An interview: Damon Albarn on the Gorillaz, fatherhood, the war in Iraq, and going out
In an exclusive interview, Matt Kennard talks to Britpop icon and frontman of Gorillaz and Blur, Damon Albarn, about his political activism, how he makes a tune, and whether he still gets time to go out on the town.
By Matt Kennard on Monday, November 24th, 2008 - 3,824 words.
DA: Well to give an alternative rather than to make a comment. You know, making a comment on it is very difficult, I think. I think you really have to concern yourself with providing alternatives.
MK: It’s been a huge success. Do you think you tapped into something that people felt?
DA: I don’t know if people actually gravitate towards it. Amongst kids and teenagers which comprise the bulk of its success, it’s because it’s something that’s an alternative but I don’t know if they initially make connections between its sort of being the sort of antithesis of everything else that seems to be out there, I don’t know.
I mean for us it was – and a will continue to be – such a liberating exercise really because you can go either way. Jamie and I work together in a very kind of isolated parallel with each other. We’re very good friends but we don’t invade each others space at all. We’ve basically got a given where everything I do he likes and everything he does I like – doesn’t matter what that is. It’s very occasionally that he would come up with some visuals and I’d go: “That’s shit,” or I’d provide some music and he’d say the same.
MK: Your music has changed so much. Do you think it’s important to keep things fresh and lively?
DA: Well I think some people have a real problem and think I’m just some sort of mercurial brain that is obsessed with artifice and, you know, it’s really not like that. I’ve just got a very eclectic taste and whatever I’m doing at the time I’ll try and put myself in as much as I can humanly do it. For example, I’ve just finished an album down in Devon which started out as a sort of development from the stuff I’ve done with Honest Johns in Nigeria and I took lots of people out there and we worked with a lot of the old, sort of, 1960’s and 70’s musician. Fellucuti’s studio. And we made a whole album but I didn’t feel I connected lyrically or personally enough with the music so I kind of scrapped that, kept some of the drum tracks.
MK: Was that a solo album?
DA: It’s never been a solo album. So I did the whole album there and that was sort of in between doing the Gorillaz album and I left it until we finished the Gorillaz album and then I just got a wave of sort of Englishness. In the face of everything else I’ve been doing for the last ten years which has been the opposite of a reaction to Parklife and what that sort of created. That’s why I made this really English record, but it started off in Africa. Do you know I mean? My roots to places are never really very planned and I just really go with how I feel at that particular moment.
MK: Are Blur still around?
DA: Yeah, they are. They’re just not… Everyone’s hopefully getting on with their own thing. I don’t really have a problem with things coming to an end but I just wish it had reached its sabbatical in happier circumstances.
MK: I’ve read that you thought Graham [Coxon] might come back eventually?
DA: Well, eventually can be a very long time so….
MK: How do you think your lyrics have developed?
DA: Well I started off really enjoying the possibilities to say one thing and suggest another. Very much in that kind of tradition of pop vignettes. And then what happened with Parklife was so sort of overwhelming in that the sense that I’d made a record which I thought was sort of melancholic commentary on a country in crazy transition. And you know it was Britpop and all the sinister undertones of that and the betrayal really… well not that betrayal… Did Blair betray us all? Did we really matter? Well we mattered then because we really did give him a sheen which I think he’d of probably one anyway but it made it so emphatic. The illusion was given that the youth of the country was behind him. And I mean I’ve said it many times but I luckily recognised that but it put me in such a strange place.
MK:I was going ask you about your political views because you are rather famous for that now. What made you so impassioned about Iraq? Where you politically involved before then?
DA: Well I’d gone with Ken Livingstone to Parliament to try and raise awareness about school fees but I was absolutely gobsmacked when I went there and there was only about 100 students outside. It’s changed now, I think there is more involvement now. There has to be. But you know around that time, around the beginning of the Labour government there was such a ludicrous apathy. Iraq – OK well my history is I come from three generations – I’m the third generation of conscientious objectors so I’ve had that drilled into me by my grandfather who especially suffered during the war. Suffered maybe is not the right word and can provoke very strong reactions in people who had family killed in the war and that’s not what I meant by that. You do pay a price for your beliefs.
MK: Do you get a lot of stick for it?
DA: Not really because I think in this case the only reason we went to war was the result of our individual apathy in the end. You know, our inability to really express what was I think was a consensus that this was a terrifying idea and a very badly thought-out one.
MK: You did have a million people on the streets of London.
DA: Well I think we had more than that. I’d like to think we had close to 2 million but looking back on that in hindsight our mistake was that we thought that would be enough. We should have done one the next weekend and the weekend after that. That should of only been the first one.
MK Do you think there is a natural link between culture and politics?
DA: To be honest with you when Robert Del Naja and myself started really stepping up prior to the war it was very difficult to find anyone. And I don’t want to name any names because they are people who I respect but they were really, for some reason, very reticent to stand with us.
MK: What artists?
DA: Yeah. A lot of people who you would now associate with being anti-war at that particular point didn’t seem to be prepared to do it.
MK: Is there problems with the marketing. Do record labels put pressure on?
DA: They probably do. I’m lucky not to be in that position. But how could anyone feel passionately that we should be going to war in Iraq. You’d have to be out of your mind – or Tony Blair. It’s just such a desperate situation. I suppose apart from the conscientious objection to wars, it was that my father wrote a – your dad and my dad know each, by the way – he wrote several books in the 1970’s about Islamic art and pattern and philosophy so I probably as good a understanding of Islam as I did of Christianity growing up. So I also felt that the portrayal was very dangerous because it was so inaccurate.
MK: Are there any Islamic music influences?
DA: Yeah. Look at my record collection here. Not that it’s my collection, it’s just the record I’m listening to at the moment. Very badly organized. Yeah, I’ve got hundreds of Middle Eastern albums.
MK: You were going to do a record in Iraq?
DA: I tried to go to Iraq but they made it very difficult to go?
MK: After the invasion?
DA: Yeah, after the invasion but they made it basically without directly banning me they said the only way I’d be able to go in is if I make my own way across the desert and that is just a bit foolhardy. They wouldn’t give me any protection to go in there, so basically they were saying “We don’t want you to go there” but we’re not going to say that because the press will jump on it.
MK: You might be able to go in the future, eh?
DA: Well I’d love to go. I mean I wanted to go beforehand to be hones with you. My dad went to Iraq in the 1970s and it’s one of those sort of childhood images that I have.
MK: What heroes do you have in the musical world throughout the 20th century?
DA: My heroes? I’m very bad on lists. I was very influenced by Hermann Hesse when I was growing up. I really felt he had a very human sense of wonderment. He could create fantasy but it seemed to be very… But I suppose my greatest influence was Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht when I was growing up and I think I haven’t really moved that far away from that idea of involving politics in really powerful strong music.
MK: Have you ever toyed with idea of writing literature or poetry?
DA: Yeah I write all the time but if there wasn’t so much music to do. If I spent my entire life and I didn’t take any breaks to watch Match of the Day or play Twister with my daughter or whatever, yeah, I’d probably be writing books of poetry as well.
MK: Do you see yourself doing music for the rest of your life?
DA: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t have any fears about that. I get up everyday wanting to make music. I don’t necessarily achieve that.
MK: Also, you did an album in Africa. What’s the scene like there? We never hear it?
DA: No you don’t. Well I’m involved in something at the moment where we are trying to get loads of musicians on a plane and just hang out in Mali, just get drunk and listen to music because people just don’t go, don’t travel, to those places. And you know Rock music has no fucking idea about it at all. And it’s not that you’re somehow inferior because you don’t know about that music but I just think it’s got to become more of a part of our musical language just because things like Live Aid are so – to my way of thinking – negative forces. Absolutely. I think they promote this idea of a continent that’s failing, a continent that is nothing but sick and undereducated people and it doesn’t bring anyone any closer to understanding African culture. Now African culture is one heck of a big subject, you know!
I’ve been sending emails around a lot recently because I’m trying to get this concert together which is collaborations between African and Western artists in the real sense of the word: actually playing and jamming together. But the reactions I’ve had have been generally very positive from people but you’d be surprised at the people who have got back to me saying “I’m really interested but I don’t know anything about African music,” and these aren’t the people who performed at Live Aid – I don’t expect them to know where fucking Africa is, sadly! Who you would consider some out most intelligent musicians in this country don’t know anything about African music and that’s a terrible shame. It’s to do with upbringing as well. I was very lucky – and you’ve been very lucky – you’ve been brought up with a very prosaic, rich upbringing and that’s what makes it easy for us to understand and care in a genuine sense about the rest of the world but you need that and it primarily has to come from our education system and things like that.
MK: Do you think there is a danger in a white man going to Africa. Is there a patronising relationship?
DA: Well you can go like that or you can just go as a human being. You know, once you stop seeing people as black and just see them as human beings. There are black people that I think are fucking arseholes, but there are equal amount of white people I think are arseholes. You have to become colour blind to genuinely engage anywhere else in the world and that is a hard thing to do.
MK: Do you think people like Bob Geldof have done it? He seems to me like he’s just jumping on the bandwagon.
DA: Well he is genuinely driven, you can’t question the guys passion for what he is doing. But him and Bono and people like that – for example, Bono, if you’re so interested and care about Africa, yes people are dying from AIDS, yes, these things are inescapable, but think about the people, not them as an entity. You see them as a problem. People everywhere in the world have illness and disease and, yes, the resources are not available to them in the way they are here and that is wrong but try to get beyond that and actually see them as your next door neighbours and be interested in what they are interested in and not impose your own ideas. It’s imperious it really is.
MK: But what do you think about artists like Radiohead and Massive Attack and Coldplay, to an extent?
DA: Well I’m not going to get into anyone but bands who care about certain things and then go on one-and-a-half year stadium tours are just total hypocrites. In one sense, you’ve got this developing humanist thing that’s coming out of you which is great and then you’re creating these massive impersonal events where you set yourself up as the subject of thousands and thousands of peoples adoration. Where is the humanity in that really? That’s just idolatory. Do you know what I mean?
MK: It’s hard to avoid though isn’t it?
DA: It is hard to avoid but if we are going to move forward in any sense we’ve got to start to really think about these things and we’ve got to take all that pornography and all that celebrity stuff off the shelves. I’m not saying that we go back to some kind of Puritan type thing but it’s badly out of balance at the moment. And none of us seem to be able to stop; we kind of know it’s wrong but we still switch on the telly. It’s like Jamie – he hates celebrity culture and yet he’ll watch Big Brother.
MK: I’m guilty too!
DA: Well, do you know what I mean? Why do we do this? This is the question of our age. We beat ourselves up about certain things and yet because it’s easy – because we live in a society where gratification is very, very quick – it’s very hard, even it’s just five minutes of reading Heat magazine, you’ve done it, you’ve engaged, you’ve perpetuated the whole thing. I’m not saying I know the answer at all.
MK: I think it’s probably because most people feel that individually people can’t do shit.
DA: That’s everyone’s attitude but I think, for example, going back to that march if we had marched the next weekend they might have got a bit more nervous and if you’d marched the weekend after that it might have got really nervous. And it might have actually stopped it and the course of the world would have changed. So no it’s not the individual but the individual as a body politic is very powerful.
MK: You had a kid. Did that change how you felt about the world?
DA: Yeah. It massively changes you. It slowly sort of shaves off the unpleasant thorny bits and hopefully creates a nicely rounded… I don’t know, having a kid, you just become far more, inevitably you look to the future far more and, you know, it’s desperate sometimes when you’re have a particularly bad few weeks of the newspaper just reminding you about this is wrong, this is wrong. We’ve got ten more years everyone.
MK: If you read the Independent you think you’re going to die every day.
DA: Well I’ve stopped reading the Independent, I’ve had to go back to the Guardian because I can’t bare it anymore. It’s too much!
MK: Has it calmed you personal life, in terms of going out etc?
DA: No I still try to go out because I love going out, I love that escape. But no, it’s definitely changed me an awful lot.
MK: Is it right you live in Iceland some of the time?
DA: Well I bought a flat there when I was a lot younger and then my mates moved out to Rejkuvik started this artistic community convinced me to buy a plot of land with them so I sold my flat which was just a really little flat and kind of four years later I just got this ridiculous which was ridiculously over-budget and it’s a long story. It’s a beautiful place but it was…….
MK: Do you see yourself living in London for the rest of your life?
DA: Not really, no.
MK: Too hectic?
DA: Well, I don’t live here. I try to get out of London as much as possible. It is home.
MK: Your friends wit Banksy, is that right? You’re a big fan of his work?
DA: Yeah. I’ve know Banksy for years now. I just see his books everywhere now so I presume he’s very popular with everyone. It’s always interesting to see where he goes next. And now he’s become successful it’s difficult. I wonder what your dad thinks of him?
MK: He likes him. They’re mates, I think. Someone told me he is sponsored by Puma the other day. The thing is when people get successful like that, people get angry and start spreading that.
DA: The bigger the get, the more hated you get really. Unless you’re Ghandi.
MK: He got shot in the end though didn’t he.
DA: Well exactly!
MK: Are there any other artists, aside from Banksy, you like?
DA: I like Rachel Whitereed.
MK: What kind of musicians, what kind of bands are you in to?
DA: Do you know what, if you look at the stuff I’m listening… The Super Furry Animals are there but most it is….
MK: You into hip hop?
DA: Yeah, I am.
MK: Roots Manuva did a show with you, didn’t he?
DA: Yeah, I work with a lot of hip hop artists but I wouldn’t say… People who are into hip hop are usually very militant about it and I’ve never been militant about it. I like the musicality of it more than some of the politics which are slightly ridiculous.
MK: Root Manuva seems like a good guy.
DA: The guy we’ve worked with, MF Doom, is one the most extraordinary of the rappers I’ve worked just because of his ability to rhyme anything. But yeah Roots is fantastic, more people like him please! Yeah, he’s very laid back and really bright and his stuff is funny.
MK: Is it easy to combine hip hop with the stuff you’re doing?
DA: Well I don’t really think about it. When I’m making hip hop beats I’m playful with it.
MK: OK so you’re writing a track. How do you go about it?
DA: I always write the music and rhythm comes first and then words.
MK: And you use a lot of technology?
DA: Well I always start off on my little four-track and I’ve got all the stuff in the studio. Computers are absolutely essential when you’re doing a lot of stuff on your own because if I didn’t have computers I’d have to have probably about 50 musicians just sitting around waiting, with me saying can we just try ten bars of that! So in that sense I wouldn’t really exist except in this age.
MK: Do you work in the studio or do you work from home?
DA: I work at home and in the studio. I work more and more at home. I’m learning more and more to work at home which for me has taken years and years to feel relaxed enough to do.
MK: Is it nicer working by yourself?
DA: I write on my own and then the rest of the time I just love seeing what people take from that and adding their own thing.
MK: I heard about Heat magazine trailing you and you were lying down on the street. Is that true?
DA: I was taking a photograph of the laundry on Elgin Crescent which is being closed down. It’s an old sort of 1950s laundry and I was on the floor taking a photo of the door like that and it turned into me being drunk.
MK: I heard it was you trying to outwit the media.
DA: I wasn’t trying to do anything. I was taking a photo of a building that is soon going to get pulled down in my local area.
MK: How do you find the celebrity obsession? Was it alright when you were younger?
DA: I find it irritating but part of life in this country. Whatever you do they twist it into being something slightly negative. It’s all about negatives, there’s nothing positive about the culture so if that’s how we want to be seen by the rest of the world as a sort of bad weathered. You know, the ting that always astounds me about this country is that I don’t people on this island realise how fucking small it is?
MK: Is it different when you go to other countries? Do you get treated differently?
DA: Yeah, course you do. Even France! Well there wasn’t any extraterrestrial – whatever you want to call it – when we were growing up. There was Top of the Pops, Jools Holland had still just started but wasn’t regular. And like one program in the morning or whatever.
But the press was quite good.
Well you have Sounds, Melody Maker and NME. So in a way it was kind of not much different from now. It just seems the more magazines there are surely the less actual kind of good stuff available because it’s just been so diluted by everything. It can’t possibly be a good thing having so much.
MK: Especially when it’s all corporate.
DA: Well, everything is. Corporations, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to work out how to work in a positive harmony with them and can never work it out.
MK: Do you have any regrets about your career?
DA: Well I could say well I regret a lot of stuff I did when I was a lot younger but that was just because I didn’t really have the right guidance or maybe I was just really eager and enthusiastic and didn’t really understand the negative sides of pursuing fame. But, you know, all the stupid stuff I’ve done I’ve learnt from and kind of found myself in a much better space. I still consider myself to be a kind of beginner, you know what I mean? That’s where I see myself: at the beginning. I might be deluding myself.
Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.
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