Smart Alex by Jenny Tucker
Elle UK edition, December 1997


He's had a hit single with solo band, Me Me Me, has written songs for Marianne Faithfull and is working on ideas for a musical. So, is Alex James the next Andrew Lloyd Webber? Jenny Tucker discovers that Blur's bass player isn't just a pretty face

Alex James, the beautiful one in Blur, is interested in possibilities. He wonders about being a seaweed farmer ('There's a world of culinary delights to be experienced'), he dreams about giving musical head honcho Andrew Lloyd Webber a hefty kick up the arse and becoming a soar-away songwriter himself (he's working on ideas with playwright Jez Butterworth), he's even considered forfeiting fame and slipping away to the dazzling wastelands of Greenland (sensibly he decided he'd miss the buzz of being a pop star but reckons he might do it just for a couple of weeks some time).

Right now he's interested in blagging one of the designer suits he's wearing for our photo shoot. He asks the stylist if a discount is on the cards. Then he chases the woman from his management company, trying to find out if there's money in the band's budget to pay for it. 'You have to ask, don't you,' he smirks cheekily, then turns away to yank on a Camel fag and suss the view in the full-length mirror. 'It's not too small, is it?' he worries, staring at the suit jacket, shoulders hunched, his pointy features looking dithery.

For once, 29-year-old Alex hasn't got the rest of the band telling him what they think. He might not always want to hear what they've got to say but today, on his own, he seems unsure and nervous. I tell him the truth. He looks extremely handsome. A wide smile splits his face, displaying teeth which are unbelievably white for one who smokes so voraciously. He turns to the side and is almost thin enough to fall down the cracks in the studio floorboards. His arms and legs are gangling, and when the photographer calls him back to the camera, he lollops over with the shambolic gait of a half-cut string puppet. Yet, faced with the question 'Would you or wouldn't you?', the majority of women would.

Alex knows he's easy on the eye. Come on. He's in a band, he's classically better-looking than the other three, he could make a decent living as a model if he ever had the urge, he's got a bone structure good enough to make a convincing woman for Blur's Parklife video (and had enough balls to walk into the pub afterwards still wearing lipstick, mini skirt and long brunette wig). Attention, in a variety of forms, has never escaped him.

'It's not enough to be famous, you still need a fucking life,' he blurts, then adds more gently, 'Fame is a fickle and alluring thing. We're all intrigued by it.' He pauses, remembering. 'You can't beat the first flush of success. When Parklife topped a million copies here, it was the most exciting time of all. Suddenly everyone wants to know you.' Alex makes a 'disgusted' face and adds, 'But you become unbearable and self-obsessed. You do interviews all day and talk about yourself. You go on stage and everyone wants a slice. You come off stage and you've got all these new friends. On certain levels it's fantastic but it doesn't encourage you to be a nice person. That was when my girlfriend left me.'

The girlfriend of 10 years, Justine. Ex make-up artist. Friendly and down to earth. She's back now, living with Alex in their house in Covent Garden. I meet her alter and she tells me she's been doing the hoovering that afternoon. When Alex admits he felt a bit nervous at the shoot, she rubs his leg and makes cooing sounds. They seem cosy together.

At another point, when we're alone, I ask him about his supposed puckering-up with Helena Christensen. He squirms like a child and crunches his body into half its size. 'Weelll, yeah...Well, that was just a...rumour.' He meets my gaze. 'Justine is a constant in my life. I have a tendency to cling on to the past. Maybe I need the security. She's a good girl. I love her... Anyway, it's tragic when pop stars go out with pop stars, like twat from Bush and twat from No Doubt, validating each other by their fame.'

But what about Damon and Justine?

'They did start going out with each other before either of them were really famous. They don't do the photo-together-for-the-press thing. But they are two people with crazy lives living together. Fuck knows what they must go through.'

From the outside looking in, you could surmise that being a member of Blur takes more emotional stamina and bickering skills than the majority of bog-standard boy/girl relationships. Isn't it all a bit on the intense side?

Alex considers the idea and nods. 'Can be,' he answers, laconically. The photo shoot over, he's now sprawled across the back seat of the chauffeur-driven car that's taking us to the West End. He's wearing the designer suit and flicking ash from the trouser leg before it burns a very expensive hole.

'Touring can take you to the limits,' he offers. 'We've just spent three months in America and there are days wen it's brilliant and days when it seems like a vacuous waste of time.' He peers through the tinted windows of the car at the London traffic. 'You can get a bit tumble-dried by the world,' he says to the glass. 'you end up burning cities and people, and drinking loads.' He insists, with a certain pride, 'You have to enjoy yourself, though. The only way to approach touring is to take a full-on, pretend-you're-still-16 attitude. It has to turn into some kind of bumbling adventure. Otherwise it's just boring.'

But there must be times when you feel like you can't carry on?

'Yeah, every morning. Dave (the drummer) got it right when someone asked him how it felt to be in Blur. He said, "Good in the evenings and bad in the mornings." That sums it up.'

We're outside the Groucho Club in Soho. Alex is notorious for hanging out here, stuffing himself with booze, getting so bladdered he forgets to go home, and playing snooker with the likes of Damien Hirst. Walking up to the bar, the staff greet him like the prodigal son. Funny, really, because he was in here only yesterday. He orders a vodkatini with two olives. It arrives in seconds. Later, Alex worries about mentioning the Groucho. He thinks people will say it's typical, and label him a wanker. I think it's endearing that he even cares.

Of course, Alex has to deal with his fair share of vitriol from the press. There has been dirt dug on most members of Blur. Stories of Graham Coxon, the lead guitarist, lying pissed in the gutter after being knocked over by a car; Graham getting pissed at a sound check and almost punching Damon; Graham giving up booze because he didn't like all the pissed stories. Dave Rowntree, the drummer, who seems more sensible than the rest, gets off lightly. Damon... Well, there's been enough written about him to fill a psychologist's handbook. If you believe what you read, you'd think he was a self-opinionated, highly talented, moody megalomaniac. Alex elaborates: 'Damon's a very strident person, very domineering, antagonistic, a born leader. There aren't many people who will tell him to shut up. That's probably mine and Graham's job. Although all of us are quite balanced these days, there are still squabbles. When we were recording the album we were perpetually on the brink of blows. Some arguments run for years and years but, essentially, we're best mates.'

What did you think of him in Face ?

'I haven't seen it. Damon had a video of it on the tour bus but my parents were there and I was talking to them at the back. Damon went to drama school, he's always wanted to act. I've always wanted to get drunk and be famous. We've both got our wishes.'

Call it humility or a downright lie but Alex reckons he wouldn't want the attention that regularly swamps Damon. 'He gets recognised by everyone. I can still go into a pub and have a quiet drink. Damon gets hassled. For six months he was walking round as The Most Famous Person In Britain. You don't know how hard that is. I don't know how hard that is. It's a big deal.'

A big enough deal to make Damon freak when it all went kaput in the summer of 96 and fame no longer seemed an alluring must-have. Depression set in, hearts rattled in chests, Noel cursed Damon and Alex with that, now notorious, infection of Aids. So Blur went to Iceland to get their heads sorted. Damon tried to forget that Oasis had written Wonderwall and spent his time scudding across glaciers and reading Icelandic poetry. He came out of Iceland sticking two fingers up at his previous demotic Britpop burblings and resurfaced with the latest American-style indie rock album, Blur. Meanwhile, Alex was having a laugh. he took advantage of Reykjavik's open-all-hours bars and went back to London to invent Me Me Me, a collaboration with Stephen Duffy and Elastica's drummer, Justin. They had a hit with their one and only single, Hanging Around.

'Damon didn't like it at all,' shrugs Alex, staring off into the middle distance. 'I suppose he didn't think it was cool. But I thought, "Fuck off. I can do what I want." Although I'm working on the musicals and I've written stuff for Marianne Faithfull, I don't get lyrically involved much with Blur. It's a bit of the old George Harrison syndrome. You know, "Hey boys, I've got some songs..."' Alex raises his eyes to illustrate Blur's disinterest. Bless.

Heading for the snooker room, where Alex tends to get rooted when he's at the Groucho, he spots some friends. There is much hugging and roaring and excess of happiness. 'New suit?', one of them asks. 'Looks a bit small.' As if by magic, Damien Hirst appears. We'd just been talking about him. Alex was insisting that Damien is the most intelligent person he knows; the one person most capable of defining this generation. The pair are building a jellyfish tank for Alex's kitchen. he plans to feed them algae and bacteria (he's not sure how, but he's got people at the University of Miami working on it). When I ask him if he has any of Damien's art, he admits to 'a few drawings', although Damien did once write his number on Alex's mirror in toothpaste but Alex's mum came to visit and cleaned it off.

In the snooker room large quantities of alcohol are being ordered and Damien shouts disorderly sentences across the room at anyone who will listen. He also stares a lot. it's pretty disarming. Although the pair both went to Goldsmiths College, they didn't become friends until fairly recently. At Goldsmiths Alex was studying French (he has 13 O levels and three A levels) and on the look out for kindred souls. He met Graham.

'The first person I saw when I got there was Graham,' he recollects. 'He was getting out of his parent's car and I was getting out of mine. We clocked each other and immediately I knew he was going to play an important role in my life. It was destiny. Bang!'

More drinks appear. Damien Hirst is doing a Luke Skywalker with his snooker cue and thrusting it menacingly between Alex's legs. 'I bet I know what star sign you are,' Damien bellows at me, even though we haven't been introduced yet. Alex does the honours. 'Bet you're Libra. Virgo. Cancer.' After six wrong guesses, I tell him I'm and Aquarian. He's a Gemini which supposedly means we're compatible. Alex is a Scorpio, which supposedly means he's extremely sexual. This is not an occasion when we will find out if any of this is true. Even so, Damien is on a roll. 'What's the dirtiest thing you've ever done?' he squawks at me.

[Indignant]: 'I'm not telling you.'

'Well, whatever it is, it needs to be dirtier.' I later find out Damien hasn't been home for 36 hours. Perhaps he's delirious.

Most of us now are heading towards vodka insanity so we share drunk stories. I remember a time last year when I saw Damon at a party and he was so slaughtered he couldn't walk. A kindly mate, worried about his safety, drove him home. For 40 minutes Damon sat in the back of the car slagging off life. 'God bless him,' Alex smiles amiably. 'He's not a very good drinker. He's a ranter, isn't he? It's a shame Graham's given up. I liked getting drunk with Graham.'

He lights a fag and squints through the smoke. 'Is it late?' Although it feels like three in the morning, it's actually only 10pm. 'I've been trying to think of an impressive fact to give you,' Alex admits. 'Apparently, the UK imports 100,000 bottles of champagne a year and I worked out that between 1995 and 1996 I consumed one per cent of that total. I was drinking two bottles a day and giving one away. I don't do that any more. Champagne makes me feel nauseous but I do still drink a fair bit. But as long as alcohol enhances your life and makes it better, then I think it's okay. Like everything, if there's a good sense of whoopee, it's alright.' He runs a hand through his hair and because of all the gel from today's shoot it stands at an angle like the opened lid of a tin can. Alex volunteers a generous toothy smile. 'Drink, like all drugs, increases your sense of possibilities. You just don't know what might happen next. Now that is an exciting prospect.'