A Blur Track on Mars:
How do you top that? On the eve of the landing of the Beagle 2 space probe on Mars, one of its instigators, Blur bassist Alex James, talks exclusively about his new-found passion for space 'Talking with scientists makes me feel giddy with excitement. Life on Mars, I mean, come on! How dead do you have to be not to find that interesting?'.

The Evening Standard (London, England); 12/24/2003
Byline: RACHEL COOKE

If you were at any of Blur's three sell-out gigs at Dublin's Olympia Theatre this week you might have noticed Damon Albarn looking happier as the nights went by.

On the first night, he walked on stage with a bottle of water, on the second a pint of Guinness and by the third night he was kicking off the show with a Guinness and two vodkas. "He got into holiday mode and started hitting the bar a little earlier every night," said my spy.

Alex James is no ordinary pop star. In recent weeks he has been looking at meteorites in the Natural History Museum, visiting laboratories in Cambridge and having "strange conversations about methane oceans on Saturn's moons". Tomorrow's turkey, trimmings and Christmas pud can wait, says the Blur bass player. Because Beagle's triumph will mark the culmination of his littleknown obsession to help Britain become a force in interplanetary expeditions.

We meet at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, the last place you expect to stumble upon someone so famously beautiful and louche as Alex James. Though the Institution's current director is the glamorous physiologist Professor Susan Greenfield, the place is overrun with lumpy men in green pullovers and bad jeans. In and out of the lobby they go: anoraks zipped, bicycle lights clipped to their rucksacks. Scientists, eh? Show them a hairbrush and they would run a mile.

When James finally appears, however, he fits right in. His face is covered with a substantial beard and his suit is matched with dirty shoes and an ancient T-shirt. Most striking of all is the inquisitiveness in his beady brown eyes.

After a long courtship - he first got involved with Beagle 2, Europe's first probe to Mars, back in 1999 - James is now totally, irrevocably in love with all things extraterrestrial. "I've been hanging out with scientists," he explains. "Talking to them makes me feel giddy with excitement. Space today is like the oceans once were - it is no coincidence the craft is named after Darwin's ship. Life on Mars, I mean, come on! How dead do you have to be not to find that interesting?"

Beagle, which is about the size of a motorbike wheel, was launched on 2 June this year from Kazakhstan. It is due to hit the atmosphere of Mars at a speed of 21,000km per hour, and lands at 02.54GMT tomorrow morning.

It will be sending back a picture of the surface to the National Space Centre in Leicester, the Open University in Milton Keynes and a media centre in London at around 8.30am on Christmas Day.

"The Mole" - a small robot with a "penis" that will probe the soil to collect samples - will be activated a few days later and the findings radioed back to Earth.

Beagle will then remain on Mars for six months, looking for carbonates - evidenced that life once existed.

"Why is science seen as uncool?" James asks. "We are on the brink of some massive discoveries. It just needs a marketing job, that's all. Scientists are dizzying, eloquent, persuasive orators who believe in what they do. There's certainly a lot more revolutionary thinking going on in scientific circles than there is in the music industry."

James and Dave Rowntree, Blur's drummer, got involved with the Beagle project almost - but not quite - by accident.

"We were drunk, sitting on the roof of a Los Angeles hotel in a Jacuzzi, looking up at the stars and wondering what we could do with our fame. I had always been interested in space and have always taken a telescope with me on tour. And I started to think, 'Why on earth isn't there a British space programme?' "So we phoned our accountant and told him that we wanted to help start one and get sponsors for it. He took us at our word." Two meetings later, they were in Milton Keynes talking to Beagle 2's creator, professor Colin Pillinger, a chemist by training and a veteran of the Pathfinder and Viking missions for Nasa. "The first thing he said was, 'Here's a piece of Mars.' He grinned and pulled an object out of his pocket. Just as we tried to get a closer look, he whisked it away and said, 'We need to land on Mars in 2003.' As meetings go, it was easily the best I'd been to. That's when we got hooked."

COLIN Pillinger took his model of Beagle 2 (his brainchild, which he had started working on in 1998, and which at that point resembled something from Blue Peter) round to artist Damien Hirst's house. Hirst was won over, and contributed one of his spot paintings to be carried on board. Pillinger then went round to art collector Charles Saatchi, who in turn offered his services for what would be the first space mission to be funded by a combination of private and government money (the Particle Physics and

Astronomy Research Council alone put up [pounds sterling]5 million). The total cost is estimated to be [pounds sterling]40 million.

So, what contribution have the members of Blur made to the project? "The spacecraft needed a call sign that would give it a unique fingerprint to distinguish it from other space hardware and to let us know the Beagle has landed," says James. He composed a nine-note tune, based loosely on a harmonic series devised by the dad of Blur lead singer Damon Albarn. James and his fellow band members will be able to hear their composition being transmitted back to Earth soon after the Queen's speech.

ALTHOUGH James is still a little on the vague side - alarmingly, he can stare into the middle distance for moments at a time - these days he is a very different person from the one who spent [pounds sterling]1 million on champagne in three years. "I drank two bottles every day except Wednesdays." Why did he drink?

"I don't know, maybe I was scared, or bored, unable to cope." He gave up last year, finally realising he would lose everything if he didn't stop.

"Yeah, I'm a teetotal farmer now," he announces (actually, only the first bit of this statement is true -- he has not yet taken to ploughing the land around his home in Oxfordshire). In 2002, realising that he had taken playing the "elegantly wasted dandy" too far, James learnt to fly, and took up bridge, yoga and riding. Last May, he married his video director girlfriend, Claire Neate, in a Cotswolds church; the couple are expecting their first baby in February.

Does he feel he has finally sorted himself out? He snorts. "No! Nobody ever feels that. Maybe when you have a kid you do. The way I am now is just the difference between being 24 and being 34. Your twenties are about finding limits, and your thirties are about finding balance. I'm probably just a bit less reckless."

Blur met when they were students at Goldsmiths College - "I took science A-levels but I did a languages degree simply because it meant I was the only boy in the class" - and nearly 10 years ago hit the big time with their third album, Parklife. James won't be giving up the day job any time soon, but says, disenchantedly: "Music is so much about money. Scientists don't work for money - they're chasing dreams. We're all floating in a sea of mystery; they're the only people who are able to give us any answers. When the penny drops, and you finally understand some science, believe me, it's better than hearing a good joke."

So, if it were possible for him to visit Mars - a journey of approximately 34,600 million miles - would he do it? "No, but Dave Rowntree would go, even if he couldn't come back. Anyway, we'll all live on Mars one day. We're only a couple of discoveries away from being able to use nanobots [tiny robots, to you and me] to make it a vast paradise. The first man to go to Mars has certainly been born." His eyes mist over again. "Blur on Mars. How are we going to top that next year?"

. The Live from Mars Royal Institutution Christmas lecture will be broadcast on Channel 4, 29 December, at 12.05pm.

The RI series of Christmas lectures starts on 28 December and ends on 1 January (020 7409 2992).

Beagle 2 is one of the tracks on the CD of the third single, No Distance Left to Run, from Blur's album 13.

"Plug me in, turn me up, pass me a plectrum!" says James. "We were in a studio with a producer and some ideas, so we said let's get some beers and just start rocking. There's nothing like making music. JK Rowling says in the Harry Potter books that music is the most powerful magic of all. It's f***ing true! In an instant a song can change your whole state of mind. So what could be a better job than making magic? The only pressure was that we had to come up with the best thing we'd ever done. Otherwise, it would be really boring just trying to justify our existence without Graham. The way to have an easy life is to make a good record. So it was a year in the making. We had to find out where the boundaries were without Graham. I think we've all grown up quite a lot since we last worked together. We became a lot more professional in how we approach making music."

"Ultimately, Damon doesn't need me to make records, I don't need Damon, Dave doesn't need either of us, and what you'll get without Graham is just a different record, not necessarily better or worse," says James. "But as long as it's great it doesn't really matter, unless you're Graham. If Blur's better without me then I'd say carry on. It stops being Blur when it's shit, as far as I'm concerned."