When Damon Albarn’s voice finally breaks through a seven-minute tele-connect saxophone solo I strain to hear whether the Gorillaz frontman has just said hello or if, after a morning on which our scheduled interview time has shifted twice, I have merely hallucinated a thick London accent amidst the hypnotising muzak.
As I soon discover, Albarn has an unexpectedly deep voice and a disarmingly dry sense of humour. He litters our conversation with pregnant pauses so long the Queen herself would be proud, while on the odd occasion punctuating his sentences with phrases like ‘Blimey’ and ‘Blood Hell.’ I spend the first few minutes of our interview trying to gauge whether he is disinterested or relaxed and am most relieved to find that he is the latter. In fact, for someone who has been in this game as long as Albarn, he is still obsessively passionate about the smallest of things.
Damon Albarn is a man well versed in the art of interviews. For two decades he has been making music we want to hear, from the brit-pop perfection of Blur through to the genre-bending tunes of Gorillaz. But unlike many of his 90s contemporaries, Albarn has pushed his musical envelope time and time again. Whether experimenting with the decidedly un brit-pop sounds of Blur’s final album Think Tank , writing the score for a Chinese Opera or releasing an album such as Plastic Beach, Albarn has kept his fans on their toes, and in doing so cemented himself as one of this generations great song-writers.
When I reach Albarn he is in San Francisco, mid-way through Gorillaz colossal Escape to Plastic Beach world tour. Only two nights earlier the band played to a sold-out crowd at the Gibson Amphitheatre in California, a show at which one reviewer noted “Albarn is grinning like a Cheshire Cat- he can’t get the smile off his face all night long.”
“The audiences have been just tremendous really,” Albarn happily reports, “they really get it and they love it. And we’ve been pretty grown up in the way we have paced ourselves. The priority is putting on a good show and not necessarily partying all the time. Well, definitely not partying all the time at our age – definitely not partying. But I can say hand on hearts we haven’t done one poor gig, they’ve all been really amazing.”
What do you think is working so well this time around for you, I know the NME recently quoted you as saying that you felt lucky American audiences had taken to Gorillaz so well?
I wouldn’t trust anything the NME say.
I’ll take it with a grain of salt.
Please do, because they live in a very interesting, but slightly alternative, universe compared to the rest of the world. It’s just that their world is their world. You know, when I was eighteen I loved reading about their world and desperately wanted to be part of it but I have traveled extensively since then and realised that there is a way bigger picture out there and unfortunately that is reflected in the way they approach everything, but they’re still important and it’s still great that something like that exists.
So you never find yourself picking up a copy these days?
I don’t read it no, to be honest. When it changed from that nice sort of newspapery feel to something more glossy, you know. I don’t think 42-year-old males need to read the NME though.
Well, they did say that you felt lucky because the American audiences have reacted so enthusiastically to Gorillaz as opposed to the attention they gave Blur?
I can’t believe it really and it’s a heartfelt sort of wonder cause I didn’t really put a lot of time into America with Blur, and as I’ve said before although we had a very cool, underground following it was really difficult stepping off the plane from having played to really, you know, ecstatic, empathic audiences in Europe and in the UK and also in Australia and New Zealand and then going to America always felt like it was a bit of a step down and a bit like hard work, and no-one ever got it and it was too English.
What do you think it is that has resonated with them so much about Gorillaz , and in particular Plastic Beach?
It just seems to be in tune with where America is at the moment. America is in a period of transition and sort of the idea of a very mixed crowd, an eclectic crowd is something they are embracing at the moment. So the fact that we have such a mad generational sort of mixture and Arab-American musicians, it’s good and the crowds are just so mixed it’s amazing.
More so than in England then?
At the moment, yeah. So in a way America gets it more and I’ve always thought I was such an English artist, so it’s just so strange.
You have played in some pretty amazing places on this tour prior to landing in America, none more so than your show at the Citadel (an 11th century palace ) in the Syrian capital, Damascus, did that feel as significant as it was?
Yeah absolutely it did. I think maybe this year that and Madison Square Garden are the two most sort of special moments. But Damascus will always be up there because it was such a sort of first. And the fact that we managed to jump over all the hurdles bureaucratically – between American visas, Syrian visas the Israeli issue, you know, just everything. It was a real powder keg of potential problems but everyone on both sides was really up for making it happen and it makes you wonder why we have these sort of terrible sort of fears of communicating with the Middle East or inability to communicate with the Middle East when we sort of managed to get 70 musicians from all over the place to play in there, right in the centre, right next to the grand mosque – one of the most important religious centres in the whole of Islam.
Quite symbolic at this time in particular.
Well, I think so. But I mean it’s one of those things really; you do it because you are passionate about doing it and see if it catches on [laughs].
Hopefully there’ll be more to come.
Well it would be wonderful if people thought: ‘Well, if they can do it, we can do it’ you know? It can only help.
In an interview last year you said that with the exception of the Blur set at Glastonbury you don’t think you’ll ever come off stage and think you can do better than that – do you think you will be able to have an experience like that with the Gorillaz?
Well [long pause] this is the most consistent I’ve ever felt. Which is good. [Laughs]
Finally consistent at forty-two.
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean it’s a very euphoric thing when you have 70 musicians and they are all working together and when it works it really does just kick off.
When you and Jamie decided to take this beast on the road did you think this is what is was going to become – 70 musicians playing alongside these animations?
Um, Blimey! I don’t think we could ever have sort of thought this up. When we started it was kind of, well this is quite a naughty sort of mischievous kind of idea and we can hide behind screens and pretend to be the cartoons on the front and now the cartoons have got very big, they are sort of 50 feet high now above us, so we are quite small. And it just grew and grew.
The English Press recently had a field day when you expressed disappointment at missing out on the number one chart spot because of Boyzone, how much did this really effect you?
[With momentary passion] It’s ridiculous, you know it’s just ridiculous. Sometimes, I don’t know [trails off]… What can I say, that is what happened but yes I was slightly peeved at the time. I’ve really got over it, I swear, but at the time it was a little bit embarrassing really.
Maybe you need to collaborate with Boyzone on the next album.
Ok I’ll do that.
You recently wrote a new Gorillaz single – Doncamatic with Daley – is this how you plan to release music with the band now on, or how you may consider releasing some of the tracks that didn’t make it onto Plastic Beach?
It’s got nothing to do with the tracks that didn’t make it onto Plastic Beach, it’s got nothing to do with that. I just wanted to make a pop song; I just wanted to get back on the radio. I was just fucked off no-one was playing me on the radio. When Melancholy Hill came out in England Radio One said ‘Oh no we are trying to keep our core audience under thirty’ and I was like well ‘fuck you then!,’ and radio two said ‘Oh no this is way to edgy for our over 30 audience’, so I found myself totally barred from radio and I was like, that’s not fair.
I got to know Daley and I thought he was a brilliant kind of prospect and you know and we said let’s just make a pop tune together. It’s really not rocket science. And that’s why I’m kind of a bit cynical about all these radio produces and stuff cause God bless them but [laughs] they really try to pigeon hole people. It’s all very programmed and very ‘it has to be done this way’. You know? I just like things a little bit looser than that with the possibility of surprises, you know?
I’m surprised that at this point in your career you still have to push to be played on the radio. I think many people would assume that you are at a point where that isn’t an issue.
Maybe that’s what makes me slightly different, that I still give a shit about really stupid little things. But that said, I’m very lucky.
Do you foresee another album with Gorillaz then, or is that story told?
Well, I’ve made this sort of diary record on the road here so I finish that in a couple of day’s time and I’d like to put that out in some way or another before Christmas. True to this tour.
As a Gorillaz album?
Yeah, yep why not. But it’s got nothing to do with the stuff that was left off Plastic Beach just to make that clear again. They’re all mostly made on iPad actually.
Really – you are finally fiddling with the new technology then?
Well I’ve gone from four track to iPad and missed out on computers and mobile phone in-between, and email. I find the iPad extremely easy to use so thank God technology has won over another luddite. Or should I say produced another luddite.
You are bringing the tour to Australia very soon – when was the last time you were here?
1997 with Blur. I had a great time and I’m hoping I have another great time. I’ve got a lot of Australian friends you know. Its impossible living in West London not to know Australians and New Zealanders, there is a lot of them, especially in Shepherds Bush on a Friday and Saturday night.
I hope you get to catch up with some then.
You know it’s going to be great, cause we’ve got two days after each gig off so we are going to make the most of it between gigs, definitely.