Words by Massimo Coppola
I meet Damon Albarn at 9.30 am, in perfect sync with the expected sun eclipse yet absolutely imperceptible. London is gray, as always. The sun makes love with the moon, and whatever lies beyond the clouds, you can not see. Damon welcomes us into his studio in West London, is rather sure to notice a nuance slightly darker in the compact layer of clouds that we see through the skylight over our heads. It seems to me gray, but you know, Londoners have a certain sensitivity obout shades of gray.
Damon Albarn’s secret place is friendly and messy. Books, the ping pong table in a box for transport, a carousel, dolls, a collection of intruments that goes from the piano to a Mini-Harpsichord. Damon comes with a delay so negligible that appear as a form of british kindness. “Hello, I remember you ” he says – in my opinion not true, the last time we met was for a MTV show in which I presented Gorillaz. But, anyway, it’s good. I tell him that now I will be very happy for the next fifteen seconds. We laugh.
The album review by Robertino you will find it a few pages ahead. I listened it only once and I haven’t had the chance to read the lyrics. I say this to Damon. When he ask what I think. “It’s very good” I say. And it’s true. It’s a mix between Blur playful melancholy from the 90s and Everyday Robots, Damon’s solo album from last year. With a little bit of Bowie here and there. He laughs happy and then throws a cigarette and tries to grab it with his mouth. He succeeds in his second
attempt, he justifies by saying that it is the first one of the day. They bring us coffee. We sit and we start with the topic of the day. The eclipse.
COPPOLA: I have not seen the eclipse. It was media conspiracy. A fake.
DAMON: Here it is always dark, you can’t notice it if there’s a fucking eclipse or not. (Laughs).
COPPOLA: Ok, let’s start with the serious things. Do you know what is math rock?
DAMON: No. It must be a complicated thing. Yup. Is played with a blackboard and chalk?
COPPOLA: Kind of. You know, like the Battles?
DAMON: Do not know them.
COPPOLA: However, I know 20-years-old people that are passing from math rock to Britpop. In short, they will return to the ’90s.
DAMON: Ah well, then it will be fine for us. (laughs heartily again).
COPPOLA: Sure. By then you did a really remarkable album.
DAMON: Well, thanks.
COPPOLA: You’re welcome. And now you know how to find that childish atmosphere, naughty, the early 90s …
DAMON: Ah yes, it’s true. I don’t know. But there is. Especially in Lonesome Street and Go Out.
COPPOLA: And then there’s a good half of the record which I think is very much linked to Everyday Robots, your solo album.
DAMON: Yes, but we recorded this Blur album even before I did mine. And we did it only because we had this incredible series of coincidences. We were on tour in the Far East – Japan, China, Indonesia. In Japan we were entrusted to a different promoter. It was a lot of stuff well paid, if I have to tell you the truth. But the guy was kind of a cowboy, I think. And the concert was canceled. But we were paid the same. We could have gone on holidays, sure. However, I don’t know, maybe my work ethic …
COPPOLA: Did you feel guilty?
DAMON: Yes, a little perhaps. But it happens. Somehow you get paid for doing nothing. Unfortunately it does not happen quite often, but it happens. And so we had five days off. We sent on vacations to the whole crew and we were placed in a tiny studio in Hong Kong, smaller than this room, but very much hotter. It looked a lot like the first studio where we recorded.
COPPOLA: In conclusion, a kind of hang-out: spend the afternoon bored on the couch with the boys from your band and then take the guitar and come out with songs. Let’s say a glamorous version of adolescence.
DAMON Yes, kind of. Maybe a little less romantic. However, we did not play together in a room for 15 years, we played continuously for 5 days and then each one went on his way. I had all that material I had never ever heard again.
Only Graham and Stephen have heard the whole session and began to mount it, cut it, put it together without saying anything to anyone. They pulled out something that was 4 hours long. A 4 hour album! In the meantime I was touring Everyday Robots and writting musicals, now I’m doing one for the National Theatre, big stuff. And then, after a year, Graham comes to me and says he would like to work on those recordings. I said, well, you’re a braver man than me, go for it. Just to listen to everything it would have take weeks. So, after a little bit of work with the material, cutted and with voice guides – not real lyrics, only sounds and melodies. I said ok. Wow. We did good stuff in Hong Kong. So by Christmas, after a concert in Australia, I went again to Hong Kong …
COPPOLA: … to look for inspiration. See, you’re extremely romantic.
DAMON: Well … I was totaly hangover and I just wanted to go home for Christmas, but I called my family and told them that
I needed to stop for a day in Hong Kong, just to try to find the atmosphere of those days that we spent there. And then like a ghost, I put myself on the trail of two years ago. I went back to the studio, I wandered in the neighborhood, I redid all the things I had did the last time. I re-enacted what had already happened, but this time alone, with my iPad. And the lyrics came out from this.
COPPOLA: That is not a bad way for a reunion of one of the most popular bands in the planet. No pressure from the record company, deadlines …
DAMON: They knew absolutely nothing. This make things extremely simple. And then I have this place, my studio. Here I can do, produce and finance what I want in total independence, I don’t need anything. Of course, then the record company is essential in what we are doing now – the promotion, the launch, and so on. And it is a good thing for them that they don’t have to risk huge sums to start a project – although now this no longer happens regardless. I’m very lucky to be in the position to do what I want. Very lucky.
COPPOLA: is this what has made you so happy to get back the desire to sing yours oh oh oh oh oh …?
DAMON: Yes. I really like the oh oh oh oh. Even the la la la la is not bad. I’m comfortable. I realized that the most important thing is to try to not to be too careful about how they might see us, what they can think of us. I realized that the things I wasn’t satisfied years ago are those in which I was too conscious of myself. First, make music and then the rest: interviews, photos. It was all stuff incredibly less interesting than when it was very natural. Obviously I have a role, and that’s fine, but as time goes by you realize that the most interesting thing that you can find in a human being is … humanity. Nature, as it is. You have to rely more on yourself, to who you are and not in what you think or want to be.
COPPOLA: Well, maybe it’s the most important thing, but is a complicated process…
DAMON: Oh yes. It is a endless process, really. I have different roles, I do many different things, so I think that makes me feel good and remain true to myself.
COPPOLA: To return to the wheel, it also reminded me of Bowie – the Berlin Bowie, you have mentioned it and, indeed, listening …
DAMON: Yes, but it was just a way to begin a conversation.
COPPOLA: Mmm. In my opinion there is more. There are at least 3 or 4 pieces of your new album that have a touch of Bowie, starting with the titles. Thought I Was a Spaceman, for example …
DAMON: Yes, Bowie influenced me a lot. But also, Ray Davies and the Kinks. I Got a bit of Bowie, a bit of Davies and a little bit of many other things. I am English! I do not mind all, in fact.
COPPOLA: Well, I would say, they are people of a certain level. Even Ghost Ship is quite Bowie, dreamy …
DAMON: Yes. It’s a song that I would never imagined being able to compose – has a soul feeling and bluish as Hong Kong, a infinite city, made of a thousand layers. Look at the harbor. Once it was full of ships. British Empire carrying opium from India. We were the ones who invented the drug trafficking! We, the British Empire! (Damon ironic cheers as if he had won the World Cup). And today is a gigantic city. I was there shortly after large street protests against the Chinese government. I arrived just as they were cleaning the latest writings on the walls. The Chinese are incredible. In one day they put it all under the carpet.
COPPOLA: Your commitment against war has been an important part of your life.
DAMON: Yes, I was very involved. It is sad to note that everything we were trying to prevent has been transformed into something so unimaginable that it becomes incomprehensible. The situation in the Middle East getting worse day by day. And the Pandora’s Box we opened to us, the Westerners. Who knows if we were able to convince governments to not go to war. Who knows, if we haven’t returned home after the peace march, what would have happened. Maybe we should have stay there, come back every weekend or something. The movements of the Arab Spring, they do. They are put in place and they don’t move, for a long time. They, perhaps, learned something from our mistakes, perhaps we inspired them in some way.
COPPOLA: Anyway, forgive the honesty, today is a fucking mess, very complicated to understand and address. I remember the crappy “export democracy“.
DAMON: Yes. Absurd. Democracy is a Western concept. You can not implant a piece of your body into another without that there is a rejection. It was a bit of a return to the days of the missionaries. The problem is that, on the other hand, there are those who want to reduce everything to one book – what’s is more of a very “fit” version of that book. Resembles the Cultural Revolution in China, only that Allah is obviously a much more ambiguous symbol. You know, Mao.
COPPOLA: Yes, it is “Islam, Do it yourself, Take what you need.”
DAMON: Exactly. And that is why is a fucking mess. Islam has wonderful things – Sufism, just as an example – and
the reduced it only to a destruction machine. It’s a fucking mess. We, moreover, we have destroyed our religion. Although I must say that the new Pope is pretty cool.
COPPOLA: You say?
COPPOLA: Ok. We Hope.
While we are talking about the Papa, we are advised that Damon soon must go and get ready for the concert – indeed,
concerts: they play at a club in London two times. In London are getting all mad mad mad for find out where and be put on the list to attend the greatest come back of the 90s.
COPPOLA: I think you have to go …
DAMON: Ah, yes.
COPPOLA: One last thing: did you see Montage of Heck, the documentary about Kurt Cobain?
DAMON: No, but it seems to me that the process of sanctification is proceeding well. Is there a fair trade on the dead rock, right?
COPPOLA: You think is not right?
DAMON: No. It’s just a human being, like you and me, but there is this tendency, especially if you die before a certain age, to be transformed in the center of a trade rather flourishing. Then you know, he was a man extremely interesting, who wrote great music. The legend is a later construction. I don’t know if it is right or wrong.
COPPOLA: Me neither. Ok, you have to go. Thanks so much, Damon.
DAMON To you, it was a conversation rather articulated.
COPPOLA: Oh. Yes. Well. Thank You.
Damon shakes my hand, turns to a keyboard and plays a little song. Then he looks at me and makes the unequivocal
gesture of beer, putting her hand cupped toward the mouth “I’ll see you after the concert.” I say ok, I think the cool britannia still has a chance and I go back to the hotel. Little before seven, I go to the concert. The atmosphere is actually cool. Is still all true. Two hundred people, all relaxed, no rush at the entrance, no queue at the bar. Understatement. Undisguised enthusiasm. At 7 o’clock is on stage Blur and start playing.
Everybody already know the single, “To the locaaaaal ” Damon sings, who is there to enjoy his people. Then Thought I Was a Spaceman, rough and sweet, beautiful when Coxon sings before the final, a bit psychedelic with a little French touch.
Blur continue – is a true concert pub, only that they are playing with perfection, and nothing between songs.
The fun I Broadcast, and then Damon sets up as a soldier-puppet who makes greeting and sings There Are Too Many of Us – with a kind of ironic march. Then a neoclassical Blur that attacks with la-la-la-la-la I wanna be with you. Mirrorball arrives, the last piece of the new album, with a nice blues riff by Coxon.
Then Damon says “goodnight“, and attacks with Trouble in the Message Centre, a piece which, he says, “we haven’t play it for twenty years.” Orgasmic moment. Damon empty water bottles on the first file, screams, sweats, jumps: it’s done, we came back with new songs and everyone likes it. Hooray. I feel well, they all feel good. I can think of the last Radiohead concert I’ve seen, in Bologna. I thought they were going to die of too much coolness. So that to Albarn and Coxon
will never happen, because they are so cool that will not risk never becoming too cool.