With Issue 43 cover star Damon Albarn we'd be lying if we said it wasn't the person as much as the musician that has so completely earned our respect. His ambition, his work ethic, his confidence, his wholehearted belief in the power of music as a positive force of change in the world... Forget Bono, it is Damon Albarn who is rewriting the blueprint for what it means to be a rock star in 2007. When Blur fell apart, Albarn realized that his money, power, fame, and celebrity weren't shackles, but keys that open doors around the world, and he took that rare opportunity and has gone in, not only selling millions more records with really out there projects, but also starting Honest Jon's Records, starting a program called Africa Express that brings Western musicians to Africa to hang out and play music, speaking out against Live 8 and more. Albarn has spent the last few years generally addressing the world in a way that puts his compassion in the back seat and puts intelligence and an appreciation of nuance in the driver's chair. We talked with him throughout our week in England with The Good, The Bad & The Queen, but when it was time for our formal interview at the Roundhouse Theatre, we couldn't find him. We looked everywhere, called everyone, then finally found him sprawled out on the metal stairs of the venue's loading dock, lounging off a minor hangover in a rare beam of London sun. Read the full interview after the jump.
I understand that sessions for The Good, The Bad & The Queen began in Lagos. What’s the source of your interest in Africa?
Partly my parents, partly where I grew up in East London. It’s a very Afro-Carribean, Latin area, a lot of Pakistanis as well. I grew up ostensibly in a completely multicultural environment. And then I moved to Essex, which was the opposite, a completely white, quite right wing culture. You wouldn’t know it—it’s only 100 miles north of where I originally came from.
How old were you when you moved?
Nine. So I kind of lost touch with that for a while and got into indie music, and then its just been a slow return to something I really started off feeling more comfortable with anyway.
What brought you then to the country itself? You know, all sorts of American-rooted music—blues, jazz, rock—they all come from Africa, but you’ve literally spent a lot of time going there, not just with music that came from there or is coming from there.
Well you’ve got the British slave ships to thank for all that great music. [laughs] If they can ever take credit for anything.
But anyway, about ten years ago Oxfam invited me to do one of those ambassadorial things to Mali, which I was not into. It kind of made me sick actually seeing the way [celebrities]… not by really any fault of their own, people go there that want to help. But there is that tendency for them to look kind of cleaner, better dressed and just not part of the environment at all. It never looks right and the reason why it never looks right is because there’s a fundamental flaw in that whole idea of raising consciousness. When you raise consciousness in that way you separate from the people who you’re actually trying to connect with, you separate more than I think people can ever imagine. For me, it sort of came to a summit really with Live 8. That for me was the point of no return. We’ve GOT to create a new model because we’re just going the wrong way completely.
Well just in the images alone that come out of it you get a famous white person surrounded by black orphan children.
Well exactly, it’s not that people aren’t going there with good intentions. I think sometimes I get misinterpreted and they think I’m just slagging everyone off. But it’s not that—I don’t think people really consider the consequences of it. These images get reproduced on such a vast scale….
Which is the point too. To get the press and get the pictures everywhere.
Yeah but the mistake has already been made. So anyway when I got asked by OxFam to go to Mali I thought about it and I thought well just coincidentally I’d been listening to a lot of Malian music around that time, because I’d started to get to know the people in Honest Jon’s records and they were feeding me records every other day. So I said I’d go with a DAT player and instead of going to orphanages—although I did go to a couple—I just wanted to travel around and meet all the musicians I’d been listening to. And OxFam made that happen. Out of that came a record eventually, but more importantly, it changed my life. It was a crossroads for me and I went opposite to the way that maybe a lot of people from my generation went at that point. I lost the fear, the need to hold onto the past. And I fell in love with the process of making music and adventure and going to new places and getting to know people. And I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. When you travel a lot, as we were saying the other day, it’s the best possible education you can give yourself really.
Were you concerned at all about the colonial implications? Obviously you were doing it mindfully, but there’s still—
Well yeah, there’s always gonna be an element of that. You know, funnily enough I was given some photographs of my great great grandfather sitting on one of those, ah what do you call, on the rail tracks, what are they called? A handcar. It’s gone out of our language now really, hasn’t it? But sitting on one of them in full colonial white suit and hat, being taken down by the locals. He was, I think, in Ghana. So it’s in us all really, especially if you come from Britain.
It’s funny, places like Nigeria, they kind of have a laugh with you about it. Although there’s a lot of pain and hurt that’s still residual, there’s also a lot of humor and you know, they like the English! They do like us! And we like them so…it’s not that bad is it? To be liked occasionally. I mean for God’s sake let’s face it, to be American now, and English, they aren’t the greatest nationalities in the world at the moment, sadly. It’s really sad though. So you have to take that on board, that there are going to be people who view you with suspicion, and then it’s just down to whether you can get on with them on a personal basis. And then it’s all forgotten anyway.
The point is I’m aware of it, but I’m not self-conscious of it.
As you were listening to all that music that you were getting from Honest Jon’s, what were you doing musically? Were you trying to learn stuff?
Yeah, but more just listening listening listening listening. And listening to a lot of latin music. When I started trying to translate it to the piano I just couldn’t do it, and there’s a pain barrier with any kind of new music, whether it’s West African kora music or whatever, you have to know your subject and the only way you can get to know it is by listening to it. And that’s why it’s such a lovely language because you keep listening and it gets in there. The only homework is just listening to it.
Especially if you have the hard wiring for learning music anyway.
That helps, but I really believe that anything is possible with music and that’s why it’s always such a tantalizing sort of thing and why generation after generation it inspires young talented kids to do something quite strange with their lives. ’Cause I think everyone at some point sees that light which is, “My God, music can change people.” As Billy Brag said, I was reading in the paper today, he said, “How many people in government now were at the Rock Against Racism that the Clash instigated?” And although that’s a more political example, I really completely believe, and I know because of my experiences, that it’s a healing thing and it’s only a force for good in the world, music.
It’s interesting that the kind of people who have the hard wiring for music and those that don’t, there’s some of both in this band.
There’s Tony Allen and there’s Paul Simonon, a very different natural grasp of their instruments, although I wouldn’t necessarily want to be heard saying one is definitely better than the other.
Well they’re very different, they’re very very different. I don’t even bother thinking about that. I just think that, if you start a band and you’re working with incredible people, you can’t be afraid of saying, No, that’s wrong. Even though you’ve got all this stuff in your head which is all this stuff you’ve fallen in love with and thought was brilliant before you even got within a hundred miles of meeting them, you’ve just got to treat everyone the same. That policy is very important in a band.
Instead of bowing down to someone’s legacy.
That’s bollocks. That’s bollocks.
When I was talking to Tony a few minutes ago, it sounds like he called you first.
Yeah. Well I called him first in a song. Then he called me directly. The last song that we did together as a four piece in Blur was “Music Is My Radar,” and the chorus of that is “Tony Allen got me dancing.” So Tony heard it. Somebody obviously told him that there was this… person that was singing a song about him!
As I understand it y’all did a couple weeks in Nigeria as a much bigger band.
Much bigger, yeah it was like 15 piece. Basically it was like a social club really for two weeks. It was fantastic. Simon [Tong] and [additional touring musician] Mike Smith were both there. A couple of my friends came over. You know, another adventure. You know I think sometimes, Could I have been more focused? But I didn’t need to be and I didn’t want to be. I was just seeing where the whole process would go. And it has gone somewhere and so that’s okay. But at the time I think there were a few raised eyebrows when I got back after spending quite a lot of money. You know getting that whole thing together. And I said, “Right I’m scrapping this.”
Management killing themselves?
Right, record label, everyone. But when you’ve got another band like Gorillaz you can get away with a lot more.
Yeah a couple million helps.
Well, seven last time, actually.
Seven! Well the “couple” I was referring to was in America alone.
Oh yeah yeah, that’s in America.
Seven million, that’s a big number.
Well it’s not the biggest number in the world but it’s big enough to be exciting in the sense of the possibilities it allows us to develop from it. Like we’re really gonna make a proper full-length film, a very dark, animated film for adults as a result of that. And, you know, everything else really.
One thing that you’ve managed to do is have many balls in the air at the same time and have them all work out and really go someplace. To me there’s something about a pretty complete lack of preciousness that has allowed that.
Well yeah you have to be. I really love music it’s as simple as that. I love doing it and I’m very lucky. And if you love music and you want to do it all the time, you have to have a lot going on because to actually do music ALL your day everyday, you’ve gotta be doing a lot of work. Just being in a band, for me, wouldn’t take enough time. I don’t know what that makes me come across as…what psychosis but….
Do you ever want to step out and take a long break?
I do take breaks. I took five weeks in the summer. That’s quite a long time! That’s the whole of my daughter’s summer holiday. I mean I did pick up and play a few things while I was there, I do have the fact that I’ve got this Chinese opera to finish by May next year in the back of my head. But I do take time out, I’m quite disciplined like that.
Are you a fast worker?
Yeah. Yeah. What I’ve learned over the years is that, if it’s there, work really fast and really hard, and if there’s nothing really happening, just go away and do some cooking or some gardening. Just do something else. I’m in love with music and the creative process in whatever form, whether it be cooking or drawing. I’d like to say gardening but I haven’t quite discovered the joys of gardening. But I hope I will at some point. I like herbs, I’m very interested in herbs. Not just music.
How did you end up bringing Brian [aka Danger Mouse] into this project?
I rang him up. I always just ring people up. It’s never more complicated than that. I have ideas about things that might work and I just go straight to the person and I’m very very direct. And sometimes I get knocked back. Occasionally. There’s only two people who’ve ever knocked me back so far. Dionne Warwick, who very nearly didn’t knock be back, but at the last minute she thought that, she said it’s a little too dark for her. She’s quite religious. And I hadn’t told her that Ike Turner was gonna be on the same tune as her. So she probably had some kind of sixth sense working out that I was about to pull off some….
God told her.
Yeah exactly! And the only other person was Andy Summers from the Police. There was a tune on the last Gorillaz record that we wanted to put him on. And he didn’t call us back. And that’s fine you know, occasionally that happens. But you know with Dionne Warwick, she was such a lovely woman, I was quite gutted that it didn’t work, she’s one of my favorite singers. I just love the control she has in her voice. I haven’t given up on her, when something comes up again I’ll try.
Something a little less dark.
Yeah, although I’m not very good at things that aren’t dark. I need that side of it. And apart from that, pretty much everyone else has…. But it’s always a very direct conversation. I say, “Listen are you into this?”
What’d you say to Paul Simonon after 15 years away from music?
I said, Do you fancy playin bass?! And he went, Yeah! Why not?
What specifically did you think about Brian would work?
With this or with Gorillaz?
Right. Well, we already had this amazing relationship, which had grown through making the Gorillaz record in the studio. In the studio Brian and me get on like a house on fire, we work really fast. It’s very creative and just perfect for me. And generally, he’s got a very good head, and is thinking two years ahead of himself all the time. He makes me look laid back when it comes to work ethic. He’s fuckin!!! He makes me look like a slacker.
I just said, Look, let’s see if we can do it again. We had just finished that record and I said, Let’s see if we can do it again. He’s like me, he doesn’t want to repeat himself. We’re not doing things to consolidate success or anything, it’s just to see what happens when we try putting these different things together. He was very tough on me with this record. He made me re-write quite a few of the songs, cause he said, well he described one of them as “too Lion King” on one occasion, which I’ll never forgive him for. What was the other one—I can’t remember? The other one was just a devastating fuckin putdown. But I don’t really mind that you know? I can see the point. When you write a lot of songs, occasionally there is the odd that one that comes out—
Exactly. And you’ve got to be very careful about that because that’s my idea of hell, you know. You’ve got to find the real identity of putting these very different influences together. And it has to be something new, you know. So it evolved into this weird, at points almost Dickensian, sort of journey ’round London with Africa as part…sort of there, but also it morphed into a very English record. Where we finished in Nigeria it was a bit more “AFREEKAA!” and Brian was very important in molding it from there. I mean, there were a few occasions where Tony came in and said, What have you done to my drums?! What have you done to my drums?! He was very upset.
Well I overheard somebody last night saying, “If they’re gonna do that, then what’s the fuckin point of having Tony Allen?”
Well there are people who are going to say that but they’re missing the point because if you actually listen to what’s going on there…. We’re not going to turn kids from America and Europe on to afrobeat unless we do it this way. You’ve got to make it cool. You have to make it something they can relate to, and that’s the whole point.
Did you as bandleader make you have to sort of…
Reassure? Yeah occasionally. But that’s why this way of working and going around the world with people suits me, because I’m quite straight up with people, I don’t try and hide shit.
Tony didn’t get a copy of the finished album months later to find his drums changed.
But you know for Tony this is such a different thing and he’s loving it. He would be the first person to admit himself that he’d become so bored of himself. Constantly being revered and not pushing himself. So you know, this is good for him as well.
One thing Tony and I were talking about is that, there’s no instrument for which lots of empty space and a very sparse feel is more difficult on than…
The drums. Yeah. I wish you’d been there yesterday. News Night wanted him to play the drums a little bit and he just went into a ten minute solo. I mean it was like Art Blakey! He is, kind of, Art Blakey. He’s the African Art Blakey. You know, so that puts him in a pantheon where very few people have ever got. He is truly a genius on the drums. We’re taking him to Colombia with Honest Jons, the next project we’re gonna do with him, because they’re mad about him over there. So he’s gonna get a Latin record out as well which will be amazing.
What will your role be in that?
Well, you Americans would call it Executive Producing wouldn’t you. I call it…facilitating.
You won’t be playing on it.
Oh no no. On Saturday I go to Algeria for a week to record these old chaabi musicians in Algiers. I’m not on the record at all.
Chaabi, it’s called chaabi music. It’s like pop, sort of working class popular music in North Africa. There are lots of different forms, but this is a really interesting one, these guys were originally this half Muslim, half Jewish band, but when the revolution came in Algeria all the Jews were kicked out to Marseille. So there’s an amazing story, I mean it has parallels with Buena Vista.
This is everyone back together?
The old guys won’t come because the Israeli government has told them that there’s a fare to…. I don’t know what code it is, but it’s an Al Qaeda threat. Which I suppose applies to me as well. But I really can’t see how making beautiful music would be a threat to anybody. So I’m just going over there to record it. I don’t want to change anything, maybe I’ll just move them in the room so you hear things…. But no I’m not going to play with them. I can’t play with them yet! I only know about 6 or 7 of the scales and there’s about 50 of them—you’ve got to know them all before you can really jam with them. So I’m just learning.
What is the project that involves taking British and American musicians to Africa?
That’s not really a project, it’s a program. I started that off, I took Martha Wainwright, a young British musician called Jamie T, who’s gonna be supporting us tomorrow night here, he came out, a couple other young kids that haven’t released a record yet, Scratch from the Roots, the beatbox guy, Norman Cook, Zane Lowe, the Radio One DJ. We took them out there and I took them on a condensed version of what I did when I went to Mali the first time. Hung out, listened to music, played a bit with some musicians once the people we brought felt confident enough, drank a lot of beer, just lived in Africa for a while. That’s a program that we’ve set up through an organization that we’ve called Africa Express. It’s kind of like a train—I like the idea of a train or a traveling circus that picks people up as it goes around. I nearly had Kanye West on this one, but unfortunately it clashed with the last day of his Rolling Stones support tour. I mean, personally, I would’ve dropped that and gone to Africa, but I can understand why he didn’t. And we talked to Alicia Keys and we’re gonna have many more American artists coming on the next one. Starting with a very humble, modest approach. Not some big like, We’re all gonna save you. No. That’s not what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is learn. And actually change ourselves. Because we in the West need to change our whole way of living so dramatically, and we can learn so much from Africa. It’s ironic really that we’re trying to save Africa, when actually, Africa should be trying to save us. That’s the way I look at it.
I’ve been thinking about how you seem to tend to work with musicians who are old and have been around for a while, but with producers who are young and sort of avant-garde.
There’s Paul and Tony in this band and Gorillaz had a lot of people from the early ’90s and that sort of thing.
Yeah. I just work with people who I feel have done something. You know, like De La Soul. It was clear from growing up with their records that I shared a certain mindset with them and that’s evident in the fact that we’re all really good friends now, you know? It’s not just the music we make. We’re actually…friends.
From my experience this week it seems like that’s the case throughout.
Yeah. It’s important.
Is there anyone on the Gorillaz record or anything that you never met?
Well I met MF Doom in Austin for about an hour but he wouldn’t take his mask off. The only one I didn’t really get to know was him, but I think he was having a bad day when I met him and he didn’t take his mask off. I was walking down the street with this guy with a metal mask on! But what a wordsmith he is. Fantastic.
It was interesting the other night at dinner to hear you talk about your friend Banksy, and you’ve said on stage a couple times that this record is about England…
Well lyrically, yeah very much so. That’s where, if it’s a political record it’s…I kind of try to write political love songs. It’s not like directly raving against the state, but it’s using maybe things that I feel are wrong in the state as a form of poetry, you know what I mean? It’s a difficult one to explain and I kind of, well I did a tune on the last Blur record that I’m really proud of called “Out Of Time” which was right at the beginning of the Iraq war and the video was, I don’t know if you ever saw it—well it never got shown surprisingly in America—but it was this woman’s day in the life, she worked on an Aircraft carrier and the whole video was just following her on an aircraft carrier, and we had to get permission from the head of the American Navy. So the point is, I don’t think a lot of people get it. A lot of people don’t get what I try to do in my tunes, which is to try to express my sadness, my melancholy about the state of politics. I don’t necessarily say, “That’s wrong.” But it’s the melancholy I feel about what’s wrong.
On this record the references are oblique but the melancholy is direct.
Yeah yeah yeah. I think so. Maybe it comes from the Beatles really. Maybe John Lennon is the man who invented something that I’m just sort of playing out in that melancholy. I don’t know, but it must come from somewhere.
How are you feeling about your return to not exactly center stage, but being up there?
I’m sort of center left aren’t I? It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be at the front all the time. I don’t like that anymore. I don’t ever want to be in that position again. But I’m really enjoying it and I can’t wait to do this gig tomorrow. I came [to the Roundhouse] when I was seven to see a musical called “The Point” and I think it was the biggest place I had ever been to at that point. And I remember walking with my parents down to Camden Lock and them buying me a little ocarina. So I remember that day really clearly and it’s really nice, this is my first time back in the room.
We tried, in the heyday of Blur, to patch this place up and do a couple gigs here but we had problems with the council so…
Was it shut entirely?
Yeah yeah. For years. A total waste. The only thing they put on here was the circus.