Having ridden the wave of one of the greatest movements in musical history, Blur bassist and Britpop icon Alex James insists he has no regrets about relinquishing his life to the charms of cheese craft.
You can say many things about the music of celebrated Britpop band Blur who, along with fellow melody makers and sworn enemies Oasis, ruled the airwaves of the mid-1990s with unflinching swagger and braggadocio. But you would never call it cheesy. It’s surprising then, that on hanging up his Gibson Thunderbird in 2003 when Blur disbanded, the band’s bassist Alex James would set out to fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming a cheesemaker.
Some in the media scoffed, of course, putting it down to a midlife crisis, and assuming that the newly-betrothed musician would eventually tire of his very big house in the country and return to the glamour and glory of the music industry with a newfound enthusiasm. However, 15 years later and Alex is still enthralled by his fragrant endeavour, as he explains articulately why the leap from crunchy basslines to creamy blues is not surprising at all.
“Wanting to make cheese came from the same little pocket as wanting to be in a band – passion. At gigs, we used to have fans throwing all manner of stuff at us, and I include cheese in that. Perhaps it was a calling from a long way back, but there are only three things in life that have a genuine depth that you can never fully explore – wine, music and cheese… oh and perhaps love as well,” he says, adding with gusto: “If they’re the only things I ever truly embrace then I’m good with that!”
Undoubtedly his passion for parmesan must have been great, because although Blur had naturally run its course and Britpop was being swiftly replaced by a warmer and fuzzier ilk of band, there is still a man’s pride to consider, and as someone so accustomed to success knows, not even the finest Epoisses reek as badly as failure. Alex knew, therefore, that there could be no half measures, and that in order to be taken seriously he needed to become an expert in his craft, cultivating and controlling every aspect of the cheesemaking process. So, selling his Covent Garden bachelor pad, he and wife Claire embarked on their new rural life on Churchill Heath Farm, a rambling 200-acre plot in the rural Cotswolds, a picturesque area of south-west England.
“When we were looking to buy the farm, I chatted to [Glastonbury Music Festival founder] Michael Eavis about the project. I remember him laughing as he told me how it was the worst time in history to be a farmer.” And Eavis was not exaggerating, as the farm’s previous owner had seen his plot hit by both BSE and Foot and Mouth disease. But Alex had faith in his vision, understanding that the world was crying out for a food revolution which didn’t involve mass breeding of livestock, but instead a focus on a more niche, premium products.
“I hoped change was around the corner and, sure enough, that’s exactly what has happened over the past 10 years. Food is what’s fashionable in the UK now, and beyond. It’s the most popular telly programmes, the biggest stars are chefs, and I think if you can find a niche as a farmer there has never been a better time. After all, the people who now really want to set up and work on farms are princes and pop stars!”
“There are only three things in life that have a genuine depth that you can never fully explore – wine, music and cheese… oh and perhaps love as well”
These days the cheery 49-year-old is as famous for his eponymous artisan cheese brand as he is for his music, producing five regular varieties: Goddess (Guernsey milk washed in Somerset cider brandy), Little Wallop (a soft goat’s milk cheese washed in cider and wrapped in vine leaves), Farleigh Wallop (goat cheese with thyme), Blue Monday (a creamy Shropshire blue) and Good Queen Maude (made with sheep’s milk) which regularly pick up industry awards.
Currently sold primarily in the UK and online, Alex naturally has ambitions of retailing his prize-winning produce to a truly global audience, but is happy, in the meantime, to focus on flavour for cheese rather than money. “The craft in cheesemaking is so rich, so varied and so addictive,” he admits. “From someone who has spent decades appreciating the intricacies of sound, this has been a brilliant diversion, and arguably this means much more than anything I have done before because in this craft there is something very tangible. What’s more, we’re talking about a cheesemaking legacy that stretches back centuries, and what else enthrals me is this is a product that evolves and changes over time. And by that, I mean when you play a record, it’s the same every time; but cheese is different – no two batches are ever the same, and we allow ourselves the licence to play about with recipes and processes so that we can change the product to suit our emotions or audience, and that’s very special.”
“When I go to France I visit farmers’ market and there’s some old boy selling the delicious apples he’s picked. And that’s how you want to buy an apple – from the person who’s been growing that product all their lives and knows everything about it.”Alex James
So while it may be a while until you find Alex’s Blue Monday (surely a nod to the generational New Order record) on the shelves at your local Lidl anytime soon, the fromage entrepreneur is happy to pursue the humble farmers’ market as a place to pass on his cherished cheeses. “I try not to go to shops at all!” he laughs. “I grow everything here and I’d love us all to be doing that.
“When I go to France I visit farmers’ market and there’s some old boy selling the apples he’s picked and they’re completely delicious, and that’s how you want to buy an apple – from the person who’s been growing that product all their lives and knows everything about it. That’s very rewarding for the producer as well as the consumer.”
With the ethics of mass farming becoming evermore questionable in regards to environmental impact, animal welfare and disease control, one has to wonder if the future of this famous old craft really does lie in small, local producers such as Alex. Artisanal food and drink manufacturers have certainly injected some much-needed enthusiasm into the industry, creating ground-breaking products along the way. For as the father-of-five points out, in today’s world of endless opportunity, passion and a desire to learn and persevere are the only requirements.
“I feel for us to have achieved what we have, having come in as absolute novices, is a credit to the idea, to the people around us, and a desire to do something really special,” Alex offers.
“Plus, there have been interesting parallels along the way. I had an idea of how much work went into food production, and that was the thing I prepared myself for the most; and after all, business is tough, no matter what you’re doing. As a musician, I had to fight for everything I wanted and this is no different.
“I realised quickly that the way to play this was just to be absolutely perfect in what we were doing and to know its value. If you can make something brilliant, then the work will be the path to your door. And on that basis, I’m happy to work every hour and with anyone.”
With his business successfully established, Alex can afford to take the odd week or two away from the farm to dabble in his former pastime as a much-admired musician, though he insists he never has a day of regret about moving on from his dazzling and decadent past.
Declares Alex: “The music industry gave me a lot, but deep down, I’ve never been happier than I am when I’m making cheese”.