Damon Albarn’s roots manoeuvre - why the only way was Essex
Following the successful revival of Blur, not to mention his many other musical projects,Damon Albarn has finally recorded a solo album,‘Everyday Robots’. And he went back to his old stomping grounds of East London and Colchester for inspiration
01/08/2013 NEWSDamon Albarn of BLUR performaning at IMMA last evening..Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES
This morning, Damon Albarn was a man on a mission. He left his house before dawn and headed towards the Thames to shoot footage of the river, which was due to be at its highest level for years, as it wound through London.
He wanted footage for videos he has been making on his iPad. “I’ve been doing a lot of film stuff and editing. When I think about the bullshit we had to go though to make a video and the money we spent on them, it’s maddening. It was extraordinary. You’d have 50 people there. I look back at the Country House video now and the message it sent out and the cost and the extravagance and it’s a bit sad.”
So how did you get on when you went down to the river at dawn?
“The tide was out. The lesson today is to always check tide times first before you leave the house”.
There’s a mighty guffaw from Albarn to punctuate this yarn against himself. We’re on the top floor of his west London building which houses recording and rehearsal studios.
Outside, the city stretches hither and thither in the sunshine. Inside, there’s the hum of a remarkable production hub. Later, Albarn will give a tour of the building, where Hot Chip, Two Inch Punch, Jessie Ware and a bunch of young producers are currently ensconced. Albarn’s own band are in situ too, fine-tuning the new material for the forthcoming tour.
This building has been the making of him. “I treat it as a job,” Albarn says. I’m in punctually at 9.30 and leave punctually at 5.30. If you’re going to have a big output, you need that discipline and this space because then you’re not dealing with the pressure of hired studios.”
“Big” is the word for Albarn’s output over the past decade. Apart from the Blur and Gorillaz bookends, there’s also been The Good, The Bad and The Queen, Rocketjuice & the Moon, the Kinshasa One Two album, the ongoing Honest Jon’s Chop-Up and Africa Express outings, production work on Bobby Womack’s last album and a brace of operas ( Doctor Dee and Monkey: Journey to the West ).
Now comes Everyday Robots , Albarn’s new solo album. While there has been another solo release with just his name on it (2003’s rough and ready Democrazy ), this one comes with far more spit, polish, fuss and palaver.
It warrants it too, an album of low-key, melancholic, beguiling, gorgeously pitched and poised songs referencing emotions ( History Of A Cheating Heart ), technology ( Lonely Press Play ), drugs ( You & Me ) and a baby elephant in Tanzania ( Mr Tembo ). It’s Albarn present looking at Albarn past with elegance and wistfulness.
The album takes him back to Leytonstone in east London where he was born. When he came out of the tube station and walked around the Hollow Ponds, formerly Victorian gravel pits on the edge of Epping forest, he realised that the “happy kid speeding around on my bicycle” of old was a much different person to the chippy teenager in Colchester.
“In Leytonstone, I lived on a street which was predominately Pakistani and West Indian. I had a completely multi-cultural experience and I had no artistic or creative bent during those years.
Damon Albarn track-by-track
“Then, when I was about 10, we moved to Colchester and into the countryside. It was very white, very conservative, quite a lot of small woods where there were always whispers of witchcraft. I felt quite isolated there and that’s obviously where I started to be creative.”
In rural, Anglo-Saxon Essex, Albarn felt he didn’t fit in. “It’s really weird, this thing which makes you creative. It’s obvious that when I felt not a part of the community around me that I started wanting to be creative. There’s something in this record about that. In a way, my reputation for being awkward and difficult is probably related to all of that so it was good to make a record about that transition.
“You have to have some reason to sit on your own and do strange stuff. If you’re really popular and you’ve loads of mates, there’s no tension so why would you? That’s what I’ve realised about myself through this record.”
Originally, Albarn’s next project was going to be to form another band in cahoots with producer and XL label boss Richard Russell. “We were both talking after doing the Bobby Womack album and saying how much we’d enjoyed doing it and wondering what we’d do next, like would we start a band.
“We went back to that whole teenage frenzy of what would we look like, what would we call ourselves and nothing really grabbed us. The closest we got to a band name was Pagan Jew (cackles). We looked on the internet and there was a Pagan Dew which was some kind of aphrodisiac perfume you could buy. Chastened, we decided to just swap roles and I’d go back to being the artist and Richard would be the producer.”
He says it was “a blessed relief” to have someone else call the shots. “I enjoyed just disappearing into the album and having someone I trusted to tell me what to do. It was brilliant having an editor like that to answer the questions like ‘is this bullshit?’
“Richard’s getting a formidable reputation and that’s really good because he’s really passionate about what he does. I mean, where can he go with XL that he hasn’t gone already? You can’t get another record like Adele’s 21 . That only comes along once in a lifetime.”
Going back to his old stomping ground at the other side of London is not the only travelling Albarn has been doing. His adventures in Africa and China over the years have opened his eyes, ears and mind.
“It’s very rare that you find yourself in an entirely new environment and that’s what happened in Mali, ” he recalls of his first visit there in 2000. “The level of musicianship I encountered was mind-blowing. I was out of my league. It erased all the artifice of being a rock star and everything and I had to start from scratch.
“What was absolutely intrinsic to me going was that I was not going to repeat the mistakes of the previous generation in their engagement with Africa, which were the result of well meaning naivety and the embers of colonial, evangelical stuff. I went there purely to meet people and record music. It had to be about music.
“I was not going there to save Africa, I was going there to learn from Africa. I didn’t change. I didn’t come home and feel an urgent need to wear African print suits and get hair extensions. I’ve never felt anything but very English. Spiritually, I found an enormous connection there.”
He realised the value of community to musicians on his travels. “Music is still grassroots and communal in Africa. There’s no sense of them and us amongst musicians, which is something that we’ve lost because of what pop music and the media and the history of glamour has created. That communal thing still exists in places, of course. I’m sure it’s there at Other Voices, you see glimpses of it at Glastonbury, but as a daily ritual, it’s absent, it’s not there. Where music is a ritual, it’s authentic.”
These travels and thoughts feed into Africa Express, Honest Jon’s Chop Up and his other projects which gather disparate musicians to play together. “You know Bruce Chatwin’s idea of songlines and songs and travel and language? There are only X amount of notes and scales available and people in one part of the world are playing the same as people in another part of the world and they are not even aware of it. All you have to do is put them together and, without even thinking about it, they could be able to play together.
“That is truly the magical aspect of music – it seems impossible because of the illusion but in reality, it’s just natural. All of the people involved, they’re never quite right on the first day of rehearsal. You just have to be prepared to work with things and drop things you were convinced were right. You also have to have faith in stuff you were very unsure about.”
It’s a long way from Blur playing Song 2 in a big field. Albarn spent last year doing just that and had a whale of a time. What ticks him off now, though, is the fact that every time he talks about the band, it’s turned into a story.
“I enjoyed every minute of the tour but the time came when it was time to stop. That doesn’t mean that at some future point we don’t all wake up and go ‘now we make to need another record, now it makes sense’. But until then, what’s the point? Everyone is doing their own thing. There’s no big story, there’s no absolute.”
He pauses and smiles. “It’s fucking unbearable the potency of just saying one thing. The inevitability of me opening my mouth and it going everywhere. Is it not possible to have a simple conversation and not deal in absolutesD? There aren’t any absolutes.”
The only absolute is that there wouldn’t have been a solo Albarn record or that remarkable plethora of projects without Blur in the first place. “The most frustrating thing about being in Blur was that I didn’t have an instrument to play. After 10 years, I wasn’t very comfortable because I felt as a musician that I needed something. I don’t mind jumping up and down and hyping the crowd. I love that aspect of performing, but it can’t be everything.
“Because of how we started out, there just wasn’t space for me to play an instrument. Graham had the guitar completely covered and I wasn’t as good as him. I couldn’t play the bass because Alex wouldn’t have anything to do then. I’d no desire to play the drums so it was the piano or acoustic guitar and there aren’t many Blur songs that call for that. I needed more to do.”
That might serve as an apt epitaph for Albarn: the man who needed more to do. He’s still not finished, not by any stretch. In his mid-40s, he feels he’s at his “greatest moment” and there’s much more to come.
“At this age, you’ve reconciled a lot of your younger anxieties and you’ve still got the energy to go at full steam. There’s a precious few years which is the greatest moment. This, I think, is that moment.”
yyy Everyday Robots is released today on Parlophone