Damon Albarn on Loving America, Plastic Beaches and the Joy of Melancholy
Nearing the end of the North American leg of Gorillaz’ ‘Escape to Plastic Beach’ world tour, Albarn talks to Spinner about his love of America, iPads and melancholy — and why modern music isn’t rubbish (except when Simon Cowell is involved).
You’ve never manged to “break” America till this latest Gorillaz album. How does it feel to finally play a large-scale tour on this side of the pond?
It’s a big deal for me, this tour in America. I’ve played big stuff everywhere else in the world over the years, but [it] never really happened for me here, been quite underground over the years. So I don’t have that rock star cynicism about the place. You’ve got to remember I spent 10 years slogging around America playing nearly every dive venue. I feel like I’ve definitely payed my dues.
So is this a victory lap?
I wouldn’t look at it like that. In that sense, I’m only just starting, really. With the exception of last year’s Glastonbury set with Blur, I’ve never really come offstage and thought, “I don’t know if I’m going to do better than that,” but that was such an exceptional moment in time. It was one of those moments where everyone who was there felt the same emotion; that’s really special. What gets me up in the morning is searching for that moment in music, and in anything, really. I’m definitely an optimist in that sense.
‘Plastic Beach,’ has a environmentally conscious theme. Why did you decide to focus on plastics and environmental issues?
It gave me an opportunity to meditate on recycling and the nature of rubbish. It’s something I’ve thought about all my life, really, [look at Blur’s] ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ some years ago. There are links to what I do, tenuous links perhaps, but there is some kind of consistency.
I heard you found actual plastic beaches?
Well, as soon as I thought of the concept, I Googled it — as you do with any new idea, really — and the first reference to it was somewhere in Hawaii where they’d renamed a beautiful beach ‘Plastic Beach’ due to the amount of plastic that has washed onto it. Eventually, I came upon these masses of stuff in the center of the Pacific, which, in a way, veers into metaphysics because it’s in a place that man doesn’t really go but is very representative of our consumerist dream.
Taken to its logical extreme?
Although none of us have seen this place, it’s kind of a scary thought, isn’t it? Every age has its aspects which work in that way in your mind, and that’s definitely one for our age.
This album continues the theme of apocalyptic desolation that you began on ‘Demon Days.’ Do you believe that humanity will return to its roots?
It’s inevitable, really, that we’ll clog our world up. We do really have to undergo a profound revelation. It’s a minute meditation on a big issue, but it’s one that I’ve tried to get into the mainstream consciousness, which is not an easy thing to do these days because it is primarily a very disposable medium.
By its own creation…
Absolutely, pop will eat itself [laughs].
On both the new album and tour, Gorillaz have started embracing their human face, separating from the cartoon facade perpetrated by your last couple of albums. Was that something that happened naturally or out of necessity?
I think we’ve got a good mixture of it now. I think earlier in the year it was a bit unbalanced, the human aspect kind of overwhelmed the cartoons. I think now, by virtue of their sheer size above us, they’ve taken on almost Greek proportions.
So you feel the humans work together with the characters?
Definitely. In its purest form, that’s what we should be doing; that’s the point of our eight-bus entourage clogging up the American road system. I’m hoping for some helicopter footage of us.
Would you say that you’re fascinated by America? It’s certainly the most disposable culture…
Yes, but China’s not doing a bad job of catching up. I do find it very inspiring. In recent years, every time I’ve come here, I’ve tried to make a piece of work out of it. This time I’ve got a mobile studio, so every day there’s work being done — a “road diary” record.
Something for the Gorillaz?
Sort of, but what I like about making records on the road is it’s the only time I can use geographical references in America. I have to be there in order for it to feel honest. Today, I can use the word “Massachusetts,” for example. If I can get it as good as the Bee Gees today, I’ve done my job.
When you come to America, do you still find yourself as an outsider trying to understand its culture?
That’s a good question; I really don’t know. I think I’m still a bit of an outsider, but I certainly don’t feel as much of an outsider as I did the first time I came to America in 1990. I really felt like an alien then.
I’ve got to know Americans. Not take it entirely on face value. I love this country, I think it’s an incredibly vibrant place. It’s just like anywhere else, it’s got its issues.
What fascinates you about it?
It’s size — the fact that it can call itself a country is just remarkable considering how many different countries exist within it.
You seem to be a scholar of cultures, interested in the idea of translating and distilling them to their accessible core.
Yes, I suppose I am. It’s definitely the thing that inspires me the most.
In context of making music, there are some things that attract me to the melancholy and brutality of a place. Consumerism is a very brutal regime we live under; it’s not a gentle, holistic place. But the human condition can’t help but dream beyond that, and I like the balance between those two ideas.
Do you see yourself as a cultural ambassador?
I think as far as Africa is concerned – I hate calling it Africa because it’s so many different countries – but as far as my experience with that continent is concerned, the sense of the future that I get there just sort of overwhelms me. So I try to bring my passion to it, but I don’t know how successful I’m being
Do you consider yourself a pessimist?
I don’t think melancholy is a pessimistic thing. I think melancholy is a much older concept than pessimism. Melancholy is [a] very human thing, pessimism is more institutionalized.
What attracts you to melancholy?
Well, this morning I woke up and I was on a massive highway, it was grey. The autumn colours were starting to emerge from the green, but there were thousands of people driving their way into Boston to start Monday. On one hand, it’s part of the pessimism of our consumer condition; on the other hand, there’s a kind of beauty in it, and that’s where the melancholy wins for me.
You seem like the kind of person that would reject new innovation, and yet you very much rely on it in a band like Gorillaz.
Well, I don’t want to come across as a walking advert for it, but I have discovered the iPad and I’ve made a quantum leap from sort of four-track recording, which is something I stuck doggedly to during the whole digital revolution [laughs].
But, but, but, at least for the moment – and it could be a one night fling and I’ll return to my Luddite ways – but at the moment, I’m really enjoying making music on my iPad. There’s so many worlds to play with because of all the apps.
Where do you see the application of it?
Making lo-fi recordings with hi-fi sound, especially while on tour.
Do you see yourself going in the direction of a band like 1 Giant Leap, collecting recordings from around the world to produce music?
Nah, not really my scene. I know this is a bit rich coming from me, but it’s a bit too “high-concept” for me. I like just making music.
What are your thoughts on the modern music business?
I think the tools for making music are just amazing at the moment, there is potential for insane cross-fertilization.
I’ve heard you’re not a fan of the whole ‘X Factor’ / ‘American Idol’ concept?
They do things to these kids. They play with their bodies and their faces. They just bleach and sanitize everything about them, and that’s a very potent aspirational aspect of our society.
So in that sense, the music business is in very ill health — but that can change because the opportunities to make music and communicate ideas are better than they’ve ever been.