Hong Kong's impact on Blur like Berlin's on David Bowie, Damon Albarn says
British indie band's new album was made in - and influenced by - Hong Kong during their sojourn here in 2013
Blur appear to have discovered their inner Chinese. The indie-rock veterans, who came to prominence during the 1990s Britpop era, might still be widely regarded as the personification of Englishness, but for their new album the band looked East for inspiration.
And not just looked, but also travelled: the main recording sessions for The Magic Whip took place in mid-2013 at Avon Studios in Kowloon. "We definitely drew on influences from our time out there, in a similar way to how we used to draw on influences from the London environment," says the band's guitarist, Graham Coxon.
Then there's the band name and album title on the album cover, which are written in Chinese, next to an image of an ice cream rendered in the style of a neon Hong Kong sign. A real-life version of the same ice cream being prepared by a Chinese woman can be seen in the video for the album's first single, Go Out, along with Chinese subtitles.
The inspiration for My Terracotta Heart isn't too hard to divine, and neither, venturing further afield, is the influence behind Pyongyang.
The Magic Whip was announced on February 19, the first day of the Lunar New Year, at a press conference at London's Golden Phoenix Chinese restaurant. It will be released on April 27 in the Year of the Goat, as was Blur's previous album, 2003's Think Tank.
Even the album title has Chinese roots. After singer Damon Albarn hosted a fireworks display for friends, he kept some of the wrappers - which inevitably had come from China. He found the wrapper of a magic whip firework in a scrapbook when he was writing the album's lyrics, and the title was born.
The band have some history where China is concerned, particularly Albarn. His virtual band, Gorillaz, released songs titled Hong Kong and Hongkongaton, both on its 2007 D-Sides compilation of B-sides and remixes. He also composed the opera Monkey: Journey to the West, also released as an album in 2008, based on the Chinese literary classic. The opera, conceived by Changsha-born, New York-based actor and theatre director Chen Shi-zheng, was composed entirely using the Chinese pentatonic scale by Albarn who, with his Gorillaz collaborator, artist Jamie Hewlett, travelled extensively to China to immerse themselves in the country's music and culture.
Albarn said at the time that part of the aim of the project was to introduce elements of that culture to the Western world. The Magic Whip, though, was the first time that Blur recorded in China. It hadn't been planned: the cancellation of a series of shows in Japan left the band stranded for a week, and rather than return home, they decided to stay in Hong Kong, find a studio and see what happened.
Avon Studios, formerly Sony Studios Hong Kong, is more accustomed to hosting local acts, and Albarn told the press conference it reminded him of some of the band's early recording sessions. "It wasn't a flash studio. It was pretty claustrophobic. It was really hot - it was June."
Their daily trip to the studio from the Mandarin Oriental, where they were staying, prompted plenty of interest on social media - because rather than private cars, the band decided to commute on the MTR. "It was really nice, especially when you compare it to the Tube in London," says Coxon, speaking by phone after the press conference. "Getting to [Central] station involved going through shopping malls displaying these vast arrays of goods, and then when we got out and walked to Nanking Street, it really was an entirely different environment."
That environment, he says, is reflected on The Magic Whip, for which he channelled the urban angst and far-from-home dislocation it provided. In the way that the impact of the urban environment shaped it, Albarn characterises it as being like the music produced by David Bowie during his late-1970s Berlin period. "There's nothing pastoral about it - it's very urban."
Albarn says the band didn't think they had an album on their hands when they finished in the studio: "I just thought it hadn't happened. It was fun, it was a nice way to pass a few days, but nothing really concrete had come out of it."
However, that didn't stop him getting over-excited when the band played their Hong Kong gig afterwards. "When we went on stage, I said, 'Hey, we've recorded a new record', because I was really excited - but the point is we hadn't."
The band returned to London and more or less forgot about the music they'd recorded, putting it aside while the musicians got on with their separate lives. And these lives are pretty busy: Albarn and Coxon have a host of other musical interests; drummer Dave Rowntree has been a parliamentary candidate; and bass player Alex James is, of all things, an award-winning cheesemaker.
But then, about 18 months later, Coxon decided to give those recordings another listen - and he liked what he heard. "There was some really good stuff that I thought could be organised, structured and made into songs, so I took it to [producer] Stephen Street. I think Damon liked the fact that it removed the pressure from him, because he's always driven it in the past."
After a few more days' recording in London around Christmas 2014, the collection of near-finished songs was presented to Albarn, who also liked what he heard, and started to write lyrics for them. Coxon says the lyrics are poignant: "He's very good at saying quite a lot in very few words. That's what inspires me - the way he leaves it up to the listener."
The result was their first album recorded as an entire band since 1999's 13, a work that very much bore Coxon's creative imprint before creative tensions meant the guitarist was largely absent for the Albarn-led Think Tank. "We've spent a lot of time together," says Coxon, "and we've very natural and comfortable with each other now. The problems we had are in the past."
That The Magic Whip is something of a reinvention doesn't come as much of a surprise from Blur. Emerging first during the Madchester baggy era of the early 1990s, the band carved out a niche for themselves as inheritors of the uber-English tradition of The Kinks and The Beatles, then leaned heavily in the direction of American indie-rock and, latterly, electronic music.
And it's quite a surprise that the new album is happening at all. The band managed to keep its existence almost entirely secret, with just a few vague whispers in the days before the announcement.
Having only finished the album a couple of weeks before it was announced, the band haven't had a chance to make any touring plans beyond a headlining slot in June at the British Summer Time festival in London. "I'm sure we'd all love to" tour Asia, says Coxon, not least because they now have new material to perform.
But for now, Coxon says he's just happy to be unexpectedly bringing an album out. "If this is the last thing we ever do, we want to make it a really positive thing. We'd have been criminal to let this stuff just sit there and not use it."