Damon Albarn can tell the future. The Blur and Gorillaz architect’s work has landed much too close to where rock or pop or electronic music would end up a year or so behind him to call it a coincidence. Blur’s mid-’90s trilogy of Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape was sharp enough to make seething rivals of the lad rock kings in Oasis. Then, ’97’s “Song 2” stumbled on the electrorock jock jam and broke the band in America by accident; 1999’s 13 album bridged the earthen guitar theatrics of end-of-the-century gems like Grandaddy’s Under the Western Freeway and Radiohead’s OK Computer and their technophiliac year-2000 counterparts The Sophtware Slump and Kid A. 2001’s Gorillaz mixed wigged-out cartoons, underground hip-hop production, and nods to Japanese otaku culture six months before the birth of Adult Swim.
Albarn did it again with this year’s Humanz, the fifth Gorillaz full length. Working with a troupe of gifted rap, house, soul, and dancehall artists, Albarn crafted an album about rescuing humanity from the brink of ruin, instructing his collaborators to imagine a life-threatening calamity and write about the fight to best it. Without a prompt, the rappers Pusha T and Vince Staples decided our dark night of the soul would involve Donald Trump being elected as president and turned in verses and choruses about missing the peace of the Obama years while greeting death under cracked skies. Those contributions — alongside album-closer “We Have the Power,” which is fueled by an impassioned call for unity from Jehnny Beth of the post-punk revivalists Savages and backing vocals from Albarn’s former nemesis Noel Gallagher — make for the most overtly political Gorillaz album to date, but really it’s just a sharp portrayal of themes that have been present on this planet all along.
I’ve long believed that the dividing line between Albarn’s work in Blur and Gorillaz was politics: The singer would periodically sidestep his role as front man of the band that skewered the life of the British everyman for a palette-cleansing cartoon dance party, then get back to the business at hand. Bingeing on the Gorillaz back catalogue in the leadup to a Saturday headline spot at the second annual Meadows festival last summer, where I met Albarn to ask about his aspirations in creating the project, it dawned on me that politics has always lingered in the margins for Gorillaz.
In the same way that a cartoon like Adventure Time stashes a word about environmentalism in its geography and lore — it’s set on a world called Ooo whose mystery and magic are slowly revealed to be fallout from what can best be described as nuclear cataclysm — the set pieces in a Gorillaz album, from Plastic Beach’s titular garbage island to the blighted worlds of Demon Days, are warnings about the consequences of human carelessness. Humanz isn’t so different from those albums at all. It’s just that this time the planet being trashed is modern-day Earth.
I met Damon Albarn in the Meadows’ makeshift backstage artists’ village. We talked about receiving and processing ominous vibes from the universe, what he’s listening to (“1950s recordings of Malian griot music,” naturally), and what he’s working on (for the record, a new album from the supergroup the Good, the Bad, the Queen, whose 2007 self-titled debut united Albarn with Gorillaz guitarist Simon Tong, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, and the producer Danger Mouse).
Am I wrong to read Demon Days and Plastic Beach as cautionary sci-fi, in the same way that The Twilight Zone speaks to the climate of the ’60s without sermonizing about it?
People have been saying that a lot. The music’s political sci-fi. That’s kind of what I do, which is interesting because I suppose I was always, as a kid, very very inspired by George Orwell, who kind of was the master of that. He really knew what he’s talking about.
A lot of records that speak to the political pulse of their times, don’t sound joyous. How’d you achieve a joyful record about dour times?
It’s true, it’s true. I mean, I do aspire to joy, I just … I just seem to be an inveterate fucking melancholist. Melancholism. That’s my new policy.
In my head, Everyday Robots, Magic Whip, and Humanz all peck away at a similar aspect of the human experience, which is, you know, loneliness, disenfranchisement, alienation, the feeling of a lack of control —
“Lonely Press Play” was very strongly about a really intimate relationship with a piece of technology. You know, there’s an intimacy. I don’t know how I feel about that.
As a songwriter, is it your task to — when the world goes askew, to address it in music?
I do think it’s important to have a minor key and a bit of dissonance tapping away. You know, I can’t get into the true mainstream … the true radio rotation, streaming world, it’s not open to me, but I can kind of chisel around the edges a bit.
How do you mean it’s not open to you?
I don’t think my music is right for it. I live more on the edges.
See, I would characterize you as someone who — and maybe I’m thinking differently — have had a lot of success in the industry. We could be talking about two different countries, though.
I feel quite strongly that Gorillaz is an American band. The band I’m in is American.
In exploring the differences between Damon Albarn’s twin flagship bands, it never occurred to me that Albarn viewed the one as a commentary on British life and the other as an exploration of America through music. It tracks, though. The sound experiments of 2001’s Gorillaz imagined the breakbeats and turntable wizardry of the States’ bubbling independent hip-hop scene growing a natural affinity for pop hooks and melodies, a prescient concept to revisit in a year when the beats on the new Jay-Z album sound more like Roc Marciano than Rocafella Records. The washed-out sonics Danger Mouse brought to Demon Days rolled aspects of American surf and psych rock into modern pop, presaging the ’60s-rock vibes Mouse teased out on Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and Black Keys albums in the middle aughts.
Gorillaz’s sound didn’t always scan as American in its roots because early on I was discovering the work of Albarn’s collaborators through him. I stumbled onto his music in high school when “Song 2” broke in America and dug deeper after a snarky older kid’s withering remark that I wasn’t cool enough to listen to Blur.
Albarn’s late-’90s and early-’00s output helped nudge me toward indie rock, Britpop, and underground rap. I was curious how my pop-music Zelig always got into the right rooms with the right people. He swore cosmic providence: “I’m more interested in the right person sort of finding me somehow.” But the guest list on Humanz — D.R.A.M., Popcaan, Little Simz, Danny Brown, Kelela — sounds like it was put together by someone tapped into the cutting edge of modern pop culture. I got my answer when an assistant ambled over to inform Albarn that his kid was heading over to watch Future perform.
More intriguing than Albarn’s future-forward ear for music are the times his songwriting has seemed wise to some coming catastrophe. It’s not just Humanz, which he half pridefully, half morbidly describes as being “no longer a future record, but a record of now.” There’s a dull fatalism haunting the singer-songwriter’s late-’90s work, across “Death of a Party,” “Strange News from Another Star,” “Coffee and TV,” and “Battle,” that I’d understood for years as simple, textbook Albarn melancholia until a question about the Gorillaz live show drew an aside about 9/11. The Humanz tour does away with the AV theatrics that obscured the band on stage on past tours, dropping the cartoon band conceit to showcase the people making the music. “I want them to see the humans,” he said.
Is that a methodological response to the feeling of the record, the way that you’re performing it?
I think so, yeah. I’m also trying to get to the spirit of the songs from the past. That’s the hard thing, to go back to 2001, when I was in a very different space, and the world was pre-9/11. And then putting a record out while that was happening … It’s very powerful stuff, so you can’t be insensitive to the resonance around what you do. I was just trying to get back to that, to be sensitive to where I am.
It’s interesting that you mention making music around 9/11, because, in retrospect, 13 feels like a record that’s got this sort of coming panic to it.
Yeah, there seems to be … I dunno what’s the matter with me.
Sounds shamanistic to me.
That’s the second time that conversation has come up recently. For me, that’s what I aspire to. It’s just something you have to practice and be very open-hearted about. It’s as simple as that. Opened eyes. It’s emotional ritual, that’s what shamanism is.
I think that Blur and 13 kind of telegraph the tug-of-war between electronic music and rock that came together on other records to louder acclaim. I’m wondering how you continuously find ways to keep readjusting the formula of rock music.
I honestly just get up in the morning, get stoned — I get up. I do yoga. Have a little bit of breakfast. Go to the studio. Get stoned. Work. Leave at 5.
There are a lot of musicians who strike whenever the inspiration comes. It could be three in the morning or —
Well, not three in the morning. Not these days. But yeah, sure. Fuck. I made one record, called Democrazy, which was entirely written at five o’clock in the morning for a month. Sounds like the fucking mad clattering insides of someone’s brain, but that’s good for what that is. I always get frustrated because a decision is made about who you are on the basis of that one thing. And it’s like, “Man, I do a lot of different things!” That’s who I am. The whole thing. Not just Gorillaz or … And in a way it doesn’t really matter. Forget about personalities. Share the experience together.
I mean, obviously that means something entirely different in 2017 than it did 1968. The thing is, we have to be sensitive to what we create. Because, literally, you are the future. You can see the future everywhere. We think we can’t see into the future, but we can see everywhere. [Laughs] Also the past.
Does that come with obligations?
Uhhh … no, that’s just the way it is. If you accept the spirit into your universe then you have to follow the spirit. Different people have different spirits. There isn’t one full, cohesive, one spirit. There is spirit, but it then subdivides into a billion different … If you’re gonna get into the, uh, bureaucracy of that, you’ve gotta be an angel or something like that.
Are you a profoundly spiritual person?
I wouldn’t say I’m profoundly anything, but I am spiritual.
On stage a few hour later, Damon Albarn is the steadfast focal point of a maelstrom of music, the barking drill sergeant of Demon Days’ “Last Living Souls” and the bratty punk rocker of Gorillaz’s “M1 A1.” Anchoring a band that took up most of the festival’s main stage is Albarn’s voice, a sleepy baritone that can soar up into a razor-sharp falsetto or tighten up when he raps. For a while, the show played to the singer’s downcast low end, rattling off the somber “Tomorrow Comes Today,” “Rhinestone Eyes,” “On Melancholy Hill,” and “Busted and Blue” like a cold dare to the audience to try not to cry. Then the guests started pouring in.
The second half of the Gorillaz show saw Damon slip over to a keyboard at the edge of the stage while he and the band cycled through 16 years’ worth of genre-busting dance pop. He grinned with delight as De La Soul, Little Simz, Pusha T, and D.R.A.M. powered through their contributions to Humanz and Demon Days and looked reverently to singer Peven Everett, who nearly stole the show on “Strobelight” and stood strongly in for the late Bobby Womack on “Stylo,” aided by the famously reclusive Mos Def. A faithful rendition of the debut Gorillaz single “Clint Eastwood” sent the crowd back out into the dark of the late summer night.
It’s one thing to listen to the music and hear the million interests Damon Albarn is capable of packing into a single record. It’s something else entirely to see him switch from restful calm and bashful self-deprecation to dutifully commanding, then judiciously sharing, the Saturday headlining slot in a weekend festival whose other guests of honor were Jay-Z and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Albarn’s sense that he’s some margin walker stalking the edges of the mainstream but never quite making it in seems a little severe after hearing thousands of fans yelling his lyrics back at him for an hour and a half. Gorillaz isn’t a hit factory, but it is a solar system packed with vibrant characters, exotic locales, and weird sounds. Sure, there are more popular musicians, but the unsung heroes are the ones who race ahead, charting territories the big guns later colonize. That role is indispensable too.