The Hot Press Cover Story: Damon Albarn
The world sat up and listened when sometime Blur frontman Damon Albarn revealed that he had taken heroin as a creative boost. In an exclusive interview he talks about chemical inspiration, his growing spirituality and how he and Noel Gallagher came to bury the hatchet – and not in each other.
Damon Albarn is none too pleased about having to talk to Hot Press. It’s nothing personal; the former Blur frontman isn’t especially keen on doing any interviews today. Which is rather unfortunate because, with his debut solo album, Everyday Robots, about to be released, his label has lined up a full day of press and promotion.
Our location is 13 Studios, his personal recording facility situated deep in the bowels of west London. A Swedish TV crew and a German journalist have just departed the building, leaving yours truly as Albarn’s final-face-to-face of the morning. After he talks to me, he has a series of phone interviews to do with publications as far afield as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and America.
As a veteran star who’s hardly hungry for publicity at this stage of his illustrious career, he’s not especially thrilled at the prospect.
“No reflection on you, mate,” he says, shaking his head apologetically. “I’ve just got a piece of music in my head that I’m fucking itching to get out.”
He’s certainly in the right place to do that. Although 13 looks almost derelict on the outside, there are two beautiful state of the art recording studios hidden within the three-storey building. Downstairs is his, and his only. The upstairs one is occasionally hired out.
We’re sitting around a table in the chill-out room on the top floor. It’s a large, comfortable open-plan space, replete with massive flatscreen TV, full-sized ping pong table, kitchen facilities, beanbags and couches. The walls are painted black and adorned with artworks – including a framed old B&W photo of The Beatles in army uniforms, and several paintings obviously picked up on his African travels.
The bay windows look out over an Amis-ian suburban sprawl that extends towards Kensal Green and the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison. From the windows on the opposite side of the room, the incongruously grey Westway overhead dual carriageway can be spotted just a couple of hundred metres down the street.
Albarn spends a lot of his time here, working office hours, five days a week. While this regime doesn’t sound very rock ‘n’ roll, it has resulted in a musical CV and back catalogue of recordings that would put most, if not all, of his former Britpop contemporaries to shame.
Much of his post-Blur work has been collaborative. There’s been the massively successful Gorillaz albums (Tank Girl creator Jamie Heylett put the virtual band together), a one-off self-titled record with indie supergroup The Good The Bad & The Queen (featuring The Clash’s Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong and Fela Kuti’s percussionist Tony Allen), and another with Flea from the Chili Peppers called Rocket Juice & The Moon.
Amidst myriad recordings with an eclectic assortment of African and Chinese musicians, there have been numerous guest appearances on other more mainstream albums (most notably Massive Attack’s 100th Window). Two years ago, he produced soul icon Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man In The Universe. He’s responsible for several film soundtracks, including that of the Martin Cahill biopic Ordinary Decent Criminal (his jazzy score was easily the best thing about that movie).
He has also composed the music for a number of theatre and opera productions, most recently 2012’s well-received Dr Dee, based on the life of Old Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and antiquary, Dr John Dee (a controversial historical character considered by many academics to have been the original for Shakespeare’s Prospero).
Although they now appear to be finished for good, Blur have a habit of reforming when it’s least expected and he has sporadically toured with his old bandmates in recent years. Their last official release was 2012’s standalone single ‘Under The Westway’.
Given this heavy workload and prodigious output, it’s hardly surprising that it’s taken him so long to release a bona fide solo album. Co-produced with Richard Russell of XL Recordings, and featuring contributions from Brian Eno, Natasha Khan and The Leytonestone City Mission Choir, Everyday Robots is a truly stunning piece of work.
Melancholic and sometimes mournful, it’s probably his most obviously personal collection of songs to date. Blending themes of technology and futurism with memories of his own eventful life and career, the album addresses everything from his failed relationship with GorillazElastica’s Justine Frischmann, and their joint period of heroin addiction, to his Colchester childhood and the genesis of some of his most famous Blur moments (on the superb ‘Hollow Ponds’, he mournfully sings, “Modern life was sprayed on to a wall/in 1993” – a reference to the random graffiti that inspired the title of the band’s Modern Life Is Rubbish album). Just to lighten things up, there’s also a ridiculously cheerful song about an elephant he once met in Tanzania.
A little over a fortnight shy of his 46th birthday, Albarn is unshaven and has slept-on scruffy hair. He’s wearing Daz-white basketball boots, low-hanging jeans, a grey t-shirt and short black leather jacket. One of his top front teeth is gold-capped and he’s wearing a distinctive seven-pronged metal star on a chain around his neck.
Despite his initial reticence, he’s actually a generous interviewee once he gets going. He has a reputation for being hostile to journalists but, this morning at least, he’s warm, witty – and often likeably self-deprecating.
OLAF TYARANSEN: I understand that you keep office hours here. Have you always worked that way?
DAMON ALBARN: Yeah. Well, I have for the last 15 years. I can’t imagine any other way of working. I hate working at night. I’ve never enjoyed that.
Is that because [your daughter] Missy was born almost 15 years ago?
Yeah, it’s partly that, but also I don’t like working at night. I don’t work on school holidays, either. I mean, it’s a very romantic idea for the musician with a young child to work when they’ve gone to sleep, but it never works like that really. I just felt it was better to be regular, and it works for me. I enjoy working during the day.
What if the muse strikes at an unexpected moment?
Oh, I’m ready for it! But the thing with music is: I lose a lot of songs as well, by not recording them, but my attitude is you’ve got to let a few go (laughs).
Congratulations on Everyday Robots. It’s a terrific album – very mournful and wistful at times.
Wistful? I don’t know if it is wistful. I’ve heard that a few times actually. Maybe.
Perhaps ‘sad’ is a better word.
It is sad, yeah. I think that as a person I’m not like that, so it’s funny that creatively I tend to be that way.
My favourite Blur songs were always the more downbeat ones.
This is kind of how this record came into being. Richard and I decided, post-Bobby Womack, that we wanted to work together. You know, he turned around and said, “I’d like to produce a record of yours.” So the conversation was initiated, and he was quite clear about it: “I like your more melancholic songs, so I’d like to make a record with you concentrating on that aspect.” And I was like, “Great! I love writing sad songs.”
Do you feel sad when you’re singing them?
No. I’m in many different head spaces when I’m singing. It’s just that I sound sad. I’m quite a silly, childish person – playful, fun and interesting. I mean, it’s very far away from where I’m actually at, but if I was putting myself in an adult dating agency I would describe myself as ‘fun loving’ (laughs).
The most obviously ‘fun’ track on the album is ‘Mr Tembo’ – an upbeat song about a Tanzanian elephant. Do you write songs for Missy’s birthdays or whatever?
Yeah, I do (nods). But ‘Mr Tembo’ was never intended for the album. It was written for the elephant. I just happened to have a recording of the night I played it to the elephant in Tanzania. On the original demo it’s got Paul Simonon [of The Clash] playing harmonica. I never thought for a second that that record would make the light of day. But stupidly I put it on a CD of demos for Richard when we were starting to make the record, and he identified it as a key tune to concentrate on.
It’s perfectly placed in the album running order – it picks things up at just at the right moment.
Personally I would never ever have done that. But that’s why I chose Richard as my producer (laughs).
Brian Eno worked with you on this as well.
A little bit. It’s a joy working with Brian. He’s super bright and he’s got a wonderful spirit about him. I’m a massive fan and friend. I’ve only good things to say about him. What I also like about Brian – people see him as this very cerebral kind of man, but he’s also got quite a wicked glint in his eye.
I always thought one of the highpoints of his career was his Father Ted cameo.
Ha! He’s interested in so many different things, so in that sense he’s a bit of a kindred spirit.
The title-track opens with the line, “We are everyday robots on our phones.” There’s something of a technology theme which Eno would certainly relate to.
Yeah, in a way: he’s done Music For Airports and stuff like that. There is an element of that kind of disembodied look at what we’re becoming, that kind of… existentialism.
What do you think we are becoming?
Well, we are losing the ability to see, we’re losing the ability to talk, and we’re losing the ability to write. We hear so much more through artificial means than through acoustic means. So we are in a period of massive transition as a species.
Does it freak you out when everybody is filming you on stage, on their mobiles?
Well, it fucks me off when I make a mistake! (laughs)
You’ve used a sample of an old Timothy Leary recording on ‘Photographs’.
That was from the ‘60s, so that really was a visionary moment. Richard came in with that sample and said, “Right, let’s do a song!” Richard isn’t musical the way I am, so he’d come in with a sample and go, “Write a song about that,” and I’d go, “Alright, Richard… no problem” (laughs). But what was interesting with that song is that everything that takes place in that song is stuff that really happened – but it’s all from memory. I have no photographic evidence of any of those events but there’s the chorus that goes, “When the photographs you’re taking now/ Are taken down again/ When the heavy clouds that hide the sun have gone/ The millions of us on the hill/ from the start to Land’s End/ When photographs you’re taking now/ are taken now press send.” Back in 1999, there was a massive eclipse. I have a house on that long bit of coast going right down to the bottom of the UK and Cornwall – but millions of people travelled down to that south coast to experience this sort of epoch-making eclipse.
It must have gotten a bit crowded…
There were massive traffic jams. It was chaos, but there were millions of people on the cliffs all the way down the coast. It was a really grey day, so absolutely nothing was happening. Everyone was there with their cameras and, at that moment when the eclipse was reached, everyone’s flashes started going off, and that in itself became like an event. So that’s where I kind of drew my emotional memory from. It’s quite abstract what I do, but I enjoy it. I love that process. I like to think I could make anything sound sad (laughs). The more bizarre the juxtaposition the more excited I get intellectually. I love that intellectual sort of problem that you need to solve when you’re writing something which is multi-layered – but the point where I know I’m getting somewhere is when I close my eyes and start singing it… and whether I connect with it. But I do pride myself that I could sing about anything if pushed.
Are you an emotional type?
Am I emotional? Yeah, I enjoy crying.
When was the last time you shed a tear?
Last night, watching a film with my girlfriend [artist Suzi Winstanley]. I call her ‘girlfriend’ because we’re not married, but we’ve been living with each other for 15 years. ‘Girlfriend’ sounds really fresh, doesn’t it? My ‘girlfriend’(laughs). ‘Partner’ sounds too formal. She loves film. It was an amazing Flemish film called The Broken Circle Breakdown. The story… (shakes head). When I’ve had a hard day at the office I like to sit down and watch something entertaining.
Like Die Hard or something?
Yeah, like Die Hard, or a costume drama. I love a nice costume drama. But this film was: couple meet, fall in love, have a child, child dies of cancer, then the mother dies of grief and an overdose. That’s what happened in this film. I thought, ‘For god’s sake’ (sighs). It’s a brilliant film – I mean, artistically brilliant. Anyway, so I cried last night. I just kept looking at her and saying, “I cannot believe we’re watching something this depressing.”
You’ve acted in a couple of movies.
Well… I’ve acted… badly. On many occasions (grins).
Is that something that appeals to you?
No, not really. I enjoy film. I love making music for film, but acting is not for me. I don’t have the patience. I just don’t want to be an actor. Although that’s what I thought I was gonna be when I left school. I went to drama school.
I thought you only did that to get access to the college bar.
No! I went to a place called East 15, which is this horrible, dodgy, little acting school. I signed on for a part-time music course at Goldsmiths – so I could get into the bar there.
Lou Reed collaborated with you on a Gorillaz track. Did you cry when he died?
No, but I was sad. I didn’t know him well enough. I thought about him and prayed for him. But I didn’t cry. Being honest.
When you say you prayed for him, who did you pray to?
Well, I think about people. Are you familiar with libation?
No, I don’t think so.
Libation is something I kinda picked up many, many, many years ago. The first person who introduced me to it was Ibrahim Ferrer from Buena Vista Social Club. Then I really started to understand it hanging out in Lagos. It’s just before you have a drink, you just drop a bit on the floor and think of people.
Oh, I occasionally do that. Usually after funerals.
Well, there you go, you see. You libate and you weren’t aware of it.
Well, I was aware of libation as in ‘to have a swift libation’, but I thought it just meant having a drink rather than deliberately spilling one.
Ah, I understand it as being something where you just take a bit of something and remember whoever. I’d like to remember absolutely everyone, but you’d never actually get around to drinking if you had to do that each time. But it’s just that sense of connection with the spirits.
Is that a pentagram you’re wearing around your neck?
No, it’s not a pentagram, it’s not a Star of David. It’s a Seven (holds up a metal heptagram). It’s a very unusual, beautiful bit of geometry. I got really into it when I was studying Doctor Dee. He used it as a means of communicating with extra-terrestrials. He constructed it. Actually, I’ll show you…
(Albarn rises from the table and leaves the room, calling back from the stairs, “I’ll show you exactly what I’m talking about.” He returns a couple of minutes later carrying a silver metal case. He unlocks it and carefully removes an ancient book wrapped in a colourful African cotton throw).
This is actually one of Dr Dee’s books, so it’s very, very, very old – about 400 years. It’s a magic book (starts delicately turning pages of intricately drawn diagrams). This is just a diary of all his angelic communications that he made with Edward Kelley (a self-declared spirit medium who worked with Dr John Dee in his magical investigations – OT). It’s pretty fucking mental stuff. But he used this as a way… (turns pages)… where the fuck is it?… He used to set the geometric seven as a way of communicating with angels, but it’s a meditational thing. It’s in here somewhere (gives up and closes book). I don’t need this to explain it, you’ve seen the book, but he used it as a way… You basically create it and then you have different stations where you repeat different kinds of mantras and then slowly, if you do it properly, a portal opens.
Have you tried it yourself?
I’ve tried to do it, but I just didn’t have the concentration really. I think you need to do it with people as well. It starts to construct a 3D model which you then enter into, and it’s a 17th century kind of portal that you go into and then you start communicating. But he didn’t invent that. The number seven has been used from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans. Everywhere. It’s just a really powerful number and you don’t see it as a shape very often. It’s very beautiful.
Did you have that pendant especially made?
Yeah. I’m gonna have a big one of these as a backdrop, white on black. It’s quite mesmerising.
Speaking of portals, do you ever feel that songs come through you?
I tend to sing and just let whatever comes out my mouth come out. When I do a first take of something, I listen back to it and I say a lot of weird stuff, really quite strange. But it’s allowing yourself to exist on that periphery of sense and sub-sense. I don’t think it’s particularly spooky once you just accept that we don’t really know everything. It’s a difficult area to talk about because it’s been consigned to horror movies. And in this country it seems bizarre how we all trot off to yoga centres – a lot of that stuff is very esoteric, but because it comes from a different culture it’s become high street, it’s got functionality. Whereas our western esoteric tradition is perceived as being satanic and evil, which is really odd. But that’s the fucking Christian church for you, isn’t it? God bless it (laughs).
You’ve written obliquely about your addiction period before [in Blur songs such as ‘Beetlebum’ and ‘Caramel’], but there are a number of blatant drug references on this album, most notably on ‘You And Me’. Did heroin help or hinder you creatively?
Helped (shrugs). It helped, but it’s to be approached with extreme caution and has to be used with extreme discipline, otherwise it becomes a massive hindrance. It’s got a very explicit line, “tin foil and a lighter… five days on, two days off.”
Whatever about tinfoil and a lighter, I was particularly struck by the “Jab Jab” line.
Eh? Oh no, “Jab Jab” wasn’t… (laughs). No, no, no, no, no! A ‘Jab Jab’, like Moko Jembie, is a sort of African ancestral spirit that has manifested itself in Carnival. The Moko Jembies are the people you see on stilts, and the Jab Jab is more of a ghoul.
The full lyric is, “Jab Jab/ Digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove…” – I assumed it was a reference to shooting up.
You see, that’s the beautiful thing about poetry and creative stuff – it’s what I was saying earlier: I tend to construct things in quite a cerebral way and then I allow the emotion to flood into that hole and then fill it. That’s really hilarious that you think it’s that. You wanna know the truth? “Digging a hole” was last year – I was having a basement built in my house in Westbourne Grove – and then I fly back to an older memory which is the tin foil and the lighter. But I love that: you’re obsessed in your little world while you’re making a record, and then it goes out and people interpret it in entirely different ways. That doesn’t matter, that’s what it should be like. It should be free for everyone to just do their own thing with it.
People can mishear or misinterpret a lyric…
Absolutely! It’s interesting because I think that’s the converse – or the reflection – of exactly what’s happening when you’re starting out. You’re letting that subconscious come through you and then you sort of define it, then someone else’s subconscious comes in and reinterprets it. We all see the world differently.
Somebody once said that there’s as many different universes as there are people. Which would make it around seven billion.
Precisely – and counting!
Do you enjoy your own universe?
Yeah. I love being in a position to be able to make stuff.
Can you walk around London unbothered?
Not unobserved, but unbothered. People don’t physically accost me, but they do ask for photographs. I mean, I was in Mexico City the week before last, just having a little break. It only took a few days before people were outside the hotel. How do they know where you are? Social media, isn’t it? One person sees you in a park near somewhere – but that’s the reality for everyone.
You’re quite friendly with Noel Gallagher nowadays. That’s a bit of a turn-up for the books.
Yeah it is, but in a way it makes perfect sense, because he was the only other person who kinda experienced what I did at that particular moment in time. In a bizarre way, we kind of created each other (laughs). It’s both our faults.
He’s a very funny man.
I really like him. That’s why I hang out with him, because I really like him. What a nice end to some ridiculous fantasy story for the two people to end up becoming friends. (An assistant enters the room to remind him that he has a phone interview due to start shortly. Albarn winces).
How heavily are you going to tour this album?
I’m not an obsessive tourer. I like being at home. But I also love playing live, so I’ll give it a go. If people are interested I’ll give it a go. Why not?
Have you any other musical projects bubbling under?
Yeah, lots of stuff. I’ve got something which is sort of indirectly inspired by my time travelling in North Korea last year.
You’ve used some film footage from that trip in the video for ‘Lonely Press Play’.
There’s a lot more. I’ve gone into a lot more depth.
Did you play over there?
No. Well, I did, actually. By the sixth day I was there, they worked out I was a musician, and so I got invited to a place called High School Number One, which is their music academy. You’ve got to understand this is a society where anyone who is talented is absorbed by the system and becomes a future mouthpiece for the system, so it’s an incredibly disciplined, well-mannered school, where everyone in the corridors bows as you walk through. It’s quite slow progress, because there’s a lot of bowing going on (smiles). A door was opened and there were the six girls all about 14 or 15, all identically dressed with their party badge and they started singing this incredible song for me, which I recorded, with a piano and at the end of it, the director said, “That was fantastic, thank you very much.” Obviously it was uncomfortable, but not oppressively so. But you’re aware. People always ask me what it was like, having gone to North Korea, and I always describe it like entering a magical kingdom – in the sense that everyone is under a spell.
Is it a very evil spell?
Well, a spell is a spell (shrugs). We’re all under different kinds of spells. Advertising is equally a potent spell. Then the director turned around and said, “We would like to hear a song from you”, and I was like, “Really?” You know, you panic. “Oh god!” The only song I could think of was ‘Under The Westway’, which I wrote up here, so I started singing this mad song to these North Koreans.
Did they like it?
They were very polite at the end of it but, ideologically, I think a lot of the conceits in that song would have been quite problematic for whatever bureau it is deals with stuff like that.
What’s your biggest ambition in life now?
My biggest ambition is… (lengthy pause)… to just improve.