Former Britpop pin-up and now the human face of Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, caught up with Notion to wax lyrical on Live 8, 'Demon Days', student rock and old rivalries.
Words: Ian Watson
Ask Damon what he thought of Live 8 and he'll smirk and mutter "Make Doherty History", a mischevious slightly laddish glint creeping into his eyes. But remind him of the criticism that he levelled against Geldof, Bono and company before the event - that the bill was too Anglo-Saxon while the concept itself perpetuated the view of Africa as being 'a failing, sick, tired place" - and those once dreamy Britpop features harden into practised indignation.
"I feel vindicated because now the mood is very different," Albarn says, sitting in a West London hotel room, looking like a London market trader in several days of stubble and a floppy white hat. "how can that have gone on that day and no one mentioned that there was a massive famine in Niger? That's extraordinary. Why didn't they get some musicians from Niger, Somalia, Mali, Ethiopia? People are too scared that if they let og of this precious celebrity culture that something's going to be missing. Nothing's going to be missing. We'll be actually better offf for it. I like Bob Geldoff and Bono and we respect each other, but I thought it was a tragic mistake to do it that way. An opportunity to educate was totally lost in the face of an insatiable urge to entertain. Because if we don't entertain, we don't get our message across. And that's wrong."
When Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett first dreamt up the idea of Gorillaz, the multi-million selling animated band that's far outshadowed Blur in terms of global success, the point was just to entertain. The group's self-titled debut was recorded in Jamaica in 1999 [Gorillaz-Unofficial's note: actually, it was 2000] and sounds like it - a sunny, wilfully naive album that doesn't aim any higher than goofy lyricism and dayglo hip-hop. Post 9/11, however, and following disappointing sales for Blur's mature-sounding seventh album, 'Think Tank', the tone for Gorillaz has grown a lot darker.
"It's much darker," nods Albarn, referring to the band's latest album, 'Demon Days'. "this record makes much more sense now than it did (before the London bombings). But while the sun isout we will insist on kidding ourselves that it's not our problem. I'm not prepare to do along to the party and pretend everything's OK. I haven't been prepared to do that for many years now."
Was Albarn shocked by the London bombings? "I wasn't shocked at all," he says, his indignation gathering speed. "How can we be shocked by that? When there'sjust an endless newsreel of stuff twenty times more shocking every day. Why doesi t make any difference because it's our town? That really irritates me. Why is it any different here than it is there? It's no different. We've just got better emergency services to mop up the mess."
The brooding tone of 'Demon Days' began to coalesce in Albarn's mind when he, his partner Suzi Winstanley and their six-year-old daughter Missy took a train journey to Mongolia via Beijing. They spent a day travelling though what Albarn describes as a "weird, unspoken, forgotten part of China", marvelling at the otherworldly, post-apocalyptic landscape. "It was basically dead trees as far as the eye can see," Albarn remembers. "Dust bowls, loose earth rapidly turning into desert. There are little satelite towns in the middle of these semi deserts that are absolutely on their knees. And it's the size of Europe this area. And then you wake up in the morning with this nightmare in your head and it's blue sky and beautiful sand, which looks fantastic now but was probably something else millions of years ago. And that will happen to us in our lifetime."
So the urge to entertain was joined by a desire to educate. "Kids With Guns", for example, was inspired by a boy in Missy's class who turned up to school with a knife. "A nice boy," says Albarn, "just decided to pick up a knife and show it to his friends at lunchtime. It's a very real problem, but I'm not treating it as a problem. It's part of the brutalisation of a generation that's going on at the moment." "Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head", meanwhile, is a parable read by Dennis Hopper that seems to have clear parallels with the war for oil.
"That came from a very naive idea, which is: what is going to happen when they've taken all of the oil out of the earth? Aren't there going to be these vast holes? Surely those holes shouldn't be empty. Surely there is a reason why they had all of this in. It's like bad plastic surgery, eventually it collapses."
Back in his Britpop days, Albarn went to a meeting with Tony Blair and John Prescott, then leaders of the opposition. "Prescott told me then that no one really wanted to be running the country because in five or so years time it was all going to hit the fan. Now I can only draw one conclusion from that that even back then it was known that there was going to be a resurgence in terrorism. Thankfully I didn't go to Number Ten and I realised really quickly that I had to stay out of people's way because... they're not evil they've just got an impossible job. It terrified me that moment, especially on reflection."
Almost a decade on from that meeting, Albarn's a noticeably changed character. Where once he'd plump arrogantly for the grand desture when it came to songwriting - the defiant knees up of 'Country House', say - now he prefers to work on a lightly more subtle level. "Can I sneak things under the wire with Gorillaz? Go, yeah," he laughs. "You can do what you like with a cartoon. I'm always sneaking things under the wire." What does Missy make of Gorillaz? "She loves it What's there not to like about the videos? Jamie's brilliant at creating a slightly sinister world. Kids love being a bit scared. They don't want to be alarmed, they don't want their psyche zapped, but they like to feel a bit edgy. Unfortunately at the moment there isn't much difference between some cartoons and the news."
The singer will never be able to alter one aspect of his personal make-up, however. Even though it's accepted that Blur won out over Oasis in terms of creative longevity, Albarn still carries the scars from that period. A simple inquiry into why he picked Shaun Ryder to sing on current single 'DARE' proves that even now the wounds are surprisingly raw. "I love Shaun Ryder. During the whole Oasis thing, he and Bernard Sumner were the only two who cared about what I was going through. Being constantly taken the piss out of by [the Gallaghers]. How can you fight when you've got the tabloids and a working class attitude on your back? You're fucked. But Shaun was really sweet to me and made me feel a whole lot better about it. Because I did get quite upset about it." So selecting Ryder was karma in action, then? "Yeah, definitely".
In the real world, an album release is usually followed by at least a year of touring. But Gorillaz don't live in the real world, of course. Albarn's in the middle of working with hop-hop producer Danger Mouse (who also produced 'Demon Days') on what he clearly belives to be his meisterwerk ("it's going to surprise everyone", he grins), so there's little time to go off galivanting around the world. The solution is to let the cartoon characters tour on their own.
"I'm playing with all the musicians on the album in the Manchester Opera House for a week. We'll get a really good live recording and then it's all cartoons. Stadium sized cartoons," Albarn explains. "It will be like a film but people will jump up and down. There'll be one of that bullshit that you get when you're on tour. When you're constantly doing interviews, constantly drinking, shagging... I'm making it sound really good. What am I doing? (Laughs) I got really sick of it. And I couldn't take it seriously any more. And I love making music too much to waste a lot of my time promoting it. Hopefully if the music's good enough it promotes itself."
After the next album, the plan is to slow down even further. "I'm going to semi-retire and work in the theatre for a while. I'm doing another record with Blur but it'll only take an hour an half to record. Graham isn't showing any signs of wanting to come back and I can't play his parts, so there's no point in playing the old stuff any more. So we've gone back to rehearsing where we first started and we're playing three chord student rock. It's about time I made a student rock record."
That'll be cheering news for the Kaiser Chiefs, the current indie band who most obviously ape primetime Blur. Come in lads, your fifteen minutes are up.
"I really like the Kaiser Chiefs," beams Albarn, instantly looking years younger. "I've been onstage with them in Toronto. I just couldn't resist it. I like being around them. It reminds me of being in a band, and I do miss that sometimes."
And for a split second there, that mischevious, laddish sparkle is back and ready to take on the world.