Through force of personality and a dash of clever marketing, the self-described third most important member of Blur has remained a part of the British popcultural landscape long after his band’s 1990s heyday. It’s especially impressive given that, unlike the prolific Damon Albarn, he hasn’t released any solo material, even during the wilderness years prior to Blur’s 2008 reformation. He never completely cut ties with the music business but neither was he a vocal member of it; he satisfied his musical itch writing the odd song for industry friends, including Florence of “Machine” fame, Marianne Faithful and Bernard Sumner. Yet he writes columns for two national newspapers and is a regular fixture in the broadsheets. To put that in perspective, when was the last time you heard anything about his Oasis counterpart Paul “Guigsy” McGuigan? Even the Mancunian’s mother has probably forgotten about him since he quit the band, allegedly by fax, in 1999.
James started touring again with Blur in 2008 after a five year hiatus, playing the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and selling out Hyde Park in 30 seconds. But it’s debatable whether that’s the thing he’s now most famous for. In the annals of great rock reinventions, Alex James will get a special mention for deciding to become a cheesemaker.
For our interview – halfway through a photo shoot that involved James dripping honey over himself – we wore matching, ornate smoking jackets. It was his idea. We’d called them in for the shoot but he was worried – rightly – that he’d look like a prat if we photographed him wearing one. “Still, they’re pretty cool, right? Let’s get them on... Fancy a cigarette?”
Contrary to his reputation for being somewhat difficult – and I guess anyone who’s spent what James estimates to be over £1m on cocaine and champagne is going to have had their moments – he was a breeze, bouncing around the studio, full of ideas. We wanted to shoot him holding some of his cheese, but it turns out it’s impossible to make someone look cool while they’re grinning at a block of stilton, even if they’re as pretty as Alex James (and he really is very pretty – at 45 he still has the angelic, schoolboy good looks that made him the teenage girls’ favourite member of Blur, only now they’re augmented with traces of crow’s feet and slightly silvery stubble).
“We need some honey,” he said. “Get me a jar and I’ll just whack it all over the cheese. There’ll be honey everywhere. It’ll be brilliant.”
It’s an image that would have kept the aforementioned fans awake at night; only our stylist looked horrified as rivers of the stuff trickled around the designer clothes we’d dressed him in.
We’d promised to throw in a few items from his Festival Survival Kit on eBay’s new “Collections” section of its website, which he’s currently promoting. This included a beach ball, which he gamely jumped around with, and a set of bongo drums that he rejected outright (“No decent musician in the history of the world plays the ******* bongos”). And while he may be a famous bassist, he’s a pretty hot guitar player too, as he proved by serenading us with renditions of Come On Eileen and Summer Nights.
He’s certainly charming. At one point the make-up artist put her hand on my shoulder and gazed at him, whispering, “he’s lovely, isn’t he...” It’s no wonder he became the self-declared “fool king of Soho” and The Groucho Club’s “number one slag” (I’ve seen him there, rubbing shoulders with Anna Friel and Rhys Ifans). The first anecdote he volunteered was about having sex with a Canadian journalist during a 15 minute interview slot, which I agreed was impressive.
And then, almost overnight, he gave it all up and bought a farm in the Cotswolds. He did it on a whim, 12 years ago while honeymooning with his wife Claire, with whom he now has five kids. It dovetailed almost exactly with the break-up of Blur. One minute he’s in a raucous rock band playing sold out arenas, the next he’s married and living on a farm almost twice the size of his old stomping ground Soho. He jokes that buying a farm is “the next chapter in the book of rock gentleman clichés”, adding “as clichés go it’s not too bad – it’s either that or dying.”
You can’t accuse him of not sticking to his guns – he only comes back to London once a week and, as well as his cheese business, he hosts the food and music event Big Feastival alongside Jamie Oliver (“He sorts the food and I call Fatboy Slim...”). When I ask what he’d do if he had to close the farm he shoots back: “I’d go down with the ship, mate. I’m not going anywhere. I spent so much of my life tearing through different cities that I got quite addicted to them – I saw the countryside as a hangover cure. But once you get the girl, you can go anywhere...”
Even so, the success of Blur’s comeback tour, coupled with the release of its frontman Albarn’s first solo record, must make him hanker after a more permanent return to rock ‘n’ roll...
“There’s merit in everything Damon does, and Graham [Coxon], too – I always make a point of going to see everything they put out and cheering them on. They both dazzle me as musicians and as people – they’re my best friends. But I don’t want to front anything or start some brilliant band – I’ve already been in one. I don’t need to be doing it on the telly to get satisfaction from music.”
So no unrealised ambitions? “I have millions. Every day. Success isn’t something you ever feel like you’ve achieved. It’s a receding quality, like the end of a rainbow. First you want to get on Top of the Pops, then you want a number one, then you want a number one in America, then you want to be the biggest songwriter in the world or to make a film or a cheese...”
What about the new material Blur have recorded but are yet to release, reportedly due to Albarn’s packed schedule?
“There aren’t any plans to release it. We did some great live shows at the end of last year – better than absolutely anything we’ve ever done. But I’d be bulls******g you if I said I knew what was happening next.”
James’ move to the country also coincided with a more general shift in the UK musical landscape. In the 90s Britpop revitalised the music scene; it was all about livin’ it large and boozing it up with your pals, riding the crest of the Cool Britannia wave of optimism. It was a time when it didn’t seem weird that Noel Gallagher was invited to Number 10. And Blur were right at the front of it all: “Our first gig was Damien Hirst’s degree show. That’s where the 90s started, really: Goldsmiths’ fine art department, 1987.”
But by 2000, Britpop was well and truly dead. Chart music was becoming increasingly polished, the acts more carefully managed: the ideal breeding ground for talent shows like Pop Idol and The X Factor.
“Mainstream music has gone back to this pre-Beatles model where you have impresario managers like Simon Cowell and their puppets – it’s cabaret, really. It’s the equivalent of intensive agriculture – they’re using the fertiliser of mass media, pouring it on thick. It doesn’t last. It disturbs me that the latest flush of successful bands don’t have much input in writing songs. The music is the most wonderful thing about being in a band – it’s the mythical thing that keeps you going.
“We’d been together five years before we made Park Life. It was a very different world back then... There was a lot less media; journalists were our friends – mentors, even. They’d say ‘you realise this is **** and you shouldn’t be such a ****’. It was more tribal, too – you wouldn’t own both a Spandau Ballet and a Duran Duran record. Now kids like ACDC, Led Zeppelin, Olly Murs and Rizzle Kicks. It’s like an American menu with everything on it.
“Music has always changed throughout history, and like literature it doesn’t necessarily get better or worse, it just reflects the times we live in. Rock ‘n’ roll is 50-years-old, maybe there’s not much left to say.”
In another neat coincidence, James’ retreat to the country and entry into the culinary world came at around the time the UK food industry really got serious, finally emerging from the long shadow of the French. Through fluke or design, he caught the wave a second time.
“Chefs have become the new rockstars. I was at a food festival in Australia and I saw a golf buggy being driven into a lake at three in the morning – it was the most rock ‘n’ roll thing I’ve ever seen. People in bands these days have to get up at six in the morning and start tweeting about their new products, and then go and do 100 interviews. It’s become really hard work. But if you make some nice food then you can pretty much tell everyone to **** off.”
Comparisons between food and music are a recurring theme. His musical anecdotes involve food and his culinary ones involve music. He seems at pains to strike a balance the two apparently disparate hemispheres; to find some common thread linking his old life with his new. In his mind, cheese isn’t all that different from pop; he’s still a rockstar, only now he’s making music with milk and rennet and salt.
“People think there’s a disconnect between making food and making music but monks have been doing it for centuries; you could get just as close to the holy of holies through food as you could music.”
The downside to taking a backseat in the music business and making cheese instead is that you’re asking for people to give you a hard time. There’s something intrinsically funny, ridiculous even, about cheese. Maybe it’s the smell. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde wrote a particularly scathing article branding James “Britain’s leading cheese bore” (something he dismisses, not without a few unkind words, as politically motivated, given their histories at rival newspapers). Does he worry about the way he’s perceived?
“Whenever you really want something you have to hold on to it tight, don’t stop even when it makes you look ridiculous, which it’s pretty much guaranteed to do. To do anything brilliantly, whether it’s a festival or a song or a cheese – it takes all day. You can’t just dip in and out, you have to give it absolutely everything. I remember telling my mum I was leaving college ‘cos I was in this really good band and she said ‘don’t be ridiculous’. So, you know, **** em.”
What does he think about the photograph taken at last year’s Big Feastival of him with David Cameron and Jeremy Clarkson; company that would be anathema to many Blur fans.
“Cameron’s the local MP,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I had 20,000 people in my back yard, I just wanted to keep everyone happy. The day I got the keys to the farm it was completely silent and derelict. There were birds and bees living in the house. Seeing it transform into Big Feastival, this living, wonderful thing that celebrates the things I love most – music and food – is a dream come true.”
That dream may be a tad unconventional, but it sure beats grinding out a music career based on the success of a band you formed aged 19, or checking in and out of rehab. As soon as he’d packed up and set off for his house – his very big house – in the country we got stuck into the honey-covered cheese. It really is pretty amazing; he might just be on to something.
Alex James is a guest curator for eBay Collections, ebay.co.uk/today, #eBayCollections; Big Feastival runs from 29-31 August. For tickets and more information go to jamieoliver.com/thebigfeastival