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Music writing

Gorillaz in Harlem

interior-gorillazThis article first appeared in The Independent, in June 2006

There are ghosts at the Apollo. Bobby Byrd holds his master’s cape, the amateur night regulars bawl, shimmy and shake, and Fats Gonder asks “are you ready for Star Time?” But the hardest working man in show business doesn’t hear him. Damon Albarn is listening to the voice in his head. It is the voice of a man who has witnessed the apocalypse. It’s the voice of Dennis Hopper, and he can’t remember his lines.

The atmosphere inside Harlem’s most famous theatre three hours before the gig is relaxed and happy. Hopper is describing the end of days from the pulpit, rehearsing with the band for the first time. He preaches fire and bitter winds. He misses his cues, but the musicians never flinch.

Ten minutes later, once judgement has been called down to everyone’s satisfaction and the stage has been cleared, Damon Albarn wanders out into the stalls to be interviewed. He is one front tooth shy of the polo-shirted indie dreamboat of old, and manifestly at peace with himself and his surroundings.

“This is where I’ve wanted to get to in my life,” he says, “just to have some control over everything. And what this has which nothing else I’ve ever done has… it feels like a family.

“I’m actually happier. I just like being able to get lost in the music and not worry about it. I don’t feel so exposed basically… Even though I was a frontman for many years I don’t think I’m actually that comfortable with it.”

True to his word, Albarn spends most of the show that follows crouched over an upright piano at the back of the stage, very deliberately shifting the focus elsewhere. If he’s not singing, he’s grinning, visibly moved by the overwhelming sound around him. The man who joylessly woo-hoo-ed his way through Song 2 every night on Blur’s last tour must be somewhere else.

It’s not hard to see why. Demon Days Live is stunning, serving up constant delights and distractions, from a gospel choir to a group of ecstatically body-popping children. The powerful twenty-five-piece band renders Albarn’s songs louder, brighter and more urgent.

The guest stars of the Gorillaz universe drift in and out: De La Soul follow Neneh Cherry, Ike Turner wanders on in a sequinned pimp suit and Shaun Ryder manhandles Martina Topley-Bird. Helicopter gunships strafe flying windmills on the giant screen above them and Murdoc and 2D heckle from the royal box, like the punk offspring of Muppets Statler and Waldorf.

All the same, there is no doubting who the father of this family is. “Damon needs the acclaim,” his friend and bassist Alex James recently observed. And when he finally makes his way to the front of the stage for the encore he gets a standing ovation. The applause is for the musicians, and for Jamie Hewlett’s astounding graphic art, but it’s also his alone and he accepts it, mouthing an emotional “thank you” towards the circle.

Five years ago, Albarn and Hewlett drafted a one-page manifesto that set out to divorce music from the culture of celebrity. Hewlett’s cartoon creations would allow Albarn to make pop records without exposing himself to public scrutiny. There would be no tour, no Rolling Stone profile, and no need to answer the same old questions about Blur ever again. By any reckoning, their project has been staggeringly successful. Gorillaz have sold more than twelve million albums and Albarn has given just three interviews, including this one. It may well be the last.

“At the moment we’re like, ‘that’s probably the last album we’ll make,’” he says, “I don’t think we could make a better album than Demon Days really, for what this is and how it works.”

EMI will be fervently hoping that Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodles can persuade him otherwise. They will not be short of human assistance. Team Gorillaz is already a sizable organisation with a logic and momentum of its own. Albarn writes the tunes and calls the shots, but he may be powerless to stop the beast that he has created, even if he really wants to. The characters already have a life of their own.

“That’s the whole point of it,” Albarn says, “It’s like, let’s deconstruct this celebrity monster that’s been created in our society. It’s become so big and so pervasive that it needs chipping away at all the time now. Soon you’re gonna have super-newsagents – just ten thousand magazines with the same people in them. That’s insanity.”

It’s a madness Albarn knows well, having been badly burned by the culture he seeks to deconstruct, back when he was one pole of Britpop’s clash of civilisations. Gorillaz is his escape pod from a nostalgia industry that freezes him in time in an antagonistic two-shot with Liam Gallagher, a self-confessed “irritating little twerp” to be celebrated and derided through the bars of his very big house in the country.

“I was never really very comfortable being that,” he says, “It’s not me. It’s what I did when I was younger and it had its course and then it stopped … I realised that the image and the artifice of music is something that you have to really be aware of otherwise it can destroy your music, you know? If you allow vanity to get in the way, and ego, that’s where so many people go wrong. That’s why so many people start out brilliant and end up shit.”

It is now four years since Graham Coxon left Blur, implying that Albarn’s egotism and vanity made it impossible for him to stay. The public relationship played out in misquoted lines and gossip columns ever since has been painful to watch, the sparring of a formerly inseparable couple with mutual friends. It would justify Albarn’s mistrust of the media on its own, and clearly still troubles him. He seems unable to resolve his next sentence, which unfolds awkwardly over a full minute.

He says: “I don’t feel guilty, but… I do feel a sense of responsibility to that, but I also feel that Graham has just so sort of stridently removed himself from that responsibility… I know what it’s like when people are all working together in a positive, forward-looking way, like this…

“I’m not saying that the other two, I’m not really criticising anyone. I understand… I don’t understand actually, I mean I can appreciate where Graham’s coming from I just think it’s a real shame…

“It’s just a shame that we’ve put so much of our lives into it and no-one’s able to… it would be really nice to do a gig and just have nothing to prove and enjoy playing the old songs and have fun just re-living stuff…

“To sort of put a full-stop on that, it’s like, I’ll never abandon the idea of Blur because that’s what I, that’s what gave me the opportunity to do all the other things.”

Those other things, from film scores to Mali Music, have earned Albarn a reputation as one of the most prolific and adaptable songwriters of his generation. His current projects include a musical about Ladbroke Grove for the National Theatre, an opera based on the Chinese saga known to 1970s kids as Monkey, and a brand new supergroup.

“I’ve just finished another record,” he mentions, offhand. “I’ve been working with Paul Simonon from the Clash, and Tony Allen, from Fela Kuti’s band, and the guitarist Simon Tong who was in the Verve, and now plays with Gorillaz.

“We’ve been down in Devon. I’ve spent the last month doing hill walks with Tony Allen and Paul Simonon. The average age of this new band we’ve put together is something like fifty-six. Simon’s the youngest and I’m the second-youngest. But I think when you hear the record you won’t be able to tell that it’s made by old guys.”

The advanced years and family responsibilities of his bandmates mean that opportunities to see the new group live will be few. Albarn himself has a six-year-old daughter, one more very good reason to stay off the road. “We probably will do something, but touring as an idea doesn’t exist anymore in my vocabulary,” he says, “I don’t tour, I do things like this, stuff which has a real point to it.”

The Blur of Popscene and Parklife lives on in fansites and entertainment news pages all over the world, sustained by twice-yearly reunion rumours and scraps of truth. That Albarn’s every move arouses interest only serves to emphasise why he currently prefers to let cartoons do the talking.

Alex James recently told a radio show that the remaining three members of Blur got together just before Christmas, “We were making the most nasty, dirty, filthy rock music I think we’ve ever made,” he said, adding “the Foo Fighters are gonna wet their pants when they hear it.”

Within a few hours, Blur’s heavy metal comeback was being reported as fact. French indie fans were informed that “le nouvel album de Blur allait sonner ‘dirty, nasty, filthy’”. The Pearl Jam Message Board discussed the band’s new hard rock direction. Indian website New Kerala featured Blur Warn Rival Rockers in its headlines, alongside Elephant Creates Traffic Snarl and Quereshi Has His Cake And Eats It Too. That it was partially true, at best, mattered little.

“There could be a new Blur record,” Albarn observes neutrally, “But it’s not going to be for a while because as soon as I finish here I’m locked into working at the National Theatre, and that’s not an easy thing to do, to write a musical. It’s really not. It’s a lot harder than you think it is.

“Nick Hyntner and the team at the National have been incredibly understanding and supportive and are prepared to keep working on it for as long as it takes. That’s how I work these days.”

Albarn has a palpable enthusiasm for everything, it seems, except the band that made him famous. He talks about buying a Neve desk for his studio, so that he can master albums without any outside help. He notes contentedly that the success of Gorillaz guarantees the independence of Honest Jon’s, the label he started with the owners of his local record shop. “If you make money,” he says, “for God’s sake put it back into the things you love, because where else are you going to put it?”

Albarn’s ear for a pop melody has bankrolled his hobby, his trips to Africa and China, and a series of adverts in the NME opposing the invasion of Iraq. It has also enabled him to sneak a record about environmental catastrophe and the rape of the third world into six million homes. The lyrics of Demon Days are mostly oblique, but taken as intended together with Hewlett’s dystopian visions, Albarn’s most commercially successful album yet is a requiem for consumer society. The instant, childish appeal of Noodles and Russel belies deadly serious political intent.

“Demon Days had a real point to being made,” Albarn says, “I really wanted to create a piece that was a provocative reflection on the world that I see out there. I’m surprised we’ve managed to get so successful considering how bleak it is.

“I think we were glad when we recorded [the title track] Demon Days, which was one of the last tracks we did in the recording sessions, because we thought ‘thank God there’s going to be some resolution, some light at the end of the tunnel.’ I think you have to have that on a record. If you’re going to tell a story of any kind you have to have some sort of hope.” Live at the Apollo, the moment when the Harlem Gospel Choir heralds this shot at redemption brings fifteen hundred people to their feet.

“It’s very, very expensive to put on these shows,” Albarn says “They don’t run at a loss but we re-invest an awful lot of the money we make, an awful lot of it. That’s how it should be. How much money do you need?”

The Apollo residency is a virtual re-run of the production’s debut at the Manchester International Festival last November. It involves eighty musicians, plus an enormous crew of producers, managers and technicians. De La Soul show up for half a verse each. Ike Turner is content with roughly eight bars of piano solo. It is unlikely to be repeated. “We’re saying it’s the end again,” Albarn admits, “but it’s quite a hip-hop thing isn’t it, to retire and come back.”

One email later the headline is written, and posted from New York to London to Kerala. Gorillaz To Split. Some trick for a band that never existed. “We’ve gone back to probably making a film again, actually,” offers Albarn, and heads off to join Murdoc and 2D in the dressing room.