coxon took the recordings to Stephen Street, who’d produced Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and Blur. When Albarn heard what they’d cooked up out of the overwhelming mess of tapes, he thought, “Oh no, this is really good… I really felt at the end of the last gigs we did, that was end,” he said. “Not for any heavy reason, but it had just run its course. We couldn’t play more shows without a new record.”
– Damon went back to Hong Kong after that to redo the lyrics, as he’d been “just singing whatever” when Blur initially recorded. He’s spent a lot of time in China and has a “strong emotional connection” to the place. Albarn felt compelled to write about Hong Kong as a “quite claustrophobic island with millions and millions of people,” in addition to how he and his bandmates felt when they were there and their relationships with one another.
– There’s also a song on the album about North Korea, specifically his “impression of the place in a very veiled way.” He visited the fraught nation mere 24 hours after a protest, which he’d watched on TV before arriving. By the time he got there, Albarn said, the streets were scrubbed clean of blood.
– “It definitely sounds like the Far East,” the band boasted, but Albarn also likened The Magic Whip to the albums that came out of David Bowie’s time spent living in Berlin in the late 1970s (Low, Heroes, Lodger). “There’s nothing pastoral about it, it’s very much an open record,” Albarn added. Coxon described the album as, “Things that are obviously Blur, but things that don’t sound classically what people would think.”
– Blur will play London’s Hyde Park for the fourth time on June 20 (as part of the Hyde Park Festival), but there’s no promise of U.S. dates. “If people want us to play, then we probably will,” Albarn said.