By Ken Scrudato; photos by Linda Brownlee on May 7, 2014
The ideological dead-end of having bought in to the optimism and egalitarianism of 20th-century modernism is that this new eon has proved it to mostly have been a tragic miscalculation. To wit, no one has found salvation through the spread of good product design; technology has created more alienation than it has brought down barriers; and the post-Enlightenment gains of the common man have been violently reversed by the rampant globalization of capital. The digital age, alas, looks so terribly much like the 18th century.
It’s hardly a secret that these contradictions have deeply informed the work of Damon Albarn. Indeed, his first band, Blur, not only came across as resolutely modern, but they also keenly documented the harrowing, looming crossover into the muddle of postmodernism. Like so few of their Britpop brethren, they actually seemed to get that it was all a big joke; except that the joke—the entrenchment of the hegemonic dominance of capitalistic consumer culture—wasn’t all that funny. All the way back in 1993, Albarn chillingly prophesied, “Into the sea goes pretty England and me.” If Peter Gabriel had warned of those forces intent on “selling England by the pound,” Damon and cohort were depressingly reporting that the contracts had all been signed and delivered.
Since then, Albarn’s musical life has been an intensified struggle between an elated, passionate worldliness and a charmingly sentimental attachment to a wobbly British pride. He found shockingly enormous success with his “virtual” band Gorillaz, then quickly retreated to the earthy pathos of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. His collaborations with Honest Jon’s, an old- fashioned, Portobello Road independent record shop turned old- fashioned record label, have been nothing if not an artistic search for something, well...more honest and genuine.
His debut solo album, out this spring, is appropriately titled Everyday Robots. It is a fierce, tense, romantic, nostalgic and visionary summation of the contemporary paradoxes that make up life in this, the 21st century. It spans from moments of inspiring, African-influenced exuberance to lovely, melancholy pastoral Englishness; but most of all, it seems rife with the yearning for a time when technology didn’t so forcefully complicate our lives. Unsurprisingly, it features guest appearances by Brian Eno and Natasha Khan—who, in a way, represent the opposing ends of that ideological struggle.
Nearly a century after Robert Graves’s Good-Bye To All That poignantly documented the end of a doomed English ideal, Damon Albarn has perhaps gone and done the same for our times. Perhaps we shan’t repeat the mistakes...
The opening and title track features the line, “We are everyday robots on our phones/Looking like standing stones, out there on our own.” You’re clearly at conflict...
Well, we’re very alone with our technology, aren’t we? We think we’re constantly in touch with each other, but it’s a strange kind of contact. I’m guilty of even texting my daughter to tell her that dinner is ready.
There’s a great sample in the same song, “They didn’t know where they was going/But they knew where they was wasn’t it.” Is that biographical? Do you struggle to find that point you want or need to be on?
I think the subject matter of that song...it’s raising the questions, “What are we doing to ourselves, and what are the implications? Are we aware?” Once you’ve got that in your head, then you can be very personal in your observations. That’s where you get that tension between the optimism and the pessimism.
Speaking of tension, in “The Selfish Giant” you sing, “Press yourself to me right now,” and it actually sounds a little frightened.
Is there fear in this record?
There’s anxiety. We’re all, in some way or another, hiding; it’s part of our nature, really. And it’s why we gravitate towards any form of enlightenment. I suppose having nothing to hide would be the most beautiful state, wouldn’t it?
That’s an interesting observation. We’re always trying to present an edited version of ourselves, it would seem.
But it’s quite a gentle...well, that song has a striking line, “It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on/And there’s nothing in your eyes.” The actual inspiration was a night spent in this very small town in Scotland called Dunoon, where the American submarine fleet used to be harbored. I got there and everything was being decommissioned, still a wind down from the Cold War. It was a beautiful evening, with mist on the loch—and you could see the huge hull of this black submarine in the middle of the loch.
A vaguely disquieting image, I’m sure.
Yeah, and the song is about playing a gig there and having a party, all while having that presence there—and how at any time it could just sort of sink under the water and disappear. It’s sort of very domestic in its imagery in one way, and very apocalyptic in another.
It was almost inevitable that you would work with Brian Eno.
More inevitable than you would think! Because we are actually neighbors; we bump into each other. I used to go to the same health club as him... But I would do all the running machines and bikes, and he would be more interested in water aerobics and...talking. He’s got a fantastic spirit about him, and he lives according to that spirit. I do love all those early records.
Clearly a lot of it showed up in Blur’s music.
Yeah, really! He was a big influence on me. Unashamedly, I am a massive fan.
About Natasha Khan...the first time I saw her on a stage in New York, she and her girls had these painted faces and they were banging sticks on the floor. There was a kind of modernism about it, but there was also palpably a yearning to connect with something more primitive. I always felt that you operated artistically from a similar position of conflict.
You’re absolutely right! You hit the nail right on the head.
I mean, you achieved this enormous success with a virtual band. Yet there’s also this old-fashioned sentimentalism about you, a palpable fear of us disconnecting from our traditions.
Well, I’m probably, really, a pagan at heart.
What does that ultimately say about Damon Albarn?
Uh...it depends on what your definition of paganism is. For some it might mean talking to the moon; for some it might mean running around in a field talking to invisible spirits...
Like Julian Cope?
Yes! He’s someone I have a lot of empathy with; some of his output has been deeply influential to me. But there are pagan aspects to all religions, really. I am fascinated by esoteric things, and I believe in magic.
[Creation Records Founder] Alan McGee told me that he thought Jesus was a magician.
He probably was, yes!
And to make a perfect segue...in “Mr. Tembo” you might have written the only gospel song ever dominated by ukulele.
“Tembo” is Swahili for “elephant.” It’s very simply about a little elephant I met called Mr. Tembo. It had been looked after by these men who are deeply religious in Tanzania, and they spend their free time listening to gospel television. The elephant has grown up listening to gospel music. It’s amazing—he actually responds to gospel! That’s the thing about this record...all of it actually happened.
But getting back to technology, there’s a sample, “Beware of the photographs you are taking now.” That seems to refer directly to the new narcissistic documentation of utter banality. We now document...
...Everything! Absolutely everything, yeah.
Do you feel there is a real danger in that sort of narcissism?
That song is meditating on aspects of what you’re talking about. Our memories change, and they change with who you are. Our organic nature is becoming fused to a digital nature, and it’s unclear yet what the implications of that are.
You also borrow from Ecclesiastes, “All is but vanity.” Pop music was always one of the great cultivators of vanity.
And glamour! A word that is used so freely now is actually derived from a Celtic spell or curse. When you “put a glamour” on someone, they are bewitched, they can’t see reality. That’s our Monday afternoon etymology class.
This is a decidedly anti-rockist record. Do you personally feel like rock and roll has lost its ability to convey the sort of exuberance and gravitas you are trying to get across?
I don’t know. What do you think?
I think I’m not sure.
Unfortunately, the older you get, the less of a fucking clue you have about anything, right? I was so sure about so many things when I was younger.
There’s an incredible urgency about your creative output—and a sense that you are adamant about not repeating yourself. So, did the reformation of Blur in 2009 ultimately seem sort of insignificant compared to everything else you were trying to do?
No! It’s just that its true power lies more in its retrospection than its reality. It’s still very important to me, and I intend to [continue to] play those songs. If there’s something that still has a truth to it, then just keep doing it. And maybe it will have a different meaning now.
The context changes...
It does! It really does. Songs that I wrote with an eye to the future are now the present.
It’s like watching The Jetsons—it’s a vision of the future that is from our past. And none of it really happened!
Well, much weirder stuff has happened.
It’s funny, the uncomfortable attitude people sometimes take to their past. After all, it’s still a part of who you are.
Precisely! That’s why it’s so absurd for this to be my first solo record. Particularly with Gorillaz, I did play most of the music in the studio. It had a massive amount of input from Jamie [Hewlett], but those records were very much a personal endeavor.
Are you quite pleased, then, with the first Damon Albarn solo endeavor?
Yes. I enjoy singing the songs, and I’m proud of it. My voice is more intimate and the subject matter is much more personal. But it’s simply another record that I’ve made, really, and I’m just getting on with it. And we don’t know what’s around the corner, dowe? F