INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo MAY 2014 - by Pat Gilbert
DAMON ALBARN: EVERYDAY ROBOTS
The man behind the mask: Damon Albarn takes a rare look inwards on his most reflective set of songs since the Blur era. Pat Gilbert has a cup of tea and a think.
For one of rock's most famous figures, and, with Noel and Liam Gallagher, the classic face of '90s Britpop, Damon Albarn remains something of a puzzle. Such an extraordinary life, such a wealth of musical adventures, yet so many facets of the man have often felt veiled. Albarn's decision to retreat, post-Blur, from a life lived in the public gaze and to launch Gorillaz as a 'cartoon group' in 2001, behind which he could enjoy a protective semi-anonymity while still selling millions of records, has done little to bring the 'real' Damon any closer. Nor has his torrent of millennial side-adventures. It seems he's been so busy investigating the world outside himself - excursions into African music, Chinese opera, stage musicals (the deathly Dr Dee) - that he's neglected, or postponed, looking inwards until now. Everyday Robots is not quite what you'd expect, or perhaps even want, from a Damon solo record. It probably won't tell you too much about him that you hadn't guessed already. But it is rather good.
The overriding first impression is of reflective, middle-aged melancholia - quiet, tick-tock percussion, minimal thud-thud bass, tinkling piano, mournful strings and, high in the mix, Albarn's wistful tenor unfolding another slow, hazy rumination on something yet to be fully understood by the listener. Only the joyful gospel lilt of Mr. Tembo - a story about a baby elephant Albarn met in Africa - sticks out from the glassine mist. That, and last track Seven Seas Of Love, an unlikely '8Os pop throwback that sounds a little like an acoustic Heaven 17 covering Daydream Believer.
What's abundantly clear is that Everyday Robots has no intention of coming to you; instead, its songs gently insist that you come to them. And patience and perseverance is bountifully rewarded. Albarn's co-producer, XL Recordings' Richard Russell (who worked with Damon on Bobby Womack's The Bravest Man In The Universe) embraces an aesthetic - where sparse, empty arrangements draw you towards the singer's words. The title-track, heralded by a Lord Buckley sample - "they knew where they was, wasn't it" - holds the key to the concept that binds together the first songs on the album: that we are beings lost and alienated in the sci-fi world of modern cities and technology, yet ineffably haunted and constricted by our ancient and enduring humanity. "We're every day robots on our phones," sings Albarn, "looking like standing stones."
Next up comes the aching Hostiles, a song evoking an atmospheric, blurry time-lapse photograph of London's rush hour, followed by the almost totally bereft and funereal sway of Lonely Press Play. The arrival of Mr. Tembo, all funky rhythms and happy, gospel backing courtesy of Leytonstone's Pentecostal Mission Choir, is a welcome relief. The Leytonstone connection isn't accidental: it was the east London area where Albarn lived as a child before the family moved to a tiny village outside Colchester.
But it's on You And Me and Hollow Ponds that things get really interesting, and there's suddenly a sense of Albarn revealing to the world something new, private and important. The first, a crepuscular mood-piece with Brian Eno adding pulsating synths is the most startling of the two, seemingly revisiting the troubled Britpop comedown of the late '90s that inspired Blur's harrowing 13. Damon sings of "digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove" with "tin foil and a lighter, the ship across, five days on and two days off", the first real public admission of a period dabbling with opiates in the aftermath of Parklife and The Great Escape's success. There's an unusual soulfulness to the song that swells as Albarn duets with himself in a strange falsetto - "blame me, blame me... when twilight comes it all goes wrong again".
Hollow Ponds reveals more autobiographical detail and opaque insights into Albarn's psyche. Starting in the titular local E11 park of his childhood, it charts the milestones of Albarn's life as he now recalls them: the summer heatwave of 1976; his family's three-month sojourn on the Black Sea before settling in rural Essex; starting secondary school in 1979; his favourite tree in the woods near his home mysteriously desecrated one day with a pentangle; the "modern life is rubbish" graffito that in 1993 would launch him towards stardom. Picked guitar and a doleful trumpet melody with notes taken from Madness's Tomorrow's (Just Another Day) further swaddle the track in layers of melancholia and mystery.
But here's the crux of it all. Though undoubtedly crafted by an extraordinary hand, it's not entirely obvious what Albarn is trying to say about himself here, or why. That he's an indelibly melancholic Englishman? That life is about continual change or loss, for which he himself is partly responsible? Or simply that the world inside his head is a dreamy, ruminative place, swirling with a jumble of synaesthesic images, curious thoughts and recollections? The hymnal Photographs (You Are Taking Now) has a bewitching image of a glass aeroplane flying over black sands before crashing into a city - like much here, its meaning is obtuse, but its effect is forcefully poetic.
Everyday Robots ends with the dual whammy of The History Of A Cheating Heart (which is "always more than you know"), its Top Of The Pops circa 1985 ebullience demanding you clap along, whereas what you really want to do by this time is have a cup of tea and think about your own life. Subtly psychedelic, intuitively clever and constantly challenging, Everyday Robots underlines that Albarn is an artist of originality and depth, a master of the haunting, insidious melody and - perhaps this needs no reiteration - a gifted, inventive musician. It is also his finest (only?) traditional song-based rock/pop album since the Blur era. But whether it gives us any more clues as to who or what the 'real' Damon Albarn is remains uncertain. An enigma, then, but one who makes fascinating records.
"THIS RECORD STARTS BACK IN 1976..."
Damon Albarn talks to Pat Gilbert.
Was it a preconceived idea that the album should be so downbeat?
"ln a way, you make those choices early on. With Richard [Russell], we'd worked together on the Bobby Womack record, but I had to move to the other end of the table [with him taking the main producer's role], which wasn't the easiest thing for me. But I realised if I was going to call something a 'solo record', it would have to be very autobiographical. From that point onwards, the tone of the record wrote itself. I was going way back and being very reflective. It needed to have quietness and space."
Why have you waited until now to do this?
"Well, I have done it before a lot. A record like Blur's 13 - Tender and No Distance Left To Run were very personal songs, and actually wouldn't be out of place on this record. That was written about a particular period, whereas this record starts way back in 1976."
How important looking back was the move from the East End to rural Essex when you were nine?
"It was pivotal, it was a defining moment in my life when I was transformed by circumstances, it was nurture not nature. I may not have got into music otherwise - I obviously can't say that for sure - but that sense of displacement did something to my head. lt made me an outsider, and you need to be an outsider to be a songwriter. But that's why I felt it was important to explain that, and that's why I did that film on the [BBC's] Culture Show. It wasn't easy going back that far, being a middle-aged man talking about stuff like hugging trees when you were thirteen. I've changed massively since then and to go back to that place in your head was weird, but it's all part of who l am."
Was the reference to "tin foil and a lighter" in You And Me a difficult admission to make?
"I was hoping no one would notice that (laughs). That was a period of my life - around 1997 - when I fell into a situation not of my own design. The world became a darker place, but for me it was also the beginning of a new aspect of my creativity, I felt released from a lot of stuff. It was a very creative time, but it was not very good for family life. Ultimately it's very destructive. I took a decision very early on to walk away from it... it all seems a very long time ago now. It helped define me, so it was important it was on the album, otherwise I would be hiding stuff."
There's a strong sense of the human race losing its way - of man versus technology.
"We're in an era of massive transformation and as a songwriter you're going to throw that question out into the ether. It's a very rich vein to explore."
Mr. Tembo the elephant - how is he?
"He's doing very well. I'd love to play him the song. Elephants are phenomenally bright and can understand simple language, so he knows his name. I hope his reaction to song is better than the first time I met him. He shat himself, but he was just a baby then."
BACK STORY: TREE HUGGER
As a treehugger, Albarn used to wander alone in Fiddlers Wood near his home in Aldham, Essex, where he befriended a tree. One day, while walking with his mother, he discovered his spiritual tree had been defaced with a pentangle, the occultist's symbol associated with the devil's horns. "I still find it weird," he says of the experience, referenced in Hollow Ponds.