Damon Albarn | Esquire – January 2000

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Damon Albarn turns up 15 minutes late looking like Travis Bickle. For the first time in the 10 years of Blur’s existence, the 31-year-old has had his trademark tousled hair cut off. He swaggers into the tiny garden of a cafe in West London wheeling a bicycle, wearing yellow aviator glasses, a Penfold sleeveless puffa, a hooded sweatshirt and oversized Carhartt jeans that are badly frayed at the bottom. He leans the bike against a plastic table and sits down in the late autumn sun. “Sorry I’m late but I’ve been up all night I’m a new dad.” He leans back on his chair to catch the sun and grins. A ridiculously contented grin. “And it’s bloody great.”

THE FLAT IS SMALL, JUST ONE bedroom, and untidy. Early pictures of Blondie are stuck on the living-room wall. There are crooked piles of books and videos in a corner. On the mantelpiece, among the arty postcards, is a colour photo of a naked man with tousled hair walking through a forest glade. The woman is tall, dark and handsome. Her fringe falls over her eyes and she knows she is sexy, Her clothes are art-school indie a battered leather jacket, an Adam and the Ants T-shirt, black leggings but she has a surprisingly posh accent. In the middle of a conversation about her band, Elastica, she suddenly says, “I don’t know about you, but I have to take all my clothes off the minute I walk in my front door. It’s such a relief. Then I went to make a cup of tea but I remember that we don’t have any curtains and that all these Blur fans are camping out on a bench opposite the flat, so I have to crawl through the living room on my hands and knees.” Later, she talks about her open relationhip with her boyfriend. “I don’t think he’s that promiscuous. He’s badly behaved, but I don’t think he’s the slut from hell. He’s a boy but he’s not that sexually motivated; he’s a lot more attention-motivated. I find that he has one of the lowest sex drives of any boy I have ever met. He’s not that into sex.”

TWO YEARS LATER, TOWARDS THE end of 1996, Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann agree to do what will be their only interview as a couple. We meet at the Oxo Tower; the restaurant has nothing to do with the world of Britpop, but it has just opened and Justine wants to see the views up and down the Thames. Damon is late. He has been doing a screen-test in the East End for Antonia Bird’s film Face. He turns up in the bar perhaps an hour after Justine, clutching a battered script. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, pouring himself a glass of white wine which he then ignores. “Oh shit. Now I’m in trouble…” He looks imploringly at Justine, trying not to slur his words. “It’s not my fault, it’s just that after the screen test I had to go for; drink with Ray Winstone and… well, he’s a serious drinker.” Justine tries to hug him but recoils; he is sweating alcohol. Instead, when Damon rest, his foot on her knee, she puts her hand inside the leg of his trousers and strokes his leg. As we are about to be seated, Damon looks around the restaurant at the self-conscious fashionable diners and shouts, “You’re all cunts! The lot of you, Cunts!” Within 10 minutes, he has fallen asleep on a plate of goats’ cheese bruschetta. But it wasn’t the drinking; Damon is not a steady drinker but a binger. It wasn’t really even the promiscuity. Perhaps it was simply the end of Britpop. Eighteen months after we were all banned from the Oxo Tower, I bump into Damon in the hospitality area of Stamford Bridge. It is not match day but a launch party for a Chelsea book. Damon is drunk and dancing with his friend Phil Daniels, swaying gently in time to the disco music without really moving his feet. He is wearing Carhartt jeans, a crumpled blue shirt, Clarks shoes. His hair is even more ruffled than usual.

His eyes are blue and glittery. He is smiling a happy-drunk smile. Then he looks sad for a moment and I think he might cry. “Justine and me… we’ve split up.” He shakes his head hopelessly. “It was never going to work… she’s a toff.” He bursts out laughing at the apparent simplicity of his reasoning. “So, anyway, I’ve bought a flat and I’m going to share it with Jamie Hewlitt you know, the cartoonist who created Tank Girl and it’s going to be great and…” He stops talking and lifts two bottles of beer. “Got to give one to Phil. See you later.” He wanders across the room, signs a few autographs on the way, and joins Phil Daniels. The pair slouch against a wall and watch the pretty girls on the dancefloor.

WHILE LIAM AND NOEL WERE BUSY selling their souls to Hello! and OK!, Damon was losing the woman he thought was his soul mate, renting a bedsit in West London and writing the sixth Blur album, 13. Damon had been depressed before he even spent a short time in his late twenties wondering if he might die young but the end of the relationship with Justine was a new low for him. It broke his heart. Intent on finding a distraction, he started work on the album and found that he could only write sad songs. He recorded demo versions of the Lennon-tinged “Tender” and the emotionally desperate “No Distance Left To Run” and realised that, for the first time, he was taking his own music seriously. But it wasn’t just his break-up with Justine that pushed Damon to write such a personal, vulnerable album. He had not only j been thinking for some time about his constant use of the third person in songs but had also been feeling anxious about Blur’s status as a comedy band. When I interviewed Damon towards the end of 1996, around the same time as the Oxo Tower episode, he was promoting the release of the band’s fifth album, Blur. His PR at the time talked about the new record as “dark” and said that Damon wanted to be taken more seriously. He had been through a tough time; the band had almost fallen apart following the success of “Country House” and his relationship with Graham Coxon was saved only by the two old schoolmates writing candid letters to one another. “I suppose I can trace the start of all the stress back to the summer of ’94,” Damon explained. “Blur had suddenly become successful because of ‘Parklife’ and the tabloids were beginning to show interest in what was to become Britpop. Justine was away on tour for 14 months so I was going out with Alex [James] a lot and… well, it’s a bad combination to be famous and almost single. That was the Summer the whole lad thing kicked off, helped no doubt by ‘Parklife’ and Phil Daniels there was a direct link with Phil, Scum, Quadrophenia, football and Blur. It started off by being a very exhilarating time but I didn’t realise how stressful it is being the biggest, most focused-on person in pop. And, of course, it didn’t go away until Oasis started to take over.” Although Damon felt better when the Gallagher brothers reclaimed laddisrn as their own in August 1995 he found himself unable to avoid a head-on fight with Oasis. With “Roll With It” and “Country House” to be released the same week, Noel spat out bile from his corner of the ring: “Blur are middle-class wankers trying to play hardball with a bunch of working-class heroes. There can only be one winner.” Of course, it was the middle-class wankers who won as announced in a main news item on the News at Ten but it wasn’t a pleasurable victory. “I’ll never forget the day we got to number one,” Damon said. “I was playing football in Regent’s Park and Graham turned up at half-time. He was out of his face and virtually crying because he was so miserable. We had a party that night to celebrate being at number one and he could barely talk to anyone. Graharn and I grew up together and he has always been my flipside really. I didn’t know what to say to him. He’d got to the point where he could no longer go drinking at his local, the Good Mixer in Camden, in case people accused him of being in a little kids’ band. Which is fair enough really, because that was the way we were going.” After the initial thrill, Damon found himself out of his depth. When various journalists began to write him off as nothing more than a talentless public schoolboy, he was furious; he had been to a comprehensive and abhorred private education. So he responded by rejecting his middle-class, bohemian roots in favour of the cheeky Cockney persona. He spent much of 1995 and 1996 anesthetizing himself with alcohol. “The only time I was safe from myself was when I was on stage or really drunk. Drinking turned into a way of life. It was simply a nicer place to be… it sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t feel as though I was going to last very long. I really felt as though I could die at any time… I think it was a sort of late-twenties male menopause as much as getting fucked-up by fame.”

THREE YEARS ON AND DAMON IS happy again. He says now that at a certain point following the Blur/Oasis saga, once he had sobered up, he realised he no longer wanted to be a rock star. “It was when the 999th person opened their window and shouted, ‘Oi, Oasis are better than you!’ I decided to back down gracefully.” It is five weeks before Damon becomes a dad, and we are in a room above a pub in Soho on a Friday afternoon. He is badly hung over; he spent the previous evening drinking with some friends he calls the “New Fathers’ Club”. He feels terrible and decides the only solution is strong coffee and bananas. He pushes open a window and looks out on to the fruit market below. “Pound of bananas, mate,” he yells in his best Cockney accent. No one pays any attention so his PR runs down to buy him some. We sit down. He rocks on his chair and sips his steaming coffee. Without prompting, he says, “This has been one of those years that comes up every 10 years.” He peels open a banana and manages to fit half of it in his mouth. “Ah, potassium… Anyway, in 1999, I learnt to take music more seriously and celebrity less seriously. I had been in a relationship where we were competitive with each other… which is really destructive. Which is entirely why Justin and I… just became… impossible. Anyway there was a lot of cross-fertilisation of idea between us, so when the  relationship was over, I was able to make decisions completely for myself. It was amazing working with William Orbit on 13, but it was collaborating with Michael Nyman on the soundtrack to Ravenous which gave me a confidence I didn’t have before. I realised that I would rather be able to call myself a composer than a pop star.” Darnon had been asked by Antonia Bird director of Face, to compose a soundtrack for her new film, Ravenous. He thought this film company would accord him more autonomy if he collaborated with Nyman. Damon knew they would get on; they are both passionate about their respective football team, (Chelsea and QPR) and coincidentally, both share the same birthday. “I learnt a lot from Michael. I don’t know what exactly, I can’t qualify it, but it felt like going back to school again.” I pass on to Damon what Nyman had told ( me a few days earlier: “I was actually ver~ shocked at how courageous, independant and imaginative Damon was. He has a very good musical instinct. He’s fearless and he’s got supreme confidence so he’ll get on all right in the world of composing.” “Well, that’s very nice of him… I was recording Ravenous in the mornings and in the afternoons before going out at night For two months. I didn’t have a home life, so I was doing music for 18 hours a day and I broke through the pain barrier. It was great therapy for, you know… just sort of…recovering emotionally. There’s nothing like a bit of hard work to sort your head out. I just really pushed myself to the edge.” He eats the other half of the banana. “I was really intense about all the songs on 13. I wanted to be honest about the way I was feeling.” He pauses and his eyes fill with tears. “It was a difficult time. Afterwards, I really felt as though I couldn’t go back with the attitude I’d once had. Everything had to count.” Would it be too trite to say you’d grown up? “It probably is as simple as that,” he says, laughing. “Yeah, I probably just grew up a bit. You grow up when you’re not really expecting it. I feel more like my dad now than I ever have.” I ask him if he’s ever told his art lecturer father this. “He already knows,” says Damon, simply. I offer to open a window; dark circles of sweat have appeared under his arms. “It’s the alcohol, innit? Starting to seep out. I’m pretty good these days, you know, I go to my local Turkish baths three times a week.

Saturdays: Turkish bath, the papers, football. Perfect.” He looks thoughtful for a moment. “I went back to the Oxo Tower recently. It was quite funny. I took my girlfriend Suzi and her mum and dad to meet my mum and dad for the first time,” I ask if anyone remembered his drunken behaviour from his previous visit and he laughs. “The last thing I remember from that evening is being with Ray Winstone in a pub in Hoxton. The pub was full of serious characters. These people were ‘on it’, as he’d say. But everyone at the Oxo Tower was very nice to me. One of the waiters did say something quite bizarre though; he came up to me and whispered, ‘Jarvis Cocker is over there, I wonder if you’d like to meet him?’”

Damon shakes his head in disbelief. “I couldn’t work that out at all.” He suddenly looks pale; he is having a relapse. “Christ, I feel terrible. I’m going to have to go home to bed.”

WE MEET AGAIN A FEW WEEKS LATER in the tiny garden of his local West London cafe. There are two weeks to go before Damon’s baby daughter is due, and he is slightly agitated. He sees a copy of The Sun lying on a nearby table and shows me the Bizarre page with the headline: “glam buys Darnon a very big house (…but it’s not in the country)”. “I can’t believe it,” he shouts. “I got up the morning after the Mercury Awards and opened the curtains. As I was standing there, naked, I saw this bloody guy with a camera pointing up at my window. I’d been in my new house for four days. So I rang up The Sun and said, ‘Please don’t do this, don’t print a picture of my new house.’ Their compromise was to reverse the photo. They don’t give a fuck, do they?” Damon says that although he loves living in Notting Hill, it is also exasperating. “There are so many famous people wandering about, it’s like living on a movie set. All the time… I swear to God, I woke up yesterday morning to the sound of someone saying, ‘One, two, three, four and ACTION! ‘ And all these models started running down Westbourne Grove. Fucking nightmare!”

I tell him that while I was waiting for him at his press office up the road, Hello! had called. They requested exclusive photos of Damon, Suzi and baby when it arrives. He is obviously horrified; this is the man who likes attention but who hasn’t considered himself to be a celebrity rock star for the last three years.

“Really? They just phoned? The Gallaghers have totally fucked themselves over by doing celebrity magazines. It seems to me that as soon as you appear in one, it’s over, really. Idiots! It’s the most stupid thing Liam and Noel have ever done. I feel really sorry for them. They just haven’t handled their fame and money very well, have they?” Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, though; Damon is the middle-class kid who’s more than happy to wear the same tattered pair of Carhartt jeans for months on end while Liam and Noel are typical working-class lads who have made lots of money. The Gallaghers embrace the world of clothes with big labels, limited edition cars with vanity plates and women with enhanced breasts… because they can. Hello! and OK! go with the territory. Damon looks serious. “There are two very different ways of viewing wealth. I’m in the minority because I’m not motivated by money. God. I could have made four times more money than I have, had I been interested. By doing more gigs, by selling songs to adverts… you only have to look at my credit cards to see how much I value money.” He pulls his passport out of his back pocket and shakes it over the table. A few battered credit cards fall out alongside a couple of crumpled, faded receipts. The Bank of Scotland card is almost bent in half, although Damon insists he still uses it. I ask if his attitude to money caused problems with Justine, whose family wealth took the pressure off her working. I remind him of what he said at Stamford Bridge: “It was never going to work… she’s a toff.”

He laughs. “Did I really say that? Well, it’s true. At the end of the day, I do believe in working for a living and working hard. Toffs are just totally different. I feel guilty if I’m not working. I feel as though I’ve got to earn money. I know there are people who will say that I don’t earn my money, but I feel as though I do and that’s the most important thing.” The waitress appears at the table. Damon wants pasta with any sauce as long as it’s vegetarian and garlicky. The waitress, who sounds Italian, shakes her head and tut-tuts. “No garlic. No extra virgin olive oil. Our customers don’t like these things. But you can have tuna. You know, tinned tuna flaked on top of spaghetti.” Damon looks incredulous but accepts the offer. The waitress disappears. “No garlic? Who’s heard of pasta sauce without garlic? This is London in 1999, man! What’s going on?”

His food quite literally spaghetti with a tin of tuna emptied in a pile over the top arrives a minute later. He laughs. “Well, you know, it’s basic, innit? It’s the sort of food that if you were out in the wilderness, you’d be grateful for. You can never allow yourself to become too spoilt…”

WHEN DAMON NAS FINISHED HIS lunch, I tell him there have been some great rumours about him this year. He looks worried for a moment and then laughs. “Oh yeah? Like what?” The mountains of cocaine you had on your kitchen table… He interrupts. “When?” Oh, you know, around the same time the Spice Girls were regularly turning up to parties at your flat. He groans. “Ooooh. You’d have to ask them about that.” Yeah, but I’m asking you; they were legendary parties at your flat. “Oh God. OK. Yes, Sporty Spice and Baby Spice did corne to a few parties. And they were very nice. As for the cocaine… first you have to look at my table. My dad made it 20 years ago out of old bits of wood hanging around the house and it’s now got massive cracks where the filler has fallen out… so the chances of anyone racking a line out on that table are pretty remote.” “I did have some amazing parties in that place, though. Parties where I managed to get Pavement and the Spice Girls hanging out with each other. They were good parties, but that is a gross exaggeration about the cocaine I mean. Jamie and I always thought we’d make that place legendary for nine months and then bale out. Any more rumours?”

Well… you lying on your bed, a famous model fellating you and a lesser-known musician fucking her from behind. Damon’s face shows no response. “Yeah. That wasn’t me.” But it was at one of your parties? “It wasn’t me because Suzi was at that party. She can vouch for it not being me. But it was quite a wild party. On my mother’s death bed it wasn’t me.” Was that particular famous model there “Yeah, she was.”

And the lesser-known musician? Damon’s cheeks colour slightly. “Yeah, he was at the same party.” He laughs. “Look, I never saw what they got up to or even if they got up to anything. So… it was a good party… it was around the time I met Suzi. I was with her that night, so I wasn’t being rock’n’roll at all. I was simply the host.” Were they your last wild days? His response is emphatic. “Yeah. You’ve seen The Sun today; I’ve got myself a big house, settled down. Apart from the odd night out with the New Fathers’ Club, I’m a family man now.”

THE NEXT TIME I SEE DAMON, HE IS a dad. He turns up at the same cafe with his Travis Bickle haircut, his bike and his new perma-smile. He is very pleased with himself. He sits down, jokes about the lack of garlic on the menu, and orders a can of Lilt. I ask about the birth of his daughter, Missy (named after Missy Elliott). He smiles some more. “Well… urn… you’re just witnessing a life force, aren’t you? She looks like an eskimo. She looks more like Bjork than either me or Suzi. Not that either of us look like Bjork… It’s a slightly bizarre thing for men really, especially if they want to be involved in the whole process; all I could do was be a comforter. It’s great, though. I’ve been cooking. Cooking for the family twice a day.” Damon says it’s not just the baby that has changed things; he’s been feeling different for over a year now. By his own admission, his relationship with Justine wasn’t an easy one; too much competition, too many tours to keep them apart, too many other people hanging around. He has always wanted kids; she wasn’t particularly interested. “I started to resent Justine massively. I kept thinking, ‘Why the fuck don’t you want a child with me? What’s the matter with you?’” Talking about his old relationship doesn’t seem to make him as sad as it did even a few weeks ago. I wonder if music will lose any of its relevance now that he has a baby. Immediately he shakes his head. “Music is always going to be a big part of me. It’s what I do. If anything, being a father will make it more exciting. My studio is round the corner from the house, so I’ve been coming home at lunch times and cooking.” He slurps his Lilt and strokes his freshly shorn head. “I’m really pleased I cut my hair off at last. It was something I’d never have done before…” I ask if he did it on impulse. “I had wanted to do it for a long time, but I felt really nervous because I’ve had the same haircut for so long and I think I’d become almost synonymous with my haircut. Having said that, it’s no big deal… Hey! Hello have been on the phone again. I don’t know how much they’re offering. I can’t really say. Quarter of a million or something.” He laughs. “I got an even more ridiculous offer yesterday. Did I want a brand new top of the range Land-Rover and 20 grand?” For doing what? “For having my photo taken in front of the top of the range Land-Rover. Of course, I turned it down. Remember: just say no. But 20 grand? Can you believe it? I couldn’t. Why me? I’m only the singer with Blur!”

Why agree to selling “Song 2″ for the Intel Pentium ad then? Damon grimaces. “OK. Fair enough. You have to remember that it came in the after math of the US military asking us if they could use it, so Pentium seemed harmless: after we’d turned them down. Everyone ha; their own way of justifying getting involved in advertising, but ours was that everything uses the Pentium chip. Pathetic, I know…” Now that they are all millionaires, then have, of course, been endless rumours about Blur splitting up. They have not only beer together longer than any other band of their generation, but they now have lives outside the band. The more side projects with which they become involved Graham releasing a solo album, Alex working with Marianne Faithfull the more the gossip persists Their reluctance to tour 13 has only added to the speculation. Damon says he doesn’t care what people say. “Blur exists if everyone wants to make music together. That’s not something you can predict. I certainly don’t keep tabs on everyone’s life like maybe I would’ve done when we started out 10 years ago. We all need our own identities. I don’t know… bands look so tired these days. They look knackered before they’ve got anywhere. They look worse than me and I’m 10 years their senior.” He looks pensive. “I think basically every one took too many drugs during the Nineties At the end of every decade there’s a sense of ‘Oh my God, my generation really overdid it.’ But I think mine really did overdo it. If l actually totted up the grams and the litres I’ve consumed… I’d probably be pretty shocked. And I’m not even a contender foi hedonist of the decade.” Damon’s mobile rings. He’s got a meeting about another project, which is a secret. “I think everything is very simple,” he says, putting his aviator glasses back on. “I feel like I’ve got my head round Hoovering and cooking and having really short hair… and not going out too much. I’m listening to music and really pushing myself in that respect. In the past I think I’ve pushed myself socially and it’ll be nice not to have to do that so much. It might be quite nice not to have to feel the extremes of life. Although I have just learnt how to counter feeling low; I make up a bed or clean a room. Or I wash my clothes. Fucking hell, I’m on cloud nine when I’ve done one of those things.” The modern man pushes his bike out on to the pavernent. “There’s nothing nicer than waking up in the morning and feeling good.” He sits on his bike and smiles. “I think I had the best weekend of my life a few weeks ago. The baby was born on Saturday and on Sunday Chelsea hammered Man Utd 5-0.” Did you go? “Fuck yeah!” He pedals off down the road, laughing.


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