Few are the artists who rise above the quicksand of Britpop idolatry to find better days on the other side. But talking to Damon Albarn at his West London home about life, fatherhood, music and politics, Matt Kennard finds that the ex-Blur singer and Gorillaz creator is one of them.
Could Damon Albarn really have chosen 10am on a Monday morning for our interview? Even though the Gorillaz frontman is creeping up to 40 and has a five-year-old daughter, I still associate him with the hedonistic pop persona he cultivated during the early Blur days.
As I arrive at his West London house the man himself is not only up, he is drenched in sweat and puffing to his portable CD player. “Just been on the rowing machine,” he says smiling boyishly. “You’re punctual, that’s good.”
He rushes upstairs to change, leaving me to roam around. I can’t help but be struck by the lack of ostentation; a TV by the settee, strewn CDs, a Bob Marley poster… not much more than an up-market student dig really. Damon ambles into the room struggling to get his T-shirt over his head as I look over my questions, but to my amazement it is he who takes the initiative, asking: “Were you on Radio Four the other day?”
From reading the newspapers and magazines, you get the picture of an arrogant and pretentious fop, described by Noel Gallagher – still smarting from the mid-1990s Oasis-Blur rivalry – as a “knobhead” who “dresses like a dustbin man”.
In person, Albarn is down-to-earth, humble and avuncular. “The bigger you get, the more hated you get,” he says. “Unless you’re Ghandi.” But even the great man got shot in the end, I point out. “Exactly,” he agrees, and chuckles.
Does he mind the constant media intrusion in his life? “I find it irritating, but it’s part of life in this country,” he says. “Whatever you do, they twist it into being something slightly negative. It’s all about negatives; there’s nothing positive about the culture so if that’s how we want to be seen by the rest of the world, as a sort of bad-weathered island, so be it. You know, the thing that always astounds me about this country is that people on this island don’t realise how fucking small it is!”
It’s no surprise the media are trying to bring Albarn down; his career has been on an uphill rise over the past five years, since his virtual band Gorillaz became an unqualified success.
I ask whether the idea of a virtual band was a conscious decision to lampoon celebrity culture. “Well, to give an alternative rather than to make a comment,” he says. “You know, making a comment on it is very difficult. I think you really have to concern yourself with providing alternatives. For us it was – and will continue to be – such a liberating exercise really because you can go either way,” he adds. “Jamie Hewlett the projects co-creator and illustrator and I work together in a very kind of isolated parallel with each other. We’re very good friends but we don’t invade each other’s space at all. We’ve basically got a given where everything I do he likes and everything he does I like – doesn’t matter what that is. It’s only very occasionally that he would come up with some visuals and I’d go: ‘That’s shit,’ or I’d provide some music and he’d say the same.”
The success of Gorillaz has allowed Albarn to dabble in his own less commercial interests, like producing an album with musicians from Mali, Mali Music and finishing a solo ten-inch called Democrazy. He has a tendency to explore styles and sounds while acts like his old rivals Oasis have been churning out the same oeuvre for over ten years.
“Some people have a real problem with me and think I’m just some sort of mercurial brain that is obsessed with artifice and, you know, it’s really not like that,” he says. “I’ve just got very eclectic tastes and whatever I’m doing at the time I’ll try and put myself into it as much as I humanly can. For example, I’ve just finished an album down in Devon that started out as a development from the stuff I’ve done with Honest Johns in Nigeria, where I took lots of people out and we worked with a lot of the old 60s and 70s musicians. We made a whole album but I didn’t feel connected, lyrically or personally enough with the music so I kind of scrapped that and kept some of the drum tracks.”
It’s a new solo album? “It’s never been a solo album,” he says. “I did the whole album there in between doing the Gorillaz albums and I left it until we finished the second Gorillaz album and then I just got a sort of wave of Englishness in the face of everything I’ve been doing for the last ten years which has been the opposite to Parklife. That’s why I made this really English record, but it started off in Africa. My roots to places are never really planned and I just really go with how I feel at that particular moment.” Damon has worked with a lot of hip hop artists, particularly. “MF Doom is one the most extraordinary of the rappers I’ve worked with just because of his ability to rhyme anything. And Roots Manuva is fantastic, more people like him please! He’s very laid back and really bright and his stuff is funny.”
Albarn’s new album is “set in a Gothic subconscious world that’s England”. Before it’s release, Damon is working on a musical for the National Theatre…about? Damon looks stumped. “It’s about… what’s it about?” he pauses and looks at me with his broad smile. Then he remembers. “It’s very loosely about race relations from the 1950’s and I’m writing the music and… it’s a workshop driven thing so ask me in six months times and I’ll know better.” What is clear is that Damon has ” fallen in love again with writing words which is handy now that I’ve got to write this fucking musical.”
Damon has always had a strange relationship with his words or lyrics and their critics, being accused by some of “a snide contempt” and having no sympathy with his characters. He argues, “I started off really enjoying the possibilities to say one thing and suggest another, very much in that kind of tradition of pop vignettes. And then what happened with Parklife was so overwhelming in that I’d made a record that I thought was a melancholic commentary on a country in crazy transition and you know it became Britpop with all the sinister undertones of that and the betrayal…” Betrayal? By that he refers to how Tony Blair captured the youth vote through music and bands such as Oasis lending their support.
Albarn expands…” I mean I’ve said it many times, I luckily recognised that but it put me in such a strange place. I went to see him and had this very sort of conspiratorial conversation with him pre-the 1997 election and felt that I’d seen the dark side before my time really and completely removed myself from it. And then up until this year my message has been hidden. But in this record I’ve just finished I’ve taken the ideas in Parklife and added ten years and a Gothic setting.”
At this point Damon gets up to make another batch of coffee. He carries on chatting in his laconic and stuttery style, which involves long pauses in between sentences and has led Radio 1’s doyenne interviewer Jo Whiley to label Damon “not easy to interview”. Perhaps this is why his words either betray or distort his sentiments or are misunderstood; I think it’s because he thinks a great deal more than your average musician or he’s been watching too many Harold Pinter plays.
Does he have any heroes? “I’m very bad on lists,” he says. “I was very influenced by Hermann Hesse when I was growing up. I really felt he had a very human sense of wonderment. He could create fantasy in a great way. But I suppose my greatest influence was Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht when I was growing up and I think I haven’t really moved that far away from that idea of involving politics in really powerful strong music.”
He perks up when the discussion switches to politics. Alongside his musical commitments, Albarn has been at the forefront of the anti-war and debt cancellation movements. He tells me, “The war in Iraq was the result of our inability to express what I think was a consensus that this was a terrifying idea and a very badly thought-out one.” Weren’t people disheartened by the futility of the anti-war protests? “That’s everyone’s attitude but I think, for example, going back to that march if we had marched the next weekend they might have got a bit more nervous and if you’d marched the weekend after that it might have got really nervous. And it might have actually stopped it and the course of the world would have changed. So no, it’s not the individual but the individual as a body politic is very powerful.”
But it’s so easy to become cynical these days, I say. “It is hard to avoid,” he says, “but if we are going to move forward in any sense we’ve got to start to really think about these things and we’ve got to take all that pornography and all that celebrity stuff off the shelves,” he says. “I’m not saying that we go back to some kind of Puritan type thing but it’s badly out of balance at the moment. And none of us seem to be able to stop; we kind of know it’s wrong but we still switch on the telly. It’s like Jamie – he hates celebrity culture and yet he’ll watch Big Brother. This is the question of our age,” Albarn proclaims. “We beat ourselves up about certain things and yet because it’s easy – because we live in a society where gratification is very, very quick – even it’s just five minutes of reading Heat magazine, you’ve done it, you’ve engaged, you’ve perpetuated the whole thing. I’m not saying I know the answer at all.”
The escalation of his activism seems to have correlated with the birth of his baby daughter. “It massively changes you,” he says. “It slowly shaves off the unpleasant thorny bits and hopefully creates a nicely rounded human being. I don’t know, having a kid inevitably means you look to the future far more and, you know, it’s desperate sometimes when you have a particularly bad few weeks of the newspaper reminding you…’we’ve got ten more years everyone!'” Only if you read the Independent with it’s daily end- of-the-world front-pages! I suggest. “Well I’ve stopped reading the Independent,” he says and smirks. “I can’t bare it anymore. It’s too much!” But the burden of “the future” hasn’t stunted his social life. “I still try to go out because I love going out,” he says. “I love that escape. But no, having a child has definitely changed me an awful lot.”
Damon says he is now in a “better space” than he has ever been. “I could say, ‘Well I regret a lot of stuff I did when I was a lot younger’ but that was just because I didn’t really have the right guidance or maybe I didn’t really understand the negative sides of pursuing fame. But, you know, all the stupid stuff I’ve done I’ve learnt from and kind of found myself somewhere better. I still consider myself to be a beginner, you know what I mean?” He pauses and looks at the ceiling. “That’s where I see myself: at the beginning.”