For Damon Albarn, modern life is still pretty much rubbish
As the lead singer (and the pretty face) of Blur, Damon Albarn became a star writing songs about England — witty, tuneful, stylistically omnivorous character studies like "Parklife" and "Country House" that, along with Oasis' blunter-edged anthems, helped define the rowdy Britpop scene of the 1990s.
But Albarn's latest solo album addresses a different place: Iceland, where he became a citizen last year, decades after his first visit in 1997.
Full of slo-mo ballads that set Albarn's tender croon amid shimmering instrumental textures, "The Nearer the Mountain, More Pure the Stream Flows" began when he convened a group of orchestral musicians at his home in Iceland in 2019 to "tune into the landscape" outside his living room window, as he put it.
"Somebody with a trombone would concentrate on a cloud going over the mountain," he said. "Someone else would play the waves."
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced an early end to the sessions. But Albarn — also known for other projects including numerous stage productions and the virtual band Gorillaz — went on to shape the group's recordings into songs.
Now he's bringing the album to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night for a one-off concert in which he'll play the songs (as well as some oldies) on piano accompanied by a string section.
Over coffee last week on the rooftop of his hotel — it was his second time in Los Angeles in two months following a trip in November he'd made as part of a Gorillaz-related project at Netflix — Albarn, 53, discussed his dual citizenship, the impending 25th anniversary of Blur's self-titled 1997 LP and the legacy of the band's biggest American hit, "Song 2."
How have you historically enjoyed L.A.?
It's actually been my least favorite place for the last 30 years. But I realized it was because I'd never really left West Hollywood. Then last time I was here I did some work in Malibu and in Silver Lake — I learned to drive during lockdown — and the city just opened up. I discovered L.A. had another side to it: less self-conscious, less feeding-the-beast. Less showbiz.
Your show at Disney is you on piano. Whose playing inspires you?
Thelonious Monk is my favorite. And I was very lucky to spend a bit of time with Rubén González, just watching him play. It's a very nice thing to be able to do something that doesn't require any amplification. But it's actually quite hard, doing a whole concert on piano. It's not hard playing in a band.
Hard because it's so exposed?
You can't hide behind anything. You learn whether the songs are any good or whether they were popular at the time because of the sound and the attitude. It's a day of reckoning — and one, to be honest, that not much modern music could withstand.
You think a lot of modern musicians are relying on sound and attitude?
Name me someone who's not.
She may not be to your taste, but Taylor Swift is an excellent songwriter.
She doesn't write her own songs.
Of course she does. Co-writes some of them.
That doesn't count. I know what co-writing is. Co-writing is very different to writing. I'm not hating on anybody, I'm just saying there's a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes. Doesn't mean that the outcome can't be really great. And some of the greatest singers — I mean, Ella Fitzgerald never wrote a song in her life. When I sing, I have to close my eyes and just be in there. I suppose I'm a traditionalist in that sense. A really interesting songwriter is Billie Eilish and her brother. I'm more attracted to that than to Taylor Swift. It's just darker — less endlessly upbeat. Way more minor and odd. I think she's exceptional.
Say a bit about your life in Iceland. Is it dramatically different than your life in England?
Not really. The Icelandic culture and the English culture have parallels. It's much smaller there — there's a far greater sense of equality and public responsibility. And it doesn't have the kind of crazy colonial history, which doesn't ever seem to abate. Nordic culture is in many ways preferable to me.
What draws you back to England when you return?
England's my home. However infuriating it is and however dumb the policies are, I am English.
What's your take on the hubbub over Boris Johnson's lockdown parties?
He's a serial liar. I don't know how he continues to get away with things. At the moment it's like a double lie — first he lies about the parties, then he lies about his achievements, i.e. Brexit, which I don't think any rational person could find anything positive about.
You ever think back to the Tony Blair/Bill Clinton days of politician-as-cool-guy?
Before he even got into power, Tony Blair invited me to Westminster to have some sort of conversation about what the youth wanted. I remember I was really hung over and went into his office and had this overwhelming feeling that his spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, was standing behind me, pulling faces.
Did you know at the time you were being played?
Oh, absolutely. Because then I got assigned a sort of political assistant — an attaché, essentially. I'd say things and then get notes: "Oh, don't say that." I was like, "Have you just gotten completely swallowed up in the bulls—?" When he won, he had a big party. I declined. But I continued to get invitations for Downing Street suppers — handwritten letters from his wife.
"Blur" turns 25 next month.
I suppose it does. I'm writing and recording a song about an incident when I was in Thailand and met the crown princess. This was November '97. She was only 14 at the time, and she came to see us, and due to the very specific role the royal family play in Thailand, they put a throne next to the mixing board for her to sit in, surrounded by I don't know how many soldiers. "Song 2" started and she stood on her throne and stage-dived into the crowd. The reason I've written a song about it is because I had a dream about this princess very recently; she'd grown up and we spent time in my dream together, her as a woman. So there you go: 1997 was a long time ago, but at the moment it's not.
Any plans to mark the album's anniversary?
I want nothing to do with any of it. Reissuing stuff that's already had its moment is taking up space that something new could grow out of.
How does any future Blur reunion fit into that? You've always seemed somewhat reluctant to go out and play the hits.
I'm not into how beloved you become of the smell of your own farts. The greatest exponent of that is the Rolling Stones, who just couldn't let it go. It's disappointing. Not to say that I didn't absolutely love the Rolling Stones in their heyday — they were magnificent. But do other stuff in your life. Singing "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" when you're pushing 80? Come on.
Did you see Peter Jackson's recent Beatles documentary?
I'm not watching 17 hours of the Beatles rehearsing. Again, obviously, I love the Beatles. I have watched some of it, and I get it — it's interesting to see the little nuances. But that's what I do all the time. Bit of a busman's holiday.
How do you account for the continued obsession with the Beatles?
It's because they haven't done anything since 1971. Nothing bad happened. Never made a bad record. Never got old.
You've shown a real appreciation for old-timers in Gorillaz. I was at the Demon Dayz festival in L.A. a few years ago when you brought out George Benson.
He was so brilliant that day. That's the greatest thing about Gorillaz, when you can elevate someone, an old-timer, and it feels really fresh in the moment. In a way, Gorillaz is at its most potent when we have these circuses that we take on the road from time to time — hopefully we'll do one this year — and it's just: Who the f— is coming onstage next?
Gorillaz makes me wonder if you've ever considered writing songs for a kids' animated movie.
That's kind of what Netflix is about. I've promised myself at some point I'm gonna give up trying to be a pop star and just do really weird things, like an early-learning show but in my quirky left-handed way. This is my point about the Stones: There's so much to do to keep the creative genius alive, but the ego is so toxic in our society.
And in you?
I struggle with it as well. The idea that, Hey, I'm really famous and look at my numbers — it leads nowhere good.
"Song 2" is what made you famous in this country.
That song, it's outrageous. Is it an albatross or a gift that keeps on giving? Not an albatross because I never play it. That's a perfect example of something that's more about attitude and production than actual cracking songwriting.
So we're unlikely to hear it at Disney Hall.
Now that we've said it, I'm gonna see if I can try. The original version of it I could easily play because it was more jazzy and a lot slower — the "woo-hoo" was more "woooooo-hoooooo." I'll have a go at it. I've failed so many times, one more doesn't really matter.