The Good, the Bad and the Queen
By Bret Gladstone
This isn’t your typical supergroup. Instead of an all-star group of musicians from similar backgrounds the Good, the Bad and the Queen’s membership includes bassist Paul Simonon, a punk-rock painter who pontificates about Goya and Picasso; Sage-like Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, who says he can drum anything as long as you leave him alone; pop “genius” Damon Albarn, who was an animated simian a year ago; and Simon Tong, a drowsy guitarist who’s survived Richard Ashcroft and replacing Graham Coxon with his sanity intact. After a recent show, we spoke to them about songwriting, role-playing, war, and their collective legacies.
Pitchfork: Can you talk about how this first came together?
Damon Albarn: That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve answered it so many times, you would think it gets easier but it doesn’t. Is it important to know why we came together? Isn’t it more important just to listen to what we do together?
Pitchfork: What were the early sessions like?
Simon Tong: We just sort of played. We tried the songs in lots of different ways, and we weren’t afraid to just scrap a whole recording session, or scrap a song and try something completely new. It was just a matter of keeping that sort of magic, and capturing the essence of each tune. Damon would come in with some songs and we would just kind of play around and experiment, but we recorded everything right from the beginning. It pretty much stayed that way all the way through, to keep it fresh and slightly demo-y. To keep the essence of demos, and try to keep the album as unpolished and natural as possible, I suppose.
Paul Simonon: We were trying to find a way to translate what we did in the recording studio to a live setting. At times it was hard work– certain tunes were struggling to find their position as a song. But we just found a way a while ago, really.
Pitchfork: Let’s talk about the one guy that’s not here. The thing that continues to impress me about Danger Mouse as a producer is that he can be really provocative without being heavy handed. He seemed to do a very good job just framing your sound…
Albarn: Well that’s what you should do if you’re a producer.
Pitchfork: But that’s definitely not what most producers do. There’s this tendency towards self-aggrandizement, isn’t there?
Albarn: No, you’re right. He’s an exceptional talent.
Pitchfork: Can you talk a little bit about what he brought to this project?
Albarn: He was quite adamant that we don’t do any kind of harmony and that I kept it a single voice. I thought, “Well that’s great.” That’s how I kind of start the songs in the first place: I get a very basic arrangement and texture them. His attention to that detail was important. And it helped me write the lyrics. It cleared the way for it just having to be a single voice.
Pitchfork: You know, I was listening to this new Bloc Party album over on the plane, which is also conceptually about London…
Albarn: Yeah, I read some ridiculous thing in The Observer where the writer set the lead singer up as being the new voice of a generation. Which you shouldn’t do before a record is even released. It’s really unfair. You can’t do that. Let it become that if it is that, encourage that, but don’t write some big edict about why it should be. Music journalism shouldn’t do that.
Pitchfork: It was really interesting, though, listening to these two incredibly different takes on the same subject matter– theirs being extremely angular, with all those riffs and drums and heavy lyrics…
Albarn: Yeah, you need to get out of that at some point in your life.
Pitchfork: But the interesting thing was that it seemed to come at the expense of tunes.
Albarn: Yeah, I agree with you. I actually listened to it after reading that. I went on to the internet, which I hardly ever do, and realized I could actually hear something that I had read about immediately, which is quite good. Their songs are four riffs put together. The melody is never quite…their choruses….I don’t use choruses that much anymore, well, not on this record anyways.
Maybe what they were trying to do was get across their idea more then weighing themselves down with making beautiful music. Which is one approach, but it’s different from what we’ve been doing. And yes, the melodies do get obscured a lot of the time. Melodies are very important things, really– they’re like keys. There are some melodies that have been around forever, so there must be something in them. It’s not like the body, it’s an idea– it’s eternal.
Tong: Damon has always been such a strong songwriter, and has always written very melodic songs. That’s kind of the main strength in his songwriting– melodies you feel you’ve heard before, but you haven’t. Melody just comes across– you don’t always even need to know what he’s singing, because you can pick up on the melody immediately. It’s a kind of cross-cultural thing, isn’t it? The songs can be simple that way, too.
Pitchfork: Was that simplicity you spoke about also necessary for keeping this democratic? When people see the size and the caliber of this band the tendency is to…
Albarn: It’s so obvious. Do you think that we didn’t even think of that? People always say, “Wow this is outrageous, Tony’s this great player and he’s just become a part of this megalomaniac’s….
Pitchfork: Do you feel misrepresented in that way?
Albarn: If that’s what people think, then they are entitled to their opinion. But what astounds me is that they don’t think that we’ve been through all of that many, many times. And that this is a collective and that we have agreed upon this together. With Brian [Danger Mouse] being a kind of third party so to speak, it helps to have someone there. You want a band to work itself, but at the same time you want it to be the best that it can be. I tried it the other way, with Tony leading the tracks when I went to Lagos, and it was great but I didn’t fit into that. That is why I scrapped the whole record, because I thought I should be involved at least.
Pitchfork: But, again, there is a surprising amount of subtlety here. The conventional wisdom is that you have four big players, and, consequently four big demanding egos to deal with.
Simonon: We’ve all been in groups where we turn the volume up and jump around, but this is a whole different bunch, you know? I agree: Usually supergroups are just super-rubbish. I can’t think of a single one that’s been inspirational. I mean that’s part of the reason punk happened, because all the so-called “super-groups” weren’t communicating to anyone except themselves.
Albarn: What you do is you get into that play mode. Imagine me saying this: “Say Tony, I want to start the album with that jazz bit you did with Art Blakey, in 1968 and then…Hmmm…a bit of “Guns of Brixton” will come out of it [laughs]. It doesn’t work like that. We were there informing each other and playing together and that is the reason why this really works. It is simply that when us four sit in a room and play together, this is how it sounds. That’s what bands are. That’s how it works for some bands when they’re young because they happen to chance upon great chemistry. That is what music is about. And that should be constantly revisited and reinvented. Not music itself though, you can’t reinvent music. Not music that’s music to the ears anyway.
Simonon: The good thing is, we all appreciate cinematic music. I know that Damon does, and also the stuff that Simon plays– the nature of it is very atmospheric. It’s about that idea of creating a picture, so the combination of all the flavors and this vision that was whirling around everyone’s minds– that’s why it came out the way it did. But it’s really about Damon’s singing and the lyrics. We made up our mind that we were just trying to create an atmosphere. We weren’t trying to compete, or throw in solos, or anything like that. The idea was to create a rhythm or a mood. It was all very natural and we fell in very easily. And I suppose that’s partially because we’ve all been through the mill before, and all that stuff, but also because we all take the time to listen to what the other people are doing.
Tong: Well, everyone is so experienced. I suppose Tony is the most naturally gifted musician, but even he didn’t showboat or do anything that he didn’t need to do, which I suppose is what a great musician does. We’re all from the school of less is more, and even in our previous bands you learn that one note can sometimes makes so much more sense that 20. It’s just so much more powerful sometimes to do something really simply. Everyone just left space for everyone else
Allen: When Paul came in, we had used many different bass players. Damon is the type of musician who doesn’t like to play too many notes. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to play, he plays good, but you need to use many notes when it is necessary, not just everywhere. I understood that this was proper. I said, Yeah, you’re right.” So we were looking for a kind of simplicity. Simplicity is not easy. Paul was great that way– he was just what we needed.
Simonon: It was like being an actor and being given a script with no words. There were all these leanings toward dub bass-lines, and it inspired me– I thought, that’s what I should be doing, you know?
Pitchfork: Was that liberating for you Tony?
Allen: Yes. And you have to treat them like that. That was the right way to go about it. But he’s a weird writer.
Pitchfork: How so?
Allen: Just…. the way he writes, it’s weird [laughs]. The lyrics, the melodies, the way he creates sounds. I would call him a genius. It’s five years I’ve been working with him now, is that not enough for me to know?
Pitchfork: What is it about working with him that you love?
Allen: The guy’s a character. I’ve not concluded one day of working on music with him when he’s said, “Yeah, that’s OK.” He’s always coming back the next day and saying, “Yeah, that was good, but it needs something else.” That’s why I say he’s a genius. Some writers, some composers, their first goal in writing is to be able to say, fantastic, immediately. And that’s supposed to be it. So the quality of their work is always dropping. But Damon, he’s always coming back trying different things. He’s always challenging himself, and it comes out in the music. I like that. I have my own thing going on, and I know how difficult I could be with my own musicians when I’m writing and I may not be satisfied with what happened the first day. So you come back and make it better. That’s his spirit, and I love that.
Pitchfork: Would you say that’s the main thing connecting this music to the music you make with Fela?
Allen: Yes. You see, because, I always say that with Afrobeat drumming, you can go anywhere. If the composer does his job, and would just leave the drum side alone and let me deal with it, that would be great. That’s the way I like it. Every writer always tends to write the drums as a part of the music, and then you cannot extract the drumming from the music. And they always are thinking the same things about the drums– the movement, and how they’re supposed to sound, and, ultimately, the drums are not relative…
Pitchfork: Because they aren’t drummers.
Allen: Yes! [Laughs]. I don’t believe that drumming is supposed to be one way. Most of the drummers today don’t even know that. Maybe the ones that went to conservatory might come out with it, because they’ve been through the classical techniques. But for them, it’s got to be in the book. I was playing that music when there was no book in front of me– I had to develop it myself. So drumming doesn’t have a limit for me. I’ve reached the end of writing different patterns, it’s still going to be in the spirit of Afrobeat, but its not going to resemble each other. I’m telling myself all the time, I can program in patterns of drums on the computer– they were played before. I have to play live now. I have to work it out when it’s done. There’s no limit to drumming. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m African.
Pitchfork: What do you mean by that?
Allen: In Africa, there are enough rhythms. We were listening to them when we were children, growing up with rhythms. And I’m not talking about Nigeria alone. I’m talking about all the countries around it. I grew up inside rhythms, so I have not finished with them yet.
Pitchfork: So you’d like to do more projects like this?
Allen: As much as I can have in front of me. This is the thing about that simplicity. One thing with me is this: If you invite me for this kind of project and you shut your mouth when I’m there in the studio to work with you, I will try to look for how the thing is going to suit you, and to make you happy. I just don’t want anything coming from your mouth telling me “do it this way” or “be like this or like that.” I’m happy to have been in this project, because it’s not my music. That would prove to some people that don’t know me, or that just know me from Fela, it proves that this guy can be anywhere.
Pitchfork: Paul, where did you stand with music when the Clash stopped playing?
Simonon: Well, at that point I had gotten together a band with a friend of mine. We left London– we were quite fond of riding motorcycles at the time– and we decided to go to El Paso, Texas and put together a group….
Pitchfork: How did you decide on El Paso?
Simonon: We got a globe and we spun it around and we closed our eyes and said, well, we want to go there. It could have been anywhere. It could have been India. It could have been El Paso, and it ended up being El Paso. So we went there, we sold our motorcycles, bought really old Harley-Davidsons second-hand, and spent a bit of time there working on songs. Then we decided to go to Los Angeles, through the border towns of Mexico and America. We worked in L.A. for a while and started looking for other members. We did tours, made an album, then unfortunately my friend was diagnosed with cancer when we left El Paso, and was told he had six months to live, which was quite a shock. A couple of years later it finally caught up with him. He died, my first son was born, and I started drifting back into painting, which was what I was doing before the Clash.
Pitchfork: I’m sure you’ve had plenty of invitations to play. Why this one?
Simonon: Well, it’s funny. I got a phone call from Damon one day, and maybe two months before that I’d done a show with Mick Jones and Bobby Gillespie and all sorts of different people– a sort of mini-band thing for a friend’s birthday party. I suppose that gave me a bit of a taste for it, then getting a phone call from Damon. It’s not every day a genius asks you to come down and listen to tracks at his studio. So he called and asked me to come down and listen to a few tracks of music he’d been making with Tony and many other Nigerians, stuff that I suppose wasn’t completed.
So we just agreed after that to take it on a day-to-day basis, really. We had a long discussion about our interests– we both enjoy spaghetti westerns, we both share eclectic tastes in music– and we also discovered that we were neighbors, just by a few streets in North Kensington, West London. We share a knowledge of the shops, or which places for fresh vegetables are better than the next, and we both know many of the same people. There were just a lot of things in common, really.
Pitchfork: You’re all extremely well respected musicians. Is it unique to be able to take criticism from each other, or is that just necessary. Tony, when Damon turns around and yells to keep on time, is there ever an impulse to say, “listen kid”…
Allen: Oh, no no no. [Allen looks hurt.] If such a thing happens, I’m not gonna take it on him like that. I would never because if he was like that, we would never be playing together in the first place. I must respect him, because two captains can never be in one ship. There must be one captain leading the boat, so that the boat can reach its destination. We must all drop our egos at the door.
Pitchfork: That seems to be difficult for other musicians:
Allen: It’s hard, yes. I mean the way I look at it: Damon could be my son, but he has something there. And you always have to respect that, understand? I don’t care if Damon shouts on stage [<[>laughs]. I would take it to be part of the show.
Pitchfork: Simon, you’ve played with some, well, very strong personalities and seem to be able to fit in comfortably everywhere. What’s the secret to dealing with them?
Tong: I don’t know. I just see that as being an advantage of being a musician, really, to work with people who aren’t necessarily leading things, but who have a strong idea of what they want to do. I’m a musician and that’s what I need. I need to feel like I’m in a venue or a project where I can express myself and express my feeling., where people aren’t scared of that.
Pitchfork: Damon, was it more difficult than it has been in the past being in a leadership position? Given that there are so many people in this band that you admire?
Albarn: I’m not the leader. I don’t really call the shots. We all just hang out. I call shots, but not the shots. I don’t think it’s possible for one person in this kind of group to call all the shots. [Danger Mouse] tried, but he learned his lesson.
Pitchfork: What’s your comfort level now in terms of songwriting? Do you still get nervous about presenting songs?
Albarn: No, I mean I know when one isn’t working. I’m the first person to say, “This is shit, stop it.” It was a nightmare when I was a kid though, playing my stuff in front of the band. To test run clever kids like [Blur’s] Graham [Coxon] and Alex [James]. It was awful, I’d be so nervous. And there would be this silence. But I know when its good and when its shit.
Pitchfork: The writing on this record felt like a return to what you were doing on Parklifeand Modern Life Is Rubbish. Was there apprehension about that?
Albarn: I think I know why I’m doing it this time. I just had a feeling why I was doing it the last time.
Pitchfork: What’s the difference?
Albarn: With all the trouble around the world I feel very protective of my own culture. I love our culture so much that you have to stay back at home, not always out. Life is not one big nightclub– it’s a bit of that but its other things as well. For me the sort of anti-exotism in its rawer sense was very compelling subject matter.
I love stuff about my city– doesn’t anyone? Great literature, great art, about your city, it’s fantastic. You can create your own paradise–not completely, but words and music can really help with that. That’s why we do what we do.
Pitchfork: It seems like there are quite a lot of albums being made now that are referencing Britpop.
Albarn: Trying to imitate [British music]. [The Good, the Bad and the Queen] is different. This is trying to get the spirit right. That’s transitory, the spirit, and I think it’s very important that people start thinking about what sort of country we live in. People don’t take much responsibility for anything. It’s really quite shocking.
Tong: I think there is a general movement toward that here in making music. British music has been so heavily influenced by American music that it’s harder to do something that’s solely English-sounding– it’s so easy to slip into something that’s American. Though I love American music as well. The Stones and the Beatles had a completely American sound, even though they had that English feel about them. They were very much drawn to American rhythm and blues. I think there’s a general thing in the country right now as well of Englishness rather than Britishness. The English have kind of given up on that. I’ve always been quite shy to be flag waving, it tends to be seen as a kind of right-wing thing to celebrate your Englishness. Which is good, in a way. To be too proud of your country can lead into some very narrow-minded behavior.
In England, if you have a St. George’s cross on the car, there’s this thing where you assume the person is a completely racist bigot, and, I suppose they usually are. It’s always been a very delicate subject, trying to present Englishness without coming across as being kind of right wing about it. There is a long tradition of it though. You think about in the 60s, people like Syd Barrett were so quintessentially English, and I suppose part of this was to recreate that positive thing about being English, that slightly dark but slightly magic quality, something melancholic. A band like the Smiths, you couldn’t imagine them coming from any other place. They just sound so English even though Johnny Marr’s guitar plAying was often trying to sound American.
Pitchfork: And now he can help Modest Mouse, an American band, feel like they’re trying to sound English.
Tong: [laughs] Yeah, I suppose so! But, in general, I do think there is a bit of a movement in music about celebrating being English without being bigoted and right-wing about it.
Pitchfork: Do you think that’s also influenced by concerns about national autonomy as far as policy is concerned– getting caught up in other agendas? However obliquely it’s expressed in the images, this is a pretty explicit anti-war album….
Tong: Damon feels very strongly about the whole issue. I’m not going to…I’m not a particularly political person. Who knows what’s right or wrong with the war.
Pitchfork: But you were comfortable with that?
Tong: Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean it needs to be addressed. To begin with, I do think that pointing out the fact that we’re at war is a step in the right direction, do you know what I mean? [laughs] Whether it’s a just war or an unjust war, people just tend to kind of forget.
Albarn: I don’t think people really fully understand. Not that I think I’m a war veteran, but people need to fully understand the violence that is going on in peoples’ lives, and we’re party to it and we’re almost self-consciously ignoring it. Not just ignoring it but…maybe we’re subconsciously ignoring it.
Pitchfork: In America, when George Bush got re-elected there was this collective sense of deflation– you knew what you were in for. Maybe I’m misreading this, but with Tony Blair, there seemed to be a real sense of possibility earlier on. Did that increase the disillusionment with what the situation is now?
Albarn: You know, I’ve talked about this so many times, but I met Blair before he became prime minister. He asked me to come in and meet when he was the leader of the opposition. And to be honest, I was totally flattered that the next prime minister wanted to have a chat with me privately. It may have been a mistake, but I went along, and I was just completely shocked by the nature of the beast– not him himself– but the nature of that. And I abandoned ship very quickly after that.
Pitchfork: Paul, given the political leanings that were expressed in the Clash’s music, was that another draw here as well?
Simonon: I’m completely in line with Damon’s feelings– they’ve always been the same as my own. In fact, part of the reason I went down to listen to those tracks Damon had made with everyone in Nigeria was that he had refused to go to No. 10 Downing Street when Tony Blair got into power. Later, Blair had invited a bunch of celebrities when he came to power, and Damon sent a letter saying I’m not coming– have a nice party, but I’m not going. [The note actually said, “Enjoy the schmooze, Comrade”– Ed]. That would be my approach too.
Pitchfork: You agree, Tony?
Allen: Yes, for sure. I don’t want to mingle with those people. That’s no good, because as soon as you do you’re not just a musician. As soon as you do that…
Pitchfork: You’re bound for better or for worse.
Simonon: Yeah, exactly. Because if they start doing really outrageous things, then you are forever linked.
Pitchfork: But it does become complicated, doesn’t it? Take Bono, for example, who does a huge amount of good, but is also indelibly linked to the figures that he has to negotiate with to make some of those things happen.
Simonon: He’s trying in his own way, I suppose. But I don’t feel the need to do that, to be in the pockets of prime ministers and politicians. It’s better for me personally to be outside of that and have my opinions, and if people are willing to hear them then fine. If not, then there’s other ways of expressing…see that’s the great thing about music, there are other ways of expressing these things through the music. With painting, it’s a lot more difficult. There are probably only a few paintings that could really express what we’re talking about. Maybe Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Disasters of War. Music’s a lot easier, though– especially because with music, generally, you’re touching base with young people. They’re the old people of the future.
Pitchfork: Still feel optimistic about them?
Simonon: Oh yeah, you have to be. Don’t you? Or else you might as well jump off Tower Bridge or Something.
Pitchfork: One of the cool things here is this element of theatre about this record. You seem to enjoy the characterization of this music.
Albarn: We have, yeah, and you have to, really. I mean how else are you going to do it, if you can’t enjoy those mannerisms? I suppose there is a sense in which I’ve written a specific kind of song and gone and then been that person.
Pitchfork: But even in the sense of becoming a character in writing a song– you really seem to enjoy that process, and you still write character songs, which is a very British tradition.
Albarn: Yeah, it is, definitely. You have to write songs about your life and the lives of those around you…to make it better. See, the character is part of who I am. This is a part of me. Though this band doesn’t have a band name, for example, we are many different affiliations of the same club around the world.
Pitchfork: Along the lines of role-playing and characters, one of the things that is discussed with regards to both Blur and the Clash is the idea of working-class identities being represented by no- working-class musicians.
Simonon: Well I can solve that for you easily. It’s like this. People used to that say about Joe Strummer: “Well, he went to public school”. I didn’t. I went to a crummy school, but when I met Joe, he was as poor as me. The only thing that was different was that he had a really good education and I didn’t. I had to sort of teach myself, really, and that would be the only difference. Joe experienced the same things as far as being hungry or trying to find some place to live, and all those things that people have to deal with daily, you know?
Pitchfork: But what if he hadn’t? Could he still express those feelings in his music? Is he still entitled? Is the whole hegemonic appropriation thing beside the point?
Simonon: I suppose it is beside the point in some ways. If you can come up with the goods in a song, then that’s what matters. But it does seems that it’s going to be hard for a person who’s from a privileged background and still lives in a house with chandeliers to actually express anything on a ground level that would communicate with people other those with chandeliers and guilded mirrors.
Picasso, for example, did many different styles and it wasn’t, “Well he’s a cubist, or he’s this or that”– he’s just Picasso. And that seemed to be enough. Bob Dylan is just Bob Dylan– whether he’s making a punk record, or a dub record. Who you are on that track is what matters. When you come up with the goods, you can transcend that. I think it’s the same way with Damon. Damon is just Damon– he just does what he does.
Pitchfork: What are you listening to right now?
Allen: I listen to everything. I don’t want to limit myself to listening to one particular artist. That artist would always bore me after five or six songs. I’d be bored for sure. I need to listen to all of them, different artists, different ideas.
I just listen. I don’t have to judg and I don’t have to criticize. I just advise, and if they take it, it’s cool, if they don’t, it’s not a problem. I don’t want to advise anyone on this side of the world, because they know everything, you know? [laughs]. If I was going to advise anyone, I would be my people at home.
Pitchfork: What would you tell them?
Allen: I would say they would never play this kind of music better than it’s played here, so they have to find their own way, and find a market that would make it penetrate into this side of the world; have an exchange of ideas. We have been bombarded so much by Western music, but African music in Europe or America, really, it’s still very minute. That’s what I would tell my guys at home: Here, the market is for the people here and what they are doing. So what I said was, if you cannot beat them, join them.
Pitchfork: Damon, do you feel like you have fulfilled what you wanted to do here?
Albarn: Yeah, I suppose. I mean I never feel fulfilled, sadly.
Pitchfork: What’s the future of this collaboration? Could you see yourself make another record?
Simonon: I don’t know what the future holds. We may make another record, I don’t know. We’re just doing it day by day, really, and we just started touring this one, so it’s early. It would be nice to make another record. We all get on really well, and musically we communicate really well. Who knows? Damon’s going to be off doing other work and I’ve got some painting to catch up on, and then we’ll meet back up in America and tour– everybody’s got their own work. It’s quite healthy really, as opposed to a situation where we’re just all on this bus and it keeps going until it decides to crash.