Considering the slew of wonderful music it’s birthed in the past few decades, you’d think Damon Albarn’s 13 Studios would be a more imposing place to enter. I feel like it should be made of gold, or require a secret handshake to get in to, but no. Tucked away near Latimer Road and quite literally under the Westway, from the outside it doesn’t look anything like a studio at all. On the inside it initially resembles a cosy but cluttered flat, that is until you make your way past the bicycles and flight cases just back from what might have been the last ever Blur gig in Japan and through to the main room. Here, there’s a zillion-channel (I counted) mixing desk, and behind glass partition, a vast space containing all sorts of glowing timpani drums, huge organs and various bits of machinery that serve I know not what purpose, other than looking extremely expensive. But the thing that sticks with me is the most dishevelled instrument in the room, an upright piano that still has working lyrics from Blur’s beautiful, elegiac comeback single “Under The Westway” stuck to it with masking tape.
It feels very alive, this studio, and I could poke around it all day given the opportunity. But instead I’m here to listen to Everyday Robots, the first ever solo album from a man who’s long been – albeit falsely – rumoured to have been working on one. My first listen takes place in the very room in which it was recorded, and it’s a special if peculiar occasion. On further listens I’m delighted, if not a little relieved, to say how much I like it. Though close in feel to Albarn’s densely atmospheric work with The Good, The Bad and The Queen, and in sound to the loops and electronic percussion on much of Think Tank, it’s a unique creation that’s more insular than any of his previous records – the sound of Damon Albarn trying to connect by offering us himself, unedited, rather than through anthemic choruses or cartoon monkeys.
Much as fans have thought a solo record had been on the cards for a while, it turns out the situation was anything but. Instead, we’re told, Albarn was only interested when the right offer came along.
“I happened very simply because (the album’s producer) Richard Russell asked me! We spent a couple of months hanging out a lot with each other because we’d just made the Bobby Womack record, and he lives around the corner. He said “I’d like to produce you making a solo record” and I thought, ‘if I’m going to do this I need someone who really wants to do it with me. It wasn’t something I could just start. It’s such a specific thing; you have to have someone who really wants to go down that path with you. For me the only thing that distinguishes it from any other record I’ve made is that the narrative is extremely personal. There was no specific thing happened that made me go, ‘I’ve got to make a record on my own’. And of course, I didn’t make it on my own anyway.”
Though records like 13 and Blur contained their fair share of soul searching, a significant proportion of Albarn’s most celebrated work as has seen him either singing about characters (everyone from the neurotic, smug businessman “Colin Zeal” to the man who lives in that very big “Country House”) or, as with Gorillaz, using them as a front for the entire band. But for the first record to have ‘Damon Albarn’ written on its cover, such hiding behind illusory constructs just didn’t seem appropriate.
“The point is if I was going to do that, it had to be about me. I was at pains to make every line about something that happened, and I’m very proud of that. Apart from the last song, “Heavy Seas of Love”, which is a summary of what happened and the way I feel about it all now, everything mentioned on the record took place, from beginning to end.”