Blur's Alex James on band's fascination with Hong Kong food and Chinese culture
The bass player is eager to return to the city both to perform and eat
When a cancelled Japanese date on their 2013 Asian tour left Britpop pioneers Blur free in Hong Kong for a week, they spent it in the studio and recorded what eventually became The Magic Whip, their first album in 12 years. But bass player Alex James also had another agenda. A noted gourmand who writes extensively about food and spends a fair share of his time on his farm making cheese, what James really wanted in Hong Kong was lunch.
"I just did what I normally do when I go to a big city, and try to find the best places to eat," he says. "The best food in a place is always in the most expensive places and the cheapest. Lung King Heen in the Four Seasons was sensational, but so were the little no-name dumpling places in Jordan."
James, 46, also loved the city's infrastructure.
"Hong Kong has the best example of town planning I've ever seen, because there's the huge metro area, but then it ends so quickly — half an hour on a boat and you're in pristine wilderness. We can't wait to come back and play."
He won't have to wait long: Blur perform at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on July 22. It's part of a low-intensity tour in support of the new album, mostly taking place in Europe during June and the rest of the world during July. Speaking from Paris, James is clearly relishing being back on the road.
WATCH Blur talk about the making of The Magic Whip
"I was in a tent last night with all my kids at the Isle of Wight Festival, so I'm enjoying being here," he says. "That's the way to roll — one night in a tent and one in a really nice hotel. Actually, there's a resonance with Blur getting back together — it's better because we don't do it very often."
The band broke up in 2003, but re-formed in 2009, then got together again to play at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. It's been sporadic, though — before The Magic Whip — because they didn't have any new material to play and were starting to feel that there was a time limit on touring the old stuff, and their busy schedules also got in the way: singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon both have numerous other musical ventures, while drummer Dave Rowntree has been a parliamentary candidate.
"It's tricky getting all of us together at the same time," says James, but adds that playing together less regularly makes it more fun when they do. "We were signed at college, we've been doing this for 16 years — we played to a million people in Italy once — and anything gets to be normal when you do it all the time, even if you're a brain surgeon."
James is Blur's renaissance man. As well as musical collaborations with everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Florence and the Machine to Damien Hirst, he's also a celebrity farmer and cheesemaker; a writer for various British newspapers and the author of autobiography Bit of a Blur; a TV personality, appearing in everything from documentaries to reality shows; an innovative entrepreneur with The Big Feastival, an annual event at his farm co-promoted with chef Jamie Oliver that combines his two big interests, music and food; an investor in space exploration projects; and an occasional fashion designer.
When he's not doing all that, he mostly spends his time at his Oxfordshire farm with his wife and five children, in dramatic contrast to his previous reputation as Blur's party-starter, who once claimed to have spent £1 million on champagne and cocaine — although he subsequently admitted he made the figure up to promote his book.
"It got to the point with Blur, as with every band in the history of the universe, when we just needed to go and do other things," he says. "It had been 15 or 20 years with the same people. But when we came back to the table, we all had gifts to give. We got back together for the Olympics, and it just went down so well that we thought: let's just go and play in some places we've never been before — including Hong Kong. The reaction we got was unbelievable — there were teenagers who knew all the words, young kids screaming and crying."
The same has been true on the current tour, he adds: "People have been going absolutely mental. They broke the crash barrier in [northwestern English town] Blackpool. Every gig feels like a big event."
The return to the city where the album was made will be a special one. The Magic Whip, recorded at Kowloon's Avon Studios, is unmistakably a Blur album while also being bracingly different from its seven predecessors; James describes it as "a bit of a miracle baby very late in the marriage".
Launched on the first day of the Year of the Goat, it features cover art written in Chinese, and there is evidence throughout in both its claustrophobic, reflective sound and its lyrical content of the heavy influence of the Hong Kong environment. There are some obvious references: Ghost Ship mentions both Hong Kong and Kowloon; New World Towers drops various Hong Kong places names; the video for Go Out features a Chinese star and subtitles; and Ong Ong, named by Albarn four years earlier in demo form, is coincidentally very close to the name of the city where the album was recorded, something he has described as "symbolic of the serendipity of the record".
The bluntly Malthusian There Are Too Many of Us, meanwhile, sounds like exactly the sort of song a Westerner might write after visiting China, and features a video of the band flanked by, among other things, Hong Kong residential blocks. Ice Cream Man contains references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, while the elegiac My Terracotta Heart and the wistful Pyongyang also take their influences from Albarn's travels in Asia.
"It's very dreamlike, Hong Kong, although it's an incredibly frenetic place, because it's just going so fast that it sort of slows down and becomes really interesting," says Albarn in a 30-minute video promoting the album.
Albarn says he's fascinated by Chinese culture, and has certainly spent plenty of time in the country, particularly when writing the opera Monkey: Journey to the West, based on the Chinese literary classic. The Magic Whip, named after a China-made firework but referring to the ice-cream pictured on the cover, is also a comment on the pervasive sense of almost subliminal control that he says he feels whenever he's in the country.
The urban angst that permeates the album is a far cry from James' pastoral post-Blur life. So big a part of that life is his farm, in fact, that it interferes with touring. "It never stops," he says. "I've just been on the phone to them now. There are always decisions that need to be made, always something that falls over. The farm has grown into quite a sophisticated regime, but someone always has to make the final decisions."
He's also busy preparing for the latest edition of The Big Feastival in August, bringing together famous chefs and a mix of old and new acts, this year including the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Groove Armada and Heaven 17. "It allows me to combine my favourite things — food, music and being at my place — but it's a hell of a lot of work," he says. "I bought the farm on my honeymoon, and it was utterly derelict — there were rabbits and bats living in it. Filling it up with chefs and music and smiling people is a realisation of a dream from my honeymoon."
"It was slightly scary the first time, doing that at my home. But people don't make anything like as much mess as 100 cows."
Watch: Hong Kong artist creates comic book for Britpop band Blur's new album "The Magic Whip"
Blur, July 22, 8pm, Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, HK$480-HK$1,080, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2877 8260
For this story and more, see 48 Hours, published on Thursday July 9