In Mali, no-one knew anything about Damon Albarn. The people he met and played with, the village elders, the local musicians, did not own Blur records. Living in poverty in the middle of nowhere, in the desert sprawl of the southwest Sahara, they didn’t own many possessions full stop.
Armed with his trusty melodica and a brown wooly hat, the 32-year-old Blur frontman visited the central west African country, one of the world’s poorest, for eight days in July as part of Oxfam’s ‘On The Line’ project. Fascinated by Malian music for some time, Damon took the opportunity offered by the charity. There, nervous and scared at first, he sat down and played his melodica with the griots, the musician caste who play all the music and through it, pass down the traditional oral history of the country. Assisted by two of his studio technicians, Tom Girling and Jason Cox, he amassed 40 hours of music on DAT, out of which an album will be produced. Whatever you might think, it won’t be anything like Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ trip.
“No, not at all. Not at all,” Damon states. “I’m actually finally getting round to making the record in November, ‘cos I haven’t had time. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to sound but it won’t sound like Paul Simon. Any money made will go back to Mali, it’s not a commercial endeavour in that sense. That’s the link with Oxfam. At the end of it, I said I’ll make a record and then give all the money to Oxfam.
“There’s an enormous problem with Aids there and it’s just basic infrastructure and anti-corruption tactics, because Africa is very corrupt and not understanding the culture you’re sending money to is a bit self-defeating really.”
You suspect Damon cherished the relative anonymity he had out in Africa. By his standards, Damon has been determinedly media-shy for the past two years. Now a father of a one-year-old daughter, Missy, the Damon who sits before NME today in loose denim, white T-shirt and tan flat cap in the deserted canteen of a Fulham photo studio, on the eve of the release of ‘Blur: The Best Of’, is very much the serious musician. He spends the daytimes working in his west London studio, 13, where Blur recorded ‘Music Is My Radar’ late this summer. Their least commercial single to date, it still entered the charts at Number Ten, providing the group with their 23rd hit in ten years. In the evenings he looks after Missy with his partner, the painter Suzi Winstanley, in their west London home. He rarely goes to gigs – doesn’t have time or the inclination, and even though he’s been involved with some interesting collaborations of late, he’s not especially forthcoming with the details. Purely, he insists, because the music should speak for itself.
November sees the release of ‘Tomorrow Comes Today’, a four-track EP by a new group called Gorillaz, on Parlophone, home to Blur. Produced by San Francisco hip-hop kingpin Dan The Automator, it is, like the Automator’s Deltron 3030 project, a loose collaboration between a number of like-minded musicians. As with ‘Time Keeps On Slipping’ on the ‘Deltron 3030′ album, Damon sings and plays melodica over the title track’s melancholy trip-hop. But as NME recently discovered, it’s easier to extract blood from a stone than coerce Dan The Automator into disclosing relevant information. Given that Damon is on the record and, you know, it’s actually pretty good, has he got anything to say about it?
“Dan is a mate of mine and he’s made this record, this Gorillaz record, in Jamaica, and I’ve just helped out a bit. It’s gonna come out and everyone can make their own minds up about it. It’s something I’ve been involved with and it’s a very different sort of band. But it’s not me. It’s a lot of people and Dan’s the producer of it. Who else is on it? People like Tom Tom Club and Del Tha Funky Homosapien. It wouldn’t be fair to say it was my thing. It’s not fair for me to talk about something which, you know, they need to talk about.”
It’s unlikely they’ll discuss it either, though.
“Well, maybe we don’t like being too specific about things because, er, it should be the music that stands up,” he reasons. “I’ve done that whole thing, cult of the personality, and moved on. I’ve moved on a bit.”
Where he’s moved to, essentially, is into his studio. Garage producers DJ Luck & MC Neat potter about loudly in the studio next door, while various reggae musicians ensure the workspace has a “controlled party atmosphere and a lot of creativity”. There, he says, people are making their own music on their own terms and it’s the reason ‘Music Is My Radar’ sounds the way it does. For the Notting Hill Carnival, he recorded an acetate with the young guv’nor of UK garage, Ed Case, who works in the same studio complex.
“We played it on a few sound systems and I was really drunk and Sweetie Irie pulled me onstage and I just fucked around with him for about half-an-hour. It was nothing.”
Rumour has it Ed Case and yourself are to release an official record together.
“Nah, there is something out there but it’s nothing to do with me. It’s entirely up to them what they do with it. I’m not planning a garage thing. We’re all mates just having a laugh. But we got in ‘The Voice’. I was quite proud to get in ‘The Voice’. In their Carnival Highlights. I’ve never been in ‘The Voice’, you know.”
It took three attempts for Blur to gel as a band this year. Aside from their one-off London show at Scott Walker’s Meltdown in early July, the group hadn’t played together since their Singles Night shows one year ago and, before the birth of ‘Music Is My Radar’, Damon wasn’t sure if the band had moved on sufficiently for them to be able to release a track representative of where Blur are now.
“Once we’d done that, it was clear we could make another record together, it was really nice, whereas beforehand it wasn’t so clear because I didn’t feel everybody had moved on.”
Do you always expect the others to have moved on sufficiently?
“I don’t expect them to be like carbon copies of my development but of their own development, that’s the most important thing. That’s how you survive. And I only think we’ve got better. I don’t think we’ve got worse. And the longer we’ve been together the more important the music has become. I’m not saying it wasn’t important before… you just get more of a sense of time passing and you have to make things count.
“Maybe when I was 21 I had an enormous hunger for… I was quite an attention seeker to say the least. So that was important as well, thank God I got that out of my system, that’s what growing up’s all about really, getting those unrealistic things out of your system, however long it takes.”
It was only after the “ridiculous experience” of the ‘Country House’ period (“a career out of control”) that Damon really immersed himself in music.
“Believe it or not, until I was about 26, 27, I didn’t have a passion for buying records. I was passionate about music but I was very kind of naive, but from 26 onwards, I got deeper and deeper into it.”
He says that he buys about 30 records each month. Few, if any, have been by yer common or garden guitar bands. He’s a fan of African, Cuban, Jamaican, Arabic and flamenco music, while the only music that interests him from this country is garage.
“Old-skool garage, where they really speed up other tunes and put mad beats on – it doesn’t care, it’s totally irreverent. I like that about it.”
But you find guitar music to be in a generally dire state?
“I’ll probably upset a lot of people when I say it, but I can’t really think of anything that’s astounding with guitars. They’re a dying breed. I don’t see us as a guitar band. I know we are but we experiment with a lot of different rhythms. I think it’s the rhythmic side of it that I find most depressing, this lack of imagination.”
Do you think guitar music is a redundant form?
“No, no it’s not that. It’s the attitude that goes with guitar bands which I can’t stand. Especially English guitar bands. And American guitar bands as well. Just fucking guitar bands period.”
What, even Limp Bizkit?
“Can’t stand them. Can’t stand anything like that. I guess it’s probably because I’m too old to understand it. It has a really cheap sound. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, they don’t sound very sincere, the sounds. They sound very well put together in the studio but they don’t seem to have a real joy in the texture of the sound.”
So you’re not a fan of English guitar bands?
“Well you name me a good guitar band?”
“Fucking no way! I’m not into that and that’s acoustic guitars anyway. I wouldn’t call that electric guitar music. It’s nice acoustic, it’s a nice melody, so I’ve got no problem. And Travis, I’ve got no problem with their melodies, a little bit derivative on occasions, but I’ve got no problem with it.
“If you can imagine creating a world around a Travis record, ie. the way the roads would look and the way the housing would look and the transport system, you know, I don’t wanna live in that world. That’s all. It doesn’t upset me in the way Limp Bizkit does, I just, you know, you should create a Travis world, or the culinary equivalent of Travis…”
Cheese on toast?
“A nice thing occasionally but if you had it all the time, really bad for you.”
And Blur’s world?
“Well, it seems to be a bit more like the real world, you know? Very eclectic and diverse.”
In these exciting, post-‘Kid A’ times, bands are no longer permitted to release boring records. By their standards, ‘Music Is My Radar’ is Blur’s least conventional, radio-unfriendly single by some distance; a freestyle footnote to ‘Blur: The Best Of’ that sounds, says Damon, like something he could have done when he was in Mali.
He says that he gets criticised for being too diverse and changing all the time. But perhaps this is exactly what people now expect him to do, because he always makes a point of acting as he pleases. He no longer seeks attention; rather, attention comes to him.
“The only thing that is important to me now is that what I do is really good,” he says. “It doesn’t need to have my face accompany it. In a way it’s more important that it doesn’t really.”
Asked whether he considers ‘Kid A’ to be as experimental as many people believe it to be, Damon diplomatically refers to Radiohead as a “good band” but doesn’t want to express an opinion on the matter. Does he think Blur are given enough credit for their often unorthodox approach to music-making?
“Well, what exactly is credit? Credit in the bank? Critical credit? I’m not, er, really that hot on the music press so I wouldn’t know if I am or not. All I know is that I’m still in the position where I’m fortunate because everyone seems to give me a lot of space to do what I want and get behind me, so in that sense I suppose I am, yeah. But I’m only grateful for that, I don’t expect it.”
After ten years, how do you think Blur are perceived today?
“I think a lot of people know our tunes and I think we’ve been around long enough for some of it to have sunk in. And because we’ve been quite press-shy for a couple of years, it’s done us a lot of good. But we learnt a very crucial lesson from what happened with Oasis essentially. Back then, in ’95, that was the best thing that ever happened to us because it sobered us up really quickly.”
You realised that you weren’t cut out for that kind of fame?
“Yeah, in that sense. It was quite a profound revelation really, and I’ve avoided it ever since. You know, it seemed quite an attractive thing but when you started really experiencing it at its zenith…”
With paparazzi camped outside your house?
“Well that is horrendous, but I still carry the scars of it. When I go out with my daughter, about five times out of ten there’s someone following me with a camera and at least once a month there’s a picture of me in ‘The Sun’ or ‘The Mirror’ looking like a dad. But it’s nowhere near as bad as some people get it.”
Liam Gallagher appears immune to it.
“Well you have to be immune to it. But they’ve (Oasis) paid an enormous price for their fame. I feel sorry for them, you know. Well, I don’t feel anything for them, it’s such a long time ago. It feels like something that happened when you were at school, it’s not serious.”
Oasis seems to be a complete farce nowadays.
“Well as I say, I think they’ve paid an enormous price, so maybe that is the price you pay.”
Creatively, too, it’s not looking too good.
“That’s their own business. I can’t possibly comment on that.”
‘Blur: The Best Of’ cannot fail. A team of market researchers employed by the band’s label asked Blur fans across the country which particular tracks they would like to hear on a ‘greatest hits’ album. They picked 17 singles, from the first, ‘She’s So High’, through to ‘Girls & Boys’ and ‘Tender’. Only one album track, ‘This Is A Low’, taken from ‘Parklife’, was chosen. Tears might be shed at the absence of ‘Popscene’ or ‘Chemical World’ or ‘MOR’, but hey, you can’t please all the people all the time. Collecting fans’ votes – it’s an unusual, if democratic, method of compiling an album.
“Well, we are unusual,” declares Damon. “We don’t do anything with any real logic. If we were logical about it we would be touring the record as well. I actually think we put out the ‘greatest hits’ because we did those few Singles Nights gigs and thought, ‘Oh, it might be quite a nice thing to do.’ But I think the only thing it’s done for us is make us want to make an even better Blur record next time. It only fuels us.
“I’ve started writing again. I’ve done everything that I wanted to do this year and it’s time to do that again. But I’ve made it very clear to the rest of the band that I want to work in a certain way and I think they’ve come round to it.
“We’re all in sync again, you know? We’re always having times when we’re not in sync, that’s the nature of being in a band. But I think what gives us our longevity and our desire to continue is that we’re aware, it’s not like we’re insensitive to the fact that we’re not in sync. But how can you possibly be in sync all the time? You don’t live in the same house or whatever. Two of us have kids – that puts you fundamentally out of sync with the other two anyway.”
Fatherhood has affected Damon in “a million positive ways”, even if it has meant sacrificing trips to see Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
“If I’m not making music, I’m looking after Missy and on the rare occasion I get to football, I really enjoy it. I occasionally go out but there’s nowhere near the volume of hedonism that there used to be in my life.”
Though hardly old nor out of touch, Damon is clearly content with the mature lifestyle he has today. In August he saw Graham Coxon’s solo show at London’s Garage, got “really drunk” and abused the Blur guitarist from the moshpit. Having emerged unscathed from ‘Face’, his acting sideline is currently on ice. “It was a good collection of actors so they managed to disguise my blatant inadequacies as an actor, which was nice of them.”
He still gets sent scripts and would like to do something again, but it wouldn’t be very mainstream. Most good things, he says, don’t exist in the mainstream.
“That’s why I like being in Blur because we can put things like ‘Music Is My Radar’ into the mainstream where other people won’t be able to,” he nods. “It’s not at all a mainstream record but it will get on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and ‘CD:UK’, you know, and I think to even bother to continue doing this thing, that has to be my reason for doing it. The better I become as a musician and the more understanding I have of what it is that… that… of ‘what is music?’ You know, that’s all we’re really looking for.”
Music is Damon Albarn’s radar. It is permanently switched on. And it’s back to the studio and away from the mainstream that he travels, keen to pick up those fresh new signals.
Damon talks to NME about some of the tracks from ‘Blur: The Best Of’
Beetlebum: “This is still one of my favourite songs and when we get it right live, the choruses are just heaven to sing, especially if Graham is really in tune, which, because he has to play some really difficult guitar parts and sing harmonies, is not easy. I can’t play anything complicated and sing at the same time. I don’t know how he does it. I can play stuff but I’ve never been able to sing at the same time. I don’t jump around as much as I used to either, heh heh.”
Song 2: “You know, that song has been amazing for us. It’s allowed us an enormous amount of freedom. It’s still alive, still gets played an enormous amount in America. If we’d have had a ‘Song 3′ we would have sold maybe five, six million albums in America. We sold a million on ‘Blur’, eventually, so it wasn’t bad. Everyone knows that song though.”
There’s No Other Way: “In 1991, I remember going to Syndrome, a club at the top of Oxford Street, which is where we used to go. You used to sit at this little bar and see how many people got on the dancefloor. It was really thrilling and everything was gauged from this one little club, and when ‘There’s No Other Way’ came on it actually filled the dancefloor.”
The Universal: “I was in a bar with Bono recently and he said that’s his favourite Blur song. I sing it a lot better now than I did at the time, which is a bit annoying ‘cos I probably sing it now how I should have sung it then. My voice wasn’t good enough. Now I smoke a lot more cigarettes. I’ve always sung from the diaphragm but a voice is all about your experiences really.”
Coffee & TV: “When I originally wrote it, it was a lot slower, much more laid-back, more like a ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’, a laid-back country blues thing, and we started playing it and no-one was really into it. Graham tried it faster and he has a rhythm, he was really into a Sonic Youth song with that rhythm at the time so we just borrowed the rhythm and then I couldn’t really feel it anymore, so I couldn’t finish the lyrics. So then Graham sang it and he didn’t sing it very well and I said, ‘That’s not really good enough.’ And then a few days later, he sang it again and I sang it and filled it out with harmonies and there you go.”
Girls & Boys: “It still really stands up as a mad record if you play it out; there’s still nothing that really sounds quite like it. Everything about that record I like, from Graham’s guitar to Alex’s bass to the lyrics to the cheesiness of it in a way; it’s really inept disco.”
She’s So High: “One of the first things we ever did and it was our first proper song. Way before Blur, it was a Seymour song, a really good moment in our lives. It’s probably the most complete Blur-as-a-band-writing song that we did. Alex did the chord sequence and I sang loads of different tunes and Graham cut it all together and that’s what we came up with.”
This Is A Low: “Just one of those moments when, with the aid of a present from Alex – the shipping forecast on a handkerchief – I just managed to write a really nice bit of poetry and it’s a song I’ll be eternally proud of. I’m proud of all of them… I just really like the words in that one, particularly.”