I’m having a whale of a time with Rocket Juice & The Moon
Rocket Juice & The Moon may be the trio of Blur’s Damon Albarn, master drummer Tony Allen and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea – but don’t call them a supergroup.
Meeting Damon Albarn as he mooches around his west London base – admiring the view over the Westway; whizzing up vegetable juice; exchanging football banter – you wouldn’t guess that he’s probably the busiest man in the music world right now.
His latest projects include his ‘pastoral folk’ opera Dr Dee and the reunion of his Britpop veterans Blur for the London Olympics closing concert; he’s also continued with cartoon superstars Gorillaz and other production work (such as Bobby Womack’s next album).
Most imminently, there’s the release of the eponymous album from Albarn’s Afro-funky-psych-soul combo with legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea: Rocket Juice & The Moon. ‘You blend all of these things into your life; that’s the secret – otherwise you go stark raving mad,’ says Albarn.
Despite his laddish Blur persona, he mostly seems happy being a driving force rather than commanding the spotlight: ‘I am part of a lot of things that are converging at the moment. On Rocket Juice, I’m just having a whale of a time in the background, playing messing around on silly keyboards. It was an amazing meeting of minds with Tony and Flea, and most of these tracks were one-take wonders. We bounced all over the place.’
Rocket Juice’s launch pad was the Albarn-helmed Africa Express touring collaboration; a 2008 Lagos date provided the initial connection between Flea and Allen, and sparked jam sessions with Albarn. These evolved into a full album, with guests including US soulstress Erykah Badu, Malian songbird Fatoumata Diawara, keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck, Ghanaian rapper Manifest and Chicago siblings Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, on the Honest Jon’s label co-owned by Albarn. The core trio performed on Honest Jon’s Chop Up tour last year; their grooves (from Afrobeat to hip hop, wistful balladry and pop rock) are illustrated by Ogunajo Ademola’s bold imagery, and they’re fuelled by a mutual bromance.
‘When Damon calls me, I might not always know what he’s aiming at, but I know it’s not bulls***,’ says Allen, with gruff fondness. The Afrobeat architect’s highly distinctive drum patterns open the Rocket Juice album, on the track 1-2-3-4-5-6; Allen was also part of another Albarn outfit, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and he collaborates on Dr Dee. ‘He feels like an inseparable music partner,’ he says.
The term ‘supergroup’ doesn’t feel entirely appropriate to this breezy set-up.
‘Supergroup sounds pretty silly,’ giggles irreverent superstar and intrepid talent Flea. ‘Damon and Tony are two musicians I admired plenty before I worked with them. Damon’s an amazing musician, and his storytelling ability on a song like Poison seems to be in his blood. And Tony, man, he’s just a treasure. He’ll lay down this funky wicked groove and I just want to get into the middle of it. It’s like being freezing, then immersing yourself into a hot bath.
‘The Rocket Juice album was made with no preconceived plan,’ adds Flea. ‘The playing never felt like a means to an end. We totally improvised over a few meetings, left it wild so it feels cosmic and loose. I love to just jam; my life mission is to play music in the moment.’
Making all of this gel into an accessibly catchy album is no mean feat, however, and projects such as Rocket Juice are as liable to draw as much ‘purist’ criticism as they are crossover praise. ‘I’ve always had an inquiring mind; music has been a constant search and battle with myself,’ says Albarn, smiling. ‘And it took me years not to take criticism negatively. It was strange at the Brits (where Blur won the Outstanding Contribution Award this year), being 17 years older than the other participants in the pageant. I remember what it was like originally, and there’s a marked change in my outlook now; over time you learn to create order, and not be afraid of chaos.’
He’s only visibly uncomfortable when asked if Rocket Juice involved much compromise. ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ he insists. ‘Everyone here’s so open, “whatever happens” is the orthodoxy. But most things are still unchartered territory for me – including being able to sing and play rhythm guitar in tune.’
‘Damon’s very English, I’m from Hollywood, Tony’s from Nigeria… and our hearts are all in the same place,’ says Flea. ‘Fatou sounds so connected to the joy and pain inside her. Erykah is like a funky Billie Holiday. And I was so excited when Manifest started busting out these rhythms.’
Allen adds the ultimate approval. ‘This was a very different approach to The Good, The Bad & The Queen – this was impromptu,’ he says. ‘For me, things are supposed to be instant and unfixed – the music doesn’t have to end.’
Rocket Juice & The Moon (Honest Jon’s) is released on March 26.