Honest Jon’s Chop and Change
THE HEAT IS ON. There’s a roomful of musicians rehearsing in London to put the latest iteration of Honest Jon’s Chop Up on the road. Some of them have worked together before, while others are joining the gathering for the first time. Little by little, the show is taking shape, which is just as well: there are only 72 hours to go before they arrive in Cork to play their first show together.
No wonder, then, that the man who will be guiding the Chop Up sounds distracted when he gets on the phone. These days, Damon Albarn has plenty of musical projects on the go. The headline-grabbers may still be Gorillaz and Blur, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
This year, for instance, Albarn has been involved in the DRC Music album, matching electronic producers with Congolese musicians, and an opera on the esoteric Elizabethan figure John Dee for the Manchester International Festival.
“I try to keep things fairly fresh these days and don’t like to dwell on things too long,” he says, explain his fondness for adding new strings to his bow. “With most things, I’m part of a lot of other peoples’ endeavours. I might be the person they put on the phone, but there’s a lot more people than me involved.”
Today, it’s Honest Jon’s Chop-Up which is on Albarn’s mind. Honest Jon’s is a record label co-owned by Albarn and the excellent west London record shop of the same name. The Chop Up is the ensemble that has previously only come together for some live showboating in 2008.
For the upcoming tour, the Chop-Up has recruited the Afrobeat drummer (and regular Albarn collaborator) Tony Allen, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble band of brothers, the Sun Ra Arkestra trumpet player Phil Cohran (father of eight of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble members), the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, the house producer Theo Parrish and the South African hip-hop crew M.Anifest.
Albarn is also in the mix, stirring and guiding the proceedings. “We’ve got a very loose plan, but it will all be rehearsed by the time we start,” he says. “We’ll be in a nervous but musical state of mind when we get to Cork.
“The rehearsals feel good, exciting. The plan is simple, really – to make some music, some interesting sounds. We’ve interesting people playing from all over the place. We’ve got Fatoumata Diawara from Mali, for example, and she’s just put out a record on World Circuit.”
Those who go to the Chop Up in Cork and Dublin will also have an opportunity to hear tracks from Albarn’s latest musical turn. “The stuff that I’m going to be playing on these shows with Tony and Flea is from this record we’ve been making, Rocketjuice and The Moon. Someone in Lagos did the sleeve design and that’s the name he gave it, which suits me because trying to find a name for another band is always tricky.”
Many of Albarn’s most colourful musical adventures in recent years have been African ones, beginning with theMali Music album back in 2002. “I first got my introduction to Africa through Oxfam in Mali, and then I went to work with an organisation which ended up being called Africa Express. Ten years after Mali, it felt like the right time to do something with Oxfam again.”
This time around, Albarn took producers Actress, Dan the Automator, Jneiro Jarel, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and XL Records’ boss Richard Russell to Kinshasa to work with Congolese acts such as Tout Puissant Mukalo and Bokatola System. Released as DRC Music, the Kinshasa One Two album is an exciting and beguiling clatter of rough and ready streetwise music put through various electronic filters.
“I was asked to go to the Congo and do something there and I felt it was a great opportunity to cement some musical friendships and ideas that we’d played around with. To take a bunch of young producers with really fresh ears was a very nice experience and positive process.”
When he’s seeking collaborators, Albarn looks for compatibility. “Will they all be able to listen to each other and play with each other? Will they be able to crossfertilise ideas? They’re the important considerations. We always want to select open-minded, talented musicians, but they need to be able to co-operate as well. That’s the basic premise.”
These days, Albarn seems to thrive on finding and working with many different producers and musicians. “I suppose I’ve mellowed into it,” he says. “That’s the right word, mellowed. I’ve matured into having an appreciation for and an ear for all voices. That for me is necessary, because I like to learn. It’s like going back to school every time I meet a new musician.”
His work for the Doctor Dee opera requred a much different kind of learning. For that project, Albarn immersed himself in the story of John Dee, the mathematician, mystic and supposed magician who was a close confidant of Queen Elizabeth I and who led an exotic, eventful and controversial life.
“When I’m in a rehearsal room like this week, I’m learning from the other musicians who turned up,” says Albarn. “But with John Dee, it was a lot more cerebral and lonely really, because it was all about reading books and plotting my own way and finding my own language within all of that amazing, esoteric genius. It was the first time I ever did that level of work. It was quite fascinating, and I don’t think I’m ever going to lose interest in that subject.”
Albarn found threads in Dee’s life to interest him and lead him down new alleys, from religion and paganism to astronomy and philosophy. One area which stuck with him and which ties into a longstanding obsession is a notion of what Englishness is about.
“What was most interesting about going back into that level of history again is that I realised how international our thinking was at that time and how influenced we were by other cultures.
“From an English-schoolboy perspective, we were always told that it was all English ideas in a way, and I’m sure in Ireland that was the case as well for a few years,” he says, laughing. “But I feel like I have a wider perspective now about what really happened back then, which is essential if you’re going to progress as a human being.”
After these Chop-Up dates, Albarn will move on again. That album with Allen and Flea will be released, there’s a one-off show with The Good, The Bad The Queen for Greenpeace to prepare for, and other projects are, as always, in the ether.
But like Nick Cave, Albarn has become a creature of habit with his work routine. “I get to the studio every day, five days a week, at 10, not nine. Nick is just more fanatical than me. I’m interested in a lot of different music and I have worked hard to put it across. It’s just a job at the end of the day, but I just happen to be very, very interested in developing my job. It’s everything to me.”