Notionally, New World Towers is the story of how Blur most recent record, Magic Whip, came to life. Really it’s a story of how four individuals deal with each other, and cope with being in Blur.
‘We’re in the happy place where none of us need to be in Blur,’ says drummer Dave Rowntree at one point in the documentary.
It was a serendipitous form of wanderlust that saw the five of them in Hong Kong in 2013, bound for Tokyo (according to Damon Albarn) or Taipei (according to bassist-turned-cheesemaker Alex James). Wherever it was, they were on their way to a gig that got cancelled at short notice, leaving them stuck in Hong Kong for five days with nothing to do.
They could have just taken it as holiday but - as Rowntree tells the camera with a smirk - ‘when musicians are bored they tend to whip their instruments out.' With an odd assortment of kit they bundled into a nondescript recording studio somewhere on Hong Kong’s high-rise island, and got to work. ‘If we’d had a posh studio and Pharrell Williams, we’d never have made it,’ says James at one point.
The first part of the film captures the in-the-moment intensity of those five days, with a series of vignettes of Hong Kong, in a style vaguely reminiscent of Nicholas Winding Refn and Driver: lots of soft focus neon; cameras following behind Albarn as he wanders the city; grainy shots of the band on the Hong Kong metro. The rest tells the story of how the output became Magic Whip three years later.
Graham Coxon emerged as the driving force behind the record, he says, in an attempt to atone for his previous errors (he left the band in 2002, for reasons that have never been made entirely public), and it’s his contributions to the film that are the most enlightening. He seems far more introverted than the others, mentioning that he had anxiety issues about getting on the metro in Hong Kong. Yet it was he who finally took the initiative. ‘If you leave the washing up for a day you start dreading it,’ laughs James. ‘With this stuff, 6 months went by, and another 6 months, then another 6 months… I was thinking about cheese, then Graham called and said ‘You know those songs we did in HK? I'm going to see what I can do with them.''
What he did, his ‘masterstroke’ according to James, was to call Stephen Street, the producer from their first album Leisure. They tried to keep as much of what had been done in Hong Kong as they could, including the stripped-back feel that let Albarn’s locally-inspired lyrics stand out: particularly those that focused on his relationship with Coxon. Playing back the results to Albarn and the rest of the band is really the film’s climax, and it’s here that the whole band’s over-involvement with themselves and with each other comes flooding out. ‘It was a difficult conversation to prepare for,’ says Coxon. ‘My blood ran cold when I heard some of the lyrics for the first time… I listened very closely (to ‘My Terracotta Heart’, the song that is most obviously about his and Albarn’s relationship) to the lyrics once, and now I don’t anymore. We’re very poor communicators… but we all really mean a lot to each other.’
He needn’t have worried. When Coxon had taken the initiative and called Street, Albarn ‘felt really pleased that my oldest friend was feeling that positive in himself again.’ And he wasn’t disappointed with the results, possibly because they had been tailored to him.
This level of care, attention to each other’s opinions and awareness of the fickle nature of their craft that comes across in New World Towers, the self-awareness to say, as Coxon does at one point, ‘We could've made an absolute pile of shit.’
There’s no question the documentary is an opportunity for public catharsis, an open healing of wounds that have been inflicted in private. As Coxon says though, ‘You have friendships that you’ve put through the mangle… times when you’ve done the wrong thing. It’s part of learning what the right thing is, part of growing up.’
New World Towers ticks a few different boxes: it has plenty of live footage for the casual music fan and plenty of recording and trivia for the Blur aficionados. But it's that message from Coxon that is the most striking: for music fans of a certain vintage, it’s nice to know that we’re not the only ones who have grown up.
New World Towers is in cinemas nationwide 2nd December