Damon Albarn: The man who blurs boundaries

Damon Albarn offsets his stratospheric success with Gorillaz with a series of resolutely unfashionable - and uncommercial - projects. Is he too clever by half? Andy Gill investigates
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The Independent Culture

This cultural outreach tendency reached its apogee with David Bowie, who cross-fertilised rock'n'roll with mime'n'make-up to create glam rock before starring in a few films and, more recently, developing a sideline in art criticism, penning weighty appreciations of the work of painters such as Balthus.

But this brief flowering of cultural cross-fertilisation didn't last, becoming one of the victims of the punk revolution - ironically, given the punk movement's theoretical roots in Situationism. Although lip service was paid in the immediate post-punk era to literature, philosophy and foreign films, such interests were soon swept away by the New Romantics, who prized style over substance, and it's been hard to envisage a revival of pop intellectualism since then. Any musician deemed to have ideas above his or her cultural station is likely to suffer the fate of Brian Eno who, for all his manifold achievements in various fields, is still sneeringly referred to as "Professor Eno" and regarded with suspicion by pop's blokeish contingent.

The latest pop star to receive this treatment is Damon Albarn, who despite his varied successes - most recently with the multi-million-selling cartoon band Gorillaz - and his obviously sincere interest in cultural diversity, has never shaken off the taunts levelled at him during the Britpop wars of the 1990s. He was, claimed his detractors, too middle-class to be a proper rocker - a supposed slight that conveniently ignored both his East End upbringing and the far more la-di-da origins of many other "street"-approved pop stars. And certainly, while one would have to regard with some suspicion any rock'n'roller who studied drama at Goldsmith's College, it must be said in his favour that he had the decency to drop out of the course before too long, adopting instead the usual round of menial jobs undertaken by scuffling musicians with more ideas than wherewithal.

Albarn's artistic roots are directly traceable to his parents, a pair of ex-hippies with cultural interests. His father Keith lectured on art, designed furniture, was involved in television arts programmes and even managed the hirsute art-rockers Soft Machine for a time. His mother Hazel worked as a stage designer for Joan Littlewood's company at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, near the family's Whitechapel home.

Although his parents' musical diet of Ravi Shankar, jazz and "head" music apparently failed to win him over, Albarn did eventually develop enough of an interest in music and drama to become regarded as "posh/gay" at Stanway Comprehensive School, after the family had moved out to Essex.

A period studying at the East 15 Drama School in Debden led to a place at Goldsmith's, but he soon realised that his heart wasn't entirely in acting. "I'm not really committed enough to do it properly," he later acknowledged, restricting his thespian ambitions to small roles such as the one he played in the British gangster flick Face alongside Ray Winstone. Instead, he satisfies his cinematic interests by writing film music: he collaborated with the former Sugarcube Einar Orn Benediktsson on the soundtrack to 101 Reykjavik - he owns a house adjacent to Benediktsson's in the Icelandic capital, overlooking a tranquil inlet - and contributed five tracks to the soundtrack of Ordinary Decent Criminal.

Albarn also collaborated with Michael Nyman on the soundtrack to the period black comedy about cannibalism, Ravenous, in which his affection for music-hall styles gelled well with Nyman's sly way with punctured pomposity. The score's use of exotic instrumentation, including zither, whistle, pump-organ, accordion and marimba, prefigured Albarn's later forays into world music and gave him the courage to tootle away on melodica alongside the virtuoso kora players and percussionists he encountered in Mali.

Such musical diversity could not have been predicted from the early shows of Albarn's pop band Blur. For a while, they were callow indie fumblers without a distinctive style. This only slipped into place around the time of Modern Life Is Rubbish, when they revealed themselves as the inheritors of The Kinks' mantle of sardonic parochialism. In retrospect, Albarn has said he regards the Britpop-era Blur albums as angry, even cynical, works, which were misunderstood in the rush to acclaim all things Cool Britannia.

Through no fault of their own, Blur found themselves swept up in a north vs south battle with Oasis, which Albarn immediately regretted. It's ironic that Oasis should have laid claim to the Scouse side of Britpop's updated version of the Beatles/Stones rivalry, as they shared little with the Liverpudlians beyond a certain Lennon-esque chippiness. Their derivative riffs were no match for Blur's in terms of reflecting The Beatles' capacity for imaginative reinvention and diversity.

This has been nowhere better illustrated than in the two bands' respective approach to foreign cultures. While Oasis's surly Brits-on-the-piss demeanour has cost them transatlantic success, and cost their singer expensive dental work, Blur have seen their "Song 2" adopted as a rallying anthem by most US sports teams - not much to crow about, admittedly - while Albarn in particular has become the most prominent 21st-century equivalent of the 19th-century British explorers who roamed the world seeking cultural otherness. The main difference is that the Victorians viewed the world in terms of cultural booty, while Albarn has sought to find points of confluence between cultures.

Ironically, in so doing he has managed to achieve far greater success with his cross-cultural cartoon band Gorillaz in America than either Oasis or Blur, shifting six million copies of their debut album worldwide, with the follow-up Demon Days rapidly catching up. The big difference between Blur and Oasis, of course, is that Albarn is rarely more than a few feet from a book, and Noel Gallagher cheerfully admits to never having read one. When a reporter asked him about criticisms that he was "too clever for his own good," Albarn incredulously responded: "Are they saying it's better not to be intelligent and have no knowledge of other things outside pop music? How can anyone be too clever?"

Albarn's transformation from Essex pop star to cultural globalist is traceable to the moment when, at the peak of Britpop, he realised that he had lost faith in the mythical undercarriage of "Englishness" which had carried the band's work up to that point. With Jarvis Cocker, he was perhaps modern pop's most successful - certainly most visible - inheritor of the great UK art-school pop tradition that viewed culture as a boon rather than something to belittle. It seemed, from the mockery and name-calling by Oasis and their fans, that the UK no longer believed in that tradition, but wished to celebrate meat-and-spuds music made by musical butchers.

Even Blur's fans seemed to chafe against his more questing ideas. Where, they wanted to know, was the next "Girls and Boys", the next "Country House"? In the past, of course. He later admitted to impatience with artists who repeated themselves - and, by extension, fans who wanted them to repeat themselves. "If you have to do that, it means you didn't say it clearly enough the first time," he said. "You have to go out and find your sense of identity as a musician. I'm still looking for that, and I expect I'm going to spend my whole life doing it."

As well as ringing the changes on Blur albums, Albarn found some relief by getting involved in the project that would eventually reach fruition with the Mali Music album he made with Afel Bocoum and other West African musicians. The initial impetus for the project was political. "I was approached by Oxfam to go to Mali as their ambassador and get involved in their various initiatives out there," he said later. "But I felt that was missing the point of using me, a musician. So I went back to them and said I'd rather go and meet the musicians, and see if there's some kind of common link."

He travelled to Bamako and jammed with local musicians on the melodica, his instrument of choice at the time, then brought the tapes back to his west London studio and spent a couple of years wondering what to do with them, occasionally adding parts or editing bits together. Finally, he sent the tapes back to Mali so that Afel Bocoum could add violin and vocals.

The resulting album was the first release on Honest Jon's, the label he started with the team behind Honest Jon's Records, the knowledgeable record-shop near his Ladbroke Grove home, which had been largely responsible for introducing him to a world of music beyond the music business. "I wouldn't have got into Mali music in the first place without the encouragement of Mark and Alan at Honest Jon's," he admitted. "To me, it made perfect sense - a good record shop should be able to put out good records. It's a bit like what Rough Trade was in its early days."

The label has grown into one of Britain's most diversely fascinating, with archival releases mapping the development of post-war black music in Britain, Seventies English folk music, Sixties African highlife and juju music, a bizarre avant-jazz album by Einar Orn, and an excellent compilation of the unique orchestral and percussion work of the blind American street musician Moondog.

But when Albarn's Mali Music was released, it fell prey to critical carping that he was just doing a bit of middle-class musical slumming, forcing his own shallow, half-baked ideas on to a tradition of great depth and dignity - although few of his critics had actually been to Mali themselves, and had little beyond the odd Ali Farka Toure or Toumani Diabate album - great background music for dinner parties, don'tcha know? - to inform their criticism. It seemed a little unfair. When Ry Cooder plays with Cuban or African musicians, or Robert Plant adopts ideas from Saharan music, they are routinely accorded respectful consideration; yet Albarn's involvement, it seemed, was enough to automatically dismiss the resulting music.

Not that the carping has dissuaded him from pursuing his musical studies. When he was asked to contribute to the recent War Child benefit album, he happened to be in Hong Kong and so recorded a beautiful piece of that title with a Chinese zither player, Zeng Zhen. It was both the most moving piece on the album, and the track that best crystallised the charity's principles of fellowship and outreach. Not even his most assiduous critics could deny its charm; it was a rare jewel in a pile of old off-cuts, out-takes and live tracks.

It confirmed Albarn as the most eclectic musician of his era, and possibly since the heyday of The Beatles. Certainly, his closest challengers in that respect - Cooder, Eno, Peter Gabriel, The Residents, the German avant-rockers Can, and maybe a few of the more out-there sampling artists - have rarely managed to make the notion of an eclectic world music work as well in a pop context.

Albarn's globalist perspective gave weight to his criticisms of the Live8 concert's negative portrayal of Africa, and the lack of black artists on the bill. "More than ever, black culture is an integral part of society, so why is the bill so damn Anglo-Saxon?" he asked. "If you're holding a party on behalf of people, then surely you don't shut the door on them? [Live8] doesn't make you feel close to Africa, it treats it like it's a failing, ill, sick, tired place."

It was a shrewd perception of a flawed but well-intentioned PR exercise, something Albarn had demonstrated a nose for when he declined involvement with New Labour's "Cool Britannia" tommyrot; surely the thing for which Noel Gallagher will feel the greatest shame in years to come (which is saying something).

Albarn was the first pop star to voice disgust at the Government's imposition of university tuition fees, which he saw as a massive disincentive to young people hoping to attend university. When Tony Blair's apparatchiks sent him an invitation to the Number 10 cheese-and-wine bunfight, he sent the Prime Minister a terse note: "I'm sorry, I won't be attending as I am no longer a New Labour supporter. I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade. Love, Damon." Would that he weren't the only one.

In recent years, Albarn has continued ploughing his own diverse furrows, trying his best to ignore the carping from the sidelines. Blur were commissioned to write a piece of music for the Beagle 2 project, which, had the spacecraft survived to do its job, would have made them the first band to "play" on Mars. It was a nice idea, but when it failed, no matter - there are always more ideas than the time to realise them in Albarn's world.

He doesn't seem to measure success in terms of fame or profitability, either, although both seem to accrue despite his nonchalance. "Everything I do now runs at a loss," he told one reporter cheerfully. "I haven't been in a profit-making situation for years, believe it or not." Even the huge success of Gorillaz has been counterbalanced by his profligate spending on promotion, with a loss-making tour now followed by a lavish multi-media production of Demon Days at Manchester Opera House, involving upwards of 80 performers and who knows how many crew. After the brief five-day run, it will never be performed again - a surefire strategy to give his bank manager a heart attack. So, can you think of a better way to spend your money?

The final Demon Days performances in Manchester take place tonight and tomorrow night (www.gorillaz.com)