I’ve always felt close to monkeys
“I SWEAR by it,” says Damon Albarn, handing me a steaming hot mug of pungent, green-black liquid.
I take a tentative sip. Mmmm, not bad. Nettle tea is a surprisingly good brew, probably the ideal tipple for unravelling the mysteries of China.
I’m sitting in Damon’s (relatively) small office/studio in his (relatively) new West London HQ which he shares with creative partner Jamie Hewlett.
There’s a piano, a small keyboard, a rather old-fashioned soundboard, a small sofa and a big window overlooking the quiet street below. This is Damon’s musical playground.
I quickly discover that the man known for Blur, Gorillaz, Mali Music and The Good The Bad And The Queen is a thoughtful character whose needs are simple. His imagination does the rest.
“This is a great room,” he says. “I’ve got the sky. I know what’s going on with the seasons. I like having that cross on the church over there. Sometimes it terrifies me and sometimes it inspires me depending on how I’m feeling about myself.
“I don’t follow any religion but I hope I have a soul.”
At one point, he pulls out a small drawer crammed with cassette tapes (who uses them any more?) and starts rummaging through the disorderly array.
“This drawer is full of what I’m doing next,” he explains. “There are about twenty C120s. I just can’t work with computers so I still work with cassettes.”
We are meeting to discuss his part in Monkey: Journey To The West, the Chinese musical based on a legendary story of spiritual enlightenment. Damon wrote the extraordinary score.
I also get to talk to artist Jamie, whose wildly imaginative, fantastical visuals bring the acclaimed stage adaptation and album artwork into vivid relief. His animations, set to Damon’s music, also introduced the BBC’s stunning coverage of the Beijing Olympics.
Another offshoot, the Monkey album, recently achieved the unlikely feat of being the first record sung in Mandarin to reach the top five of the UK charts.
“I feel very comfortable in saying that this record is very much what Jamie and I, the creators of Gorillaz, did next,” says Damon.
Today, a month-long season of the show, the pair’s collaboration with Chinese director Chi Shi-Zheng, is being announced for a new, specially built venue at London’s 02 Arena.
Jamie is pleased the show will get to a wider audience following appearances at Manchester International Festival and The Royal Opera House.
“My youngest son was seven and my oldest 11 when they first saw it. Even though it’s in Mandarin, the youngest said, ‘When can I see Monkey again?’ He was glued to it the second time, loved it, even though he gets bored in the cinema sometimes.”
If ever a partnership was written in the stars, it’s that of Damon and Jamie, born 11 days apart in 1968 during the Chinese Year Of The Monkey.
“Our partnership works because we’re so close,” says Damon. “We’re truly great friends. We go on holiday together. We work together. We live two roads away from each other.”
People born under the simian sign are described as “inventors, plotters, entertainers and the creative forces behind anything ingenious, including mischief.” Explains a lot.
I suggest the pair were guided by fate to the Monkey project after the incredible success of Gorillaz. “That thought’s a bit frightening but maybe,” says Damon. “With Jamie and I both being born in the Year Of The Monkey, we can’t help ourselves.
“I’ve always felt very close to monkeys. I just like monkeys and Jamie feels the same way.”
When it came to characterising the central figures, Jamie went to town on expressing the manic Monkey and lazy Pigsy but it’s Sandy the river demon that gave him the most enjoyment.
He says: “I like the fact that he spends all night dragging the corpses of travellers into the lagoon and eating them. Then he spends all day being depressed about it. He doesn’t say very much and he’s rather handy in a fight. Basically, he’s a miserable goth.”
Jamie says listening to Damon’s music proves a constant source of inspiration.
“I get it in its earliest forms and start listening to these weird plinky-plonky sounds. Sometimes I’ll shut the door of my studio, turn the music up very loud and get lost in whatever kind of world we’re working on. Then the phone rings or somebody interrupts me and the moment is gone.”
I ask Damon what particularly inspired him to get involved in the Monkey project.
“It’s strange because the place I fell in love with was Africa but I think, for Jamie and I, it was the Seventies TV show Monkey. I remember it was 6.45 on Friday and being really excited by it. I loved The Water Margin too.
“At the time I didn’t know that Monkey was based on a 16th Century Chinese novel or that there are examples of this particular story dating back as far as cave paintings. It’s no different to the legend of King Arthur really.”
And Jamie adds: “The Monkey character in the Japanese TV series was just bonkers, a great introduction.”
In order for Damon to write the music in a completely authentic way (he even stuck rigidly to the Chinese pentatonic scale, five notes instead of seven), he visited China several times and sought advice from many musicians.
“I didn’t actually sign on the dotted line until I’d visited China twice,” he says. “As a Western musician, I knew I’d have to find a way of dabbling in the Chinese idiom without it coming out sounding like Chopsticks.
“I met a lot of musicians and I also tried to capture any sound that was interesting, from traffic to elevators. There were many days when I got up at half four in the morning just to record the sound of an elevator. You put it all together and somehow something comes out.
“I’m really bad at learning languages but I’m really good at hearing the sounds of languages. I should really know a lot more Bambara in Mali and Yoruba in Nigeria because I know so many people.”
To help him keep to the Chinese five-note scale, Damon stuck a red plastic five-pointed Chinese star on his soundboard. “I was reading about Chinese music and I discovered a strong cosmic and numerical relationship to it. It’s very old music, some of it dating back 2,000 years.
“The number five is very, very important. I was really motoring when I understood that.”
Damon found China to be a country of myriad complexities, most of them still alien to the West. “The country is changing, dramatically and very rapidly. It’s part-terrifying and part-inspirational.
“They have been through genocide, starvation, mind control. Their stoicism is incredible and what’s happening at the moment is unstoppable. China runs the world. So what do you do with something you can’t stop?
“And there are great things from China. They’re incredibly hard-working. If you drink green tea every day, you’re healthier, no question. Their diet is traditionally much better balanced. Unfortunately, that will change with Western influence.”
Jamie found China incredible, too. “It’s a very visual culture, even the language is quite pictorial. It had a huge effect on me . Everywhere you go, from the buildings to the shape of the countryside, carved into beautiful sorts of rows of well-farmed fields.
Even the rock’s different as well. It really is another world, fascinating.
On one visit, Damon was trekking in mountains with Jamie and Shi-Zheng and ended up on a strange journey to rival that of the characters in Monkey.
“I was going ahead of everyone and I missed the turning to the cable car, so I was on my own.
“I didn’t know what was at the bottom of that mountain but it never seemed to stop 42 kilometres made from thousand-year-old stone steps.
“I thought: “This is China we’re dealing with. We need to engage and learn about this country, it’s unbelievable. Any culture that builds stairs all the way up a mountain that high.
“At the bottom, there was a small village with a few buses but no one spoke English. I got a map from a shop that showed I was totally on the wrong side of the mountain. No one would help me. There were no cabs. By this point, the back of my legs were so tight I literally couldn’t walk.
“I managed to get this guy on a motorbike to stop. I showed him where I wanted to go and he reluctantly said all right. I showed him some money and he put me on the back of the bike but then he went off somewhere else on to what seemed like another mountain pass.
“Then he stopped his bike, picked up this call and had a massive half-hour argument, presumably with his wife, with me on the back of this moped. I didn’t know whether I should get off. I was so terrified of getting lost.
“Finally, he took me to where I needed to go. Meanwhile Jamie and Shi-Zheng had notified the police because eight hours later I still wasn’t back.”
Damon’s experience sounds pretty frightening but, as our chat comes to a close, I discover it hasn’t dimmed his wandering spirit.
“I want to go to Syria next, a sort Islamic Cuba,” he says. “I’m playing with the idea of writing an album of love songs, almost Damon Albarn Sings set to Syrian strings. I find that kind of string music very romantic.”
Followers of Damon wouldn’t expect anything less.