Last month, Blur announced the April release of The Magic Whip, their first album for 12 years. Its cover art features a neon ice-cream surrounded by Chinese characters – we spoke to art director Tony Hung about how he made it…
The new album is in fact the first from the band as a quartet since they released 13 in 1999 (guitarist Graham Coxon featured on just one track on 2003’s Think Tank).
According to the Guardian, the recordings for The Magic Whip were started 18 months ago in Hong Kong during downtime following a cancelled show in Japan. The sessions were reprised by Coxon who then worked on them with producer Stephen Street. The album is now set to be released on Parlophone on April 27.
Art director Tony Hung, who also created the lyric video for Go Out, the first track to be released from the album (see below), met with Blur frontman Damon Albarn earlier this year to discuss the album artwork and was shown photos and ephemera from the singer’s travels in Hong Kong. Albarn also explained how the album came into being and his thoughts around it.
“The album title The Magic Whip he explained was multifaceted,” says Hung. “An ice cream in the UK, a firework in China and a ‘whip’ in a political sense. These extremes would reflect the different textures, breadth and depth of the album.”
Hung says that the band wanted a cover that touched on those themes and that also had a “rawer feel” to give a sense of how the record came together in Hong Kong (the band recorded quickly, in a small studio in the city).
“The idea of a neon ice cream came to me around 5am the following morning after hearing the album for the first time,” Hung explains. “It was quickly visualised for presentation at a scheduled meeting with the band later that morning.
“The image: A sweet, daytime, English, summer product found in pastel shades, evoking visions of blue skies and green parks … now transformed into a buzzing neon sign, rendered in hard lines and electric hues, found on any busy street in Mong Kok on a dark night. Melting ice cream provided a melancholic twist.
“Damon read the dripped ice cream as a cloud, with a silver lining. Although unintentional, its a great additional meaning. The sketch was presented with the intention of fabricating it as a neon artwork.” The sign itself was manufactured by a company in east London.
Hung says that the album is “progressive” on many levels – he proposed using just Chinese text on the cover as a statement of intent, acknowledging that this was a potential risk for such a well known band. “They loved the idea,” he says.
“The text on the top left reads ‘Blur’ – using the Chinese adjective; the bottom right reads ‘Magic Whip’, as there is no ‘The’ in Chinese; the translation of ‘Whip’ is not the ‘whipping of cream’ kind, but the other.”
A week later the final artwork was finished and taken to a studio in north east London to be shot for the cover by photographer Nick Wilson.
The final sleeve will be wrapped with an ‘obi-strip’, commonly found on music releases in Asia. “Here, the obi-strip has everything swapped to English,” adds Hung. “Courier text added the final touch.”
Hung also told CR the story behind his Go Out lyric video which was shot on his phone and edited by Matt Cronin:
“When I was asked if I would be interested in doing a lyric video for the first track Go Out (to be revealed along with their album announcement on Chinese New Year), my initial feeling was that, as I have never really enjoyed one nor finished watching one, it was a good challenge.”
“The song is about a girl who finds pleasure by her own means. Brain-storming alternatives to escapism and graphic lyric videos led me to endless home-made Youtube programmes of tutorials, people unboxing products and reviews.
“Monotonous motion and amateur presentation is, what it is … but with the sound turned down, these became much more interesting. The idea of underscoring these mundane visuals to a cool track really twisted things and amused me. Could these dull visuals be used in a pop music context? It felt bizarrely right to me, subversive and well suited for Blur .. how they can effortlessly re-present everyday subject matter. The quality of these programmes also suited the DIY feel of the track.
“My treatment came together with the fictitious character ‘Miss Magic’ who escapes into her alter-ego by combining her two loves: cooking and singing (food and Karaoke (called ‘Colour OK’ in HK) are both very popular past times in HK)
“In this particular episode (a Chinese New Year edition) she teaches us how to make an ice cream, whilst her co-host ‘Mr. OK’ teaches us the chorus to a new song. The instructions and bouncing ball/lyrics appear on screen suggestive of a lyric video. Damon suggested we should use Chinese text for the instructions to really drive home the idea.”
‘Mr OK’ the bouncing ball from Hung’s lyric video for Go Out
Hyde Park poster also designed by Hung