Damon Albarn doesn’t stop. In just the past three years, the well-traveled Englishman has added to his already voluminous oeuvre a new Blur album, two new (and very different) Gorillaz records, and, most recently, Merrie Land, the second release from his “supergroup” The Good, The Bad, and The Queen. Reuniting with Paul Simonon of The Clash, the Verve’s Simon Tong, and Tony Allen, Albarn casts his eye on the strange and fractured realities of a post-Brexit England. The result is a wonderfully gloomy chunk of heartache. Albarn called from a moving train somewhere in the wilds of his homeland.
I’m actually moving to London next month. Weird time to go?
Oh, really? Uhhh … well, it depends, what you’re hoping to get out of it! If you come interested in social upheaval and discontent, it’s a great time. [Laughs.] Where do you think you’re gonna move to?
[Five minutes of Damon Albarn very kindly breaking down the pros and cons of various London neighborhoods]
You think I should lean in with the slang or should I avoid using it altogether?
Well, my daughter made the opposite move. She moved to New York in September. She’s only 18 and she’s found that’s the hardest thing. Every young generation has a very strong pride of language, and she’s found it quite tough, mixing with kids of her own age. I think they almost speak a different language. But as I’ve told her, it’s up to her up to adopt their language. She’s doing alright. She’s enjoying it. Equally fascinating time to be in America. It’s so crazy. You have the craziest president of all time, don’t you?
I think probably, yeah.
I don’t think there’s any ambiguity. Craziest president of all time, genuinely.
You found inspiration for this album by wandering around parts of England you weren’t familiar with. What was that like? Were people coming up to say hello?
I’d get a bit of that, but I wasn’t drawing attention to myself. People don’t even notice you. These were very much my own sort of pilgrimages to places that i’ve never been to that were very much part of the fabric of my country. Firstly, to connect with them and then to try to find some answers as to why we were going through this unsettling period. See, this is the thing that I’ve realized: absolutely, the crux of the whole Brexit problem is that the wrong question was posed. It shouldn’t have been, “Should we leave the EU?” It should have been, “Who are we? Why are we not getting on?”
I’ve spent most of this year out of the country. It’s been kind of amazing spending these last few months digging [back] in. I’m in the Northwest [of England] now and I couldn’t be farther from my last gig which was in the Mexico City national stadium. I’m playing in some little villages. 150 capacity. Working mens’ clubs.
What’s it like?
It’s really, really different. You get a lot more hecklers when it’s that small.
What are they saying?
Well, you know, with some of them it’s “Play the Blur song! Play the Clash song!” Predictable stuff. I had one guy who said, “Stop patronizing us!” I was taken quite aback by that.
What? Were you doing some stage banter at the time?
No, I was singing my song! He was addressing the nature of the song. So you never know what you’re gonna get.
What are these small villages like? Are they fulfilling the clichés you had in your head?
Yeah, basically. They are both what I dislike about my country and what I love about it at the same time. I mean, it’s a whole list of likes and dislikes. It’s amazing how much is going on in a small space. We’re not even the size of Texas and we’ve got 60 different regional languages.
And that’s not taking into consideration the multicultural factor. You can find every single global community in the British Isles. It’s brilliant for that.
It’s one of the best things about this country. And it’s slightly in danger at the moment. I thought maybe we were constantly evolving away from that, that sense of nationalism …
Have you always been one to kind of consider and evaluate your own Britishness?
I don’t think you think about it when you’re a kid. My commitment to where I come from has grown out of a huge amount of travel around the rest of the world. It’s a realization of, “If you can’t find whatever it is you’re looking for on your doorstep, you’re never gonna find it.” It’s not that I have lost my wanderlust. On the contrary. It’s really strong still. But I’ve enjoyed changing my perspective and coming back and enjoying … simple things.
Some of the songs on Merrie Land sound almost like some of Blur’s classic material.
There’s echoes of Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife, yeah. Twenty-five years have passed. I didn’t consciously do that. Parklife was created with the Cool Britannia and all that social change in mind. I actually bumped into Tony Blair last Sunday. It was really weird. I was doing a TV program and he happened to be on it. I was in the dressing room and he appeared in the door and I was like, “Oh, shit!” I mean what do I do. Do I address the [situation]? Or do I just say, “Hi, how are you?” It’s just strange that he reappeared again in my life.
[Phone call gets choppy as the train moves through some rural, apparently emotionally evocative part of England.]
Hello, yes. [Pause] With less connectivity comes great skies.
In a way, this is sort of a breakup album. Did you sneak anything about your own personal relationships in there?
Doing a subject like that, if it’s just a purely political perspective, it becomes a bit cold. This is an actual emotional upheaval. I wanted this to last outside of this moment. I haven’t named any names.
Did you ever try to write lyrics that rhymed with “Brexit”?
No. Or [prominent Conservative Party politician] Jacob Rees-Mogg.
[Singing] “Jacob Rees-Mogg / In the northern fog / All down his trousers …” No, no, I shouldn’t.
I hear you want to perform this album in small, out-of-the-way venues in the U.S., too.
I should go right into the middle of America. I definitely won’t be wearing a baseball cap on stage. Maybe a cricket hat. But yeah. Arkansas. North Dakota. You know, honestly, if America has any interest in this, that’s great. But my responsibility with this record is just to play the United Kingdom as much as possible. Cause we’re at such a critical moment. I think it’s necessary just having something like this out there. It’s not going to change anything. But it can sort of help add some sort of emotional intelligence to the whole debate. Hopefully.
Both the U.S. and the UK have this in common — they have very strong visions of themselves that never really existed, right?
Oh, absolutely. Oh my goodness, yeah. This is the craziness of the whole Brexit thing. It alludes to an idea that on our own we can be this kind of, sort of great nation. And you know, that’s a long time ago. Really. In truth, we’re a very small little island on the edge of Europe and we punch way above our weight.
You tend to be inspired by travel. Lyrics for Blur’s most recent album, The Magic Whip, drew on your trip to North Korea, for example. Do you know where you’re traveling to next?
In the New Year, I’m going to Guinea. I’m doing a project in France in 2020 which requires quite a lot of time spent [in Guinea]. I’m actually going to a small village in rural Guinea and I’m looking for the first balafon. I don’t know whether I’ll actually find it or not. Whether I even see it. It’s a very sacred instrument. It’s a sort of closely guarded secret, where it is. But I do know people that know where it is and I’m hoping they’ll invite me to have a visit. [Laughs.] That’s what I’m doing next.
You’re an artist who’s never stopped making good stuff.
Which seems impossible. You are surely aware of creative peaks and how most artists at some point just stop making good things. Do you think about it?
Well, I try to put as much out into each thing as I do the previous one. Whether I achieve it or not, hard to say. Probably not all the time. And maybe one day I’ll run out of things that I’m interested in. Hope not. If I do then I’ll try and read the danger signs and [pauses] bow out gracefully.
You know the rapper, Drake?
Obviously. Very familiar.
You two have a lot in common, in that you’re both very aware of new and different artists and are always seeking out collaborations with …
Well, collaboration is a loose word in that term.
That’s actually what I wanted to talk about. Because he does get a lot of criticism for possibly not entering into equal …
Collaboration and sort of using people can be a fine line. And there is a tendency among those huge artists that just have the money to sort of … they can keep their creativity at a high standard because they’ve literally got the money to employ everybody. Me, I write everything myself. Always have. I’m limited to what I can do.
I know people who have fallen on the wrong side of that thing. But it’s difficult, isn’t it? The young artist comes up with a really cool beat. Do they sell it or do they use it themselves? If they sell it to Drake, it’s gonna be a hit. But are you gonna get the credit for it? Not necessarily. It’s a decision you make as an individual. And everybody wants their music to be heard. That’s the point of it. So it is difficult. But it certainly affords people like him and Beyoncé a very high hit-rate, to say the least. So, you know: good luck to them. But they don’t write it all themselves. And I do. So I’m different.