Blur’s Damon Albarn is the ultimate musical multitasker these days
Damon Albarn is a busier man than he used to be. Back in the Britpop ’90s, it was enough to just be singer for the band Blur, merging social commentary with hooks and vivid melodies while navigating a media-fueled rivalry with Oasis. Even then, he seemed to have other ideas.
Blur remains a part of Albarn’s life, but it’s no longer central to his creative career, as he leads several concurrent musical projects, from the Gorillaz to his imminent stage musical based on “Alice in Wonderland” for England’s National Theatre. And yet Albarn and Blur are engaged in unexpected new activity, with their first new album in a dozen years and a world tour that lands Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge part of my creative output now,” Albarn, 47, says of Blur while on the phone from a tour stop in Cordoba, Argentina. “It’s still a very important gathering of 25 years of my life. There is chemistry in the band that is very apparent and not something to be underestimated.”
As he awaits the night’s Blur concert, Albarn is in his hotel room, using the hours before showtime to work out some final changes to his musical-in-progress, titled “Wonder.land.” He travels with portable studio gear and a keyboard.
“There’s always a lot of other stuff going on,” he says. “If the day is full, I don’t compartmentalize it. I’m just lucky to be able to work on the musical in the day and then play in the evening in a town I’ve never been to before. The combination of all those things is a very rich day.”
The new Blur album, “The Magic Whip,” happened in perhaps the only way it could — without a plan or advance warning, during an unscheduled five days off in Hong Kong. In May 2013, the quartet was in the country and en route to a music festival in Japan when the gig was canceled. That left them in Hong Kong with nothing to do except make music.
Blur checked into Avon Studios in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and together began sketching out ideas. At the end of five days, they had no finished songs but had recorded enough music and fragments for about 20.
“Once we found the little studio, we were like a garage band,” Albarn says. “We were enjoying that thing young bands have in abundance — which is just playing with your mates. I think the longer you are in a band, the harder that becomes. After a while, a band can become a complicated thing. Everyone’s got their own lives, expectations.”
Afterward, the band scattered back to their lives and other projects, and the session recordings sat untouched for 18 months. Guitarist Graham Coxon became restless and proposed going through the recordings with producer Stephen Street “to pick out what’s rubbish and what’s good,” Coxon says now.
Band members, including bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree, each came to a London studio to finish or add new parts to the songs. Albarn recorded vocals. “What we had was surprisingly good,” says Coxon, 46. “There was a huge range of textures. Hearing it 18 months later was like hearing another group, but it was very familiar.”
“The Magic Whip” was released in April. There are percolating electronic bleeps with acoustic guitar on the subversive “Ice Cream Man” and a warm tropical swing on “Ghost Ship.” The melancholy ballad “My Terracotta Heart” deals with Albarn’s long friendship with Coxon, which began as children, and the troubled period when the guitarist left while recording Blur’s last studio album, 2003’s “Think Tank.”
Finishing the album “was a bloody miracle,” says James. It came not only as a result of unexpected free time far from home but also amid good vibes and a successful world tour through cities they hadn’t before played, finding a new generation of young fans who sang along with every lyric.
“The longer it went without us making a record, the more of a mountain to climb it became,” James explains. “If we had been hooked into a big studio with a big producer to make a comeback record, everyone would have been terrified.”
The original quartet first reconvened with Coxon in 2009 and by 2012 had returned with limited tour dates and the occasional new single. Even in their reunion, it was a departure from the Britpop era, when Blur, Oasis, Pulp and others were the subject of constant scrutiny in the insatiable British music press.
In between, each of Blur’s players embarked on outside projects, both musical and not. Rowntree founded a computer animation company and ran for office in May. James established a second career as a food columnist and in 2007 published the book “Bit of a Blur,” recounting his experiences with the band. Coxon has released seven solo albums.
No one was busier than Albarn, finding new popularity as the mastermind behind the multi-platinum Gorillaz, a forward-leaning pop group represented by four animated characters. He’s begun work on that band’s next album, and he has another planned for the project the Good, the Bad & the Queen, which includes the Clash’s Paul Simonon and Fela Kuti’s drummer, Tony Allen. He is also bringing the ensemble Africa Express to the U.S. next June.
“I like all of the different roles that I’ve played,” Albarn says. “The only way you can really function when you’ve got a lot of different things going on all at once is to be quite fluid about it and not really differentiate between one thing and another and just see it all as one big thing.”
Other projects await, as new ones inevitably emerge. Albarn’s priority now is finishing “Wonder.land” for its scheduled November debut in London. A preview performance in Manchester of the work-in-progress received some mixed reviews in Britain, but the singer-composer saw only benefits.
“When we did it in Manchester, it was a draft. It was by no means a finished article,” Albarn said. “We were forced to go public far too early, but it was an amazing opportunity to see your mistakes laid out and learn from them. At the end of the day, I have no fear of failing. Failure is a positive learning thing.”