Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn won’t sit still
In the 16 years since Gorillaz released its self-titled debut album, the virtual, alternative hip-hop band’s co-creators, Blur musician Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett, have wrangled an impressive, wildly diverse roster of music’s biggest talents into their genre-defying orbit. A freewheeling spirit of experimentation colors the band’s work, and over a handful of boundary-pushing albums everyone from Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg, to Bobby Womack, MF Doom and members of the Clash have been charmed by its allure.
Now a few months removed from the release of “Humanz,” the band’s first new album since 2010 — a typically bold effort featuring intrepid contributions and unexpected artistic combos, most notably Mavis Staples and Pusha T on the moody “Let Me Out” and Carly Simon and Colombian-American indie-pop singer Kali Uchis on “Ticker Tape,” Albarn says he’s come to view the process of assembling a Gorillaz album as resembling a contemporary courtship process.
“There’s almost an internet dating aspect to it,” he says with a laugh when calling from his London studio one afternoon. He recalls playing acoustic guitar for Staples and appreciating her open-mindedness to working on his brand of music. “She’s extraordinary really,” he says.
“When I meet someone I don’t just play them one song,” he adds of his typical method of selling another artist on the idea. “I play them all the stuff that I’ve got.”
That’s often a healthy heap of music: the Britpop star has long taken a workmanlike approach to his craft, spreading his musical wings wide with an assortment of solo projects, reunion tours with Blur, extravagant musicals and devoting himself to studying West African music. To that end, the 49-year-old is perpetually writing music at a rapid clip. “He could do three or four songs a day,” says Hewlett, who since the band’s earliest days has worked in close proximity to Albarn, hearing every demo the musician creates, many of which never see the light of day, and using the songs as direct inspiration for the animated visuals that accompany Gorillaz music. “He seems to have a constant melody in his head. Which is a gift and a curse.”
Each Gorillaz album favors a certain musical aesthetic — from dub or reggae, hip-hop to the Chicago house music that colors “Humanz” — and is often heavy-handed in its socio-political messaging. Albarn however says he’s loath to ever force the issue when it comes to bringing other artists into the fold. “It’s not a 100 percent hit rate at all,” he explains. The musician references a failed collaboration with rapper Rick Ross for the “Humanz” track “Hallelujah Money.” The pair talked on the phone, but it never came to fruition. “I dunno. I guess he had one too many pool parties to go to,” Albarn says with a laugh.
“But that’s just the way it is,” Albarn continues. “And it’s not a big deal. I always feel like that about the whole process. I can’t be precious about it. Otherwise it would just screw me up. When you have that many partners, you can’t be possessive.”
Executing a live show for Gorillaz is something Albarn has also had to learn to relinquish some control over. Hewlett began constructing the technology-assisted visuals for the forthcoming tour before the album was completed, but, he notes, “everything is driven by the music.” Albarn is constantly toying with how to enhance the band’s live experience. “I suppose in my dreams I would have a brass section and dancers as well,” he says of his ideal Gorillaz stage show, “but I’m already carrying over 15 musicians (on tour) and that would take it into an almost prohibitive cost. I struggle to make it work,” he admits. “Luckily a lot of people want to come see us, so that really helps. But it’s not the cheapest of bands. I do sometimes look at Ed Sheeran,” who performs by himself and use triggers and loops to simulate a full band, “and think, ‘Why don’t I do that?'”
Routine, even on the road, is central to Albarn’s creative approach. When at home in London he bicycles to his studio in the morning, arriving by 9 a.m., heads home at 5 p.m., cooks and watches television to unwind.
“People always ask me ‘Why are you so busy?” he says. “It’s very simple — I just work five days a week. I just treat it like a job.”
It’s humorous then to hear Albarn casually refer to how, after we speak, he’ll be taking a lesson in the Malian language Bambara. Or how he has an undisclosed project that will keep him in France for the better part of the next two years. And then there’s a forthcoming new album with his band The Good, The Band & The Queen that features the Clash’s Paul Simonon, Simon Tong and Tony Allen.
It’s all a bit exhausting even at a distance; but for Albarn, it’s all he knows.
“I don’t consider myself to be more work-obsessive than others,” he offers. “I need something to do. Otherwise I’m just aimlessly wandering. I really do get that sense that if you love what you do you should do it all the time. Because you never know when you might lose that spark.”