The Mellow Sound Of Gorillaz Clashing
What happens when Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn teams with Clash legend Paul Simonon You get England’s newest—and most surprising—supergroup. Interviews with Albarn and Simonon.
By Alex Pappadema.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAMON ALBARN
Initially you went to Nigeria with the idea of making a solo album, right
It was going to be Tony Allen and myself. I’d been working with him for a year, and we went down there and hooked up with a lot of his mates from the old days, in Nigeria. And at the end of it, I had some sort of identity crisis, and thought that it really wasn’t what I was trying to do.
When you got back to England, you called Paul Simonon and asked him to play bass on the stuff you’d recorded in Nigeria. Did you know him well, prior to that
I’d met him once ten years ago, when Chrissie Hynde dragged me to Joe Strummer’s wedding reception. It was 1994, and I felt a bit uncomfortable going, but they were all so friendly—it was really nice. We had a group hug. Strummer, Hynde, Simonon and Albarn. But I didn’t really think anything of it until eighteen months ago, when I rang Paul up, and found out that we live two streets away from each other. That was the beginning of what turned out to be the album.
What made you think of Paul, of all people
He’s just the best rock bass guitar player in the world, in my opinion. He’s just Paul.
Did you think at all about the fact that he’d been basically retired from music for about fifteen years?
I didn’t give a shit about that. What’s the worst that could have happened He could have said no.
Initially, Simonon was just going to play on what you’d recorded with Tony, right But then it took a different turn
He came in and said, ‘Well, I’m not going to do this unless it’s a band.’ Not that it wasn’t a band—I’d just never really thought about it in those terms. I never really knew what it was.
So when did it start to become clear that instead of just reworking the material from Nigeria, you were making an entirely new record that was a concept album about London
The London side of it became more relevant when Paul turned up. It was immediate—we just started a dialogue that was ongoing, about the history of where we’d lived, or the sort of dynamic culturally. The sort of conversations that middle-aged rock gods have.
Has he lived in that neighborhood for a long time
Yeah, he’s lived here all his life. I’ve only been here since 1990. So I’m a relative newcomer.
But you’ve probably seen it change a fair amount…
Oh, absolutely, yeah. England has changed alarmingly since I first left home. London is a different city altogether. But at the same time, it’s got a lot of things that are very resonant with what it was. And the record is a kind of song cycle about that change, and its significance with the past, and maybe the future.
What are some of the biggest differences, the shifts that you’re talking about
Well, the pubs—they’ve become wine bars, or sort of thematically related centers of entertainment. That sense of collective oblivion has been sort of subverted, and it’s more a kind of oblivion courtesy of Bacardi. [laughs]
It’s a gentrification kind of thing…
Gentrification, and also a kind of dissolving of traditional communities. I mean, the thing that I love about where I live is that it’s, like, ten different strong ethnic groups, all living together. And the thing that makes it such an amazing part of London, and a great urban center, is the way that everyone seems to be able to coexist and thrive off each other’s cultures as opposed to being antagonistic to each other. In many ways, it’s a kind of role model. That’s my reason for sticking here and not disappearing to the countryside.
This is your most English record since Parklife, or at least The Great Escape.
Yeah. I mean, Great Escape—we should never have made Great Escape when we did. We should have taken a bit of time out. We made it while Britpop was sort of forming in front of our eyes. And that’s not a good time to make a record, when your last record has created an entire movement. You have no perspective. It’s not the right time to be making music—you should be taking time out and keeping your feet on the ground. So that was a mistake. I don’t think this is like Parklife, but there are elements which kind of link the two.
It’s reminiscent of Parklife in that you’re sort of mapping a city in these songs…
Exactly. There are similarities. But it’s a very different person writing it.
What was it that kept you from writing about England for so long
I’d done it. And Parklife, in Britain, had such a sort of bizarre resonance [laughs] that it was almost not really appropriate to even think about that. I’d just be repeating myself. But now is the right time for me to sing about where I live.
Did you feel like you’d sort of lost your license to comment on ordinary life in Britain, having become this pop star
To a degree, yeah. I think that’s a fair enough comment. But I spent the last few years not really touring, not really being visible, even though I’ve done records which have eclipsed anything I did previously. I’ve really been quite quiet. I’m still famous, but I’m not, like, people-swerving-their-car-when-they-see-you famous, y’know Which is good. [laughs]
It’s certainly safer.
It’s so much better! It’s like, today, I went to get a Christmas tree with my daughter. And it was cash only, and I didn’t have any money. And if I choose to, I can go, ‘Come on, you can trust me that I’ll pay you tomorrow.’ So it’s still there. It’s the same sort of familiarity, but it’s when I choose to use it, as opposed to it being completely out of my hands. It’s not civilized, being famous. Anyone who thinks being famous is a sane kind of state of mind for a human being is wrong. But it’s not as bad as it used to be.
Because of Gorillaz, you’re famous in a different way now.
No one knows that it has anything to do with me. Which is great.
The Good, the Bad and the Queen isn’t an overtly political album, but like Think Tank, the last Blur record, there’s a sense that all the songs are somehow colored or affected by what’s going on in the world.
Yeah. I’m not going to stop writing songs about the war until it stops. Y’know I just can’t. I feel too saddened by it to just ignore it. I don’t understand why everyone isn’t singing about it, all the time. Virtually every song [on the album] mentions the war.
But you’ve chosen to sing about it in this oblique, interesting way…
Well, you have to sing about it in an interesting way! Because if you don’t, it’s just boring. It’s a terrible thing to say, but the one thing wars are not is boring. They’re horrific, shocking, unjust, cruel, but they’re not boring, y’know You ask someone in Baghdad, is life boring, I doubt they’d say yes.
AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL SIMONON
This is the first time you’ve been in a band since the early ’90s. For the past few years, you’ve been focused primarily on painting.
Yeah. I’ve pretty much been back to what I did before I even got involved with music, really. Before the Clash.
Why were you out for so long
I didn’t want to be painting and doing the music and have the whole, ‘Oh, here’s another pop star with his paintings’ and stuff. I wanted the paintings to stand up on their own, and I sort of felt that to do it properly, I just needed to stop the music completely. And that’s just what I was driven to do at that period—I just wasn’t interested in music, I just wanted to paint. I just had to paint.
Did you play music at all, during those years
Yeah, I suppose, as a hobby. Instead of sitting around watching television, I’d pick up the guitar and sort of busk along.
You must have been turning more than a few things down—what made you decide to start playing again
Just before the beginning of last year, me and [Clash guitarist] Mick Jones got together with [Libertines/Babyshambles frontman] Pete Doherty and Bobby Gillespie [of Primal Scream], and we played a small live show for a friend of ours, for their birthday party. And a few months later, I got this phone call from Damon, who asked me if I wanted to come down and listen to a couple of tracks he’d done in Nigeria, with Tony Allen.
Had you met Damon before that
I met Damon once before, probably about ten years ago, at the wedding reception of Joe Strummer. He came along with Chrissie Hynde. And then, y’know, I hadn’t really seen him since, but I got this phone call from him, asking if I wanted to come down and listen to some tracks. I certainly was aware of his music. I actually saw the first show Gorillaz ever played, in London. I respected his views and his outlook on life, and thought they were quite similar to mine. Also, we discovered that were sort of neighbors, too—we only lived a couple of blocks away from each other.
You’d never realized that
Not really. We just never bumped into each other, some’ow.
You’re in West London
Yeah, that’s it, yeah.
Was the fact that you both dropped out of art school to pursue music something you bonded over
Funny enough, we haven’t touched on that. But there’s a lot of aesthetics that we’re familiar with, having had that background. Also, Damon’s parents were artists. So there was definitely a common ground, y’know.
Do you see your own influence, or the Clash’s influence, in a band like Gorillaz It’s music that’s so informed by both punk and reggae, which kind of makes it a direct descendant of a song like “Guns of Brixton”…
I suppose. Yeah. There’s moments [laughs] when it seems that there’s sort of a respectful nod in that direction.
Lyrically, The Good, the Bad and the Queen is a concept album about London…
Well, sort of, only insofar as it references a couple of London streets. Really, you could apply it to anywhere in the country.
In what sense—what do you think makes it about England specifically
Well, y’know, we have one song called “Kingdom of Doom,” and it’s got a line, “Drink all day because the country’s at war.” One could read it in one way, that everybody’s watching on the TV and seeing what’s happening in Iraq, and they’re so displaced from it that it’s just like, let’s have another drink and just pretend it’s not happening. Or you could read it in another way. We were supposed to have 24-hour licensing laws come into play, so you could drink all day and night, I suppose—and still the country’s at war.
The Clash’s albums are basically the last word on what it was like to live in England in the 1970s. What’s changed about the country since those songs were written
Well, lots of things. Unfortunately the government situation is different. In the ’70s, you had the Conservative Party and the Labor Party, and one was more leaning to the left, and one was leaning more to the Right, whereas these days, the Labor Party is actually in the middle, and there is no left or right. There’s no choice, in terms of the voting aspect. That’s a bit sad, and very frustrating.
You feel like it’s more frustrating today
In some ways. Things were more defined, when we first started. Practically everyone in England had long hair and wore jeans, or flares or whatever, and when we started we had short hair and straight-legged trousers. So there was an immediate difference between us and them. There’s also the technological aspect. People can shop online now. They don’t need to go down to the local market and buy vegetables or whatever—you can get them prepacked in cellophane and dropped ’round at your house. So the political aspect of people going out of their houses to experience buying an apple, is not there anymore. Which is a shame.
You don’t have that interaction with the city itself, with the neighborhood.
The title, and the name of the band—
We haven’t got a name, actually. That’s just the name of this project, or this collaboration. The record’s called The Good, the Bad and the Queen.
You don’t consider that the name of the band
No, no, not at all. It’s just the name of the record. It comes from one of Damon’s lyrics, where he says, “For the blessed routine/For the good the bad and the queen.” He’s making reference to the nation as a whole. There’s the bad people and the good people, but at the end of the day, there’s the Queen at the top.
She’s sort of beyond good and evil
She’s just the Queen. And, the rest of us—some of us are good, some of us are bad, y’know Maybe, in America, you could have The Good, the Bad and the President, y’know
I don’t think so.
So why haven’t you given it a name
We didn’t feel we needed one, really. When you’re sort of seventeen, eighteen, you feel it’s more important to have a name. You feel safe in that old gang thing. But when you get to a certain age, it seems—I don’t know, we thought it seemed a bit silly if we had a name. People of our age.
Did you have that gang mentality in the Clash
I think everybody does. Everybody likes to feel that they’re a part of something, and the group is a perfect situation. Four people wanting to get together and have a name, and feel the security of being under that name—it’s the way people get drawn into gangs in general. It’s a way they can survive.
Being a part of something bigger than yourself.
That’s it, yeah.
You’ve finished this record, and performed live with these guys a few times. Is it starting to feel more like a real band
Yeah, it does feel like a band. It does. We just ‘aven’t got a name, that’s all.