Damon Albarn of Gorillaz on How a Dark Fantasy Became Reality on ‘Humanz’
Being a virtual band was always part of the sales pitch of Gorillaz, the pairing of the Blur musician Damon Albarn and the illustrator Jamie Hewlett, which has been releasing hip-hop-influenced concept albums since 2001.
And yet with “Humanz,” the fifth Gorillaz album and the first since 2010, Mr. Albarn found himself at the center of a decidedly real-world conundrum. To unify the album and its many collaborators, he tried to imagine an apocalyptic event — the election of Donald J. Trump — and the possible reactions to it. Then he convened some of the most vibrant talent in hip-hop, R&B, house, reggae and more: the pointed rappers Pusha T and Vince Staples, the nimble singer Peven Everett, the dancehall tear-jerker Popcaan, the early house music innovator Jamie Principle, the soul legend Mavis Staples and many more.
Mr. Albarn’s post-Britpop life has taken him in myriad directions all over the world. Last year, in a ceremony in Mali, he was given a griot name. “A mad experience,” he said last month in a conversation at the Greenwich Hotel. “It’s like, how is this happening to me? But through all my experiences, I just don’t think about it anymore. I just get on with it.” Not overthinking has become a hallmark. Otherwise, he wondered, “would I have ever been so brazen in some of the decisions I’ve made in the past?”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Every post-Blur project of yours involves some sort of cross-cultural conversation. Why is that?
In Britain, I grew up with Pakistani and Jamaican kids. So for me, it was in my DNA as well. I got separated at the age of 10 from all of that and moved to Essex, which was exclusively white, right-wing and afraid. And it’s still today — voted Brexit, surprise, surprise.
Your folks decided to move there?
They did, because they wanted their kids to be in the countryside for a while. But I came back to London and went straight to West London, which I felt would be the right place for me to be, and I’ve been there for 30 years since.
Were you welcomed?
Well, not really, because I came back, and, you know, I was in an indie band. And experience and life in those crucial years had taken me completely away. There was nothing apart from this one club called Andromeda in Colchester, which played soul music. There was nothing, there was no black culture in Colchester, so it took me up until really about the late ’90s to start to find a way back in.
That’s in essence what the first Gorillaz album is a response to?
Definitely, I think it’s the beginning of me getting back to where I started emotionally, you know? Always when I land in New York, I put [the hip-hop radio station Hot] 97 on. I’ve been doing that since I even thought, oh, maybe I could make music like this, from back, like, the mid-1990s, when I used to come here with Blur, you know? With my Britpop Fred Perry on.
What are the through lines on “Humanz,”especially with the guest appearances — what Vince Staples and Pusha T are talking about?
When I start a record, I always like to imagine what the world’s going to be like when it comes out. So I just sort of imagined, what could fuel me, what fantasy could I really sort of find rich pickings from? And it was the fantasy of Donald Trump winning the election. Right from last year — just imagine if that happened! But also I wanted to make a party record. Always wanted to make a party record since I was a kid. So I kind of juxtaposed that with this dark fantasy of what was going to happen in America. It was the idea of how can you make a really dark party record.
Did you know that Chicago was going to be an entry point before you started?
I wanted to make a record with a strong house element. I’ve always loved being in Chicago. I got to know the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, from the last tour, very well. I’ve heard a lot of stories about growing up in Chicago. I don’t know, there was something about it I just connect with.
What made you choose the specific peoplewho ended up on the album?
It’s the tone of the voice, it’s the atmosphere that the individual kind of has. And we don’t know whether it’s going to fit. We meet and we take it from there, you know? Sometimes it doesn’t work. I’m never going to tell you the people that I’ve tried on this record [when] it didn’t work. But there were a lot.
On the list of collaborators, almost everyone is American. No grime, no British rap, nothing like that.
It’s a very valid question. Why? Because when you put the two together — which I have, I’ve tried, I had loads of British artists have a go — it didn’t work. My record’s set here. My imagination was, it was set here on that night after the inauguration. It was set in the future, it was set in when the world was just going to go slightly mad, and the world has gone slightly mad, there’s no question about it. Reassuringly, bizarrely, I think that outside of the core base that brought Mr. Trump into our lives in such a big way, it’s worked the opposite way.
People are being awakened.
I think he’s done the opposite of what he thinks he’s done.
What percentage of your time do you spend in England these days?
Most of it.
With the Brexit situation, did you smell this coming?
As soon as Brexit happened, it was like some sort of subconscious talking drum with such a deep resonance that had just sort of unleashed — be careful with your words, Damon — it had reawakened a something. It reawakened something, which I believe being a kid that had come from the ’80s, going straight back to the Specials, I believe we sort of … you can never get rid of it completely, but I felt we’d given it such a beating emotionally and intellectually that it was never ever going to come back.
So do you think that given what’s happened here and in Britain, the fundamental structure of what you do and whom you collaborate with is even more political now?
Now it’s super political. And you know I’d love to bring it here on a potent level and see what happens when I go to Middle America.