One of the most posh music festivals in the world, Coachella is surreal on several levels. The late-April, two-day event at Empire Polo Fields — acres upon acres of perfectly groomed greens surrounded by palm trees and mountains — in Indio, Calif., is the peaceful host to a tumult of musical styles and moods. Migrating from one stage or tent to another, you could go from Iggy & the Stooges, Queens of the Stones Age or the White Stripes to Underworld, Fischerspooner or Timo Maas to N*E*R*D, Black Eyed Peas or Talib Kweli to Thievery Corporation, Tortoise or Café Tacuba.
But the backstage area was the most out-of-the-ordinary. Blur's Damon Albarn, a bit under the weather with a stomachache thanks to a recent trip to Mexico, sits down with a sucker in his mouth and a pained expression on his face. Meanwhile, Kelly Osbourne is walking around with her entourage and her latest haircut, a blond fashion mohawk. And Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore prepare to play on the main stage as their daughter splashes around in the Beastie Boys' kiddie pool. To the left, Sweden's The Hives, dressed in matching suits and ties in the 80-degree dry heat, congregate outside of their trailer. One of the members from Tha Liks (formerly Tha Alkaholiks) is throwing fruit instead of a football. Suddenly, Tommy Lee speeds by on one of those two-wheel “Ginger” scooters that cost about as much as a 1994 Toyota Corolla.
It's all a little distracting and entertaining. And it seems to jive with one of Blur's main mottos. “There is no rule book,” Albarn says matter-of-factly as this weird Alice in Wonderland scenario goes on around him.
Blur has notoriously bounced from style to style with no reverence for the expected. Every hit is totally new territory: from the shoegazer pop of “She's So High” (from Leisure [Capitol, 1991]) to the very English '60s mod sound of “For Tomorrow” (Modern Life Is Rubbish [Capitol, 1993]), the disco electronic “Girls & Boys (Parklife [Capitol, 1994]), the gospel anthem “Tender” (13 [Virgin, 1999]) and so many things in between.
Albarn further shunned the idea of a rule book when he joined the cartoon-fronted band Gorillaz with Dan the Automator, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Buena Vista Social Club's Ibrahim Ferrer and Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth. On Gorillaz' self-titled album (Virgin, 2001), hip-hop, electronic, punk and dub fused with Tank Girl comic creator Jamie Hewlett's cartoons, and it was like nothing seen or heard before. Albarn then released a self-titled afro-electronic album under the name Mali Music (Astralwerks) this past August, which he recorded with a small cast of West African musicians.
Then, with Blur's seventh album, Think Tank (Virgin, 2003), founding guitarist Graham Coxon left the band, and the remaining three — Albarn, Alex James and Dave Rowntree — were left to their own devices. So they just set fire to the rule book entirely and threw away its ashes. Reviews of the album have gone from a dismal rating of 1 out of 5 stars in Maxim to an “excellent” rating of 4 out of 5 in Rolling Stone to a perfect “A” rating in Spin.
The risk of being experimental is that not everyone is going to “get it.” And although a couple of noisy, punky and bizarre tracks might break the continuity of Think Tank, heartbreakingly beautiful ballads such as the album's “Sweet Song” demonstrate why you listen to music — because it moves you. The reverb-drenched piano melody, whirring electronic atmosphere and minimalist percussion cut through like a cold coastal fog. There's something to be learned from working without too much formula; it's one reason you won't read a lot of manufacturer makes and models throughout this story. But it's okay that groups such as Blur are a bit secretive or flip about those technical lists. Sometimes, it really is what you do with a piece of gear rather than what a piece of gear can do for you.
COOK IN THE KITCHEN
Blur believers Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), Ben Hillier (producer, engineer and programmer who has worked with Duran Duran, Clinic and Elbow) and William Orbit (most well-known for producing Madonna's Ray of Light) helped out with Think Tank in various degrees. Hillier was at the helm as producer for the entire album; Cook came in for “Gene by Gene” and “Crazy Beat”; and Orbit, who has produced a handful of Blur tracks in the past, lent some technical insight. “William Orbit did show us the way toward working with Pro Tools,” Albarn says. Meanwhile, Hillier had the patience to deal with the band's unruly sprouts of creativity. Although he worked with the band on “Music Is My Radar” from The Best of Blur (Virgin, 2000), this was Hillier's first whole album with Blur. “He brought order,” Albarn says. “And he plays music, as well, so he can deal with abstracts and see where they're heading, 'cause a lot of our stuff is very abstract.”
Hillier and Orbit did pass on their love for Digidesign Pro Tools to Blur, with each relating different methods. “It's quite liberating if you're reasonably disciplined about what you're doing,” Rowntree says as the circus of Coachella's backstage area is at a temporary lull around him. “You turn the computer on at nine in the morning; at four in the afternoon, you turn it off again, and you've recorded the whole day's stuff. And that was really how William actually worked. He would just record, and other people would do the editing. He'd work days, and his technicians would work nights editing down the stuff, layering it up and giving it back to him to work with us again during the days. We didn't quite work that way this time. It was much more of an edit as you go. So we'd record a bit; then, we'd chop it up and record a bit more. Ben is a slightly more traditional Pro Tools user.”
Meanwhile, Cook has been steadfastly holding onto his ancient Atari ST computer and Creator sequencing software. “Norman is a real Luddite,” Rowntree says. “He still works on an Atari ST1020. The Atari was a computer by musicians for musicians. If all you wanted to do was sequence MIDI, you need look no further. It was absolutely perfect. So that's all he did. He had the tape synched up to his timecode, and he recorded anything he couldn't put into his sequencers, but most things, he just sampled and then sequenced up.” Yet somehow, Blur managed to break Cook's stronghold cult love for the Atari. “He knows how to use it, and it works, and that's what he wants. But, by the end of the session working with Pro Tools,” Rowntree says with a smile, “we managed to convert him. He's now a Pro Tools user. He's going to throw the Atari away. We should get commission from [Digidesign] for converting him.”
STRANGEWAYS, HERE WE COME
Aside from electric guitar on the album's haunting last song, “Battery in Your Leg,” this was the first time in 12 years that Blur recorded without Coxon. “There was a huge hole in the sound without Graham, because he was such a big part of the sound on the previous records,” Rowntree admits. “He's the loudest guitarist in the world.” But Rowntree says the challenge wasn't one the band was afraid to confront: “We weren't in any hurry to fill that gap up, really. And one of the reasons why it was so exciting when we started working again was that the empty sound was completely different to anything we'd ever made before. So we weren't in any hurry to fill it up with other guitars. We're definitely a different band without Graham. I think it's just shown what a collaborative process music is and how little room there actually is for people to think they're indispensable. The rule we've got now is that whoever turns up in a day is in Blur, and whoever doesn't, isn't.”
Recorded in London and Devon, England, as well as Marrakech, Morocco, Think Tank was very much a product of its surroundings. As it turns out, several Moroccan musicians turned up for a few days and ended up being in Blur. The lilting and spacious “Out of Time” was surprisingly host to 11 musicians playing aoud, violin, darbouka, tere, rabab, kanoun and cello. Yet there's no clutter. Instruments occasionally come forward and then fall back into the atmospheric space.
Moreover, producing the album in various locations had a new impact on Albarn's vocals. “A big thing that happened with this record is, I recorded all the vocals outside, so it was really the weather that determined how it went,” Albarn says. “We recorded in Morocco and Devon, which is southwest England, the countryside near the sea, and in London — but no commercial studios. They were sound areas, really, rather than studios.” So aside from the minor problem of finding cables long enough to reach from outlets to the outdoors, Albarn was more comfortable doing vocals in the fresh air. “It was just so hot inside in Morocco, and writing about how I felt in that kind of environment was an interesting thing to do. When you sing about sunshine, you're actually in the sunshine. When you sing about darkness, you're in the dark. I was just a lot more relaxed with the whole music-making process. It took a lot longer in some ways, and it was a lot more immediate in others.”
Naysayers of Think Tank should know that radio hits weren't exactly the goal for Blur this time around: Experimentation was more the objective. “The most interesting idea got to be on the record,” Rowntree says. “We've kind of focused on making perfect three-minute pop songs in the past, and that is great fun to work that way, but that's not really what we do for a living. That's not our reputation. People are constantly surprised that we keep changing, moving the goal posts and ripping the rug out from under them. But pretty much the only constant about Blur's music is that we change it with every song. And that's quite liberating. If we were to stop changing every time, people would be very pissed off. It's a double-edged sword, really. It's amazing to me how stunned the Germans are every time: ‘The new record is nothing like the old one! Every time it sounds different!’ After seven albums, you'd think that they would get the idea.”
Bass player James, drummer Rowntree and singer Albarn, who plays piano and has played guitar for a year and a half, started working on the album by sticking to what they know best. “The first month or so, we really just worked with bass, drums and sounds, so I suppose that inevitably changed the way songs were approached,” Albarn says. “But I did a lot of soundscaping and all the actual song structures of the album on my 4-track.” Although Albarn is elusive about model names of gear, he's revealing about his process. “One key thing with this record is, I started putting my 4-track through lots of big old transistor amps and then recording onto the computer and editing all that stuff. Like for a song called ‘Jets,’ I got this mad blues-guitar riff, but it's not: It's a ukulele. But having gone through my 4-track and a big amp, it sounds like mad old Delta blues. I'll degrade or upgrade sounds as much as I feel I need to reach the destination. I don't necessarily know what it is, but I know when I hear it.”
Inspiration comes in diverse forms. For Blur, a visit to a pawnshop or a hole-in-the-wall music store turns up ideas in exchange for small amounts of cash. “When I buy something, it might have one sound, and I'll wait eight months, and I'll just use that sound once,” Albarn says. “I'm always craving sounds. Over the years, I've found the most amazing things at Black Market Music in L.A. I go there every time I come here, and I always buy at least one thing in the shop that goes on to serve an idle song and change your conscious way of thinking. I like the idea of not being prepared. I just bought a bass piano. It's this big. [Holds out hands less than two feet apart.] It's a Fender Rhodes Piano Bass from the late '60s. And I also bought a lap steel, as well.”
“That's one of the reasons why our albums are each so different,” Rowntree adds. “People just go to a music shop and buy whatever looks the most weird and insane, so our studio is full of crazy instruments, which nobody knows how to play. I support that; that kind of naïveté is important in music. Not having any technique at all on an instrument gives you the freedom to do something interesting.”
Blur has even expanded its musical boundaries past the normal Western scale of music, which consists of 12 notes. Instead, Albarn aims for notes between notes. “I've been working more in Arabic scales, quarter tones,” Albarn says. “I'm not really inspired by Western scales now. At the moment, my favorite base is the five or six different notes you can get between E and F. And a lap steel, if you think about it logically, is going to give you that.”
Some might call it lazy, but tuning isn't important to Albarn: “I just don't bother to tune anything. I just don't really care. Whatever it is, I'll make it work. That's probably why I can skip through so many different styles, as well, because I'm very unorthodox that way.” Although there are some beautiful poplike hooks on Think Tank, it is pretty clear Albarn isn't influenced by Western music like Justin Timberlake or Avril Lavigne at this point. “I don't really buy pop music anymore,” he says. “In fact, as long as I don't understand what they're saying or I can't pronounce it, I'll buy it.”
For the 59-second punk number “We've Got a File on You,” Albarn applied what he's learned about Arabic scales. “I've got a Boss voice changer [Voice Transformer VT-1], which I put through a melodica. I'm just playing one note in the middle, and I'm using a really rough vocoder and using the Arabic scale. All it is, is a pitch change. And that really is what they're doing in that kind of music. Blues, as well, came from that. It came from guitars that weren't necessarily conducive to being tuned, because [the musicians] didn't necessarily have tuners. So it's just a more inspirational way to play, where you have to find and feel the note more, 'cause it's not necessarily there for you.” Although Albarn has quite a few Middle Eastern instruments, he often uses Western instruments for his Arabic-scale experiments. “I listen to that music, and then I try to do it on things that I'm more familiar with in my kind of culture,” he says. “Like, for example, on one of the low strings on an electric guitar, the E and the A and the D strings, they're a lot thicker wound. If you get a thin plectrum [pick], and you just identify one of the wires and then pick at that … this is all stuff in Arabic music. They work on very simple things, and they just sort of push them out into one note.”
FIRST TIME'S A CHARM
The best part about songwriting is the moment of inspiration when you first come up with an idea that excites you. And when Albarn is working on demos, he lets whatever ideas come about naturally instead of making sure his technique is perfect. “It's something that comes with confidence,” he says. “But you never get better than the first time you express something.”
Therefore, in the studio, Blur and Hillier take measures to ensure that every little accidental inspired moment is immortalized. “We have a DAT recorder that is literally going all day just in case anything happens when somebody's mucking around,” Rowntree says. “You can't literally record in Pro Tools all the time when you're editing, so we have a DAT running in the background. And some of those more fragile parts come from the DAT. It's those moments where you just made a mistake when you're working on a song, and you're starting to get the idea. The first moment you have the idea is like the most exciting-sounding moment, and to get that back is a huge amount of work. It's not impossible; it's virtually impossible. That's means you have to do 100 takes and hope that one of 100 takes has randomly got that spark of magic to it. But working this way, you get to keep the initial spark, and that makes it far easier as a musician. It makes it far less boring to be in the studio.”
Amek Mozart (40-channel Rupert Neve modules)
Apple Mac G4
Digidesign 888 I/Os (4)
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mix
Studer A820 ½-inch analog tape recorder
Auratone 5C monitors w/Quad 405 amp
Genelec 1034 monitors
KRK 7000B monitors w/Quad 502 amp
Yamaha NS10 monitors w/Quad 405 amp
ADL S/C/L 1500 stereo compressor
AKG BX-25 spring reverb
API 550b EQs (2)
Ashley SC-63 EQ Audio & Design Panscan effects processor
Cranesong STC-8 stereo compressor
dbx 902 de-esser modules (2)
dbx RM160 dual comp/limiter
Drawmer DF320 noise filter
Drawmer DS201 dual noise gates (2)
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
Eventide H3500 DFX-Sampling
Gates Level Devil compressor
GML 8200 Stereo EQ
Lexicon PCM 80 digital effects processor
Manley Stereo Variable-Mulimiter/compressor
Neve 542 8-channel sidecars (2)
Neve 1081 4-band EQ/mic amp modules (6)
Roland RE-201 Space Echo
Roland RE-301 Chorus Echo
Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo
Smart C2 stereo compressor
SPL Transient Designer
Teletronix LA-2A valve-leveling amp
Tube-Tech LCA 2B compressor
Tweed rack compressors (3)
UREI 1176LN limiters (2)
Yamaha 20/20 compressor
Zoom 1210 multi-effects
AKG 414B ULS
Neumann/Gefell CMV 563
Reslo vintage dynamic
Shure Beta 91