Today, I'm talking to one of the most prolific and prolifically versatile artists of the past 30 years, Damon Albarn. Albarn appeared on the cover of The FADER Issue 43 in early 2007 to promote The Good, The Bad, & The Queen, a super group whose individual members do a pretty good job of summing up Albarn's influences under one roof.
You have punk reggae and West London icon Paul Simonon of The Clash on bass, afrobeat pioneer and groove lord Tony Allen on drums, and Simon Tong of proto-Britpop legends The Verve on guitar, and then you have Damon, the only force of nature powerful enough to unite these talents and fairly healthy egos all behind him as one army.
Albarn formed Blur back in the late '80s and once they hit their stride a few albums in, they became an unstoppable force, much of that due to Damon's innate talent for dressing up deceptively well written, often complex songs with insanely hummable everyman choruses. Then, he gets turned on to American underground hip-hop, things like Dr. Octagon and Dell and suddenly, he fancies spreading some of that melodic genius into some other genres.
You add Jamie Hewlett's iconic visuals and bam, seven million copies sold of the first Gorillaz album. In fact, the Gorillaz have gone on to achieve such insane international success that it's hard to imagine it was considered career suicide at the time. The crown prince of Britpop abandoning indie to make a dusty cartoon hip-hop album. But Damon has constantly followed his own creative compass, bucking trends like it's an art form and forging new trends in the process, whether it's Blur, Gorillaz, Africa Express, operas like Journey to the WesT, his solo work.
It's an extremely enviable body of work and an example of what happens when you stick to your creative guns and also happen to be one of the great songwriters of your day. We have a lot of mutual collaborators and have circled each other quite a bit, but never really got stuck until now. So, I was pretty excited and maybe three percent nervous to get deep right here for The FADER Uncovered.
Mark Ronson: Can you talk about this opera then? The thing you just did in Paris.
Damon Albarn: Yeah, sure. Yeah, it was this idea that it would be a fully African production at the Châtelet. That was the kind of exciting nucleus of the idea, that it would be a purely African and everyone would come. I just started using my contacts really from Africa Express, of sort of mates that I'd worked with in Congo and Mali and Nigeria.
And you're doing this at peak COVID. This is August to September 2020.
No, this started a year and a half beforehand.
The first few times, I went with the director Abderrahmane Sissoko to Mali and traveled around and had many discussions about how we could do this. He's a very respected film director, really interesting guy. He was a kid in Bamako in the '70s and during that period, Mali was sort of flirting with socialism. The Russians had a cultural center and he used to go and just go in there and used to watch Russian films.
And then decided that he wanted to make films himself. Through that, he got a scholarship to go to Moscow. So, a Malian teenager going to Russian winters is sort of unimaginable during that austere Communist period, but he had a fantastic time and learned his craft there. He's made some amazing films like Bamako and Timbuktu.
Oh yeah, of course.
He made those films.
And there's a bit of a cross there because Fatoumata Diawara, she's in Timbuktu, so he knows her, I know her. She was one of the first people we got kind of interested in the idea of making this piece. Some of the amazing percussionists I've worked with over the years in Congo came over.
I got my very good friend Mamadou Diabaté, the youngest of the Diabaté kora players who I've worked with for years. I worked with him first at the English National Opera when I was doing Doctor D. He's an amazing guy. Yeah, and we just built it up from there. I suppose when I was thinking musically, it was like you're starting to sort of play with the idea of how can you portray the history of the slave trade. It's not really very sexy.
No, it's tricky and it's a tricky thing, sure.
Where do you start? I thought, well, the first people to kind of sort of travel that far were the Portuguese and that late medieval, early Renaissance and next to the Châtelet you've got Notre Dame and they have one of the most amazing early music choirs, Pérotin and all of that tradition, the Notre Dame tradition. In fact, the Pérotin... Are you familiar with Pérotin?
Okay, he's basically the guy that introduced polyphony.
Yeah, and he was such a superstar back in the day that people would travel all the way around Europe just to stand outside Notre Dame Cathedral to hear this new music that was being created, where it wasn't all unison and there were suddenly these harmonies flowing off and different melodies playing at the same time. That was really in a way the moment of divergence between African music and European music, really, sort of when we started getting this sort of polyphony and we sort of lost rhythm and we found harmony and melody more, you know?
I'm oversimplifying it, but you have to have something to start with. That's how I came up with the idea that I would use these early polyphony scholars/singers with these amazing musicians. We developed it from there and Abderrahmane kind of told the story of the slave trade, the terrible, terrible story.
And this went on in Paris?
Yeah, last September and October.
How did you even manage to pull that off?
Well, I have to say, I feel like in Europe, there's more sort of support for the broader sense of the arts than there is in this country. We just got shut down here. We were just like, "Back of the queue, guys."
They were really charming at points, the government, where they started issuing these retraining adverts where they'd show someone like a musician or a dancer and they go, "It doesn't matter. Blah blah is going to retrain and learn how to use computers and everything's going to be fine. They don't need to be..."
Where was this? You mean here [U.K.]?
There was this retraining initiative. It didn't go anywhere.
Because everyone just stuck their finger up to it and said, "Fuck off."
Horrible, horrible, horrible and you keep hearing sort of short news pieces about how the arts are being cut and in education. I mean, the Conservatives. Let's just be very clear here. My dad was in arts education in the '70s and '80s, so he was right in the center of the storm when Thatcher appeared. Margaret Thatcher. Maybe not familiar to everyone around the world, but she was a very charismatic, fascinating Prime Minister we had who came in at 1979 after a really, really dark period of quasi-socialist management from the Labour party, so there was a real kind of energy for change.
But she just saw no value in the arts and in 1979, I can attest to this because my dad ran four art schools at the time, every town in Britain had an art school. Just a little one. This was a place where if you weren't necessarily excelling academically at school but you wanted to express yourself, you were allowed to go there at least to do a foundation course, just to get a sense of yourself.
As far as music was concerned, it was where everyone went to art school. They weren't necessarily going to become artists or fine artists, but they just went there because there was this atmosphere.
You could express yourself and all the things we know the arts exist for...
There wouldn't have been punk without art schools. Everything basically came from art schools. The Beatles came from art school. That connection of the art school and British music is huge. So anyway, she started getting rid of them, so no use for them and you can see that thread existing today.
They just don't value the arts in this country with the Conservatives and it's tragic.
It's very similar to what happened in America when Gerald Ford came in.He shuts down, then cuts off all the funding to art schools in inner cities and then suddenly in places like the Bronx and underserved communities, there's no more music schools but the difference there was they just invented their own thing which became hip-hop, which was kind of amazing. But at the same time, it was just like... Yeah.
That's what punk was. It's always a reaction to something.
But no, I really felt it last year. I just thought it was so cruel and people were not even allowed to work, then to be told on top of that there probably wasn't any point in them waiting until the end of the pandemic because it'd be better if they retrained now and got ahead of the curve. You can't tell someone who, from the age of six has put on ballet shoes three, four times a week and dedicated themselves to becoming a dancer, at the age of 18 when they're just about to launch themselves into their lives that they need to retrain. It's just not...
It's not nice and I don't want to live in a world where everybody's staring at a computer.
Those are very shortsighted because a year from now or six months or whenever it is, all those institutions and theaters and ballet and opera houses are going to open back up and what? We're going to put computer programmers on stage?
Exactly. Exactly. Anyway, going back to Paris and Germany as well, just the arts in general and especially the sort of festival arts, there's a lot more kind of patronage.
Where did you put on the opera in Paris?
At the Châtelet.
Okay, and regular crowds were able to come in and stuff like that?
Yeah, we were allowed to do it for five nights, all sold out. Obviously there was a bit of social distancing but yeah. On the last night, everyone was dancing and up out of their seats. Masks were off. In fact, Macron's wife caught COVID because she came to that and she got it afterwards. I don't know if they were connected.
She's all right.
Okay, that's good.
I'm not responsible.
You were saying that it's crazy that you had choirs, you had musicians, you had horn players, all this thing and nobody got sick.
No. Nobody got sick. It was miraculous, it really was. Every morning I woke up and I was like, "Right, today, we're going to get closed down." There's no way we're going to get through to the end and we did. Next year, they're doing it again so that will be nice. It was lovely. In a year where there was so few opportunities for musicians to do anything, it was an amazing thing to do.
Because you've composed quite a few operas and I saw Monkey. Was that at the Royal Opera House, right?
I wanted to ask you because I was so fascinated. A) You didn't go to music school or learn composition or these things.
No, I got to grade eight. I didn't pass grade eight.
What is grade eight? I don't know.
Grade eight, there's this system where... It's not a good system. It's a system that the Royal School of Music created and you go from grade one to grade eight.
Okay, so grade eight's up there.
Yeah, after grade eight, then you can teach.
But I only managed grade seven and then there was a particular Mozart sonata on the grade eight syllabus and there were just three chords and I just... I hit on this little progression. It was definitely a major to minor thing and I literally kind of froze. Just so strong and affecting to me that I couldn't finish the rest of the piece and I was just like, "This will last me for quite a few years, just these three chords. Thank you." So, I kind of-
Was this in a public performance you were being graded on?
You were learning.
Yeah, I was just learning it and at that point, my classical training ending.
Yeah, you're like, "This is all I need. This can happen in me."
This is doing it for me.
That reminds me, one time I went to LA. I was seeing this girl for a few years and I'm not trying to make this sound overly tragic but she dumped me on the doorstep as I went to her house. Hadn't seen her in awhile. I was like, "Well, what the fuck am I going to do in LA?" I was in my early 20s, I didn't have enough money to change the plane ticket. I was like, "I'm here for three days."
So, I went and bought a cheap electric piano and a Stevie Wonder songbook and I didn't really know how to read music that well. I would even have to write the notes on the staff so when I was coming back to remember the chords and the chords were kind of complicated. But I was playing this song Superwoman. Where were you when I needed you? In the middle, I played six chords and I was like, "This is all I need." They were like magic chords.
That moment, it's a eureka moment, isn't it? You're just like, "I get it now." This has touched me in the way I need. I need this. It was amazing.
How old were you? Is this college? Is this university when you're doing the grade eight?
Yeah, I did A-level music which is the sort of pre-university exams and I failed them.
I made a terrible mistake of telling my daughter that I'd failed music. She's just never let that one go.
And used it against me in her own education. Tip to young parents, don't brag about things that you don't want your kids to emulate because they will.
It seems like all of Damon's career milestones have been projects launched by a mix of curiosity and a very strong desire to challenge himself. Case in point, Gorillaz. American hip-hop seems interesting. I wonder what it'd be like to switch gears and make some beat focused music. Then he discovers the music of Toumani Diabaté and travels to meet the maestros of Mali and Africa Express is born.
He tries his hand at an opera using Chinese instrumentation and the completely foreign star system of Chinese notation. I mean, that's fucking crazy. All these things come from an insane thirst for the new and just as importantly, the willingness to humble yourself and start from the bottom.
My favorite story about Quincy Jones is how he strived his whole life to achieve commercial success and he finally gets it with his hits with Leslie Gore and then he goes and completely checks out of the game to go study counterpoint and classical with Nadia Boulanger, unworried of whether his spot was still going to be there when he got back. It was and we might not have Off The Wall without that studying he did.
The idea of putting aside rockstar ego to further your learning, so impressive. It's something Damon continues to do and I believe we the listener are certainly the better for it.
I didn't realize that you did have some kind of formal training.
Yeah, but that was it. That was it and I was always rubbish at sight reading. I mean, I can but God, it's slow. I think when I started working with people like Tony Allen, that was the big shift for me. It was a paradigm shift really in how I approached music and then when I first went to Mali, my first night when I arrived in Bamako, I was driven to Toumani Diabaté's house and I bought my melodica.
What year is this?
1999, 2000. I was invited to this room and there was no one else in this room but me and then Toumani comes in in his wonderful robe and sits down and we have a small conversation. Nothing...
Just because I'm a little ignorant, if you had to give an equivalent of Toumani, an equivalent in western music... Is Toumani the John Lennon of...
He's a jeli. They're also referred to as griot and it's a musical tradition, like the Diabate family who play the kora, which is the 21 string African harp and the centerpiece of African classical music in West Africa. This is crazy. They can trace back their family playing the kora 80 generations. They've been at it for a very long time.
There is no equivalent of that in the west. I understand.
And they're a caste. They're different from other castes, it's very caste system. They're sort of in there with the sorcerers and the herbalists. They're needed and revered but slightly distrusted as well because they're playing with... Especially in the post-pagan Muslim era, they can connect with jin.
It's complicated. I arrive at his house and he's the top of that clan, for the Diabate griot and I sit down there and I've got my melodica and he's got his amazing kora and he starts playing and I'm expected because I've come there on this musical odyssey really, it was the beginning of an odyssey... The only problem is that I wasn't really... The melodica is an immovable object. It's like the piano. You're either tuning to it or... And there's no way the head of the Diabate clan is going to tune to my instrument.
But I can't tune to his. I'm just really, really, really, just off but in a way that nothing sings, you know what I mean? It's the most painful experience of my life, but I got through it and it got better after that. I was so lucky. I just used to go and sit in clubs with people playing and sit at the back of the stage and just play. No one could hear me. I was just playing and just listening, listening, listening and slowly, and especially playing with Tony as well where his rhythm is so elusive sometimes, it's just... Where is the down beat sometimes?
It's just crazy.
We should definitely talk about Tony Allen because people obviously love him. Fela had some of the greatest music ever recorded and you know it way more because you play with him. Technically, he really invented... Fela was actually playing a different kind of music until he hooked up with Tony, right?
All those rhythms that we love from Fela, that really comes from Tony.
Totally Tony. It's all Tony.
Yeah. If you had to technically describe it, take "Water No Get Enemy" or whatever, that's one of my favorite Fela. I guess that's one that everybody knows, but the way he's playing the drums in that, it sounds like he has eight hands and there is no way to sit still when you hear it. It's some of the most joyful, also dance-y music but also so fucking intellectual.
Yeah, exactly. It's cosmic.
Yeah. Do you remember the first time? You probably knew about Fela for awhile but what was the first Tony records that you really just remember being like, holy shit?
Yeah, I mean the first thing that blew my mind was Zombie. I couldn't believe the drops in that. It's just one of the most exciting bits of recorded music ever I think, to this day. The first time I played with him, it's actually a really funny story because I'd done this tune with Blur called "Music Is My Radar" and the chorus was, "Tony Allen got me dancing." That's one of our more obscure tunes but someone told him that this kid had written this song, which kind of started him as... I don't know. I've never been a great dancer, you know what I mean? And I wouldn't really even qualify as dancing. He got me moving at least.
He was in London and he invited me to come to the studio, so I go in there one evening and here was this legend sitting there and rolled a joint. At that time, I couldn't smoke the weed that he smoked. First time I tried it, I was in pieces.
Wanted to go home.
This wasn't the local West London stash. He was bringing this in with him.
No, but I mean he just taught me to smoke weed, grass, properly. You know what I mean? I think he taught me kind of how to use it to make music. He was very militant about that over the years because I've never really enjoyed smoking weed if I'm really hungover and he'd make me.
Yeah, he'd make me do it.
Because he believed it would access something.
Yes. Very, very, very militant about that. But this first time, it ended up being this tune on HomeCooking and then there was this opportunity to play it on French TV and I'd also been working with Ibrahim Ferrer on his record. It turned out it was a double header, French TV, live TV program with Ibrahim Ferrer from the Buena Vista Social Club and then Tony Allen and I happened to be on both their records. They were like, "Hey, why don't you just do both sets?" So, very excited obviously. Go to Paris, I'm playing...
What a gig.
Real legends, yeah.
What a gig. Did the first one with Ibrahim and it goes really well and I'm really pleased and there's a two hour turnover and then this guy called... You may remember him. Remember Ray Cokes?
He was a massive presenter on MTV.
Then his surname got the better of him and he fell from grace.
But he gave me this bottle of Martinique white rum as a present after I came off stage with Ibrahim and Tony wanted me to smoke and I had the rum and the smoke. By the time we got on stage for Tony, and this was in front of a live audience on TV, I couldn't find my down beat. I could not start. Didn't know where to come in. I was just lost. I was just like a small child lost in the forest.
What instrument were you on?
I wasn't. I was just singing.
Oh, you were just singing.
I was just singing.
I just couldn't find it and I was like... Anyway, I kind of gave up and don't know what possessed me to do it. I went around the back of Tony and got on the back of his drum seat and put my arms around him and passed out.
He did the next tune with me asleep. Anyway, I don't remember anything else of that night. Next morning, I'm in bed and my tour manager comes into the room and I look up at him. I remember it so clear. I look up and I went, "That went well, didn't it?" And he's looking down at me, he's going... Shaking his head, not saying anything. You know when you get that fear. It's like, "What the fuck did I do?"
Because you only remember-
Not only what did I do but what did I do on French TV?
It was explained to me that I'd done that and then I just sort of stumbled off and passed out and that was the end of it. I rang him up immediately, in fact I rang the whole band up because I was so mortified, and he was so cool about it. We became best friends and he became my teacher and brother and father figure, everything to me. He's one of the dearest people I've ever, ever known in my life.
And he was kind of like... I guess if you had to say, if there was a seed at the beginning of The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, even though it took a lot of things, was it probably your friendship, being a musical relationship? Tony was the ground floor...
It's hilarious, the first few sort of sessions with Paul Simonon. It's two immovable objects. Tony, who's definitely in the right when it comes to rhythm, he will not change and Paul was going, "Well, we should do it this way," and they used to have some terrible falling outs but they'd always somehow find common ground in a bottle of whiskey at the end of the evening. But I mean really, sometimes it was embarrassing. You were embarrassed.
They used to get really ratty with each other. It was hilarious.
Also, as much as Paul Simonon is a fucking icon and for somebody who is 24 playing whatever "Radio Clash," "Straight to Hell,"... some of the most iconic... I think that the way he comes in on "London Calling," I don't think there's a more iconic sort of off the cuff intro to a song. It's all the riff, right? Paul Simonon is obviously this legend and icon.
He's the most dramatic bass player ever.
But locking in with a bass drum? More problematic.
I would think coming into a room, no matter how much of an icon and you just see Tony Allen there, you're not going to argue, right? You're just going to be like, "Okay, when it comes to the rhythm, I will defer to you." But you're saying Paul was...
No, but it's actually really hard to play with Tony. That's the thing. It just took him time to sort of... But we got there in the end. We got there in the end.
Also, Paul, you mentioned in that FADER interview, he hadn't played bass, he hadn't really played music, he was full on just doing art for 15 years and you just called him up and you're like, "Hey, fancy coming out of retirement?"
Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
That's exactly what happened, that's not an oversimplification?
He came to the first ever Gorillaz gig at the... What's it called?
Scala, exactly, where we played behind a screen. That was the first time I met him and we got on really well. He's one of the reasons why I moved to west London in the first place.
To actually have a drink with Paul Simonon, I mean, it's close to God.
Yeah. In my little time, even though I mostly grew up in New York, I did live in west London for a little while and if you would just see him in the pub, I don't think that there was a more iconic Londoner living, better looking, just radiates all that shit that men want to be and women want to be with.
All of that. He's just such a badass. I think even in that FADER thing, somebody calls him the best looking man in England. He was doing Dior ads in his 50s, right?
Yeah, yeah. He's still fantastic. He's another of my dearest friends.
You kept playing with him, right? Then you made him part of Gorillaz.
Yeah, that was kind of... Having two members of The Clash in your band.
It's not bad.
Yeah, I mean it was an interesting tour bus.
Oh really? Was there some old unsettled Clash...
Oh, there's definitely a little bit of atmosphere between Mick and Paul but I mean, there's a lot of stories which are not really appropriate for the podcast.
I would say it to you in a different circumstance.
I just think the bassline to "Radio Clash." It's so geometric and aggressive and groovy.
No one sounds like Paul. No one sounds like Paul. I never cease loving hearing him play. It's just...
Talking about acerbic Englishmen, I've always wondered if Tony ever talked about his relationship with Ginger Baker with you because that's obviously... Ginger Baker, watching the doc and all that thing, you're like, "This is a man who absolutely loved no one and was kind of terrible to every single person except Tony Allen."
Yeah. Yeah. I always thought Ginger Baker was really cool because he drove a Range Rover from Algiers all the way down to Lagos.
I'd love to do that. It's a lot of fun. You wouldn't be able to do it now but back in the day, he drove the car all the way across the Sahara. I just couldn't do it now. That's too dangerous.
But did Tony ever talk about Ginger, his relationship or no?
Yeah, he was cool with Ginger. They made some amazing music together. I think Ginger gave Tony a run for his money in the world, man of the drums. See, Tony does not, on the surface, seem like he's wild but you try and keep up with him.
I just couldn't believe it when I got the phone call that he died. I was like, "No, he hasn't. What are you talking about? Impossible." I was with him four weeks before he died and I swear to God that it's because he didn't play his drums for a month. It all just caught up with him. He needed that sort of aerobic sort of subtle thing and that connection with the universe to keep him because he was like Superman. We called him Super Elf because he's just...
Just like how he could keep up, drinking, smoking.
I mean, on the last tour we did with The Good, The Bad, and The Queen, there was this huge, great bang in the middle of the night and he'd rolled out of his second tier bunk on the tour bus and everyone was terribly worried about him but he was absolutely fine. But he's always last to bed. Always last to bed.
How old was he when he passed?
He was about a month off his 80th birthday. It's very sad because we'd organized this big birthday bash at The Albert Hall for last November. Yeah, it was going to be a real party but sadly, we never got there.
I'm sorry. I know you guys were super close.
Yeah, no, I mean, I love talking about him because I literally have only incredible memories.
He changed my life. I mean, I know I sang in that song Tony Allen got me dancing but wow, what he did to me after that was... It transformed me. He taught me how to play with my ears truly.
Not only did he change your approach to rhythm and stuff, playing for him. It literally gave you a shift in the way you thought about music.
Everything, yeah. Just how I am as a person.
He changed me.
You're never too accomplished or too far down your path to let a mentor in and it's obvious Tony's effect on Damon was far more than just poly-rhythms. Tony was a special man, touched even and he obviously left an imprint on Damon spiritually. I feel extremely lucky to have been around, to have worked with, quite a few of my heroes. Sometimes just interviewing them for this podcast.
The truly magic ones have this zen-like ease with how they talk, how they can look at their life, the failures and successes. Maybe it's because they've had the successes they're more at ease, more secure in their skin. I don't know. All I know is I want to be like them when I grow up. But the more I've been around these people, I've realized sometimes the best thing to do is shut up and listen.
Also, Danger Mouse who you worked with on that The Good, The Bad, & The Queen record, I think right about the time I got to be friends with him, I think he had just come back from making the second Gorillaz album with you. I never heard anyone say something like that. I was asking him what he was working on next and he was like, "I just used all my sounds on the Gorillaz record." I think he just wanted to do such a good job, I think it was so exciting.
He did a good job.
Yeah, and I think that he was somebody that I think every single snare sound, every kick sound that he had, anything that he thought he had that was any good, I've never heard anyone say that they were sonically exhausted before. I was kind of jealous as well because I had just met him around the time The Grey Album had come out and he was really cool, we had a rapport, we were both the kind of guys that hadn't made it yet but liked a lot of the same shit.
He was just suddenly like his sonic sparring partners are you, Beck, Jack White. Out the gate, he's smashing it and I don't know. Did you discover him because of hearing some production that he did on those records?
It was The Grey Album. I just thought that's great. He likes The Beatles and Jay-Z, that will work for me.
I'm sure we can do something together. He was still sort of an unknown really.
Yeah, he was.
I got on really well with him. We had a great time and then he did the first The Good, The Bad, & The Queen album. I took him down to Devon. That was a culture shock for him because back in those days, my place down there was quite basic and as I say, once you go there, you can't leave.
No. There's no bars to go hang out and pick up girls.
You can't leave.
Yeah. You're making it sound like The Wicker Man. Is it a little bit?
Definitely, yeah. I told him, you can't leave until you finish this.
Also, Devon in summer and Devon in winter are two different things. Just for backdrop, where is this?
The record I'm playing at Glastonbury, I did in January. This January in my barn and I had two other musicians there and we were just wearing parkas. It was dusty and freezing. Everyone ended up with lung problems. It was awful. But I'm kind of glad we did it because it created a great atmosphere on the record, but yeah, no. Brian [Danger Mouse] had a... At the same time, he was down there doing that but he also had "Crazy" about to come out.
He was itching to get back, you know what I mean? I was like, "You can't leave. Sorry. You're not leaving until you finish this because I know as soon as you leave, you're not coming back."
He never came back. I've seen him since, but I had his undivided attention for a while and I really benefited from it so I was very grateful for that.
Yeah, and I'm sure the three or four months with you in Devon compared to three years in Ireland in U2, probably now looks like a cake walk.
No slight to U2 at all, I just remember seeing him when he was doing that record. I think he was allowed... It was almost like shore leave like when you're a sailor. He would come to London and we'd go out and have a wild night because then he'd be going back to Dublin or wherever they were and it was back in lockdown.
Yeah, but just a lot richer.
A little, yeah. Probably not a barn.
When I say it was back in those days, it was very basic down in Devon and I can't imagine they'd ever have lived that basically but maybe I'm wrong.
No, I'm sure you're right. In that FADER article, it mentions the fact that The Good, The Bad, The Queen record was going in a different direction, so you hooked up with Danger Mouse. It was leaning a lot more into the polyrhythms and you joked that Brian said one song sounded too Lion King or something. He had a bit of an influence on that.
Yeah, Tony wasn't happy at all. He was very pissed off with Brian because Brian chopped his drums up.
Yeah, which you don't do, right?
You just don't do that. I wouldn't do it now but he was still kind of... It's good to be fearless like that.
You know? It's good.
I envy that about Brian too. I could just tell and I feel like that's why people like you, Jack White, and whoever else, U2 and these people that are probably used to having people kiss their asses, you just know it. You don't suffer fools and he would just never be afraid to be in a room and be like, "Nah, I don't like that." I think that I just don't quite have that. I feel like you kind of have that. You have this brutally honest thing that is also... Yeah, it's something that I don't have that I've always envied, just the thing to be like, "No, that's shit." Amy Winehouse had that and she actually taught me a super valuable lesson. I remember one time I played her a demo of something I thought she would like and it was the fifth day of demoing Back to Black and we were in such a rhythm. I was spoiled and I was like, 'I know what she likes.' I play her this thing, she goes, "No, don't like it." I start desperately muting things and scrambling, maybe I'll take the shaker. I know.
It's not that though.
She just goes, "Why are you trying to fix something that's shit?"
It's a weird thing, what you can sing over and what you can't sing over. I remember Major Lazer were desperate for me to do something and they gave me this stuff and I tried for three days to do something. I tried everything. At one point, I think I'd stacked about 90 vocals together and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't do it because I didn't connect with it and if you don't connect with something, you can't do it.
It's so basic, the connection is such a basic thing and it's no reflection on their music or anything. It's just whether you connect with them or not. It was funny. After three days, I felt like I'd been deep in a mine trying to find something and I just couldn't find it. But at least I knew I'd tried.
There's something about that also when someone sends you a track, and I'm sure you've been on the other end of it but you've probably been the guy sending the track, sometimes and you think almost so much that somebody's going to love this because it sounds like them but it's the exact opposite.
No, no, no.
That's the thing.
But also, I've done stuff with people and I've gone, "That's not very good. I can't use this." I mean, it's never nice. I've been on the other side of it as well where you've gone, "Are they using the track?", "Oh no, it's not being used," and you're like, "Oh, okay, because it was shit."
With the Gorillaz stuff, because those are some of the wildest collabs and I know you're a guy that doesn't like to sit and get showered with compliments, but I do think that the basis of the last 20 years, anytime there's been a project that's left of center collabs and it's something avant garde and putting people together that should never be on the track, I do think that if it wasn't for Gorillaz, that wouldn't be such a palatable thing.
When you're creating the Gorillaz stuff, are you usually writing with those people in the room? Are you sending a track out?
It depends. At the moment, I'm doing a Carnival EP for this year's Carnival. I bought a panel orchestra but I didn't buy the top end of it. I only bought the big bass bins. Everything I've played on it, it's inevitably melancholic because it's just low and sad sounding even though it's major. It's all major but it just sounds sad, so I'm obviously delighted with the sound.
First person I got was Dawn Penn.
Who was sitting there two weeks ago. I just love it. You've worked with shitloads of people as well. Everyone's process is different.
It's just fascinating, but the more you work with people, the more relaxed you get into the way they're doing it and sometimes, you don't even know what you're getting at the time.
Because you're so sort of caught up in the moment of that person being there and actually the red light goes on and yes, you don't even know what it is. But she sang for about three, four hours because I've been doing this Glastonbury thing. I haven't gone back to it, but next week I get back to that. I've got three hours of Dawn Penn to go through and do something, make something really exciting from it.
It's funny because I'm just a producer, so that's all I'm supposed to really do is be attuned to somebody else's rhythm and be able to blend it, fit, be malleable, whatever it's going to take to suddenly be a part of that person's world. But you're kind of an artist really first, so you've got both talents. You can be that person that's got to write and do the thing from scratch and you also have to learn to suddenly be completely feeding off of their energy.
I really enjoy it though. I really enjoy producing and I've done some stuff with Slowthai recently for one of Slaves but it's really interesting what you can actually... You've seen when it really, really, really hits hard, you know what I mean? It's amazing not being the person and just seeing. It's a real thrill actually. I enjoy it just as much as being an artist in that sense.
Yeah, because I guess through the Gorillaz records, you're half artist, half producer, which would be an incredibly smooth segue into the first FADER cover which was just as you're kind of making the first Gorillaz record. As opposed to The Good, The Bad, & the Queen article which is this really well-written kind of deep essay, the first one about Gorillaz, it's almost an annoying blurb.
Well, the thing with that is that we really tried to be totally anonymous. That was the dream. It was all set up like that, but we stupidly... Jamie and I thought, and Remi, we thought we'll be the voices of the cartoons as well but that's all right, it's a nice idea but it's actually quite hard to be a character actor for a cartoon.
I remember we were doing our first interview, I think the first ever interview was for Rolling Stone or Spin. We were on the telephone in character and I just couldn't do it after about five minutes. I just said, "Look, you know what?" I told them who I was and Jamie was so angry.
Oh, they didn't even know. You literally were saying you were 2-D?
I was 2-D, obviously. Yeah, and he was so angry.
He was pissed off with me. Properly pissed off.
Yeah, is he just a better voice actor or he was just-
No, he didn't have any history beforehand.
So anyway, we'll move that to a different department but yeah, back in the day, it took a while to sort of work out how to manage it. Ideally, it would've been great if it had managed to still be like Banksy now. It's not possible.
Even on the cover of that FADER shoot, it is you and Jamie. It's not the cartoon and stuff.
The thing is we gave up and then not that I was really carrying a lot of cache in America at the time, so it wasn't a big deal. To this day, people still don't know who I am in America which is great. It's fantastic.
I wanted to talk about, I've totally forgot while I was listening back to that album and reading that article the other day, I was just like, "Del." All the Del shit, especially the second album. I know he had the first hit with "Mistadobalina" and that was a kind of MTV hit a bit more because it was catchy, a little more gimmicky, but No Need For Alarm, that second album is fucking incredible.
He's really, really a special... He's a lovely, strange human being.
It was very ultra Black consciousness, there were a lot of rhymes, I remember singing along to it as a kid. "If you're white, then you're not the right one" but it didn't matter. I hadn't really ever heard anyone who's political stance was so pro-Black. Everything about it was just... But that song "Catch a Bad One" with that cello fucking intro and all that shit. Were you listening to a lot of American underground hip-hop at that time just before you did Gorillaz? Or had you been listening-
Dan The Automator introduced me to Dell.
Okay. How did you discover Dan?
I think we just sort of put a message out that we were trying something out and he came over and just similar sort of thing, you're not leaving until...
Right. Yeah. Because I think I take for granted, because I moved to the States when I was eight, so hip-hop was so... It's just much more a part of your growing up, it's just constantly around.
Not here at all.
It's not here and certainly not in the crazy Britpop era where you guys were basically kings and there wasn't...
Oh God no.
There wasn't a lot of...
Not even a whiff.
Right, and also, the Gorillaz thing, now it doesn't seem as crazy to do a bit of a wild, left-field project, but for you to leave Blur at the absolute peak of this thing and then do this beats driven thing is like... Now, it's hard to imagine there was a time when that was like, "What the fuck is he doing?"
I know. Now everyone does it, right?
At the time, it was an entirely different world and it was very exhilarating. I mean, I remember the first time I got introduced to hip-hop was actually in back of Jon Cohen's car. I was so hungover, he picked me up at the hotel and I had to do a radio show in Brooklyn or something.
A bit later. Maybe Modern Life is Rubbish.
I said, "Can I travel in your boot please?" Literally put me...
Because you wanted to lie down, you were so hungover.
And he played the first Tribe Called Quest album.
I just listened to it in this subterranean boot traveling through Manhattan.
Yeah, that was my introduction.
And that is such an amazing musical... There's so much musicality. To hear that as your first real hip-hop, driving around New York, I can imagine.
It was a strong, strong thing but there was no way to express that in Blur at all, so it just took years before... Basically, Gorillaz was just me going back, just using synthesizers, just doing exactly what I did but drum machine synthesizers.
Driving up and down the East Cost crammed into a car listening to A Tribe Called Quest. I can't think of a more glorious storybook introduction to the best of American music at that moment. The music booming out of car windows in New York in the '90s, it was Tribe, Wu-Tang, Biggie. I'll never forget hearing The Fugees' The Score for the first time in my friend's white Nissan Pathfinder.
There was no more signature way to hear New York rap in the '90s than the car stereo. I guess the difference is most of us probably heard it and ran and told a friend or made a beeline for the record store. Damon hears it and it leads to Gorillaz, one of the most beloved not actually real pop groups of all time. Again, it's one of the things that drives him, the ability and the balls to go, "What's that? I want to try that."
And then add that ability to write massive hooks that festival goers will sing on many continents. That's Damon's superpower, combining those points of reference with his own melodic instincts. That's what made Gorillaz so next level.
Did you say something in the article? Because the guy, no disrespect to whoever wrote this piece but it has this kind of snarky attitude because obviously Blur are the biggest thing in the world and it's kind of being a little diminishing. You just say, "It's about songs at the end of the day, right?"
Songs, and that's why that's what they are. They're all incredible songs and they just happen to be over beats. I remember thinking of something that you said to me. First of all, actually I forgot, I was at The Marquee for your first ever show on the Leisure tour because I was such a huge fan of "There's No Other Way" and I was a kid living in New York.
But you said something at a festival we both played at in 2015 and it was the "Uptown Funk" year and everything. You just said something, I don't know if you remember, you're like, "You're probably having the best year in music, huh? This year." You said it in a nice way and a kind of cheers but that could've only been said by somebody who's also experienced the same thing. I can't help but think 2001, to make a leftfield hit that becomes the biggest global international smash.
It must have just...
Yeah, it was good. It was fun. The longer that you stay in this business, the more you realize that these things are not to be taken for granted. You know?
So, you get into your thing really and you just make music for the love of it. That's a privilege but it's also available to everyone really.
I remember even that song was so big in America because I was DJing in America. In the crowds I was playing in hip-hop clubs, the two step and the UK garage thing really hadn't happened and that was something I was only getting when I'd come over here and I'd hear bits of it. But I went to that club Subterranean at Rotation and I heard them play the Ed Case remix and "Dirty Harry" was so big as a song, the hook, that you could play two step suddenly in New York clubs.
Because that shit was just so instant. It was pretty cool.
I mean, it took a long time for U.K. hip-hop to become what it's become today but I mean, now it rules basically. It really rules.
When American hip-hop stopped being as big as it was and there were no longer any U.K. artists who really sounded American.
Suddenly, Drake is putting Giggs and Skepta and people on songs. You're like, "Oh shit, this is now more exciting than the thing that it came from."
Yeah, I mean, the system in this country just didn't enable people to do anything more than just a one off thing and now they've got careers which is brilliant.
Yeah, and you said you've been working with Slowthai.
Yeah, I love Slowthai. He's wonderful. He just is a joy to work with. He's open to anything and really smart and he's got that thing at the moment where anything he does sounds good. It's just great.
He's in that zone. So, the new record that you're going to be playing Glastonbury...
I got asked a few years ago by a French festival director, "You can do anything. What would you like to do?", and I said, "Well, I've got this wonderful house that I built 20 years ago in Iceland outside of Reykjavik that overlooks the sea and overlooks this mountain and in the distance, you've got the Snæfellsjökull volcano and glacier. So, it's the most exquisite place and I just always wanted to get a small chamber orchestra in there and basically play the outlines of what you could see outside."
So, it started like that and I was quite far into it and then lockdown happened, so I took a lot of the workshop orchestral stuff and I went to Devon and I just made another solo record basically and just kind of expressed how I felt over the last year really. Simple as that. The opportunity to play this new piece, that's what's I'm doing on Wednesday.
Right. My one year, my great year, 2015, I remember having the best time ever at Glastonbury because we played on the Friday night so the rest of the time, you're just able to lose your mind.
There's nothing like playing a big stage at a moment when you've got the tune.
It's amazing. It's a wonderful thing.
By Monday morning at the stone circle, which is the classic thing, I was still there and everybody was my best friend.
Yeah. But I was driving past it on the way here and I saw the billboard for Glastonbury and then it reminded me of reading some articles when you were rehearsing for the... Was it Plastic Beach when you headlined Glastonbury with Gorillaz?
Yeah, that was a strange thing because at that point, we'd only done these six gigs at The Apollo in Harlem. We hadn't done anything since 2001 because Demon Days was so big that we didn't need to tour and we had young kids and everything. Coming back, we had this huge band now, Hypnotic Brass, two members of The Clash, Bobby Womack, Snoop, Lou Reed.
A ridiculous band. Ridiculous band. Jamie and I kind of made a decision that I wouldn't do my frontman thing because the year before, I headlined with Blur and it had been the most amazing experience and then U2, Bono fell off his bike and they had to cancel Glastonbury. We were asked and I thought, "All right, I'll headline it two years in a row with two different bands. Why not?" But we hadn't made that transition to headlining huge festivals.
So, that night, I didn't talk to the audience because I thought it was self-explanatory but when you've got 200,000 people out there, you need to be explaining, "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Reed," because otherwise, Lou Reed goes on stage and they don't know who it is. So, it was a great experiment but the next weekend, we played Roskilde, same headline spot and I did the full frontman and introducing and it was incredible. Incredible. It was a steep learning curve, that Glastonbury. We've got it now but it's a big thing to learning the craft of headlining festivals. Once you've got it, you got it but it is a transition.
The thing I remember was reading... Someone had obviously come to interview while you were in the middle of Glastonbury, on a much smaller level I know that feeling like herding cats. It just sounded manic and you're desperately... It made me think, all these projects now that you've had, Good, The Bad, The Queen, Gorillaz, doing the Bobby Womack show, all of it, there are these things that... I don't know if you seem to thrive on it because it's its own adrenaline. It's like doing this incredible expended energy into it, this adrenaline. Will we be able to pull it off in only last six weeks?
Exactly. I like that. I like the futility of it.
It's not a career. You know what I mean? I sort of learned that. Don't see anything as a career because I think it can really inhibit you because then you start making decisions based on sustaining that thing and that success and it's like, why? We're successful anyway.
Just the fact that we made music is a success.
I remember even just the adrenaline of going on every night knowing, will we pull this off? was its own rush. How many times do I have to cue the bass player in the third song? When I was touring certain records, like Version or something, that was my first time on the road, somebody would call up and be like, "Ian McCulloch's in Liverpool. He's coming to your show. Do you want to learn a song?" I'd be like, "Yeah, of course."
At sound check, everyone's so hungover, everything and we're learning "People Are Strange" and I think we counted that we learned... In the course of a three week tour, we ended up playing 18 more songs than were on the set list. But I love the adrenaline.
That's great. Being open to that is key really to... Not being afraid of failing.
I don't think you ever really find the ultimate expression of anything. You know what I mean? I really, really, really try not to do it anymore but I imagine the outcome.
Before it's happening?
Yeah. But then it's never like that. Ever. 99% of the time it is way below what I imagine it's going to... Just the way it is. Occasionally, it surprises you and it's like, wow, I didn't expect that. Then things that didn't seem to really pop at the time, 10 years later are popping like crazy.
I kind of took a brief look down the thing and I was like, half a billion streams for "Clint Eastwood," half a billion streams for "Song 2." The fact is that there's very few things other than Calvin Harris, things that were so classic back then that we love. You look at certain fucking Beatles, Stones songs, ten million streams.
I know. I know.
Some of the biggest indie bands ever, just certain music will never stream well because-
Streaming is a very mercurial thing and sometimes, I look at things that are just in the billions and you just go, "Why?"
Yeah. I guess because they came out now maybe?
It's to do with algorithms as well though now.
Is that the red light, like okay, wrap it up?
I don't know.
I mean, that's pretty fucking great. We got so much good shit. I think it's probably a good place to end.
I would like to at some point continue this over a drink and just...
You know what I mean?
I've always wanted to work with you, you know?
Yeah. Yeah, we kind of talked about it.
But at some point, that would be great.
I'd love to.
Yeah, I can see that you're...
Do I come here? Do I go to Devon? Am I locked in Devon or do I get to be here in LA?
Depends on... If you go to Devon, it's good if you can drive.
Okay, I can drive.
Then you can escape. But for people who can't drive, they're fucked.
Yeah, I'd love to do something.
I just think we should continue this conversation because... You know.
Let's do it. Yeah, cool.
Thank you, man.
It was great.
I enjoyed it. Thank you.