Damon Albarn interviewed

From the Daily Telegraph, 1 September 2005. Interview by Craig McLean.

It's a fair bet that Damon Albarn didn't tune into BBC4's recent celebration of the Blur/Oasis chart battle. If he had spotted his floppy-haired younger self, introducing an old documentary round-up of his "favourite" Britpop bands, he would no doubt have cringed. Musically, Albarn has come a long way from the days of perky guitar pop and Cool Britannia. Nor is he likely ever again to wear a deerstalker and plus-fours when singing Blur's Oasis-trumping number one, Country House.

These days, the 37-year-old enjoys a very different kind of renown. As the voice and musical brains behind cartoon four-piece Gorillaz, he is responsible - along with illustrator Jamie Hewlett - for one of the most innovative bands of the past few years. And one of the most popular: Gorillaz' 2001 self-titled debut sold six million copies. In America, Albarn has latterly enjoyed considerably more success than he has ever achieved with Blur.

Gorillaz make cutting-edge pop that mixes singalong melodies, reggae, electronica, hip-hop and world music. On their second album, Demon Days (released in May), these musical ideas are applied to Albarn's thoughts on the "dark" times in which we live. This wide-ranging creative ambition is fleshed out by guest vocalists such as actor Dennis Hopper and (on new single DARE) Happy Mondays vocalist Shaun Ryder.

But all this serious musicianship is fronted by four brilliantly realised characters oozing attitude and style, including moody singer 2-D and a 10-year-old female Japanese guitarist called Noodle. Gorillaz look great, sound great, and inhabit a world straight out of a video game. No wonder kids have gone ga-ga for Gorillaz.

"We don't sit around thinking, 'This'll be great for kids' - it just happened to really appeal to them," says Albarn as he sits by the back door of Hewlett's west London design studio. "We try to be as radical as we possibly can in every sense. But it doesn't matter what we do, the combination is really appealing to active young minds. That's the essence of the [music] industry, isn't it? Unfortunately in the wrong hands it's constantly abused. Record labels and less scrupulous producers will hoodwink the kids with shit. Because it's easy."

Hiding his true self behind cartoon characters was particularly appealing to Albarn, who pronounces himself "loads happier" with his new, lower profile as a musician. Gorillaz are, he says, "essentially, for most people, anonymous. It doesn't feel like that in Britain. But everywhere else I go, when people ask what I do and I say, 'I'm a musician, I'm Gorillaz', they go, 'Oh you're the guy!' They don't really know white British art rock that much around the world," he says drily.

Albarn isn't sure when he'll get back to making white British art rock with Blur. The departure of guitarist Graham Coxon in 2002 is still clearly an open wound. "It's a struggle playing with a band where one key member has left."

Will Coxon ever rejoin the fold?

"Well, whatever," Albarn sighs, evidently tiring of being asked the question. "I think many harvests will be sown and reaped before Graham comes back. There's no point in waiting for somebody who..." he stops himself short, something the old Albarn might not have done.

In the meantime, his creative urges are being satisfied in all manner of different directions. He and Hewlett are up to their eyes in the preparations for a one-off Gorillaz live spectacular, and he's also recording another album. He won't go into details, but says it's a continuation of the last Blur album (2003's Think Tank), features contributions from "a lot of interesting people", and incorporates the African influences he fell in love with while making his Mali Music album (2002).

"In the middle of doing the Gorillaz album, I took a month out and went to Lagos in Nigeria with some of the guys that are on the album we're doing now. We played at the old Fela Kuti studio for weeks. And some of the tunes didn't necessarily work that well there but I came back and did them again for the Gorillaz album. All Alone came out of a jam we were having."

Albarn says his interest in Africa and its music goes deep. "I never really want to leave it as an inspiration; I just can't get enough of it." Hence his outspoken criticism of the bill of the London Live8 concert for not featuring any African artists.

"African artists don't play songs that are two minutes long then you can go to the advert," he says. "Sometimes if they're in the right mood they can play songs that last for three-quarters of an hour."

But wasn't the purpose of the Hyde Park concert to grab the attention of people in the West in the most immediately effective way? "Well, we agree to disagree on whether that's the most effective way. I think time will reveal whether I was just talking rubbish or I had some point."

But the Live8 concert at Cornwall's Eden Project (featuring solely African artists) didn't seem very well-attended.

"That was the problem. That was a direct response to what myself and other people had pointed out as being a really obvious oversight on the part of the organisers. It was a token gesture, unfortunately. Yet again it looks like the Africans are failing. And yet again I think the missionary zeal of the West is blind to the fantastic potential and sheer lust for life that exists in Africa."

This is vintage Albarn: opinionated, combative, and with a hint of self-righteousness. But, for all his periodic chirpiness, fatherhood (his daughter Missy with artist Suzi Winstanley is now five) and international success seem to have mellowed him.

"After 15 years being in a band and touring, I found myself to a lesser or greater extent a borderline addict - of a lot of things," he says. "Being famous was one of many. People tend to think being an addict is drugs or painkillers or alcohol. But no, no, no," he says smiling ruefully and shaking his head, "there are many other kinds of addicts. You can be a shoe addict, a sex addict. Or an attention addict."

So what has the whole Gorillaz experience taught him? "Ah..." he ponders. "Not to be an irritating self-obsessed little twerp!"
by scummy | 2008-02-01 18:25 | interview


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