Before he drew on his break-up with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann for the songs on Blur’s last album, ’13’, Damon Albarn’s eye for colourful character sketches had ensured that the sharply drawn vignettes of ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Parklife’ turned Blur from cult favourites to essential touchstones of ’90s Britpop.
On ’13’ and its predecessor ‘Blur’, Albarn and the band moved into new soundscapes that acknowledged the influence of left-field Americans like Pavement and German electronic pioneers Can. When the band then marked the end of the century with their complete singles box set and accompanying live shows, it signalled a break with their past.
“I don’t ever want to play those songs again,” Albarn now admits, curled up on a chair in his small Notting Hill recording studio. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to make another album.”
Nonetheless, with Blur temporarily inactive, Albarn has been far from idle, and the experimentation evident on the ‘Blur’ and ’13’ albums continues to guide him. The studio is an amiably cluttered hive of activity. A 1995 Brit Award is hidden behind some keyboards, a large tropical fish tank sits in front of the recording console and Albarn’s pushbike is parked in the hallway. This is the place where he demo-ed the songs for ’13’, and since then it has become a home from home for Damon as he works on his numerous extra-curricular projects.
Following last year’s link-up with Michael Nyman on the score for the gory cannibal western Ravenous, Albarn makes his debut as a solo composer in the Kevin Spacey-starring, Dublin-set gangster thriller Ordinary Decent Criminal, the soundtrack to which is released on Monday (March 13). In the first part of our two-part feature, he talks to Music365 about his love for soundtracks, working with Massive Attack and life as a solo artist.
Where did your interest in making film music start?
“With Disney, really, as a kid. The Jungle Book, for example – it’s just an amazing blend of music, character and cinema. I was very into musicals at school. I did all that and got in to Kurt Weill as a result. I’ve always had a tendency to become theatrical/cinematic. But theatrical sounds a bit weedy, cinematic is better, much more Massive Attack.”
You worked with Massive Attack’s 3D on ‘One Day At A Time’, the first song on the soundtrack album. How did that come about and how did it compare to working with former Massive Attack member Tricky?
“Ha ha, it couldn’t have been anything less like working with Tricky! Working with him was very tricky, funnily enough. We got on fine while we were working together, but it was afterwards when I said what we’d done could be improved that the problems started – he really took exception to that.
“But the things I liked about working with Tricky, the sense of adventure, the willingness to try anything out, was what I also loved about working with Massive Attack. We just had three days in the studio and made it up as we went along, and that’s why I like working with them so much, they have a bravado and daring in the studio but are confident enough to know they will come out with something they’re happy with.
“I’m still working with them on a couple of things which may turn up on their next album, we’ll see what happens. They are the group that I most identify with, they’re as important to me now as The Specials were when I was growing up.
’13’ was a very personal record. Is it a less of a pressure to be involved with other characters thoughts and feelings rather than your own?
“You do get amazingly involved with the film, the repetition of watching the scenes and slowly fitting your ideas around them means you do have to become quite mathematical about the whole thing, or at least Tom my engineer does. You get so deeply involved that by the end you’re quite personally attached to the whole thing.
“This wasn’t the easiest of scores to do. With Thaddeus [O’Sullivan, the director] there was a lot of healthy… discussion about what should be happening. I don’t think he’d ever worked with someone who was quite so direct or single-minded. Although I still think that I’m learning really, as far as orchestration goes what I do is still very elementary.”
You requested Michael Nyman as your first film score tutor and collaborator on Ravenous. What did you learn?
“He was the man who taught me, ‘never waste a note’. I’ve got that pinned up in the next room actually. I work everyday and I’ve got so many things going on. It’s not nine to five, but I work every single day making music in whatever form, and I’ve really just started to understand what it means to not waste a note.”
What do you think of the way soundtrack albums have become such a growth industry since Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting?
“There’s a lot of corruption, and the bigger the film gets, the more corrupt that process gets. You get these so called ‘supervisors’ advising on what sort of tracks to use. I don’t want to sound too scathing, but they’re usually musicians who are on the way down as opposed to anything else, and they’re not really up to writing music for film.
“It’s a very cynical way of viewing it, but you look at some of the stuff they put in films, and it’s just so inappropriate. Generally, directors are so immersed in their own world they don’t really know what’s going on, especially in contemporary music. It’s hard to get someone to allow you to do the whole thing. To me it’s pointless if you can’t get someone who will at least let you take some risks. Long gone are the days when a composer could put an orchestra together and shape it to the film. That sort of arrangement is reserved for dreadful films like Titanic. Because of the nature of that film, the score is the equivalent of an excessively sweet drink – the Sunny Delight of film scores. Michael Kamen just rolls in these dreadful MOR singers to fill out his scores and has massive worldwide hits that stay in the charts for a year. All I’m trying to say is I don’t think music in film is very courageous these days. There are very few composers who have the inclination to fight for something.”
You’ve expressed some disquiet with the Ordinary Decent Criminal soundtrack: alongside your own material there are several songs by Bis, Shack and Bryan Ferry that don’t even appear in the film.
“The soundtrack on the movie and the soundtrack on the album are two completely different things. Those songs on the album were in the film, but I kicked them out. What I really wanted to do was take all the original music I’d composed for the film, spend another month on it and make it into a cohesive score. I don’t see any point in putting a record out to a film unless you do that. Something like Get Carter or Taxi Driver – all those wonderful scores have become popular as records and keep selling. With those albums you can go into a world for however long it is that record lasts.
“The next project I do will be one where I get that opportunity and those guarantees because I want to make good records as well as do good work in film. But, you have to earn it in film you’re not allowed into that club very easily because of the money that’s involved and the way, especially in America, they’re made by a committee which can extend to a cast of thousands doing previews in multiplexes in Idaho.”
What energises you about composing for movies?
“I love the way Morricone can express a character’s mood by the way he plays a theme. I like that continuity. I think you can explain so much about a character with music. These days you get a character introduced with a Bryan Ferry song and then the last time you see him they play something by Smashmouth. Where’s the relationship between the two? It’s that fast food attitude to everything that really annoys me. I like try to take the film in a different direction with the music. I can understand that makes directors a bit nervous of using me. I might ruin their film for them [laughs]. I like delegating, and doing a big film score where you’ve got 50 or 60 musicians is all about that. It’s frustrating on occasions to have a big ensemble who will only work until 12 o’clock but I like the pressure as well – it sharpens the mind.”
During the publicity for ’13’ you talked about wanting to be a composer rather than a pop star: is that still a distinction you make?
“I think it’s very different to making an album, doing this. I think all I really wanted to do was give myself some options so that I know I don’t have to rely on the image that I have to keep working. I’ve always loved film music, and sometimes you have to really push yourself to get into gear and that’s what I did.”
Ravenous was recorded at what you’ve called “a mad time” in your life. Was Ordinary Decent Criminal conceived under more amenable conditions?
“Not really. We were on tour at that time, and my girlfriend was about to give birth. I moved house and had a child – well, my girlfriend had a child. There’s always a million things going on. Having two careers going at once there’s never going to be an ideal time. I’ve just scored another film with Einar from The Sugarcubes [Reykjavik 101] and that was a brilliant experience. We were left completely on our own because the budget was a lot smaller. It wasactually really nice because it meant we could only use five days, and it was mostly improvised. Sometimes I would write and prepare, but I like to make it up as I go along which can be really exhilarating – but also quite depressing if you can’t think of anything. It’s very aggressive deep house, that’s what they’re into out there, no strings or brass: but there is a character in the film called Lola, so we did an Icelandic dub version of the Ray Davies song.”
Your work on Ordinary Decent Criminal has a Latin influence: where does that come from?
“My girlfriend has family in Cuba and if I’d had the time and money I’d have done the soundtrack out there. I wanted to give the film that Catholic Latin quality which I thought was a great thing to couple up with Dublin, which seems a much warmer place than anywhere in the British Isles, there’s a very Spanish feel there. I thought it was a nicer thing to play with than getting an Irish band and going that route. The frustrating thing about doing a score is the budgetary restrictions: it’s not money for my pocket, I’m not doing this so I can buy a yacht. On Ordinary Decent Criminal I spent virtually all the money they gave me and came out with nothing just to get it right. Most films run out of money before they get to the music which is why you get these dreadfully patchy things, a little bit of score and the rest of it Echobelly songs or whatever.”
Blur have had some well documented internal strife over the years. Is the fact you’re still together something that makes you proud?
“I don’t know how we managed to do it. I think the way we did it was to let each other get on with our lives. The older we get the more freedom everyone is accorded and the less we’re trying to be the pop band that we were. That doesn’t mean the next record will be without a pop sensibility. I love writing songs. The press said ’13’ had no pop songs on it but we seem to have got a hell of a lot of Single Of The Year nominations so I don’t understand that. I’ve always tried to write better and better pop songs.
The thing I enjoyed most last year was playing ’13’ from beginning to end. I loved those shows, some of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my life: no element of showmanship, it was just all about the music. I’d become so disinterested in being a pop star. Obviously, to say that is a luxury, but I have worked hard enough to be able to say that and not feel too embarrassed by it. There are TV shows and magazines that are really great for children and teenagers but I’m 32 in a few weeks’ time. I still watch them secretly, of course, but I’d never be on one.”
When you’re doing your scores don’t you have a natural inclination to see what the rest of the group thinks of it?
“It’s nice when they like it, that means a lot to me, but I think you have to stand on your own two feet really. I’d love to do a score with Blur if the right thing came along. We’ve been offered bits of films but I’m not interested in doing only bits of films.”
You said after ’13’ that you’d never go back to writing character-based songs, yet from the way you’ve described the soundtracks you’ve worked on the music seems very character based.
“It’s a way of keeping that side of my brain working in a looser way. The great thing about film music is that every single thing is different and if the circumstances and environment are right you can go on such a voyage of discovery that you’d never ordinarily get, and you work with people you’d never be able to work with. Film is a clean slate for everyone; you get people who wouldn’t normally work with each other getting together. I think that’s a wonderful thing.”
The creative process seems to hold a fascination for you.
“I was brought up in bloody art school so it should start to come out at some point, otherwise I’m really in denial! My parents were experimental artists in the ’60s. I fought against it for a long time, but the older I get the more I get that sense of going into things, getting ideas and making something of it. That’s really what I enjoy.”
“I met Can around the time I worked with Michael Nyman. I think you should always listen to advice, from anyone, and especially people older than you. They told me you spend your 20s studying and not to worry – I just had a very public education. They also said something very interesting about reinvention and the Internet… You’ll just have to wait to see what the results are!”
How do you consider your old Britpop rivals these days?
“Oasis? I don’t really, Liam’s alright to have a drink with once in a while but I’ve never met Noel, never spoken to him. Do I have any advice for them? I’ve never had anything for them.”
“I’m interested to hear what Radiohead does next and though I’ve been at the rough edge of Bobby Gillespie’s tongue I still love the fact he’s singing about how he’s got soul and everyone else is a c**t. I saw them on The Priory recently, and I was amazed they’ve still got that desire to be snotty teenagers but they have – good luck to them.”
You brought William Orbit in to produce ’13’: will the relationship continue?
“I’d like to work with William again but I’m not blonde-ish, I’m not female and I don’t wear the right clothes. He was a wonderful catalyst for us, and I had the best moments of my time as a professional musician with him. If we could ever recover that sense of adventure I’d love to, but he seems to be into making pop music at the moment in a very pure form. I’m not really into that, I’ve been there, done that.”
Are you expecting the forthcoming Elastica album to be a reply to ’13’?
“I don’t know if Justine’s prepared to be that open about things. So I don’t know – my relationship with Elastica let alone Justine is extremely complicated but of course I’ll be listening to the record. It’s something they’ve done off their own backs – for once – and that’s good. I can’t say fairer than that, can I?”
You also said working with Michael Nyman was a ‘life changing’ experience. Do you plan any future collaborations with him?
“We’ve talked about composing a soundtrack for morning telly. Starting with Tricia and ending with the pottery making class or whatever. I think it would be fantastic. He always watches the TV while he’s making music – a film on one TV, Neighbours on the other – and he’s usually working on two pieces of music at the same time. One day we’ll do that at somewhere like The Barbican in London or whatever, a big screen, full orchestra playing, an insane 3 hour epic of daytime TV.”
You’re rumoured to have a film idea of your own which will be developed by Fourway…
“The idea is to keep repeating somebody’s day like in Groundhog Day, only a lot darker. The music will drive the images rather than the other way round. The Koyaanisqatsi ethic. But that’s still in the planning stage.”
And what are your plans for the immediate future?
“Just keep doing what I’m doing – making it up daily, never really knowing what’s going to happen until the end of the day. To avoid the cynicism creeping in – it’s the only way to do it, really.”