Damon Albarn: The great escape

Damon Albarn has been taking America by storm with his cartoon band. But, he tells Andrew Purcell, the latest Gorillaz album may be the last. How could they top it?
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The Independent Culture

There are ghosts at the Apollo. Bobby Byrd holds his master's cape, the amateur night regulars bawl and shimmy, 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 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, Albarn wanders out into the stalls to be interviewed. At the moment he is one front tooth shy of the polo-shirted indie dreamboat of old, and manifestly at peace with himself. "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 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 front man 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-hooed 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, from a gospel choir to a group of ecstatic, body-popping children. The 25-piece band renders Albarn's songs louder, brighter, 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. Helicopters strafe flying windmills on the giant screen and Murdoc and 2D heckle from a box.

But there's no doubting who the father of this family is. "Damon," his friend and bassist Alex James recently observed, "needs the acclaim." And when he makes his way stage front for the encore, he gets a standing ovation. It's 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 records without exposing himself to public scrutiny; no tours, no Rolling Stone profile, no need to answer the same old questions about Blur ever again. By any reckoning, their project has been staggeringly successful. Gorillaz have sold 12 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 fervently hope that Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle can persuade him otherwise. They will not be short of allies; Team Gorillaz is 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 he has created, even if he wants to. The characters have a life of their own.

"That's the whole point of it," Albarn says. "It's like, let's deconstruct this celebrity monster. It's become so big and so pervasive that it needs chipping away at all the time now. Soon you're going to have super-newsagents - just 10,000 magazines with the same people in them. That's insanity."

It's a madness Albarn knows well, having been badly burnt 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, from the self-confessed "irritating little twerp" to be celebrated and derided through the bars of his 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 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's 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. It would justify Albarn's mistrust of the media on its own, and clearly still troubles him.

He says, haltingly: "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'm not saying that the other two, I'm not really criticising anyone. I understand... I mean I can appreciate where Graham's coming from, I just think it's a real 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 reliving 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 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. 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 new supergroup.

"I've just finished making another record," he says, 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. The average age of this new band is something like 56. 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 chances to see the new group live will be few. Albarn 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 any more in my vocabulary. I don't tour, I do things like this, stuff that has a real point to it."

The Blur of "Popscene" and Parklife lives on in fan sites and entertainment news pages all over the world, sustained by reunion rumours and scraps of truth. Alex James recently told a radio show that the other three members of Blur got together before Christmas. "We were making the most nasty, dirty, filthy rock music I think we've ever made," he said. "Foo Fighters are going to wet their pants when they hear it."

Within hours, Blur's heavy metal comeback was being reported as fact. French 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. That it was partially true, at best, mattered little.

"There could be a new Blur record," Albarn says 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. Nick Hytner and his team have been incredibly supportive and are prepared to keep working on it for as long as it takes."

Albarn has a palpable enthusiasm for everything, it seems, except the band that made him famous. He notes that Gorillaz' success 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 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 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 together with Hewlett's dystopian visions, Albarn's most commercially successful album yet is a requiem for consumer society. The instant, childish appeal of Noodle 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 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, because we thought, 'Thank God there's going to be 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." At the Apollo, the moment when the Harlem Gospel Choir heralds this shot at redemption brings 1,500 people to their feet.

The Apollo residency is a virtual rerun of the production's debut in Manchester last November. It involves 80 musicians and a huge crew of producers, managers and technicians. 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?"

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