Damon Albarn on his pastoral folk opera, working with Lana Del Rey, and his summer olympics gig.
Blur frontman Damon Albarn has worked on many, many projects since the late-nineties, including four albums with Gorillaz, two film scores, a record with Congolese musicians, a record with Malian musicians, a record with legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and the Clash’s Paul Simonon on bass, a record with Tony Allen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass, a stage adaptation of a sixteenth-century Chinese novel, a record label … and that’s not even the last of it. We got hold of Albarn, via Skype from his London studio, to talk over some of his current projects for a profile in the magazine. The most striking one is Doctor Dee, a pastoral folk opera about the Elizabethan scholar John Dee, now available as an album. (It’s sung largely by Albarn himself and feels like one of the most intimate projects he’s tackled in a while.) But there’s also Blur’s reunion gig at this summer’s London Olympics, and the album he worked on for soul legend Bobby Womack, recording with Lana Del Rey, and a fall tour bringing African musicians to the U.K., and …
I wanted to ask you about your working methods in general — it seems like people spend a lot of time debating what they wishyou were working on …
[Laughs.] That’s very nice of them to care!
So that’s not something you ever think about?
Not really, no. Like, anyone who’s got a job, I’ve got a lot of stuff going on. I’m constantly clearing one in-box, so to speak, with music and sending it out. So, whatever comes in, really, is what I concentrate on. I suppose that’s one of the differences of looking at it as a job is that I’ve got to somehow emotionally connect with everything that comes in the in-box.
How do things come through the in-box? Do you have projects planned, lined up?
There are many in-boxes! I hear something and then that takes me off on a journey of discovery. You can get sidetracked for ten years with stuff like that. Or it can be something like, for example, Doctor Dee, which came through the Manchester International Festival suggesting the idea.
So, do you think of the projects you do as all having the same audience?
I think of myself as not really, kind of … thinking about that. [Laughs.] I sort of just get on with what I’m doing. I don’t think, If I put a drumbeat on that, that audience would like it more than if I didn’t. Or, If I collaborated with someone in Nigeria, then that audience would tune into it far more than the other one. I would hope that anyone’s whose interested in what I do would be able to take whatever kind of leap was necessary. If indeed any of it was a great leap, really.
Did you feel that way early on, when you were starting off with Blur?
I didn’t really think about that early on. I was more interested in getting onstage and throwing myself around until I was physically exhausted, then going out and getting drunk, you know, going to bed late, getting up, going and doing the same thing again. Having fun. Being young. I didn’t think about it in those terms. If I had … I definitely wanted the band to be big, to have a big audience. I was excited by the prospect of playing to big crowds and connecting with that visceral, mad, powerful emotion. But I didn’t really give it as much thought as I give it these days, if you know what I mean. Now, going and performing, I really do think about it, and maybe in the performance, you have to be a bit more regimented in how you present it than in the actual making of it. The making of all this disparate stuff feels very natural to me, but the presenting is where there has to be some defining categories, I suppose.
Do you just have one project lined up after the other, or do you ever take downtime and just think things through?
I’ve been sitting, thinking today. It’s a day when I’ve got the chance to think about stuff. I listened to the Doctor Dee record the first time — I’m going into rehearsal with it tomorrow to do a performance at the weekend at a little folk festival in the countryside. So I had to listen to it again.
You’ve been able to dive into a lot of different kinds of music, and diving into African music, for instance, is something that makes people feel self-conscious a lot of the time …
Well, I definitely was aware of self-consciousness when I first went to Mali. That’s your primary objective, really, as a European going to Africa, I think, is to become less self-conscious, less uptight, a little more open to the real innate sense of flow that comes out of everything there, especially, for me, musically.
Did you ever have any worries about stepping on the product of local musicians or how to engage with the collaborators there?
Funnily enough, I started off in French-speaking West Africa, and I found it a blessing not to be able to understand what was going on. I could be really focused on the music and the sound. Communication was on quite a simple level, and in many ways, it still is. For me, I enjoy the simplicity of communicating with laughs and smiles and hand gestures and stuff like that.
Did you feel like it took you a while to know what you were doing with the music there?
I don’t think it’s a case of knowing what I’m doing. I feel less self-conscious. I’m comfortable sitting down and listening and being able to somehow interpret something through that process. Playing with musicians, I can sit down and listen to what they’re playing and interpret it. It still is me, though. That goes back to the question about different audiences. I feel like with Rocket Juice & the Moon, what I did was really quite minimal — it’s essentially Tony Allen at his finest and Flea accompanying him, and I’m just there being me and interpreting back, somehow keeping in the pocket, but playing kind of against it as a kind of foil, in a way, a lot of the time. Giving it some dissonance, which I hope allows the rhythmic nature to be even stronger.
What was the process like with, let’s say, learning about Chinese traditional folk music for Monkey: Journey to the West?
I arrived one day at a professor of folk music’s house in the suburbs of Beijing, bearing in mind that took about three hours to get to, because it’s sprawling these days. I sat down and asked him if he could give me any sort of clues as to how to enter into the language. And he took me to a bookshelf with, like, 40 massive tomes about ethnic Chinese music and said, “I wouldn’t bother, mate, I’d just sort of listen to it and get on with it.” In the nicest possible way. It’s like, Get lost.
So you’ve had an easy time immersing yourself in these things.
As I say, it’s a lot easier just to be yourself, really.
Did you do something similar with Elizabethan music, before working on Doctor Dee?
Well, it’s a lot easier, because I had a sketchy handle on the chronology and the history. I’ve always been interested in English history, so that really helps. And John Dee was just such a fascinating player in that whole story, and the more I read about him, literally every page I read, I needed to cross-reference with about ten other books. Once you start getting into that kind of study, it does consume your life a bit.
How long did you spend working on it?
Studying, about two years. But I actually worked on it for quite a small period of time, when I came back from world tour with Gorillaz. I had, like, eight weeks to sketch the whole thing out, really.
It’s turned out pretty wonderful — it seems like a lot of thought was put into it.
Well, it’s getting there. The record is sort of part two. At Manchester, it was really more of a workshop production. The record definitely gets a handle on the more emotional aspects of what I’m trying to discover through this, and, hopefully at the English National Opera [where it’ll be performed this summer], it will actually tell a story as well. That’s the hope. That’s the noble hope.
I should ask you about religion …
People don’t ask me about religion very often, and I think it’s because people don’t really have an opinion on religion, and it’s a shame, because it informs the whole of Doctor Dee.
Well, is it something you think about a lot?
I do, yeah! I’m fascinated by all aspects of religion. I wasn’t brought up in a religious household, but I was brought up in a very inquiring household and was certainly given some very valuable insights into Arabic Sufism and Hinduism.
You come from sort of a Quaker tradition, right?
Exactly. Sort of in the closet, really, I come from a Quaker conscientious-objector sort of tradition, of several generations.
So, how does the mysticism of someone like Dee strike you?
It was an extraordinary time, and funnily enough if you go on to Quakerism, which emerged like 50 years after his death, someone like John Fawkes, he believed he had revelation. There was a lot of that about. A lot of people were very unhappy with the politics of both Protestant and Catholic orthodoxies. There was that sense of revolution and people not necessarily having to follow that orthodoxy to find themselves close to God. The way John Dee was very interesting is that he was maybe ordained a Catholic priest, yet he worked in the reign of a very paranoid Protestant queen and sincerely believed that he’d devised a system, albeit somewhat cobbled together from a lot of older systems, to communicate on behalf of the queen and the state with God, through the angels — it was a very serious business. And he believed in it so sincerely that when he was instructed, via his scrier Edward Kelly, to swap his wife with Edward, he somewhat reluctantly agreed. It was one of those points: If I ignore this instruction, then all previous instructions are invalid. I think that’s what happens with people who become really obsessive about anything — you have to keep going, otherwise there’s no meaning in what I’ve been doing, and that is the greatest fear of all obsessives, I think.
So the opera format seems like something you’ve really taken to.
I’m learning. I’d say I’m an uneducated person when it comes to opera, in the sense that I don’t have any formal education. I’m only really just starting to learn how to write for other people’s voices, and hopefully that will manifest itself. I’m enjoying my studies. I’m very lucky to be able to perform them in a public place.
Well, you’ve always written character songs.
A lot of the way I’ve written in a character so I don’t feel too exposed singing about myself—but essentially, there’s usually something about myself inside all those characters, good and bad.
Was there ever a time when you felt like you were exposing yourself?
I beg your pardon!
Sorry, bad word choice.
Well, I did take my trousers down once, back in the very, very early days of Blur, when we were supporting the Cramps at Brixton Academy. I got very overexcited, pulled my trousers down, and then realized that it hadn’t quite had the impact I was hoping for, got really embarrassed, fell on the stage, and tried to pull them up, but looked like I … wasn’t pulling them up. That was the last time I was aware of exposing myself. That was probably 1990.
But really, was there ever a point where you felt like you were singing from you?
Well, that’s what I’m saying — it doesn’t work for me unless I can sing whatever it is emotionally. On Doctor Dee, I would say I’m quite exposed, really. Especially in the subject matter, about love and loss and kinda spiritual needs, I think there’s a lot of that in the record. And that’s fairly open, I think.
In terms of traveling, are there any other places in the world you feel like you need to explore?
I want to go to Jersualem. It seems mad I haven’t been there already. And apart from what I can imagine it’s like, I specifically want to go to the Coptic Ethiopian church and meet a wonderful nun, 90-plus year old nun, who plays the piano.
In terms of arranging Doctor Dee, how did you decide what elements to put in there? It’s an interesting mix.
The theorbo — are you familiar with what a theorbo is? It’s sort of a guitar/lute, with an incredibly long fingerboard, it’s about five-foot high, and you play it like … can you see me, can you see what I’m doing?
No, I’m just getting audio! I thought maybe you didn’t want to be seen.
Oh, sorry, I thought you could see me! Hang on, I’m doing lots of hand gestures you’re missing. You’re missing the subtleties!
Okay, great, there you are.
So it’s sort of like … you play your fingers here, and you play it down here, I got very excited about that when I went to see The Marriage of Poppeaby um, um, um, ummmmmm, Monteverdi, who really is kinda sorta the godfather of what we consider opera. And anyway, he had this amazing baroque ensemble — well, he didn’t actually have it himself, because he’s been dead for a while. But they were very true to the original score, so I got very excited about that instrument. I’ve always loved recorders. [Our connection momentarily freezes] … a big influence on Doctor Dee, kora being a West African 21-string instrument. Then I had a long conversation with Tony Allen, and he was really interested in what I was doing — not necessarily in the Elizabethan aspect, but in the ritualistic aspect of it. So he got involved. And the rest was really … well, I added a renaissance organ. It sort of grew from that kernel.
Tony Allen seems to have become your most frequent collaborator.
Well, yes, at the moment, two of the records I’ve got coming out this year he’s on. Well, one of them is [another connection lag], which is his record that I’m on, and this is my record that he’s on.
This morning, I was listening to the Bobby Womack record you worked on, and I was curious — for you, was that sort of a standard production job, or something you were pretty invested in?
Not really a “standard production job” — Bobby and I talked about it on tour, and it took about another eight or nine months to come to fruition. But he came over, and [XL label head] Richard Russell, who’s really into working with Bobby as well, so we just sort of got together, and in a two-week session, pretty much got the arch and structure of the record from scratch. There wasn’t really a lot of writing done outside of the studio. We all had a few little ideas we brought into the mix, but it was a very collaborative and quick process.
Lana Del Rey appears on one track — who brought her into the loop?
That would be Richard. My studio’s quite close to the BBC, kinda walking distance, so if anyone comes in from abroad and plays at Jools Holland — which is our one legitimate live music show — we’ve got easy access to them. We kidnap them as they’re on break. Which is what we did with Lana, basically. She was amazing, I have to say, she didn’t know any of us personally, she’d just finished her rehearsal at the BBC, came straight here, and, within half an hour, was singing, dueting with Bobby. Really natural, very gorgeous voice she’s got.
I was thinking about the fact that you were always seen, in the nineties, as someone who was offering wry commentary on England, and modernity, and …
I can still be quite wry! If I need to be.
Did you see yourself, at the time, as commenting on the culture? And do you see yourself as doing that now?
Ummm … yes.
Yes. Umm … I agree with you saying that, umm, I see myself. If you know what I mean.
No, I’ve lost track of this one.
Well, I think there’s an element of that in what I do. I don’t necessarily think it’s the predominant inspiration. But I do try to weave a lot of different things, emotional things, comment. And sometimes a bit of humor, if I’m feeling particularly bold.
Those things seem to be in Doctor Dee.
There’s even a bit of humor in it, believe it or not.
I can see that!
Good. [Laughs.] I’m glad.
How do you see it as reflecting on today or being relevant today?
In the sense that … I imagine people in open spaces sort of meditating on something that is sort of beyond the press of a Google search. And I sort of imagine there being music. Maybe I imagine a sort of strange, urban pagan kind of moment.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline at the moment? Are you mostly just planning for the Olympics gig?
I’ve got all these things to do: a big gig with Blur, the English National Opera, and I’m taking … well, I’m not taking, I’m just participating — I’m involved in a train that’s going to travel across Britain with the organization Africa Express. We’re gonna fill it full of musicians from Africa, Europe, and America, if anyone fancies it, and South America, a really great mix in pop, but the emphasis being on African musicians, going to communities in Britain that wouldn’t necessarily get that kind of access, towns that aren’t necessarily considered as cosmopolitan as maybe London or Manchester, and giving them a bit of a party, really, a bit of the warmth that inevitably you get from a lot of that music.
It seems like you spend a lot of time now enabling other musicians to be able to do things.
I definitely enjoy that aspect of what I do. It’s all just build up over the years. I started being in a band, and it’s just sort of … I don’t really know how I’ve managed to get to this point, but I do find myself quite busy.
And you work 9 to 5.
Yes, I do. Five days a week, not school holidays.
So you can spend those with your daughter, right? She’s … 12?
Yeah. To be honest with you, a lot of the time, she’d rather just hang out with her friends. So when that happens, I’ll just keep myself busy. But I’m there.
Do you feel strange if you’re not working every day?
I feel strange not-working when I’m working, and I feel strange working when I’m not working.
Was there a point where you started working on that schedule, or has that always been your pace?
I dunno! I kinda sorta really got very excited about everything in about 1998. As opposed to just being excited about being in a band. I got excited about everything else as well. I didn’t stop being excited about being in a band, I never have. I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of being a musician, playing live, and that energy you get. But a lot of other stuff started distracting me.
What do you think made you feel all that excitement?
Just sort of really trying different things. And I suppose also living and having got to know a group of friends in the part of London I live in, and feeling quite sort of like that was my neighborhood now, and it being a very mixed — lots of different disciplines and people all sort of hanging out together. I became, I suppose, a little less focused on what had been my world up to then, essentially being that indie, rock, pop world. That was my environment. It’s always been my environment, really, but if you’re gonna write music from emotional response, it has to be centered somewhere. And so I would say west London really made that difference. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess what the equivalent would be in New York.
That seems like right around the time a lot of people got over indie music and started getting interested in other things.
Yeah. Well. The world was about the change! It was the end of the pre-computer world!
Did being online give you more access to things?
I came online very late, and I’m a bit haphazard. I’m not very consistent with it. I keep dropping iPads.
It’s definitely useful if you want to, say, keep up with music coming out of Africa …
Well, no, actually I find it a lot more beneficial just to turn up!
So, what should we be expecting from the Blur gigs this summer, if they are indeed to be your last?
The best answer to that is I’ll wait and see how I feel on the night, whether they’re the last or not. I have no plans but at the same time I’m loathe to be totally final about it, because it seems quite a charged question. Which I hand on heart don’t really know the answer to. So if I say, It’s the end, I don’t totally know that, and if I say, Oh, yes, we’re going to do something, I don’t totally know that either. So … I’m fervently on the fence, really. I’ll probably jump one side or the other after that night. I have no idea. I just want to give everyone who turns up a really good send off for what has essentially been a pretty busy summer for this small island on the other side of the Atlantic.
Very busy. Do you anticipate being annoyed this summer, by the level of activity?
I’m sure at some point. Well, it’s gonna be a very interesting test of patience, efficiency, tolerance, sharing, you know, a lot of good human attributes will be displayed. And unfortunately some slightly less worthy human attributes as well. There won’t be as great a focus on this country come September. There’ll be a lot of Union Jack burst balloons. On empty streets. Like tumbleweeds.
So the single you did with Blur, “Under the Westway” — how did you wind up writing that?
Well, it’s just a simple observation of a day, really, of a view of the day. And the view is really just here. I can’t give you justice on this floor — you’d have to go up two floors to see it properly. It’s just a view from the back window of the studio. Which happens to overlook the Westway, which in a way is the main artery of road communication through London, and will probably be put under enormous strain during the Olympics. This part of London, which it was built over, is less developed, maybe, than other parts of London — and it always felt like there was a community underneath this great modern river. So it had that sense, which has always inspired me. And the west — there’s the sort of gateway to the west, and for me the west is the West Country and the countryside, Standing Stone, Stonehenge, and Arthur, and prehistory Britain. Ley lines, Glastonbury, and all of that. William Blake would have written about the Westway if it had been around, I’m sure.
Do other artists work in the studio, or it is mostly just you?
It’s got two studios, and the other’s being rented out by an independent record label — they’ve got musicians going through all the time. Who’s that guy that’s been recording here a lot? Jai Paul. I never see him because he only records at night.
And you’re 9 to 5.
So we’re never going to meet.
I should ask, with Doctor Dee — originally, Alan Moore [the comics bigwig and Watchmen writer] was sort of driving the project?
Alan Moore, he was instrumental in getting me into it. He inspired me so much in the time I spent with him. I sort of almost thought he was Doctor Dee.
And you sort of had to pick up from things when he left the project?
Well, I mean, he inspired me, and I had to do the groundwork myself, really. It’s not enough just to read about Dee. A lot of what he was into was so essentially esoteric that you’ve got to understand a bit of kabbalah, you’ve got to understand hermetica, you’ve got to understand old-church Catholic, you’ve got to understand Sufism, you’ve got to understand voodoo. “Understand” meaning understand where they’re coming from — I’m not an expert on any of them. I’m very interested. I certainly know a lot more than I did, but I’m not yet quite able to open portals to different realities.
That’ll be two projects down the line.
Okay, then. I’m working on it.
So, working on one project with Alan Moore, and working for a long time with Jamie Hewlett [the Gorillaz artist] — are you a comic-book guy?
Not at all! Not at all. I mean, I get on with people who are into that, and I love their process. But I’ve never really been into comics. I’m more into history, really. I got Look In, which is more of a “facts” magazine, when I was a kid.