Gorillaz Damon Albarn Predicts The Future
Damon Albarn was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. In 1995, after his band Blur’s first paycheck from the success of their third album—1994’s Parklife—he bought a farmhouse in the countryside by the sea. “Everyone thought I was mad,” says the Blur frontman, and one half of the creative duo behind virtual band Gorillaz. “Everyone said, ‘Why have you bought a remote house so far away?’” He chuckles, his gold tooth peering out over a Zoom call from his studio. “Now everyone’s like, ‘It’s the best place in the world!’”
Albarn is always ahead of the curve. He had the ideal getaway hideout for a global halt, and a pandemic-proof creative outlet: an animated band of four gorillas in 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle, and Russel. Gorillaz have existed for two decades, but it’s hard to consider another band whose catalogue belongs in its own dimension of time. Stylistically, they’ve bounced between electronic pop, trip-hop, and hip-hop but feel completely outside of genre. Key to that was a choice by their third LP Plastic Beach to make Gorillaz an ingestion of its influences by featuring a who’s who of guests, from Grace Jones to Carly Simon, Mos Def to Snoop Dogg, Mark E Smith to Lou Reed. Hours spent listening to Gorillaz feels as present-day as ever. 2001’s ‘Clint Eastwood’ still sounds like the future. Gorillaz is a project unencumbered by trends, politics, or geography. It’s fictional and real, animal and human, anti-pop, and his most commercially successful medium. It keeps Albarn, now 52, ageless.
The pandemic hasn’t affected Gorillaz’ output. “Not at all,” chirps Albarn. “In fact, you can say it’s helped Jamie to concentrate.” Albarn enjoys playing up the much-discussed friction of the dynamic he has with co-creator and animator Jamie Hewlett, who came to fame as co-creator of the post-apocalyptic cult comic series, Tank Girl. Hewlett and Albarn lived together in London in the 90s at the height of Albarn’s notoriety, after both he and Hewlett had ended relationships. The story goes that they were watching boy bands on TV. Angry at the commercialization of it all, they dreamt up an anti-hero band. “We had no idea what it was gonna be,” he recalls. They began small. One song. One animation. They tasked themselves to go away one morning and get on with their separate creations. “We came back in the evening, did a show-and-tell, then wrote a late-night manifesto.” They took the idea to Tony Wadsworth, then head of label Parlophone, who gave them the green light. “It’s hard to imagine anyone being that enthusiastic about something nowadays, especially music. It’s become such a penny-pinching commercial thing. It’s so miserable.”
The world has gone animation mad! There was a time when we were the only people doing it, and you don't get a prize for being first."
Much like Blur, Gorillaz was intended to be disruptive, nevertheless joyful. The success of both ventures was accidental. “With Blur, I wrote these ironic songs about the disintegration of English culture in the shadow of American globalization. Because the English are mad, they thought I was celebrating the culture. No!” he says. Gorillaz allows Albarn room to incorporate vastly more globalized influences. It was a space for him during an increasingly claustrophobic time at the epicentre of Britpop. “The faux nationalist connotations of Britpop were never of any interest to me,” he says. He would like to be let off the hook as Blur's Damon Albarn, citing an interview he did earlier in the day with The Times of London, “All [the journalist] wanted to talk about is—am I friends with Noel [Gallagher, Oasis]?” he says. “Fuck off! If I'm not interested in it, surely no one else is.”
As Blur raged into its final pre-split album, Think Tank, Gorillaz put out three enormous records (2001's self-titled, 2005's Demon Days and 2010's Plastic Beach) that topped Blur's output globally and went on to inspire the likes of The 1975, Diplo and Odd Future. Where Albarn is seen as Blur's frontman on home turf, everywhere else he's the brains behind the biggest virtual band. Inevitably a rift between Albarn and Hewlett arose as the project became bigger than they'd anticipated. Hewlett was frustrated that his creations' visibility onstage was demoted while Albarn's live ensemble grew. They reignited their bond after a chance run-in and began work on Humanz six years later. In 2020, the art world has caught up to their original vision. “It's harder for us to get our animators now,” says Albarn. “The world has gone animation mad! There was a time when we were the only people doing it, and you don't get a prize for being first.”
Just as well, Gorillaz have pivoted again to reinvent the wheel. In March, Albarn retreated to the farm. The next project from Gorillaz, following 2018's The Now Now, was already in the works. Titled Song Machine, this new series idea for songs would be unlike prior traditional album release rollouts. Albarn and Hewlett decided to instead drop singles as episodes of a Season One as, and when, they were complete. “This is one of our best albums we've ever made. We didn't have an end or even a middle when we started,” he says. “We make it up as we go along.” It echoed Gorillaz natural process: blank canvas, zero rules, little plan. In May, Albarn stopped jotting down ideas. There were 25 songs. “Jamie starts to pull his hair out when I keep giving him stuff. He's still working on the last three episodes,” he says.
We're not self-conscious about trying really weird stuff."
On breaking down his creative process, Albarn tends to be elusive. “We're not self-conscious about trying really weird stuff.” Song Machine has been as exciting an outlet as the collaborators involved. The first single 'Momentary Bliss' features newer British blood in Slowthai and Slaves, and packs a punch like a modern Clash. It was followed by a soulful jaunt titled ‘Desole’ featuring Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. Albarn loves to match-make and link past to present, hence the third single 'Aries' connecting New Order's Peter Hook with emerging electronic star Georgia. “You can put anything together and it will work,” he says, sparring Bad Bunny and Michael Buble as an idea. Bad Buble, I offer. “Bad Buble! Could be a whole album, know what I mean?”
Elsewhere on Season One: grime superstar Skepta, rappers Octavian, SchoolboyQ, and 6lack, and Elton John and Robert Smith. Albarn had only met The Cure frontman once in a urinal in Brixton Academy in 1990. It was a Cramps concert. Blur was the first of three bands. “He was in the urinal next to me. Obviously, you don't miss Robert Smith because it's impossible. I said, 'Hi, love you!' And he went, 'Oh, thank you very much,' pulled up his flier and walked off.” Albarn wrote 'Strange Timez' and felt Smith might like it. “Why not?” he says. “We started a lovely conversation. He doesn't do emails in daylight hours. The last one is always as the sun comes up. Robert Smith is a goth God. He's the Emperor of Goth!”
The plan was to do joint vocals. Smith came to the studio at 5 am.“I was so excited about singing with Robert Smith. I tried for two days doing loads of melodies. None of them worked. I came to the conclusion that you can't have Robert Smith's voice and my voice in the same space, so I did my sprechgesang that I do. It's not rap.” Nobody's ever defined Albarn's spoken word as rap. “I'm just waiting,” he jibes. “I may blush when it happens.”
As for the next two decades of Gorillaz, Albarn says there is no end in sight. “There's so much more we can do. Why couldn't Season Two be exclusively in African languages, or Season Three in Middle Eastern? You can do whatever you like. That's the thrill of music. You can communicate between such disparate cultures.” To Albarn's credit, he has always sought to immerse himself in the cultures he's imbued his music with. “When I first went to Somalia in 2000, I couldn't speak the language. I can speak a little now,” he says. For Albarn, the language he is most comfortable communicating in is music, and he wants it to be as widely understood as possible. “Now I feel happy going anywhere and speaking my version of music,” he says. “Though, obviously, we all have our own dialects.”
Since Albarn was a child, growing up in an artistic bohemian household in Leytonstone keen on African music, he has been transfixed by a passion for other cultures. He is a firm advocate for submerging himself in alien environments. “There needs to be more of that, less angry reactions,” he says of social diatribe. “There's an awful lot of reading the first page of books going on in the world at the moment.” He sees hypocrisy everywhere but refuses to “name names.” “It's so evident when people talk shit and the reason they're talking shit is because they haven't read around the subject at all. We've lost the ability to discern between fantasy and reality. Call me old-fashioned but…” He laughs.
Always be a student, always be open, and sometimes put down the phone and feel the vibrations."
On the topic of cultural appropriation, which Albarn says he “gets all the time,” he responds with a tale about actions speaking louder than words. He reflects on a recent interaction he had with Diawara, who had brought in a homemade dish while the two of them were working together. “She was eating and I said, 'Oh, what's that?' She said, 'Taste it!' So I tasted it and I said, 'I think you should have put more of the smoked fish paste in there'. And she said, 'MY MUM SAID THAT AS WELL.'” He throws his hands around. “The point is: I know that. Why do I know that? I love Malian culture so I'm interested in everything about it. I know the components of what makes the food, the history, the people. If that's cultural appropriation, so be it. To me, it's just being inspired.”
Albarn was working with Diawara on his latest opera, Le Vol du Boli, a piece about centuries of African history and colonization, performed by Malian, Congolese, and Burkinabé musicians. A week prior to this interview he was in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet doing three performances. This week Paris is back to a 9 pm curfew. “It seems ridiculous now that I was doing the second of three performances with 60 dancers and musicians. Crazy,” he says. “We were there for six weeks. Every morning I woke up and thought, 'Today's the day someone tests positive.' It was literally a miracle we got through it.”
Though he firmly rejects being dubbed a “workaholic,” Albarn is vastly prolific. “I wake up with blind optimism every morning,” he says. “Always be a student, always be open, and sometimes put down the phone and feel the vibrations.” He already had a trio of theatre pieces under his belt: 2007's Monkey: Journey To The West performed entirely in Mandarin, 2011's critically acclaimed Dr Dee opera and 2015's Wonder.land musical. In 2014, he put out his first solo debut album Everyday Robots, and toured it with his band The Heavy Seas. His other band with Paul Simonon titled The Good, The Bad & The Queen, released one lauded self-titled album in 2006. Then there's his non-profit Africa Express, side-project Mali Music, and Rocket Juice & The Moon, which featured bassist Flea and Afrobeat legend Tony Allen who died this year.
Despite that productivity, he gives off an ease. It must be the countryside air. “I wouldn't blame anyone trying to get into the countryside,” says the man formerly renowned for cycling to and from his own Thirteen Studios in London's Ladbroke Grove every day and keeping strict 10 am-5 pm hours. He says he's ready to leave that behind. “I've made the decision that I don't want to live in a city anymore. That's done and dusted. I won't change that.” On the farm, he doesn't even need to get on his bike. “Now I walk from the house to the barns, it's a lot closer!” he laughs. Next on the agenda is Season Two of Gorillaz' Song Machine. “It's easy,” he says. “All I have to do is one song and then Jamie has to follow me again, trying to keep up; bless him.” Aren't we all just trying to keep up with Damon Albarn?