To Afinity And Beyond
IT’S A RAINY AFTERNOON IN October 2011 and Damon Albarn is in a Bermondsey practice room crammed full of instruments. There are six different types of synthesizer to hand and two pianos, including a Fender Rhodes, plus assorted brass instruments, turntables, samplers, laptops, a bass and some drums.
Damon Albarn is here rehearsing Rocket Juice & The Moon, his fourth group since Blur first disbanded in 2005, for the group’s live premiere as part of the Honest Jon’s Chop Up! showcase two days later at Cork’s Jazz Festival. His two bandmates, drummer Tony Allen of Fela Kuti and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea Michael Balzary – on a three-day vacation from the Peppers’ world tour — are joined by the rotund, jolly, Malian keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck and Chicago nine-piece the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who comprise eight brothers plus friend, dressed in casual attire — woolly hats, baseball caps, T-shirts, trainers and jeans.
“1-2-3-4…” Tony Allen counts in lazily and Albarn, head down at the piano, starts rocking back and forth as Flea’s doink doink-doink bass pattern and Allen’s quickening tikka-tikka rhythms conjure a heart-racing groove that, embellished by Seck’s extraterrestrial-sounding Moog squelches and the Hypnotic Brass’s spiritual improvs, gains carnival-like momentum.
Flea (Real name Michael Balzary) bobs and dances and beams from ear to ear. Damon Albarn is on his feet now too, jigging around the piano, waving his arms. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble swing their horns in formation. Tidiane Seck and Tony Allen, laughing, nod their heads in time. When the jam is over, an exhausted Damon Albarn slumps on the sofa as he awaits his ride back to his W10 home and ponders why he’s motivated to put together yet another new band.
“As wonderful as it is to stand at the front of the stage with Blur and hear everyone singing every single word of your songs back at you, it’s not everything,” he says. “I’m as happy sat at the back of the stage at the piano when there’s real magic in the room, like today. Playing with master musicians, you learn so much, about being a musician, about yourself.”
Rocket Juice & The Moon were conceived back in 2008. Albarn, Allen and Flea were travelling on a plane to Lagos to take part in Albarn’s ever-morphing Africa Express collective, which he had set up in response to the dearth of African artists on the bill at Live 8 three years earlier.
“Flea is a big Fela Kuti fan,” says Albarn. “He was in business class but he saw Tony and me at the back of the plane and sat with us for the journey. It was the first time he’d met Tony. They talked about Fela Kuti and we all got on really well. We made a promise to ourselves after the show in Lagos that whenever we had a chance we’d get together and jam. So Rocket Juice & The Moon came out of that. If we were all in the same place, we’d rehearse, and as time went on we articulated our ideas. But it was never our intention to play shows and make a record. Things just happened.”
TWO MONTHS ON FROM MOJO Magazine’s first meeting and Damon Albarn is pacing the floor. It’s 10 in the morning and we’re in Studio 13, his recording space in west London, where Rocket Juice & The Moon’s self-titled debut album was created. There’s a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird on the side, plus an array of colourful fruit and veg – carrots, beetroot, oranges, ginger root – for healthy snacking. “Why are we here?” he asks his PR. “To talk about Rocket Juice & The Moon,” she reminds him.
He starts to open doors, look in cupboards and drawers, can’t settle, then upon remembering why we are here, he apologises, takes a seat at the table, ruffles his hair, scratches his ear, takes a sip of water, then a sip of tea and lights a cigarette. Beginning to relax, and with eyes bright, he starts to enthuse about the 18 “meditations” that he, Flea and Allen — with help from neo-soul singer Erykah Badu and Ghanaian MC Manifest – made for this record.
“It’s amazing when something like this happens,” he says. “Suddenly a whole room of people are on the same wavelength. It’s intuitive, full of feeling and expression. There are two ways of making music. One is almost like working with numbers, and one is where you use your heart, and this is from the heart. It literally came out of nothing. Each of those tunes started with the three of us just going, ‘Right, let’s go.’”
A logistical nightmare, with Damon Albarn resident in London, Tony Allen in Paris and Flea committed to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ world tour, the trio had to record piecemeal. “We grabbed little bits of time when we had it,” says Albarn. “A couple of days here, a couple of days there. We were banging out five or six songs a day.” Time was so tight, Honest Jon’s label owners Alan Scholefield and Mark Ainley furnished the album with its song titles. “On paper it should have been a hard record to make,” Albarn says, “but in reality it was very easy — because of the chemistry, because of the trust.”
The result is a set of loose, bass- and drum-led jams, cosmic soul and conscious hip-hop. Parts of it sound like work-in-progress. Others are perfectly formed. Take Hey Shooter, a celestial spiritual featuring Erykah Badu (“we only had one day with her, which was a shame”). Check Out is another high point: an electro dub with woozy horns and stabbing keys while DAM(N) pins M.anifest’s poetic social comment to compelling Afro rhythms. “It’s a real collaboration on all levels,” says Albarn.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE IS THIS: OUT OF THE 18 songs, Damon Albarn sings lead on just one. Poison is a mournful melancholy musing, redolent of his work with The Good, The Bad & The Queen. “But I didn’t even want to sing that,” Albarn claims. “I deliberately stepped back, let Tony and Flea shape the record.”
Partly true, say colleagues. But it was, it seems, always Albarn at the rudder. Tony Allen calls him the “captain”. “A boat will capsize if someone doesn’t take charge,” says Allen. “It doesn’t matter that all the sailors are equal in talent, someone has to steer. Damon does that.”
For Saiph Graves, aka Cid, the trombonist in the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Albarn is, “like the director of a film. He allows space for all the artists to create within the mould that he forms. His ideas start really raw. It all begins with his little piano tinkle, and at the end I’m always, Wow! He has the collective vision beyond. We’ll be doing little parts and pieces and he’ll take them, mix and match them and make them good.”
By the time you read this, Albarn will have accepted an Outstanding Contribution Award, as a member of Blur, at this year’s Brit Awards. But while Blur remains a sporadically going concern, the bulk of the evidence suggests that Albarn has turned away from the orthodox format of Western pop music: guitar, drums, bass, good-looking singer pushed out front.
Damon Albarn calls Rocket Juice & The Moon “an unadulterated rhythmic masterclass” and traces the roots of his current modus operandi to a trip to Africa with Oxfam in 1999 which, “quite literally changed my life”. Out of that experience came 2002′s Mali Music, the album he made with the Malian musicians Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate.
“I didn’t go with the intention of making a record,” he says. “I went with a DAT player and a melodica and an album emerged from that. It created a model for me to make music from. That was when I never really looked back.
“Everything goes back to Africa,” Albarn continues. “Music itself, the Western model, those ’60s heat groups that set the template for rock classicism, they were into R&B and soul, which came from gospel, which came from the plantations, which came from Africa. The nature of what we are doing here with Rocket Juice & The Moon is built on the spirit I’ve carried from that first experience in Africa to this day, that sense of community and togetherness that the musicians have when they are playing music. It’s not predetermined but driven by the spirit of the collective musicians.”
Flea agrees. “We captured a really beautiful moment between three musicians,” he says down the phone from Los Angeles. “It was clear from the moment we met we were all going to click in the studio, just the way we approach music and what we want from it. We’ve got a spiritual connection.”
Like Albarn, Flea gets a kick from collaboration, having worked with Jane’s Addiction, Johnny Cash, The Mars Volta and Thom Yorke in Atoms For Peace, who played Yorke’s solo album The Eraser live in 2009 and have an album planned later this year.
“I love the Chilis,” Flea says, “they’ve been my home for 30 years, but going out and playing with other people, there’s a real sense of liberation. I learn and expand. I gain more energy as an artist, and I go back to the Chilis and I’m a wider and wiser musician with more to offer. That’s what I’m reaching for in life. Music is infinite.”
Flea describes Rocket Juice & The Moon album sessions as relaxed and loose — “like music is supposed to be played” — before paying fulsome tribute to their helmsman: “Damon is so open, a truly lovely guy.”
THIS IS NICE TO HEAR, ALTHOUGH THE DESCRIPtion of Albarn will not be immediately recognisable to all. Is this the same musical authoritarian who drove Blur guitarist Graham Coxon to distraction with his diktats?
“I do try to enjoy myself when it’s humanly possible to do so,” laughs Albarn, “but I’m so aware of my failings as a musician and a writer.” Really? But his output suggests a one-man Tin Pan Alley machine, able to get a tune out of a mangle, ace albums knocked off in an afternoon…
“I have discipline,” he counters. “When I say I’m going to do something I’ll do it, for good or for bad. If you don’t have that inner strength about stuff you’re fucked, but I just generally believe I can get better, and I need to believe that, that I can keep going forward so I push myself and those around me to get the best we possibly can. That’s what motivates me, this belief in going forward.
“When I went to Toumani Diabate’s house that first time I went to Africa, I had my melodica but no idea how to play in a modal way. I’m sitting next to Toumani, it’s three in the morning, and he’s a god and he’s playing and I’m blowing on the melodica and I’m a semitone out, and it sounds awful… Well, after that I spent years going to clubs in Mali, sitting at the back behind the drums playing along when no one was listening and learning and improving.”
Albarn gets up, walks over to a window and surveys the railway-tracks outside. Then he looks back at MOJO. “It would be quite easy to dedicate my entire life to Africa,” he says, “in the sense of just going there all the time and just working and discovering.”
So why doesn’t he? Albarn pauses.
“There’s still so much necessary work to be done here you know, but if someone said you can’t do anything else but travel around Africa I would do it and I’d be happy.”
With that the PR comes to tell Albarn that Rufus Norris, the director/co-creator of Dr Dee — an opera about the Elizabethan
scientist-magician John Dee that Albarn has scored — is here to discuss the restaging of the production at the English National Op era this summer. So Albarn’s off to get more of that necessary work done. Later he has house remixes of Bobby Womack songs he produced to listen to and a new single with Blur to record. He’s not due to meet Rocket Juice & The Moon again until March when the three go on tour.
“That’s the big challenge,” he says, just before we part, “I learned I could play in a pocket in the studio with these guys, but doing it live? I can’t wait to see how that goes and what people will think. You’ve got to remember that the world’s not going to hand you any favours. It’s a very powerful, competitive soup out there, and you’ve got to have a strong flavour and if you want to get better at what you do that requires an awful lot of work. It’s not going to be handed to you on a plate.”