Damon Albarn: From Pop to Opera

He’s indifferent to money and drugs. He hates the celebrity circus. And he famously said no to Tony Blair — but yes to getting drunk with John Prescott. Damon Albarn tells all.

EVERYBODY WHO has known Damon Albarn for any length of time comments on two things: his extraordinary self-confidence and his competitiveness.

He is, by all accounts, alpha male in excelsis. His schoolfriend from Stanway Comprehensive in Essex, Graham Coxon – with whom he founded the band that became Blur – remembers how, in the early days, Albarn would drive them, uninvited, to other groups’ gigs and hustle a half-hour slot on the bill. “Damon was absolutely terrier-like, quite unlikable in a way,” he says.

After the band signed to Food Records (later acquired by EMI) in 1989, their go-to guy at the company, Tony Wadsworth, noticed how “Damon was so cocky he found it difficult to go anywhere without getting punched”. Wadsworth was convinced that Albarn would succeed: “He had huge talent and he was relentlessly ambitious,” he says.

Later on, in 1995, there was the Britpop “battle of the bands” episode – a chart contest initiated by Albarn in which, in a blaze of skilfully orchestrated publicity, Blur’s single ‘Country House’ beat ‘Roll With It’ by Oasis to the No 1 slot. That joust turned nasty, with Noel Gallagher publicly stating that he hoped Albarn would die from AIDS. But many of Albarn’s enduring friendships seem to have had competitive roots too. Jamie Hewlett, the creator of the Tank Girl cartoon strip and, since 2000, Albarn’s partner in their virtual band Gorillaz, says that when they first met in 1990 they “didn’t like each other, and I think that was because we were quite similar, equally confident, a bit arrogant”. It was eight years before the two men really spoke, and in no time at all they became flatmates, bandmates, and soulmates who still live across the road from each other in west London, and sometimes holiday together, now that they’re settled with kids.

This is often the way it works with Damon Albarn, apparently. According to another musical sparring partner, Blur’s bassist, Alex James, “In the Robin Hood stories, Robin likes to have a fight with everyone he meets before he becomes their friend. Damon loves Robin Hood and he loves a tussle.” As time has gone by, and he’s turned 40 and become a father, his fondness for Hood-like tussles has turned into something more mellow and eccentric.

In the converted paint factory near London’s Westway that now serves as his and Hewlett’s studio and HQ, I no sooner hunker down on the back terrace with this lively, stubbly character whose crooked, gold-toothed grin lends him a piratical air, and whose accent is itself a contest between the genteel and the estuarine – “wiv” for “with” being a favourite Damonism – than Albarn is off. As a passenger train rattles past the square, four-storey building, he leaps up and waves energetically in the train’s direction. He keeps this up, at intervals of 10 minutes or so, for the duration of our two-hour interview. He claims he does it any time he happens to be within waving distance, despite the fact that nobody, so far, has waved back. The most he’s ever got by way of response, he says, “was a horn and half an arm once from one of the drivers. Generally, no one’s looking when they come past here, for some reason”. Undeterred, he is determined to keep on waving.

With anybody else, this might seem like a pointless charade. With Albarn, it feels like an authentic expression of that bumptious, competitive personality of his – an outrider of his boyish exuberance, his relentless attention-seeking, his unbridled compulsion to communicate. In particular, it stands as a slightly comedic example of his tireless recent pursuit of goals that look, on paper at least, either unlikely or unachievable, or both.

He has set himself quite a few of these since he began diverting from Blur. The 21st century has found Albarn in a frenzy of career swerves that has established him as an unpredictably protean figure. Not since David Bowie in the 1970s has one pop person covered so much diverse ground. First there was Gorillaz, the wildly popular virtual hip-hop group based around Jamie Hewlett’s Japanese-style cartoon animation, whose two albums have already outsold Blur’s entire catalogue. Then came Albarn’s conversion to African music following a trip to Mali with Oxfam in 2000. This culminated in Albarn lambasting Bob Geldof’s Live 8 for excluding African artists, and setting up Africa Express, an organisation that facilitates intercontinental concert jams like the one that took place in Liverpool in March this year featuring, among others, the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand and the Senegalese vocalist Baaba Maal.

It’s not as if Albarn has totally abandoned being a rock star or forsaken the limelight for the impresario’s role.

For anybody who missed his mockney vocal presence in front of a band, there was, in 2003, Think Tank – a Blur album in name at least, despite the absence of the linchpin guitarist and recovering alcoholic Graham Coxon. Albarn was back out there again in 2006 with The Good, the Bad and the Queen, a concept album about London through the ages that found him in temporary cahoots with the Clash’s old bassist, Paul Simonon, and the legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen.

But all of the above rank as sideshows in comparison to the project that has absorbed most of his attention for the past three years. Monkey: Journey to the West is an extraordinary piece of Chinese musical theatre conceived by the Gorillaz duo in collaboration with the director Chen Shi-Zheng. Based on an ancient folk tale, and acted and sung in Mandarin, with visuals by Hewlett and a score composed by Albarn, mainly using the traditional Chinese five-note, or pentatonic, scale, Monkey bears little resemblance to anything Albarn – or anybody else, for that matter – has done before. (The commission came to him through contacts he made at the Barbican Centre in 2002 while staging a concert of Malian music.) Premiered at the Manchester International Festival in June last year and performed since at a series of opera houses across Europe, Monkey has attracted the best reviews of Albarn’s already pretty-well-reviewed career.

He took some persuading to sign up for his most ambitious project to date, and only finally agreed to it after two reconnaissance trips to China, during which he visited the Dhong people in the south and then stayed in Chengdu near the Tibet border. He says he became entranced by Chinese culture after visiting a temple high in the mountains that was connected to the valley below by a 42-kilometre stone staircase. Albarn then went and stayed with a Chinese composer in Beijing who had a collection of 500 books of folk songs, an experience that inspired his own score for Monkey.

It is not over yet. In November, a revised version of Monkey, shortened and with an interval, “so it works better for a much wider audience”, returns to London for a four-week run in a 2,500-capacity tent next to the O2 centre, or the Millennium Dome as was. The hope is that, along with attracting a less arty crowd, the production might finally make some money for its creators, who are, so far, out of pocket on the enterprise to the tune of about £1.2m. This was the sum Gorillaz had to pay to secure all rights to the performance from the French government, who funded the original production through the Paris-based Châtelet opera company.

Albarn insists that he is not financially secure and still needs to earn a living, but he seems impeccably unmotivated by personal gain. In the Blur days, he always split the songwriting royalties with the others, despite the fact that he wrote most of the songs on his own. Jamie Hewlett gets half of everything that Gorillaz makes, including the proceeds of the CDs, though he contributes nothing to the music. Albarn’s manager, Chris Morrison, tells how when he and Hewlett put together the all-star Gorillaz live show, Demon Days, in 2005, Albarn declined the offer of a six-figure sponsorship deal with Motorola: “Damon said when you do things like that for money, it always comes back to bite you.” The show ended up just breaking even. Albarn also turned down a lucrative bid for Blur to re-form to headline this year’s Glastonbury festival, because he “just didn’t fancy it”. (The rapper Jay-Z was hurriedly drafted in as a replacement.)

Albarn says he relished the fact that “we weren’t getting paid properly for Monkey. Just a nominal fee, because that meant it had to be something we were sure we really wanted to do”. When asked what a “nominal fee” might represent to a man who has sold around 30m albums in his career to date, Albarn laughs. “Not enough if you’ve built an organisation around yourself with over 20 employees and you’re also paying for orchestras and flights and stuff. The original fee didn’t even cover our expenses.”

If Monkey does well down at the O2, however, Albarn says, “We might make some money. Then we’ll send it round the world. Like Mamma Mia!” He laughs uproariously at this thought, although the way some of his gambles have paid off recently – particularly Gorillaz, the world’s first platinum-selling, comic-strip pop band – it would hardly come as a total surprise if Monkey were to turn into the world’s first Chinese-language hit musical.

“It took a lot of time and money and people, and it’s been a big roll of the dice,” Albarn concludes with another of those blue-eyed piratical grins. “I like rolling dice.”

Damon Albarn was born in London in 1968 to parents who were in touch with, though not acid-blasted leaders of, the capital’s “underground” in-crowd. His mother, Hazel, worked as a stage designer for Joan Littlewood’s company at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, near the family’s Whitechapel home. His father, Keith, was, among other things, tour manager for the jazz-rock trio Soft Machine. One of Damon’s earliest memories was of watching the band in concert in the south of France.

“Dad took them down to Nice to play on the beach,” he says. “He put a load of petrol in the bay and when they were on, he lit it. Not very PC, but it looked amazing.”

Fine art, rather than rock music, was Keith’s first love. He had a gallery for a while in Kingly Street in London, where fashionable types like Yoko Ono would hang out; and he also presented the TV arts review Late Night Line-Up. After moving into education, specialising in Islamic culture, Keith Albarn became principal of various art colleges and faculties in Essex, including North East London Polytechnic in Walthamstow, where he taught Ian Dury.

His son loved all of it. “I spent my whole life from when I was in nappies going to private views. The art-school environment was my whole life. My parents gave me all the bits that go with being bohemian, all the art, but not the lifestyle. My mum often says to me, ‘We were a lot more grown-up then than you are now.’ ” (He remains close to his parents, who have a house in Devon near to his own.)

In what probably counts as the only significant failure of his life to date, Damon Albarn bungled his 11-plus and went to a comprehensive in Colchester, where he was noticed by his soon-to-be best friend, Graham Coxon. Coxon was impressed by Albarn’s singing in a school production of West Side Story. “I just couldn’t believe his confidence. His family definitely encouraged him to be expressive, and to show off at dinner. Damon had developed a sort of quirky misbehaviour that was unusual in a kid-mischievous way, but not sweary or rude.”

Albarn’s easy-going disobedience, coupled with his brass-necked self-belief, didn’t play well at Stanway Comprehensive – “I was very unpopular, especially with the teachers,” he says – and eventually led to him and Coxon retreating into music. The pair spent all their breaks in a Portakabin playing piano and guitars and, when they could get hold of it, the school synthesiser. After sixth form, Albarn briefly attended Joan Littlewood’s E15 drama centre, where he decided that he couldn’t act for toffee, and he then enrolled on a part-time music course at Goldsmiths in southeast London. Here his friend Coxon was already hanging out with future stars of the Britart movement, such as Damien Hirst, as well as a bass guitarist who was later to become a prominent pin-up of Britpop, Alex James. “I only went to Goldsmiths,” Albarn says, “so that I could hang out in the bar with Graham and Alex and Damien, and that generation of artists.”

Soon after Blur had started to make their presence felt, Albarn met and fell in love with a fellow guitarist, a tall, dark rich kid called Justine Frischmann, who played in the group Elastica. Frischmann proved to be highly influential, partly because, as Albarn puts it, “between her and Graham I had a crash course in the essential nature of being cool in pop”, and also because she introduced him to the groovy west London quarter of Notting Hill/Portobello, where she owned a house and where he has lived ever since he moved in with her in 1990.

They stayed together for eight years and, as Britpop took off, became the movement’s flagship couple.

Their separation in 1998 is generally assumed to have been precipitated by Frischmann’s heroin addiction, but Albarn rejects this. “Justine is a very bright girl and it wasn’t just the drugs that sunk us; it was me as well. We weren’t generally very balanced people.”

Others who remember Albarn at the height of Blur’s success in the mid-1990s suggest that he had a breakdown following the tabloid hysteria provoked by the group’s breakthrough album, Parklife. “Damon really couldn’t handle pop stardom,” says one associate from that time. The competitor in Albarn, however, doesn’t much care for that word “breakdown”. “I suppose I had a bit of a one – panic attacks, the whole shebang, but I conquered it.” With professional help? “Naaah, I’m not that sort of person. My inner voice is strong enough to tell me when I’m going off the rails. If I don’t do anything about it, it’s my fault, not anybody else’s. I need to deal with it myself. It’s not the case that I bottle things up. I believe in expressing myself. I just don’t share this idea that everything has to be exhumed and analysed. It’s so easy to go down that path.”

Britpop was fuelled by cocaine, a situation Albarn drew attention to when he alluded to “the blizzard” of white powder he saw around him in 1996. But he insists that, unlike other members of his group – notably Alex James, who claimed to have spent £1m in one year on coke and champagne – he was not one of Britpop’s army of “caners”. “I’ve never had a problem with drugs. At the time I made that comment about cocaine, I wasn’t taking anything at all, hand on heart. I avoided cocaine for the whole of that fame period, which was extraordinary. I was one of the only people not doing it. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done it since. But the bottom line is, I don’t need it. I get up in the morning with a lot of zest for life.”

The other thing Albarn wisely avoided during his poptastic phase was the attention of new Labour and its avid stalking of the “Cool Britannia” crowd. Though he received an invitation, Damon Albarn was a high-profile no-show at the party Tony Blair threw at Downing Street in 1997 for the young showbiz glitterati, including Noel Gallagher. The reason Albarn didn’t attend wasn’t Noel-related; it stemmed from an earlier meeting that he’d had with Blair while the politician was still in opposition.

“Tony Blair invited me to come and see him in 1995 in his private office in the Commons. Alastair Campbell sat behind me and John Prescott sat in front.” Albarn mimes Campbell gesturing behind his back to Blair, and laughs hysterically. “It freaked me out when Blair asked me, ‘What do you think young people want?’ He treated me like a real voice-of-youth. Then he said at the end, ‘Well, if you’re still successful come the next election, we could do business together.’ That’s actually what he said! And I got letters from his office afterwards when I said how hypocritical I thought it was for him to send his kids to private schools. He really didn’t like it. I sent a letter back saying, ‘I enjoyed the schmooze but I’ve become a communist.’ “

And had he? “I don’t know what my politics are, but I do believe that education and the arts are things that should not be exclusive and should be taken very seriously.”

The evening of the Blair meeting had, he recalls, a strange coda. “I went off with John Prescott to the Commons bar and started drinking lots of gin and tonics with him. And I mean lots, into the night. It was a small bender. I really liked Prescott, infinitely more than I liked Blair. He felt much more genuine. And he told me that night, ‘The shit’s gonna hit the fan in six or seven years.’ ” Albarn, one of few observers ever to have credited John Prescott with a gift for prophecy, says that this comment “haunted me for years”, and that “that whole encounter marked the beginning of my exit from all things mainstream, really”.

Politics has been a no-no for him ever since. Albarn didn’t vote in the 1997 election, and hasn’t cast a vote in any subsequent general or local election. He despises the political posturing of fellow pop stars such as Chris Martin of Coldplay, whose sloganeering against the Iraq war at the 2003 Brits Albarn dubbed “pathetic”. You wonder, since he himself took part in the big anti-war demonstration in London around the same time, whether this might be Albarn being competitive again, but he denies it. His opposition to Britain’s involvement in Iraq derives, he says, from “having a father who’d come back with stories about the marsh Arabs, who he visited in Iraq in 1972. I’d always been exposed at home to a lot of Arabic culture”.

Albarn’s withdrawal from the mainstream in the late 1990s took various forms. He spent a lot of time in Iceland, where he bought a house and a share in a small bar in Reykjavik. We might also have new Labour to thank for the more aggressive, less commercially friendly direction Blur took in the late 1990s, with the albums Blur and 13. But the big change in his life at this time was prompted by the split in 1998 with Justine Frischmann. This led to him moving out of her house and buying his own two-bedroom flat above a carpet shop on Ladbroke Grove. To keep him company, he offered Graham Coxon’s cartoonist pal Jamie Hewlett a room. “That year with Jamie was amazing. We were both 30, we had a bit of money, and we had a lot of fun.”

After Albarn splashed out on one of the new flat-screen TVs, the pair became avid watchers of cartoon shows on MTV, such as Beavis and Butt-head, which made them think they could do something more interesting. They called their idea for a pretend pop group styled like a Japanese animation Gorillaz. “We got up one morning, Jamie drew a picture and I did a demo of a song called ‘Ghost Train’.” Albarn took this hare-brained idea to Tony Wadsworth at EMI, who agreed to support its costly development in exchange for Blur releasing a greatest hits album. While beginning work on the first Gorillaz record, Albarn says that he and Hewlett “had some incredible parties in the flat. Some very interesting people came through our door during that year”. One who turned up with increasing frequency was an artist, Suzi Winstanley, one half of the Olly and Suzi partnership, whom Albarn met one Wednesday morning when they were both guests on Libby Purvis’s Radio 4 chat show Midweek. As Albarn’s “bachelor year out” drew to a close, he and Winstanley moved into a house off Portobello and, in 1999, became parents to a daughter, Missy.

Just as he doesn’t like agonising over his problems, Albarn prefers not to disclose much about his home life other than to say that he and Suzi have no plans to marry. “I don’t think she’d marry me. Suzi doesn’t believe in marriage, and nor do I. It’s been so ruined by everybody who’s got divorced.” He credits Suzi, whose artwork with Olly is centred on them photographing wild animals in remote parts of the world, with encouraging his interest in African music. “She inspired me to get out and start travelling.”

The big casualty of all of these life-and-career changes has been Blur, and in particular Albarn’s oldest friend, the band’s guitarist, Graham Coxon. Albarn admits that Hewlett replaced Coxon as his best buddy – “Jamie took over from Graham in my life” – and that he was “lucky” to have got to know him when he did, just as Coxon’s drink problem took hold. This came to a head on the tour Blur undertook to promote their album 13, in 1999. Since then the creative partnership that kickstarted the group has dissolved – Coxon being admitted to the Priory meant that he missed the recording of Blur’s last record, Think Tank, in 2002 – and Albarn and he now have little contact. In 2005 they communicated through mediators and lawyers.

Coxon is resolutely unembittered however, insisting that “Damon has been loyal to me, but he has other things to get on with”. He thinks Albarn’s hands-off approach amounts to “tough love”. But Coxon also fingers a trait that understandably bothers him, as it does the other two members of Blur, all of whom have been forced to give up alcohol. “Damon is a swine. He can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to drink, and he’s never needed drugs. His will is so strong, he can walk away from things that other people get lost in.” Jamie Hewlett confirms this, saying Albarn is always to be found in the gym the morning after a heavy drinking session. “It’s the same with cigarettes: he’ll smoke like a chimney one night, then not touch a cigarette for three weeks.”

Both Coxon and Hewlett, who know him better than most, speak of Albarn with affection mixed with a certain bafflement. Hewlett can’t understand his combativeness coupled with his denial of his star status, as evidenced recently by Albarn having a go at a slack waitress with no regard for the possible payback in the celebrity media. “Damon said, ‘Why should I fake it? I’m acting like a normal person’ – even though he knows he isn’t.” Coxon says simply that “I miss him. I know his friendship is still there. But the flavour of Damon is so strong it overpowers me”.

Another train has come and gone, been waved at and has ignored him. Now, as the sun disappears over the other side of the railway track, Albarn’s thoughts are turning to home. Like most of the venues where he conducts his daily business, Albarn’s town house is within walking, or at least cycling, distance of all the rest. His new record company, XL, his old one, EMI, the record shop Honest Jon’s from which he runs his own label, the Hewlett homestead, and the 13 studio where they both work – not to mention his daughter’s primary school near Portobello – are all located within the same half-page of a London A-Z. “Damon is very much a ‘think-local, act-global’ sort of person,” says Alan Scholefield of Honest Jon’s, the shop Albarn wandered into to acquaint himself with African music.

Despite Hewlett’s misgivings, Albarn appears to make a pretty good fist of leading a normal life. When the pair held their joint-40th birthday party earlier this year, there were no paparazzi milling around outside until the late arrival, uninvited, of Amy Winehouse. Albarn professes to hate celebrity culture – “our collective tabloid insanity” – and deeply regrets his role, as a leader of the original Britpop scene, in fomenting it.

He’s modest about his recent achievements, describing them merely as “work that’s appropriate to a man of my age. The problem with a lot of rock stars is that they do fantastic work when they’re young, then spend the rest of their lives shackled to their past, and I don’t understand why. You’ve got the money now to go out and do some special stuff”.

He has more plans to push the envelope, he says, and has spent the day working with the American string quartet Kronos, with whom he is writing his first piece of western chamber music. “What I’ve mostly done over the past few years is study. Not the way people do at university – my work is my study,” he explains, sounding, unusually for him, ever-so-slightly pompous. This tone is swiftly banished by the sudden appearance of Jamie Hewlett, the lad of Albarn’s life, on the balcony above. Pointing at me, Albarn yells gleefully: “He says I’m overconfident and big-headed!”

At this, Hewlett gives an enigmatic smile. “Tell him confidence is a preference!” he yells back.

© Robert SandallThe Sunday Times, 2 November 2008

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