BBC Radio 1 DJ Zane Lowe presented Damon Albarn with NME's inaugural Award For Innovation at the NME Awards 2014 with Austin, Texas last night (February 26). Below, he pays tribute to a musician he's worked with closely throughout his career, from Damon's work with Blur through to his forthcoming debut solo album.
"Damon is an innovator by the very nature of who he is. By the way he thinks, the way he approaches life and his drive to do things differently but not just because it’s different, but because he feels that that’s the only way for it to be done. That’s all that he can relate to. I always find it really ironic that people considered that his biggest achievement up to that point was being in this traditional Britpop band. It’s so not him. It’s never ever been him. And when he was doing that, for him, that was innovating and going against the grain of what was happening at that time: it was bringing music back into something that he felt was being overshadowed. So he’s always thought that way, like, 'what’s the next move?'
He’s made pop songs from the saddest notes. That’s nothing new in some respects, but the way he does it and the way he makes his music universal for people by writing these songs that are heart-breaking but also personal and you can connect to them - it’s incredible. In Blur, they made that move into really edgy territory by working with the likes of William Orbit – I mean, ‘13’ is still one of the craziest sounding records ever. ‘Caramel’ is just insane, the ideas going on there to the point that when Gorillaz came out, they sounded kind of normal. And then you realise that that was the coolest band in the world at the time and they weren’t even a conventional band. I remember saying to him, ‘You invented a band’ and he said, ‘No, we are a band, why aren’t they a band? We’re as much of a band as any other band!’ He knew that if he tried to collaborate on his own terms or with Blur with Dan The Automator and Danger Mouse – some bands wouldn’t be ready for that. He’s smart enough to acknowledge that and in a creative and innovative way, do what he wanted to do, but not put himself out on a remote island. He still wants to connect with people; he wants his music to connect. And those albums, at the very core, are just amazing, amazing albums.
And then he was like, we’re now going to go back to the roots of where music began, to Africa, but we’re going to update it and make it fresh again. We’re going to bring Jamie T and Richard Russell, all these incredible producers, writers and musicians to Africa and we’re actually going to make music. We’re not just going to talk about the music that they make – we’re going to react and interact and create and innovate and we’re gonna make that come alive in a different way'.
He walks more than he talks. It’s incredible how he just does these things that inspire him and he just doesn’t feel held back by anyone or anything. When he does go back to Blur, he’s committed, like, ‘I’m going to do this, but only if I make our shows are better than the last shows we left on, only if we can improve upon the legacy’. I mean, how many bands have reformed or got back together and it just feels like they’re treading old ground? And we all go to their shows because we want to see that old ground and we want to remember. But with Blur, it’s like it was actually another step in their history. That’s so rare. That’s innovative in its own way."
You can watch Zane giving Damon his award below:
Zane Lowe was speaking to NME's Mark Beaumont.