They're best known for their nonsensical, high-propulsion 1997 rocker "Song 2" and their love for the bottle, but these days Blur have taken on a more serious and sobering tone.
The band recently self-released its first new song in almost three years, "Don't Bomb When You Are the Bomb," a quirky blend of electronic experimentation and Krautrock aesthetics produced by Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim). The cut, which won't be on the band's next record, came out as a white label 7-inch with Arabic writing on the vinyl, and while the lyrics aren't really enlightening ("Don't bomb when you're the bomb-ba-bomb-bomb-bomb"), the song is part of the band's protest of the conflict in the Middle East.
"I feel there's so much misconception surrounding Arabic culture in general," frontman Damon Albarn explained. "I decided to translate the lyrics on the song [into Arabic] because I thought it was an appropriate message. And I sort of proved my point because all of the reviews of it in Britain called it an anonymous 7-inch accompanied by mysterious Arabic writing. Well, it's not mysterious. All you need to do is get somebody who speaks Arabic, and they'll translate it for you. It forces people to consider that issue, which for me is one of the most pressing issues of our time — a cross-cultural understanding."
"Don't Bomb When You Are the Bomb" is virtually guitar-free, and many have speculated that the band's next album, due in May, will be largely electronic. Old Blur fans needn't panic.
"It's definitely a rockin' record," Albarn said. "It goes from punk rock to hip-hop to prog rock. Two tracks we've already finished doing with Norman are amongst the most rock-oriented tracks we've ever done. Neither of us wanted to play on [his] past glories. He's a devotee of the Clash, and I love the Clash, and that was where our tastes met."
And like the Clash did, these days Albarn has been using music as a vehicle to address the current state of the world.
"It's an uplifting record with a lot of finely crafted pop songs, but hidden in there are very direct references to my fears and loathings," he said. "I spent six weeks over there [while the band was recording in Morocco], and I learned that the average Joe in the street anywhere in the Arab world has the same kind of fears and reservations about the current situation as we do. It's an inescapable fact that a war is being staged at the moment without any of the common people's consent on either side of the fence."
Some fans are surprised Albarn has turned all political; he thinks it's more surprising others haven't pursued the same path in a post-9/11 world.
"We've all had to stomach a type of horror which we maybe thought we'd never experience in our lifetime, and it's now become a part of everyday life," said. "So I would have thought the responsibility of any open-minded artist would be to try to make some sort of sense out of the chaos we're all involved in.
"I don't know where the Michael Stipes of the world have gone," he continued. "I sat next to him at last year's European MTV awards, and I was wearing a 'Stop the War in Afghanistan' T-shirt, and he just walked out when I started ranting. He had no interest, and I just don't understand that. A man who has built his integrity on speaking out has gone very, very quiet."
Blur recorded 26 tracks for the upcoming record and are in the process of whittling them down to a single CD of material. The band and its label are contemplating making the remaining cuts available online to fans who purchase the disc.
The album is the band's first since the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon, who left last year before the recording session in Morocco. Albarn handled most of the remaining axe duties for the disc, but the band plans to hire a touring guitarist when they hit the road.
"There were certain ultimatums given after many different approaches to make the thing work, but he's still on the record," Albarn said, hinting at Coxon's battles with drinking. "We did manage two days of very successful recording all together, and he's on there amongst the best bits on the record."
Albarn said Coxon left Blur on his own volition, and that while the two haven't spoken in awhile, he hopes that time will heal their wounds.
"I've known him since he was 12, so I would sincerely hope that at some point we'll be talking again, otherwise that's a lifetime friendship wasted," Albarn said. "Graham just genuinely wants to pursue a far more low-key life in every aspect — the way he records, where he lives, how he conducts his life. He's been through a very tough time, and hopefully he's coming out the other end now."
Jon Wiederhorn, with additional reporting by Gideon Yago