“I’m Sort Of English Melancholy”: Damon Albarn Interviewed

With an upcoming Blur show and a number of albums set for release in the coming months, Damon Albarn's 2012 looks set to be as packed as ever. He sat down with Stephen Dalton to talk Doctor Dee, the future of Blur, the Olympics, David Cameron and Alex James' cheese

Love him or loathe him, Damon Albarn’s two-decade journey from brash Britpop poster boy to shape-shifting art-pop mogul has made him one of the most interesting and prolific musical icons of his generation. Even before Blur unravelled into acrimony a decade ago, Albarn was already well on the road to becoming a cartoon hip-hop superstar, serial collaborator, opera composer, anti-war activist, perennial darling of the middlebrow liberal media, credible label boss and tireless evangelist for a scruffy-cool brand of pan-global music that owes more to Paul Simonon than Paul Simon.

Of course, there have been times when Albarn did not wear his fame graciously. Even with all that talent, success, good fortune and fawning critical reverence, his thin-skinned arrogance was notorious. But talking to The Quietus this morning, the 44-year-old recovering pop star is in wry and disarming mood. We mostly get Damon the endlessly curious musical adventurer, not Damon the lairy media cartoon.

Albarn claims to have mellowed in middle age, and his promiscuous talent for globe-trotting collaboration certainly suggests a man able to keep his alpha-male ego in check. Indeed, his kaleidoscopic, ever-expanding constellation of musical partners is arguably the most impressive achievement of his post-Blur career. It is certainly unrivalled in modern pop, incorporating everyone from Michael Nyman to Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed to De La Soul, Erykah Badu to Shaun Ryder – plus all the fantasy collaborations that got away, such as the three-way album with David Bowie and Ray Davies that he reveals below.

Always prolific, Albarn’s 2012 schedule already looks insanely crowded. This week he launches the debut album by his latest collective project Rocket Juice and the Moon, an Afro-impro analogue-funk supergroup featuring Nigerian drum maestro Tony Allen and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. In May he releases the studio album of his “folk opera” about the Elizabethan mystic Doctor Dee, before appearing in a revamped production at London’s ENO in June. The album that he co-produced and co-wrote for soul legend and Gorillaz collaborator Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man In The World, also arrives in June.

In August, Albarn briefly returns to his old day job fronting the friends-reunited Blur at their Hyde Park mega-show to close the London Olympics. The singer has even written a new Blur song entitled ‘Under The Westway’ – or simply ‘Westway’, as he calls it here. Even so, he insists there are no further albums or tours planned. Here he chats to the Quietus about his multiple projects, David Cameron and David Bowie, middle-class guilt and fine cheese…

You have a very busy few months ahead – the Rocket Juice and Bobby Womack albums, the Doctor Dee London run and studio album, plus another big Blur show. You seem to unveil a new project every week…

DA: It’s just happened that a lot of things that have taken a while have all been finished at a similar time, that’s why it looks like I’m putting out so much. That’s my excuse.

Will Doctor Dee at the ENO in London will be different to last year’s Manchester debut?

DA: Yeah, I’ve tried to work on it. I’ve tried to introduce the voice of Doctor Dee. I only had eight weeks before the first run to workshop it, and I’ve had a lot of time since to think about what worked and what didn’t. And the record I’ve made is really a distillation of all the things that I felt worked about that particular version of Doctor Dee – it leans more heavily to me singing pastoral folk, really. But the stuff at the ENO will be something else. It’s a workshop thing, you know? Sometimes it’s quite difficult to explain that to people, that you’re in the middle of a process and a journey, you’ve not necessarily arrived and it’s OK to present something that’s still in flux.

Plenty of critics who saw the Manchester version, myself included, felt it lacked narrative.

DA: Oh it certainly lacked narrative! No shit, Sherlock! Ha! But I mean, you know, what do you do…? I’m quite comfortable with presenting a work in progress and I know we made some stinkers as decisions, but you can’t really move forwards unless you make those mistakes. Hopefully it will be a more rounded and satisfactory piece, narrative wise, this time around. I sincerely hope so, otherwise I’ll be very disappointed.

Alan Moore was originally the driving force behind Doctor Dee but he pulled out claiming nobody else had done any work…

DA: Well, that’s…. that’s… that’s just not true. What you discover is that people’s working processes are very different, and maybe at the essence of that was that Alan Moore very much likes to be in control of what he’s doing, and this was very much a group workshop thing. Maybe he felt uncomfortable with that, and that’s cool. But in my mind there’s no ambiguity about the fact that he was the one who inspired me to undertake it.

Before Doctor Dee you have your newest collaboration album, Rocketjuice and the Moon. How did that happen?

DA: It was just self evident as soon as Flea and Tony met, on a plane to Lagos, that something was going to happen. Flea’s a passionate Fela Kuti aficionado so as soon as he met Tony I could see he was itching to play with him. Tony’s a master drummer and I’ve played with him in a lot of different guises, a lot of different jam sessions. He really needs a solid bass player who’s able to play within his beat and not be too flashy. Flea can be as flashy a you like but he’s a great musician, so he was sensitive to what he needed to do, and happy just playing in Tony’s pocket. The two of them just sounded perfect immediately, so we just realised we could do something.

I’d worked with Tony on The Good, The Bad and the Queen, which was much more of a conventional band with songs. There wasn’t a great deal of room for Tony to just start and transcend – which is what he really likes to do, he likes to get into a pocket and just explore that for like 10 minutes. So I always wanted to make a record which really showcased the way Tony plays the drums, and this was the perfect place to do it.

Tony also plays in your Doctor Dee band…

DA: That was a really unexpected thing. He was just in the studio one day and I was talking about this thing I was doing that had influence coming from ritual magic to geometry… he started talking about his childhood and his grandmother and his understanding of Juju and the power of ritual drums, such that when you were a kid in Nigeria you weren’t allowed to participate in because it was too intoxicating rhythmically. So we talked about that and then he started talking about these particular drums and this particularly tradition in Ghana, and that led to him going out there and designing a new drum kit which is based on these ritual, magical drums from Ghana.

Which resonates with the magickal alchemy side of the play?

DA: Well, it’s all very connected. For me it wasn’t a great leap to put him in the context of Elizabethan England. The sound of the drums is quite… fundamental.

How did the Bobby Womack album come about?

DA: That was a similar thing to Tony, I didn’t get the chance to really explore our music together on that Gorillaz record because it was just a one-off thing, it was the first time I’d met him and we recorded it in a couple of days in New York. Then I didn’t see him until we started off on a world tour. Obviously I got to know him very well on tour, I’ve got enormous love and respect for Bobby, and we felt that we could do something together. Then everyone had lots to do when we got back from the Gorillaz tour, I had to do Doctor Dee and everything, so we sort of set a date for September.

I asked my mate Richard Russell, who’s a great collaborator, whether he was up for going in the studio. We booked out two weeks and Bobby came over. I’d done a bit of preparation but not much – we started from scratch, essentially, but it went so well and Bobby was so open and full of energy. I thought, in two weeks, we would maybe get one thing that sounded right, but in that first session we did eight tunes that have made it to the record. You really never know whether something going to work or not.

You have worked with an incredible range of collaborators. You must be the most musically promiscuous collaborator of your generation?

DA: Yes I suppose I am… I’ve swapped my youthful promiscuity for something a bit more middle aged.

Paul McCartney told The Quietus you approached him for Gorillaz, is that right?

DA: We might have done, yeah. But very… gently. I do genuinely like working with people but at the same time I don’t expect it to work, and there have been a lot of people who… a lot of things don’t happen. I mean, for about 24 hours, many years ago, I was making a record with David Bowie and Ray Davies. But that only lasted 24 hours… That was a long time ago, it’s not news, and it’s certainly not the case any more. The point is, I have played around with a lot of ideas and most of them don’t come to fruition.

The Guardian has repeatedly called you the New David Bowie – do you see the parallels?

DA: I don’t think I could ever quite fill Bowie’s shoes. And he was very into the visual side of things, that’s never really interested me that much. I definitely identify him as a kindred spirit in his sense of adventure. I was very inspired by that when I was growing up.

And also you both started out as mime artists…

DA: I didn’t start off as a mime artist! That’s ridiculous!

It says so on Wikipedia.

DA: Yeah, right. Well, why dispel something as ridiculous as that? Yes I did, I started off as a mime artist. Like David Bowie. That’s why we’re so similar.

I’m just wondering when is your Tin Machine period due?

DA: Well, I think there’s a lesson there. You never know what’s around the corner. Never get too self complacent or you might end up in Tin Machine.

Last year you worked on that DRC Music album in the Congo, another fine collaboration.

DA: That was five days, literally, we didn’t touch it after that. What I always hope with stuff like that is they lead to something else. I thought that was just a really nice model for like-minded adventurous spirits to get together and go anywhere. I’ve been to the Congo twice now and both times I’ve gone with the belief that you can at least fire other people imaginations if you go: look, this country has got all this shit going on but it’s also incredibly vibrant and exciting… I know for everyone involved in those projects, it’s a life changing experience. I’d urge anyone to do it from time to time, musicians in particular.

It is striking that almost all your post-Blur projects have been heavily grounded in African and African-American music. On one level are you running away from the worst aspects of Britpop and its white, jingoistic, Little Englander ethos?

DA: Yes, maybe subconsciously that’s what’s it has been. But I’ve always been into that kind of music, it’s just at that time it wasn’t ever going to be expressed through the medium of Blur… Funnily enough I’ve done a new tune for Blur, I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day but it’s really traditional.

In general, are you motivated by guilt at being white and middle class?

DA: Ha! Are you?

Of course!

DA: OK… Well, yes I think so. I don’t know if it’s as self-conscious as that, and I feel a lot more cosmopolitan than I did when I was younger, that’s for sure. A lot more relaxed with myself. But you’re probably right, it’s probably been a very strong driving force for me over the years.

Does this new Blur song have a name?

DA: ‘Westway’. I only mentioned it because it is strange how sometimes something comes out naturally that’s not where you are. For me, that’s not what I write any more, but at it’s essence it’s just songwriting and I just love those chords. Sometimes they really get to me, you know? At the end of the day I’m just another English songwriter.

So you have gone back to Britpop?

DA: Completely! Not self consciously, it’s something I’ve had knocking about for years and didn’t know what to do with. Initially I wrote it as a slightly wistful national anthem for my house, I had this idea of getting it made into an old 78 record and making a flag and then just playing it – just being really silly. But I had these chords and I ended up writing this tune around it…. I don’t really do anything with Blur any more – there’s this concert this year but it’s not a full time thing at all. Maybe this tune’s a last little coda to the whole story.

After the Blur reunion tour in 2009 you said it had been a nice treat, a nice holiday, but you would all now be getting on with your separate lives. Do you still feel that way?

DA: Yes. It was a nice treat, and this year is a particularly jubilant year if you’re celebrating our wonderful cosmopolitan culture. It doesn’t feel that weird to turn up in Hyde Park again and play in front of 80,000 people. Once.

How much is it a money driven thing?

DA: It’s not a money thing at all! If it was a money thing I’d be going on a world tour. We won’t make hardly any money out of it, we’re just doing it because it’s a fun thing to do.

So we should not assume this Hyde Park show and new Blur song will lead to a new album?

DA: No.

There was a frosty period when Blur referred to each other as “associates”, not friends. Is that still the case?

DA: No, I think my relationship with Graham in particular is better now than it has been in many, many years. And really, at the end of the day, that’s all I care about.

There was also a time when Alex routinely called you a cunt in interviews…

DA: Well, you know, there you go. Sticks and stones may break my bones.

Maybe he meant it affectionately?

DA: I’m sure he did. In his own way. We’re all familiar with his journalistic style.

You have always been fairly left wing…

DA: I don’t share his politics! That’s for sure.

Exactly – so you must find Alex being matey with David Cameron a little grating?

DA: He lives next door to him, doesn’t he? Do I find it grating… ummm… ha! Does it grate on me as his friend, who has known him for years and knows that he’s essentially a bit silly? No. If you know Alex you know it’s all a bit light-hearted and silly. When I see some of his announcements in the cold light of day, if I didn’t know him, they would grate on me massively. But I just know he’s a bit silly so I can’t take him very seriously.

What is his cheese like?

DA: It’s very good actually.

Blur in Hyde Park is being billed as closing show for the Olympics, are you feeling positive about London 2012?

DA: I’m positive in that I like the way it’s forcing everyone to articulate how they feel about where they live. But also, bear in mind that come September there will be Union Jack tumbleweed and lots of popped balloons. It’s not going to be very cool being British in September, so make hay while the sun shines! Ha!

Have you read Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk, about the Olympics and other grand projects? He finds it all very sinister…

DA: That’s his language: it’s sinister isn’t it? In the same way as Alex James is jolly, Iain Sinclair is sinister, and I’m sort of English melancholy. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, we’ve all got our tags.

But Sinclair’s point is that the Olympic project is a kind of totalitarian sci-fi monstrosity being forced upon the populace…

DA: Of course it is. But at the end of then day we’re all humans, we’re all flesh and blood, and it would be nice if we could all just get on with each other for a couple of weeks and enjoy each other’s company. Of course, any intelligent person can see through it and see there are problems… But then again you can view everything that way. You can either be negative or positive about anything. I would rather be positive.

At the end of the last decade you said you had become less vain, less selfish, less arrogant. Have you mellowed in your forties?

DA: I’ve just hopefully grown up a bit and realised how lucky I am doing what I do. I haven’t lost my sense of adventure and that, accompanied with a bit more stability and sense, hopefully, allows me to work hard and explore stuff I don’t know much about yet.

You always had a reputation for being prickly and arrogant, certainly among journalists. Did you deserve it?

DA: Ummm… I think I was not able to articulate my innate scepticism about a lot of shit and I’m better able to do that now, so maybe I come across as less prickly. Pfff, I don’t know. I’m still here…

Liam Gallagher was recently voted the best ever rock frontman in a Q magazine poll. You were Number Four. Be honest, on one level, does that hurt?

DA: Well, obviously it would be wonderful to have an uninterrupted stream of Number One records everywhere in the world, but it’s not really possible and it’s not why I make music. I just get on with it. I work five days a week and I try not to spend too much time promoting music, I try to spend more time making it. Maybe that’s the difference.

Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee is out via Parlophone on May 7th

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