Alex James: EASIEST JOB IN THE WORLD

Good news for aspiring bass players: According to Alex James of British noise-pop outfit Blur, playing bass is easy. In fact, up through the release of Blur's fifth album [Blur, Virgin], James's own playing has taken on an increasingly basic shape. Although Blur is much noisier and grittier than the band's previous more "British"-sounding albums, it's a distinctly back-to-the-roots offering that sounds quite, well ... American. Still, there's no mistaking Blur's elemental, genre-crossing melodies, which are solidly in line with James's philosophy of pop music in general: keep it simple and uncluttered.

"To be in a pop band, you don't have to know anything about music," Alex allows. "All the best songs have only three or four chords, and you can learn them in an afternoon." One listen to Blur confirms the band's adherence to this ethos. From the punk quickies "Song 2" and "Chinese Bombs" to the Beatle-like "Beetlebum" to the chilling "Strange News from Another Star," James and his bandmates require only a handful of chords--and a few choice bass note--to create exciting rock & roll.

As a teen, Alex knew he wanted to play this kind of music. "When you're 11," he says, "you and all your mates want to be footballers, but then when you're 16 you all want to be in a band. Everybody in my class was learning one instrument or another, so it was quite easy to join in." That's just what James did--although his initial desire to play keyboards was thwarted by excessive cost. Finally, after pestering his parents long enough, he scored a Columbus 4-string ("a shit Precision copy") for his 16th birthday. By the mid '80s, Alex was playing in a band called Seymour; after changing its name to Blur, the group hit the charts in 1990 with "She's So High" and "There's No Other Way," to songs very much in step with the then-current Manchester sound of such groups as Happy Mondays and Stone Roses.

Then came Blur's successful Brit-pop trilogy of Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife [both on SBK/EMI], and 1995's The Great Escape [Virgin]{umm..what about Leisure??? --J}. All three albums explored lyrically what it's like to be English, and the bass lines are all defined by Alex's simple-is-best approach. Whether beneath the Euro-pop of "Girls & Boys" and "To the End" {To the End is Euro-pop??? I wouldn't say so--J} or the overt punk of "Bank Holiday" [all from Parklife], James's lines never stray from the core of the song. "If you start sounding busy, you've lost it," he says. "I do like to play repetitive riffs from time to time, but just because something is simple doesn't mean it's boring."

Ask Alex about his main bass influence, and you get a typically humourous answer. "Probably Stuart Sutcliffe of the Beatles," he winks. "I think bass players should be cool; it doesn't matter if they can play." James doesn't appear to have spent much time pondering the complexity of the instrument, or in honing his theory, either. He says he just took his bass, put on his favourite records, and learned to copy them, picking up techniques as he went along. Alex eventually gleaned some of music's terminology--although he's convinced knowing something intrinsically is much more important than knowing its formal labels. "We work with a brass section," he explains, "and one of the horn guys was talking about substitutions the other day. Whatever! Eventually, you find out it's stuff you know anyway--it's just that there are proper names for it all."

James also spends little time worrying about equipment specifics. When we asked him what kind of bass he plays, he had to check with one of the people in his road crew. It turns out he's currently fingering a black Ernie Ball Music Man StingRay, which he picked up once he found out Bernard Edwards of Chic used one. Previously, he'd been playing Fender Precisions. "I don't like people who are precious about their instruments," he says. "It's like talking about stereos instead of talking about records, you know? They're just Biro pens, and it's not the pen--it's what you write with it." Alex has had the same AmpegSVT rig for years. What kind of strings does he use? He doesn't know. Picks? No idea.

While many bassists spend their time learning all they can about their instrument, James says all you need to do is pick it up and play it. "We don't become bass players because we want to work hard," he shrugs. "We do it because it's the easiest job in the world."

[interview by: Marsh Gooch for Bass Player magazine, November 1997]