By Pablo Plotkin
At nine in the morning, after eating his porridge and running in the park, Damon Albarn walks to this quiet and lonely street of West London and gets to work. Sited in front of a little church, his studio could be an auto parts factory. There’s no indication in the front of the building that this place is the laboratory of one of the more prolific and innovative musicians of the last decades.
At quarter past ten in the morning, Albarn enters in the studio with his dreamy expression, the perfect synthesis of disdain and charm, a dose of distant complicity and a typically british look of who gives a fuck. He wears a blue shirt, jeans and a pair of pink All Stars so wasted that they look white. He has a beard of a few days and when he smiles his golden tooth shines in the middle of his mouth. He could be a Dickens character. He sits on a couch full of Hindu cushions. There is a little carousel in one corner of the room that seems to be a relic. A photo of Bobby Womack on the wall and a map of the Belgian Congo.
The last April, Blur released his first record in twelve years. The Magic Whip is the result of 40 hours of recording in Hong Kong, where the band spent a week after the cancellation of a few gigs in Japon. The album redefines the musical chemistry of Blur as a band of the XXI century and projects a vision of a world slowly falling into emptiness.
But Albarn, 47, wouldn’t be able to contemplate the disaster and see how all his plans disappear in the middle of a world tour with his rock band, so in this morning of early September he’s working in the second version of his musical, Wonder.land, an adaptatio
After debuting in July at the Manchester International Festival with regular criticism, he is fixing the score for the big premiere at the National Theatre in November.n of the Lewis Carroll book, where Alice escapes to a digital world.
“The thing is when you’re doing a play for a festival you have a very strict deadline. In this case I detected some mistakes that I’ve made. Beautiful mistakes, anyway, positive mistakes.”
How he define a positive mistake? “I tried to mix the electronic sound with something more acoustic, sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. It is a complex process try to do something cool and, at the same time, populist. Is easy to do something popular with an immediate impact that won’t last very long because is not good, and is also easy to do something cool with no commercial pretensions. Merge both things is the most difficult. This premiere has to be necessarily better, because it is scheduled for 90 functions. It can’t be mediocre”
This communion between cool and popular seems to be a principle that reigns on Albarn’s career. While Blur faces the last part of his tour, the singer begins to record the new Gorillaz record. If his first big achievement was to return the self-esteem to the english rock, his second achievement was to make himself invisible with Gorillaz.
“I have to get on it. I’ve already sketched some things, but first I need to finish the musical.”
When we enter in his space work, Damon explains his creative method: “I write alone. In the case of Wonder.land, I wrote it on the piano. Gorillaz is different, is something more eclectic. I’m going to record it fast. I write the songs and then a call the guests, and we put everything together.
Albarn chooses to work everyday, practically at office hours. He is methodic, ambitious, perfectionist and you could define him as a workaholic. “I work from 9 to 5, five days a week” says while we go through the rooms.
Two days after, Blur closes the Electric Picnic Festival in Ireland. We still are in summer but the night is pretty cold. At the end of the show, Damon sings The Universal, a hymn that talk about a future that is sold, where satellites monitor every house. In front of a 40k crowd Albarn projects his triumphal aura: a rockstar from the 90’s that was able to transcend that era.
“What a mad, eclectic, unlikely band of genius Blur are.” wrote The Irish Times in his review of the gig. “They do, enough sounds for several different, totally viable bands. Yeah, it was never really about Blur vs Oasis – it was always about Blur vs Blur.”
The story tells that Damon Albarn invented the britpop while touring US in 1992, in a huge tour intended to pay Blur´s £60.000 debt. It was the explosion of grunge, Seattle was the center of the world and everyone sounded American. Albarn created an alternative: he grabbed the style of The Kinks and presented a cynic image of the british society. That plan was reflected in 3 albums between 93′ and 95′ (Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife y The Great Escape). The mediatic dispute with Oasis got to his climax the week they both released their singles and “Country House” beated “Roll With It”.
Albarn’s satiric vision of the English culture started to fall in front of the melodic populism and emotional simplicity of the Gallaghers.
What happened was that the father of Britpop became his first victim, but was his personal crisis the one which urged to the reinvention of the band. Two records captured this moment (Blur and 13): the decline of the band, the panic attacks of the frontman and the break up with Justine Frischmann.
In this context Blur came to Argentina in November of 1999 to play two gigs at the Luna Park Stadium. Damon seemed tired while talking to the press. He was 32 and didn’t want to play the hits, but at the same time he was ambitious and wanted the shows to be effective. The next year he would travel to Africa for the first time and then create Gorillaz, selling millions of records around the world.
Coxon got into rehab in 2002 and until 2008 he wouldn’t have a real conversation with Albarn, when they came back to play a few gigs (Hyde Park, Glastonbury). Blur could have just keep touring the world with their hits, but Graham Coxon, that in 2003 saw how the band released a record without him, felt that they had something new to say.
In November of 2014, the guitarist told to Damon his desire of work with the Hong Kong recordings. In Albarn’s routine, those recordings were part of the past. Nevertheless, he agreed with his friend decision and Coxon became the Dr. Frankenstein of The Magic Whip.
Do you think Blur is a way to come back to something that you no longer are?
Sometimes I have that feeling when I’m on stage. The question is there. This is what I really want? Am I just doing what everyone expect from me or I’m living the moment? But you feel this kind of happiness in the gigs, that connection between the band and the crowd; I suppose that’s what it pushes me forward.
How much of The Magic Whip was defined in the Hong Kong sessions?
Most of it, really. The melodies were almost finished, so it didn’t change much. What Graham did was organize the material. And once we decided that is was going to be about Hong Kong, writing the lyrics didn’t take long.
You came back to Hong Kong for this.
Yes, I went back to Asia, this time with the music and the melodies. It was interesting. It was like to have a deja vu with a soundtrack to accompany. The challenge was to find a way to articulate those feelings.
There is a sci-fi side in many songs of the record, like Pyongyang and Thought I was a Spaceman. Are you an avid reader of the genre?
No much. When I was younger some Bradbury books had a lot of impact on me, but I’m not a men of science fiction. I see some movies, but not much more than that. Anyway, I think Bradbury it was an important influence. As regards to literature, I’ve been living in a world without sci fi for a while. What happens is that sometimes I read things related to the work. When I did Dr Dee, for example, I started reading about medieval history, Queen Isabel, I spent a few hours per day reading that kind of stuff. But now I want to begin to read a bit more of fiction. Maybe is time to start living in a more fictitious world.
Do you take notes while traveling, to write the lyrics after?
I write lyrics all the time, so when I have to do something I look for things that were just around my head and I expand them. Is a very fluid process.
The Magic whip was a way to close your relationship with Graham?
Yes, I think it was important to be able to reconcile us, understand us, and enjoy again each other’s company. Between 2000 y 2009 there was an empty space about what we were and what we were feeling. Somehow, this way of recording the album was an answer to this.
How it was Blur without him?
I don’t know. In that record (Think Thank) some stuff are horrible. If I had the chance to recording it again I will take out all that shit. Beyond that, it was a different process, enjoyable in some way. But playing live without Graham was another thing: the band really lost substance. I don’t know. Graham is such a great musician, I love what he does.
My Terracotta Heart is for him?
No directly, but yes. Is about the relationship of two adults they love each other and reunite. I wrote it after we left Hong Kong.
Alex said that there is a recording of the band in their first rehearsal that already sounds like Blur.
Yes, it was “She’s so high”, in fact. In that first rehearsal we did “She’s so high” and “Sing”.
How would you define the musical energy between the four?
Is hard to define it, really. Is a kind of opposition of forces. With this record Graham took control of the sound. Alex did practically the opposite. Dave maintained his historic stability. And the three of them gave shape to my sensibility as a songwriter, which in all these years has been progressing. I don’t say I’m better, is just the result of an evolution.
Albarn bought the property where he has his studio in 2006 while recording with The Good The Band & The Queen. “This is my place in the city, I wouldn’t move from here“.
Until 9 he lived in Leytonstone, an immigrant neighborhood on East London. After that the family moved to Aldham, a little village where he spent his adolescent and developed a charismatic and arrogant personality. His parents, as he says, were “a product of the 60’s”.
What kind of music was played in your house?
Jazz, blues. My dad listened to old jazz. After came to me the era where you listen what’s in the TV and radio. But the first song that has a profound effect on I was “Seasons in the Sun” sung by Terry Jacks. It had a huge impact in my life.
Damon’s grandfather, Edward Albarn was a pacifist who refused to go to the World War II. “That made him incredibly unpopular, and made things difficult for him” says Damon about his grandfather who died in 2002 in a hunger strike.
“I think he chose to die this way. He was very active receiving immigrants and refugees, and that makes me think that we should be more active and help all these people who are desperately escaping from their countries”
This morning, the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the 3 years old kid found dead in the turkish coast, is multiplied in every paper.
“Even if there’s a component of sensationalism in the news, I think is fair to say that what we’re seeing is a humanitarian crime originated in 2003, when US and England decided to invade Iraq. We have a lot of responsibility in this.”
What do you think of the state of politics in England?
Well, I’m fascinated by how Jeremy Corbyn has grown. I don’t know if he is a modernist or a nostalgia maker, I don’t know, but looks like he come out straight from a labor manifest of 1983. It reminds me of Michael Foot y Tony Benn. I’m not a conservator, and I don’t like to live in a country ruled by the Tories, like now.
Recently you said that you could never write a song like “Happy” because yours songs talk about politic topics and the situations of the world.
If I had written it would be called “Unhappy”(laughs). It wouldn’t be such a big hit, isn’t it?
Your first record is called “Modern life is rubbish”. You’ve been talking about it this type of things for a while.
Yes, in that record, for example, there’s a reference to the excessive consumption of sugar, something that wasn’t very sexy to talk about in 1993. Nobody gave a fuck. But now it matters. That’s the advantage and disadvantage of writing about things that are a bit depressing, even when you’re talking about a feeling or an impulse. In general, I sing about a close future, I sing about how I imagine things could be. There’s a dystopian element in my melancholy.
Where that melancholy come from?
Where it come from? Well, you’ll have to spend a few weeks around here and you’ll see! It comes from desolation, the murkiness of this country, this sequence mixed with some days of bright blue sky, but most of the time the weather is fucking sad.
But at the same time there’s something very romantic in your songs.
Yes! Well, that’s what saved me from being fucking miserable. I love the music from the XIX century, for example, I love Chopin. I’m a romantic soul, and that push me to do things.
In 2014, Damon Albarn released his first solo album. Everyday Robots was chose Album of the Year by Rolling Stone Argentina. In this tetralogy no declare of his career, initiated with Plastic Beach and The Fall, and completed with The Magic Whip the topics are quite similar: the technological alienation, pollution, totalitarianism, lost worlds. Albarn voice sounds intimist between acoustic and electronic orchestrations that draws a landscape of global collapse.
Damon wrote Everyday Robots after spending Christmas in his mother’s house, playing Dark Knight with Missy, his teen daughter. There’s a song called “Mr Tembo”, a serane to a baby elephant that he met in Tanzania. For Damon the song was just a joke recorded on his phone, but when Richard Russell heard it he insisted on recording it.
Two days before this visit, a video appeared on the web where you can see Damon singing to the real Mr Tembo his song.
“Was a few weeks ago. I was on a trip with my daughter and she filmed it. She didn’t tell me she was going to upload it to Instagram, but well, that’s how ended up around the world.”
Don’t blame her, is really cute.
Yes, it was a lovely moment. What you can’t see in the video is that he showed up from nothing. He was eating behind the vegetation, and I started singing and suddenly he came out and got close to me. I’m sure he knows the song. He knows it.
How old is he?
3 years old.
He looks small.
That’s what you say. Let’s put it in this way, he won’t be small when he grows.
How often do you travel to Africa?
As often as I can. I hope to go to Mali in January to play a concert. And I think I’m going to do a record in Soweto. I go to different places, zones I don’t know, is an incredibly interesting experience.
What effect had those trips in your songwriting?
An enormous effect. Not necessarily when I’m writing but in a lot of life situations. After being 10 years in a rock band, I saw myself playing the melodica for hours in a lost club in Bamako.
And after all this experiences, how is to be again the Blur frontman?
I don’t like much being a frontman. Well, is not fair to say I don’t like it. I do like it but is a bit strange to me not to play any instrument, because in all my other projects I play instruments all the time. So that’s weird but is all right. And definitely keeps me in good shape, I couldn’t be able to sing songs I wrote 25 years ago if I weren’t trained.
Did you start training since you got back to Blur?
Yes, I started to being more serious about it 7 or 8 years ago. And now it became something more integral. I even do yoga.
In the mornings?
Yes, I do everything in the morning. It doesn’t make sense to me do it at night. Then I can’t sleep. So I begin the day with a bit of yoga, boxing, running, and the rest of the day is basically play music, cook, a bit of TV, and read as much as I can.
Do you remember your first visit to Argentina in 1999?
It was a completely different moment in your career. Blur was falling apart.
Yes, that’s a good way of describe it.
Is amazing how your career changed in this last decade.
Well, I think I could have done a lot more. I am dissatisfied with my progress.
When you put out a record, that’s it, you can’t improve it. I’ve never had the feeling of doing a perfect record.
Which one is your favorite?
Probably The Fall, because I recorded on my Ipad. Maybe I just like the discipline of being able of record a song each day, without change it after. Is a unfinished record in a lot of aspects, it tells stories of my trip across the US. Front my point of view is my more unfinished record from my finished records, and I like it because of that reason.
What about the Blur classics?
Is hard to describe it, really. There’s a big distance from 1999 to 2015.
In 1999 you already hated some songs.
Well, “hate” is a bit to much.
Country House for example…
Let’s say I was sick of them. Now we got together to rehearsal and we try different songs, things we haven’t play in many years, and most of it is really good. But when you’re playing a big gig, do you really can choose those songs that almost anybody remembers instead of other songs that have such a big reception? Is good to have a new record because these songs work under their own rules, they don’t compete with the classics. I think if you’re going to play b-sides, you have to warn before so the people who pay for it know what to expect. Is like if I decide to play all the show sitting down playing a little Casio. Well, the public gets ready for it. Is some kind of deal. Our mission is to try that the person lives an emotional experience.
Blur fulfill his part of the deal the saturday night at Electric Picnic, with Damon alternating moments of euphoria with dramatic movements and bits of comedy. Minutes earlier the frontman said to the crowd something that we talk about in the studio: “I’m 11% irish“. The people exploded as he raised his arms as a sign of triumph. His band mates look at each other and laughed.
“I did a DNA” he told me in the studio. “I’m 11% irish, 14% french, 30% scandinavian and 56% british”. The count gives a weird 101% but who cares. “And I know Albarn comes from Spain, from Alban. Anyway, I’m european, but“, he smiles and grabs his legs “We’re never going to know anything, we’re lost” he concluded with his baritone voice, the perfect voice to sing about “desolation mixed with moments of blue sky”, a phrase that describe quite precisely the insuperable Blur songs.