Chatting with a Blue boy
- PLAYBACK by Jonathan Chua () - September 8, 2002 - 12:00am
(Editor’s Note: The UK boy band Blue was here for a three-day promo for its first album All Rise, released by EMI, early this week. Only three of the four members came - Duncan James, Simon Webbe and Anthony Costa. The fourth, Lee Ryan, is recuperating from injuries sustained in an accident. The following interview with Duncan was conducted at the Celebrity Suites, Ortigas Center, where the group was billeted.)

Duncan asks for Coke with no ice, recalling too late that the principal sponsor of the Blue promo tour is the other soda brand. It isn’t the most auspicious way to begin a press conference, but Simon, two chairs away, is quick to salvage the situation: "I really love Pepsi!"

In a sense, Duncan’s singing career started just as awkwardly. For about three years, he was singing in bands that never took off. Tired of auditioning and getting nowhere, he and fellow pop star aspirant Anthony decided to form their own group. Recruiting Lee, whom they had met at an audition and whom they call "the best singer around," and later, Lee’s roommate Simon, they formed the boy band quartet that is now Blue.

"We’re not manufactured," Duncan once declared. "We manufactured ourselves."

The boys of Blue take pride in having done things their way: choosing their own material, writing their own songs. In contrast, other boy bands are made to attend a boy band "finishing school," whose faculty of writers, choreographers, and stylists drills them on proper boy band behavior. Usually, they end up following a script whose lines they do not enjoy mouthing. Not surprisingly, when they disband, as inevitably they do–because one boy wants to do his "own thing" and another is tired of playing the supporting role–the maledictions fly.

It was, therefore, rather bold of the boys of Blue to have insisted on their own sound early on. The risk has apparently paid off. In its homeland the U.K., the group has had five hits (including two chart-toppers), a best-selling album (certified triple platinum), and a number of awards–all in a little over a year. The group has also been topping popularity polls, a fact that is giving Westlife, the other British boy band, pause.

Duncan feels "totally blown away" by the success. After all, he was, so he claims, a "borderline student. I wasn’t brainy, I wasn’t thick, I was average." He enjoyed English and French, but "math, science, home economics–I was useless." Today, of course, that doesn’t seem to matter. He is, at least, more than average looking. The brushed-up hair and the puffy cheeks make him look like Brad Pitt, although some might argue he resembles an animé character more. There is a slight girlishness about the eyes and unblemished skin ("I’m not vain, but I do like to look nice"); but the effect is checked by the stubble lining a strong jaw, the hair (long, lightly brown, and very fine) on the forearms, and the moons of fingernails too small to be a woman’s. There’s also the tattoo on a shoulder.

He suggests the taste of the best sauces–sweet and a little spicy.

"I was quite naughty as a kid," he admits. No, he didn’t cheat in class or got into fistfights, but he liked smoking his mother’s cigarettes and kissing girls at school. Once, he revealed elsewhere, his mother caught him with a girl in the shower. He pretended that he was "showing her how to use the power attachment." Another time, he "did something I shouldn’t have in a Jacuzzi … It was the bubbles. They got me excited."

"I was a naughty boy, always doing something I shouldn’t be doing." The smile doesn’t leave his face as he says that, and one is reminded of what Oscar Wilde once wrote: "Nothing looks more like innocence than an indiscretion."

The death of his grandparents, however, changed him: "I lost a lot of fun in me." It was the biggest loss he has had to cope with, and he wishes his grandfather was around to see him now. It was, after all, the old man–a colonel turned music teacher–who got him into music. Duncan remembers him invariably sitting at the piano after church. He taught Duncan how to play the instrument, "but I was never allowed to play pop music in the house because it would hurt my gramp’s ears. He used to say, ‘That’s not music. That’s noise.’"

Duncan can still play Bach’s Staccato in B Minor ("I learned that when I was 12"), but his musical taste, he says, is eclectic. He enjoys music vocal and instrumental, contemporary and classical: Carlos Santana, Marvin Gaye, George Michael, Spanish guitar…

"Kiri Te Kanawa–she’s got a fantastic voice. I love that song she did with Freddie Mercury at the Olympics…"

Here does he go off-key again, and Simon is too far away to help him when I protest. But he has his weapons.

"She did it, didn’t she?"

"That was Montserrat Caballé, I think…"

"No, I’m sure it was Kiri."

" … the fat woman?"

"No, she did one with him–Kiri Te Ka …"

"All right…"

"Oh no, maybe not…"

He scratches his head and grins a schoolboy grin so disarming it is impossible to hold him to his mistake–whether that was acknowledging the wrong sponsor or confusing two divas.

What he has always been sure of, he avers, is his wanting to become a pop star. With Blue’s debut album All Rise a hit, the ambition is fulfilled. The sound of the album is far from operatic; it is fashionably (and going by boy band standards, alternatively) rhythm and blues. The title track is bouncy, infectious, and as far as contemporary popular music goes, inventive. The song’s persona pleads his case before a "court of love," but unlike the suits presented at the courts of Marie de Champagne, this case has a verdict far from felicitous. The charges?

One, for the money and the free rides (all rise); / two, for the lie that you denied (all rise); / three, for the calls you’ve been making; / four, for the times you’ve been faking (all rise); / I’m gonna tell it to your face. / I rest my case.

The conceit remarkably recalls, and then overturns, 13th century fin amour poetry.

The medieval romances, however, are not what Duncan reads. He enjoys J. D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye, he says, is a book he couldn’t put down. "Not many books can do that. I normally start with intentions to read, put a book down, and never pick it up again." Only the Harry Potter series has managed to keep him as engrossed. The movie, however, he thought was "s_ _t."

As quickly, however, he turns sweet when the talk shifts to acting. If he weren’t singing, he says, he’d be acting. "In serious roles," he adds. "I’m not into comedy." Indeed, he was in The Crucible, and yet he was also Puck in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and, for his "A" Level in Drama, Ernest–choice comic roles both. "That [playing Ernest] was fun."

But what of Ernest’s creator, the "Oscar Wilde type" who admires him the way women do? He replies, "If you like our music, we appreciate that. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, if you’re straight. It’s all the same to us"–which could be patter taken from the arch boy band script. However, if Duncan is merely playing Puck with us to avoid, as a friend of mine puts it, "biting the hand on the limp wrist that feeds," no one is protesting. The cynic would be impressed at the precocious politic expertise; the fool, of course, would be fooled again.

Most of us in the middle, however, hear through it all: If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended: / That you have but slumb’red here, / While these visions did appear. / And this weak and idle theme, / No more yielding than a dream, / Gentles, do not reprehend: / If you pardon, we will mend. / And, as I am an honest Puck, / If we have unearnéd luck / Now to scape the serpent’s tongue, / We will make amends ere long; / Else the Puck a liar call: / Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends.

The words are Shakespeare’s, but they can well be Duncan’s (or for that matter, any other boy band’s). When spells are cast, they say, it is bootless to quibble about Coke and Pepsi, Te Kanawa and Caballé, comedy and tragedy, or truth and fiction. One simply surrenders with one’s eyes open.

(Blue consists of Lee Ryan, Duncan James, Simon Webbe, and Anthony Costa. Its first album All Rise is already a hit in the Philippines. A second album will be released in November. One Love will be the carrier single.)

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