Damon Albarn: ‘Brexit has revealed terrible truths about the mental health of the English’
The Blur frontman on ‘Merrie Land’, Britpop, Oasis, Morrissey and John Lydon
Damon Albarn: “I’ve always been very strong on finishing work at five and cooking dinner.” Photograph: Tom Jamieson/New York Times
With the honourable exceptions of The Traveling Wilburys, Cream, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, supergroups tend to be makeshift vanity projects that rarely last the distance. The Good, The Bad & The Queen are another matter entirely. The quartet stars Paul Simonon, the iconic bassist famously pictured on the cover of London Calling by The Clash, Simon Tong of The Verve, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, who Brian Eno hails as the greatest drummer who has ever lived, and of course, the former Britpop poster boy turned musical chameleon extraordinaire Damon Albarn.
Their second album, Merrie Land, is partially inspired by the chaos caused by the entire fiasco we politely call Brexit.
“Brexit has revealed terrible truths about the mental health of the English,” Albarn mourns. “Something that was so painful for so many years was eventually resolved, and now we’re going back. It doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever.”
Unsurprisingly, Albarn backs a people’s vote, or second referendum. “We have to have another vote,” he declares. “They seriously cannot think they can be allowed get away with it. I cannot believe that we are in this position.”
While best known for an infamous chart battle against Oasis and a string of hit singles and era-defining albums, Albarn frequently wears his politics on his sleeve. His anti-war stance appears to run in his family, as his grandfather, Edward Albarn, was a conscientious objector to the second World War. “All this would blow his mind, in a very bad way,” Albarn says. “He was sceptical about the ruling classes at the best of times. I think he might have engaged in a very English version of jihad.”
Yet Albarn is painfully aware of the constraints of his position. “As an individual I can’t really do a great deal,” he admits. “But as a musician and a songwriter, I can present Merrie Land.”
“When we got Tony Visconti involved we presented him a long list of 60 songs,” Albarn explains. “When I say songs, I’m not talking finished articles, more like possibilities. We allowed him to be the primary editor, otherwise we knew we’d never actually start this thing. The next stage was just us in the studio, and all the music on the record was captured in live takes. There isn’t any overdubs at all. We’re a very old-fashioned band. These days, you can’t get more old-fashioned than making an album.”
It’s from a completely different era, but in a way Parklife would work as a perfect Brexit record
Albarn maintains that Merrie Land is a bit like a more soulful version of his best-known album, Parklife. Hilariously, in 2003, he dismissed Blur’s big breakthrough in 1994 as “a joke, a satirical record that should be filed in the record shop under comedy, alongside Monty Python”.
“Well, Parklife is a satirical and ironic record,” he says. “For a while, I considered that to be a bad thing, because I was knocked down in the ’90s for being satirical. I was made out to be something that I wasn’t. I’ve a different attitude to all that now, and I’ve resolved all that stuff with Noel [Gallagher], who I love to bits. I shied away from that side of my songwriting for a very long time because of that experience. This is the first time I’ve returned to that very rich vein since Parklife, so that’s why I think Merrie Land is a bedfellow record. It’s from a completely different era, but in a way Parklife would work as a perfect Brexit record. I’ve already been asked to play big stadium gigs with that record next year. I’m not doing it because it would feel like Groundhog Day.”
Parklife featured To The End and This Is a Low, two classic weepy ballads. On Merrie Land, Lady Boston, a heart-bursting collaboration with a Welsh choir, and the closing track, The Poison Tree, are cut from a similar cloth. “They are very emotional and I’ve to stand onstage and sing those songs,” Albarn agrees. “Cor blimey, it makes me a bit teary even thinking about singing with the choir again. Working with them was one of the most beautiful musical moments of my life. I was very surprised by just how deeply I was affected by it. I’ve always found the Welsh, up until this moment, to be quite tricky. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt a little bit unwelcome in Wales. Now, I feel the complete opposite. I feel like I really bonded with them in a very deep way. I love them.”
Albarn finished a gigantic Gorillaz world tour only a few short weeks ago. Six days later, he performed with The Good, The Bad & The Queen on Later . . . with Jools Holland.
“It’s how I want to work, but it can be challenging,” he admits. “I’m 50 now, so I get tired and there’s not much I can do about it. The way I see it is that I’ve been very lucky. I think if you’ve been lucky, you need to earn your luck by working hard. My daughter has left home, so I don’t need to be there when she gets back from school. I’ve always been very strong on finishing work at five and cooking dinner. Rather than play golf, build a train set, or do gardening, I do this.” Albarn roars laughing. These days, 50 is considered to be the new 30. “Jesus Christ, that’s terrifying,” Albarn guffaws. “I’ll take it, though.”
Albarn makes the process easier for himself by writing songs on a project-by-project basis. “I just do it when it comes and I really don’t worry too much about it,” he says. “I just put it down and come back to it later. I’ve been more or less doing the same thing since I was 15, really.”
If he could have a conversation with his 15-year-old self, how would that Colchester teenager with a head full of dreams react to the success he’ll have later in life? “He’d probably get up, run outside, and scream with excitement,” Albarn cackles. “He’d probably have had a fucking huge head as well, and constantly be boasting to absolutely everyone about how great he was.”
When The South Bank Show profiled Blur in 1999, Albarn revealed that when Morrissey claimed there will never be another important British band after The Smiths, his teenage self wanted to prove Morrissey wrong, while also harbouring the fantasy to say the exact same thing when he got to be on The South Bank Show himself.
“Oh, I was absolutely mortified that he said that,” Albarn howls in horror at his younger, cockier self. “You can’t do that! I’ve adored The Smiths and Morrissey my whole life.”
It seems a shame that you can reach that age and still feel so embittered rather than being grateful for what’s happened to you
Recently, Morrissey endorsed a far-right fringe party, For Britain. “I don’t understand it at all,” Albarn says. “I think you have to talk to the individual to understand what they’re trying to say, but he’s a tricky fellow. My only communication with him was a series of hilarious emails when I tried to get him on the Gorillaz album, Humanz. I’d a great tune for him called Circle of Friends, but I couldn’t convince him, so he was one of those that got away. I don’t agree with his politics at all, but it doesn’t mean that when a Smiths song comes on that it doesn’t move me.”
Another Mancunian legend Albarn approached for a Gorillaz track, and who said yes, is The Fall’s Mark E Smith, who died in January. “He used to send me Christmas cards,” Albarn says. “Bless him. I Am Kurious Oranj deeply influenced me creatively. It inspired me to do stuff on multiple levels. I Am Kurious Oranj and the Stop Making Sense film were two pivotal early influences for me.
“I tell you someone who has disappointed me recently: Johnny Lydon. He just seems like a really bitter man. Give it a rest. Don’t you realise that Malcolm McLaren is dead? He seems to want to keep destroying him in every single interview that he does. It is not very elegant. It seems a shame that you can reach that age and still feel so embittered rather than being grateful for what’s happened to you. He is a very good example of someone who can’t disentangle themselves from their public persona. They have become the same person and it is really dangerous when that happens.”
As every Britpop B-lister chances their arm with a bloated anniversary edition and a comeback tour wallowing in nostalgia, Damon Albarn won’t be resting on his laurels. Country House won the so-called battle of Britpop by outselling Roll With It in the summer of 1995, but critics subsequently claimed that Oasis had lost the battle but won the war after (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? outsold everything. Fast-forward to 2018, and the solo careers of both Gallagher brothers appear to be floundering. Meanwhile, Albarn is showing no sign of losing his remarkable Midas touch.
“Why on earth would I want to play Parklife when I’ve got this record?,” he muses. “Doing that doesn’t make any sense to me, whatsoever. That was then. This record is now.”
Merrie Land is out now