Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn on Tech Anxiety and the Magic of Partnerships.
Few musicians have stayed as interesting for as long as Damon Albarn. As the frontman of Blur, he helped define the sound of ‘90s Britpop. With Gorillaz, he achieved the impossible of mixing hip-hop and rock in a way that didn’t suck (and in cartoon form, to boot!). With eclectic projects like The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Dr. Dee, and Rocket Juice & the Moon, he’s proven what’s possible when an artist stops worrying about his audience’s expectations.
Yet, somehow, Albarn’s latest album, Everyday Robots, is his first to be released under his own name. It’s a subtle, often somber collection of electronic-tinged songs that explore (among other things) technology, loneliness, and the relationship between technology and loneliness. WIRED spoke with Albarn about his creative process, his gadgets, and why he lets someone else run his Twitter account.
WIRED: How early in the process of making Everyday Robots did you come up with the album’s overall concept?
Albarn: The title song was one of the earliest I worked on, and I guess the concept for the full album formed around it as I began working on other songs. The concept came out of me thinking about whether technology has brought us closer to ourselves or further away from ourselves.
WIRED: Did you come up with an answer to that question?
Albarn: I guess not. I’m not decided. I do know that I feel a lot of ambivalence about it, and that I think there are things we need to seriously think about with regard to how much we rely on technology.
WIRED: You shot your latest video on an iPad, and I read that you sketch out parts for songs by recording ideas on your phone. How big a part do your gadgets play in your creative process?
Albarn: I always use whatever I’ve got, and these days I’ve got these gadgets with me all the time. So they play a very significant part in how I create. I find them to be especially helpful in how they basically act as a substitute for my memory. Any little idea I have goes right into the phone so I can save it for later when I might be able to turn it into something more substantial. Honestly, I don’t know why we bother to remember anything at all anymore.
WIRED: There are songs on this album, especially the title track, that address social media and the ubiquity of iPhones. What’s the key to addressing contemporary issues in a way that doesn’t sound too on the nose?
Albarn: It is absolutely, for me, the hardest thing to get right. Just making sure that I’m striking the right balance. I want to talk about these things that exist in our modern world and that I know other people have feelings about and can relate to, but I also want to make sure that the song is not at all trite. When I write, I always focus on the things I feel emotional about, and that’s how I know that there’s truth in what I’m writing. You’ve gotta really feel those words when you’re writing them. I used to have this same issue to some degree, by the way, when our songs were about going out to clubs. Are lyrics about going out to clubs and dancing automatically trite? They don’t have to be.
WIRED: Speaking of social media, you have Twitter and Facebook accounts, but they appear to be controlled by your record label. Why don’t you participate in it personally?
Albarn: There’s a lot of value in all of that stuff for someone, just not for me [laughs]. All I know is I seem to manage perfectly well without all of it. I am personally quite useless at that sort of thing. I always lose my phone, I lose my keys, I lose my credit cards. I just don’t need another thing to deal with. And on top of it, I have the best team in the world working with me to handle the social media—they do an amazing job of making me look good.
WIRED: You’ve seen a lot of changes in how music is marketed and sold, and how artists connect with fans. What do you like most about the way things are now?
Albarn: I like the fact that people can discover some strange musical tremor happening in a small corner of the world and get excited about it and share it with everyone they know. That seems like a really good thing—that there’s the possibility for music to find its audience organically. It’s good that all the music that people experience isn’t so mediated by the traditional channels.
WIRED: And what about today’s music climate do you find the most irritating?
Albarn: All I can say is that I have an innate sense that the way we are going has its perils [laughs].
WIRED: Art, design, and multimedia have always featured prominently in your work. How important is visual identity when it comes to releasing music these days?
Albarn: It’s still very important to me. These days, one of the biggest challenges is to make what I do not look too DIY, but also not lose any of the spontaneity that comes with being DIY. Because DIY these days is so different from when I was a kid. If you wanted to publish something, you had to put it together by hand and print it up. A certain aesthetic emerged from DIY because the people working in it had limited resources and they made the best of them. And obviously, these days, you can make a short film on your computer that looks absolutely amazing.
WIRED: Do you have different approaches for writing songs for different projects? Is the way you write a Blur song or a Gorillaz song different from how you wrote songs for this new album?
Albarn: I just try to get to some core emotional truth, no matter what project I’m writing the song for. That’s the only criterion I have. I have to really feel what I’m saying in the song, otherwise I completely despise it. Also, I try to be realistic with myself and admit that not everything is going to be good enough to put out. Not every day is a golden day, so I keep some songs to myself if they don’t feel like they’re truthful.
WIRED: You’ve worked with a lot of great producers over the years—Stephen Street in the early days, Danger Mouse more recently, and XL Recordings owner Richard Russell on this new album. What qualities have your favorite producers had?
Albarn: Overall, I like that the people I’ve worked with have had so many different ways of working. For me, the best producer is someone who is simultaneously incredibly excited about what I’m doing and also able to stand back and let me do what I do. I work best with producers who are good at giving me feedback—not necessarily directing me, but doing a lot of great thinking about what might make my ideas work as well as they possibly can. Richard was perfect in that regard—he was almost more like an editor than what you might think of as a producer.