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Damon Albarn: “With a deeply personal account comes complete truth”

Damon Albarn: “With a deeply personal account comes complete truth”

01 April 2014, 12:00

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.”


Damon Albarn

There’s a lot Albarn could be talking about here, from the line about how “Modern Life was sprayed on to a wall” in “Hollow Ponds” to the “tin foil and a lighter” mentioned in “You and Me” alluding to his experiences with heroin at the height of Britpop. Though recently dredged up by Q magazine (nice headline, I guess), the news is nothing new – Albarn first openly discussed it in the 2010 Blur film No Distance Left To Run. Far more revealing about the man to me are vivid recollections of 1970s heatwaves, of diving in to the local ponds, and the very specific references to places like his childhood home on Colworth Road in Upper Leytonstone, East London. It’s startlingly autobiographical, and yet somehow relatable too.

“That’s the trick isn’t it?” says Albarn. “I suppose with that kind of deeply personal account comes complete truth. That’s what a songwriter is always heading towards, finding that point where personal truth becomes a more universal experience. But I couldn’t put everything in. It was with returning to Leytonstone and spending an afternoon just hanging out at Hollow Ponds that I found a start point for the record. Maybe that’s why it stays in that area a lot. It does spread its wings a bit, it goes to Colchester, it goes to Turkey, California… all over the place really.”

Mr Tembo doesn’t sound to me like a Leytonstone native, though.

“Nah, he’s from Tanzania!”

Mr. Tembo is likely the record’s most divisive song, and certainly the one that sticks out most on Everyday Robots. By far and away the most up tempo number, it tells the story of meeting an elephant in Tanzania whose keepers had named him ‘Mr. Tembo’ (‘Mr. Elephant’). Reportedly a fan of gospel music, the elephant not only got a song named after him, but that’s The Leytonstone City Mission Choir singing on it, who are based in the church near Damon’s boyhood home. It’s one of many references on the record to the joys of nature, Albarn’s relationship to it, and where it butts heads with modern day technology.

“That’s a very me thing to do. It’s something that’s innate in me, that sense of ‘where am I?’ and what is my relationship with that, I don’t know, bird I’m seeing flying out from this 33rd floor of this hotel in this metropolis.”

His relationship with technology, explicitly referenced in songs like “Everyday Robots”, “Photographs (You Are Taking Now)” and “Lonely Press Play”, is the record’s other driving concern. He loves his iPad, on which he filmed and edited the video for the latter, but of technology as a whole he describes himself as “Not an avid user, but definitely a user. I think I’ve found some solace in my iPad, but I have a very old telephone and I’m not very good at working anything, really. But I do enjoy my iPad, I can film stuff, make music on it, make notes, learn stuff. It’s a pretty amazing device.”

“Mr Tembo” aside, Everyday Robots a relatively downbeat record – precisely why its ray of light is so welcome, in context. But what was it that gave rise to a collection that’s quite so sombre?

“It allows for a lot of space which is what Richard and I were going for. It’s a very intimate record – you have to listen to it a few times. It’s not meant to deliver everything on the first or second listen. For people who just listen to one tune and if they don’t like it, that’s it, they’ll never listen to it again. It’ll never reveal itself.”

Once he agreed to work on a solo record, Albarn handed Russell a long list of potential ideas for songs, with the impression they would whittle them down to make the album.

“And we didn’t use anything apart from “Mr Tembo”! All the other songs arrived while we were in the process of making the record. Once I got a sense of where we were going lyrically with the record and that it was going to be very personal, all the other stuff I’d handed him didn’t seem to matter anymore. It became about telling that story at that time – that was the most important aspect.”

The album features a few collaborations, including a splendidly subtle turn on backing vocals from Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes on “The Selfish Giant”, but the album’s main players are Albarn and Russell (“It’s very nice to have someone to play rhythm with, and that’s essentially what we were doing; I was playing guitar and piano, he was mucking about on drums, then I’d fill in the rest afterwards”). The biggest surprise comes with the appearance of Brian Eno’s vocals on the showstopping closer “Heavy Seas of Love”.


Damon Albarn

“He’s a neighbour, he came down and listened to everything on the record. It was quite a specific request on our behalf – ‘can you please sing something?’ We’re both massive fans of his, but I felt that nobody ever asked him really to sing. He’s more known for other things, but for me that’s what I loved him most for, his voice.”

It’s a beautiful guest spot, reminiscent of his own classic “I’ll Come Running” (even if the vocal melody does sound a little like Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World”). Clearly a key piece, the song has given its name to Damon’s live band The Heavy Seas, who he calls “a fantastic, fantastic band”, cautiously adding “we just need to get a few gigs under our belt. This week we’re doing six in four days at SXSW, so by the time we get to play something like Latitude I’d imagine we’d be pretty slick.”

The band’s first proper gig was at the recent 6Music Festival in Manchester. Far from being put off by the thought of broadcasting brand new songs directly to the nation, it turns out that was the entire point behind the set.

“Probably characteristically for me, it was quite a brave thing to do – playing your first ever gig, with new material, live on radio”, he says. “In a way, once you’ve been through that essentially quite nerve wracking experience, you’re in a better place. You’ve got to go through that at some point with new material. I like to do it like that and then it can’t get any worse, put it that way. And it was a good experience. I think what they’re doing with that festival is a very positive thing. Moving forward they probably need to think about how they separate the individual stages. There are a lot of people milling around and a lot of noise between the two. In a normal venue you’d have doors separating each one, but it was all very open plan. I’m not sure that’s the best way of presenting it, but in essence it’s a really great idea.”

Moving forward, it seems there will be dips further in to the Damon Albarn songbook for his solo shows (“I don’t want to go over the top with that too soon, but I would like to think I’ll earn the freedom to do what I like with that in the future”), but this isn’t about looking back. He’s recently become the recipient of the first ever NME Award for Innovation, after all – not that’s he’s dwelling on that either.

“I was flattered, I mean, I enjoyed the night – though I always end up with a nasty hangover after something like that, which at my age is something I wish I could avoid, but old habits die hard. It’s nice to receive it, but I feel like the next day you just get up and get on with life. There’s nothing more to say about it – it was a nice night, but the next day, it’s back to square one.”

And speaking of the next day, anyone with even a passing interest in Albarn’s 25 year career will be unsurprised to learn that there’s much on the horizon. “There’s a lot!” he says, “But I don’t want to talk about it. I’m doing this now.”

Thinking back to the sheer range of instruments and gadgets stashed around 13 Studios, one can’t help but wonder exactly what it might be. More solo records? The return of Gorillaz, of Blur, The Good the Bad and The Queen, or something else entirely? Everyday Robots is a fine record on its own merit, but one of the most exciting aspects of it is what this new lyrical approach it could herald for Albarn’s future work. Morphing from cheeky cockney chappy to the leader of a cartoon band via film composer and general globetrotting musical polymath, this endlessly fascinating bloke’s attention is now fixed for the first time solely on himself. One gets the impression he’s only just starting to scratch the surface.

Everyday Robots is released via Parlophone on 28th April – get it here.

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