By Lindsay Zoladz , April 7, 2014
The seasoned pop polymath talks about the time-traveling concept behind his upcoming debut solo album, Everyday Robots, writing a song for a gospel-loving Tanzanian baby elephant, and hitting the gym with his buddy Brian Eno.
On August 11, 1999, the South Coast of England plunged into darkness. The press had been talking it up for weeks—the last solar eclipse of the century—and on the designated hour, people grabbed blankets and folding chairs, and gathered all the way down Land’s End to get a view. “But, this being England, it was a very overcast day,” Damon Albarn sighs in recollection, “so there was nothing to look at.” Or at least not the expected thing. A more modern spectacle happened in its place: “Everyone was using the flashes on their cameras, so there was this moment, like a mania, when everyone started flashing-flashing-flashing and you could see it down the coast. In itself, it was kind of a magnificent event.”
This memory inspired “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)”, a pensive track off Albarn’s forthcoming, first-ever solo album, Everyday Robots. Many of its 12 songs meditate on the pervasive and sometimes-mind-numbing effects of technology (“When I’m lonely, I press play,” Albarn admits in one of the album’s singles, the jet-lagged video for which he shot on his iPad), but it stops short of condemning them outright. Instead, Everyday Robots sets out to find something personal and even poetic in our collective touch-screen dependency.
In the early stages of writing the album, he wandered around Leytonstone, the East London neighborhood where he grew up, filming places that were meaningful to him and seeing how the footage stacked up to his own memories. “I wondered what my experience would have been like if I went back to Leytonstone in 1976 and there had been modern technology, social networking,” he says over the phone from London. An avid cyclist and former paperboy, Albarn’s favorite spot in town was the intimidatingly steep hill he used to glide down on his paper routes. On his recent visit, he filmed himself sailing down it once again, iPad balanced precariously on the handlebars.
Everyday Robots is without a doubt the most personal album in Albarn’s long and incredibly varied career. Its songs have a collage-like texture that make them feel like hand-pasted scrapbook pages—the sound of long-dormant memories rustling suddenly back to life. To achieve its particular atmosphere, Albarn (and his trusty iPad) went around making “field recordings” of some of his favorite childhood haunts. The jubilant “Mr. Tembo” features the exact church choir he used to hear on his Sunday strolls through his village; the hypnotically forlorn “Hollow Ponds” is overlaid with sounds from his schoolyard playground. That last one begins during a heatwave in 1976, then jump-cuts to 1993 (“‘Modern Life’ was sprayed onto a wall,” Albarn sings, a slyly self-referential nod to the inspiration for Blur’s most iconic album title), and ends up filtered through the present day, when the neighborhood (thanks to a motorway built in the 90s) has changed as much as the narrator.
Even at its most introspective and melancholy, though, Albarn’s music has always been buoyed by a familiar sense of playfulness. With Blur (especially around the time of the band’s 1994 Britpop masterpiece Parklife) he wrote scathing social critiques that were animated by his impish charm, and the downcast sensibility of Gorillaz are… quite literally animated, by Albarn’s collaborator Jamie Hewlett. So although the overall tone of Everyday Robots is overcast, it’s occasionally punctuated by sudden light. This is most satisfying on the final song, the soulful sing-along “Heavy Seas of Love”, which features guest vocals from Albarn’s friend (and, as you’ll see below, gym buddy) Brian Eno. “I wanted it to end on a fairly positive note,” Albarn says. “Because I’m not a depressive, angst-ridden, neurotic middle-aged man.” He pauses, and lets out a dry English laugh. “Well, not entirely.”
Pitchfork: Why did this feel like the right time to make your first solo record?
Damon Albarn: It has to be attributed almost entirely to [XL Records owner] Richard Russell, who proposed it as a “next project” for both of us after we worked on Bob Womack’s album as producers. So we wondered if it would be possible for us to start a new band together—but then we looked at each other and realized that 45 is not a good time to start a male duo. [laughs] Then he said, “Well, I’d like to produce you.” So that’s what happened.
Pitchfork: In the early days of Blur you wrote a lot of character-based songs, and in Gorillaz you were literally playing a character. Did you find it difficult to shift into this more personal mode of songwriting?
DA: Actually, a lot of Gorillaz songs were very personal. I mean, that’s why it was interesting, because it wasn’t music being made for a cartoon. It was something different. It was a much more emotional affair. I wasn’t necessarily thinking in the third-person then.
I will grant you, though, that back in the Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape [era], I was singing in the third-person. But I sort of stopped after that. I mean, “Parklife” is a third-person song—although, mind you, I was running in a park recently and someone recognized me and started singing the lyrics: “You joggers who go round and round and round…”
Pitchfork: What are the significance of some of the field recordings on this record? Were you actually going to places where you had lived and recorded?
DA: Yeah, for example, the beginning of “Hollow Ponds”, that’s a recording of the playground of the small school I went to in Leytonstone, as it is now. It’s funny, David Bailey was taking my photo this morning, and we were talking about the fact that we both come from Leytonstone, along with Alfred Hitchcock and David Beckham.
Pitchfork: Did the choir you used on the record have any significance to you?
DA: They were from the church at the end of my road as a kid, which was really special to me. I used to stand outside it on Sundays, but I never felt like I could go in. There were really high stairs and it had a big gate. I went back a couple of years ago, though, and they were really nice people. So I thought if there was a place on this record, it would be a really lovely thing to contact them and see if they’d join me.
They sing on the song “Mr. Tembo”, and it was perfect because the song is about this little elephant I met in Tanzania, who was being brought up by very religious men. They watch a lot of gospel on television in Tanzania, so this elephant has grown up with a daily dose of gospel TV before bedtime. So it was originally my song for him; if he ever hears [the song], I figure he might sort of warm to its gospel flavor.
Pitchfork: Many of the album’s lyrics explore your relationship to technology. You’re critical of it in some ways, but you’re implicating yourself, too.
DA: Absolutely. That’s why a song like “Everyday Robots” or “Lonely Press Play” is in the first person. The album is about going back and seeing into the near future, wondering about the effect that that technology is going to have on us, emotionally. We’re in a period of massive technological transformation right now, and I wanted to comment on that.
Pitchfork: How would you describe your relationship to social media?
DA: Well, it’s a bit ambiguous. I get excited about it, but it also hampers me a lot of the time. I use it as a sedative. There are many examples of that, but I’ll leave it ambiguous.
My daughter is 14, and her generation—I mean, I don’t want to sound like a bastard, but I do find that their reliance on communicating constantly… Do you spend all your day talking to everybody as opposed to actually doing something? Is that something that just teenagers do, or will people grow out of it?
It only really just occurred to me and it’s probably just a load of old bollocks, but I have been thinking that the reason we had so many big cults back when I was younger is because there was no social media, and that was a way of feeling you were in a community. But now to become part of a community is so much easier.
Pitchfork: How did you come up with the video for “Lonely Press Play”?
DA: I like to put my iPad on the window and leave it there for however long the journey is, so that I’m staring out, and it’s staring out. We’re kind of staring out together. It’s very poetic to me, watching that absent-minded passing of time. You realize how much you’ve taken in. What is left of that memory of you staring out of the window for an hour? It’s all on the iPad. It has a lot of the melancholy of the record in the imagery.
Pitchfork: Brian Eno is on the album, and I know you guys have worked together on the Africa Express record. Did you know him before that?
DA: I’ve known him for about 12 years. I met him in our neighborhood health club. I was running on the treadmill, sort of anesthetizing myself yet again on machines. He was doing something more spatial: unisex water aerobics.