His dark materials.
For a man often tagged as grumpy, Damon Albarn smiles a lot – a disarming, slow-spreading, slightly lopsided grin, with the briefest glint of gold tooth. Which comes as a relief, given that we don’t get off to the most promising of starts. We meet at Paris’s Alhambra, where he’s playing tonight : outside, there’s the beginnings of a queue,eight hours before he’s due on stage. Up in the empty restaurant, though, a TV catches his eye. ‘Do we have to have that on ?’he asks, eyeing the looped gig footage. ‘I don’t really want to watch a young indie band.’Might he like to swap places, so his view’s over the street instead ? ‘Prancing about,’he continues, undeterred, with a certain, sepulchral relish. Seats exchanged, I lookup from my notes and realise that he’s laughing.
Albarn, of course, knows exactly what it’s like to be in a young indie band : he was 22 when the group he fronted, Blur, released their shoe-gazing debut She’s So High. In the 90s they became one of the biggest bands in Britain : Britpop’s laddish ringleaders, art-school arch-rivals to Oasis. Since Blur more or less disbanded in the early noughties, he’s pursued his own esoteric path, from fronting cartoon hip-hop crew Gorillaz to uniting African and Western musicians aboard the Africa Express.
His latest project, Everyday Robots, marks a departure of a different kind : it’s the first album he’s released under his own name. Backed by subdued electronic blips and whirrs, it’s a beautifully sparse affair, showcasing Albarn’s gift for harmonies in gently melancholic fashion. In part, it’s preoccupied by what it means to be human in a technological age ; mostly, though, it’s an exploration of what it means to be Damon Albarn.
The idea from the start, he says, was to make an autobiographical record : ‘Everything on there has taken place ; there’s no third-person storytelling.’The central track, Hollow Ponds, goes back to childhood and a family move when he was nine, from east Londonto smalltown Essex. Having missed the move itself, he breezed back from the summer holidays to find everything had changed. ‘I was parachuted into this very Anglo-Saxon, conservative society. I was an outsider from the start.’It’s a feeling that would persist into his teenage years. ‘There was more reason for me to get into music, and spend my lunchtimes practising ; if I’d been popular, I’d have been outside playing football or snogging girls.’
Instead, he bonded with another habitué of the music Portakabin : a shy, slightly anxious-looking boy called Graham Coxon, who played the drums and sax. ‘Making the record, in a sense, that was the revelation : that period, between 1976 and’79, made me who I am.’ The lyrics on the album are often oblique, and tangled with allusions : to carnival zombies, nuclear submarines and the ebb and flow of relationships. ‘So many things go into a song,’he says. ‘Which is why it’s really difficult to talk about.’
Talking about music, is, he thinks, like ‘dancing about architecture. I do a lot of it, but I don’t know how constructive it ultimately is.’One lyric that’s come under scrutiny is from the song You and Me – a fleeting reference to his heroin use, in the mid-90s.
I ask what he made of music magazine lurid, tabloid-esque cover (‘WITCHCRAFT, HEROIN, BULLYING AND ME : DAMON ALBARN’S SECRET PAST’). ‘It was disappointing,’he says, after a pause. ‘And it wasn’t very nice for my mum. It took everything so out of context ; something that was two decades ago.’In any case, he points out, it was hardly groundbreaking news : he’d discussed it in an interview years ago, and sung about it in 1997, on the Blur song Beetlebum. [If you never cottoned on, you’re not the only one : my teenage self just thought the band must really, really like insects]. ‘I was trying to talk emotionally but intelligently about something, and all of that intelligence gets… stripped away. It becomes just a characterisation, and a pretty simplistic one at that.’
Nowadays, all that seems a long way behind him : he has a nine-to-five routine in his west London studio, and relishes the stability. He tries to avoid too much time away, preferring to spend time with his daughter. ‘Though she’s 14-and-a-half now, and doesn’t need me as much. She’s my only child, and I’ll miss her terribly when she’s too grown-up to hang out.’Is he a cool dad ? I ask, hoping to cheer himup. ‘Pffff !’he snorts in amusement. ‘You’d have to ask her. Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I think I’m just an utter embarrassment.’All of which is a far cry from his tricky, somewhat prickly reputation : as an interviewee, it’s safe to say, he’s not what I expected. In Britpop’s heyday, Albarnwas invariably described as ‘cocky’ ; in the wake of Everyday Robots, ‘melancholy’has become his new tag. Does he consider it an improvement ? ‘It’s slightly more benign, I suppose. Just equally inaccurate as to who I actually am.’Though he says he hasn’t changed, he concedes he used to be more guarded : ‘You had to be ; that was a pretty unexpected sort of blizzard I found myself in.’
What hasn’t gone away, he says, is a feeling of disappointment. ‘Everything I do, I always feel I could’ve done better. I don’t have that sense of « oh, I’ve really achieved a great deal ».’
What about Blur’s 2009 Glastonbury reunion, when the whole crowd sang Tender ? ‘That was a good moment, it really was. But you know, I couldn’t carry on doing that forever with Blur. However wonderful that moment was, it’s just not enough – though at the same time, how could you ever have anything more ?’ He laughs, a little incredulously. ‘Even when the glassis completely full to the top, it’s not enough for me.’
With the interview drawing to a close, I ask about the small gold heptangle he wears around his neck. Is it a protective symbol ? ‘I suppose it could be,’he says. ‘It’s quite hypnotic. I think it’s got magical properties, but you know… it doesn’t mean I’m a Satanist.’So he’s never made a wax figure and stuck pins in it ? I’m joking, obviously, but unexpectedly he replies. ‘When I was younger, yeah ; I used to do a lot of that stuff.’And did it have any effect ? ‘Maybe,’he offers slyly, with a final, mischievous glint of gold. ‘But my Wicca days are behind me. As are a lot of days, I hasten to add.’