Last year I hung out with Damon Albarn on a cold spring night after he had played Onefest- a cool one off UK festival which he had headlined with his little aired Dr Dee side project. He was affable company and we shared a love of music hall as he played battered 78’s on his portable dancette and talked into the deep night about STUFF.
He had just headlined the festival with the aforementioned Dr Dee- a dark and dank exploration of one of the more melancholic sides of his psyche with a hypnotic music that hung in the air like an addictive black cloud of musical experimmentation as he meshed folk and the future into an intriguing and wilfully eccentric whole.
Damon Albarn, in his various guises has been pretty central to British pop culture for decades now. It’s a britishness that oozes from his plaintive vocal and his snappy and varied songwriting that he has documented in various guises from the cartoon madness of the Gorillaz to the village green turned into a ring road Kinks Kartoons of Blur to his new solo album, Everday Robots where he has finally placed himself as the central character into the green and ghostly land now covered in concrete and grime – a land of lost dreams and a long lost childhood in deceptively simple stripped down songs that slip and slide with great meldoic flourishes and a heartfely honesty as he tears pages from his mental diaries.
With a mesmerising series of projects that are in now some sort of hyperactive hyperdive he has explored many different facets of his creativity without over losing focus of his quintessential Englishness. With Blur he was perhaps one of the two key players in the so called Britpop era trapped in a tabloid war with Oasis with both bands reflecting the state of play in mid 90s UK in their own idiosyncratic way.
With their angular pop that combined the rush of the sixties beat boom with a post punk quirk and a nod the the eighties underground Blur were both a perfect pop band but also an underground band with a zest of adventure running amok in the mainstream. Driven by Damon’s then competitive streak and his innate talent for turning the experimental into pop gold they were both fascinating and infuriating in all the best possible ways.
Blur gradually unwound as the new millennium crept over the horizon and the singer re-emerged with the Good The Bad and Queen fascinated, as ever, with London looking at the city as an almost organic being with songs that contrasted with the chipper left field Blur pop with down beat moody pieces. The band also featured the return of Paul Simonon on bass guitar with drum genius Tony Allen on drums and Simon Tong – the former Verve guitar player in a supergroup that justified that monicker and actually looked like band perhaps down to Simonon’s eye for sartorial detail and a genuine feeling of friendship between the group members.
At the same time Albarn had launched the Gorillaz- a whimsical, neo hip hop pop crew of cartoon characters immersed ina land of bubble gum pop where he disappeared into a 2D cartoon world of cartoon charachters. It was the perfect 21st century pop group – a bizarre gang of part time eco warriors and rock n roll pigs all press ganged into a series of great cartoons and soundtracked by a cut and paste series of pop songs that mangled the dayglo pop with a kaleidoscope hip hop and sold millions and broke the USA in a way that Blur never quite could.
With a lifetime of creativity crammed into several projects and a creative rush he also resected Blur for the 13 album and series of festival headline slots before announcing a new album due for release this spring- what could this be? another disguise? another version? another facet of his personality let out?
Weeks later the new outfit makes its debut at the 6music event in Manchester and a sharp dressed crew hits the stage in a blur (ha!) of razor sharp tailored suits and tie pins as Damon take central stage and plays the whole of the new album of songs that range from child like simplicity to more of that melancholia that he is so adept at.
It turns out the latest disguise is in fact Damon himself and that the new record is to be his first solo affair with XL boss Richard Russell on production duties throughout with Natasha Khan and Brian Eno appearing felletingly it documents a fractured childhood from the heatwave summer of 1976 that birthed punk and saw the 8 year old Albarn running a round Leytonstowe in the happiest summer of all time in the UK which is neatly vignetted in ‘Hollow Ponds’. There are the gathering clouds of the melancholia on “The Green Man Has Gone” which documents the loss of an old pub- a landmark that is now a roundabout- geographical markers to a lost youth and a musical documentary of a lost England and an autobiographical adventure it’s his first solo album that is Albarn bringing it all back hime after his adventures in pop that have seen his travel all over the world physically and musically.
What took him so long?
’It was really very simple really- Richard Russell asked me, saying I’d like to produce you doing a personal, melancholic record. I was like ‘ok I’m in up for that. After that I had to go away way and think what does that actually mean? and how would I go about this ina different way because making music on my own is nothing new for me, I’ve been doing it for years and years and years- so what would distinguish this from everything else I had already done. I decided that the narrative would have to become super personal and so that was what I set out to do. I started writing stuff and the idea was that everything had to have happened to me- that was my brief to myself- ‘you can’t make anything up Damon!’ everything had to have happened and not be made up.’
Would it be fair to say that this is a record of isolation and the outsider looking in
and that on your other projects you are disguised in the third person but this time you stand naked so to speak?
‘You could be right but it was not always that way on the other projects but this time it was just completely naked from the beginning to the end. Whereas before I’ve maybe touched on being persoanl but then again look at Blur’s 13 record – that was as equally honest as this one but maybe not as biographical and was maybe more ‘I feel this way’ than about what actually happened- so that is the difference between the records but they are related to each other that’s for sure.’
I could hear echoes from your other projects in this record musically- a touch of the Gorillaz 21st century quirk, a dankness from the Good The Bad and the Queen but also a new vision.
‘Of course there are elements of my other stuff in there- they are all part of me. One thing that makes me laugh, especially in America, is that I have had loads of comments that I’m a lot like the Gorillaz and they ask ‘who is this guy’ which is hilarious but there you go.’
In many ways the Gorillaz albums were the opposite of this record because in many ways you were invisible!
‘Well clearly I was completely invisible to some people! they no idea that this Damon Albarn is the same guy!’
It was like musically you were a special guest on your own record!
‘I suppose that’s true.’
When you make a record like this about your own life how do you edit it all down? How do you choose the bits you are going to use?
‘You can’t let everything in so I started really by going back to Leytonstowe and going to the Hollow Ponds which is in many ways the central track to the new album. It was about 1976 which seemed like a good point to start the album from. I can remember that time clearly. I was 8 years old in 1976 and I wasn’t a baby anymore and I was a kid and it felt like such a happy year.
They recently did some sort of kind of survey about our national happiness and 1976 was identified as the happiest year ever, clearly this was because the sun shined for longer than any other year! I found it interesting because it was also the moment that the city I grew up in suddenly revealed itself and everyone saw everyone and said, wow, this place is a pretty mixed place and everyone seems to be here now and I think that was an important moment really in culture.
1976 was also the year of punk and everything- it was a big time wasn’t it? Your experience of 1976 is going to be different to mine of course but nonetheless it was an important moment and a good time to start the album and to be singing about something really and then everything else was quite a random journey through my own psyche really.
If I wanted to understand it for myself it was like I dug into my own brain really. I made progress in certain areas and there were obviously lots of areas I’ve not dug into yet and I suppose that means that if I was asked to again I could make another solo record.’
Would that be darker?
‘I dunno actually (laughs) it depends on which part I dug into!’
The album is partly a wistful melancholic records..think you that kind of person must be some highs as well!
‘Exactly as a person I don’t think I’m melancholic really. I think I’m more of big kid really, a clumsy overgrown teenager…’
That’s pop music for you…it’s a Peter Pan world of never having to grow up.
‘Yeah exactly (laughs) I don’t think I’m particularly dark, I think I’m quite silly really!’
There are also songs on the album that are quite childlike in parts…
‘Yeah, yeah- well that doesn’t surprise me. I don’t see myself as having achieved a great level of adulthood yet!’
But there are moments of sophistication as well. This is not a record an 18 year old could make…
‘Yes, that’s very true. I recognise that. I put my heart and soul into this record but in the end it’s just another record. The next one may not bear any relationship to this. For me all I need to do to feel happy about any record is that I just need to be immersed in that experience when I make them then I could do something else afterwards. In many ways it was a relief to finish. It’s quite a melancholic record. I don’t feel the need to inhabit that state of mind for ever, although clearly it’s very much part of me.’
It’s a weirdly English thing being melancholic..when you were looking back and making the record did you find out much about yourself?
‘Yeah I realised that it was a big thing that i discovered on this record and looking back now I wondered why didn’t I realise that before that at the time, simply put, I grew up in multi cultural East London until I was 9 and then I moved and had the strange, magical experience of going to Turkey without my parents for a summer and I spent a lot of time on my own walking around Istanbul on my own. When I came back my parents had moved fifty miles east to a village, Aldham, near Colchester and even if I knew they were going to move to rural Essex it was still odd. I just landed and turned up in a world that seemed completely and utterly alien to me and that was, in a way, the point where I became a bit of an outsider and withdrew into a more private universe really. That was the point that I started to write music which, when you are a teenager, sets you out to be a bit odd and I was a bit odd when I was a teenager. I feel now that all these years later I understand what that oddness was about, if you know what I mean, and when I was growing up in London I didn’t feel off at all. I felt like a normal kid.’
Maybe all your records are you trying to reconnect with this mythical long lost London of your youth?
‘yes yes, that’s very true, very well put and maybe I’ve put that to rest now with this record.’
So this could be the stepping stone to next era now you have finally got this searching out of your system?
‘ Who knows what’s around the next corner…’
Finally, did nature or technology win?
‘I think the jury is still very much out on that! who knows-probably nature should win…but…’