WHEN DAMON ALBARN was nine, he persuaded his parents, who were in the process of moving house from Leytonstone in east London to rural Essex, to let him travel to Istanbul with a family friend.
“I found myself on my own a lot and every day I wandered around the city just trying to take everything in,” he says. “I went into mosques to watch people praying and sat in rug shops in the souks drinking tea and chatting. It was quite bizarre when I come to think of it, but I was too mesmerised by the sights and the sounds and the smells of the place to be scared in any way.”
Although he knew that he would be going back to a new life in the village of Aldham near Colchester, Albarn says his nine-year-old self was utterly unprepared for the sense of dislocation he subsequently felt there. “The reality was that everything had changed in my life. I came back into this extremely Anglo-Saxon, grey, conservative world where there was no understanding of the other world I had left behind just 60 miles down the road. So, that was definitely the moment I became a bit other, an outsider.”
Bullied at his new primary school and feeling cut off from the multi-cultural thrust of Leytonstone, Albarn read Herman Hesse and “various books on Buddhism”. He also sought solace in the countryside near his new home, where he explored the woods in search of “interesting trees where I could make little shrines”. Throughout his early teenage years, until he met future Blur guitarist, Graham Coxon, at Stanway comprehensive in Colchester in the mid-1980s, Albarn was a city kid adrift in the Essex countryside.
“I definitely delved into that period in my childhood for the new album,” he says. “I honestly think it’s what set me up to be the person I am now. It’s me saying ‘This is where I came from and how I got to be who I am’.”
The record in question is his first solo album, Everyday Robots. It is, by and large, a melancholy, daydreamy affair that makes often oblique connections between his life then and our digitally connected, but increasingly atomised lives now. “We are everyday robots on our phones…” sings Albarn plaintively on the title track, “Looking like standing stones, out there on our own.” That sentiment is echoed in different ways on tracks including ‘Lonely’, ‘Press Play’ and ‘Hostiles’, which was written after spending last Christmas at his mother-in-law’s house “spending hours on the sofa playing The Dark Knight video game with my daughter, just zapping these endless characters with no real humanity”. (Albarn lives with the artist Suzi Winstanley, who makes paintings of animals in the wild. Their teenage daughter, Missy, was named after the hip-hop artist Missy Elliott.) But it is on two autobiographical songs, ‘Hollow Ponds’ and ‘You and Me’, that Albarn delves deepest into the past.
On the former, he evokes times and places from his childhood, beginning at the Hollow Ponds, a man-made lake near his home on Fillebrook Road, Leytonstone, where local kids congregated to swim in the great heatwave of 1976. “Some days, it felt like all of multicultural London was there and I was part of it,” he says, sounding wistful. “Up until this record and the recent Culture Show film [in which he wandered around Leytonstone revisiting his early haunts], I don’t think most people knew I even came from east London. They had this image of me as this middle-class kid from Colchester with a mockney accent. But I grew up in ’70s London and it was an incredibly interesting, vibrant place. It formed me in a far more profound way than I ever realised until I tried to articulate it.”
We are sitting in the upstairs living room of Albarn’s extensive rehearsal-cum-recording studio in west London overlooking the Westway, sipping an invigorating healthy drink that he has just concocted by pushing carrots, beetroots, apples and ginger through a juicer. The place is filled with the evidence of his nomadic musical lifestyle: religious icons from Ethiopia, a framed print by the veteran Malian studio photographer Malick Sidibé and, surreally, a set of wooden puppets from Jakarta that are meant to depict Albarn at various ages, but look nothing like him at all.
There is a ping-pong table in the middle of the room but, mercifully, he does not challenge me to a game. He is ruthlessly competitive and tells me that he once managed to alienate an entire audience at a club gig in Lagos by thrashing a succession of local contenders at table tennis just before he went on stage. This comfortably functional space is where his solo album was conceived and where, when he is not touring or travelling, Albarn works nine to five every weekday. “It’s not very rock’n’roll, is it?” he says of his rigorous work ethic. “But I need routine. It’s just the way I’m wired. I hate wasting time, because life is just way too short for that. And I hate doing things that disrupt my routine,” he adds, somewhat pointedly. “It’s hard to get back into the swing if your day is disrupted.”
His collaborator on Everyday Robots was producer and XL Records label boss Richard Russell, whose ambient electronic soundscapes define the mood as much as Albarn’s plaintive vocals. Russell says the album is “filled with the ghosts of many late nights” and describes it as “a bit of a smoker’s record”, which just about captures its drifting, almost soporific sway. It was Russell who urged Albarn to indulge his more reflective, melancholy side. I put it to Albarn that, apart from a few moments like the upbeat, childlike ‘Mr Tembo’, a gospel-inflected ode to a baby elephant he encountered in Tanzania, it all sounds surprisingly sad, mournful even. “Well, it’s an album about love, loss, getting older and learning to live with that,” he says. “I’m not consciously melancholic, in fact I am often the opposite – boisterous and outgoing. So that melancholy feel may come from the way I use certain chords, which, as it happens, is very similar to certain English folk singers.”
He also seems to be channelling the pagan folk tradition with references to the spirit of the Green Man and placing pentangles in tree shrines on Hollow Ponds. It’s a long way from W11, the trendy west London neighbourhood that he and Russell live and work in. (Their neighbour Brian Eno makes a guest appearance, duetting with Albarn on ‘Heavy Seas of Love’ – “He goes to the same gym as Damon and me,” says Russell.)
“It’s kind of innate, that traditional folk thing,” says Albarn. “When I close my eyes, I often imagine what this area must have looked like in ancient times – slightly elevated, the Thames valley in the distance and loads of green countryside. It fascinates me maybe because it’s something to keep hold of when you live in a big city. So, there are traditional aspects of our old English culture on the album – trees, magic, the Green Man, the pentagram. It’s just rural tradition and the power of the countryside, but, when I talk about it,” he says, looking a bit narked, “it’s suddenly classed as pagan witchcraft.”
He is referring, I assume, to Q magazine’s recent feature about him, which was trailed, tabloid-style, on the front cover as “Witchcraft, Heroin, Bullying and Me: Damon Albarn’s Secret Past”. Though the magazine’s inference that he may have latent occult tendencies went uncommented-upon, his acknowledgment that he had dabbled in heroin during the dog days of Britpop did not. Several mainstream news stories ensued, all putting particular emphasis on his admission that, for a time, he had found the drug “incredibly creative” and “incredibly productive”. (Bemusingly, he had already admitted the same in an interview with the Guardian in 2012, but without causing such a stir.)
When I ask him about the other more hazily biographical song on the new album, ‘You and Me’, on which he sings the line “Tin foil and a lighter, the ship across, five days on, two days off”, he shifts in his seat, palpably uncomfortable. “Yeah, that is a reference to my heroin period about 15 years ago, but do we have to go there?” Given that he went there in the song, it would seem odd not to. Why, for instance, did he feel the need to revisit his heroin period now? “Who knows?” he says, wearily. “An image can come out of my unconscious and I will just go with it.”
Was there a need to get the whole subject of heroin off his chest though, given all the rumours that have circulated since the final days of Blur? “Maybe… Yes. Those rumours have been lingering since ‘Beetlebum’ [a Blur song from 1997 in which he sings “She turns me on/ I just slip away and I am gone”, which is widely understood to be a reference to his broken relationship with Justine Frischmann of Elastica, whose heroin use was not such a well-kept secret]. I suppose it’s just me saying, ‘Let’s just get this out of the way. I took heroin for a while and I found it interesting and, yes, it was remarkably helpful in the creative process for a short time. I didn’t go down in the gutter, in fact I was incredibly disciplined about it. Blah blah blah. So what?'”
He stands up and strides over to the corner. “If this room is my solo record,” he says, picking up a small African carving, “this statue is that one song. But, you know, this is the kind of stuff that the senior staff of music papers think people want to read about. If you don’t say anything about it, you’re too guarded. If you do, it becomes this big issue.” He sits back down again. “It was such a long time ago and, really, I don’t want to say anything more about it.”
In one way, then, Damon Albarn’s solo outing is about setting the record straight, both about his upbringing and about the darker side of Britpop. Twenty years on, that time is still synonymous with the orchestrated rivalry between Blur and Oasis, which fixed the former in the public consciousness as middle-class, southern, arty popsters against the latter’s working class, northern, supposedly more authentic rock’n’roll. “The whole class thing was just insane,” says Albarn, growing suddenly animated even after all these years. “But we were young and we let ourselves get caught up in it. And the competitiveness was ridiculous for a while, but, you know, I was never gonna beat Noel [Gallagher] in a war of words.”
(The class issue re-emerged just days ago, when old Harrovian pop star James Blunt took a surreal swipe at Albarn in The Sun, saying Albarn had “an orchard full of plums in his mouth and a silver spoon stuck up his arse”.)
While he has long since buried the hatchet with Noel, Albarn’s post-Blur trajectory has often seemed driven by a desire to shed both his Britpop persona and his art-pop roots. Since Blur imploded, he has become a very contemporary kind of pop star: constantly moving forward, shifting identity and style with each project. Initially inspired by the collective approach of Bristolian pioneers Massive Attack, Albarn jettisoned what he calls “the weight of being in a rock group” for a much looser role as a kind of free-floating creative catalyst. “I remember being on tour and listening to their first album, Blue Lines, and being really jealous of their freedom, not to be tied to a band structure. It was a model for the future.”
While some of his contemporaries struggled to redefine themselves post‑Britpop, Albarn teamed up with comic artist Jamie Hewlett to make four successful studio albums with virtual pop group Gorillaz before forming the Good, the Bad and the Queen with Paul Simonon, erstwhile bass player with the Clash, and the great Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. “When I first started working with Damon, some music people I know said, ‘Don’t go there, it’ll be a nightmare,'” says Simonon. “But, in fact, he was the complete opposite. His approach was more, ‘If you’ve got a better idea, let’s do it.'”
Since then, Albarn has worked in Mali with local musicians: “Mali transformed the way I make music, but it also energised me as it was free from all the cliquishness and cool of the pop scene.” He has also toured and recorded with the hybrid Africa Express and, alongside Russell, produced an acclaimed comeback album for the veteran soul singer Bobby Womack. Along the way, he somehow found time to co-write and produce two ambitiously theatrical pop operas, Monkey: Journey to the West (2007) and Dr Dee(2011), both of which premiered at the Manchester international festival.
If he still has shades of that precocious youngster sipping tea and chatting with the locals in Istanbul, Albarn certainly inspires fierce loyalty in those he has worked with. “What I envy about him is that he is incredibly free from inhibitions,” says Rufus Norris, soon-to-be director of the National Theatre, who collaborated with Albarn on Dr Dee. “If he thinks something might work, he just goes with it, whether it’s an opera or an experiment that brings together rock musicians and traditional African musicians. I actually think there is something childlike about his enthusiasm for the new and adventurous and I find it so refreshing. He’s uncluttered by the baggage of being cool and he is incredibly competitive without being ego-driven.”
Simonon concurs: “One of his gifts is his ability to bring disparate people together and fire them up. In that way, he’s more like a conductor or a composer than a pop musician. If you put that together with his English pop sensibility, he’s like the Vaughan Williams of British rock’n’roll.”
Some of Albarn’s restless creativity must surely come from his parents: his mother, Hazel, was a set designer for the radical theatre director Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. His father, Keith, managed the ’60s experimental rock group Soft Machine before teaching art at North East London Polytechnic, where his pupils included Ian Dury and Adam Ant, and then running the art and design department of Colchester Institute.
“I was always going to graduation shows, foundation shows and private views,” remembers Albarn. “All that stuff goes in, I guess.” Likewise, he absorbed his parents’ liberal-left politics, becoming an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war alongside his friend Robert “3D” del Naja of Massive Attack. “My dad saw his art school turned into an art and design school and then into an industrial design school and he was fighting those kinds of political decisions every day as well as the cuts,” says Albarn. “I remember him coming home exhausted and angry from fighting that cynical attack on the great art school tradition.”
Albarn grew up as a pop fan in thrall to the Specials and lead singer Terry Hall in particular: “I was obsessed with him, I could not imagine anyone cooler.” He speaks passionately about what he calls “the implication of the Specials as a reflection of multicultural London – what they were saying on songs like ‘Ghost Town’ had a very powerful impact on me.”
‘Ghost Town’, a song about inner-city decline, unemployment and thefallout of the riots of that year, reached No 1 in 1981; does he think pop music has lost much of its cultural and political import since? He nods his head furiously. “Completely and utterly. It’s bereft of it. It’s a shame because the three-minute pop song was such a great way to express discontent. But we have allowed our pop music to become dumber. You have to look to the margins for a lot of the really interesting stuff. With the mainstream, it’s like we’ve gone back to showbusiness again. It’s a pop landscape that exists like Dylan and the Beatles never happened, never mind the Specials.”
Albarn’s next project is another opera, this time in the company of Simon McBurney, director of theatre group Complicité. “It’s an adaptation of a much-loved children’s book,” he says, refusing to be drawn further. “And it’s a relief not to sing about myself.” I ask him if he thinks his upbringing gave him the confidence – some would say arrogance – to attempt anything that takes his fancy, from African music to opera. “Is that arrogance?” he counters, looking affronted. “I’d say it’s curiosity. I’m learning, it’s fun. I’m up for throwing myself into anything. Really, I’m an idiot when it comes to opera and I know that the opera world probably hates me, but I love it. I love theatre. I love the adventure of it. And, if I’m not good at something, I like to get better. It maybe goes back to failing A-level music, but that’s how I am.”
On a cold March evening in Manchester, as a headliner at the first 6 Music festival, Albarn previewed Everyday Robots before a packed and lively audience in the cavernous, concrete space that is Victoria Warehouse, perhaps the least suitable venue for these often slow, tentative songs. He looks nervous beforehand, pacing the backstage area with his dapper young band, the Heavy Seas, but they just about pull it off, the crowd attentive but only really igniting when he plays an old Blur B-side. Afterwards, in a small, crammed dressing room, he looks relieved, if slightly shell-shocked. When I mention this, he smiles and says: “That was a tightrope walk. It was quite an ask – a Friday night festival packed with people drinking and wanting to let loose and we appear with a bunch of quiet songs that no one had ever heard before. I like a challenge, but that was pushing it.”
And pushing it, of course, is what Damon Albarn does best. “You have to keep moving forward,” he says at one point. “Something terrible happens to you if you just stay the same. We are only here for a very brief time and if you are not inhaling as much as you can – excuse the metaphor – you’re just wasting precious moments of time.”
© Sean O’Hagan, The Observer, 27 April 2014