A Life Less Orderly

The blue clouds of cigarette smoke hang heavy in The Colony Rooms. It's 11 p.m. and staff at London's most notorious drinking club, an endearingly tatty 50-year-old home of Bohemian drunkenness, are asking for its regulars to clear out. It's been a special evening. Keith Allen and Damien Hirst popped in for one. Voices were raised, champagne was drunk, glasses were broken and Alex James served behind the bar - a special favour to the club's proprietor, Michael Wojas.

As the regulars stumble gingerly down the narrow staircase and out into the London night, Alex motions towards the door of the nearby Gents. "Follow me," he whispers, "I have a surprise." Once inside the toilet, he leans over the cistern, noisily opens the small back window and, with one fluid movement, climbs out onto the Soho rooftops. He theatrically inhales the night air and, with the assured agility of the slightly drunk, begins to make his way across the tiles towards the sounds of revelry three houses away.

With the normal world 40 feet below, he arrives at an illuminated window. Tapping on the glass, he is let in by a waitress and, with a trip, a sly "Helloo!" and a rousing cheer from the boozy congregation, Alex James enters The Groucho Club for another riotous night out.

A cappuccino, a tomato juice and a tall glass of mineral water line the top of the downstairs bar of The Groucho Club. They're all for Alex James. It's 2 p.m.: our afternoon, Alex's morning. His appearance today is suitably ragged: unshaven and bleary, lost in a great, green army parka of folds and layers, his mop of dark hair sticking out at odd cartoon angles. He's a mess, but it's a beautiful mess. His brown eyes still sparkle under a wayward fringe, his fine features still mark him out as uncommonly handsome beneath a two-day beard and a few extra pounds.

Alex is tired, hungover and coming to terms with some legal matters.

"I've just found out that, for insurance purposes, I'm a liability," he says, visibly concerned. "We've just been to see our accountant to look at how much we're spending on taxis, stationery, plectrums... They keep big files on you, these people. It's horribly brutal. I thought I was having fun." He laughs. A theatrical, musical hall, toothy, posh-as-you-like laugh. "In insurance terms," he says, "I'm a no-hoper, a bad investment."

After ten years in rock'n'roll, Alex James may momentarily have lost that lithe, slim-fit, fluid frame of a few years ago, but he retains his air of serene good humour, impudence and geniality, so much so you genuinely believe his plans to burn off the excess fat by purchasing a trampoline. His appearance may put him in the off-guard position, but it's not long before you realise Alex James is always in play.

When was the last time you were here?

"Last night, actually," he says, with a small sigh. "Came in for a game of snooker with Damien... Oh! She's just taken my ashtray away." He flicks his ash into the coffee cup and orders another cappuccino.

"It's quite nice, this," he continues, pointing his fag lazily off to the right. "I've always liked the idea of being an idiot fucking genius Soho alcoholic moron. Do you want a drink?"

Cup of tea please.

"Any special kind?"

No, just normal. PG.

"Yeah! PG Tips! Fucking the best Don't fuck about with those Twinings ponces."

If Blur have become rather serious of late - what with the strange, experimental pop tangents of '13', Graham's recent retreats into lo-fi American guitar noise and Damon's collaborations with British minimalist composer Michael Nyman - Alex has stayed Alex, fittingly the very essence of classic Blur: intelligent, endearing and cuttingly British.

As Damon complains of the evils of touring while the band prepare for a series of rare showcase performances around the world, culminating in a much-awaited headliner at the Reading Festival, Alex offers a more pragmatic view of getting the most out of being on the road. "It's a fucking myth that you don't see anything," he says, "invented by boring people in shit bands. You can see the world, if you're prepared to relinquish sleep."

Throughout Blur's ten-year history, whenever they've looked like slipping dangerously into the mire of indulgence, Alex has always been on hand with a smirk and a quip, a fag hanging impertinently from the corner of his mouth, ready to pop the Blur balloon of pretentiousness. A beguiling mix of '30s cad, '50s novelist and '60s rock star, he'll tell you bass players are merely the passengers in bands, "they're not in the driving seat."

However, if Alex James is a passenger, he's the kind you always want along for the journey because he's bound to liven up the trip, even if he sometimes goes too far. During his drunken "c***ish" behaviour in 1992, he mis-used his rapier wit to boozily insult all around him and famously ended up with two black eyes: one each from Dave and Graham.

Then there are his musical side-projects, also seemingly devised to unerringly wind up his colleagues. Between the bitter two-dimensional concept dirge of 'The Great Escape' and the unveiling of their lo-fi anti-Mockney masterpiece 'Blur', Alex dicked around with Stephen Duffy under the guise of MeMeMe. And, while Damon was dredging up the pain of a broken relationship for the songs on '13', Alex was making novelty pop records with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst in Fat Les.

"I'm a complete pop junkie," he says, still perched at the bar, sipping delicately at his mineral water, speaking in that relaxed, bleary, faintly amused drawl of his. "Fat Les is my chance to drive. You wonder after ten years, 'Is it me or is it the others?' and it all went so well until that fucking 'Naughty Christmas' nightmare."

Alex James also wrote some songs for '13', but he has a theory about why they never ended up on the album.

"Punishment for Fat Les," he explains matter-of-factly.

"I had songs. I played them to William [Orbit, producer of '13']. He liked them. But I was sulking. I didn't play them for the others," he says, muttering, "fucking c***s. Now I know how George Harrison felt."

What does Damon think of Keith and Damien?

"Well," ponders Alex, "it's kind of like when your mum doesn't like you playing with those boys from the estate."

However, despite a certain amount of playful fretting over this marginalisation, despite the pop kid's open hatred for the kind of art-noise rock influences running through '13', Alex James refuses to accept that the new Blur album is in any way pretentious.

"Oh no!" he counters, visibly narked. "You're not going to get me there. It fuckin' ain't! You won't get a fucking more pop producer than William Orbit. I've always dreamed of making a record where you can go into a hi-fi shop and the c***s put your record on to show off the hi-fi.

"It sounds like a pop record. You know when you remember a song you really liked when you were little? You imagine it perfectly recorded, then you hear it and it sounds like an absolute piece of shit? Something like 'Bang Bang' by BA Robertson, which I remember as a great tune and it's fucking awful. I should re-record it."

Well, it does have a certain Fat Les quality to it.

"Yeah, he was cheeky, wasn't he."

Fat Les and '13' aren't the limit of Alex's endeavours over the past two years. In a haze of a vodka and lime juice, while crashing on the floor at his good friend (Mojo writer/director) Jez Butterworth's, he wrote a song cycle about his London life. It started off at the posh Ivy restaurant and ended up at a seedy late night drinking den called The Venus.

"It was based on Dante's Inferno," explains Alex, "but Jez has gone off to Australia to do a film with Nicole Kidman so it's on hold... I don't know... it's a genre that needs reinventing."

Alex has now retired upstairs to the Groucho's New Bar where he sits in a smart, pillar-box red designer chair under one of Damien Hirst's splatter paintings. He's perking up now and attempting to put his recent London nights in order. There was the party with Salman Rushdie where the author was looking for bands to perform the awkward songs from his rock'n'roll novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Alex remembers patting the novelist on the head and proposing an alternate plan in which he'd write some pop songs for Rushdie to perform. The Corrs were there for some reason.

"One walks in and you say, 'Blimey! She's sexy!' and then they just keep on coming and keep getting sexier."

Alex loves this London life. Unlike other members of the band, he's reluctant to move out into the country and still lives in Covent Garden with his girlfriend, Justine.

"I love living in the West End because you can be a pedestrian," he says. "You go out in the country and it's all fucking mud. I thought the world was made of pavement, but it ain't. When I get back here, I think, 'Thank fuck, we're home again.'"

If Alex has a day to himself he likes to get up late. "Lions have 18 hours' sleep a day," he observes, "and that's cool with me." He'll wallow in bed, listening to Radio Four and then maybe go and buy some cheese from the nearby Neal Street Dairy or get a shave at a little place he knows in Holborn.

"Just walking out of the door and going to the cheese shop makes me happy," he says. "Simple pleasures - cooking, bad telly, jigsaw puzzles. I can usually pull off a souffle or Yorkshire pudding. It's easy to cook meat, it's much harder to cook vegetables. Truman Capote said that. Oh, and we've got a new Marks & Spencers now which is brilliant. I'm a big fan of supermarkets."

Aren't you more of a Tesco Metro man?

"Oh, it's all gone wrong in Tesco Metro," he complains. "It's just gone into pre-packaged sandwiches and things for tourists. Have you ever seen so many people all looking at maps? It's great. I never look at maps anywhere. When I'm in a foreign city I never know where the fuck I am. I don't subscribe to the awful fascism of package holidays."

Alex believes we're the first generation who are free to travel anywhere in the world. He thinks this is important because people need to find new reasons to get up in the morning.

"I know I do," he says. "I've got to stay out of here if I can. That's why flying's been good."

Two years ago Alex and Dave Rowntree were probably the most unlikely pairing in Blur. Musically, they may have provided the bass and drums backbone to the Blur sound, but Dave was the shy tee-totaller petrified of ever going back to the world of drink and drugs again. And Alex was Alex. But things change.

"It's weird," admits Alex, "Graham was my friend originally, but I have more in common with Dave these days."

Do you have flying conversations?


What do you talk about?

"Well, we're looking at an IFR day today. Instrument Flight Rules. What that means is it's a shite day for flying, really."

These days, whenever Alex or Dave are doing promotion in Europe, they'll fly there themselves.

"It's incredibly empowering," says Alex. "If you go to Amsterdam on a commercial flight you don't know how the fuck you've got there, but if you fly there yourself you know you've gone North of London, down to Dover... It's like when your first mate gets a car, you're 17, and suddenly your horizons go WOOO!" He pauses a moment. "I know," he adds quickly, "it does reek of rock star c*** but the point is we do have to be in a different country every day and if we can do it under our own stream, great."

Alex also likes flying because it provides his life with order and discipline. "You can't fuck about when you're flying. It's good for a fuckwit like me to assume responsibility. There's almost a zen-like quality because there's so many checks you have to perform. Plus, it costs less to run the aeroplane than to park the car in Covent Garden."


"Honest," insists Alex. "I've got a half share in a Gruman AA5, twelve-and-a-half grand, chugs along at about 120 miles an hour, get to France in an hour, insurance less than the car."

Despite these down-home justifications, Alex does acknowledge his life is not exactly The Real World. But when he flew to the Cannes Film Festival recently, he came face-to-face with a whole different level of fame, where cities are built in a day, where, at 12 o'clock on a Saturday, someone lent him a powerboat. He was drinking with Ewan McGregor, zooming around on his powerboat, staying in the best room at the best hotel...

"Then," he explains, "12 o'clock the next day, all the band had fucked off, I was being dragged out of my bed by my feet with someone telling me my room was no longer mine. My new powerboat mates were nowhere to be seen. I was rich and poor in a day. It was a brilliant microcosm of the music industry. I don't know how you'd cope on your own. There are points where you think it's all downhill. Then suddenly you're going to Mars. It keeps getting fucking weirder."

For example... After one very, very late night in America in 1998 Dave Rowntree and Alex, new flying buddies, decided to start a British space programme. Instead of laughing it off the next morning they phoned their accountant who just so happened to live next door to a man who worked for a satellite company. He put them in touch with Colin Pillinger, holder of the Gresham Chair of Astronomy who had devised a machine capable of burrowing under the Martian sub-soil, detecting the presence of carbonates and proving whether life has existed elsewhere in the universe.

"It's a question we've been asking since the dawn of conscious thought," says Alex. "The technology's there, the intelligence is there, the only thing not there is the funding."

How much does it cost?

"It's a million pounds a kilo to Mars. It's 1999, we should be building fucking spaceships but there's this built-in nihilistic vision of 'what's the fucking point'. You know, people thinking they can't sing, they can't do maths or their hair is mousey brown. I've seen a mouse and I've never seen hair that colour, but there is this ingrained belief people have that they aren't very musical or scientifically-minded. It's not true."

As he enters his 30s, Alex James the dreamer, the thinker, is finally doing something with his dreams and his thoughts.

"I can't think of anything better to do than send a spaceship to Mars," he says, "it's exciting. Damien's going to put some spots on the spacecraft to calibrate it. You know, Blur is a kind of marketable, credible thing, and people are always giving us free clothes, so why can't we do something? And if Colin discovers evidence of life, it'll probably be the biggest discovery ever made. Isn't that brilliant? All that from a late night conversation. That's drugs for you."

Four p.m. in The Colony Rooms, the sun's forcing its way in through the nicotine-yellowed windows. Football on the telly. Alex James is learning the ropes behind the bar with his mate and joint partner in Turtleneck Records Jan Kennedy. Alex wants Turtleneck to be a war on pop pap. "Polydor want fucking shooting, trying to tell me Boyzone is serving a market," he spits. "Bad music is bad for your soul. It's worse than bad drugs."

With Turtleneck, Alex is planning a new wave of "Louder, ruder, nastier music, and more heavy metal. A whole new underground of unbroadcastable filth." He reaches for a bottle of dark, viscous brandy. "Not that stuff," says the proprietor Michael. "It's too early."

Polishing the glasses, Alex explains that during their recent live rehearsals Blur played their whole history, every single, in order.

"It was great," he says, smiling. "'Bang' was fucking superb." He pauses. "I don't think we'll ever play that again. Fuckin' hell, worst verse you ever heard. Dannii Minogue gave it Stinker of the Week in Number One magazine. 'Modern Life Is Rubbish', that's the cool one. Were were all so thin, darling! We were thinking of playing the whole of 'The Great Escape' at the next concert, seeing if we could get away with it, but 'Modern Life' was really the start of something, wasn't it?"

A middle-aged couple are standing by the bar, looking somewhat disgruntled. They've ordered a bottle of champagne and only half has been poured. "Oh," says Alex, utterly contrite, "I appear to have given the rest to my friends."

Throughout the whole evening, the man is the epitome of rakish elan. But he does have one small grievance.

"What you were saying earlier about pretension," he begins. "Well, everything is done on the fly. It's always been a shambles. Yeah, Damon has annoying little moments, the way he's wearing his shades on the inside cover of 'Blur', God bless him, but it's more like you'd feel about a member of your family. 'Don't pick your nose,' that kind of thing. There's squabbles all the time, but it's only handbags. We keep each other sane."

What would they be like if you weren't there?

"Well, they were fucking shit when I joined them, mate."

One a.m. in the pool room of the Groucho. Chaos. Everybody is shouting. Alex is at the snooker table. No-one is capable of playing a real game so Alex is educating all in the art of Round The Pink, whereby the players have to knock the white ball around the pink ball without hitting any of the cushions. He has just won 9 quid at the game and is standing proudly at the table in a foul chocolate-coloured T-shirt. Thrown onstage in Japan in 1992, it sports a permanent Africa-shaped stain positioned on top of his slight, but still noticeable, beer belly. Its growth may be halted by Alex's abstinence from one drink, at least - the dreaded absinthe.

"Have you been there?" he asks, his eyes lighting up. "Fucking brilliant. They should advertise it on telly. If you get it from the chemists and it's pink and tramps drink it with water then it's bad, but sell it in the Groucho for ten quid and stick a cherry in it, then there's fuckers writing about it in The Guardian. Imagine," he says, grinning wildly, "if they sold it in Bournemouth! Everyone would be biting each other's noses off."

Is absinthe something you'd go back to?

"Oh I fucking hope not. Somebody should definitely write this down," he announces, casting his arm in the general direction of Groucho lunacy. "It's not just that bizarre things happen, but their alarming regularity. A hundred fucking times a day. Read Powder by Kevin Sampson. Our biography's good, but that's more accurate."

He glides over to the piano to pick out odd children's tunes with the assistance of a couple of beautiful ladies. Sometime later, in the quieter downstairs bar, Alex is buying the drinks. Again. Prior appointments have long been cancelled. Everyone is very, very drunk and Alex has retired to a quiet corner of the bar to observe the ever-green Groucho madness around him.

Do you enjoy being 30, Alex?

"No," he says. "It's horrible. I spent the last ten years being 16 and then suddenly I'm 30. Your body just can't take that kind of hammering. You don't notice it until you see a photo of yourself two years ago and think 'fucking hell'."

Do you worry about it?

"If something is making you unhappy you'd probably stop doing it," he says, lighting a fag. "Apart from smack. I don't know about smack. I've never taken it. I think that can fuck people up for a long time. But I only go out once or twice a week now. Monday to Wednesday and Thursday to Sunday. [Sighs] It's easy to be witty when you think you're a c***, when you have a very low opinion of yourself."

Are you happy at the moment?

"No. I haven't written anything down for ages which is worrying. I've tried keeping diaries but there's a real Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle going on there. As soon as your life gets interesting enough to write about, you don't have time to write about it."

Do you like being on your own?

"Erm, don't know, not really... I prefer to be surrounded by chaos. I don't like drinking on my own. That's bad."

What will you be doing at 40?

"Saying 'This has really got to stop, it can't go on much longer'. But it's top secret, the future, isn't it?"

Alex was reading F Scott Fitzgerald the other night, a story called Babylon Revisited about a man who's been having a drunken whale of time around 1920s Paris. Then his wife dies and he has to clean up and go back home.

"I can do Fitzgerald every night in London," he says. "You can start off in the Ivy with John Travolta and end up in some fucking shit Venus bar with, I don't know, Fred West. One of the first questions we ever got asked was, 'Don't you feel it's a rather precarious existence? - you know, trying to soar on the wings of a song for a living - but sometimes it can feel liek there's nothing more substantial."

The evening is over. Alex calls Select a week later. He's at an air show in Paris with Dave, his new best mate. He proudly informs us that, after that night, he hasn't had a drink since. Oh, and he's just ordered a trampoline.

Andrew Male, Select Magazine, September 1999