Gorillaz | The Sun – April 2017

It used to be front page news

Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn on hanging out with old Britpop nemesis Noel Gallagher and the band’s first album in seven years.

MOVE over Meg, it’s time to introduce you to Mystic Damon.

When Mr Albarn started work on the new Gorillaz album, his “dark, twisted fantasy,” he gave a vast array of collaborators a specific brief.

“Imagine if Donald Trump won the US presidential elections,” he told them. “How would you feel? What would you do on the night of the result? “Would you go out and get battered or would you just stay at home watching the news?”

At the time, the former host of the US Apprentice was still the noisy outsider. Yet by last November, when the album was pretty much complete, The Donald was headed for the Oval Office.

Prophetic Damon offers a wry smile when he considers what he set out to achieve with Humanz, the fifth Gorillaz album . . .  suddenly more relevant because of the incumbent with the sandy comb-over.

“I wanted to create an emotional response from men and women to that heightened moment when the world goes mad,” he tells me.

He succeeded because Humanz has emerged from that vision as a magnificent multicultural mash-up that crosses genres and generations with unbridled fervour. It is a testament to Damon’s knack for working with and getting the best out of other people, a quality present in all his work.

“If I ever do something on my own, I’ll just call it All About Me, featuring Me, produced by Me.”

But to borrow a word often associated with Damon, Humanz sets out to BLUR lines on every track, the cosmopolitan feel aided by recording sessions in London, Paris, Chicago, New York and Jamaica.

The eye-catching line-up of guest vocalists includes three formidable older women — Mavis Staples, Grace Jones and Carly Simon, described by Damon as the project’s “matriarchs”.

There is turbo-charged thought and expression pouring out of rappers such as class act Pusha T, sharp-shooter Vince Staples, avant-garde performer Danny Brown, gender-blurring Zebra Katz and Jamaican sensation Popcaan.

Some of the finest R&B voices on the planet — De La Soul, Anthony Hamilton, Kelela and Benjamin Clementine — put in emphatic shifts, as does house music pioneer Jamie Principle.

Then there is French synth legend Jean-Michel Jarre, one of Damon’s boyhood heroes, popping up on a couple of songs. Just one song, the despondent Busted And Blue, finds Damon singing on his own.

“That is my moment and I love my moment,” he says. “It’s very special to me.” And though not seen as “featured artists”, two notable names stand out in the credits.

Blur mucker Graham Coxon adds a splash of guitar to Submission, while Noel Gallagher — once regarded as Damon’s Britpop nemesis — joins in on We Got The Power along with guest star Jehnny Beth from Savages.

Damon’s keen to set the record straight on Noel, a fellow traveller who he counts as a good friend.

“I don’t think it’s surprising he’s on the record. Noel’s really bright and I love hanging out with him,” he says. “Twenty years ago it would have been front-page news.

“We like each other and I respect him as a musician, which is more important. I don’t work with people just because I like them. It was the end of the recording process and I had Jehnny Beth, Noel and, in a corner beside the speaker, was Jean-Michel Jarre.

“I love Jean-Michel . . . he’s a superb guy, an amazing musician and he has the best keyboard collection in the world.”

I’m sitting with Damon in the top-floor kitchen of his London studio with his beloved Westway scything through the stunning urban view.

A return to Gorillaz seven years after Plastic Beach is the latest chapter in his music career following just the two stage musicals (Dr Dee and wonder.land), a debut solo album, live and studio Blur reunions, more Africa Express and numerous other projects.

You’d think the 49-year-old would need a lie down in a darkened room after that lot but he’s in great if fired-up form about the crazy world of Donald Trump and Brexit.

It’s clear Trump won’t be on his Christmas card list but he still wants listeners to treat Humanz as a party album.

He says: “At the end of the day, I was trying to make a pop record, so I took a big, deep breath at the beginning of last year and thought, ‘I will try and do this one more time’.”

Of course, the endlessly vivid multimedia cartoon band Gorillaz is a brilliant vehicle for his dreams (or should I say nightmares?) and schemes.

His chief brother-in-arms is once again visual artist Jamie Hewlett, who has updated the lovable virtual rogues Murdoc Niccals, 2-D, Noodle and Russel Hobbs with still images, videos, apps, a website and even live interviews.

Damon says: “Gorillaz is the only vehicle for me to get away with such outrageous stuff.

“It’s interesting that there’s never been another band like Gorillaz,” he adds, almost like a proud dad enthusing about his offspring. “I can say that hand on heart, without blowing my own trumpet, that no one else has ever done it.

But the weird by-product of Gorillaz is that it really changed pop music. Post-Demon Days (released in 2005), everyone started collaborating and now that IS pop music.

“Collaborating and following on the internet . . . if you don’t follow people, you don’t get followed, rule number one and all that. In 2005, Demon Days was the second biggest-selling record in the world which, back then, was really big.”

Damon pauses before giving a mischievous pay-off: “It wasn’t quite Adele but I will never be Adele . . . or ever work with her! (A reference to their failed and much talked about studio session.)

“I wasn’t put on this earth to be in competition with people like Ed Sheeran,” he continues. “It’s not possible — but good luck and fair play to them.”

Wind forward to 2017 and Humanz feels like a record for the here and now, though its creators aren’t taking a mass audience for granted.

“This record is about the human race and the way it’s in transition,” explains Damon.

“There’s even a word for it . . . transhumanism. It was originally called Transformer because Jamie and I really liked the idea of us mutating but my daughter, who has been the taste police for this record, brutally said, ‘That’s not cool’.

“I didn’t want an uncool name. I want to try and connect with my daughter’s generation. Jamie got a bit upset about that but then I came up with Humanz, which seemed to be a good progression.”

In reality, Humanz has entry points for teenagers and 70-year-olds. It’s great to hear the inimitable sound of elegant icon and reliably eccentric Grace Jones on Charger.

Damon says: “She’s 68 but you wouldn’t know. I mean, age is irrelevant to her. Look at Ken Dodd . . . he’s 89 and his recall is just insane, so quick. Anyway, Grace is a bit like Ken Dodd in that sense, so switched on and so full of life and spirit and gorgeous and funny.

“She’s very elusive as well but she finally turned up and because Grace is Grace, we had a brilliant night with her, recording her voice for four hours.

“It took a lot of editing but I really love that song. It comes at that point in the record where we needed to get supernatural power up and running.”

As we go through the tracks, Damon reels off a host of fascinating anecdotes.

He recalls travelling through the night by train from New York to Chicago through quaint Amish country (remember the Harrison Ford film Witness?) before working with gospel queen Mavis Staples.

“Mavis was a revelation, just a wonderful, incredible woman,” enthuses Damon.

“She told me one story that really struck me.

“When she was only 16 and lead singer in The Staple Singers, she was also their designated driver, so after a concert she would drive them all to the next venue.”

Diversion over, we go back to Humanz, notable for spoken-word interludes provided by the wonderfully sinister voice of actor Ben Mendelsohn, recently seen in Star Wars flick Rogue One and as the wayward brother Danny in Netflix thriller Bloodline.

Damon reveals: “He gave me one of Danny’s T-shirts, which I’ve worn in yoga ever since.

“It turns out me and Ben were from the same egg essentially. We did two very late nights of just recording his voice.

“I’ve got maybe five hours’ worth of Ben talking madness.

“We imagined him as an insane late-night American disc jockey talking some very dark stuff.”

One song, Strobelite, featuring multi-talented Peven Everett, comes with a story that goes back to Damon’s youth and his first forays into music.

He says of the strobe in question: “It was given to me by my dad and he’d had it since he helped do the light show for Pink Floyd at the UFO Club in the Sixties. Almost the first proper rave.

“So I had this strobe and I had my first synthesiser, a Transcendent 2000, and I had my mirror and I used to jam along to 12-inches by people like The Human League.

“Thank goodness I wasn’t epileptic because I was really strobing. I don’t know what it did to my brain.

“There were no drugs back then, just my strobe light, and I probably hadn’t even had a drink by then.”

Finally, we come full circle to where we started.

“Trump as president didn’t exist when we imagined this. He’s a manifestation of our deepest fears,” insists Damon. “At some point, we thought maybe we should stop making this record because it’s all coming true, literally!

“I got loads of texts from people who’d worked on the record kind of going, ‘Oh s**t, you were right!’ when he won.”

But more importantly, Damon believes he’s been party to a great pop record.

“This record stands a lot of plays and it gets better and better and better.  And in a world where the album is supposed to be dead, it’s a good thing.”

Now it’s up to the rest of us Humanz to agree with him.

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