Today is Chinese New Year, and we were invited to a press conference in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. What could it all mean? On arrival we were met by free prawn crackers, dim sum and some very creaky wifi, then shepherded upstairs (this is, after all, the Year of the Sheep). On a stage at one end of the room: a table with four glasses, four bottles of water, four teacups and a pot of tea. On a screen: a countdown to 2pm.
Zane Lowe appeared on stage, then four familiar faces, and all was revealed (though it had been hinted at by leaked cover art online hours before). Britpop heroes, legendary Londoners and all-round cool dudes Blur have made a new album called ‘The Magic Whip’, and will be performing a huge headline show in Hyde Park on June 20, making them the first artists ever to play the park four times.
The seeds of the new record were apparently sown during some unexpected downtime in Hong Kong in 2013, on the last Blur tour. The band, they explained, had gone into a studio for five days with a limited set of instruments, and recorded some rough tracks, but nothing more had come of it – until guitarist Graham Coxon decided to revisit the session, thinking ‘It’d be great to go back once it had fermented a while.’ He recruited Stephen Street – producer of three Blur records and three Coxon solo LPs – to help him work them up into something bigger.
Damon Albarn then explained why the album cover included the band’s name and album title in simplified Chinese characters: ‘I’ve got quite a strong emotional connection to China.’ He had revisited Hong Kong shortly after the pro-democracy protests there last year, working on some lyrics for the new album inspired by the claustrophobia of the Chinese island as well as a visit to North Korea. ‘There’s nothing pastoral about it,’ he said. ‘It’s very much an urban record.’
There was much messing around – at one point Coxon referred to Albarn’s lyrics as veiled, and Albarn zipped his jacket up over his face and cackled. (We were sitting next to his daughter Missy, who ate an entire bowl of prawn crackers and visibly squirmed at this point.) Then the first song from the album, ‘Go Out’, was played through some crackly speakers – a fuzzy, clattery rock track that sounded a bit like Pixies, much more ‘Song 2’ than ‘Under the Westway’ – and the band sneaked out for a crafty smoke before the photo call.
So it’s official: Blur are back, for the moment at least. ‘The Magic Whip’ is due out on April 27, and tickets for the Hyde Park show go on sale next Friday – watch this space for booking details. Now, excuse us while we get all the prawn cracker crumbs out of our jumper.
Find out more about Blur’s British Summer Time Hyde Park gig.
By James Manning