Damon Albarn: The Once and Future King
Damon Albarn, most famously known as the driving force behind both Blur and Gorillaz, has long been an active supporter of West African music, collaborating and performing with artists from the continent for well over a decade now. Recently, after a performance in Mali, the once “King of Britpop” was honored with the title of “Local King” and bestowed with the Malian name “Makandjan Kamissoko” in recognition of his musical contributions to the country’s culture. Here, long time Albarn enthusiast Trey Zenker charts the musician’s expansive and enviable career in an effort to get to the bottom of his certifiable genius.
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Standing tall before a completely sold out Madison Square Garden, Damon Albarn beams with a slight air of disbelief, reminiscent more of a once great prizefighter basking in the peak moments of a triumphant comeback rather than the unfathomably prolific artist he is.
“It took us 25 years to get here…” he begins, inciting the unified and deafening cheers of 20,000 fans. To my right, two middle aged Swedes and their high-school-age son roar emphatically. To my left, two bearded twenty-something Americans do the same. Hell, who am I kidding, I do the same. Three nights prior and 3,000 miles away Blur played their only other U.S. show this tour to a packed Hollywood Bowl. The band’s only other American show in recent memory was an intimate New York gig at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in May of 2015, in support of their accidental comeback record, The Magic Whip.
But tonight is different. Rather than focusing on new material, the band digs deep into their extensive catalog with a force, determination and apparent joy that makes even the lesser-known cuts soar like bona fide number ones. Damon Albarn knows the show is a special one and gives it everything he’s got, running, jumping and swaggering like he’s Mick Jagger. Taking a sip of water and surveying the scene, he continues gratefully, “Better late than never!” The crowd goes wild. It seems Blur have finally taken America.
And yet that’s not entirely true. Sure, Blur have come a long way since their 1991 debut, but most Americans are still likely to know the group solely by their semi-ironic stadium anthem, “Song 2” (also known as “that wooohoo song”), a track that has come to define their mainstream Stateside perception.
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“If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m about getting rid of grunge. It’s the same sort of feeling: people should smarten up, be a little bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies again – they’re stooped, they’ve got greasy hair, there’s no difference. Whether they like it or not, they’re listening to Black Sabbath again. It irritates me.”
The quote comes to us from a young Albarn in 1993, one clad in a Fred Perry polo, blue jeans and a pair of Dr. Martens in a calculated effort to resemble the British mod rockers of the 1960s, while promoting Blur’s second record, Modern Life Is Rubbish. The record would officially mark the beginning of the Britpop movement that swept over England through most of the ’90s.
Though the term “Britpop” had been used in the late ’80s and early ’90s to describe bands such as The Inspiral Carpets, The House of Love and The Stone Roses, Blur successfully popularized and solidified this British ideal with Modern Life Is Rubbish, a record drawing heavily on the Kinksian landscape of Ray Davis, one celebrating, as fellow Britpopper Jarvis Cocker of Pulp succinctly stated, “the romantic of the everyday.” Within this sphere, Albarn reigned supreme, dubbed the “King of Britpop” by the British press and scoring hits left and right until a costly and childish chart war with Oasis left him effectively dethroned in late 1995.
One of the most crucial elements of Albarn’s extensive career – outside of his cocksure stage presence, his poignant character studies, and his cheeky intelligence – lies in his intuition, his understanding not only of when to start trends but when to leave them behind in favor of something new.
Britpop carried on well into 1997, but by then Albarn and the band had already wisely abandoned the genre they founded in favor of a more lo-fi sound, changing their tune on America completely in light of the influence of bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth and Pixies.
“We had rules when going into the studio,” says Blur guitarist Graham Coxon.
“Basically no strings and no brass,” Albarn continues.
In stark contrast, almost every other Britpop band, including Oasis, Pulp, Ocean Colour Scene and Sleeper, continued to ride the Britpop wave until it mercilessly came crashing down with 1997’s epic disappointment that was Oasis’ Be Here Now, considered today as the unofficial end of the genre, which ultimately left these once significant bands floating, disconnected, irrelevant and ruined. “Death of a Party,” off of Blur’s 1997 self-titled release (their third U.K. number one), chronicles the decline of Britpop as well as the change in the band’s mentality. “Look inside America, she’s alright, she’s alright,” Albarn wistfully sings on another of Blur’s standout tracks. The message is crystal clear: America had become fair game. Britpop was dead.
Having narrowly escaped the demise of Britpop, Damon Albarn would never make the mistake of hanging onto one idea for long again, striving from then on to busy himself with several different projects.
The experience of nearly becoming irrelevant would usher him into the most prolific phase of his life and while the lo-fi sound popular in America tempered his needs for a time, soon the genre and even Blur were failing to quench his creative thirst. Thus, Gorillaz was born.
With this next major project, a collaboration with cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn looked outward, infusing elements of hip- hop, world music and alternative rock. Gorillaz would release their first record in 2001, simply titled Gorillaz, and watch it climb to number three on the U.K. charts but, more importantly, number six on the U.S. charts – Albarn’s highest American chart position to that point. As the early 2000s marked the true dawning of the digital age, it makes good sense that the world should have so readily embraced the first “digital band.”
Creative though this period was, it was also marked by a swirl of rumors regarding Albarn’s abusive drug use. Only recently has Albarn explicitly confirmed said rumors to be true: “I used to go to work and take heroin in the studio and then stop when I came home… We probably wouldn’t have been able to create a record like that unless Jamie and I were, um, somewhat in our own worlds.”
Still, once again and in the face of heroine, Damon Albarn had anticipated the changing pop music landscape, artistically capitalizing on the increasing globalization and interconnectedness of the world. Such mirrors his attitude from the very beginning. As he said of his Britpop gamble in 1993: “Everyone was getting really nervous, because record companies follow fashion: it never occurs to them that they should set a precedent and back it.”
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“I’m a working musician, so it’s what I do. I kind of always have lots of plates spinning, and it’s the ones that keep spinning the longest that I end up doing.”
It’s been a long time since Blur, or even Gorillaz, were the only projects on Damon Albarn’s mind. On many occasions he’s been called the busiest man in rock, a title he has continued to deservedly earn for well over a decade. Looking back now at his post-Blur years, Gorillaz appears to have served as a gateway for the diverse multitude of ambitious projects and collaborations that continue to come to this very day. In these years Albarn has formed such bands as The Good, The Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon, written a Chinese opera, Monkey: Journey to the West, written two musicals, Dr. Dee and wonder.land, produced albums like Bobby Womack’s final album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, and released his first solo record, Everyday Robots (2014), for which he was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize.
All the while Albarn has simultaneously managed to actively pursue his love of African music and culture. Since 2002, he has engaged in several African projects such as Mali Music, which was recorded with local Malian musicians like Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. In 2011, he released Kinshasa One Two, a project recorded with ten producers from the DRC Music (Democratic Republic of the Congo) group to benefit Oxfam’s ongoing work in the DRC. Then, in 2013, Albarn returned to Mali with a host of western artists to collaborate with local musicians on what would become Africa Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes. And when terrorists threatened to attack the 2016 Festival Acoustik in Bamako, Mali, Albarn did not back down, playing in the face of legitimate danger.
While none of these efforts yield the sort of chart-topping work of Blur or Gorillaz records, they each offer innumerable brilliant moments that remind us of Damon Albarn’s remarkable creativity and open-mindedness.
Take for instance Mali Music’s hauntingly beautiful “Sunset Coming On,” or “Mr. Tembo,” a playful acoustic pop singalong about a real life elephant from Everyday Robots, an otherwise somber record primarily grappling with society’s increasing reliance on technology.
Standout tracks like those have left fans and critics alike wondering just how good an Albarn record might sound on the whole should he designate the entirety of his focus to one project at a time. However, at least for the time being, this seems fairly unlikely. “Music is a compulsion with me,” Albarn says. “And God help me if I smoke any weed, I’m fucked—I’ll just make more music.”
Given the sentiment, the last year suggests Albarn’s been lighting up quite a bit. In May 2015, Blur released The Magic Whip, their first record as a whole since breaking up in 2001. Written and recorded over an obligation-free, five-day period in Hong Kong – the accidental sessions were the result of a festival falling through. It’s an engaging, if slightly uneven record that acknowledges the band’s varying sonic phases while opening up the conversation as to where they might go in the future. Moreover, it makes sense in the context of the band as they have been in the process of slowly getting back together since 2009’s enormous Hyde Park shows, not to mention 2012’s phenomenal “Under The Westway” single and their headlining gig at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.
Last July he premiered wonder.land, a new musical inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to mixed reviews. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do because musicals are great when they’re done well,” he says. Most recently, Albarn is reportedly back it with Gorillaz, promising a new record in 2016.
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As it stands, it would seem that no matter the musical field, Albarn is capable of achieving success, acclaim or at least an audience for his various projects. And yet to this day, he remains a semi-anonymous figure outside of the U.K.
But maybe that is an artistic choice in itself. Albarn is no longer the pompous art-school brit brat he famously was during the years of Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape. He shed that persona in favor of one more sullen, low key and reserved persona – one who hides behind virtual band members, such as with Gorillaz, and band names like The Good, The Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon that don’t prominently feature his name. Today, walking down the street in New York City, Albarn would likely be perfectly disguised in plain sight, even after triumphantly selling out Madison Square Garden. But what does that matter?
Through reinvention Albarn has masterfully managed to evade pigeonholes since the high Britpop years, and he may be likened to David Byrne, the eccentric mastermind behind the Talking Heads. The two share a penchant for spreading themselves thin by way of near-constant collaboration, as well as through the consistent undertaking of countless side projects that often take stabs well outside the conventional sphere of the popular music. And the two share a passion for world music, having both founded significant record labels within the genre: Albarn’s Honest Jon’s Records and Byrne’s Luaka Bop.
With his myriad of projects and interests, Damon Albarn appears, if perhaps unknowingly, to be striving to emulate career trajectory Byrne has maintained for years: trying for fame, yes, but we’re talking about the sort of fame that comes with the respect of the authoritative, the underground and the decidedly cool.
Such would explain why Albarn has sought so desperately to distance himself from the Britpop scene which, over the years, have been increasingly critically scorned. It’s not boredom or a desire for fame that drives Albarn but instead, a sort of self-loathing, an enduring feeling of inadequacy, a desire for acclaim and a constant fight to never again be thought of as merely some pop star. Albarn likely tells himself he believes that his best work is ahead of him. And it absolutely could be.
Without question, Damon Albarn’s greatest asset through the years has been his creative instinct.
Time and time again it has allowed him to tap into the minds of his countrymen and the world at large, affording him the ability to anticipate and participate in musical and societal trends before or at least as they hit the mainstream. Maybe it’s the relative anonymity that has allowed him to write some of his most poignant and sullen lyrics in his later years while also allowing for his continued relevance. Maybe he is just growing up. Maybe it is possible to have multiple versions of yourself. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that. Maybe this is why Albarn has been so successful for so long.
“As soon as it sounds fine,” he says, “I’m on to the next thing, man.” He’s just looking for the next best thing. So what’s next, Mr. Albarn? What’s next?
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