Walking through Roseland Ballroom just after sound check, Blur vocalist Damon Albarn notices that someone has taped up promotional Blur posters on the club's walls.
"What are those [expletive] posters doing here?" His voice rises with irritation. "We'll have to have those taken down."
The band's manager agrees, pointing out that anyone who'll be at the show is already familiar with Blur. But while the 3,000 fans who'll pack Roseland in a few hours constitute only a tiny fraction of the band's U.S. fan base, Blur is not exactly a household name. And for the time being, the four boys of Blur can't be bothered to try changing that. Besides a cyberconcert for MTV's Web site and a couple of television appearances, the Roseland show is one of only two American dates Blur will perform to promote its new album, "13."
At home in the U.K., Blur has been celebrated as the great hope of the mid-'90s musical swell known as Britpop; the four have also been famously vilified as middle-class snots, arch-enemies of the beloved working-class Oasis. In England, Albarn is a superstar and the rest of the band--guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree--is close to that.
But even Albarn concedes that in the United States, Blur has a bit of a recognition problem. The success of the band's sole American hit, "Song 2," an uncharacteristically blasting cut off the 1997 "Blur" album, surprised everyone. Thanks to its indelible guitar riff and Albarn's triumphant shriek--"whoo-hooo!"--"Song 2" became a kind of teen anthem. It was also adopted by the National Hockey League (replacing Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll, Part 2" as the preferred rabble-rouser), and it appeared on commercials for Intel and Labatt's beer, on an episode of "The Simpsons" and on the soundtrack to the film "Starship Troopers." But perhaps because its baffling title--and because the non-whoo-hooo! lyrics are essentially unintelligible--the average American pop music fan wouldn't be able to name the title of "Song 2" or identify it as a product of Blur.
"I can go anywhere and say, 'I'm in Blur,' and there's a complete blank. If I say 'Song 2,' it's still blank, but if I go 'whoo-hooo!,' then everyone knows," says Albarn. "That's a bit sad, really." He laughs a little.
"I'm very famous, but not in America," he says, and he sniggers again. "It's as simple as that. But then, America's perception of the world is so entirely myopic that it's kind of pointless talking about fame."
Separated from his band mates and slouched on a lumpy couch in a Roseland dressing room, Albarn is petulant, saying he doesn't feel much like talking--he'd rather just eat some sushi and relax before the show. He says he's had tonsillitis, that he's been in a bad mood for about a week. And he makes one thing clear: At this point in Blur's 10-year career, the band couldn't care less about conquering America. They're quite happy just where they are, thank you and leave me to my sushi, please.
The band's sixth album, "13" will have to sell without the benefit of tour support. Albarn, 31, says Blur has given up on the road show. "We've got our own lives that we want to try and nurture," he says. "We've done 10 years of touring every year. We've got a lot of things to catch up on, and we can afford to not tour. It seems we can sell records without touring, so . . ." He shrugs as his voice trails off.
Still, Albarn admits that "Song 2," reportedly recorded as "a laugh" in less than half an hour (and once described by guitarist Coxon as "like watching an old episode of 'The Dukes of Hazzard' on fast-forward"), most likely represents the band's commercial peak. Once it became a hit, "it seemed blatantly obvious to me that that was going to be our zenith, really," Albarn says.
"We're not touring anymore, so we kind of shot ourselves in the foot there," Albarn says gloomily. "I'd like to think that this new record will do as well if not better than the last one, purely on the virtue that it's a good record. Maybe 'Tender' will do well. It might do. It would be very nice if it did, because it's a song I'm very proud of."
The first single off the new album, "Tender" is a bittersweet eight-minute epic that opens with a tinny, backwoods-sounding guitar melody before swelling into an earnest country-gospel requiem for Albarn's painful and very public breakup with Elastica vocalist Justine Frishmann. It's a perfect breakup song: despairing, self-indulgent, vaguely ridiculous but ultimately optimistic. "Tender is the touch of someone that you love too much/ Tender is my heart, you know, it's screwing up my life/ Lord I need to find someone who can heal my mind," Albarn warbles before the London Community Gospel Choir joins in to remind us: "Love's the greatest thing."
The video clip for "Tender" is most un-MTV-ish. It's shot in black-and-white. There are no quick edits, no dizzying montages, no breakdancing or jiggling booties. Just Blur performing the song live, with choir.
"It's the antithesis of MTV," says Albarn. "But to be honest with you, I wouldn't give a [expletive] if they never played one of our videos again, because I think as a medium, it's sort of dead. It's dead. It makes me feel totally uninspired about the world watching it. I think the people that work in it are well-meaning. . . . They're good people, but they're trodden down by the necessity to satisfy the market."
In other words, MTV has not given the "Tender" video much play, in part because it's been giving so much air time to such top-selling moppets as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Without MTV exposure and without the benefit of a tour, "13," which was released in late March, isn't exactly selling like mad, though it did manage a respectable No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart.
According to the band's management, the tuneful "Coffee & TV" will be the next single, perhaps an odd choice given the obvious mass appeal of "B.L.U.R.E.M.I.," a punk-styled charge much in the style of "Song 2."
Most of "13" seems to be Albarn's breakup album. "The emotional currency of the record is Damon splitting up with Justine," bassist James has said. "There's blood on the tracks." The album is difficult and challenging, alternately charming and annoying, indulgently noisy in places and a bit druggy-sounding as well. (Albarn has reportedly said that the drug of choice this round was marijuana.) "13" was produced by William Orbit, the electronica knob twiddler who freshened up a stale Madonna on her latest, "Ray of Light." Blur had hooked up with him first: Orbit recorded three remixes of "Blur" tracks for "Bustin' + Dronin'," a Japanese release of Blur remixes and live tracks.
Even at home, the new "13" has received very mixed reviews: The Financial Times dismissed it as a "dignified failure" guilty of an "indecent amount of soul-baring." Yet the Times of London lauded "13" as "an emotionally charged, avant-garde panoramic soundscape that . . . will set the musical agenda well into the new millennium."
But then, back in the U.K., Blur has never been the type of band to generate a ho-hum kind of response.
Blur started out as a band called Seymour--perhaps named after J.D. Salinger's Seymour Glass character. Before that, Albarn was a "spotty" teenager who played violin and appeared in school plays. He, Coxon, James and Rowntree formed Blur in 1989, and by the time their debut album, "Leisure," was released in 1991, they were already stars, thanks to two hit singles, particularly "There's No Other Way," one of the most commercially successful examples of Britain's early '90s dream-pop sound.
With their 1993 "Modern Life Is Rubbish" album, Blur essentially invented Britpop, a short-lived and controversial phenomenon that Albarn describes as "after punk, the biggest thing that's happened in Britain in the sense of changing the culture. It changed the culture and it helped change the government."
After years of creative doldrums in British rock--and glum resentment toward encroaching American acts--Britpop embraced overtly British sensibilities. "It didn't really have a sound, it just had an attitude," says Albarn. "To be Britpop, you could have taken any single period of British music from the '50s through dance, acid house, whatever. Anything that came from Britain was Britpop."
"It revitalized a sense of national identity, which sounds very, very dodgy, and it probably was. But it had a knock-on effect," he explains. "It gave confidence to British film, British everything, really. There was one art form that was proving a success and it generated a sense of optimism--and was ultimately hijacked by the government and used to inject a kind of youthfulness for them."
In Albarn's version of recent history, Britpop's party pooper was Tony Blair, who borrowed both the music and spirit of Britpop for his winning "Cool Britannia" campaign to become prime minister. "Trying to claim the intelligent youth culture for your own ends is a bit disingenuous, but it happens all the time," says Albarn. "Then again, everything is much more closely related these days than it's ever been, so the distinction between a pop song and a war is"--he hesitates--"they're not as distant as they should be.
"I can only elaborate on that in a sense that we were offered a lot of money by the U.S. military to use our 'Song 2,'" says Albarn. "We obviously refused it. I'm just saying, I think when you're faced with that, you have to step back and say, 'Well, how much distance is there between what I do and what they do?' "
For a while, at least, Blur was more interested in a different sort of war, a rivalry with Britpop's other stars, Oasis, that in 1994 was characterized by British music magazine NME as "a thousand years of bitter class struggle conveniently condensed down to a slagging match between a couple of scruffy pop bands."
Oasis vs. Blur represented England's north vs. south: sweaty working-class Manchester Oasis vs. pretentious middle-class southerners Blur. (Blur can be pretentious. On the liner notes for its debut album, Albarn thanks D.H. Lawrence and Milan Kundera.) While it never reached the tragic stupidity of America's regional hip-hop rivalries, Oasis vs. Blur had its share of ugliness, mostly in the form of public insults. At one point, Oasis's Noel Gallagher publicly said that he wished Albarn and James would "catch AIDS and die."
"It really did get out of hand. It became really a nightmare," says Albarn. "Imagine everyone in America knowing about this particular thing. It became as big in our country as any big scandal--Clinton, whatever. . . . I couldn't walk down the street without someone shouting 'Oasis!' Whenever I went into a pub or a shop that was playing music, they'd change the music to Oasis. It impaired my life in general, and it made me listen to more Oasis than I was actually prepared to listen to."
Now, with some perspective, Albarn says the rivalry can be attributed to three things: the English tabloids, the competition between record companies EMI (Blur) and Sony (Oasis), and something he euphemistically calls "male competitiveness."
"It was pure chemistry," he says. "If we'd been in school, we'd always have been hating each other.
"But that was a long time ago, and we've turned it all around," he says. "I have no problem with them or their music, really. The squabbles that we had were very petty and did not warrant that kind of national attention--we just all played up on it. The thing about English people, you have to remember, is that they're quite camp."
Ultimately, what has set Blur apart from Oasis was not record sales or bluster. It was musical direction. Britpop was inspired by British music hall, the Beatles and the Kinks. Blur's 1997 self-titled album was a radical departure from that. "Blur" embraced American noise and grunge, and the influence of bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement.
Now with "13," Blur has moved in another direction. This album is more difficult and moodier than anything the band has recorded before. No wonder Melody Maker, a British music magazine, had this to say about the current state of the ever-evolving Blur: "This isn't so much commercial suicide as swallowing two bottles of cyanide before jumping off Canary Wharf and disemboweling yourself halfway down."
For Albarn, though, "13" is about new beginnings. Not only did it mark the dissolution of his personal relationship with Frishmann, it also marks the end of his eight-year professional relationship with producer Stephen Street, long considered Blur's fifth member. Albarn compares that split with a divorce. "But that whole period of my life was finished, so it sort of seemed I was on a roll," he says. "There was a sense of starting anew, really."
This time, he wrote songs differently. He isn't writing character songs anymore. Instead, he exposed himself in a way he hasn't done before. "This was the first time that I had had that impulse, to be honest with you. Nothing prior to this record is as candid as this record," he says.
"I hope I don't feel the need to make a record this candid ever again."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "Tender," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8175.)
CAPTION: "It's kind of pointless talking about fame," says Blur's Damon Albarn, who thinks Americans don't get it.
CAPTION: Fans focus on Blur at its Roseland Ballroom performance, one of only two live U.S. appearances to support its new CD.
CAPTION: Damon Albarn, letting loose earlier this spring at Roseland Ballroom in New York.