27th June, 2015
MIF15: Damon Albarn heads down the modern day rabbit hole in wonder.land
Damon Albarn pounces into the room like a frontman charging into a chorus, tinkles the ivories of a piano he’s passing and arrives in front of me, his gold front tooth glittering in his smile.
Today has been a good day. “This time yesterday afternoon, at about 6pm, I was really down and depressed,” he says about putting the daily finishing touches to his latest MIF commission, wonder.land.
“I’m much more optimistic today because we’ve had breakthroughs. But I might be suicidal again by this evening.
“If I thought after all the touring (with his band Blur) I’ve done I was going to chill out in Manchester for a week, stroll down to the theatre… well, it’s not like that at all.”
The musical – a modern adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, set in the new age rabbit hole of the internet – is Damon’s first, the only time he has composed music for the theatre minus words (it’s his fifth project for MIF following on from Gorillaz’s Demon Days Live, It Felt Like A Kiss, Monkey: Journey To The West and Dr Dee).
Writing the book fell to Olivier Award-winning dramatist Moira Buffini, a collaborator Damon says is a ‘definite songwriting partner’. “If she wants to do anything with me again, I’m sure it would work,” he says. “You can write a lot more if you’re not writing the words – that’s why Elton John did so well.”
Completing the creative trio is Rufus Norris, director of wonder.land (and Dr Dee) and new boss at the National Theatre to where the musical will transfer once it finishes its debut run at MIF.
After being read Alice In Wonderland by his mum as a small child, Damon never revisited it – not even in preparation for this. The terrifying and sinister dreams it has gifted him all his life are vivid enough, and he was keen to bring some of that dark experience to the music.
“It’s a musical, and something that has to be innately uplifting. And I arrive at those uplifting moments by being incredibly melancholy in my approach to music,” Damon explains.
“So I have decided, fanfare, scroll, lords and ladies…” he laughs, “that I’m in a genre called ‘ular’. It’s popular, but it’s not pop. So it’s ular. It describes it perfectly to me, and in the context of wonder.land it’s perfectly acceptable.
“It has the heart of pop: it’s trying to tell a story and be a family show. But because of the nature of Alice and Carroll, it is not pop – it’s ular. Hopefully it’ll be pop-ular. But at the moment who knows if anyone will like it?”
Memories of Carroll’s Wonderland aren’t the only topic tormenting Damon on this project. He’s an internet-phobe; he hasn’t got web access on his phone, he doesn’t use social media, and he doesn’t even like receiving phone calls.
“Childhood confession,” he sings, jazz hands waving. “I didn’t like the phone when I was a kid; I hated it so much that I once dismantled the PO box that takes the wire from the bottom of the street to the pole.
“I had to ring somebody, and I didn’t want to do it so I made the phone not work. I don’t like the telephone, it scares me; I never know what’s on the end of it.”
Creative heads are still being bashed on the project. Damon was at the Palace Theatre, where the set is now being installed and tested, from 8am to midnight making small changes. But then he has exacting standards.
He grew up around theatre and musicals; his mum in particular was involved in John Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and it’s the experimental spirit of that which he thinks his work on wonder.land demonstrates.
“I was very aware of Theatre Workshop as an idea growing up,” he remembers. “I was encouraged, I’m sure, but I loved it as well and I got involved at all opportunities that came my way.
“I started off singing Oliver!, then I did a bit of West Side Story, then The Boy Friend, Guys And Dolls, Orpheus In The Underworld, and a bit of Brecht as well. I think that’s what I associate with great musicals. I don’t particularly know Sondheim very well; I probably should have absorbed him before entering this arena!
“That’s the lovely thing about Workshop; if you’ve got that real taste for adventure in the way you’re working…” he smiles. “Some people choose to climb mountains, some people choose to write musicals.
“It’s a similar high jeopardy involved.”