A London television studio. Channel 4’s The White Room, 13 March 1995. Two songwriters are seated. Ray Davies, now in his fourth decade of writing, the benchmark of musical character narrative, and beside him Damon Albarn of Blur, twenty-seven years old. The duo perform The Kinks’ classic ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and then an impromptu round of Blur’s ohrwurm ‘Parklife’. It was a moment that brought together two very different musicians both of whose work draws on a long songwriting tradition and is defiantly British in identity. By 1997, Albarn would have reinvented Blur and he would go on to greet the new millennium with the experimentalism of Gorillaz. A decade on, after a number of further musical experiments, Albarn is a liberated artistic force driven to explore music regardless of expectation or convention, and evidenced in his debut solo album ‘Everyday Robots’, released in spring 2014.
The songwriter’s ambition owes much to his musical upbringing. Home life in the Albarn family was bohemian: theatrical, musical, relaxed. His mother was a set designer for Joan ittlewood’s Stratford East theatre company. His father ran an art gallery and managed Soft Machine. Ten years after Damon’s birth on 23 March 1968, in Whitechapel Hospital, Leytonstone, the family moved to Colchester, Essex. Armed with huge self-confidence, Damon explored at Stanway Comprehensive School his twin affections for music and theatre. He had an early love affair with the writings of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (as a student he performed with the Berliner Ensemble) and was further influenced by Eric Satie and Vaughan Williams. One of his early compositions won a heat in the nationwide Young Composer of the Year competition. At school, he showed theatrical aspirations and regularly starred in musicals and rock operas, though equally happy performing or backstage. At sixteen he chose East 15 drama school to further his ambitions. This rejection of music for a dramatic career lasted a year. A series of forays into solo, duo and band scenarios was less than successful but resulted in a deal to use studio downtime. It provided the catalyst for Blur’s formation. Having enrolled on a part-time music course at Goldsmiths College in south London, and whilst holding down a job at Le Croissant at Euston Station, Damon by night developed and honed his writing skills.
As musicians came and went, a nucleus formed around his old school friend and guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree. Within a year of the band’s first rehearsal, their debut single ‘She’s So High’ entered the top fifty and made NME Single of the Week in October 1990.
It was a false dawn, and the reaction when the band toured the United States in 1992 was one of indifference. Blur’s chief songwriter found solace in alcohol, homesick for English ritual and simplicity. His new songs reacted against the Americanization of British culture, with social comment bolstered by the band’s bright pop delivery and traditional arrangements. Albarn’s awakening played out in Blur’s second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish. It contained a defiant songwriting stance against record-company economics and current taste. Sub-pop grunge in the wake of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was dictating the direction of guitar music and leaving British-sounding groups marginalized. Yet a month after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, a new Albarn song emerged that effectively redefined the musical landscape.
‘Girls and Boys’ was built around a four-chord turnaround bridging the worlds of alternative and mainstream pop. The crossover appeal lay not only in Albarn’s lyrical tongue-twister Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys but in the music’s unrestrained fusion of guitars locked to a 120-beats-per-minute dance rhythm. There followed a Pet Shop Boys remix solidifying the union of Eighties electronica and Nineties six-stringed accessibility. The lineage of ‘Girls and Boys’ can be traced back through the Eighties bass rhythms of Duran Duran and the melody of David Bowie’s ‘It’s No Game’ to the Seventies wordplay of Roxy Music’s ‘Editions Of You’: and boys will be boys will be boys. A distant echo from the past was the verbal dexterity of George Formby: if women like them like men like those, why don’t women like me? Blur’s impressive trilogy of albums between 1993 and 1995 clearly benefited from the environment created by earlier English songwriters: Madness, The Specials, XTC, Syd Barrett, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. The records were a celebratory mix of impressions from childhood, Sixties sensibility and music hall joviality. Traces of the Small Faces hummed through ‘Sunday Sunday’ as Blur conjured up weekend inertia and a war veteran’s nostalgia: the England he knew is no more. Notably, the singles’ B-sides revived old-time standards: ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’ and ‘Daisy Bell’. But Damon Albarn was more than a mere imitator. His modernism came from the connection with a common root of songwriting inspiration: the response to immediate surroundings. In 2011, looking out of his studio window he saw British wartime planes fly past en route to mark William and Kate’s royal wedding. Moments later the aircraft were pictures on his television screen, inspiring the opening lyrics for ‘The Marvelous Dream’: Hurricane spitting tornado / Growl over London today / Brought some God fire to the stay. Replete with recorders and flutes, the Elizabethan atmosphere plays cunningly with vocal time variations and a homage to songwriting four hundred years old.
Attention to suburban detail characterizes a rich vein of British lyricism and, combined with tight structures and melodic richness, it complements Albarn’s concise storytelling. In ‘Parklife’ the habitual voyeur oversees the rituals of so many people as they all go hand in hand through their parklife routines. The verses were voiced by Phil Daniels in a deft move to appease the actor when Albarn failed to deliver lyrics for Daniels’ intended contribution to ‘The Debt Collector’. Both songs appeared on the quadruple platinum album Parklife, which went on to spend over ninety weeks in the British charts. Nevertheless, Albarn was in emotional free fall, pensively revealing Blow, blow me out / I am so sad, I don’t know why. ‘Country House’ was one of the decade’s most memorable songs. Its verses vaulted lyrically through a series of internal rhymes: Balzac with Prozac, morning glory with Jackanory. Appearing in August 1995, it coincided with the release of ‘Some Might Say’ by the nation’s other much-loved group, Oasis. The public and the media feverishly projected a head-to-head rivalry onto the bands while fiercely championing their favourites. It was north versus south, working class versus middle class, philistine versus art. The debate gripped the country and the two acts became national news. The hysteria was nonsense, but nonetheless significant. Not since the Sex Pistols’ damnation after the Bill Grundy affair had British guitar music been such public property. Blur celebrated their first number one single and an Ivor Novello Songwriting Award shared with Noel Gallagher. Almost twenty years later the two lead singers shared a stage at the Royal Albert Hall to sing Albarn’s ‘Tender’ to a jubilant, if not shocked, audience. With Paul Weller on drums, the occasion firmly laid to rest the petty differences of the Nineties.
‘Country House’ appeared on the presciently named The Great Escape, which, although it matched the success of previous albums, also unmasked a writer suffering from panic attacks. Despite the upbeat melodies, these were not happy songs. Dysfunctional misfit characters, viewed without sympathy and often with open hostility, led the listener to question the writer’s lack of warmth. Albarn’s lyrics obsessed over the sexual activity of others in seaside-postcard style. The chorus of ‘Stereotypes’ was typical: Wife swapping is the future. The phrase had revolved around the writer’s mind months before the track was completed.
Albarn articulated his songwriting dilemma to the music press: ‘I’ve got to divorce myself from writing songs that have that semi-detached quality and go for shopping centres … reach that Britannia Book Club level. Y’know, take your trousers down at the Brits and then come back with an album that competes with Garth Brooks but is intelligent.’
Lyric writing does not come easily to Albarn. From his first recordings he has resisted the task. Talking t o NME in 1991, he remarked, ‘I don’t like using more than ten words in a song.’ Reflecting back to Q magazine a decade later he confessed: ‘I was an appalling lyricist: lazy, conceited, and woolly.’ During the rehearsals for 2011’s opera Dr Dee, director Rufus Norris was caught between frustration and fascination as he observed Albarn’s technique of making sounds to suggest the possibility of words. The director’s own contributions were rejected as lyrics finally emerged at the eleventh hour. As Albarn matured, emotional disclosure infiltrated his writing, often born from periods of inner turmoil. In 2003, ‘Out Of Time’ was delivered with a beguiling sensitivity: you’ve been so busy lately that you haven’t found the time. Albarn’s notebook for the song displays an ad hoc jumble of handwritten phrases and doodles. The page captures the creativity of random thoughts and associations written without reserve. (At a later stage Albarn then types up his ideas into a logical format over several drafts.) ‘No Distance Left To Run’ was an admission of a failed relationship, handled beautifully in voice and words. Captured for the accompanying video whilst awaking from sleep, the writer proffered its meaning: ‘It’s a warning … and a gentle reminder.’ Pervasive melancholia, in Albarn’s twenties masked by youthful exuberance, has increasingly revealed itself in his thirties and forties. The simple strains of his voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar invite listeners to appreciate his natural, pensive tone. ‘On Melancholy Hill’ has a simple arrangement and great honesty.
Stephen Street, producer of five Blur albums, believes 1997’s number one ‘Beetlebum’ was ‘the moment Damon defined his voice’. More significantly, the songwriter had turned his back on purely commercial directions in favour of greater artistic sincerity.
Gorillaz is a collaborative partnership with animator Jamie Hewlett. The project was born from a onepage draft manifesto that set out to dissociate music from the cult of celebrity. It was the birth of virtual pop. Gorillaz’ live debut in March 2001 was performed behind a screen of graphic projections soundtracked by a mixed palette of genres. Hip hop, rap, sampled loops: all helped to define the radical musical departure. It’s a sweet sensation over the dub are the first words sung on the band’s eponymous debut album. Albarn was escaping his perceived creative mould. Arrangements and song structures were freed of limitations. The top-five hit ‘Clint Eastwood’ grooves lazily between two bass notes and a drum loop. Its instrumentation is sparse apart from occasional effects or accented beats and a plaintive melodica reminiscent of film Westerns. Albarn sings one repeated chorus, with a rap taking the place of a traditional verse and ambiguity of meaning surrendering to the overall sense of the idea.
Gorillaz’ four studio albums show a songwriter at ease with experimentation. Demon Days, released in 2005, is the pinnacle of Albarn’s creative ability. A variety of keyboards, drum machines and rhythms are integrated into a range of pop music references: rock, reggae, orchestral strings, gospel and guest contributions. Prior to its release Albarn financed a double-page advert in the NME headlined NO WAR ON IRAQ. The record expressed his opposition to invasion: ‘I really wanted to create a piece that was a provocative reflection on the world I see out there. How bleak it is.’ In the mid-Nineties Albarn had been pursued by the then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair (as were Noel Gallagher and Jarvis Cocker). An invitation was extended to exchange views at his Westminster office. But by the time of New Labour’s euphoric landslide victory in the 1997 general election, pop-Britannia allegiance had slid off Blair’s political radar. Now, his foreign policy was governed by 9/11. The new world order divided the nation. Over one million citizens, including Albarn, marched through London opposing British troop deployment against Saddam Hussein. Albarn’s song titles indicated precisely his lyrical focus: ‘Last Living Souls’, ‘Kids With Guns’, ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’, ‘All Alone’. Addressing the global view, ‘Hong Kong’ questioned: Is the rise of an Eastern sun gonna be good for everyone? Across Demon Days, Albarn’s personal terrors battled with a conscious political agenda: So hard for a good soul to survive / You can’t even trust the air you breathe. Five years later, Plastic Beach picked up the environmental baton. The abundance of world recording artists responding lyrically to the writer’s inviting concept was remarkable: Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, and Lou Reed.
In his mid-forties, Albarn’s drive to be immersed in and challenged by music making has never been stronger. In various guises his songs have sold in the millions. The first three Gorillaz releases have achieved over sixteen million sales alone. Albarn thrives on the unknown. He holds the challenge of discovering new musical possibilities in greater esteem than what he regards as the often imperfect final products. In 2007, a one-off project, The Good, The Bad And The Queen, brought together the rhythmic combination of Clash bass player Paul Simonon and Nigerian Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen. The ensuing release was one of Albarn’s greatest works: London’s gothic, supernatural quality captured by a musical soundtrack evocative of the prose of the city’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd.
I met Damon in mid-production as he was composing songs about the life of Dr John Dee, the mathematician, polymath and advisor to Elizabeth I, for the Manchester Festival and Cultural Olympiad at the English National Opera. Four years previously his score Monkey: Journey To The West had provided the soundtrack to a Chinese modern opera. Damon is an artist pushing increasingly the possibilities of his songwriting. There have been soundtrack collaborations with classical composers Michael Nyman and Einar Örn Benediktsson and an award-winning album co-written and produced for Bobby Womack. Africa Express, in 2006, encouraged cross-cultural fertilization between African and Western music in the wake of Live 8. Six years later a customized train travelled around the UK with eighty Western and African musicians aboard conducting workshops and impromptu performances. Mali Music was recorded in aid of Oxfam. A choral piece was performed on a Greenpeace boat on the River Thames as a protest against the government’s plans to replace Trident nuclear missiles. In 2003, the Beagle 2 spacecraft, bound for the surface of Mars, carried a sequence of nine notes composed by Blur. The ill-fated mission coincided with the demise of the band, yet as Damon points out, a reformed group and tour in 2009 culminated in a huge display of audience affection at the summer’s Glastonbury Festival.
Outside the French windows on the top floor of Damon’s west London studio, the sun shone and commuters rattled past on the city overground. Whilst we talked he sipped from a pint glass of nettle tea. Sporting a ragged beard and a worn leather jacket, Damon presents a hobo image. His speaking voice reveals teen years spent in Colchester and his subsequent return to hometown London. We sat opposite one another with records spanning his career as far back as his debut single spread on the floor between us.
Amused to note some missing releases, Damon pondered and searched for his trains of thought. In one telling exchange, he explained his reluctance to share some elements of his creative ability. Like many writers, he fears that the natural process may be damaged by being articulated.
You’re currently working on the opera Dr Dee?
It’s a really interesting thing we’re doing. It gives me an excuse to write the most English music I’ve ever written. It’s going right back to Modern Life Is Rubbish but taking it a lot further.
In 1991 you said, ‘The trick of pop music is to rip off as many people as possible, but choose the right people.’
(Laughs.) Rip off! When did I say that?…’91 … well I was full of fucking … rip off … rip off … my command of the English language has slightly improved over the years. I’m not quite as flippant about stuff. Rip off … did I really say that? In my day there was no formal education for songwriting. Now there’s all these academies. The people that come out of them are very adept. They’ve got a bit of understanding of how the business works. They must have some sort of psychological training, because they seem a lot less likely to do rash things. I’m in two minds about the whole pop music as a career. How can you define creativity? You can define success. Creativity is a series of mistakes. It’s not about success. Success can come out of creativity, but there will never be success in creativity … guaranteed. You can guarantee success, but you can’t call it creative all the time. I don’t know whether we have better pop music now or worse. What do you think?
I think you’re always tied to what you connected with as a child.
Yes, but now there’s no cause and effect. Taking for example Adele: it’s an organization. It’s a fantastic young singer in the middle and well-managed creative behind. I suppose it’s always been the same. It’s more transparent now because of all these light entertainment processes we’re subjected to showing us exactly how you take somebody off the street and turn them into a pop star.
Do you await inspiration or is writing a compulsion; do you write daily?
I work from ten to five, five days a week.
Have you always?
Since I got my first studio. This is my second studio. I had a much smaller one over the other side of Ladbroke Grove. I always write every day anyway, but with four-tracks and stuff … now I have a huge great four-track … a four-storey-track.
Is the intention to always create something within those hours?
Oh yeah, that’s what I do. I don’t have a set routine. With Dr Dee it’s been … you set yourself certain parameters. I started off just becoming comfortable in traditional modes, especially Mixolydian. Medieval music was built on modes, so I’ve been listening to that music for the last year. Just getting to the point where I can be instinctive about it. I can write music, but it’s very slow. I like to be able to listen because I’ve grown up in that culture of always recording everything I do on a four-track or a tape recorder or a seventy-two-track and listening, and then I get my perspective. I’ve been writing the whole piece on my own for the first three or four months. Just recording everything and making the sounds through strange means and medieval instruments, trying to get the tonality and understand what’s going on. So the process this year has been different from the year preceding which was starting with drum machines and Gorillaztype stuff, which is different from The Good, The Bad And The Queen, or Blur which is very simple song ideas on guitars and then you work with a band. Some things start very hermetic in the sense I keep it all very internal, how I see the bigger picture. Sometimes I’ll just record four bars and then that’s it and I’ll move on knowing that it will develop into something much bigger. It’s just a reference. Some days I’m just sketching. Sometimes I’m being a bit more detailed. Towards the end of each process it gets really specific.
Rocket Juice & The Moon started with just Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Tony Allen and myself sitting in a room: one synth, drums and bass doing a whole album of live grooves and then building it up from there. Later Erykah Badu came in and laid down some vocals. Mali Music was a totally different process: travelling around Mali with a tape recorder recording everything in a particular period of time and then going back and using Pro Tools; chop it all up and make music out of it. I’m doing another record like that after John Dee in the Congo. I’m taking young producers out to Kinshasa and then up to Goma where the civil war is. Similar sort of process: everyone goes there with laptops and tape recorders and we meet at the end of each day and do a sort of sound clash. Try and make an album in eight days. Within all of those disparate processes the common thread is turning up and just getting on with it. I see myself in terms of a farmer. I get up in the morning and I do my work. Sometimes it’s putting seeds in. Sometimes it’s husbandry. Sometimes it’s praying for good weather. Anything that becomes your life is affected by seasonal and emotional circumstance. For example, I’ve got a studio on the second floor that looks out there, that I’ve done a lot of writing over the years in. I’ve got those trees there and the chapel. In the winter my outlook is different from the summer. That’s the nice thing about doing it every day. There’s such an inbuilt variety in the calendar. You no longer see it like, ‘Oh, I’m going to work, where’s my inspiration coming from?’ because it’s there every day. You don’t have to search too far.
Do you carry a notebook?
I always start a notebook for everything and I’m very intense with my ideas for the first couple of months and then … I’ve never finished a notebook. There’s always about a third of it left which is just virgin and never filled. Maybe one day I’ll go back through my books and give them all an epilogue.
With ‘Chemical World’ and ‘For Tomorrow’ the record company asked you to come up with a single. Do you have the ability to create something that has a capacity to be popular?
Yes … well, that’s not possible. You can definitely set course for something that’s maybe simpler and easier for people to identify with immediately.
How do you develop vocal melody?
If it’s on a guitar I fiddle around until I’ve got something I’m enjoying playing and I just let it happen. Melody can come from anything … one comes to my head and I put it on my phone. Because I’ve done it with such regularity for so long, it is like second nature writing melody. It’s the thing I find most natural. It’s the other stuff that’s hard.
Are your melodies always suited to your vocal range ability as they develop?
Yeah, because I’m singing it. It’s always in the right key; that’s the hardest thing writing for other people’s voices in Dr Dee. I’ve got twelve other voices to write for and because all my melody tends to come from an emotional response to whatever it is I’m playing, it is trial and error. I keep doing this stuff and then get the person in, because we’ve got rehearsals down the road. And then it’s not quite right or they can’t articulate it the way I do, so it doesn’t sound right to me. At the moment I just do it every day, so some days are good and some days are not so good.
Do melodies vary depending on which instrument you’re writing with?
Yeah, I started off on the piano because that’s what I grew up playing. In the early days of Blur it was too rich harmonically and didn’t have the feeling that a bunch of young lads playing together needed. So I taught myself very, very basic guitar and I haven’t got any better in twenty years. I’ve kept it at that very naïve stage, purposely simple. My piano playing has definitely developed. I do write on the piano but it’s a very different feeling that comes out. It’s generally more sentimental on the piano than the guitar.
Do you have favourite keys that you gravitate towards?
(Fast Show accent.) I’ve been mostly playing in the key of D for the last six months. John Dee: D. It’s also the most popular key of the Renaissance; also, funnily enough, in Africa, and as I’ve got some African musicians it’s really good because modally their instruments like the kora is happiest in D. D is a very universal key. But I’ve written in most keys really. D, C, around that area. A lot of minor as well.
You distinctively mix a lot of out-of-key chords within songs.
The longer you spend in that world, the further you can move around. I’d like to think I know the relationship between most chords and the intervals and what happens. It’s just familiarity with your work.
Does familiarity breed limitation, touching on why you limit your guitar-playing capacity?
No, because as soon as I hear myself doing anything I’ve done before I just do something else. I go the other way or I just go below or above. I can’t bear repeating myself. I’ve always felt … it’s about where you end up and the great thing is the process from that first point to that end point. Everything you’re doing in between is in some way an experiment that wasn’t quite right. I never feel I’ve done anything that is completely perfect. As soon as I’ve finished something I think, that’s shit, right, I better start again.
You once said, ‘You have to go into the wilderness to get really good ideas.’
What, literally!… I get my backpack and my ration of biscuits and chocolate and head out to Willesden. I refuse to be categorized. As you’ve probably gathered, my mind goes all over the place. I get into the world that I’m in at the time very deeply. The wilderness, figuratively, is I go into places I’m unfamiliar with. Yeah, definitely. You get totally absorbed in something and then you really think you’re there and then something hits you in the face and you realize you haven’t … you’ve only just scratched the most minute part of the surface. That’s why I’m very happy that this is my job, this is my life. It’s impossible to own it. It’s so fluid and mysterious to me still.
When you write words, how far will you go before you edit your initial stream?
I always allow a first thing to come out. Sometimes it has a few great words in it and then a load of rubbish. The words come at the same time as the melody, always.
Are you recording that?
Yeah. I get a few lines that the metre is just perfect. It’s just the luck of the draw if something makes sense that comes out of my mouth. If I left everything on my first draft a lot of it would sound like I’m speaking in tongues. I like that. That’s why I very rarely listen to English-language music, because I find immersion prohibitive if I understand it too well. It needs to be somehow alien, then I can just let myself go.
Maybe that’s just a hang-up I have. It’s not that I don’t like great lyrics and poetry. I aspire to that all the time. I find that a lot harder than making music, a lot harder. I’m getting to the point now with Dr Dee where I’ve got to really nail the words. Everyone’s starting to go, ‘Well, come on, what’s this actually about?’ There’s a lot of urhghghgh at the moment.
Is ‘Rockit’ a good example of that?
‘Rockit’: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s just a first take, done, finished, no thought. That’s just, ‘Right, I’ve got to do this and just do it straight.’ (Animated.) I like it. I just made it up as I went along. It kind of works … sometimes it does. Like ‘Green Fields’ I actually wrote for Marianne Faithfull. It was in a little basement studio on the Goldhawk Road. I was with Alex James and her. It was very late at night. I literally sat down at the piano and wrote the whole song perfectly, just off. If that happened every time there’d be twice as many records as this.
Similarly with ‘Song 2’ I understand the words just came out, but you tried to rewrite them.
My version of ‘Song 2’ was about a third slower and Graham sped that up. It’s definitely better the way it ended. Although to be honest we had to do a few B-sides: ‘Oh, here’s one I’ve got’ … you know. The words were what I sang, but what I sing you can sort of make out what I’m saying and then I try and articulate it. That’s how I work. I do something really quickly and then I have to go and listen to it and go, ‘Was I really saying that?’ On Demon Days, bless him, Brian: Danger Mouse, he wanted to keep the metre of what I’d babbled. He actually sat down and painstakingly made sense of everything that I’d written, which was an act of love, I think. It’d be perfect for me to have someone who was constantly around who had a poetic sensibility but could work out my speaking in tongues stuff. It’d be a great partnership: it’d be my Tim Rice, but it just wouldn’t be like that.
How important is the narrative, or do you just go with the sound of words?
I tend to go with the sound of the words. It’s important to have some kind of direction. All of these records definitely have a mood to them, some very specifically like The Good, The Bad And The Queen and 13, that’s a very specific record, and Modern Life Is Rubbish. This is the record where I really changed. This is where the gobbledegook started (picks up The Great Escape CD), after this the gobbledegook really kicked in. Up until here, all these three (picks up Modern Life and Parklife CDs), they’re all very thoughtout, third-person narrative stuff. We’d made this under extreme pressure. Suddenly something quite enormous had happened to us and to British music at the time. We’d gone from being an indie band into being a stadium band almost in six months. We were doing this when the Brits were happening and all that tabloid stuff. We were enjoying it. It was a lot of hangovers. I got a little too over-analytical about what I was doing. After that there was a real change and then it started to get a lot more abstract. It came back to focus again with this record (The Good, The Bad and The Queen); that had a real …
It’s quite a big gap …
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff in between.
Had you lost the ability to focus?
No, I just wanted to do other stuff. I wasn’t interested in doing songs about he and she and us, just seeing what else … being much more oblique, in a way.
I’m interested by your relationship with Ray Davies’s music. At the time you described ‘One Born Every Minute’ as ‘The Kinks song Ray never wrote’, and with ‘End Of A Century’, said ‘I got my Kinks book out for that one.’
I studied Ray Davies, in the sense I really listened to it and understood … worked out what was going on.
To understand writing patterns?
No, it was just a feeling, and once you get into that mood: the descending bass line … It was something I felt very comfortable with. In a way, the more you explore your musical heritage, in the sense of your cultural identity, you realize what makes stuff unique is the individual’s interpretation of something that is actually already there. There’s very strong elements of folk in what Ray does and there’s very strong elements of folk in what I do. He chose to really mine that area a lot more … for me it was a period. But then again, I do keep coming back to it; there was a big departure until The Good, The Bad And The Queen. But now Dr Dee is the most English piece I’ve ever done. It’s so English, it’s just ridiculously English. It’s coming right back to my roots.
Is it important to reflect Englishness in your writing?
I love it, but I just can’t do it all the time. I need to stand back and go away and do other stuff. This (pointing at Gorillaz records) is sort of hip hop but also a lot of dance influence. It’s not very English at all, in fact. But it’s just as much a part of me as that. I love singing about where I live. I love this place. You can’t express it all at once. I express a bit of it, then I go away and then I come back and focus on another bit and get really obsessed with that. Then get that out of my system and wait until another part grabs me.
When did your writing start drawing from within yourself?
I’ve done that ever since the beginning really. I try not to get too self-conscious about what I’m doing. I just get on with it. This is what this farmer … I’m a nine-to-five musician. Obviously, I can’t quite control it like that. There are nights … when Erykah Badu … she was supposed to come at five in the evening. She didn’t turn up till twelve-thirty and we didn’t leave until five, half-five, six in the morning. Obviously it’s not perfect. I like being with my family at weekends and during the school holidays. Obviously if an idea comes to me during those periods of not-work, then I won’t be obstructive to it. I’ll sneak away in between roasting the potatoes and satisfy my compulsion and put it away again. I don’t do anything else. I’m completely obsessed by it. There has to be some discipline otherwise I would do it all the time. I don’t ever get tired of making music. If I didn’t have any family … God knows … it would never stop.
Was ‘No Distance Left To Run’ a difficult song to write?
Yeah, that whole record (13) was not easy to write. I hope I don’t have to write another album like that again. I just felt fucking miserable. It’s a miserable record but it does have ‘Tender’ on it, which is the opposite of that. It’s incredibly uplifting, as we realized at Glastonbury. It was extraordinary: to come out of something dark and dismal to be such a celebration. It’s interesting, something’s life … You never know how long it’s going to last. The fact that it’s even lasted nearly ten years is great. Music doesn’t last forever.
Some music lasts a lot longer than others. You can’t put a shelf life on a piece of music. Look at The Beatles, how long that lasted. It’s a strange alchemy for the things that last. You can’t actually put your finger on it. It goes back to ‘Chemical World’ and ‘For Tomorrow’: can you try and make a hit? No, you can’t, but you can concentrate on certain specific aspects. I thought ‘Out Of Time’ would be an absolute killer and it wasn’t. It doesn’t always work. But then some things take a lot longer to settle. The point is, even though at this point, twenty-two years in, I have no idea how to write a hit single. I genuinely don’t. I may never write another hit single. A little secret corner of my heart would like that. I’m sure Paul McCartney secretly feels the same way … just one more.
Who is a soundboard, barometer to your work?
Who do I play my stuff to? My mates. They’ve had to put up with far too many late nights listening to my demos over the years. My daughter is my harshest critic. Absolutely brutal.
Kids have a great melodic sense.
Yeah, but then I hear her liking stuff which I just think is whack. They know what they like, that’s for sure. They’re far more confident in their choices than adults. They cut through a lot of the artifice and just go, ‘That’s really good.’
Let’s talk about some specific songs that you’ve written: the incredibly infectious ‘Clint Eastwood’, I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad / I got sunshine in a bag / I’m useless, but not for long / The future is coming on.
You’re asking me to discuss two things I’m not particularly comfortable with. Which are: what you meant by what you said, and two, what do you think your contribution had been? Although you haven’t asked the second one, that will come. But you’re asking the first difficult question. Well … what do you think it means?
You’re not getting away with that … I have no idea, but it makes me feel good.
Yeah … the funny thing is, on this last world bloody tour I did with Gorillaz I definitely got the sense that people were singing I ain’t happy, I’m feeling sad . I’d never ever sing that. That’s just not me. The truth is, people just like a catchy tune. It’s so different what I was actually saying: I’m not happy, but I’m glad … that … whatever it is that I’ve got in my bag (laughs). I’m not sad, but I’m not happy. I’m glad.
The mood of the thing is entirely different if you take it … but I could hear 20,000 people a night in America singing I’m feeling sad … yeah! I suppose it doesn’t matter because the overall mood is the same. If you’ve noticed, I haven’t answered your question.
You have kind of.
Kind of. Yeah.
It’s intriguing talking to songwriters and discovering what is and what is not comfortable territory. If that’s a private space for you that’s fine.
Yeah, it is, it has to be. I have some quite mad thought processes when I’m writing and if I articulated them on paper I’d feel like I’d let some of that tension go. I think it’s important to maintain some of that confusion in my head, you know.
How collaborative was your writing with Graham, for example, ‘Tender’?
When he had something it would be something he would slot in. In that case Oh my baby. He had a little demo with that on. It was in the same key, I think. So we put them together and they felt very natural.
Would you ever write together in the same room?
No. We’d arrange and change things together. He didn’t write in anywhere near the volume I wrote. But not sitting down together. But it was definitely collaborative because songs transformed with his interpretation. But the initial thing generally was done privately on both sides.
My daughters have spent weeks trying to sing the chorus of ‘Girls And Boys’ without the music on but they get stuck in the tongue-twisting words. We saw Graham in Regents Park and he sang it to Lottie perfectly.
I don’t know if I can do it. I tend to just go with the flow whenever I sing that song. That was a proper demo, just keyboard (mimes; finger-thumb 1st / 5th oscillation). That was easy. It came really quickly, virtually just one go.
What were you trying to achieve lyrically?
Those first lines came to me in Magaluf, but it wasn’t as easy as Greece: oh ’cause that was police, fuck it, it’s Spain; you mean following the herd down to Magaluf. The spirit is the same. The whole of that period was looking at the way … it’s mad the way that Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife, the perception of them was a celebration of all things English, but actually it was a lament to the loss of … the transitional period of our culture into what we have now, which is a fully Americanized system.
A recurring Ray Davies theme.
Absolutely, that’s why I completely … did you ever see us singing ‘Waterloo Sunset’?… I sound like I’m just there with him, the harmony … With Ray Davies and David Bowie I felt very close to them both. They were the people that I related to the most and put on a pedestal and considered to be … If stuff during that period, if I felt remotely like Ray Davies or David Bowie, emotionally for me, I was quite excited about it.
Did you deconstruct Bowie songs…?
Deconstruct constantly. I’ve been deconstructing Dufay and Perrichon and Janequin, Renaissance composers … you do that all the time.
Are you classically trained?
Badly, yeah. I did most of my grades on piano. I played in youth orchestras. I got somewhere between grade six and eight.
Shall we say seven?
No, it wasn’t as simple as that, but I was never good at exams. I played violin up until grade five or six.
I noticed at a Gorillaz gig recently you had scored music on your piano. You rarely see that with rock and pop musicians.
Are you sure they weren’t just some words I’d forgotten? I do work with scores but my reading is not good. I’m much better just learning everything. You have to get to a point where you can play with your eyes closed. You have to really, really let music become that completely transcendental thing, whatever it may be. You have to be blind. I’m really looking forward to doing Amadou and Mariam’s gig at the Manchester International Festival. They’re playing completely blind. The whole audience is in pitch darkness so that everyone listens to it as how they hear it.
Did you write ‘Parklife’ as prose or was it in metre for singing, as such?
I had (sings riff) and the chorus. I think I wrote it as prose. It sounded really weird to me when I did it. Graham and I had a childhood obsession with Meantime and Quadrophenia so we just chanced it and contacted Phil Daniels. It was so natural and immediate when he did it. It was fantastic.
You performed ‘Essex Dogs’ at the Poetry Olympics in 1996: From this town, the English army grind their teeth into glass. Do you often write away from song?
I needed to say all of those things. It was about Colchester. Then Michael Horovitz asked me if I’d present it in a more poetry-friendly way. I wasn’t trying to say this is poetry. It was just the most word-y thing I had.
Another line from that song reminded me of Terry Hall: the smell of puke and piss on your stilettos.
Yes, exactly, very close.
The musicality of Jerry Dammers is very evident in your work, particularly in Gorillaz.
Yeah, absolutely. There wouldn’t have been Gorillaz without Fun Boy Three or The Specials or Big Audio Dynamite, and obviously De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest.
Do you use other musicians from your musical past as a starting point for your ideas? For example ‘Slow Country’; was that born out of ‘Ghost Town’?
It’s got a similar sound in the background. Did I sample ‘Ghost Town’ ( quietly) in a way no one could ever hear it? I can’t remember. It’s definitely got that atmosphere about it.
‘To The End’ has five bars in the verse, which is quite unusual. Do you think in terms…?
… I think more and more in what would be perceived as strange time signatures. The next pop record I make, which is a very loose term; if you’re talking about how do ideas start, well, I have an idea to make a record where there is no 4/4 ever in it and see if I can make that pop. Especially with what I’m doing at the moment; it’s all in seven, eleven and thirteen and nine.
Time signature as a conscious starting point?
Yes, as a conscious starting point because that’s all you need, is a starting point. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing pleasant, charming English ditties, or doing hip hop / Specials-influenced tunes where someone sings a cool infectious melody and then someone does a rap. But all these things are areas which I’ve really enjoyed … and I probably won’t make another record in Mandarin.
What are you trying to achieve as a songwriter? What drives you to make these changes, to go beyond where you are comfortable?
I love the whole mystery, as you say, going out into the wilderness and becoming at one … with my wilderness (laughs). It’s an enormous amount of joy and energy from just the very idea that I just can get up in the morning and go anywhere in my head.
Can music be conquered?
No, I’m not trying to conquer it. I just scatter myself every day amongst its magnificence.
Did 9/11 affect you as a songwriter?
Yes, it definitely made me sober up a bit … realize that I had a family and I needed to become a little less self-absorbed.
And the influence for Demon Days came from that.
Yes, both of those albums. It was a difficult one for Jamie, Plastic Beach. It was about recycling and rubbish. It’s not the sexiest of subject matters but I’m glad I made a record dedicated to those sorts of ideas.
Did you influence how the guests wrote on those records?
With Plastic Beach you’ve just got to meditate on plastic and rubbish. Like Lou Reed met me in the morning at the studio. We talked over it. He got in a cab, went uptown, did something, came back downtown, got out the cab and did the thing. He’d written it in the cab journey up and down; a very Lou Reed, New York thing to do. I love collaborating with people. It makes my job a lot less lonely. But then again I need to have a healthy dose of loneliness and a good old shot of melancholy, once in a while. That’s the fuel of music.
Up on melancholy hill / There’s a plastic tree / Are you here with me?
It doesn’t get worse (laughs loud). That’s as sad as it gets … There’s no life then left … a tree made of plastic … And humanity, which is bound to become extinct under a plastic tree. It’s annoying, that song; I don’t think I quite got it right. When I sing it just me on the guitar it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written, but I slightly overcooked it on the record.
Why do you think there are so few female writers in this country?
There’s loads of very musical women out there. It’s the selfish gene … of the man, maybe. I’m not qualifying that. That’s it.
Do you remember the first song that you wrote?
My mum’s got a lot of these early demos still. I started in exactly the key I’m still in: depressing, miserable, melancholic, with just a little glimpse of hope. It was something about nuclear power stations and acid rain. I also remember getting the twelve-inch of the Human League’s ‘The Lebanon’ and using my dad’s record player, my cassette player and then having another cassette player and mixing one of his Arabic albums over the top of that. I was trying to do stuff like that (Gorillaz) right back then, very, very crudely.
Why did you start writing?
I used to get into trouble with my dad. He was aware that I would be playing Mozart or Schumann and it would suddenly become a lot simpler; the arrogance of youth. I was very distracted from my classical studies and very interested in just letting it out.
Am I right in saying you didn’t buy many records?
I listen to music all the time and I have a lot of records. I definitely have bought more records in the last ten tears than the previous twenty. It’s strange if you make music all the time … I don’t listen to records over and over again. Maybe once or twice, really listen to it, and then I need something new.
The opposite of an artist like Paul Weller whose collection continually inspires his career?
It’s in his DNA. I’ve never been anything. It’d be nice when I drop off this mortal coil, a pleasant sense of one’s worth, if there was some kind of thread through the whole thing.
Could you define that thread?
Joy in mystery.