Damon Albarn on visiting North Korea, regretful lyrics and Everyday Robots
Twenty years on from the laddish listlessness of Park Life, the voice behind Blur is talking to GQ about a very different sort of album. This week Damon Albarn unveils Everyday Robots, his extraordinary debut solo LP that, musically-speaking, follows in the footsteps of his work with Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon, as well as his eccentric English opera Dr Dee. Produced with the help of fellow polymath Richard Russell, it’s startling and sorrowful in equal measure. To mark the release Albarn discusses visiting strange lands and experimenting with even stranger sounds….
GQ: You initially presented 60 songs to Richard Russell as ideas for the album. What was the oddest track that didn’t make it onto the record?
Damon Albarn: Good question. There would have been a lot of variety to start off with. It’s not compartmentalised – it’s a seething mass. There would be stuff that had probably never manifested itself in a lot of different places – from stuff that didn’t make into Dr Dee, stuff that didn’t make it onto Gorillaz. There would have been stuff that never really made it anywhere! There would have been a lot of kind-of failures on there. Generally I selected stuff that either had a mood about it that I liked or had a central lyrical fragment that I was interested in. Would there have been odder stuff than a song about an elephant [“Mr Tembo”]? Yes there would have been.
You and Richard also considered some terrible band names. What was the worst?
Well there was one – which for a week or so we considered to be our name. It was “Pagan Jew”. Being that he’s Jewish and I’m nominally a pagan. But then we looked online and ended up with an aphrodisiac spray made in somewhere like Bedfordshire called “Pagan Dew” (with a “d” obviously). At the end of the day, it was a silly idea and we never used it. But for the sake of illustrating that it was part of the process, I’ve been happy to give you that.
It’s important to have these things on record.
Or not. I think as a result of that ridiculous name Richard came in the next day and said “I don’t really want to be in a band with you. Nothing personal. I’d like to produce you.” And that’s how we ended up making this record.
You collaborate with Brian Eno on “Heavy Seas” and it turns out you share a gym – anything else you have in common?
We like choral singing. Subsequently he’s been to Bamako and Mali with me. Brian is a sweetheart, he really is. He is one of those guys who is so himself that whatever environment he is in, he gives it an “Eno-ness”. It’s hard to explain. His small talk is always fascinating. There’s always some point to it.
Which question are you bored of answering already?
In essence you’re answering the same questions always aren’t you? It’s just I suppose the entry points that differ. Yours was a good entry point!
You recently visited Pyongyang. What did you make of Dennis Rodman going there?
Man, that was strange. When you decide to do something like that, it’s not something you can do on a whim. You have to go through a process, you have to be given permission – it’s not just ‘I’m getting on a plane.” When you go there I can best describe it as a magical kingdom in the sense that everyone is under a spell. The statues and the edifices are absolutely everywhere – everywhere you go you’re reminded of the Kim family. They are truly omnipresent. But the only real evidence of their elite existence is when you occasionally in the corner of your eye see a couple of blacked out Range Rovers speeding through an empty street. But apart from that North Korea is full of normal people just existing under this mad spell.
It is extraordinary but [Rodman’s] presence, to the average North Korean, they would have no idea [about him]. I’m just fascinated to see from their perspective how he was presented. Him being American is the most challenging thing to the ideology. And the fact that he’s black, he’s tattooed and he’s got piercings. It made him almost like the last person on earth you would imagine who would get an audience in North Korea. When I was there I saw in the English language paper that there had been a visit from basketball players, but there were no pictures of anything. I just wonder whether it was advertised there at all. Maybe they don’t really know that it happened. Maybe it’s a wind-up to America. In a way he’s been totally used as a puppet. So it’s a bit sad really.
We can’t wait to hear the music that will come out of that trip.
It’s coming, but not for a while. It is a fascinating place. Honestly, although you’re acutely aware you’re only being given one image when you’re out there and there are multiple stories in every street that you’re not allowed to see, I felt that the people that I interacted with were really nice genuine human beings. Apart from the bullshit.
Where is the strangest place you’ve heard a Damon Albarn track?
They did have “Song 2” on the karaoke in North Korea. They also had “Anarchy In The UK” which I found quite extraordinary. People were singing it (i.e. us).
You and Richard worked on the Bobby Womack record. What’s a story of his you particularly remember?
His close shaves with death over the years are quite extraordinary. He was sitting with Janis Joplin and he just decided that he didn’t want to spend the night getting off his head with her. He left and she was dead the next morning because she scored some dodgy heroin. That’s pretty close. He’s done that so many times. Its always a joy to see him – we do have a good relationship. There is something about his voice which does something very specific to me that very few other voices do. I consider the fact that I’ve had the privilege to sit in the studio and help write songs with him as a highlight.
Your apology to Giorgio Armani for a drunken rant is one of the all time greatest GQ Men Of The Year moments. Anything further you’d like to say?
Oh my God! I needed to apologise. I’ll leave it at that.
Can you recommend a good book?
The Blind Owl by Sadeg Heavat, an Iranian writer. Really fantastic story. That’s the thing that’s excited me the most. It’s so very mad. The imagination of the man is very strange but very compelling.
Who is on your wishlist for your next Gorillaz record and are you up for suggestions?
I am definitely up for suggestions…
Rick Ross and St Vincent would be mine.
Both seem perfectly realistic! Together I hope? [laughs] I’m trying to get my head around that – would it be a Rick Ross love ballad to her? Or the opposite?
The opposite, I think. It’ll either be that or a discussion of feminist theory.
OK. Well I think I’ll leave it with that being the next challenge then.
You recently said people have started quoting lyrics to you, including “It’s not about those joggers who go round and round” when you’re out running…
I couldn’t believe that the first time. I think what it proves in life is that really you will always get found out. When I wrote that I was a 23-year-old oik who looked at those people with a certain distain. When it came back to me I was a neurotic 45-year-old man who was jogging for dear life.
Which band would you like to see reform?
I’d love to see The Smiths reform. It just seems impossible that they would but that would be fantastic to see Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
If they could just put aside their differences…
At the end of the day, it’s really not that difficult to do that. But you’d be surprised how difficult it is. In the scheme of things it really doesn’t matter does it? But it does, as well.
Did you enjoy Morrissey’s book?
I bought it for several people but I haven’t read it. I’m not really a big, “people’s lives” reader. Mind you I did enjoy Tyson’s bookUndisputed Truth. That was a special book. It’s beyond just a story isn’t it?
As a Chelsea fan, what do you make of Jose Mourinho‘s season?
He’s doing great considering we don’t really have a striker. Our defence is quite clearly the best in the league and you need that. What does he bring to the team? Well, he’s just brilliant. He brings the adoration of the Chelsea faithful. We worship him. We love him.
What’s the best thing you can cook?
Aki and swordfish is still something I enjoy cooking. My life hasn’t been changed by the endless Masterchef programmes. I still like basic, honest food, but I like it from all around the world.
What musical trend needs to die out?
Being a songwriter I will always argue that it’s important to write good songs. The trend where sonics are more important than actual lyrics? That makes me sound really old fashioned. I just wish more people spent a bit more time on lyrics really.
Is there a lyric you regret?
There are many which are a bit ripe. But I’ll just let them lie. There are ones that are so ridiculous I like them because they are so ridiculous. I think rhyming “Balzac” with “Prozac” would be one of those.
It is very stupid though.