The four or five employees of the Marlboro Club in Ilfracombe, a seaside destination in Devon four hours south of London, were the first to tell me that they had never, ever had anything like this come to their town. Damon Albarn, frontman of Blur, architect of Gorillaz and one of the two or three biggest rock stars in England would be playing there – right here at the Marlboro Club – with his new band in a matter of hours. Not only that, but the bassist would be Paul Simonon from The Clash, the drummer would be a much ballyhooed Nigerian fellow called Tony Allen, and Simon Tong, who was in The Verve, would be on guitar. As the band kind of muttered around and then soundchecked – that’s Paul Simonon, Best Looking Man in England, right there – the excitement and anticipation weren’t just palpable, they were impossible. It set everyone at ease though that the band members were just kind of walking around, a bit puffy with sleep after the pub gig in East Prawle the night before, smiling and nodding an “alright” at folks as they paced the dingy carpeted floor. Soon everyone was going about his or her business, readying the club for the show. Albarn bummed a cigarette and mentioned, with a melancholic love in his eyes, his affection for the colourful bunting that a friend had strung for him, which now hung above the instruments onstage. “Bunting is quite English,” said Hannah Claxton, part of Albarn’s management team. “It’s also quite African,” added Albarn.
Some five hours later, the band was stashed away in their tour bus and the same surreal energy bounced around the now-full pub. Tickets had sold out in ten minutes. The kids – and the 20-, 30- and 40-somethings – were jumping out of their shoes with anticipation. When the band walked in and took the tiny stage, the crowd was ready to explode: the album The Good, The Bad & The Queen wouldn’t be out for months, so nobody knew what to expect, but it was real – they were right here right now. Albarn looked rakishly handsome with his front tooth all but missing and an outlandish top hat on (he had permanently borrowed it off a bartender two towns back when the pub staff showed up to the gig in circus outfits). Simonon looked like the toughest motherf***er in England with a porkpie hat and a vicious boxer’s scar across his nose. Surely this band was going to tear the roof off the Marlboro Club and burn the four walls down with a flicked cigarette butt on the way out of town.
Then the music started. Albarn was at an upright piano back and left of centre on the cramped stage. Tong played a spidery guitar figure and Albarn sang softly – even sadly – Come the day/You see the sun/Hit the arch/A history song. It felt good when Simonon brought in a bumping and skanking reggae figure and began stomping, bearing down on the kids in the front row, looking them in the eye and pointing the head of his huge bass at them like it was an elephant gun. It felt even better when Tony Allen came in with a feather-light but somehow gangster shuffle on the snare. Then, as they all chanted La La La/La-la-la-la-la-la-la and began to let those instrumental parts abstractly unravel, it ended. The mellow start – especially with Simonon egging on all comers like a prizefighter – only pushed the crowd closer to bursting, wanting the band to f***ing GO IN. When the show ended after an hour, the album having been played straight through, there had been countless hauntingly amazing moments, but what had they just seen? It was exciting and it occupied some uncharted space between moods and styles and was surely something, but what it was definitely not was Blur + The Clash + afrobeat. And that was not exactly disappointing, but definitely a bit mystifying.
Ever since the end of Blur’s preeminence at the close of the ’90s, Damon Albarn has defied expectations, or, more accurately, run circles around them. He has maintained a definite presence in the English public’s imagination, but only while simultaneously surrounding himself with a world of his own making that has eventually come to defy all of that public’s reference points, almost without them noticing. First he founded Honest Jon’s Records – a label he runs with the people behind the London record shop of the same name – and began putting out music from around the world, including his own Mali Music in 2000, which featured him collaborating with West African musicians. Next he formed Gorillaz – a cartoon band that makes real music – with visual artist Jamie Hewlett. Even with the wild success of the self-titled Gorillaz album in 2001 and the seven-times-platinum explosion of the follow-up Demon Days in 2005, the group’s famous mastermind happily evaporated amidst the multimedia onslaught. Albarn had surrounded himself with Africans, record store dudes, cartoons, obscure or dated American rapper, Miho Hatori, Ike Turner, Shaun Ryder, Dennis Hopper and beyond, but even the millions of people who bought the CDs and listened to them over and over didn’t seem to wonder – much less actually come to understand – what circles, exactly, the former hero of Britpop was now moving in. Behind those cartoons, the most improbable sounds and collaborations seem natural enough, and with songs and videos that good (even if they are pretty dark), who was going to deconstruct them? In America, meanwhile, where Blur’s success had been modest enough that Damon Albarn as celebrity persona had never quite crystallised, there was even less reason to look behind the scrim.
Regardless of what listeners have attended to, the story of Albarn/Simonon/Allen/Tong and their record The Good, The Bad & The Queen is no less fantastic than that of Mali Music or Gorillaz. “The last song that we did together as a four piece in Blur was ‘Music Is My Radar’,” Albarn says, while sitting by the loading dock of a historic London music venue called the Roundhouse. “The chorus of that song is ‘Tony Allen got me dancing.’ So Tony heard it. Somebody obviously told him that there was this… person that was singing a song about him.” Allen, who, as Fela Kuti’s musical director and the leader of Africa 70 is easily one of the greatest drummers alive (“The African Art Blakey,” says Albarn), wanted that same person to come to Nigeria to sing on a song he was working on. Albarn agreed, and although Allen was at first nervous that Albarn might not be able to relate to his often elusive drum patters, he was ultimately thrilled with the result. “After that he became my friend,” Allen says. “Damon is a character, and that made us even better friends, because I like characters. Later – this is three or four years ago – I said to him, I look forward to when we can do something together from scratch. He said, Okay, Tony, why not? But he was too busy then.” One day, according to Allen, Albarn called the drummer at his home in Paris and said, “Okay Tony, I’m free now. Free, free, free. Let’s go for it.” As is his way, Albarn wanted to record in Nigeria, so after some initial writing sessions in London, everything was arranged and the pair set off to Lagos.
When I ask Albarn to try to pinpoint the source of his interest in Africa, he describes his early childhood in the wildly diverse neighbourhood of Leytonstone, East London, and the effect it had on him until he moved north to the homogeneity of Essex at age nine. What actually brought Albarn to Africa for the first time, however, was Oxfam, the London-based anti-poverty group. “About ten years ago Oxfam invited me to do one of those ambassadorial things to Mali, which I was not into,” Albarn says. But instead of rejecting the charity outright, he proposed a different sort of trip. “Coincidentally I’d been listening to a lot of Malian music around that time, because I’d started to get to know the people in Honest Jon’s records and they were feeding me records every other day. So I said I’d go with a DAT player and instead of going into orphanages – although I did go to a couple – I just wanted to travel around and meet all the musicians I’d been listening to. And Oxfam made that happen. Out of that came a record eventually, but more importantly, it changed my life. It was a crossroads for me and I went opposite to the way that maybe a lot of people from my generation went at that point. I lost the fear, the need to hold onto the past. And I fell in love with the process of making music and adventure and going to new places and getting to know people. And I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.” Between his own projects and the Honest Jon’s projects he has overseen (“You Americans would call it ‘Executive Producing,’ I call it… facilitating,” he says), Albarn has worked in Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Iceland, China and more.
Although the chapter in Albarn’s adventures that resulted in The Good, The Bad & The Queen began with the Tony Allen sessions in Lagos, it would be years before the project became the record that I first heard live at the Marlboro Club in Ilfracombe. In Nigeria, Albarn and Allen put together a band that combined some of Albarn’s collaborators from England (including Simon Tong) with two of Allen’s former Fela bandmates, as well as some local musicians – some 15 players in all. By all counts the sessions were productive, but Albarn decided to scrap them, with the input of Demon Days and eventual The Good, The Bad & The Queen producer Danger Mouse.
“We had finished the Gorillaz record and I knew Damon had some stuff that he had recorded in Nigeria,” says Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton. “He asked if I would like to work on that project, and my reaction was that I thought there was some great stuff there, but what I thought was great in a different direction. I agreed to initially give it a shot as long as he was okay with the fact that we wouldn’t necessarily stick to the direction it was already going.” Danger Mouse and Albarn convened in London and began going through the demos, chopping out pieces, writing new demos, exploring new sounds. Allen and Tong joined them, and eventually they began jamming with bass players, looking for the right fit.
When I ask Albarn how the hell he managed to convince The Clash’s Paul Simonon – who had given up music entirely some 15 years earlier for the visual art world – to pick the bass back up, he responded with a laugh and said, “I rang him up and said, Do you fancy playin’ bass?! And he went, Yeah! Why not?” Albarn’s confidence, his directness, his incapacity for bullshit and pussyfooting that complements his relentless need for experimentation and collaboration is one of the most immediate characteristics of his personality, and probably also the one that has allowed him to continue to succeed after the blast of inspiration and achievement that was Blur in the ’90s. Without pretense or preciousness, he seems to treat everyone equally. It’s what allows him to laugh and abandon a song when Danger Mouse ruthlessly calls it “too Lion King.” It’s what allows him to form a band with a hero of his – someone he calls “the African Art Blakey” – and then allows him to explain to that same hero, without fear or hesitation, why his drum parts have been chopped up, rearranged, sometimes even removed from a song entirely.
When I was in London with the band, one front page headline for a column in The Guardian, in reference to the torrent of celebrities who had been touring the continent with the press in tow, read, “WHO’S DOING AFRICA’S PUBLICITY? I MEAN, COULD IT BE ANY HOTTER?” Albarn, meanwhile, told me about a program he started that, rather than a press opportunity, is an opportunity to bring musicians of all stripes to Africa to meet other musicians – to hang out, drink beer, maybe jam together – for the sake of all the musicians involved equally. Although Albarn believes that consciousness-raising celebrity ambassador trips further separate the third world from the first and insists that we have to find a new model, he is not delusional about the power of his very different kind of program, or his music. “The point is,” he says when asked about the oblique political bent of his songs, “I don’t think a lot of people get what I try to do in my tunes, which is to try to express my sadness, my melancholy about the state of politics. I don’t necessarily point and say, ‘That’s wrong.’ But it’s the melancholy I feel about what’s wrong. Maybe it comes from the Beatles really. Maybe John Lennon is the man who invented the melancholy that I’m just sort of playing out.”
The culmination of the run of three warm-up pub shows that Albarn, Simonon, Allen and Tong had done in the South of England was a much-hyped, BBC-sponsored (and broadcast) show at the Roundhouse that would be the official debut of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Under Danger Mouse’s guidance, what started as a big band project in Nigeria with an emphasis on afrobeat had become a much more settled, psychedelic, loose group with wide-open spaces, dizzy organs, electronic tinges and dubbed out drops. The addition of Simonon to the band had brought not only a messily aggressive punk and reggae underbelly to the rhythm section, but also a new lyrical direction for Albarn. “The fact that I was supposed to be putting bass on the songs that were evolving was becoming more distant,” Simonon says, “and a whole new thing was developing through conversations and books that Damon and I both enjoyed about London and local landmarks.” The result is an album about England in general and the area around Portobello Road where Albarn and Simonon live in specific, and many of the songs feel like oblique requiems both for the character of the country and neighbourhood that once was, and that which it could, but might never, be. This, then, is the sonically and emotionally complex record the band was charged with selling to another virgin crowd – another crowd that had probably come with something like Blur + The Clash + afrobeat in mind.
The show began well enough, but on “Kingdom Of Doom,” the most rocking song on the first half of the record, Simonon’s bass cut out and the band had to start from the top. Later, Simonon and Allen were having serious trouble locking in with one another. The group was in the midst of a minor meltdown, and was losing the increasingly perplexed audience. Finally, after an uninspired first verse of “Three Changes” – a dark, fed up, circus-storming tune that is the live show’s apex – Albarn stopped the band in the middle of the song, furiously yelling, “We played that shit! Sometimes when you’ve only played four gigs, you’ve got to refocus, and we’ve got to refocus and be the band we know we are.” As the show slipped out of the fingers, Albarn responded by scolding a band full of legends. Then he put them on his back, counted “Three Changes” off and roared fantastically as they kicked the song off from the top.
More than anyone else at his echelon in the musical landscape with the possible exception of Björk, Damon Albarn has put his money, his name, his talent and his Rolodex to use, dreaming up his fantasy projects and getting first on the phone, then in the studio to make them happen, while many of his contemporaries have self-destructed, played it safe, or disappeared as they’ve aged. In the case of Gorillaz, Albarn’s hyper-ambitious risk was an unqualified success of such magnitude that it has opened up even more opportunities and resources. A feature-length Gorillaz film is in the works, as is a Chinese opera in collaboration with Hewlett and Chen Shi-Zheng called Monkey: Journey to the West.
But that night at the Roundhouse, Albarn and his newest creation were under fire, and it was not clear how they would respond. In our interview, Simonon said this band, given the age of its members, wasn’t gonna be doing any leaping and swinging around. But, given the circumstances, Albarn jumped and kicked and stalked the stage and stood over the crowd and dared them to take his motherf***ing band on. Although he must be used to success by now, he wasn’t assuming it, and he proved he was willing to fight for it. The Roundhouse is a massive old venue that’s shaped like an enormous circus tent, and as a siren squall of a synthesiser wailed the outro to their second run through “Three Changes,” as Tony Allen laid down his heaviest 4/4 groove of the night, as Simonon locked in, Albarn stormed around the stage in his top hat, looking like the Master of Ceremonies under the big top of the Greatest Show on Earth. He looked like he was summoning his darkest, most mysterious powers, and, with the help of his troupe, performing his most subtle but darling act yet.
With Issue 43 cover star Damon Albarn we’d be lying if we said it wasn’t the person as much as the musician that has so completely earned our respect. His ambition, his work ethic, his confidence, his wholehearted belief in the power of music as a positive force of change in the world… Forget Bono, it is Damon Albarn who is rewriting the blueprint for what it means to be a rock star in 2007. When Blur fell apart, Albarn realized that his money, power, fame, and celebrity weren’t shackles, but keys that open doors around the world, and he took that rare opportunity and has gone in, not only selling millions more records with really out there projects, but also starting Honest Jon’s Records, starting a program called Africa Express that brings Western musicians to Africa to hang out and play music, speaking out against Live 8 and more. Albarn has spent the last few years generally addressing the world in a way that puts his compassion in the back seat and puts intelligence and an appreciation of nuance in the driver’s chair. We talked with him throughout our week in England with The Good, The Bad & The Queen, but when it was time for our formal interview at the Roundhouse Theatre, we couldn’t find him. We looked everywhere, called everyone, then finally found him sprawled out on the metal stairs of the venue’s loading dock, lounging off a minor hangover in a rare beam of London sun. Read the full interview after the jump.
I understand that sessions for The Good, The Bad & The Queen began in Lagos. What’s the source of your interest in Africa?
Partly my parents, partly where I grew up in East London. It’s a very Afro-Carribean, Latin area, a lot of Pakistanis as well. I grew up ostensibly in a completely multicultural environment. And then I moved to Essex, which was the opposite, a completely white, quite right wing culture. You wouldn’t know it—it’s only 100 miles north of where I originally came from.
How old were you when you moved?
Nine. So I kind of lost touch with that for a while and got into indie music, and then its just been a slow return to something I really started off feeling more comfortable with anyway.
What brought you then to the country itself? You know, all sorts of American-rooted music—blues, jazz, rock—they all come from Africa, but you’ve literally spent a lot of time going there, not just with music that came from there or is coming from there.
Well you’ve got the British slave ships to thank for all that great music. [laughs] If they can ever take credit for anything.
But anyway, about ten years ago Oxfam invited me to do one of those ambassadorial things to Mali, which I was not into. It kind of made me sick actually seeing the way [celebrities]… not by really any fault of their own, people go there that want to help. But there is that tendency for them to look kind of cleaner, better dressed and just not part of the environment at all. It never looks right and the reason why it never looks right is because there’s a fundamental flaw in that whole idea of raising consciousness. When you raise consciousness in that way you separate from the people who you’re actually trying to connect with, you separate more than I think people can ever imagine. For me, it sort of came to a summit really with Live 8. That for me was the point of no return. We’ve GOT to create a new model because we’re just going the wrong way completely.
Well just in the images alone that come out of it you get a famous white person surrounded by black orphan children.
Well exactly, it’s not that people aren’t going there with good intentions. I think sometimes I get misinterpreted and they think I’m just slagging everyone off. But it’s not that—I don’t think people really consider the consequences of it. These images get reproduced on such a vast scale….
Which is the point too. To get the press and get the pictures everywhere.
Yeah but the mistake has already been made. So anyway when I got asked by OxFam to go to Mali I thought about it and I thought well just coincidentally I’d been listening to a lot of Malian music around that time, because I’d started to get to know the people in Honest Jon’s records and they were feeding me records every other day. So I said I’d go with a DAT player and instead of going to orphanages—although I did go to a couple—I just wanted to travel around and meet all the musicians I’d been listening to. And OxFam made that happen. Out of that came a record eventually, but more importantly, it changed my life. It was a crossroads for me and I went opposite to the way that maybe a lot of people from my generation went at that point. I lost the fear, the need to hold onto the past. And I fell in love with the process of making music and adventure and going to new places and getting to know people. And I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. When you travel a lot, as we were saying the other day, it’s the best possible education you can give yourself really.
Were you concerned at all about the colonial implications? Obviously you were doing it mindfully, but there’s still—
Well yeah, there’s always gonna be an element of that. You know, funnily enough I was given some photographs of my great great grandfather sitting on one of those, ah what do you call, on the rail tracks, what are they called? A handcar. It’s gone out of our language now really, hasn’t it? But sitting on one of them in full colonial white suit and hat, being taken down by the locals. He was, I think, in Ghana. So it’s in us all really, especially if you come from Britain.
It’s funny, places like Nigeria, they kind of have a laugh with you about it. Although there’s a lot of pain and hurt that’s still residual, there’s also a lot of humor and you know, they like the English! They do like us! And we like them so…it’s not that bad is it? To be liked occasionally. I mean for God’s sake let’s face it, to be American now, and English, they aren’t the greatest nationalities in the world at the moment, sadly. It’s really sad though. So you have to take that on board, that there are going to be people who view you with suspicion, and then it’s just down to whether you can get on with them on a personal basis. And then it’s all forgotten anyway.
The point is I’m aware of it, but I’m not self-conscious of it.
As you were listening to all that music that you were getting from Honest Jon’s, what were you doing musically? Were you trying to learn stuff?
Yeah, but more just listening listening listening listening. And listening to a lot of latin music. When I started trying to translate it to the piano I just couldn’t do it, and there’s a pain barrier with any kind of new music, whether it’s West African kora music or whatever, you have to know your subject and the only way you can get to know it is by listening to it. And that’s why it’s such a lovely language because you keep listening and it gets in there. The only homework is just listening to it.
Especially if you have the hard wiring for learning music anyway.
That helps, but I really believe that anything is possible with music and that’s why it’s always such a tantalizing sort of thing and why generation after generation it inspires young talented kids to do something quite strange with their lives. ’Cause I think everyone at some point sees that light which is, “My God, music can change people.” As Billy Brag said, I was reading in the paper today, he said, “How many people in government now were at the Rock Against Racism that the Clash instigated?” And although that’s a more political example, I really completely believe, and I know because of my experiences, that it’s a healing thing and it’s only a force for good in the world, music.
It’s interesting that the kind of people who have the hard wiring for music and those that don’t, there’s some of both in this band.
There’s Tony Allen and there’s Paul Simonon, a very different natural grasp of their instruments, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to be heard saying one is definitely better than the other.
Well they’re very different, they’re very very different. I don’t even bother thinking about that. I just think that, if you start a band and you’re working with incredible people, you can’t be afraid of saying, No, that’s wrong. Even though you’ve got all this stuff in your head which is all this stuff you’ve fallen in love with and thought was brilliant before you even got within a hundred miles of meeting them, you’ve just got to treat everyone the same. That policy is very important in a band.
Instead of bowing down to someone’s legacy.
That’s bollocks. That’s bollocks.
When I was talking to Tony a few minutes ago, it sounds like he called you first.
Yeah. Well I called him first in a song. Then he called me directly. The last song that we did together as a four piece in Blur was “Music Is My Radar,” and the chorus of that is “Tony Allen got me dancing.” So Tony heard it. Somebody obviously told him that there was this… person that was singing a song about him!
As I understand it y’all did a couple weeks in Nigeria as a much bigger band.
Much bigger, yeah it was like 15 piece. Basically it was like a social club really for two weeks. It was fantastic. Simon [Tong] and [additional touring musician] Mike Smith were both there. A couple of my friends came over. You know, another adventure. You know I think sometimes, Could I have been more focused? But I didn’t need to be and I didn’t want to be. I was just seeing where the whole process would go. And it has gone somewhere and so that’s okay. But at the time I think there were a few raised eyebrows when I got back after spending quite a lot of money. You know getting that whole thing together. And I said, “Right I’m scrapping this.”
Management killing themselves?
Right, record label, everyone. But when you’ve got another band like Gorillaz you can get away with a lot more.
Yeah a couple million helps.
Well, seven last time, actually.
Seven! Well the “couple” I was referring to was in America alone.
Oh yeah yeah, that’s in America.
Seven million, that’s a big number.
Well it’s not the biggest number in the world but it’s big enough to be exciting in the sense of the possibilities it allows us to develop from it. Like we’re really gonna make a proper full-length film, a very dark, animated film for adults as a result of that. And, you know, everything else really.
One thing that you’ve managed to do is have many balls in the air at the same time and have them all work out and really go someplace. To me there’s something about a pretty complete lack of preciousness that has allowed that.
Well yeah you have to be. I really love music it’s as simple as that. I love doing it and I’m very lucky. And if you love music and you want to do it all the time, you have to have a lot going on because to actually do music ALL your day everyday, you’ve gotta be doing a lot of work. Just being in a band, for me, wouldn’t take enough time. I don’t know what that makes me come across as…what psychosis but….
Do you ever want to step out and take a long break?
I do take breaks. I took five weeks in the summer. That’s quite a long time! That’s the whole of my daughter’s summer holiday. I mean I did pick up and play a few things while I was there, I do have the fact that I’ve got this Chinese opera to finish by May next year in the back of my head. But I do take time out, I’m quite disciplined like that.
Are you a fast worker?
Yeah. Yeah. What I’ve learned over the years is that, if it’s there, work really fast and really hard, and if there’s nothing really happening, just go away and do some cooking or some gardening. Just do something else. I’m in love with music and the creative process in whatever form, whether it be cooking or drawing. I’d like to say gardening but I haven’t quite discovered the joys of gardening. But I hope I will at some point. I like herbs, I’m very interested in herbs. Not just music.
How did you end up bringing Brian [aka Danger Mouse] into this project?
I rang him up. I always just ring people up. It’s never more complicated than that. I have ideas about things that might work and I just go straight to the person and I’m very very direct. And sometimes I get knocked back. Occasionally. There’s only two people who’ve ever knocked me back so far. Dionne Warwick, who very nearly didn’t knock be back, but at the last minute she thought that, she said it’s a little too dark for her. She’s quite religious. And I hadn’t told her that Ike Turner was gonna be on the same tune as her. So she probably had some kind of sixth sense working out that I was about to pull off some….
God told her.
Yeah exactly! And the only other person was Andy Summers from the Police. There was a tune on the last Gorillaz record that we wanted to put him on. And he didn’t call us back. And that’s fine you know, occasionally that happens. But you know with Dionne Warwick, she was such a lovely woman, I was quite gutted that it didn’t work, she’s one of my favorite singers. I just love the control she has in her voice. I haven’t given up on her, when something comes up again I’ll try.
Something a little less dark.
Yeah, although I’m not very good at things that aren’t dark. I need that side of it. And apart from that, pretty much everyone else has…. But it’s always a very direct conversation. I say, “Listen are you into this?”
What’d you say to Paul Simonon after 15 years away from music?
I said, Do you fancy playin bass?! And he went, Yeah! Why not?
What specifically did you think about Brian would work?
With this or with Gorillaz?
Right. Well, we already had this amazing relationship, which had grown through making the Gorillaz record in the studio. In the studio Brian and me get on like a house on fire, we work really fast. It’s very creative and just perfect for me. And generally, he’s got a very good head, and is thinking two years ahead of himself all the time. He makes me look laid back when it comes to work ethic. He’s fuckin!!! He makes me look like a slacker.
I just said, Look, let’s see if we can do it again. We had just finished that record and I said, Let’s see if we can do it again. He’s like me, he doesn’t want to repeat himself. We’re not doing things to consolidate success or anything, it’s just to see what happens when we try putting these different things together. He was very tough on me with this record. He made me re-write quite a few of the songs, cause he said, well he described one of them as “too Lion King” on one occasion, which I’ll never forgive him for. What was the other one—I can’t remember? The other one was just a devastating fuckin putdown. But I don’t really mind that you know? I can see the point. When you write a lot of songs, occasionally there is the odd that one that comes out—
Exactly. And you’ve got to be very careful about that because that’s my idea of hell, you know. You’ve got to find the real identity of putting these very different influences together. And it has to be something new, you know. So it evolved into this weird, at points almost Dickensian, sort of journey ’round London with Africa as part…sort of there, but also it morphed into a very English record. Where we finished in Nigeria it was a bit more “AFREEKAA!” and Brian was very important in molding it from there. I mean, there were a few occasions where Tony came in and said, What have you done to my drums?! What have you done to my drums?! He was very upset.
Well I overheard somebody last night saying, “If they’re gonna do that, then what’s the fuckin point of having Tony Allen?”
Well there are people who are going to say that but they’re missing the point because if you actually listen to what’s going on there…. We’re not going to turn kids from America and Europe on to afrobeat unless we do it this way. You’ve got to make it cool. You have to make it something they can relate to, and that’s the whole point.
Did you as bandleader make you have to sort of…
Reassure? Yeah occasionally. But that’s why this way of working and going around the world with people suits me, because I’m quite straight up with people, I don’t try and hide shit.
Tony didn’t get a copy of the finished album months later to find his drums changed.
But you know for Tony this is such a different thing and he’s loving it. He would be the first person to admit himself that he’d become so bored of himself. Constantly being revered and not pushing himself. So you know, this is good for him as well.
One thing Tony and I were talking about is that, there’s no instrument for which lots of empty space and a very sparse feel is more difficult on than…
The drums. Yeah. I wish you’d been there yesterday. News Night wanted him to play the drums a little bit and he just went into a ten minute solo. I mean it was like Art Blakey! He is, kind of, Art Blakey. He’s the African Art Blakey. You know, so that puts him in a pantheon where very few people have ever got. He is truly a genius on the drums. We’re taking him to Colombia with Honest Jons, the next project we’re gonna do with him, because they’re mad about him over there. So he’s gonna get a Latin record out as well which will be amazing.
What will your role be in that?
Well, you Americans would call it Executive Producing wouldn’t you. I call it…facilitating.
You won’t be playing on it.
Oh no no. On Saturday I go to Algeria for a week to record these old chaabi musicians in Algiers. I’m not on the record at all.
Chaabi, it’s called chaabi music. It’s like pop, sort of working class popular music in North Africa. There are lots of different forms, but this is a really interesting one, these guys were originally this half Muslim, half Jewish band, but when the revolution came in Algeria all the Jews were kicked out to Marseille. So there’s an amazing story, I mean it has parallels with Buena Vista.
This is everyone back together?
The old guys won’t come because the Israeli government has told them that there’s a fare to…. I don’t know what code it is, but it’s an Al Qaeda threat. Which I suppose applies to me as well. But I really can’t see how making beautiful music would be a threat to anybody. So I’m just going over there to record it. I don’t want to change anything, maybe I’ll just move them in the room so you hear things…. But no I’m not going to play with them. I can’t play with them yet! I only know about 6 or 7 of the scales and there’s about 50 of them—you’ve got to know them all before you can really jam with them. So I’m just learning.
What is the project that involves taking British and American musicians to Africa?
That’s not really a project, it’s a program. I started that off, I took Martha Wainwright, a young British musician called Jamie T, who’s gonna be supporting us tomorrow night here, he came out, a couple other young kids that haven’t released a record yet, Scratch from the Roots, the beatbox guy, Norman Cook, Zane Lowe, the Radio One DJ. We took them out there and I took them on a condensed version of what I did when I went to Mali the first time. Hung out, listened to music, played a bit with some musicians once the people we brought felt confident enough, drank a lot of beer, just lived in Africa for a while. That’s a program that we’ve set up through an organization that we’ve called Africa Express. It’s kind of like a train—I like the idea of a train or a traveling circus that picks people up as it goes around. I nearly had Kanye West on this one, but unfortunately it clashed with the last day of his Rolling Stones support tour. I mean, personally, I would’ve dropped that and gone to Africa, but I can understand why he didn’t. And we talked to Alicia Keys and we’re gonna have many more American artists coming on the next one. Starting with a very humble, modest approach. Not some big like, We’re all gonna save you. No. That’s not what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is learn. And actually change ourselves. Because we in the West need to change our whole way of living so dramatically, and we can learn so much from Africa. It’s ironic really that we’re trying to save Africa, when actually, Africa should be trying to save us. That’s the way I look at it.
I’ve been thinking about how you seem to tend to work with musicians who are old and have been around for a while, but with producers who are young and sort of avant-garde.
There’s Paul and Tony in this band and Gorillaz had a lot of people from the early ’90s and that sort of thing.
Yeah. I just work with people who I feel have done something. You know, like De La Soul. It was clear from growing up with their records that I shared a certain mindset with them and that’s evident in the fact that we’re all really good friends now, you know? It’s not just the music we make. We’re actually…friends.
From my experience this week it seems like that’s the case throughout.
Yeah. It’s important.
Is there anyone on the Gorillaz record or anything that you never met?
Well I met MF Doom in Austin for about an hour but he wouldn’t take his mask off. The only one I didn’t really get to know was him, but I think he was having a bad day when I met him and he didn’t take his mask off. I was walking down the street with this guy with a metal mask on! But what a wordsmith he is. Fantastic.
It was interesting the other night at dinner to hear you talk about your friend Banksy, and you’ve said on stage a couple times that this record is about England…
Well lyrically, yeah very much so. That’s where, if it’s a political record it’s…I kind of try to write political love songs. It’s not like directly raving against the state, but it’s using maybe things that I feel are wrong in the state as a form of poetry, you know what I mean? It’s a difficult one to explain and I kind of, well I did a tune on the last Blur record that I’m really proud of called “Out Of Time” which was right at the beginning of the Iraq war and the video was, I don’t know if you ever saw it—well it never got shown surprisingly in America—but it was this woman’s day in the life, she worked on an Aircraft carrier and the whole video was just following her on an aircraft carrier, and we had to get permission from the head of the American Navy. So the point is, I don’t think a lot of people get it. A lot of people don’t get what I try to do in my tunes, which is to try to express my sadness, my melancholy about the state of politics. I don’t necessarily say, “That’s wrong.” But it’s the melancholy I feel about what’s wrong.
On this record the references are oblique but the melancholy is direct.
Yeah yeah yeah. I think so. Maybe it comes from the Beatles really. Maybe John Lennon is the man who invented something that I’m just sort of playing out in that melancholy. I don’t know, but it must come from somewhere.
How are you feeling about your return to not exactly center stage, but being up there?
I’m sort of center left aren’t I? It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be at the front all the time. I don’t like that anymore. I don’t ever want to be in that position again. But I’m really enjoying it and I can’t wait to do this gig tomorrow. I came [to the Roundhouse] when I was seven to see a musical called “The Point” and I think it was the biggest place I had ever been to at that point. And I remember walking with my parents down to Camden Lock and them buying me a little ocarina. So I remember that day really clearly and it’s really nice, this is my first time back in the room.
We tried, in the heyday of Blur, to patch this place up and do a couple gigs here but we had problems with the council so…
Was it shut entirely?
Yeah yeah. For years. A total waste. The only thing they put on here was the circus.