Alex James: ‘We were very bratty, very arrogant, very drunk’

Blur’s Alex James joins Mark Hoppus on After School Radio on Apple Music Hits to talk about the 30th anniversary of Blur’s debut album ‘Leisure’, and his move from the stage to the farm.

He talks about the band’s early touring days and being “absolutely intolerable”, premiering ‘There’s No Other Way’ to an audience that included Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and a teenage Mark Ronson, recently paying off debts from their very first album, explains why Nile Rodgers and vodka was his “lockdown medicine”, why he thinks honey is the “sexiest stuff in the world” and more.

Alex James Reflects On 30 Years of Blur’s ‘Leisure’…
A lot of those songs that we wrote on ‘Leisure’, we were still at college. The really uncanny thing with Blur was not just that Graham [Coxon] was the very first person I saw when I arrived in London to go to college. He was literally getting out of his parents’ car, holding a guitar. And I was getting out of my parents’ car, holding a guitar. It’s like, “Wow, all right.” And our very, very first rehearsal, we wrote what ended up being our first single ‘She’s So High’, which was the first single off ‘Leisure’. And when we got back together last time to do the big post-Olympics closing ceremony show that was the song that we started with. It was, looking back, it was just insane that there was this chemistry. People talk about chemistry and you feel… Is that really a fit? It was definitely there from the minute that we all got in the studio together. And actually Graham had a cassette recording of that rehearsal, which only came to light five or six years ago. No one had listened to it for years. And you can tell it’s Blur straight away. We’re just noodling around, but just instantly recognisable.

Alex James On Touring With Two Black Eyes,”One From The Drummer, One From The Guitar Player”…
That was a really incredible time in our lives, just really… We were young. I just fell in love with so many cities, with San Francisco, Atlanta, Portland. Oregon I loved as well. It was just like… We were young men with a constant supply of beer and people who set up our guitars and tuned them up for us. And I just look back on that period with so much fondness. I really do. They were really special days. We were drinking so much, arguing and fighting a lot. There was one point on that tour when I had two black eyes, one from the drummer, one from the guitar player. I think I was absolutely intolerable. And actually, that was when we really looked… Because we had to dig in because everyone thought we were from Manchester and they just wanted people from Seattle. “Manchester, go on.” It was Seattle time. But we really had to dig in and we wrote songs in soundcheck. We soundchecked for hours, we played for hours. It was just the 24 hours of rock and roll, sex and drugs, in that order.

Alex James On Premiering ‘There’s No Other Way’ At A Nightclub With Lush, Ride, Slowdive, Suede, Kurt Cobain And Courtney Love In Attendance…
Do you know what? I think it was… I’m trying to think. I think it was at The Marquee and it was absolute mayhem. Slowdive were indeed supporting. Kurt and Courtney may have been there. There was a BBC radio clip of him singing that song, but it was… We were out of control at that time. I don’t think New York was ready for us. We were very bratty, very arrogant, very drunk, practically teenagers. And I remember Damon climbing up into the lighting rig and dancing all over the tables where the record company execs were sitting. And we were summoned for a serious bollocking in the morning by the record company who were threatening to pull the tour, “This absolutely cannot go on.”

Alex James On Meeting Kevin Shields And A Teenage Mark Ronson Sneaking Out To See Their Show…
But then actually, on the way out from the breakfast bollocking from the record company, Graham and I bumped into Kevin Shields in the lobby of the hotel where we’re staying and at this stage, we’d never really met anyone famous apart from Jesus Jones, who were the other band on our label. And Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine were absolutely our favourite band in the world. And we were like, “Oh, my God, it’s Kevin Shields.” And he said, “I was there last night. It was brilliant. Excellent. Well done.” So we went from the bottom of the pops, the Top of the Pops. We were like, “This is all actually going to be fun.” But I tell you who was there, who was at school at the time, who I talked to about it with since, Mark Ronson was there. He lied to his mum and said that he had a school project or something and he had to stay out late, but yeah, he was there and he said it was a great gig as well. But those early shows were absolute mayhem because we were kind of desperadoes.

Alex James On Sacking Blur’s First Manager And Only Recently Paying Off Debts Accrued In The Band’s Early Career..
I think part of the problem with ‘Leisure’ was that it was as… I don’t know whether you had this with your band, but our first manager was kind of like our mate and it turned out he wasn’t very good at managing after all. And that as ‘Leisure’ was coming out, we realised we didn’t have any money at all. We had to sack the manager and get a sensible business manager, but we had a tax bill that we couldn’t pay. That is actually an imprisonable offense if you… It was really serious, but fortunately we were on this tiny little indie label called Food Records… Fortunately I think that our record label were able to apply some pressure to the American label SPK for them to back this enormous tour of America. It was 13 week, steeple chase, going absolutely everywhere. But by the fact that the record company would bankroll this incredible tour, which I think we only finished paying off about two years ago. We were paying them for years. So we could get an advance on t-shirts, merchandise royalties, which meant we could pay our debts and get to America and have some fun.But it was really strange. The four weeks after ‘Leisure’ was released, ‘Nevermind’ came out. I think it was the day that we got there for that tour.

Alex James On Why Honey Is The ‘Sexiest Stuff In The World’….
It’s the sexiest stuff in the world, honey. I absolutely love it. I went to visit some really good bee farmers in Australia and they covered me in it. Apparently, Cleopatra used to have a honey face mask. Yeah. And a milk bath. She was pretty sexy, now I think about it, but you want to keep all the windows shut because obviously, bees get a whiff of you’ve been covered in honey. They’re all over it. So yeah.

Alex James On Why Hosting The British Cheese Awards Was “Almost As Good As Being In Blur’…
Did you know it took two years of living on a farm going, “What the hell am I going to do now?” But it should have been obvious. It wasn’t until I was approached by a cheese maker who was looking for somewhere to make his cheese when I suddenly went, “Oh, yes.” And I was writing a column in a newspaper, a weekly column, this is before social media existed, in a newspaper about my transition from a metropolitan touring rock monster to quiet country gentlemen. I remember, I said, “I’m going to start making cheese.” And the phone rang just like two minutes after I’d filed the column, which is normally bad news. They only ever call you back to say, “This is rubbish. Can you change it?” But it was the editor and he was really, “Seaside cheese. I love it. Write me a feature. Brilliant.” And literally… Sometimes you try really hard at things and they go nowhere. But it seems… At that point Britain’s gone through an incredible evolution over the last 20 years, really, food wise. We’ve really become a nation of foodies. I think that got even more so during lockdown. There was a sort of explosion of British cheese happening at the time. And I think it needed a face. And so whenever there was any kind of big cheese news going down, it was me that they called and I was very happy. I remember just thinking about, “Will Blur ever get back together?” And then one year I hosted the British Cheese Aawards here on the farm and there were 960 different kinds of cheese in a big shed in the garden. I was like, “Wow, this is almost as good as being in Blur.”

Alex James On Learning About Cheese From Having It On Blur’s Rider…
What I love about cheese is, and it was from touring with the band, really, that I discovered it because we had cheese on the rider. Wherever the word for cheese changes, the thing for cheese changes, so cheese means probably cheddar in the UK. What does it mean in America? Probably similar to cheddar, right? But formaggio, Italian, that would mean mozzarella or Parmesan. Caso, that would mean sheep’s milk cheese, Spanish manchego. Fromage, the French word that would mean a Camembert or maybe Emmental. And everywhere you go around, there’s this kind of endless discovery with cheese. I’m still finding new ones. And every time I go to Italy, there’s an incredible cheese that you can only get in a 10 mile radius of where it’s made. What makes a great cheese. I think flavour-wise, it packs a lot of punch. Milk is a kind of uniquely mammalian elixia and by turning it into cheese, you’re doing this weird alchemy with it. And I think it’s just the most delicious thing there is, cheese. But don’t… I would still be talking in an hour if you don’t ask me about something else.

Alex James On Booking Chic For Feastival, And Why Nile Rodgers And Vodka Was His ‘Lockdown Medicine’….
It’s always been my first call every year, try and book Chic, since we started and I finally landed them this year. I’m absolutely delighted. And actually Merck, Niles’ manager came for lunch just before COVID hit and gave me a box of everything Nile Rodgers and Chic have ever done on vinyl. Anything that was recorded… Actually, anything that was recorded in that period, but I guess it was recorded as a master with the characteristics of vinyl in mind. It just pops and jumps like nothing. I spent… So that was my lockdown medicine, really. Well, that and vodka. I think they’re the best band I’ve ever, ever, ever heard. It’s just so relaxed and comfortable, but just virtuoso, just… My hat’s off, still get the goosebumps.”

Alex James On Working With ‘Fifth Member of Blur’ Stephen Street….
It wasn’t until Stephen Street, who really went on to become the fifth member of Blur in many ways. He produced the majority of our albums. He stepped in. I remember we were all on holiday for Christmas, but we were kind of summoned into the record company. It was the day after Boxing Day or something because Stephen was going skiing or something, that was the only chance he had to meet us. And he was well known for producing the Smiths. And actually, we went into the studio with him as soon as he was back from his holiday. And ‘There’s No Other Way’, he just really helped with the drums on that. And I remember as soon as we recorded that, it’s like, “We’ve absolutely nailed it.” I remember we’d done the backing track and the backing vocals and we put it up and it was just ready for the lead vocals. And we put it up really loud on the massive speakers in the control room. It was like goosebumps all over. And I remember Damon singing the lead vocal, it’s just screaming it into my right ear and just thinking, “Wow, we’ve absolutely… We’ve nailed this.” And that kind of set us off on a trajectory. I was living in a squat at that point, but then six months later I was being picked up from Kennedy airport in a limo and chauffeured into Manhattan.

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