Behind the louche, champagne-swilling exterior and the Aga ads, Alex James is a bassist of deceptive inventiveness and taste. Gareth Morgan delves into some Blur classics
Some of you may know that Alex James runs a 200-acre cheese farm; some will be aware of the columns he contributes to the Guardian and Observer newspapers. You’ll likely remember that he was a member of Fat Les, the ‘band’ responsible for the novelty World Cup single Vindaloo in 1998, but everyone knows that James was (and is once more) bassist with the seminal Britpop survivors, Blur.
James was born Steven Alexander James on 21st November 1968 in Boscombe, Bournemouth, and started on piano and then violin before switching to bass aged 16. While studying French at Goldsmiths College, London, James met guitarist Graham Coxon who introduced him to singer Damon Albarn and drummer Dave Rowntree, both of whom were part of a band called Circus. Coxon and James were both eventually recruited and the band changed its name to Seymour in 1989. In November of that year they came to the attention of Food Records‘ Andy Ross, who loved the band but hated the name. He gave the band a list of alternatives: they chose Blur, and the band were soon touring, releasing a single, She’s So High, in October 1990.
Blur‘s first album Leisure (1991) reached number seven but it was the third, 1994’s Parklife, that established them as more than just a Britpop phenomena. Their profile grew, partly thanks to a media-fuelled rivalry with Oasis around the time of 1995’s The Great Escape. By the time their seventh album, Think Tank, was released in 2003, internal strife had already led to Coxon’s departure. This appeared to spell the end of the band – but this very summer, Albarn and Coxon, having finally settled their differences, announced what has turned into a whole series of gigs.
James is usually seen wielding a pick on a Fender Precision, although he’s also used Musicman Stingray and Gibson Les Paul basses, and his style is an blend of influences that include the Clash‘s Paul Simonon, JJ Burnel of the Stranglers and Motown’s James Jamerson. His lines are very melodic and often quite challenging, with simple parts augmented by surprising 16th-note licks. The more you listen to him, the better he gets. All of our examples are based on songs found on Blur: The Best Of (2000).