Alex interview: ABCOnLine

Bassist Alex James believes that pop music should unite cultures, bringing everyone closer together--that is, everyone except the culty art-wank bands

As emissaries of Brit-pop, Blur and Oasis can't help but be lumped together. But the cheeky chart-toppers make for rather undignified figureheads: by whipping up anti-American feelings in the British press and openly sulking to the U.S. media, neither band has as many fans on this side of the Atlantic as in their native England. Oasis's Stateside record sales have somewhat vindicated its boasts of conquering America, but Blur has yet to repeat its huge European success in the States. And it seems at times that the London-based quartet--Damon Albarn, vocals; Graham Coxon, guitar; Alex James, bass; and Dave Rowntree, drums--couldn't care less about American success. With the release of its eponymous fifth album this spring, however, Blur has taken a surprising turn away from the idiomatic brash pop of its acclaimed albums Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995). Embracing influences from further afield than the Kinks and English suburbia, Blur has taken aboard indie Americana, along with some expansive Pavement pop stylings.

In June, Blur kicked off its longest-ever American tour with the high-profile Tibetan Freedom benefit show in New York; one week later, as the band prepared to play a radio festival in San Francisco, Wall of Sound caught up with bassist Alex James. Though he was born in a small English seaside town, since he attended Goldsmith's College in South East London, Alex's bubbly voice hints of adopted cockneyed London tones. And his irony-laden, sarcasm-splattered sense of humor is pure, traditional Brit.

How was the Tibetan Freedom Festival?

It was okay. We all got carried away on a wave of "save Tibet" media machinery. We all became very committed to it by the end.

You weren't to begin with?

It wasn't something we knew anything about. We didn't know people were being chopped up, and made to live in really small rooms, and do all sorts of hideous things, but that's happening in lots of places. That kind of thing, that something gets ten minutes' attention on telly one day a year and then gets forgotten--it's very hard to deal with really.

It was a fairly hip festival. In New York, because a quarter of the world's famous people are there at any one time, if you get more than a certain critical amount of them being in one place, all the others want to be there as well. It sort of achieved that nuclear critical famous mass. It was very bizarre.

You have quite a big tour over here this time.

We've got a murky week going to places we haven't been before. I'm looking forward to going to Milwaukee because it's where the Violent Femmes are from. I love 'em! Their first album helped me through working at Safeways when I first left school.

A lot of English bands seem to have this attitude of "conquering America."

America likes to be conquered, and exploded, and destroyed. You can't do it gently. It's almost like a military operation.

Wouldn't America rather be greeted in a friendly manner?

It's hard to come to terms with the fact that it's more important to be cordial and blandly pleasant rather than an erratic genius in life. Just being nice to people does get you a lot further than actually being any good. Which is why shit bands like Bush do well.

In England you're superstars. You have yet to repeat that success in America.

We were on a bit of a mission to re-establish British culture. After we released our first album, we got here the day that Nirvana's Nevermind was released. We toured here for eight weeks and were completely ignored. We went back to England and the whole of the media was swamped with American grunge music. We just thought that Britain had lost its identity completely in terms of pop culture. All the bands were trying to sound American. Our second album was probably the start of Brit-pop because it completely denied any American influences.

interview by: Linda Laban for Wall of Sound from ABC OnLine, 1997