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Blur produces 'sonic hopefulness'

Blur, from left: Dave Rowntree, Alex James and Damon Albarn
Blur, from left: Dave Rowntree, Alex James and Damon Albarn

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(CNN) -- The members of Blur are becoming masters of reinvention.

The band was formed in England in 1989 by vocalist-songwriter Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James. Drummer Dave Rowntree joined the fold shortly afterward.

Blur, a pioneer in a generation of guitar bands labeled Britpop, managed to weather the rise and fall of that movement and later withstand the spike in popularity of chief British rival Oasis.

The latest bump in the road came when Coxon left shortly after group members gathered to record their seventh album, "Think Tank."

The resulting three-piece band forged ahead, and the album was released this spring. The latest incarnation of Blur just finished a U.S. tour and sat down with TMR to talk about "Think Tank" and the experience of recording in Morocco.

TMR: The new album, "Think Tank," has been described as probably your most positive album yet. How would you comment on that?

ALEX JAMES: It is full of images of hope. Sonic hopefulness.

DAVE ROWNTREE: ... For all of our previous albums, each one of the reviews has gone, "This is a much darker album." I mean, I think it couldn't have gotten any darker. I don't even know, even really know what that means. But anyway, this is an album made in the sunshine, and you can hear the sunshine in it.

JAMES: Like cornflakes. You can taste the sunshine.

TMR: How much do you guys really care about what people say?

DAMON ALBARN: Of course, it doesn't really matter. And what people say are first impressions, which unfortunately is the way that our whole system works. Everything is derived from that first impression. And actually most music with any kind of longevity is going take a lot longer to reveal itself to you.

So in the -- because of the necessity to get albums reviewed and sort of out there -- in the context of marketing, I think the whole language in which we describe music is not a true one. Because I think no music really is what it is immediately as to what it is future tense.

Damon Albarn
Damon Albarn

JAMES: Yes, it becomes much more substantial when it's sort of based in, when it's got a time context, when it's sort of become a part of your life and you can say what it is better. I mean it's nice to be reassured by good reviews, but really the only person who knows how good what you've done is you. You're the only person that can judge your work.

TMR: How different was it recording and writing and now touring without Graham Coxon?

ROWNTREE: It changed everything definitely when he left. But all changes have good effects and bad effects. So I think if he hadn't left, we wouldn't have got to play with such an extraordinary range of musicians as we are now in the live shows. There's nine of us on-stage now, backing vocals, percussion, keyboards, brass.

It's kind of -- so that was definitely a good effect. But he's one of our oldest friends, so if you're losing one of your oldest friends, there's always going to be a bad effect. Well, we haven't lost him. We know where he is. We know where to find him.

TMR: Tell me about the producers you worked with on this album.

ALBARN: Well, this record we really only worked with one, Ben Hillier, who's quite new to the game.

ROWNTREE: He's very musical and very technically minded. It was sort of his ability to build studios in barns and anywhere they were required that's kind of very handy. I mean I think we shipped about 13 tons of gear to Africa.

ALBARN: But once we had that kind of headquarters, so to speak, we found that we spent a lot more time recording outside. In fact, all the vocals and some of the playing are all recorded outside in the sunshine and at night. There's actually very little that goes on in the studios. And it's surprising really just how musical everyday life is.

JAMES: Yeah, recording studios are designed by acoustic engineers, and a fortune is spent working out what the best-shaped rooms to listen to music [are], what shape rooms should be and what shape drum rims should be and what materials they should be constructed from.

I think we discovered as long as you've got good microphones and you know what you're doing, you could do it on the roof or on the toilet. It's just about the spirit with which you make the music ... that's what's important. You can get lost in a quagmire of technology and jargon.

TMR: Do you guys find yourselves not doing that?

ALBARN: We'd rather make music like it was a street market than a massive great shopping mall ... and you can buy nice fresh mangoes on market.

TMR: What are your future plans?

ROWNTREE: There are enormous plans on the foot, but they mostly involve playing shows, making records. And we started a lot of -- Damon wrote nearly 40 songs for this album, of which nearly 30 got finished and nearly 25 ended up on the record. But if there's one thing Damon's not short of, it's songs so ...

JAMES: Making records is the easy bit of being in a band.

ROWNTREE: It is when you're on tour. When you're in the studio, being on tour is the easy bit.

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