Damon Albarn turns 47 today (March 23). To celebrate, here’s the Blur man’s last NME cover – a discussion with NME editor Mike Williams from April last year, picking apart the melancholy and messages of his first ever solo album, ‘Everyday Robots’…
There’s an idea floating around in space that Damon Albarn has never really opened up. That while he’s always been willing and able to offer criticisms, witticisms and shrewd observations of the world in which we live and its effect on our hearts and minds, until now and the imminent release of his debut solo record, they’ve only ever been delivered from behind a mask of character or metaphor. This, as you equally shrewd observers know only too well, is not true. Sitting at a cheap-looking table in the top-floor office of his 13 studio in west London, with the imposing sight of the A40 (otherwise known as Blur’s favourite muse, the Westway) visible through the window in the middle distance, a Stella Artois glass full of nettle tea in front of him and a small statue of Chairman Mao watching him from across the room, Damon begins today’s interview by dismantling this theory.
“I’ve heard people say that ‘Everyday Robots’ is the first time I’ve really written autobiographically,” he begins, his head resting in his hand, the expression on his face pitched somewhere between pensive and bored. “But [1999 Blur album] ‘13’ was a completely autobiographical record, but one that was written in the death throes of a relationship, so it’s very much real-time personal, whereas [‘Everyday Robots’] moves all over the place.” He sits up, and perks up. “Some of it is how I feel now. Some of it is me casting a net back decades and bringing in a whole mad kaleidoscope of memories and emotions to make sense of in some sort of narrative. But I’ve been saying stuff about myself all along. Even on a song like [Gorillaz’ 2001 debut single] ‘Clint Eastwood’, my contribution vocally to that is a very personal thing. It’s always been there.”
Cast your minds back across 25 years of Damon Albarn lyrics, and the personal portrait he’s been painting stands out as clearly and brightly as that dodgy gold tooth of his: sometimes surreal, often melancholic, easy to mistake as obtuse and almost always riddled with some kind of inertia. What’s new on ‘Everyday Robots’ is his exploration of his own identity, as he asks himself the questions of who he is, where exactly he comes from, and most interestingly, what the future holds for him, for us and for everyone else. On ‘Hollow Ponds’ he takes us on a walk through his personal history, stopping to point out key moments that have shaped him. On the title track, he tells us that “Everyday robots just touch thumbs”, seemingly criticising the tech-obsessed 21st century. On ‘Lonely Press Play’ he lets you know that he’s sad about his own absorption into the matrix: “Can I get any closer?/What anecdote can I bring you?/When I’m lonely, I press play”. And on the album’s standout song, ‘The Selfish Giant’, he bemoans the fact that “It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on”.
Sign up for the newsletter
You could easily read the whole thing as a middle-aged man growing more and more afraid of the environment in which he finds himself, longing for the old days when things were simpler and warmer and the future was something to dream up and laugh at, rather than endure. But Damon, now more animated and breaking occasionally into his golden grin, insists that it’s much more ambiguous than that.
Damon: “It’s not a criticism of the 21st century, and it’s not a celebration. It’s an observation.”
NME: So what have you observed?
Damon: “I think it’s fair to say I have, over the years, written a lot of tunes which were set in the future. Take ‘The Universal’, for example. ‘Everyday Robots’ is another version of that. It’s me in the near future, imagining possible outcomes, but not drawing, necessarily, any conclusions.”
NME: When you think about the near future, does it excite you or is it a scary place?
Damon: “Well (laughs) it’s in equal parts terrifying and inspiring.”
NME: What do you fear about the future?
Damon: “You know, sort of… absolute isolation of the human spirit. But also, it poses a question in a way. It’s like, the end of ‘Hollow Ponds’, it gets quite euphoric, the last bit after the French horn. It goes up an octave, my voice, and I end on ‘The dreams that we all share on LCDs every moment now and every day’. It’s like, are we in a period of such insane transition that we can’t see anything really? Are we blind? Or is it a period of enlightenment? Will we end up being a kind of universal brain… we’re all thinking together, all acting as one thing? Or is it gonna isolate the individual to a point where the organic senses of sight, taste, hearing and love, all of that stuff, is that all just gonna be digitalised?”
Damon: “And become… are we gonna become robots?”
An hour or so before we take our seats at 13 to discuss humanity’s impending doom, a gathering of managers, PRs, a photographer and his assistant stand by as Damon, a few minutes late, is delivered by black cab to our photoshoot a couple of miles down the road. Sunglasses on, Harrington jacket zipped up to the top, he stops outside the door of the studio to light a fag, smokes half of it down, then flicks the butt into a drain. He’s pretty chipper as he enters. “I’ve just been winding up an Arsenal fan cabbie. I’m in a great mood.”
His great mood sours slightly when he spots the journalist across the room. “So what’s it going to be today? Chat for a couple of hours then twist something into a sensational headline and slap that on the cover? Don’t worry, I know the drill.”
He’s smiling, but half serious. That morning the latest issue of Q magazine has hit the shelves, the word ‘heroin’ emblazoned on the cover and the story inside dedicating a fair portion of itself to nonchalant chat about cocaine use and what Damon considered a manageable previous addiction to the brown stuff. He tells me later, “If this room (acting out the scale of the huge room we’re sitting in with his arms) was the conversation, then that figurine of Mao in the corner was my conversation about drugs,” but I think he’s protesting a little too much. The truth lies more in what he follows up with: “All of this stuff is in the past, but it’s turned into the headlines. So now it virally travels around to give the impression that that’s all I’m talking about. It’s absolutely not all I’m talking about.”
Back to the photoshoot, and Damon’s taking a keen interest in what’s happening, checking the monitor regularly to see what he looks like in the shots. Again he’s half serious when he sees one he particularly likes and says, “That’s a good one, that could be me in any era!”
Shoot done, we get into a taxi to take us over to 13, where Damon works Monday to Friday, nine to five on the schizophrenic amount of projects scrapping for his attention. In case you’re wondering, the latest is a Brazilian bossa nova piece. In the cab we talk about Texan festival South By Southwest, where he played two shows a few weeks back. The first, a rather subdued headline set at the famous Stubb’s BBQ – supported by an equally subdued St Vincent – doesn’t seem to have particularly pleased him. (Unbeknown to him at the time, that was the night a drunk driver ploughed into festival-goers.) The second, where he was joined onstage by Snoop Dogg, De La Soul and Gorillaz collaborators Dan The Automator and Del The Funky Homosapien was a lot more fun. As he’ll say later, he’s a “serial collaborator”.
Up the stairs and on to the top floor, Damon points out that the balcony we can see outside the glass doors is where Blur played ‘Under The Westway’ live on Twitter in 2012. The obvious question to ask is, having given that 2012 Blur comeback more substance than the previous one by adding new material to the live shows, and knowing that the appetite for a Blur album is at a ridiculous high following his onstage comments in May 2013 that “we thought it would be a good time to try to record another record, so we’re going to make one here in Hong Kong”, why choose now to make his debut solo album?
Damon: “Well, really, because [XL Recordings boss] Richard Russell suggested it. After we’d done the Bobby Womack album, we had a real sound developing between the two of us, him being the percussion, and me playing the piano or guitar. We’d had this idea that we should maybe start a new band, but I think we both realised that would be a long slog, starting from scratch again. So we started experimenting.”
NME: Experimenting how?
Damon: “We went off on a complete tangent and started making really quite abrasive electro music and I kind of became this imaginary, forgotten female soul singer, with my voice being sped up.”
NME: Called what?
NME: What was the name of the imaginary soul singer?
Damon: “She was called Gladys. So we did Bobby Womack and then we had this brief sojourn where I was Gladys. But it wasn’t serious. And then one day Richard arrived in quite a serious mood and said, ‘Do you know what I really like to do… I’d like to produce you.’ Which, you’ve got to understand at that moment, was quite a shock to me, because we’d established our relationship as being co-producers.”
NME: And suddenly that had changed?
Damon: “Yes. He said, ‘I’d like to produce you and what I’d like to do is focus on your more introspective, melancholic side, because that’s the part of you I’ve always really liked in your music.’ That is how it started. So I went away and started thinking about, ‘Well, what does that mean?’ Because it didn’t mean anything to me, the words ‘solo record’. But I realised that it had to be about, just about somehow…really about me. It had to be
100 per cent honest…”
NME: Did that make it a difficult record to make in that sense? It seems a little bit disillusioned in places.
Damon: “I don’t think it’s disillusioned. It’s just honest. The melancholy thing, sometimes is a bit of a red herring because what it actually is, it’s very much in a tradition. English folk music can have a tendency to sound melancholic, but that’s just because that’s the mode, the musical mode in which it is written and articulated. It’s very English.”
NME: Are you only really scratching the surface of what you want to tell us about yourself in a solo context?
Damon: “I’ve got an awful lot more to talk about, but that doesn’t mean that this is the beginning of endless solo records. It’s just… it’s just what I did next.”
When it comes to the career of Damon Albarn, a compressive and detailed history lesson is not necessary, so let’s skip through the key points to bring us up to date. Growing up near Colchester, where he moved with his parents at the age of nine having been brought up originally in Leytonstone in east London, he met Graham Coxon at secondary school, where they formed their first band together, Real Lives, with Graham on guitar. In 1988, after enrolling at Goldsmiths College, Real Lives became Circus with the introduction of Dave Rowntree on drums, and then Seymour as bassist Alex James joined. Seymour became Blur in 1990, and Damon became the cheeky face of Britpop.
In 1997 he broke up with his long-term girlfriend, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, and moved into a shared flat with artist Jamie Hewlett, whom he’d first met in 1990 when Hewlett interviewed Blur for Deadline magazine, home of his comic strip Tank Girl. Sat in front of MTV, they came up with the idea of Gorillaz, a satirical comment on the vacuous nature of pop music that turned into a global success that in other parts of the world casts Blur completely in the shade.
The concept of Gorillaz – Damon as the only constant surrounded by a revolving cast of characters – sums up the rest of his career to date, which has seen him release records as The Good, The Bad & The Queen (2007) alongside Paul Simonon, Simon Tong and Tony Allen; and Rocket Juice & The Moon (2012), again featuring Allen but this time joined by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea. There’s also been Mali Music (2002), DRC Music (2011) Afrika Express (2013), the operas Monkey: Journey To The West (2007) and Dr Dee (2011) as well as the soundtracks to Michael Nyman’s Ravenous (1999) and the Icelandic film, 101 Reykjavik (2001). Then there’s the collaboration with Massive Attack; producing Bobby Womack; his involvement in Honest Jon’s Records. It goes on and on and on and on and on… “I’m not a dabbler,” he insists. “I am not a dilettante. I wouldn’t for one second say I’m fucking good at anything, but I’m very excited about the prospect of learning more. Always. That’s me.”
For someone for whom collaboration is so key, he does have a tendency to fall out with people, most notably his closest wingmen, Coxon and Hewlett. According to Damon, both of these relationships are now fully repaired and closer than ever (see box on page 50). He says that he doesn’t take himself too seriously any more, and that he is definitely more content in middle age. He describes the younger Damon as “precious”, “arrogant” and “insecure” – “nothing unusual for a young man in their early twenties.”
NME: You seem quite happy to describe yourself as middle-aged now.
Damon: “Well, I was 46 last Friday. So yes, I am very aware of my mortality.”
NME: Do you exercise enough?
Damon: “Yeah. Bloody hell, do I? Do I look like I don’t exercise?”
NME: Do you have enough sex?
Damon: “I’m not gonna answer that question.”
NME: Do you still take drugs?
NME: And you still smoke?
Damon: “Not a lot.”
NME: What about things like spirituality and faith? How do they change as you get older?
Damon: “I’ve always been interested in religion and the history of spirituality, but it’s not just a Christian moral, you know. I’m interested in all religions; I love history and I love the history of religion. Religion, in its purest, most esoteric sense travels the same path as mathematics and physics and music. If you’re interested in music, it’s a great hub from which a hell of a lot of other stuff can be investigated.”
NME: Tell me what a normal week looks like.
Damon: “I circuit train on Monday, I run on Tuesday, I circuit train on Wednesday, I run on Thursday, I box on Friday. In the week, I’m 100 per cent nine to five. Weekends I’m chilling out at home.”
NME: What about your daily routine? What did you do today?
Damon: “I got up at 6.30. I had muesli this morning with a bit of banana in it. Then I had a cuppa tea.”
NME: Nettle tea?
Damon: “I have nettle tea all day at the studio, but I have a normal cuppa tea at home. I went to the park, boxed for three quarters of an hour. Went and had a coffee. Came back, had a shower, got in a cab, went to the photoshoot.”
NME: And if there hadn’t been a photoshoot happening you would have gone into the studio and started work?
Damon: “Yeah, I’d be right into something. Lost in that world of music, which is where I choose to be during my working hours. That’s the biggest treat of all, when you can go in the studio and just do anything. And I’m busy. I’ve got stuff to keep me busy probably for the next three or four years.”
Despite some protestations to the contrary (“I’m not going to change myself to get approval”), I think Damon Albarn is still someone who likes to be liked. At the NME Awards in February this year, as he collected his NME Award For Innovation, he spoke about his complicated relationship with NME as a young man and how gaining approval for what he’d done felt incredibly important. ‘Everyday Robots’ is a record where Damon is trying to make sense of himself, to himself, and I’m not sure he’s found all of the answers he was looking for yet. It’s interesting that none of the songs started life as Blur or Gorillaz songs, and every one of them, apart from the silly sore thumb of ‘Mr Tembo’ (a song about a baby elephant that Damon recorded on his iPhone, basically just dicking about, which Richard Russell convinced him to put on the album), was written and recorded from scratch in an intense period in 2013. You could almost look on the whole thing as some kind of therapy. When I ask him to describe to me the anatomy of Damon Albarn, he switches to third person and lists “Electro Damon, folk Damon, rock Damon, African Damon (laughs)… er, Chinese Damon?” like he’s lying on a psychiatrist’s sofa. I ask him what makes him happiest.
Damon: “My family being happy. Feeling well. Hanging out with friends and making music.”
NME: And what are the things that make you unhappy or even angry?
Damon: “There’s a lot that makes me angry. I find that anger and fear go together easily. A lot of things I’m fearful of, I’m also angry about. Like mortality. I think about it. I question stuff I’m in no position to affect.”
In the June 17, 1995 issue of NME, Damon wrote a profile of himself, which started: “Pop people are funny in the head and the more pop they get, the funnier their heads become.” On mortality, he wrote: “Pop people seem to be preoccupied with not being forgotten. They are all trying to join the Immortality Club. Some try kicking down the door and shouting, ‘Let me in! I’m for real, me!’” So what would the 27-year-old Damon be writing about if he were
27 in 2014?
“I’d probably be writing about everyday robots. Probably…”