Back in the late Sixties, the supergroup was a pretty rarefied branch of the rock'n'roll tree. Most bands were like gangs, groups of mates who met at school or in the pub, and who played music initially as a social thing, before considerations of commerce and culture changed their ambitions. But supergroups - these were rock aristocracy, musicians so successful and well-known that, like British lords, they usually only needed a surname: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Clapton, Winwood, Baker & Grech.
Since then, the supergroup has become a largely derelict concept, its aristocratic overtones rendering it one of the first things up against the wall during the punk revolution. Yet here on stage in west London's Tabernacle is a latter-day supergroup, playing the second of two discreet warm-up gigs for their premiere performance tonight at the Roundhouse as the most intriguing part of the Electric Proms season. On guitar, there's Simon Tong, once of The Verve; on drums, Afrobeat pioneer and long-time Fela Kuti accomplice Tony Allen; on bass, Paul Simonon, former stalwart of The Clash; and on keyboards and lead vocals, the Blur and Gorillaz mainspring Damon Albarn, adding yet another chapter to his already diverse CV.
On their recently finished album, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, the unnamed combo displays a surprisingly subtle, measured style, despite the presence of such powerful propulsive elements as Allen and Simonon. Allen himself describes it as "a delicate record, very delicate", and he's not wrong: it's an album of pastel tints rather than bright hues, overcast rather than sun-splashed, and infused with the kind of wistful melancholy in which Albarn has come to specialise.
Onstage, however, the new band is a more muscular proposition, with Simonon's heavy, dubby basslines driving the music firmly along whilst Allen - a drummer reputed to be able to play in different time on each limb, simultaneously - lays down a detailed bed of little rhythmic suggestions. Tong's guitar parts are varied but never garish or overbearing, and while Albarn fronts proceedings on acoustic guitar or small upright piano, the auxiliary fifth member, Mike Smith, fills in the various other keyboard parts originally played by Albarn. Despite a couple of teething problems with the PA, it's clear that this is a great band, one that got together neither as a gang, nor as an alliance of reputations, as in the case of most supergroups, but because of the music.
They've taken their time finding the music, too. The project's original germinal seed pre-dates even Gorillaz, whose two albums have made Albarn a global star. In securing the initial deal with EMI for Gorillaz, he agreed to their release of a Blur hits compilation, for which was recorded the customary bonus track "Music Is My Radar", at the end of which Albarn repeated the phrase, "Tony Allen got me dancing". He had been listening to a lot of Nigerian music at the time, and the phrase just popped into his head. So when Allen was looking for guest contributors to his Home Cooking album, Albarn seemed an obvious choice.
"He wanted to do it, so we went into a studio," recalls Allen, "but that day there were too many things happening in the studio, too many ups and downs, so we didn't get round to doing it. So he asked me if he could take that track back to his own studio, and he finished it there. When he brought it back to me and played it to me, that track was the best track on the album - what I wanted was just there."
Their friendship cemented during subsequent support slots for Allen's band at Blur shows, the drummer mooted the idea of a more open-ended collaboration. "I told him I was looking forward to when we could get together and just write some songs together, build things up from scratch," Allen explains. "Damon had a lot of work on at the time, but a year later he called me and said, 'Hey, Tony! I'm free now!' I would come over from Paris for three days of the week, and we'd stay in the studio writing."
Albarn, who had just done his Mali Music project, was keen to work more in Africa, so following a few months' rehearsals with Tong, the three decamped for Allen's place in Lagos, where the songs were recorded with a large coterie of local musicians. "Then when we came back, Damon decided that he wasn't going to use the stuff we did in Nigeria because it was all big-band, and it would be impossible to promote with more than four, maybe five people," says Allen. "He said, 'We're going to have to start writing again, new stuff.' Back to square one. He wanted to give it more of a British flavour, and he was right, because people would find the other one too difficult to understand."
Thus began another round of writing and rehearsing, with Allen commuting back and forth between his French base and west London. This time, however, Albarn had added the final member of the band's line-up, bringing in Simonon to add a fluid solidity to the bottom end. "At that point, we knew where we were going," says Allen. "There was a band there now."
Since the demise of The Clash, Simonon had drifted away from the music scene, calling time on his own group Havana 3AM when one member succumbed to cancer. Hanging up his bass, Simonon returned to his first love, painting. "I stopped doing music partly because I didn't want it to be that 'here's another pop star with his paintings' situation," Simonon explains. "I ducked out of sight and basically just went to live in the British Museum or the V&A, just drew and learnt how to look properly, tighten up everything in the visual department. I had a few exhibitions, of which the main one was the Thames show [a series of riverside landscapes of London whose crepuscular blues and greys are echoed in the band's evocative stage backdrop]. Then this situation with Damon came up, and I was ready for it. I thought, 'I can manage both things now, and not feel like a painting pop star.'"
Simonon had first met Albarn about 10 years before, at Joe Strummer's wedding reception in a Ladbroke Grove pub. "Chrissie Hynde turned up with Damon, and the next minute, she'd organised this group hug between me, Joe, Chrissie and Damon - an interesting way to meet somebody," recalls Simonon. "But the first time we met properly was April of last year, when I got a call from Damon about wanting me to hear some music in the studio, with the idea of maybe playing on it. I went down there and listened to a couple of tracks, and we spent most of the time talking about our local area, what we'd done, the future, the past, just conversations - and on hearing the tracks, I could hear basslines for them.
"I suppose the other aspect was that I had a lot of respect for Damon's political outlook, that was a very important element. I've been offered musical projects before, and to be honest, I was too fixed with my painting to want to do anything else - for me, it needs to be a really special thing, and I felt that this was quite special. So I put basslines on these two tracks, and the next minute we're working on some whole new songs, starting afresh. We all played together in there, Tony, Simon, Damon and I. It was a real band, like a jazz group, where you bring in individuals, put them in a room together, and push the button to record." He smiles self-effacingly. "We've all got the burdens of our musical pasts to endure, or enjoy, or whatever."
Simonon had recently returned to music as a hobby, playing along to Luis Bacalov spaghetti-western soundtracks on guitar. But when he strapped his bass back on, he was immediately aware of how long it had lain untouched.
"It was a bit of an albatross, because it weighs a bloody ton, that thing!" he says. "I'd forgotten how heavy it is - I used to have perpetual burn marks on my shoulder from the strap; mind you, I used to run and jump around a lot back then, and the friction of the strap on flesh can be quite painful."
At the Tabernacle, there's not enough room onstage for much running and jumping, even if the musicians had the inclination, but Simonon accentuates his declamatory basslines with a few strides and stamps. Albarn is mostly anchored to the piano, and Tong has the studied mien of a cultured player rather than a rock star. Allen, meanwhile, looks as if this is a breeze for him. In this band, Allen has the time and space to paint detailed but discreet sound pictures beneath the tracks, adding not just rhythm but another range of sonic colour to the music.
While Allen flits back and forth between Paris and London, Simonon has less of a trek to make for the new band's rehearsals here at the Tabernacle. "Damon lives two minutes that way, and I live two minutes the other way, so this building is our central meeting point," he explains. The neighbourhood, it transpires, was a shared interest for both musicians. "When Damon and I met up, we had a lot of books in common that we would talk about," he says. "Peter Ackroyd's London was a personal favourite of mine, and there were other books about things like public hangings at Marble Arch, some of which became elements in the songs - and there are references to people like Goldhawk and Lord Hillsbridge, who owned the estate around Westbourne Park. We're quite the local historians."
Simonon launches into a brief history of the area, which has been a home to immigrants and refugees throughout history, taking in the Huguenots, the exiled Spanish Republicans fleeing Franco, and the Empire Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants, each successive wave adding to the neighbourhood's rich social ecosystem. That mulch of influences is evident in the band's music, though the dominant flavour is probably the melancholy tinge which has become such a potent element of Albarn's vocals, and which reflects the capital's characteristic overcast climate.
"I used to hate the British weather, considered it cold and miserable," says Simonon, "but coming back to it after a while away in El Paso and Los Angeles, I saw it in a different light, and came to like its mournfulness. It affects reality, in so far as people don't tend to go round saying 'Well done!' and 'Have a good day', like they do in America; and I quite like the abrasiveness of living in England. This record definitely has that quality, though it's positive, too. It's very up. In a way, my outlook on this is more vaudeville than rock'n'roll, really. To me, they're like gritty folk songs. We don't jump around onstage - at our ages, we need to retain a little dignity."
The Good, The Bad & The Queen play tonight at the Roundhouse, London NW1 (08703 891 846), with support from Jamie T and Young Tiger; the single 'Herculean' is released on Parlophone on MondayReuse content