Damon Albarn’s latest career twist is an occult opera, but rumours about Blur won’t disappear. ShortList’s Terri White asks the difficult questions
Damon Albarn wants to get something off his chest.
It’s 10am, we’re in Albarn’s west London studio and ShortList is all set to interview him for the release of his new album — and arguably most surprising project to date — a folk opera inspired by Elizabethan mathematician and astrologer Dr John Dee.
But before we get to that, it’s four days since the 44-year-old musician appeared — rather solemnly — on the front page of a Guardian supplement with the quote: ‘The end is nigh: Damon Albarn on the last days of Blur’. A flurry of headlines followed the interview, all screaming that this is the end of Blur and Gorillaz (more on that later). The thing really getting his goat on this particular Wednesday morning however is a seemingly innocuous comment a few paragraphs in, noting his displeasure with a planned ‘34-storey student hall of residence’ directly across from his studio.
Apparently this isn’t the case. This really, really isn’t the case.There is a half-finished student halls building to the right of his view, which he stresses, he’s perfectly happy with. It’s a proposed office block to the left of that he objects to.
“If you can imagine a 32-storey office block, being built directly there…” he gesticulates straight in front of him. “So that’s what I was trying to explain. It comes across in the [article] like I’m living in this castle in the middle of the countryside.”
Not content that we’ve got his point, he picks up a random mattress and a plastic cup, propping them up to show us the scale and the shadow the tower will create. After we’ve nodded furiously for long enough, he sits down. “It’s a bit depressing when the press twists something and makes out you’re objecting to students,” he sighs. ShortList looks awkwardly at our flashing voice recorder. [The Guardian later removed the comment from its website at his request.]
This is the worry when interviewing Damon Albarn. He has a tricky, prickly relationship with the press and famously greets any question he doesn’t like with a long, long, long stony silence. We’re relieved to say that’s not the Damon Albarn we meet.
We’re both suffering with colds, and as we share spluttering war stories he offers ShortList some of the grapes he’s chomping on to try to shift the sickliness. He’s passionate, terrifyingly articulate and just, well, a bloody nice bloke. That’s not to say he doesn’t still think we’re going to stitch him up, though…
Dr Dee is a stunning record, but it’s not an easy listen…
No, it’s not and it’s not an easy thing to talk about. That’s what’s making me really nervous at the moment. I want to be enthusiastic about it and explain, but the language you have to inevitability use to explain a record like this, in the modern idiom — especially in pop music — just looks completely mad. It looks like I’ve completely lost it.
Do you think people will get it?
I think if you just listen to it a few times, yeah. The sense of it is that the emotional flow of it works, but I don’t think necessarily it explains the life of Dr Dee very well.
What first attracted you to the story of John Dee?
I knew next to nothing about him until I was introduced to [graphic novelist and writer] Alan Moore. He knows everything about John Dee and he was extremely generous with his time in explaining and helping me understand the context and importance of a man like him in Elizabethan England. He was someone who worked right at the epicentre of government but was also an outsider, and a lot of his ideas were quite barmy, really.
Albarn’s complete immersion in the subject is apparent. The studio is littered with material — Everyman’s Book Of English Folk Tales sits on the crammed bookshelf alongside a CD box set of Sacred Music and an embroidered wall-hanging proclaiming “The Lord is my helper”. Dee was interested in the occult and there’s a Ouija board propped up in the kitchen next to the sink, which Albarn says he’s too scared to use (the Ouija board that is, not the sink).
As we talk, he runs over to the bookshelves to grab his first edition of Dee’s book of records (full title: A True And Faithful Relation Of What Passed For Many Years Between Dr John Dee, A Mathematician Of Great Fame In Queen Elizabeth And King James Reigns, And Some Spirits). As he excitedly leafs through the tome, it’s apparent that this is what gets his blood flowing. It’s just the speaking bit he’s not so keen on. “An inevitability when you talk about music, it becomes something it isn’t… It would be nice if I never had to talk about anything and just make music,” he laments. “But I know that’s not possible.” The voice recorder seems to flash a little brighter.
Where do you get your work ethic from?
My parents and grandparents. On my mum’s side, my family are all farmers and are very down-to-earth, regular, working people. When I was a little kid, I always thought I was going to be a farmer, believe it or not. I was convinced, and that was all I wanted to be. Until about the age of 11 or 12 — and then I became gripped by music.
You could have been a guitar-playing farmer…
A lot of my relations are.
It’s hard to think of a current musician whose work is quite so broad. Apart from Dr Dee (which he’s also performing live this summer with the English National Opera), Albarn’s produced a Bobby Womack album, is working on a solo record, has side project Rocket Juice & The Moon with Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and is involved with music initiative Africa Express. Not to mention the small matter of that Hyde Park Olympics gig with Blur this summer; the gig that’s been loudly heralded as their swansong, leaving scores of grown men mopping their tears with a favourite Fred Perry shirt.
Did you ever try to take any of those more diverse elements into Blur?
That’s an interesting one, and if we were to make another record, bearing in mind it’s been a long time since we did anything… [pauses]. Although, it’s kind of weird how it’s placed as a current thing when we haven’t done anything for more than 10 years. And there’s been, for everybody, an awful lot of water under the bridge, so if we were to do anything — although there are no plans — it would be interesting to see where it would arrive at, because it would be very different, I imagine.
Would you be keen to push it into a different place?
I just think it would be. Everybody is 10 years older. The world is, in many ways, unrecognisable. The pre-internet world that Blur existed in is gone; it’s finished.
Now, the interview last weekend where you said…
[Interrupts] Well, it started with that [points out of window] and somehow turned that into a 32-storey student thing, which it’s not. That’s great. It’s a nice building…
Well, it seems to have become an absolute now, that the Hyde Park gig is the last we’ll hear of Blur…
[Interrupts loudly] Well, that’s not true at all! What it is: it feels like a full stop, but you just don’t know. How can you be that clear about something? In my mind, I see a scenario, but it probably won’t be that and I don’t know how I’ll feel on the day, anyway. None of us know. We’ve talked about it privately — it’s like: we don’t know how we’re going to feel, we’re just going to make sure we’re ready and do our best and try to put on a fantastic show for everybody. And after that, who knows?
Is there unfinished business with Gorillaz?
It’s strange to talk about a beginning and an end for that, because it was very much Jamie [Hewlett] did the visuals and I did the music. The music won’t change, so there could be another Gorillaz record tomorrow. It wouldn’t necessarily have Murdoch — the cartoon aspect to it — but musically, no, nothing’s changed whatsoever. But Jamie wants to do other things and I understand. But you never know, in a few years he might have a burning desire to draw those pictures again, and as soon as he does that, as far as I’m concerned, there could be another Gorillaz album.
Well, that’s that cleared up then. Knowing exactly when to drop the curtain on Blur is an obvious concern, and you get the sense that they don’t want to outstay their welcome. The Olympics gig is not without a smidgen of controversy. The line-up — Blur, New Order and The Specials — may have those men wringing out their Fred Perry shirts for one last outing, but is it a true picture of Britain in 2012? Critics have pointed to the lack of new bands. It could be accused of being — whisper it — a bit old.
Do you think the line-up is representative?
We did ask a lot of other people, but they were doing other shows on the same day.
You knew we were going to ask…
It doesn’t matter, does it? We asked a lot of other people. There’s an awful lot of amazing music within New Order and The Specials, and on a night like that [at the closing ceremony concert] maybe you need big populist tunes to sustain the feeling. But, you know, The Specials were instrumental in the breakthrough and cross-pollination and progression of race relations in Britain. And New Order are responsible for so many quantum shifts — dance music would not be the same without [them]. So I don’t think we’ve done too badly. I admit that there aren’t too many young bands on there, but that’s just the way it’s turned out.
Which leaves one subject untouched. The subject that we’re pretty sure could incur the stony silence we’ve heard of. Noel Gallagher. We tell Albarn that when ShortList interviewed Gallagher a few months ago he explained how the pair had bumped into each other the night before and had a drink together for the first time in 15 years. For the first time since their pop rivalry became seriously vitriolic.
Did either of you actually say sorry to each other?
No, we didn’t need to say sorry. I never held anything against him, even right in the middle of it. I just kind of admired them in a way; that they were better at handling it all than me. They didn’t seem to get too affected by the bullsh*t. I was just glad to have the chat. And as I suspected, we got on just fine.
Would you ever collaborate with Noel Gallagher?
[Slowly] Would I ever collaborate with Noel Gallagher? [Pauses] Well, why not? He should come on the Africa Express train in September. That’d be a nice chance to collaborate.
He described a moment at the height of his partying days when he thought, “I just can’t do this any more.” Was there ever a point like that for you?
What aspect of doing it?
Oh God, yeah, I can’t do that any more… pathetic. I mean, I like to think I can, but I can’t.
You also recently talked about the drugs stuff [Albarn’s rumoured heroin use], which you’ve never really talked about before…
[Interrupting] Well, no, no, he [the journalist from the aforementioned broadsheet] asked me! It’s old news. We’re talking 15 years ago. It’s kind of bizarre that it even makes it into a newspaper.
With that, Albarn’s PR begins politely hovering near us and our time together is over. But not before we go outside, so he can show us once more the spot he’s unhappy with being developed and the student halls he’s fine with. Fine, you hear? As we leave, he jokingly asks that we don’t stitch him up. “How about the headline ‘Damon hates students’?” “Nooo,” he groans, half-smiling and probably half-expecting it.
(Photography: Linda Brownlee)