Gorillaz’s main man Damon Albarn talks new about his ‘fresh’ new album The Now Now – from politics to melancholic tunes
Damon chats about how US politics influences some of the lyrics as he wrote the album while touring the country last year.
IT’S a bright and breezy early summer morning when I pitch up at Damon Albarn’s discreet Studio 13.
I make my way to the top floor and glimpse the Westway scything through Ladbroke Grove on its way into central London.
Emerging from the kitchen area is the mercurial music maker, sporting a pale pink polo shirt, black jeans and baby blue Reebok trainers.
Damon greets me with a friendly hug (we go back a long way!) but I can tell he’s nursing the mother of all hangovers.
His, shall we say, unguarded mood makes for an intense hour in which he doesn’t pull his punches about a range of subjects including Brexit and the Grenfell Tower fire.
“I got marched into staying up late last night,” he sighs. “Personally, I prefer to maintain my routine because I’m 50 and a bit set in my ways.”
He may be a bit worse for wear but there is still plenty of the boyish singer from Blur in his appearance.
This morning, our airy surroundings are littered with curious items from his extensive, ever-growing collection of retro synthesisers.
“That’s a Rhodes Chroma,” he says as I point in the direction of one handsome beast. “I like to indulge my passion for Eighties’ synths.
“I have about 150 and I’m building an extra space because they get beaten up when they’re not stored properly.”
The reason Damon and I are meeting up again is for the surprise new Gorillaz album, The Now Now, arriving just 14 months after Humanz and it’s peppered with oodles of those aforementioned synths.
If Humanz is a wildly ambitious song cycle recorded in several countries with loads of guest singers, The Now Now is a back-to-basics effort with the spotlight firmly on Damon and his alter-ego with blue spiky hair, 2D.
Aside from suitably smooth guitar from soul jazz maestro George Benson on Humility and the appearance of Snoop Dogg and Jamie Principle on Hollywood, a tight-knit team did the rest.
Damon, his co-producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence & The Machine) and long-time Gorillaz collaborator Remi Kabaka got all the music done at Studio 13 in February.
Of course, we mustn’t forget the visual genius behind Gorillaz, artist Jamie Hewlett, who was present at the sessions to create new narratives for the lovable cartoon rogues.
“This is a REALLY Gorillaz album, because Jamie was in the room for the whole month,” says Damon.
The superfast turnaround leads to my inevitable “hardest working man in rock” comment, a description he clearly hates.
He’s “quite militant” about his labours. “Normally I start work at 9.30 in the morning and finish at 5.30 in the evening.
“I feel a bit self-conscious and embarrassed about my ‘work ethic’. All that matters is whether the work is any good.
“If you’re contributing to mankind, as a proficient road sweeper or as a surgeon, there’s nothing wrong with a good work ethic.
“The whole country should embrace that,” he suggests, before revealing his uncompromising plan for Britain’s disaffected youth.
“This might come across as terribly reactionary but I sometimes imagine what this country would be like if we had compulsory social service for teenagers . . . six months of working to help others.”
What I sense from Damon is someone who fiercely believes in inclusivity, pulling together for the common good.
It explains why he’s such a natural collaborator and also why he rails against isolation on The Now Now’s opening track, specifically the America First policies of the White House incumbent.
“Calling the world from isolation,” he sings in a voice that’s maturing like fine claret. “Cos right now that’s the ball where we be chained.”
A man who has toured countless countries and made countless connections, he’d prefer the world to be getting smaller, for barriers to be smashed down.
“Understanding, accommodating and accepting other cultures is a really good thing to dedicate your life to,” Damon maintains.
There’s a vivid example of how people have come together brilliantly, right here in West London, on his doorstep.
Across the Westway, just out of sight, lies the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, adorned with giant green hearts at the top of all four sides next to the slogan “forever in our hearts.”
The devastating fire has had an overwhelming effect on the local community, including Damon.
“I wasn’t here when it happened but I got back a couple of days later,” he reports. “My Grenfell experience was through the eyes of other people.
“A lot of my close friends are affected, maybe for the rest of their lives. There’s a profound sense of injustice.
“If you can find anything positive from something so tragic, there is an extraordinary realisation around here that we’re in this together and we’re all the same.
“It’s made the kids more political and more aware and, in this day and age, that’s not a bad thing.
“It’s made everyone realise life is precious and I genuinely think it has brought people together.”
But he fears the same cohesive spirit does not apply to Brexit, another matter close to his heart.
I’ve rarely seen Damon so impassioned. He fixes me with a stare before launching into his stance: “I’ve thought about this, Simon, long and hard and I know what it is that upsets me,” he begins.
“The 52 per cent/48 per cent vote should not have been a mandate — just the beginning of a discussion. I understand reticence over a second referendum because people say, ‘Where do we stop?’ Don’t start if you’re scared about where you stop.”
Damon talks about how he bumped into leading Brexiteer and Cabinet minister Michael Gove in the street.
“Even he said, ‘We could have done it better,’ which is in some ways the greatest understatement of all time. The psyche of this country is disturbed and conflicted, which is a real shame.”
Before Britain leaves the EU, Damon says he will give “his heart and soul” to the debate.
“I don’t care about the f***ing economics of the EU . . . I just want us to remain an open, hospitable and optimistic society.
“Can we all just look each other in the eye and say, ‘This is what we really want.’
“We’ve been through all this mad s**t and I would accept Brexit if everyone truly believes it’s a good idea.”
Damon’s been part of Britain’s cultural fabric for 30 years and his thoughts on the nation’s big issue are heartfelt.
“I love my country, even the Welsh now I’ve spent some time there for the new The Good The Bad & The Queen record,” he says. “I couldn’t bear to see it become inward-looking. I grew up thinking this was the greatest multi-racial, most integrated place on Earth.”
But it’s America’s place in the world that looms large on the latest Gorillaz album.
Damon wrote the songs while touring the States last year and says: “I’ve done three road-trip records now. The first was Democrazy (2003) which sounds like a mad man on a four-track, the second is The Fall (by Gorillaz in 2010) which sounds unfinished but alludes to place and time and this one which I’ve actually finished.”
At the heart of the new material lies the gorgeous, hymnal Idaho inspired by the rural north-western state’s “untouched beauty.”
Other ports of call on this US odyssey include Kansas, “progressive yet middle America at the same time,” Magic City, “after a huge Miami casino,” and Hollywood, “I was inspired by staying in the Mondrian hotel penthouse with an amazing view of LA.”
Damon swears by moving around for sourcing ideas and making demos. “I write on my iPad and I take my engineer with me,” he explains.
“I’m not alone in making music on the road but I honestly can’t understand why all other musicians don’t do it. You can hire the penthouse of any hotel and it’s cheaper than sitting in the basement of a studio.” Songs set in America also resonate with the Gorillaz vibe because of the cartoon band’s phenomenal success there, much greater than that of Blur.
“It was just bad timing that Blur came out at the same time as Nirvana,” says Damon. “It was impossible to compete . . . although I do have a recording of Kurt Cobain singing There’s No Other Way.
“He was doing a radio interview and they asked him what English songs he liked. He started singing our song. My claim to fame!”
“Kurt’s performance on MTV Unplugged was a moment in time. That’s when I really fell in love with him. He was brilliant.”
Of all the current American stars, Damon believes Kanye West is the greatest talent since Cobain.
“I hope Kanye doesn’t end up going the same way,” he says. “America produces these neurotic, difficult, troubled versions of itself.”
Although Damon’s new songs have a whiff of trademark melancholia in places, there’s a fresh, spontaneous, carefree feel to the recordings . . . anything but troubled.
“I just made a simple, straightforward record, me singing pop songs. What’s not to like?”
Q&A with Jamie Hewlett
IF Damon Albarn is in tune, Jamie Hewlett is in toon. The Gorillaz artist has gone into overdrive for new album The Now Now. Here, exclusively for SFTW, he tells his side of the story to SIMON COSYNS.
Another Gorillaz album so soon?
It’s f***ing Damon’s fault! We did all that touring last year with all the wasted time that goes with it, so he got writing.Some of the feedback for Humanz was that there wasn’t enough of 2D, Damon’s voice, and I felt that too. So we just said let’s do another one straight away and make it 2D The Album. 2D’s Achilles’ heel is Murdoc, the character who stops him expressing himself, so we stuck Murdoc in jail.
Explain your involvement this time.
I was in the studio the whole time which I didn’t do for Humanz. It was Damon, Remi Kabaka, James Ford and me . . . like four teenagers in a room for a month, talking a lot of s**t , having a lot of good ideas and a lot of fun. I was sitting in the studio drawing, so it was nice.
How come you’ve got Powerpuff Girls’ character Ace from Gangreen Gang in the band?
My kids, now 18 and 22, grew up with Powerpuff Girls. It was such a huge show back then. It bothered me that musicians cross over with ease but artists not so much.I liked the idea of mixing cartoon characters because, apart from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Space Jam, no one has ever had a character going in to another cartoon. Cartoon Network were great about it but they did say no alcohol or prostitutes!
Tell us about the multimedia video for Humility starring Jack Black?
We shot it on Venice Beach on that little stretch where the world comes to an end. You have all the madness of America in one strip . . . homeless junkies, prostitutes, gang bangers and then holidaymakers.Jack is very intelligent, very funny, very sweet and completely up for whatever we asked. We shot him really quickly because a big crowd starts to gather when Jack Black is around.
And how have the Gorillaz characters evolved?
It seems to annoy people that, say, 2D doesn’t look like he does on the first album. But that was 18 years ago and I’ve progressed as an artist. I try to come up with a new style and a new way of delivering the characters on each album.Doing the same thing every time would drive me mad. Gorillaz is just an extended comic book with the characters acting out stuff that happens in real life.
You like having complete control over the art . . .
When we do the videos, I work with animators but I do all the key frames. I draw over everything that’s not correct because I’m very fussy. The animators get really tired of me because I make them change all the little details.Apart from the videos, I do everything else by myself. I’d certainly like some help but I haven’t found anyone suitable yet.
What has happened to the Gorillaz audience over the years?
It’s growing up but it still appeals to young kids. The average ten-year-old needs something to listen to and to watch. I was inspired by great music as a kid and that turned me into who I am.If you just give kids s**t to listen to, what do you expect them to turn into?