Two years ago, Blur found themselves in Hong Kong with some time to kill. The Brit-pop stars had been touring Asia when their next gig, a Tokyo festival, fell through. "We said, 'We've got five days. Let's stick around and write an album,'" recalls guitarist Graham Coxon.
Since reuniting in 2009 after a six-year hiatus, Blur had made at least one failed attempt to record a new album. "It’s certainly not a given that things will work out," says singer Damon Albarn wryly. This time, they kept things casual, working on some of the 100 or so GarageBand sketches Albarn has lying around his iPad at any given time. "We jammed everything until we couldn't jam it anymore," says Coxon. "And we drank lots of green tea."
Those sessions would eventually lay the groundwork for The Magic Whip (due out April 28th), an album that picks up where Blur's era-defining Nineties LPs left off. But it was far from clear where they were headed at the time. "It felt good, but we were unsure what it was all for," Coxon says. "I wasn't sure whether we would create an album, or whether we were just having fun, or whether we were not having fun, or whether it was a disaster."
After heading home to England, the band more or less forgot about the instrumentals they'd laid down in Hong Kong, and the project went dormant for more than a year. "It hadn't been finished, and it was so sprawling," says Albarn, who stayed busy with a 2014 solo LP. "I didn't have the heart, patience, desire to go back through all that stuff."
Then, last fall, Coxon volunteered to shape the Hong Kong material into structured songs. "Politics can be quite tricky in bands that have gone their separate ways and then come together again," Coxon says. "Or maybe that's just me. But I took a risk and said to Damon, 'I'd like to take the reins on this record and see if there's something there.'"
He wasn't sure how Albarn would react, but the singer was thrilled. "I said, 'God, if you want to do that, that is brilliant!'" says Albarn. "'What a lovely bit of news, that you’re actually prepared to go and do this donkey work to get it into some sort of shape.'"
Coxon worked in London with producer Stephen Street (who helmed several of Blur's classic LPs) until he had something he felt ready to show Albarn. "It was quite nerve-wracking," says the guitarist. "Damon isn't polite in that way — he'll say, 'This is shit,' if he doesn't like it, or, 'Graham, you've written a big lump of crap in my song. What the hell is going on?' He won't be shy."
Instead, Albarn felt inspired enough to swing back through Hong Kong on his own last Christmas to write lyrics for the album. "I thought I'd retrace my footsteps," he says, "be a ghost of myself in the future."
The songs on The Magic Whip cover topics from ice cream to protest politics. Others hit closer to the band's heart: Albarn says many of the lyrics address his complicated relationship with Coxon. "There are songs where it's very clear that I'm singing to him," he says, citing the downcast ballad "My Terracotta Heart." "It's questioning whether I really want to still be in a close relationship with someone who I had sort of left."
Coxon has his share of regrets about Blur's 2003 breakup. "I was quite selfish," he says. "Young men are volatile, weird creatures, especially when they're tired of being told a bunch of stuff they don't really want to do. We were all going through the same thing, but they were probably just a little more professional than I was." For him, The Magic Whip was about setting things right: "I wanted to make amends to the fans and the group after all that trouble I caused years ago."
Albarn shrugs this off: "I'm sure we were all an absolute pain in the ass." Even now, though, he sounds a little ambivalent about being in Blur. After the split, he says, "I accepted that it was over. Then, little by little, it slowly found its way back. It's kind of like It Follows," he adds with a laugh, invoking the hit film about a young woman pursued by a shape-shifting ghost. "It's always walking toward me!"
And yet here he is, making another album with his old band. "I mean, there's a part of me that was always trying to avoid doing this, but there's a part of me that delights in it, too," Albarn says. "I'm fairly perverse. If you're in a relationship where you're not exactly totally sure how you feel, it's bound to be more interesting."
Jokes aside, he's happy to be on better terms with some of his oldest friends. "None of us are here forever, so the more you can resolve, the better," Albarn says. "With Graham in particular, there's a continuity which goes back to the first time we played together, in the cabin outside the music department in our school, when we were 11. There's a certain joy which only that will ever give me."