This year, Damon Albarn — architect of Blur, Gorillaz, and a constellation of operas, side projects, supergroups, and solo albums — officially became a citizen of Iceland, a nation he’d visited many times over the years. The singer-songwriter made a name for himself in the ’90s on records like Blur’s Parklife and The Great Escape, both lively rock albums that doubled as smart surveys of a certain dour, uniquely English temperament. The records he has made since then tend to defer to other voices and players and genres. Gorillaz albums over the past 20 years have been tapestries weaving rockers, rappers, and others into unpredictable psychedelic sound sculptures. Projects like the Good, the Bad, and the Queen — featuring the frequent Albarn collaborators Simon Tong of the Verve, Paul Simonon of the Clash, and the late Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen — search for delicate musical multiculturalism in their blend and balance of international rhythms.
On this month’s The Nearer the Fountain, the More Pure the Stream Flows, Albarn’s second official solo album after the languid, gorgeous 2014 album Everyday Robots, the feel of Iceland bleeds into the sound of the music, just as the sound and spirit of the summer Gorillaz EP Meanwhile were informed by the British Caribbean culture the artist took in at the Notting Hill Carnival growing up. When I spoke to Albarn over Zoom last month, he showed me a breathtaking, snowcapped scene through the window of his Icelandic home that at once explained the chilly, ambient sonics populating these new songs. Place this man anywhere on the map, and given the right amount of time, he will turn over a gorgeous musical catalogue of his travels.
Am I to understand that you originally intended to make an opera instead of your new album?
Not an opera but an orchestral piece. It came out of a fantastic offer to do anything I wanted with this particular orchestra, I think based in Paris, mainly. And I thought about it for a while: That’s an amazing opportunity. I can get a group of great musicians to sit in my front room in Iceland. In fact, I’m going to show you what the view looks like so that you get an understanding because it’s actually quite hard to set the mood properly without a picture … [searches for the right angle].
That’ll do it.
That’ll do it. Exactly. So I had this opportunity to get these musicians together and we basically had three sessions a week where they’d come early in the morning. Depending on what time of year it was — sometimes it was pitch-black even at ten in the morning — everyone would sit down, have a coffee, and then wait for light. I would have harmonic destinations for them to reach and little melodic motifs but nothing really heavy. I’d assign them different parts of the landscape. Some musicians would concentrate on the mountain and what was happening, whether there was mist coming over it or whether there was snow falling on it. Other people would be concerned with the wind, the sea, and the birds, even. I’d have golfers as well, directly outside the window, so golf carts.
When music critics write that a piece is “cinematic,” that’s often what we’re talking about — the fact that it’s evocative of a physical space. I feel like you’re trying to translate the landscape in Iceland into sound.
Yeah. A bit, yeah. And it was going really, really well, and then the pandemic hit and everything was closed down. So I had all these amazing rehearsal tapes but nothing concrete; I was left with half a project, really. And I left it for a while and then towards the latter end of last year, I thought, I’ve got to somehow put all the pieces I have together and make something because I need to articulate something. This has got such a perfect mood for how I feel about now. So I started writing the songs and finishing songs based on the ideas that had accumulated while I was in Iceland.
I traveled back to places I’d been, like Iran and Tower of Montevideo, to get a bit of fantasy in there, just to express how I was feeling. Then I got two of my old friends to come down to where I was living in Devon by the sea in January of this year. We set up old, dusty, cranky keyboards and guitar and a saxophone and an old Wurlitzer drum machine from the 1950s and imagined we were a house band on a cruise ship that just had been left anchored somewhere off the coast of wherever. There was nobody on it, so we just played to an empty ballroom every night on the boat.
So this project starts out as more of an instrumental endeavor and then you push it to more of a pop space?
There’s a lot more instrumental to come because next year I get to work with the orchestra again and sew the orchestral tapestry onto this, see how it all feels — really make it really, really cinematic.
Tonally and maybe lyrically, this one’s a bit sad, or at least, to me, evocative of a kind of darkness. I’m curious what brought that out.
Well, I mean, it was cold, wet, really windy and dusty where I was recording in an old barn by the sea in January. Light’s really poor that time of year. So that was quite oppressive. Three of us were playing in duffle coats and had gloves on at some points while we were recording because it was unbearably cold. The electricity burnt out loads of times because all the heaters we were running just kept exploding, and the instruments weren’t working a lot of the time. So they had to be fixed every morning and then they’d last a few hours and they’d just go crazy. So there was this real tension. I suppose I wasn’t intentionally trying to sound sad but, specially back then, the pandemic was really brutal here.
Where did you spend that time?
I spent most of it down there by the sea in Devon.
Things seemed really intense in the U.K. last year.
Yeah, I wish I’d been in Iceland.
Iceland seems to be handling things better.
They have space and they’re very pragmatic, sensible Scandinavians.
What motivated you to apply for Icelandic citizenship this year?
It was put to me that if I would like to become a citizen, it was possible I could. So I didn’t really do much applying. It was something that was offered to me. I was obviously very touched by the offer. I accepted it because it’s a lovely feeling to be of another nation; it just makes you feel the spirit of being an internationalist and being more culturally fluid.
Do you think there are people who see you becoming a citizen of another country as commentary on the state of things back home, as someone who’s written many songs about the local culture?
Absolutely. I mean, it allows me to still be a European citizen, so I’m very grateful for that because I had no part in Brexit. I still think it’s a really belligerent act of self-harm —
And we’re starting to see how. There are all these power shortages and issues that might have been fixed faster if the country had maintained the old relationship with the European Union.
Well, I don’t know. Let’s wait and see. It doesn’t look great at the moment, I’ll put it that way.
In the news over the last year, we read fresh death tolls every time we woke up. It was unlike any other time in our lives. How have you been able to express creativity in a time of death?
You have to accept that how it’s coming, how you’re expressing it, is right for you. Otherwise it becomes too self-conscious. I allow myself to be a bit abstract sometimes because I think sometimes it’s a better way of expressing hard things.
Science plays a lyrical role as well on this album; particles keep coming up.
I got on a plane to Iceland in 2019. I’m usually that person that as soon as they get in their seat becomes very introverted and enters my own internal universe for the whole of the flight and doesn’t talk to anyone. But this lovely old lady sat down next to me and proceeded to talk to me, and at first I was like, Oh my God, this is my worst nightmare. But turned out, she was the most amazing woman. She was a rabbi born in Winnipeg who now lives in Vancouver. We had this fantastic conversation that started with Trump. She said, “Don’t worry about Trump. He’s just a disrupter. He’s not going to have any lasting legacy, but it’s important that people like him stir stuff up so that the particles can energize and disperse.”
I wanted to try and find a way to express my awe of witnessing the northern lights. And it’s a similar thing. These disruptive particles come — at the moment, there’s been a big solar flare — they come and they hit the surface of the earth and they cause disruption, but we get this joyous light show out of it. Particles are obviously what everything’s made of and they are in a permanent state of flux and joy. There’s no such thing as a sad particle.
We have common elements and, at the moment, common enemies. We could band together and finish off the pandemic. We could slow climate change. But a lot of people would rather die than unite.
It’s the disparity in wealth, really. That is the main issue. In America, the top 400 wealthiest people got 44 percent richer and everyone else got poorer.
These people enjoy admiration even though they’re pillaging the place.
We got to reinvent the dreams that we peddle.
How do you feel your role as a songwriter plays into this?
I think we’re part of the malaise, and we’re part of the cure. So it depends what side of the fence you’re on.
I watched you on a Later … With Jools Holland this month. You played “No Distance Left to Run” alone on piano. That’s not one you pull out too often.
I figured the harder it gets to actually travel anywhere and play anywhere … It’s an act of survival to learn to play all my songs on the piano. At least it’s just me and a piano traveling then. It’s not some campaign I’m onto. I love playing with other people, and Gorillaz is the perfect testament to that. It’s ridiculous the amount of people sometimes we get on tour with us. As someone who practices a craft, it’s nice to be able to do it like that sometimes.
On Later …, you also spoke about being a fan of Terry Hall of the Specials. What ska, reggae, and dancehall inspired you? We can feel it coming through, even on this album. It’s always there in your music.
It’s a massive thing. The Specials was one of those crucial epiphanies I had as a young teenager, when I watched them perform “Ghost Town” on Top of the Pops. It spoke to me of a really bright, multicultural, positive future, and that’s why I’ve always been in love with Terry and the Specials and everything that it led me to. It led me to reggae. Ultimately, it led me to Marley and to amazing adventures and people I’ve met in the continent of Africa.
This year, Gorillaz put out Meanwhile, an EP you’ve said was inspired by the Notting Hill Carnival.
I wanted to do something because they had canceled it again.
I started thinking about the connection between the British Caribbean music you came up around and the way that sound filters down through Gorillaz. In a way, the EP is bringing things full circle.
I was very, very lucky to be born into a very multicultural part of London and go to school in a very mixed environment and it was completely positive for me.
I find the first decade of your career fascinating. We first learn of you from this music commenting on, I’d say, quintessentially British middle-class culture. By the 2000s, you’re in Gorillaz kind of playing the background, giving players of color the spotlight and branching out into other genres.
I think it was always in me. It just took longer to manifest itself than the other stuff. I’ve carried all of that since a kid, really.
This year, you played Worthy Farm. How is a Glastonbury show with no Glastonbury audience?
It was amazing. It’s a beautiful thing when you play in the middle of a fantastic rolling English countryside next to a stone circle with a great inflatable moon above you. The thing that broke the magic a bit was that immediately afterwards, the moon was deflated and taken to the Eurovision Song Contest and hung above Spain’s entry. But apart from that, it was the perfect, bucolic country moment.
Do you worry that not enough is being done internationally to bolster the arts after a tough year?
It’s a problem for everyone, but especially for younger musicians. It’s almost impossible at the moment for them to move because of all the PCR tests they have to take, all the visas, all the additional bureaucracy. And the cost of that, it’s really tough. It’s something that needs to be addressed. Pop music is becoming more bland, and we need that art. We need an art vaccination to save us from banality and homogeneity and everything sounding the same, which indeed it does at the moment.
Some of that is just big business.
I know, but this is my point: While we’ve all kowtowed to every law and emergency action, big business has prospered. There needs to be a balance. At the moment, it is unbalanced massively in their favor.
But then there are people on the other side of the coin, guys like Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, pushing back against the restrictions that are saving lives.
I think vaccinations are the best we can do at the moment, but, I mean, ultimately, we need to improve our immune systems and eat better food and be healthier. Everything is ever so slightly turning into that film Idiocracy.
We have technology, and people use it to look up points they already agree with.
Send Captain Kirk up into space. [laughs]
Are you working on new music?
I’m always working on music, yeah. I think there’s definitely something from Gorillaz on the horizon.
Are you looking to get back to a sunny place after this record?
I did that stuff for Meanwhile and really threw myself into it. I bought myself a whole collection of steelpan and really went for that. It’s a really interesting sound, the low end of a steelpan orchestra. So I still want to work with that a bit. We did this tune with Bad Bunny in Jamaica in the summer. It’s got a really nice atmosphere to it, and I feel like that’s maybe the jump-off point to finish a proper record.
What’s Bad Bunny like?
He’s great, super-talented. I’m looking forward to seeing him in Narcos: Mexico; I’m a massive Narcos fan, obviously.
Do you know when you’re writing songs whether you’re writing a Blur record or a Gorillaz record or a Damon record, or does it all depend on the players and the timing?
It’s all just music and, really, there’s nothing grand about it. I truly enjoy the process of making music and I’m happy to make it anywhere with anyone, really, within reason. Something starts to speak to you and then you just have to get in that vehicle and drive. You know what I mean? Until you run out of petrol or you run out of electricity.
Noel Gallagher has told an amusing story about running into you at the Man City/Chelsea match this spring. Do you remember that?
I’m Chelsea. It was the Champions League Final in Portugal, and it was just after we’d won. I left after the whistle because I had kids with me and I wanted to get out, not get into the craziness. He’d left because they just lost to us. We accidentally bumped into each other waiting for our Vianos outside the stadium. I said, “Happy birthday,” because it was his birthday and gave him a hug. It was difficult for him, obviously. What else could I say? I was the worst person, obviously, for him to bump into at that point. He was the best person for me to bump into.
Can I read you a tweet?
I don’t have any social media. Read me the tweet, yeah.
“Guest rapper on a Gorillaz song: I been in ends since ten kicking product ’round the bend, my mum died of tuberculosis, I’m slipping into psychosis.” Then it goes, “Damon Albarn on the chorus: Ooooooh flimsy Steve, where did you go, what have you seen?” They’re playing off the seriousness of some of the rap features you get and the lighthearted choruses you put with them.
Yeah, it’s true. When ScHoolboy Q says what he said on “Pac-Man,” my response is to take it out and become an abstraction of that. I think when the styles really work together is when there is that duality about it.
Do you ever get someone in the studio who seems like they’d be a natural collaborator and find the chemistry is not there?
It does happen, but I really try. Whatever we get, we try and make work somehow, so it’s a positive thing.
Last year we lost the great Tony Allen, with whom you’ve recorded so much. Can you speak to his legacy?
I’ve known him for a long time and I consider him one of my closest friends. I was genuinely devastated and shocked beyond belief when he passed. I couldn’t believe it. He’s one of my closest friends, one of the best teachers I’ve had in my life and just so much fun.
The new record is definitely imbued with [his loss], though it’s not all about that. I shed many, many, many tears for Tony and it inevitably is there somewhere in the writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.