By Lewis Jones
Damon Albarn had everything a pop singer could want: frighteningly good looks, a hugely successful band and a very public squabble going on with Oasis. But for the front man of Blur, fame was a double-edged sword, and beauty a burden. His answer? A retreat into film music and ‘virtual rock’. Lewis Jones meets him in Notting Hill.
Damon Albarn is restless. He yawns, stretches, gets up, paces a bit, sits down, stretches, yawns. As he does these things he talks, in somnolent mockney, about the downside of being a pop star, which he says he no longer is, though he still sounds like one.
‘I mean, “pop star”… I’ve never really uh… My main objective has never to be a star. I fink I got caught up in it all, and… Its like the whole nature of celebrity these days is so… What’s the word?’ Its all too taxing and Albarn abandons his quest: ‘I’ve got a bad hangover!’
As he consumes a bottle of mineral water, into which he tips powdered vitamins, he gradually warms up though: ‘I like talking,’ he says. ‘We could talk all day, couldn’t we?’
We’re in his recording studio, in a converted bus station off Ladbroke Grove, west London. Square, low ceilinged and windowless, it smells of old trainers and stale cigarette smoke, and its battered slabs of equipment are arranged around a brightly lit fishtank.
‘Yeah… I just look at fish all day. They like a good tune. And they soon tell me if its not sounding good.’ Albarn spins and tilts on a swivel chair at his mixing desk, and smiles the smile that launched a thousand videos (22, to be strictly accurate – on the 13th, ‘Country House’, the smile cracked, and has recently quite faded away).
When he and his band ruled the charts in the mid-Nineties, market research revealed that what most people first associated with Blur was Damon Albarn’s pale blue eyes, and even here, in poor light and with a hangover, they are remarkably clear and piercing. Justine Frischmann of Elastica, who went out with Albarn for eight years, once describes him as ‘frighteningly pretty’.
Today he’s wearing jeans, trainers and a shirt. He’s unshaven, and the hair once remembered for his days as Britpop’s most adorable moptop (he used to bleach it with lemon juice) is now worn in a no.2 crop. He’s quite a big bloke – about 5ft 11in, 13 stone – and his jaw is a bit heavier than it used to be.
He is due to be photographed, but postpones the shoot. ‘I really really try to avoid all photographers now,’ he says, writhing on his chair. ‘I dont know why, i was so into it when i was younger. But lets face it, if you’re a good looking young male with talent you’re not going to get taken seriously.’ Really? At the height of Blur mania – in the rosy dawn of CoolBritania, when English pop regained for a season the energy and wit of its sixties youth – broadsheet critics compared Albarn to Schubert, and he was invited to meet Tony Blaire. Wasn’t he taken absurdly seriously?
‘In one way, Yeah, but i do feel that looks are something you have to get over… It was a great day when I realised i didn’t need to see myself anymore. I knew who i was…’
For a 33 year old pop star, Albarn sounds remarkably valetudinarian. This is no doubt partly a matter of wealth (although he would ‘really love to see the royal family gone’, he owns as many houses as the queen – one in Devon, another in Iceland, and two in Notting Hill), but its also obvious that being a pop star is very tiring.
The video for’End of a century’ (blurs 11th hit) was shot live at an open air concert, at night, with the lights and fireworks. At one point an ecstatic Albarn performs a beautific stage dive into the huge crowd, which receives him like a goosedown. ‘I loved it!’ he recalls. ‘I had a wonderful relationship with the audience…But i just had to let go of it.’
After 10 years together, Blur still record, but the band has stopped touring, and over the past couple of years its members have done their own things.
Albarns solo career is determinedly faceless. ‘What i lost,’ he says, ‘was my normality’ – and in an attempt to regain his normality, he has become a composer of film music – for Ravenous (1999, with Michael Nyman), Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000) and now 101 Reykjavik (2000), an Icelandic slacker movie to be released next month.
‘Cinematic pop! Its a whole new genre, man!’ He has also created Gorillaz, a cartoon rock band currently storming the charts. The cartoons are by Jamie ‘Tank Girl’ Hewlett (with whom Albarn shared a pad after breaking up with Frischmann), and the musicians are Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (both formally of Talking heads), Miho Hatori (of Cibo Matto), the rapper Del The
Funkee Homosapian, and Ibrahim Ferrer (Buena Vista Social club). The real band plays catchily eclectic ‘zombie hiphop’ (advertised as ‘virtual crack for your stereo’), while the cartoon one does cartoonish things on a website (www.gorriaz.com). ‘Gorillaz was a way of re-entering the pop arena, in a way that we could keep our integrity, and be playful, and also have an underlying intelligence – and still be proper pop, on the cover of Smash Hits… And the kids love it! I’m just not ashamed to be making music for teenagers.’
Why is it more intelligent and honest to hide behind cartoons? Why is it better to be a virtual pop star than a real one (particularly when you are a real one)? Why is it such a drag to be a celebrity?
‘Well, celebrity has become an industry in itself. A celebrity is just a money making vehicle now. Its not something that you become, because of your work, its actually a legitimate job in itself. Its a supermarket, really isn’t it? All those revolting magazines, that are basically just flesh magazines.’
Could he be referring to his old enemies the Gallagher brothers, of Blurs great rival Oasis?
‘No, no, no!’ he shouts. ‘Not them! No!’ But its too late. ‘I mean they made a terrible mistake. They appeared in Hello! and that was it! Then they keep on doing it! Repeat offenders! And that becomes their lives! They all look the same, buy the same things. Celebrity and money basically just turns you into being a really boring person.’
Albarn says that ‘the oasis thing’ – the battle of the bands that polarized the nation in the summer of 1995, when Blur’s Country House beat Oasis’s Roll With It (northern working class rock) to no. 1 in the charts, and Liam Gallagher said he hoped Blur got aids – ‘really kicks shit out of me. It seems ridiculous, looking back, but people would open windows and shout abuse. Shops, clubs, the whole thing. Whats going on? Its very confusing! I still get it in the pub today.’
For the past 5 years Albarn has been protesting that, for his part, the quarrel is forgotten, but during our interview he frequently succumbs to fits of more or less mock rancor.
When he talks about the Country House video, for example – a self conscious romp featuring birds in Benny Hill outfits and pigs with cocaine coated snouts, made by Albarn’s mate Damien Hurst – he starts judiciously enough. ‘Maybe it is a work of art… An artist who we hung out with at college, same place in a way, we’re at the top of out powers. Unfortunately, it was a bit too… frivolous. Its just too vulgar, isn’t it, the video and the song? But we’d been put in a very vulgar place… And then Oasis made our vulgarity seem very tame. It doesn’t get you anywhere, really, being vulgar. Nobody can be vulgar all the time…’
Or again, when he mentions his daughter Missy (born 20 months ago, and named after the rap singer Missy Elliott), which he does often, he is soppy and proud as any new father: ‘I dont wanna blow my own trumpet, but last year i spent nearly months months with my daughter, alone.’ No nanny? ‘Nah. Its really hard. My partner, she’s an artist (Suzi Winstanley, half of the art duo Olly and Suzi), and she goes to very exotic places like Nepal, and the first year it wasn’t right for us all to go together, so i stayed. It was the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me, really, and i will keep that level of commitment.’
But as he explains how childcare keeps him from touring, he turns again on those uncouth Mancunian Gallaghers: ‘I cant ever fucking avoid Oasis! They both had kids, and they went on tour straight away, and now their not with the mothers of their kids. And i believe that kids should have parents. After a week on tour, all that adoration, I’m like “yes, you’re adoring me, but i’m also ignoring the development of my child!”
People pursue their dreams beyond where they should, really.’
Soon after the last election, the Gallaghers were photographed smoozing with Tony Blair at Downing Street. ‘When i was invited to no.10,’ Albarn recalls, ‘I put a statement out which got on the front page of the Telegraph saying that i’d become a communist. Quite funny, really.’
Albarn had met Tony ‘Blur’ before the election, and had no wish to renew the acquaintance.
‘I got approached by his youth team, and at the beginning i was like, “wow! the next prime minister!” Then i went to meet him. I’m quite a good judge of character, and i’ll tell you what, he’s a slippery bastard! But i’m not Conservative! No way! But its a big thing when you’re still a kid, really, to meet the next prime minister, and come out feeling “yuck!” Tony Blair is just as much caught up in celebrity as anyone else.’
Despite his efforts to disown any such thing, Albarns image is essentially that of a middle-class bohemian geezer, but he affects to find the designation puzzling.
‘Um, “middle-class”… I dont subscribe to the class system in this country. I think its painfully outdated and restrictive. I though Labour were anti the class system, but they seem to be totally pro it. Its the same fing! Its in a different fucking guise, but its the same fing! I dunno…’
What about geezer? He’s a face’ on the geezer scene, surely? ‘Wossat mean then?’
Well, hanging out with Phil Daniels (the geezer actor who spoke the narrative on Parklife, Blur’s anthem to geezerdom), and Ray Winstone (another geezer actor), and who Damien the geezer artist… ‘Geysers are somefing you find about 80 miles norf of Reykjavik!’ says Albarn flatly, and rather lamely. Perhaps he is in a state of geezer denial, or feels bound by the geezer code of omerta, or is insecure about his geezer credentials.
Albarn was born at Leystone, in the East End, which is a promising start for a geezer, but his parents were dope smoking hippies. His father, Kieth, managed the Soft Machine (a key hippie band) for a while, and his mother Hazel, designed stage sets for Joan Littlewood at stratford east – ‘until about 2 weeks before i was born she was doing the set for Mrs Wilson’s Diary.’
When Damon was nine his father was appointed to head of art and design at the Colchester Institute, and the family moved to a 14th century house in nearby Aldham.
‘I was brought up in a very mixed environment – Pakistani, West Indian, Spanish. Then i went to an all-white school (in Colchester), very right wing, and racist, totally intolerant of anything different. And a lot of my satire comes from that period. When i moved to Colchester it was still quite a sleepy area, and within five years it had become a satellite town, and the countryside was covered in thousands of Barrat Homes. And thats where the bitterness came from. Lost fields! Lost trees!’
With the album Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995), Albarn went through a highly satirical phase, which was reminiscent of the sixties not only melodically – the Kinks, the Who, the small Faces, the Beatles – but also in its targets (suburban conformity, repression, hypocrisy), and in the way it celebrated them even as it mocked them. The great Blur hits – girls and boys, Parklife, Country House – mix cynicism and optimism. They’re feel good satire. ‘Yeah! Feel good satirical songs! Thats what i do.’Damon went to Stanway Comprehensive, Colchester, which he recalls as ‘a really shit school’. where they called him a poof, and ‘the very cream became managers at Sainsbury” he says. ‘But at least everyone else went to a really shit school with me. It wasn’t just me. And it always bugged the fuck out of me that i was accused of being a public school boy. I’d really love to see the private school system obliterated… I wasn’t a loner, or really heavily bullied or anything, but i definitely never really like i fitted in at all. My sister (three years his junior) fitted in, but i didn’t.’
At A-level Damon did badly in English (though he liked DH Lawrence and Herman Hesse) and history, and failed music. ‘I tried so hard to learn classical piano – and i did, i got up to grade 8 – but never really could do it. Anything to do with authority, even paper with notes written on it. Its ridiculous, really, ‘cause its so beautiful, those notes are passing on wonderful information from the past.’
Albarn then went to Joan Litllewood’s drama school, E15, but dropped out after a year. ‘It terrified the living daylights out of me. I just thought, “I do not understand how to do this.”’ He has since had a cameo role in Face (1997) a british gangster flick, playing a geezer, which he quite enjoyed.
‘I had one moment where i understood what actors get so excited about, but that was because i was really stoned, and it was in a bar, so i could have a drink as well. I thought, “Jesus! This is really good fun!” But i’m not a born actor.’
Back in his native Leystone, he lived in a squat, learnt how to speak mockney, fooled around with music, and one thing led to another. He hooked up with his old schoolfriend Graham Coxon, who had turned into an ace guitarist, and a couple of Coxon’s art school friends. To begin with Blur were just another indie dance band, but they were soon signed by the Food record label, owned by EMI. Wasn’t the indie scene rather anti the big labels?
‘Well, they were all anti it until they got loads of money from major labels – and they all lost their edge when they did.’ Except Blur, of course.
When British bands reach a certain eminence at home (Blur one 4 Brit Awards in 1995), they tend to have a crack at the US charts, but Blur doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression there, except with a thrash metal number called ‘Song 2’ (otherwise known as the Woo-Hoo song), which has made about £2million as a single in the USA, and probably more than that in advertisements for everything from Beer to computers.
‘If i’d had a song 3,’ muses Albarn, ‘and had a song 4 and a song 5, and a song 1, that would’ve been a career over there.’ Is it true that the band turned down a huge sum from the US military for the song to be played at the unveiling of the latest Stealth Bomber?
‘Yeah. Song 2 is a publisher’s dream. Its not really even a song now. It is a soundbite for a certain kind of thing. Its been used for everything – but not for launching weapons of mass destruction. It got on the Simpsons! For me that was like, “haven’t i made it in America? I’m on the Simpsons!”’
Does Albarn think there’s much future in being a pop star, real or virtual? ‘I love the idea of what happened to me when i listened to The Specials for the first time. I love that thing that happens in young people’s heads when they discover something.’
Does he think that pop music has grown up into a proper art form? ‘Yeah!’ And is he building on a tradition? ‘Totally!’ To prepare for this interview i listened to a lot of Blur’s music, sometimes with friends. As we listened to the plangent ‘Beetlebum’, one said it was about Heroin (‘Yeah,’ concurs Albarn), and another that it was Blur mocking Oasis for ripping off the Beatles.
Albarn bridles slightly: ‘Well, if it amuses people to think that over their tea and biscuits…’ (How suburban.) Albarn’s lyrics used to be quite witty (rhyming Balzac with Prozac for example), but on the last two Blur albums (Blur and 13), his songs have moved from 2.59 minute narrative pop to longer, angst – confessional rock.
‘And my style really changed after The Greta Escape (Blur’s fourth album, a sequel to Parklife). I found Iceland. My friendship fucked up…’ He twists in his chair. Was his relationship with Justine Frischmann destroyed by fame? ‘Well, yeah. Yes basically. Absolutely. No, its, its, its fame, and two people competing with one another (Frischmann’s band Elastica was big in America). Its terrible being in the same business. Its just, uh… terrible. Enough said really. But if you’ve lived with someone for eight years, and worked in tandem with them, talked through ideas and things, and you leave that behind… To start off with i thought, “my god, i’m gonna have to do this on my own, totally.” And thats quite terrifying. But it didn’t last long. Best thing that ever happened to me really.’
And what is this thing he has with Iceland? ‘Its very bright, open, direct. Very spiritual, if you’re of a scandinavian disposition, which i am.’ Does ‘scandinavian disposition’ mean ‘gloomy alcoholic’?
‘No! I dont drink. I mean, i go out maybe every two weeks and have a drink – and i’ll probably ‘ave a bit then – but i dont drink at all the rest of the time. I used to drink like a fish on tour. But when i say ‘scandinavian disposition’, i mean i like fish! I like Wolves! I like the sagas! I like horns on hats! Its my spiritual home.’
He is also part-owner of a bar in Reykjavik. ‘Yeah! I dont know how much fucking advertising my mate Ingvar has got out of it! He’s a producer on the film, and of course the bar is used in the film as well. Its not a very big bar, but it’s very famous.’
Albarn takes me across the studio to some photographs stuck on the wall of him with some of his heroes. Here he is with Ray Davies of Kinks (with whom he once sang waterloo sunset); here embracing Keith Richards (looking like a gila monster in mid swallow) and here…Hang on, what’s Liam Gallagher doing in Damon Albarn’s hall of fame?
‘I like Liam! I want him to be on the next Gorillaz album. Write him a decent song for once, because he hasn’t had any decent songs for years, ha ha! I cant help myself, can i? Its pathetic. Liam’s got a fantastic voice! And he’s wasted being on this big pop star with celebrity girlfriends. He could sing for Blur, so i wouldn’t have to show my face any more!’