The 21 People Who Changed Music
From Gorillaz to The Good, The Bad & The Queen, all that Damon Albarn touches appears to turn gold. He even does a mean Chinese Opera. Q spent six months with the Renaissance man of British music. Revelations included his love of tea ladies, his fear of driving tests and – finally – the truth about that Blur reunion.
When Damon Albarn recently bumped into Chrissie Hynde, they found themselves exhanging embarrassing moments they had endured onstage. Two immediately sprung to Damon’s mind. The first was in Blur’s early days, during a concert at Leicester Poly. He has often found the temptation to climb up anything that looks climbable hard to resist. That night he clambered onto the lighting rig in the middle of a song, went up and up and up, then realised that he was…stuck. (“I’d gone up too high,” he clarifies, “and there was no way I could get down.”) He had no choice but draw attention to his predicament and wait for help. The rest of the band played on while someone fetched a fire ladder. (Hearing this, Hynde told him that she would have never gone onstage again. Damon insisted that it actually hadn’t really bothered him. She told him that he had no shame or pride. He agreed with her.)
His second such moment came when Blur were headlining on Saturday night at the Reading Festival in 2003. As Beetlebum, the opening song, began, Damon strode triumphantly to the front of the stage and… went too far. (“It’s all about margins,” he reflects, somewhat wistfully.) Before singing a single word, he had fallen off the lip of the stage and disappeared from sight into the pit.
“It was quite difficult to retain my sense of purpose and my dignity,” he remembers, “and start again.”
Perhaps it was another small sign to himself.
“I don’t think I was ever cut out to be a great frontman,” he now says. “I think it’s something I enjoyed to a degree, but I think I was a bit too self-conscious.”
28 February, 2007. The Tabernacle, Ladbroke Grove, London.
Some time back, Damon was asked to write the music for a Chinese opera, Monkey: Journey To The West, to be premiered this June in Manchester. After two research trips travelling around China with the acclaimed opera director Chen Shi-Zheng, and his friend and Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett (who would eventually be responsible for the show’s visual concept, costumes, design and animation), he agreed. He has already sketched out some demos in his studio and this week, on a stage in a West London church, he is working on the music with a combination of Western and Chinese musicians, trying to see what works and what doesn’t.
Hour after hour, Damon skitters around the stage and the floor between his collaborators, dropping in and out of the auction. In a situation like this, he has a fascinating way of seeming both laid-back and impatient. At different times he picks up guitars, plays the piano, bashes out rhythms on a drums, sings in fake Mandarin (in place of the real Mandarin lyrics, still being written in China), moves his arms in strange rhythmical shapes as though conducting the music to himself, and shouts out impassioned instructions, but he also smokes, jokes around, wanders off, and throws blueberries high into the air then tries to catch them in his mouth. (Mostly, when it comes to the blueberries, he fails.) By turns he looks inspired, distracted, impish, worried, amused, cocky, indignant, delighted, and, every now and then – either listening to this hybrid orchestra play his latest compositions or sitting at the piano and allowing his fingers to find their way to something new – as though he has momentarily lost himself in some kind of deep, self-possessed reverie.
In breaks, he wanders up to the balcony where I’m sitting. He metions that he had a Spanish lesson earlier today – he has been learning for three years – and that he saw something on TV yesterday that really annoyed him. “This programme, Lifestyles Of The Filthy Rich, praising a litany of their achievements. Like Jay-Z has his own blue… another great contribution…” He rolls his eyes in despair at all these new ways in which the world is failing. I express some slight surprise that he would even be watching such a programme; his reply perhaps offers a snapshot of his life these days: “I had an hour before I did phoners to America, and I was going out in the evening to do something else, and my daughter was swimming, and my missus was in [shopping centre] Whiteleys, so I had a cup of tea and it was either Blur Peter or that. So I got appalled, made another cup of nettle tea, had the rest of the salad I’d made the day before and went out…”
He also explains a little of how he approached the music he’s working on today – neither Western nor Chinese but something of his own which draws from both. He has been using a semi-automatic compositional system he has devised involving grids of numbers, and rotation around the points of a star.
“It doesn’t allow me to make all the decisions, and I like that,” he says. “If you use the correct rotation, the most amazing things happen…” The first time he used a rudimentary version of this system was when Blur came up with the musical call signal that would have been broadcast from the surface of Mars by the ill-fated spacecraft Beagle 2 in 2003. (Damon changed one of the notes, breaking the system, and he still wonders whether it was this that jinxed the mission.) It’s a method of creating things that was inspired by his father, Keith Albarn, who was years ago the co-author of two rather intense books on patterns and has been working on number systems since the ’70s. “But like most fathers and sons,” says Damon, “I had to find my own way…” He ruffles his already-ruffled hair. “It’s Fibonacci sort of stuff,” he says. “Pure mathematics. Pure mathematics by someone who doesn’t know their times-tables.” He adds – as though this is the simplest and most straightforward thing on earth – that he’s going to write a half-hour-long choral piece using this technique to perform on a Greenpeache boat in the middle of the Thames the following week, to protest against the government’s plans to replace Trident nuclear missiles. He hasn’t written a note yet. (He’ll manage it, of course, performing it live with a 50-piece choir and Brian Eno who will be co-opted after Damon runs into him on the street.)
This afternoon, on the Tabernacle balcony, Damon picks up a copy of this week’s NME lying on a bench, and spots a headline “I’ll work with Graham…” “Who said that?” he asks, and then realises the answer, apparently, is that he did. He reads the article. “It’s the same old bloody story every week,” he sighs. “They know more about it than I do – that’s my position.”
We go over the road and sit outside drinking coffee as the sun sets on London. A piece of lemon cake arrives at the table. Its size affronts and appals Damon. The world today…
“Big slices,” he frets. “Waste waste waste. So much waste. What happened to small slices…?”
At the height of Damon Albarn’s Blur-fame in the mid 90’s he would talk about how important such success had been to him. “I was one of those people who really had to become quite successful,” he explained back then. “It did not feel normal not being successful. I felt that very intensely – one of the strongest emotions I’ve ever felt in my life.”
“Bless my younger self,” says the 2007 Damon Albarn when asked about these words. “At the beginning, yeah, it was very important. It comes from being a bit of an oddball at school, being bullied, coming from a very sort of interesting art-driven background – different ideas, different perspectives – in a pretty deprived white comprehensive school in Essex.”
And to begin with, what satisfied you was quite a conventional idea of huge success and fame and attention?
“Well…no. It all went sour for us after Parklife. That’s when the wonderful romance of it disappeared, and the whole Oasis thing was…wasn’t very nice. It felt like I had like six months where I was really fucking cool and then I’d fucked it up and I was uncool again. It was like being back at school and being bullied again… They were even surer of themselves than I was. I realised I didn’t want it as much as I wanted.”
But you used to think you really did want to be the biggest band, and all of that, didn’t you?
“Yeah, I did. I know. Absolutely. But you’ve got to also understand that when you’re in a band, you are defined somewhat by the dynamic of your band. I never played any instruments, even though they’re my songs and I played them in the studio. Everyone else has got an instrument and I was always stuck out the front with nothing to do…”
So you had to play the ego…?
“Well, exactly. I’ve got nothing else to do. If I’d had a guitar it would have been a different thing from the beginning, but I was never as good a guitarist as Graham so there was no point. He didn’t need me at all – I just got in the way. But if I could do it all again, I would make sure that I was behind an instrument from the beginning, so I didn’t have to go through all that. Because I found it quite difficult.”
30 March, 2007. 13 studios, West London.
Damon Albarn’s recording studio is number 13 in a block of industrial units. Here is where the Mali Music album, both Gorillaz records and various later Blur recordings were put together. Slogans of uncertain provenance and significance are graffitied on the walls and ceiling: THE NON-APATHETIC MINORITY WITHIN, UNCERTAINTY LEAVES ROOM FOR HOPE, THE DRUM OF SATAN HAS STARTED, IF YOU FALL DOWN GET UP AGAIN, NO FOOD WITH LAZY TUNES. Damon is out when I arrive, but soon he reappears carrying lunch – he has been out on his bicycle to buy everyone West Indian food from a local restaurant. “Jerk stew chicken,” he announces, “or brown stew chicken”. Today he is working on basslines to some of the Monkey songs, and figuring out how to duplicate electronic sounds on his demos with sounds that can be played by an actual musician on an actual instrument.
From under the mixing desk, Damon’s contribution this afternoon veers from the careful and analytical (“It’s ‘crotchet-crotchet-crotchet…’,” he patiently spells out) to the wayward (when he tries to sing in fake-Mandarin today he goes “…Hong Kong phooey…shiny…tong…”) to the wildly digressive. “I’ve read that Paul Weller gobbed on a picture of Sting,” he says, “which I thought was to be admired and encouraged.” When asked whether he would do the same, he takes his time and thinks through his answer with some care. “If I had a few drinks, and it was a picture of him with his top off, posing with a bass guitar for no reason,” he says, “then I would, yeah.”
Soon it’s time for Damon to pick up his daughter from school. He heads off on his bicycle, leaving the others to work on. “He’s a real genius,” Monkey’s music supervisor David Coulter tells me. “There’s a lot of people who blag their way through. He just oozes melody and harmony – he’s just an amazingly, amazingly super-gifted person. He’s just a total musician – he’s got that emotion and passion but he’s also got this amazing technical skill.” This may, in print, seem rather over-the-top obsequios praise, but it’s far more said from the point of view of someone who spends most of their time working with very serious avantgarde musicians, and who knows that, whatever Damon Albarn does, he’s likely to be viewed as another pop music dilettante. David Coulter’s point, I think, is, when it comes to Damon: people just don’t get it.
Damon Albarn rides a bicycle partly because he likes riding a bicycle, and partly because he doesn’t have a driving licence. After several attempts he did finally pass his test when he was 30, but in his first, and only, year on the road he was caught three times by speed cameras and had his licence taken away. That was when he learned that, even if you’re a 30-year-old boy racer, when you lose a new licence you have to take your test again. Meanwhile, in the interim, the powers-that-be had introduced the multiple theory test.
Damon has now failed the multiple choice theory test five times.
The single fact, and the reasons for it, may perhaps tell you more about the way Damon Albarn and the world face up to each other, for better and for worse, than perhaps anything else.
“I’ve got a problem with some of the choices,” he explains. “I don’t agree with them.”
Almost anyone else, if they took issue with any of the “correct” answers on their theory driving test, might nonetheless be prepared to tick the box required, and to register their dissent in another way. Damon, naturally, refuses to do this.
“No!” he says. “I disagree with them! ‘If you see someone by the side of the road who looks ill, what do you do?’ I might do something entirely different to what they say! It doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
The last time he went to take the test, he was so embarrassed to be returning yet again that he went in disguise: “a suit and glasses and stuff – being silly, really”. It made no difference – instead of failing as Damon Albarn he failed as Damon Albarn in disguise. “I don’t like exams,” he says. “I don’t like being judged.” So he’s planning to stick with his bicycles and his principles. “Me and cars don’t really get on,” he says. “I’m a rubbish driver, and there’s way too many of them, obviously.”
31 March, 2007. Hammersmith Palais, London.
The second last live show ever to be held at the Hammersmith Palais is to be of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Most people think that The Good, The Bad & The Queen is the name of Damon’s latest group, but Damon still wholeheartedly insist that the band – himself, Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong – has no name, and that The Good, The Bad & The Queen, nevertheless, does seem to be their name on, say, iTunes or the sleeves of their singles are just some of the compromises necessary within an inflexible and unimaginative world. (Also, Damon points out, as a name, “it’s rubbish! I would never call a band The Good, The Bad & The Queen.”)
Today, their mid-afternoon soundcheck involves a complete run-through of their album in the order it appears on the CD. Damon adopted the same strategy on the Gorillaz’s Demon Days tour. “It’s a story. You go to a reading of a story, you don’t change the fucking chapters around, do you? I don’t understand. People just can’t deal with it: ‘You haven’t got a name and you always play it the same!’”
Damon and I have arranged to talk for a while before the show, so he takes me to a Palestinian café he favours because it is the only place in London he knows where you can get sage tea. “Incredibly good for clearing the throat…” he testifies. “It stops you from getting 95 per cent of sore throats and infections…” (The modern Damon is very into his teas. “I have my two cups of coffee in the morning,” he says, “and then it’s tea all the way…”)
Over sage tea and some kind of honey-and-fenugreek polenta cake, I ask him where Blur exists in his head these days.
“It’s not really in my head, to be honest with you,” he says. “You know, maybe if Graham and I were reconcile, really, man to man.” But he wouldn’t consider doing another Blur record like Think Tank, as a three-piece without Graham. “I didn’t enjoy touring at all,” he says. “And it felt like it was maybe more of my record than I wanted it to be.”
On their own terms, this evening’s The Good, The Bad & The Queen performance is quietly majestic, but you can also sense that the audience is expecting an event; that they require the significance of what is ending here to be acknowledged by more than Damon talking about the venue’s wartime tea dance parties between two album tracks. Mostly, I think they’re expecting a celebratory farewell gesture, perhaps a rendition of The Clash’s (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais. Nothing like that happens. At the end Paul Simonon does return to the stage with a small axe and hacks out a slither of the stage as a souvenir, but that’s all. “I really don’t feel any pressure,” Damon will reflect, “to do anything other than what I think is right.”
10 May, 2007. The Syd Barrett tribute concert, Barbican Hall, London.
“Such a nice day-off, just going back to straightforward songs for a day,” says Damon. “It was really easy.” With others he performs Baby Lemonade, then Barrett’s surreal musical list The Word Song. When Damon was younger, Syd Barrett was one of his main influences: “It’s just great English songwriting,” he says, “and I learned it inside out, as you do – Ray Davies, Syd Barrett, The Beatles.” He suggests that his experiences with Monkey gave him the confidence to approach this tribute without being too precious – as opposed, he says, to Barrett’s various Pink Floyd ex-bandmates. “I’m sorry, they’re nice enough people, but God, their music is just appalling: They’re just fucking rubbish. They don’t play with any passion.”
Have you ever liked Pink Floyd?
“My parents had Atom Heart Mother.
I loved that. I love the Syd records and I like that one. I don’t know…I just hate them. I don’t hate them – there’s an awful lot of bad music being made on a very large scale and they are definitely contributing to the bad-music imprint.”
What else, apart from them? Most big rock music?
“Yeah. All of it. It doesn’t work, you know. The only but of rock music I’ve heard that I could genuinely sit through and not to be irritated or bored shitless was Arcade Fire. I mean, to be honest with you, U2 should just stop now and let Arcade Fire take over, because Arcade Fire are everything that U2 aren’t.”
What are Arcade Fire doing right that U2 can’t?
“Arcade Fire are playful, they’re democracy, they go onstage to find the spirit of music every time, it seems. And they invest in their audience that search and sometimes they all find it together. U2 are just playing the same old songs to the same people, and fulfilling Bono’s messiah complex.”
Though you’ve been accused of having a bit of a messiah complex yourself at time…
“Really? Who accused me of that?”
I think it was your guitarist. (I have slightly misrepresented Graham Coxon here. What he actually said, in 2004, was “I was dragged kicking and screaming all the way around the fucking world on someone else’s megalomaniacal trip”. But I think the general drift is similar enough.)
“Oh yeah. [laughs] ‘My guitarist’? I don’t think I ever had ownership of him. You know, I was definitely a bit of a conceited prick when I was younger. On occasions. The point is, I did realise that…whereas some people just don’t seem to ever realise that.”
It was Graham Coxon who introduced Damon to Syd Barrett’s records. “Graham really got me into rock music,” he says, “because I wasn’t interested in it, really. I got interested in it because it was a way of hanging out with Graham, really.”
I ask him about the much-repeated quote from Justine Frischmann – with whom Damon lived for much of the ’90s during Britpop’s highs and lows while she had her own great success with Elastica – that when she first met him “he only had three cassettes and one of them was Janis Joplin”. Was that fair?
“I don’t know,” he says, looking slightly put out. “They always seem like such cheaps shots to me. She didn’t mention the fact that I grew up listening to Indian ragas and old New Orleans jazz, did she? And, you know, was classically trained and used to write orchestral music when I was a teenager and was in love with Kurt Weill? People don’t, do they? Cheap shots, as far as I’m concerned.” A pause. “And I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone of cheap shots.” (But yes, for what it’s worth, he did have a Janis Joplin cassette.)
Damon once said that Britpop wouldn’t truly be over until Tony Blair had gone.
“So that’s quite exciting,” he says. “I think it’ll be interesting to see if there’s any sense of shift.” He’s thinking more of politics than British guitar pop. “I don’t know – I think the older you get, the more you realise the very nature of it is wrong. We’ve got so many huge sacrifices to make if we’re ever really going to make any change, and none of us are really prepared to do it. That’s how people like Tony Blair become Prime Minister – because they realise that and exploit it.”
Damon does have some thoughts, it might not completely surprise you to know, about what should be done. To begin with, he thinks that the media should be shut down for several years, and purged. “I really belive that,” he says. We should also stop making cars: “Let’s just keep the old one and mend them when they go wrong.” And, of course, we should bring back tea ladies.
“What happened to the tea ladies? What happened to them? We had a completely sustainable system through the world where a nice old lady would come and make you a cup of tea and then she would wash it up and use it again. And now, the amount of polystyrene…there’s no pleasure in drinking out of plastic, and a nice china cup or mug, will last you a lifetimeif you look after it. You only need one. You only need one car. You probably only need two pairs of shoes in your adult life. Unless you do an awful lot of walking…”
As we talk on, other parts of this slightly haphazard Albarn manifesto emerge – for instance that Damien Hirst (“my old friend Damien”) also needs to be shut down. His new diamond skull is, of course, the piece which particularly offends Damon. “It’s load of bollocks. It’s not brilliant, it’s boring. Be a real artist. Don’t get me wrong – I think he’s a fantastic person and he’s done extraordinary things, but I think at the moment he’s in a rut.”
I tell Damon I still find Damien Hirst’s work weirdly moving.
“Well, you know…” he says. “It’s free country, mate.”
Not, I point out, if Damon has his way.
“No,” he concedes. “That’s very true.”
15 May, 2007. Monkey rehearsals. Paris.
Spread around a grand old factory building in the Parisian suburbs where they used to make the buttonholes for belts, or so someone says, the production is taking shape. Here, it really sinks home what a remarkably ambitious and unusual project Damon has become involved in. In one huge room, Chen Shi-Zheng is rehearsing the opening scene with some of the principal actors, all Chinese. Next door is flying school, where female performers spin up and down in the air harnesses.
Upstairs, in a series of prop and costume rooms, you can see men’s faces covered in green goo and half-finished, monstrous masks lying around. Anywhere you wander you are likely to come across people twirling batons or spinning plates. “It’s going to be utter chaos in Manchester, I think,” says Damon.
For much of the day, Damon is either huddled together, laughing manically, or running off conspiratorially with Jamie Hewlett. When I ask Damon when his ambitions started to mutate, he mentions two things – the visit to West Africa in 2000 which subsequently led to his Mali Music album, and meeting Jamie: “Jamie cured me of all my rock star pretensions. He’s just fucking brilliantly funny and doesn’t give a shit about anything like that, you know. And that rubbed off on me in the end, and I became a happier person for it, because I was never really comfortable being like that. As you can see now. I hope.”
During the lunch break, Damon and I sit out on the lawn, and he explains that there has been some change on the Blur front. He has now been told that his precondition for Blur reconvening – that Graham has to be prepared to come along – has been met. The four of them are to get together for a week later in the year, and both Alex James and Dave Rowntree have been making carefully optimistic noises in the press. Damon’s own feelings seem more conflicted. “The cynic in me would say there was always going to come a point where they would be willing – they being Graham – when lifestyles started to be slightly affected by diminishing returns,” he says. “And the optimist in me would say that people can try and make up and be friends again.”
And when you meet up you’re going to go in and straightaway try and make some music?
“Yeah, just see what happens. I’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s working or not. I don’t know. Maybe too much time’s gone past. All I know is, it’s going to happen and we’re just going to turn up in the studio as if the last six or seven years never happened. He’ll be in one corner with his pedals and guitar…”
So could you conceive of a Blur record coming out next year and you being happy about that?
“[Long pause] Not really, to be totally honest with you. But, you know, I’ll give it a go. I don’t know if I really want to, to be honest with you. But I’ll give it a go. Which I think is fair enough.”
And could you see your and Graham’s friendship return?
“Well, it’d be great. Because we were great mates. We were like brothers when we were younger. And it’d be nice…you know, no one’s around so long that they can afford to, you know, behave like we have, really, to each other.”
Do you think much of it is your fault?
“Uh…[pause]…I’d prefer to say 50-50. [laughs] But that’s at a push. It’s just not as simple as the way he’s laid it out. He’s omitted so many contributing factors why everyhing happened. And some of them are really big. Like Country House – I remember when we finished that I looked Graham in the eye and said, I don’t think we should be doing this, and he said, No, it’s great.”
I still like Country House.
“Well, there you go. There you go! You get Graham to admit that, though. And subsequently, it all came on me. Now those sorts of things really can hurt a man for a lifetime, because of what happens afterwards. He disowned himself from it, and it’s like, you can’t do that because we all actually agreed to do it, it’s a collective responsibility. And he became more and more and more like that. So I had to take on more and more and more of the responsibility and he kind of painted it like I was becoming more of an egoist, which was not actually what was happening. What was happening is that I was having to do more.”
I ask Damon to tell me when he last saw each member of Blur.
For Dave, it was at the Hammersmith Palais. “He asked me where I was getting my suits made,” says Damon, “and I told him and he got a suit and that’s his Labour party suit.” Dave was taking his first step into party politics by standing as the Labour candidate for the Marylebone High Street ward of Westminster council. (As expected – it is a solid Conservative area – he lost.) “I love Dave dearly and I think he’s a very bright guy,” Damon notes, “but I really don’t agree with his politics at all.”
When did you last see Alex?
“He popped round for a coffee last week. He was off to do something in an awful shirt. I was ‘don’t wear that shirt’. And I’ve seen it this week in the press everywhere. Floral. Alex has a very strange twist in his style. It’s like a random gene.” (A few weeks later, he will judge Alex’s book, Bit Of A Blur, from what he has read of it as “a missed opportunity” and further note: “That’s what he does now. He’s not a musician, he’s a journalist. I though he just should have really gone for it and really told it how it was. I mean, there’d obviously have been parts of it that I’d have found slightly distressing if he had, but…it’s kind of skimmed milk, you know.”)
“The last time I saw Graham was when Dave insisted we go to a rabbi to help meditate between us all.”
“Yes. We had this terrific guy, lovely, kind of like a professional middleman. Mediator. So there was Graham on one side of the table and the three of us on the other and the rabbi in the middle, and he was mediating between us. It didn’t work.”
How long ago was that?
“It must have been about three, four years.”
Post Think Tank?
So what happened?
“Well…[sighs]…I’m not going to go into what happened. I’m not really particularly happy about what happened, but it’s about money, so I’m not going to talk about it. We agreed to disagree…”
Was the idea that this would bring you together?
“It was just trying to sort of…to try and reconcile. But Graham at that point had absolutely no interest in even being in the same room as myself and Dave, in particular. He was OK with being in a room with Alex. He obviously had an awful lot of stuff that he wanted to sort out in his head. And that’s fine.”
One Friday night this January, Damon was at home, sitting on the couch with, as he puts it, “my missus”, watching Newsnight Review. He was horrified. In a discussion of “Cool Britannia”, Sue Perkins referred to Damon as one of those musicians who had gone to Downing Street in the early days of Tony Blair’s government. Damon may have justifiably thought that the tale of his wooing by, and rejection of, Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell before Labour’s election victory was reasonably well known. Not well known enough, it seems. His letter of correction, published on the BBC website the following week, described this on-air assertion as “the most insulting thing ever said about me”.
When I ask him exactly how he reacted at the time, Damon acts out a total meltdown of fury and exasperation. His partner Suzi’s reaction, he notes, was more contained. “She never gets upset about things as I do. Well, she does, but not at things like that.” This, he concedes, has been a good influence on him in recent times: “I’d say between Jamie and Suzi there wasn’t that much room for manoeuvring as a rock god, you know what I mean? There was zero tolerance.”
He tells me about meeting her for the first time, when they were both guests on Radio 4’s Midweek with Libby Purves. Suzi Winstanley is an artist who, with her collaborator Olly Williams, travels the world creating artworks that interact with the natural world they describe. As Damon remembers it, she was on to talk about polar bears. “I went, Oh yeah, I’ve got a house in Reykjavik…,” he says. (This wasn’t brilliantly impressive repartee – Damon does, it is true, have a house in Reykjavik, next door to his friend Einar Örn of The Sugacubes, but there are no polar bears there or, in normal circumstances, anywhere in Iceland.) He soon learned that playing the famous pop star card wasn’t going to get him too far anyway: “She spent the ’90s essentially being abroad – in the Arctic, in Africa, in South America, in India – so she genuinely had no idea who I was,” he says, with mock exasperation. “And how important I was.” The first time he visited her bedsit near Liverpool Street, she suggested that they go and see the Richard Serra sculpture nearby. It was close to rush hour. “No, you don’t want to do that,” he told her. “Trust me. And she was, What? She just thought, What a tosser. So we did, anyway, and she realised. Four Essex girls come up the escalator and go, Is that your new girlfriend, Damon?”
Still, Damon insists that a zero tolerance for self-regarding rock star behaviour in his life started right there and has endured. “Which is good,” he concedes. “And now I’ve got zero tolerance for everyone else who behaves like that.”
Like a smoker who gives up and becomes evangelical about non-smoking?
“I suppose so. I see where you’re going with that but…” – he sighs melodramatically – “…oh, alright.”
6 July, 2007. Palace Theatre, Manchester.
Monkey opened nearly two weeks ago and will close tomorrow. Almost across the board the opera has had kind of reviews, from both high culture and pop critics, that one could only dream of. (The Daily Telegraph set the mood: “Albarn’s music is pure delight. Although influenced by the exoticism of Messiaen and the repetitive sequences of the minimalists, it is grounded in a pastiche of Chinese popular traditions. Brash, vulgar, percussive and only occasionally lyrically expansive, it is also endearingly unpretentious and honest – there’s no sense of a rock musician getting above himself.”) Damon has flown in for the evening – past midnight last night he was swimming in a fjord with Paul Simonon after a Norwegian festival: tomorrow night The Good, The Bad & The Queen will be heard in Montreux. I sit two seats along from him at that evening’s performance. It’s a remarkable spectacle, and the audience seem enthralled. Damon rolls his head back and forth at much of his music, leaves his seat half way through, then appears for the final bow onstage.
Afterwards, there is a cast and crew party, paid for on Damon’s credit card, in a local hotel bar. Damon seems relieved, proud and exhausted. “It’ll go wherever it wants now,” he says, perhaps trying not to show how satisfying it has all been. “We’ve got a choice between a 50-year residency at Butlins or the Royal Opera House.” This evening is one of those when, emphatically, it will not be “tea all the way”. One of the few further quotes I write into my notebook is when Damon announces, with a confident bluster only slightly sabotaged by the actual words that come out, “I think I said something else earlier. Something…about something.”
When heads were slightly clearer, Damon had reflected on how strange the reaction to Monkey has been for him. Perhaps over the years he has become accustomed to being doubted, second-guessed and underestimated – and occasionally simply derided – by the critics, and has taken his satisfaction in how many times he has triumphed regardless. But now, somewhat to his surprise, people are lining up to rave about him as a genius-touched Renaissance man who can do no wrong. Universal positive acclaim, however gratifying, can also have its deeply unsettling and unnerving aspects for a man like Damon Albarn. To put it another way, the critics have finally found a way to rattle him.
“You’re denied,” he complains, “that one stable emotion of, Fucking cunts…”
It is what it is,” said Damon of Monkey in Manchester. “Next thing now…”
As ever, the possibilities are stacking up. He plans to record Monkey as an album, reincorporating some of the drum machines and programming of his original demos so that it is treated more like a pop record: “A little more, say, Gorillaz-y”. There’s talk of a Gorillaz movie, maybe using out-takes and home movies of the kung fu legend Bruce Lee, and an accompanying soundtrack. The Africa Express organisation he helped set up in the wake of Live 8 to encourage cross-cultural fertilisation between musicians – most recently seen in triumphant chaotic glory at Glastonbury – will continue; a trip to Congo is imminent. He wants to write another opera and is in discussion to write a string quartet for the Kronos Quartet. “I suppose if I’m honest,” he says, “what I want to do is just make longer and longer pieces of music.”
But, never shy of contradictions, Damon may soon – “totally opposite to everything I’ve ever said” – release an album under his own name for the first time. “I want to do an album of love songs,” he explains. “A whole album just dedicated to unabashed romantic music that I’ve written. I think it would be quite a nice record to make at the moment.” He says he already has loads of suitable songs stored up, more that he plans to write (“I’d love to make,” he says, “the saddest song ever”) and may even consider revisiting some older ones. “For example, a song like To The End,” he says. “I know I could sing that better now.”
30 July, 2007. West London.
Damon now has a brand new studio – a studio complex, almost, with space for Jamie Hewlett above it. “We can just muck about endlessly,” he says. Downstairs, the builders are still finishing up, so we sit on the rooftop patio, right next to the train line which Damon has been told carries nuclear consignments once a day. Among the many things he has to say today, one is that his thoughts on Blur’s potential reunion have hardened.
“It’s best that we all just get on with our lives,” he says. “That’s my conclusion I’ve come to now. I’ve made that decision. I think it’d be a terrible mistake. It just seems pointless. It was a period of time, we did that, great – let’s just get on with our lives. It would just be so obviously for money, and that’s just shit.”
Is it still in the diary?
“It’s still in the diary, yeah. End of September.”
But you’re thinking of pulling the plug on it?
“It doesn’t feel right. It feels like a disingenuous thing to do, on my behalf. I mean, my only reason for doing it is because I sort of said I would. But then again, I said I would before there was any indication that Graham might be interested, so maybe I said it just thinking that he’ll never want to, so it was easy for me to say that.” But now he’s had to think about it. He wonders whether they should still meet up, but not here, not in the studio expecting to make music together. “And just see if there’s is some genuine affection left between all of us…I don’t know…it’s really hard for me to talk about it. Everything I say is somehow not going to be the right thing to say for somebody.”
Sometimes, when Damon talks in ways that seem guaranteed to sabotage any possible Blur reunion, I do wonder whether he isn’t actually creating the only environment for him where Blur could eventually do something worthwhile again; once it seems their least predictable and likely course, and exactly the kind of perverse, counter-logical challenge upon which Damon thrives. That’s not to say he’s doing so deliberately; nor that he might not cause too much damage along the way. I ask him whether he has heard This Old Town, Graham’s new single with Paul Weller. He has. “It didn’t make a great impression on me. But Graham doesn’t seem to want to change at all, he just seems content making that kind of music. There’s always an element of that fantastic thing Graham has when he picks up a guitar, but I don’t think he’s stretched himself anyway near enough. And that kind of really bothers me about us working together again – someone who has so much ability, to have done so little with it, in my opinion.”
The main Blur issue clearly involves him and Graham, in a number of ways. “Look, it can never be defused, and never resolved, until Graham and I, face to face, sort our differences out. And that would be really nice, obviously. But whether it will actually happen or not, I don’t know.” Sometimes, if you’re really close to someone, then sometimes you just hurt each other too much for it ever to be possible…but I suppose you just always hope you can. I realise now: that was a relationship in my life, like my relationship with Justine. Relationships which aren’t really there any more, but which were very important at the time.”
This seems as good a time as there’ll ever be to ask a question I suspect Damon may not entirely welcome. In considering the wide sweep of what Damon has done in music since the beginning of Blur, both in and beyond pop music, there is one part that has remained in the shadows. I ask him whether it is fair to say that he sometimes used to let it quietly be known that he had a lot to do with the first Elastica album. He looks at tme, somewhere between amused, amazed and horrified, and at this very moment, we are interrupted with the news that his taxi is outside and that he is late getting back to his house. We’ll finish talking there. “Hopefully,” he says, “by the time we get there, you’ll have forgotten that question.”
In the cab, we speak about other things.
We reconvene in his back garden. When I hear a weird noise behind me, Damon will reassure me that it is either a cat or squeaky bamboo. The weird noises from kitchen come from Damon’s daughter who is generating strange electronic squeals from a small metal device of David Coulter’s she has just found.
Damon makes coffee for both of us and brings it to the table.
“Right,” he says. “Why do you want to ask that question? And what answer do you think I can give you?”
Well, maybe you can’t…
“If that’s true, are you asking?”
I guess so.
“Do you think it’s true or not?”
Yeah, I suspect it’s fairly true.
He laughs. “So there you go. I mean, it was a very interesting, creative, exciting time. And Justine and I had a great few years together and I helped her and she helped me. She had some great ideas. I think I learned a lot from her about the DNA of style and iconography. The moment where our paths really met we had a great time together. And then it all just went horribly wrong…” He’ll later return to this, briefly. “Asking me whether I wrote the Elastica album is a question that…” He shakes his head. “It’s impossible for me to answer.”
I am prompting Damon to consider what he has achieved so far, and he is trying to answer as best you can a question like this by saying things like, “You know, as Ian Dury said, ‘I have seen glimpses’ – but maybe that’s all you ever see”, when his daughter sneaks up behind him and starts sticking her fingers up behind his head. (She is waiting for us to finish so that he can take her swimming and then to see The Simpsons movie.) He turns around and asks her what she thinks he has achieved in his life. Unless he has been fervently hoping to be thought of as the source of the stinkiest farts in the world, the response may not be precisely what was wanted.
“Obviously I’ve changed enormously,” he reflects. “But I’m glad I went through it. I’m glad I was kind of awkward and famous and pretty and unpleasant, and all those things together…” One of the lessons he says he has been trying to learn is how to be the least impressed person when it comes to what you create, and he’s planning to give himself plenty more practice. He’ll also – because, after all, he does remain Damon Albarn – doubtless continue to rage against the seemingly inexhaustible ways, large and small, in which he finds the modern world to be failing us.
“You know I was banging on about the teacups or fucking whatever?” he says. “Another one has done in my head. Coming back on the plane, British Midland. Little bags of cut-up apple! Now what’s wrong with an apple…?”