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Gorrilaz, Damon Albarn and James Hewitt

Damon Albarn: ‘This year, if you’re not pop, you’re fucked’

Off the back of their acclaimed seventh album, the Gorillaz mastermind reflects on the virtual band’s beginnings and gives us an insight into their most ambitious projects to date

“It’s very apocalyptic. There isn’t even anyone at reception any more.”

Damon Albarn has just begun his umpteenth Zoom call of the year from a hotel room in south London. Having spent lockdown with family in his remote Devon farmhouse, the Blur frontman and Gorillaz mastermind is back on home turf, knee-deep in rehearsals for one of his most ambitious projects to date.

Admittedly, it feels a bit redundant speaking in such terms when you consider that the Gorillaz story has felt like one prolonged peak throughout the 21st century. Yet, for all its obvious strains, 2020 remains a landmark year for the trailblazing virtual band Albarn has helmed for over two decades. Off the back of their acclaimed seventh album, Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez, the group will broadcast Song Machine Live across December 12-13, promising special things in a year that has been seriously short on excitement.

When they arrived to occupy the airwaves with their debut single, “Clint Eastwood”, back in 2001, Gorillaz felt curiously (if not a little suspiciously) fully-formed. Low-key founded by Albarn and comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998, the audiovisual project would become a paradigm-shifting global phenomenon that had little precedent. As they whipped a jeep down a freeway in the video for “Clint Eastwood”, cartoon avatars 2-D, Noodle, Russel, and Murdoc felt like they could be more than the animated alter-egos of Albarn, Hewlett and whoever else they invited into the fold. With its mantra-like decree that “the future is coming on,” that song was Damon Albarn’s way of asking the world to meet the promise of a new era halfway.

Though he’s been a little under the weather of late (“They fucking swabbed me and the next morning I had strep throat,” he says), Albarn is in cheery spirits. And it stands to reason: at a time when the music industry is on its knees, the 52-year-old has helped move Gorillaz away from a traditional album cycle in favour of a self-contained, cross-platform promotional engine. From making monthly music videos – or “episodes” – for each song to launching toy figurines, performing on Animal Crossing, and planning a movie to coincide with season two of the project, the promotional blitz accompanying Song Machine has been as much a matter of existential necessity as anything else.

“I suppose it’s just survival,” Albarn says. “This year, if you’re not pop, you’re fucked, basically. You can’t play gigs. And if you’re not pop, your streaming figures might not be great. Thankfully, I think our streaming figures are respectable. But what can you do? I’ve got a crew to pay, I’ve got musicians to pay. There’s a whole microculture around what I do. I’ve got to keep going or just give up.”

And keep going he has. Whether swimming, watching Succession, digging out old Columbian electro, or reading German philosopher Immanuel Kant (“fuck, it took a long time,” he says), Albarn has managed to balance a busy work schedule with downtime in the country. But it’s a far cry from the itinerant life he’s grown accustomed to. “I haven’t seen anyone,” he says with a sigh. “Because I’ve been playing festivals all my fucking life, I’m just so used to spending a few months each year hanging out with other people. That’s just been lost this year. I think that, even though we’re not necessarily aware of it at the time, we all evolve when something like this happens.”

“This year, if you’re not pop, you’re fucked, basically. You can’t play gigs. And if you’re not pop, your streaming figures might not be great” – Damon Albarn

For many musicians this year, the UK government’s pitiful response to the pandemic – not least Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that artists should retrain – has made for a lot of uneasy evolution. It’s a matter Albarn refuses to sit on the fence about. “It’s disgraceful,” he says. “On top of a year like this. Everyone understands these things are problematic but then to say, guys, after this, maybe you should think about doing something else is just fucking callous, man. I’m just reiterating what everyone else feels but I obviously feel very strongly about it. My entire life has been based on that teenage dream.”

Reflecting on how that teenage dream became a full-blown reality via the runaway success of Blur in the 90s, Albarn lights up. “The mad thing for me is I’ve been in Gorillaz a lot longer than I was in Blur,” he says with a hearty, gold-toothed grin. “When you’re in an indie band it’s like a marriage, you know? You’re married to everything about it. I was just at the front being a fucking knobhead frontman for quite a long period of time.”

Frontman theatrics aside, it’s the sheer finesse of Albarn’s songwriting that made Blur one of the most vital British bands of a generation. Though it may not have been outwardly obvious, his transition from one guise to the other can be traced back to what he calls the first Gorillaz song – “On Your Own”, from Blur’s 1997 self-titled album. “It makes me smile when I think how far I thought I was reaching by doing that,” he says. “Because at the beginning I didn’t play guitar because Graham (Coxon) was just so good. It was still very much in the distance but I felt like there was another door opening for me.”

As that door came fully ajar via their eponymous debut album three years later, Gorillaz sat down with Dazed for their first-ever cover feature. In it, Jamie Hewlett AKA Murdoc Niccles from the then-anonymous cartoon band declared: “If the music works that’s all that counts, and we don’t like to think of people as stupid.” Does Albarn, alias 2-D, agree with that sentiment two decades on? “I do,” he says. “I was always accused of being a bit of a dilettante back in the day. I never really saw it like that. I was just interested in lots of different things, and I wanted to see how I could somehow articulate my own thing through other things. No one actually comes up with something that reinvents music.”

He may not have reinvented music in the intervening years but Albarn, backed by Hewlett’s singular aesthetic, has come close by honing the globetrotting hit machine that is Gorillaz. Thanks to multi award-winning albums including 2005’s Demon Days and 2010’s Plastic Beach – releases that delivered ubiquitous singles like “Dare” and “Feel Good Inc” – they have long been officially recognised as the most successful virtual act of all time. And that’s really just for starters. In much the same way Blur progressively expanded their sonic palette while some of their more noteworthy peers creatively stagnated, Gorillaz have defined, and redefined, the limits of what a band can be.

From the second Californian rapper Del the Funky Homosapien took the mic on “Clint Eastwood”, collaboration has been key to the band’s far-reaching success. From Grace Jones, Lou Reed, and soul legend Bobby Womack to De La Soul, Little Dragon and André 3000, their album credits have often read like a Rolodex of musical pioneers past and present. It’s a tried-and-tested approach that Song Machine, which boasts Elton John, St Vincent, and The Cure’s Robert Smith among others, levels up.

“When you’re in an indie band it’s like a marriage, you know? You’re married to everything about it. I was just at the front being a fucking knobhead frontman for quite a long period of time” – Damon Albarn

As in his work leading non-profit music collective Africa Express and supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen, Albarn has always gravitated towards kindred spirits. “As soon as slowthai walked into the room, it was like, ‘I know you, you know me,’” he says. “I wouldn’t have survived as long as I have, especially working with African musicians, unless I worked on that premise.” Albarn references the first few times he worked with artists who he went on to form Africa Express – the cross-continent, music collaboration and non-profit organisation – with, and the 2002 album Mali Music, made by Albarn and Malian musicians including Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté & Friends. “We had no common language other than the music and this sense of kindred spirit. That’s why I’m so passionate about collaboration, because it dismantles so many preconceptions that you might have. It’s non-prejudicial.”

Albarn’s role as the de facto frontman of Gorillaz as a collective of artists is common knowledge. But it wasn’t always meant to be that way. “My idea was for nobody to ever find out I was a part of Gorillaz,” he reveals. “I remember one of our first interviews was with Rolling Stone. We were playing characters. I was doing 2-D, Remi (Kabaka Jr) was Russel, and Jamie was Murdoc. We were all on the phone thinking it’s really funny, hearing each other’s stupid accents and trying to keep a straight face. And then I just completely lost it and thought, I can’t do this any more. I fucking blew the whole thing. Jamie was so fucked off with me. He literally didn’t speak to me for days.” It was always going to happen eventually, though, right? “I know, but how wonderful would it be if after all this time people still didn’t know it was me, and thought I’d disappeared into obscurity years ago?”

There is no band better placed to perform a virtual concert in the COVID era than Gorillaz. Marking the group’s first live shows since 2018, Song Machine Live promises visuals, performance and – true to form – special guests across three sets and time zones. As ever with Gorillaz, half-measures are out the window. “We’re seeing this more as three live TV shows than a gig,” Albarn says. “There’s a lot riding on it, but I think it’s given us an opportunity to do something that maybe we haven’t had the chance to do before. We should by rights be in the driving seat to produce a visually stunning live stream gig because of our resources, and the fact that we’ve been trying to evoke the holographic ghost for many, many years.”

By this point, there’s really no “trying” about it. As their output to date illustrates, Albarn, Hewlett and co are certified pop seers. Blessedly, one can’t envision that changing any time soon. “The only really consistent thing is Jamie’s drawing,” Albarn says, when asked about their evolution. “I suppose you could say I write the songs, but a lot of time I let other people help write the songs as well. So it just changes all the time. It’s always coming from different angles. It doesn’t have a centre. Because it’s nothing, I think it can just continue forever.”

Song Machine Live takes place between December 12 and 13