It’s the end of the world, and they feel fine…
When Damon Albarn started to think about reactivating his great collaborative project Gorillaz after a seven-year break, he knew he wanted to make an album about “pain, joy, urgency.” But first he had to mend a broken partnership with visual mastermind Jamie Hewlett. Dorian Lynskey finds them reunited and taking aim at brexit, trump and the whole darn world.
Ten years ago in, an online post that went viral, an American woman named Andrea
Donderi divided people into Askers and Guessers. Guessers, she wrote, won’t ask for what they want unless they’re pretty sure they’ll get a yes, so they often hold back. Askers, on the other hand, will request anything because they don’t mind if the answer is no. Damon Albarn is pop’s Asker-in-chief. Each time he’s making an album with Gorillaz Gorillaz his constantly mutating , his constantly mutating collaboration with artist Jamie Hewlett, he decides which voices will suit the songs and tries his luck. This time Sade politely declined; so, after an entertaining monthlong email exchange, did Morrissey. Dionne Warwick passed for the second time because the lyrics conflicted with her religious sensibilities. In the past, Barry Gibb and Engelbert Humperdinck have also given Gorillaz the bum’s rush. Albarn never minds.
“I don’t take rejection personally,” he says cheerfully. “The more people you put your
arms around, the better it is.”
Albarn is playing the tour guide at Studio 13, the studio where a lot of people have said yes. Built 10 years ago, it’s on the bottom floor of a bustling four-storey building near the Westway decorated with mementoes from his try-anything career: masks from Africa, Chairman Mao kitsch from China, an engraving of Elizabethan mathematician and mystic John Dee, a photograph of Fela Kuti, a metal sign from Africa Express’s 2012 train tour, the neon design from Blur’s reunion album The Magic Whip. Over here, a vast array of keyboards. Over there, three huge bells that he had specially forged for the Gorillaz song On Melancholy Hill. “At £8000 a pop, they’re the three most expensive notes I’ve ever played,” he says, grinning. And here’s the control room where, he says proudly, “You can find the likes of Grace Jones doing handstands at two in the morning or Bobby Womack singing his heart out.” We climb the stairs to the top-floor lounge, past a cue sheet from a US late-night talk show that introduces the Gorillaz as “the world’s most successful animated band”. Albarn likes routine. He starts every weekday at 10am with a glass of foaming purple juice and a smoke before starting work. Conversely, his musical output is anything but regular. Recently he’s been recording the first The Good, The Bad & The Queen album in 10 years (“Brexit has obviously given it a wonderful starting point”) and plotting a new theatrical project inspired by his beloved Mali. “I have a great artistic life,” he says, beaming. “I couldn’t ask for more, really. As long as I’ve got new stuff to think about it’s great.”
Albarn’s first interview in two years falls during rehearsals for Gorillaz’s forthcoming live dates, which include Demon Dayz, two one-day festivals in Margate and Chicago. He’s in buoyant spirits, his flat cap and gold tooth giving him a roguish air.
When he first started diversifying his musical portfolio beyond Blur he seemed to be trying on different personae but now he is entirely himself: Damon Albarn OBE, a 49-year-old globetrotting polymath with nothing left to prove. “I still feel very driven, but ‘prove’?” he says quizzically. “It’s not really about proving anything. It’s about that dialogue with yourself.”
The fifth Gorillaz album, Humanz, brings together rappers (Vince Staples, Danny Brown), house music veterans (Jamie Principle, Peven Everett), future-pop legends (Grace Jones, Jean-Michel Jarre), fellow Britpop survivors (Noel Gallagher, Graham Coxon) and one Australian actor (Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn) on an energetic record which takes the pulse of a world gone haywire. Its year-long gestation has taken Albarn to Chicago (home of The Twilite Tone, who co-produced the album with Remi Kabaka), Brooklyn, Paris and Jamaica.
Albarn believes Gorillaz is always temporary (“Each thing I do feels like starting again”) but it’s his second longestrunning project and his most successful.
When he recorded the first Gorillaz material in Jamaica in 1999, Missy – his daughter with artist Suzi Winstanley – was a babe-in-arms; during their return to the island last year, she was studying for her mock A-levels. What began as a satirical lark and an outlet for ideas that wouldn’t suit Blur has evolved into the most remarkacble collaborative project in pop: a shape-shifting playground that smashes together the real and the virtual, the playful and the political.
“The three tenets for this record were pain, joy, urgency,” Albarn says, taking a seat and unwrapping a packet of Camels. “I told everyone to imagine you’re in America after the inauguration and it’s the worst-case scenario: how would you feel that night? Let’s make a party record about the world going fucking nuts.” Before any of this could happen, thought, Albarn needed one particular person to say yes. A friendship needed to be repaired.
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett were born 11 days apart in the spring of 1968 and have lived somewhat parallel lives. They both began their careers in 1988 (the birth of Blur, Hewlett’s first Tank Girl comic), shaped the ’90s zeitgeist, dated founder members of Elastica and hit a creative wall in 1995 (The Great Escape, the Tank Girl movie). At the fag end of the ’90s, they were sharing a flat in West London, recovering from simultaneous break-ups and watching a lot of MTV, with frequent dismay.
“We were looking at all these manufactured bands pretending to be something they weren’t,” Hewlett remembers. “The conversation was, ‘If you’re going to manufacture a band surely you could do better than this. Let’s try to do it properly.’”
Hewlett is visiting 13 from Paris, where he lives with wife, French actress Emma de
Caunes. He has the flamboyant, fruity charm of a dissolute actor, plucking cigarettes from a silver case. “I’m in the eye of the storm at the moment,” he says with happy exhaustion. “It’s not easy to do Gorillaz. There’s a certain amount of madness involved.”
Working simultaneously on tour visuals, merchandise, ge, a 10-episode Gorillaz TV series, a-reality video that the VR expert at backers Google described as “the perfect storm of everything you can’t do”, and other things that he never imagined when
Gorillaz was born. Given Hewlett’s skillset and Albarn’s exhaustion with his own celebrity, the obvious vehicle back then was an animated band. Well, obvious to them, at least. “It was met with disapproval by many people,” says Hewlett. “The idea of a cartoon band was a joke: ‘Is it going to be a singing dog on a skateboard?’ Everybody was ready to shoot it down because the whole concept sounds ridiculous.” He smiles. “I like a challenge.”
He wasn’t discouraged when Albarn’sbête noire Liam Gallagher sneeringly dismissed Gorillaz as “fucking kids’ music”. “I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s for kids because those kids are going to be adults in 10 years’ time, so let’s give them something decent to inspire them.” Indeed, younger Humanz collaborators such as Benjamin Clementine and Kali Uchis have told them that Gorillaz soundtracked their childhoods. “It made us realise how old we were,” says Hewlett. Hewlett based the four characters – ¬ frontman 2-D, Japanese guitarist Noodle, B-Boy drummer Russel and snarky bassist Murdoc – on mutual friends. He “thought we’d do one album and that might be it”, but their eponymous 2001 debut, produced by Dan The Automator, became a platinum smash in the US. There was even talk of an animated movie, Celebrity Harvest. “It’s America that made Gorillaz,” says Albarn. Insisting on the purity of the concept, the group of friends that coalesced around Gorillaz conducted interviews in character and performed behind a video screen. This came in particularly handy at a show in Toronto in 2002, when the arrest of their original bassist required a last-minute substitution and Albarn was throwing up after a portion of bad sushi.
He couldn’t do that with Blur. “It allowed you to party way too much because the audience never had to see what state you were in,” Albarn says. While launching Gorillaz, Albarn made his first musical expedition to Mali. These two projects triggered his transformation from conventional rock frontman into a tireless Renaissance man who’s as happy singing with Blur as he is playing keyboards with the late Bobby Womack, travelling with Africa Express or writing a musical about a 21st-century Alice In Wonderland. “I’m like a rotational crop farmer,” he says. “I wanted to be a farmer as a child. I don’t think you should push anything unless it’s fertile ground.”
With Blur on possibly terminal hiatus 2005’s Danger Mouse-produced Demon Days raised the ante with a fantasy pop league o Anglo-Chinese opera Monkey: Journey To The West bore fruit but an animated movie with DreamWorks, the stepchild of the abandoned Celebrity Harvest, withered on the vine. “It was too dark to spend a couple of hundred million dollars on,” Hewlett says with a shrug. Carousel, an ambitious concept album about English mysticism, also fizzled out but it mutated into Gorillaz’s 2010 album Plastic Beach, whose cast included Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Mark E Smith, Mos Def and half of The Clash. Reasoning that if you’ve got musicians like that, then there’s no point in hiding them, Gorillaz finally emerged from behind the characters.
The Plastic Beach tour, during which Albarn recorded low-key fourth album The Fall, was an unprecedented cross-generational pop cavalcade, albeit one which sidelined Hewlett’s contribution. That was when things went awry. Hewlett began working with Albarn on the opera Dr Dee but dropped out and moved to Paris after falling in love with de Caunes. In 2012, Albarn told The Guardian that another Gorillaz album was “unlikely”. Did they fall out? “Errrrrrr,” Albarn wavers. “You could say that.” He sighs. “He basically left and I felt upset by that. There was a fallow period in our relationship. I’ve had the same experience with Graham [Coxon] over the years. I get the sense that sometimes people quite like getting off my steamroller and doing their own thing for a while and then joining me further down the road.” Faced with the same question, Hewlett lights a cigarette and puffs thoughtfully. “I needed to change my life. I was going a little bit insane at that point. And yeah, we had a little bit of a disagreement. We’d lived in each other’s pockets for 10 years. Damon’s an artist, he’s one of the few real artists that I know, but that means you can be a little crazy and a little difficult and I can be the same. We locked horns a few times and I needed to escape. I met my wife, I went to Paris and I fixed myself. I sorted out my head.” They didn’t speak for three years. Hewlett worked on an art exhibition and a movie that fell apart after two years of preparation. Albarn, meanwhile, finished Dr Dee and kept his crops rotating with a solo album, a stage musical, Africa Express and a Blur reunion album. It was while drunk in East London after a Blur concert in 2015 that Albarn asked if Hewlett wanted to revive Gorillaz. Hewlett said yes. He was finally ready. “I completely trust him with the music and he trusts me with my side,” says Hewlett. “I’m informed by the music. I can listen to an early demo and I can see everything. It’s like a button’s pushed in my head. We never sit around the table and have long debates. It’s understood that we shouldn’t talk about it, we just have to do it.”
Atthis point, Albarn pops into the lounge to grab a carrot and a cigarette, so Q asks if he agrees with Hewlett. He looks caught out. “All I know is that when we’re properly on the same wavelength there’s a real alchemy.” Then he dashes off, mouth f Bye!”
Last June, a few days after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Albarn was walking to his studio when he spotted a familiar face across the road: Pobfaced Brexiteer and would-be Prime Minister Michael Gove. Albarn shouted out something that he won’t repeat. “You can imagine,” he says, laughing. “Put it this way, I wasn’t expecting him to stop and come over. He said, ‘I beg your pardon!’ and we had a conversation about Brexit.” He grins mischievously. “I was just practising my right to free speech.”
The man who famously declined an invitation to Number 10 in 1997 still takes a dim view of politicians. “They can’t talk to us any more” he says, getting heated. “And the dismissal of the liberal elite?” Can I just say for the record, yes, I have liberal tendencies but I’m not the elite because I’m not in power.” He remostrates with an invisible Gove. “You’re the elite, I’m not”.
The quality that unites all of Albarn’s disparate projects is a utopian belief in the power of music to cross genres, disciplines, demographics and borders. He has made music in locations such as Beirut, Kinshasa, Lagos and Damascus, where Gorillaz performed just months before the Syrian civil war broke out. “I thought it was a brilliant place, so it’s tragic, really.” Last time he was in Mali, he was awarded a king’s name (Makanjan Kamisoko), a great honour which came with a plot of land. If the new political divide isn’t left vs right but open vs closed, then it’s abundantly clear which side Albarn is on. “I love the communal experience,” he says. “That’s what music’s there for, isn’t it?” Brexit felt like a colossal rejection of that worldview. The next day, he made an emotional speech while onstage with the Syrian National Orchestra at Glastonbury. “It was a bitter pill to take,” he says. “Brexit has fuelled something that I thought had become unacceptable. Fucking hell, really? Do people really feel like that? Having spent my life” – he throws open his arms – “I can’t get my head around it. I don’t want my country to be Little England. I love it being multicultural.” After Brexit came Trump, whose inauguration Albarn foretold a year ago when he wrote the mournful spiritual Hallelujah Money with Benjamin Clementine. “Damon said: Let’s think of the most absurd thing possible and everyone was laughting because that was never going to happen, and then it came true” Hewlett says, pulling a WTF face.
“I suppose when I realised this imaginary scenario was actually going to happen was on the day of Brexit” says Albarn. “Some deep, inaudible Anglo-Saxon noise had been set free and a huge metaphysical drum was starting to beat in this country and reverberate over there.”
Albarn has always been political in an oblique way. He says Parklife, like Humanz, was “an imaginary world” where he could explore “the dumbing down, Americanisation and excess of the culture.” Perhaps surprisingly, his most overtly political project is the one with the cartoons. Demon Days addressed the Iraq war, gun violence and oil addiction, while Plastic Beach was a melancholy eco-parable about a world drowning in junk. “It’s amazing what you can do when your band members aren’t real people,” says Hewlett.
“These characters are a conduit for everything we want to say but if we got up and said it, it wouldn’t have the same impact. Humanz is not a political statement about Trump – it’s about a world in which he could get elected. Where are we as a race? Why haven’t we grown out of this? Putting the Z on the end is not a hip-hop statement, it’s more like an android Z. Are we human beings or just humanz? What the fuck is wrong with us?” Hence his new idea of inserting the characters into warped photo collages. “The real world’s a bit bent out of shape and fucked up, so why not make my own version of it?” Albarn has his own theory. “Maybe it’s like a secret society. It’s not The Clash – it’s not overt. The language is very strange on this record. I start all my songs in a splurge and the rest of the process is about trying to work out what on earth I was talking about: ‘Do I feel comfortable saying that? What am I saying about myself?’ It’s why I like making music. I like that magical, weird, esoteric aspect.”
Albarn says he is melancholy by nature but never bleak. Humanz’s spirit of solidarity and resilience is summed up, at the very end, by We Got The Power, a charging, cometogether anthem, which unites Savages’ Jehnny Beth, Jean-Michel Jarre, rapper DRAM and Albarn’s foe-turned-friend Noel Gallagher. “We’ve got the power to be loving each other,” he sings. “No matter what happen power to do that.”
Humanz,like Albarn’s 2014 solo album Everyday Robots, alludes to the potentially dehumanising effects of technology, so it’s no surprise that Albarn has a deeply ambivalent relationship with the digital realm. Despite helming a project associated with groundbreaking feats of tech wizardry, he hasn’t upgraded his Nokia to a smartphone and is a stranger to social media. “I did get really drunk a few weeks ago and tried to create a Twitter account,” he says with a laugh. “I felt I had a lot to say and it was time. Out of the blue I could land myself in a whole pile of shit. But I’m not very good at that kind of thing, so it’s not going to happen.” He doesn’t envy his daughter’s generation. “I don’t know how they cope with the pressure of being engaged online all the time.”
What Albarn loves is people, especially musicians. His greatest thrill is entering the studio with someone new in the hope of establishing not just creative chemistry but friendship. “I love that journey of meeting someone, playing an idea, talking around it, and then starting to move towards your destination. You’ve got to put people at ease. I never say, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ Maybe that’s the secret: just let people be themselves.” All the travel, technology and manpower involved make Gorillaz an eye-wateringly expensive endeavour. “We’ve almost bankrupted ourselves a few times,” says Hewlett. On the US leg of the Plastic Beach tour they needed eight buses for personnel, let alone crew and equipment. “It was insane but a great vibe,” says Albarn. “The aftershow parties were spectacular, obviously.” In the world of Gorillaz even collaborators who have died can appear via the digital forever. That list includes Reed, Hopper, Turner and the sorely missed Womack, whose passing informs the song Andromeda. “We could almost have a whole evening of people who aren’t here any more,” Albarn muses. “I love the idea that eventually when I am here no longer I’ll be just a hologram.” He smiles at the thought. “They’ll just press that button and up I pop.” The future of Gorillaz is, as always, uncertain. They weren’t planning to make this album and can’t guarantee another but, as the on-off saga of Blur illustrates, Albarn hates to say goodbye. It would be strangely appropriate if 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel outlived even him.