The chance to speak with Damon Albarn seemed to bring with it some anxiety - more than the usual when preparing for an interview. It's because I've read and seen interviews where Albarn has been painted as something of a prick; many times he's even been the one holding the brush, in control of the colouring.
Add to that the scheduled time moving from 11.30am Saturday to 2.30pm to 3pm - but when I am finally connected it's worth the wait and I find him to be affable, down-to-earth, focused, intelligent, engaged, engaging and not (in the slightest) a prick.
"It's 6.48pm," - he informs me precisely - at his end. Friday night. He's in San Francisco. The Gorillaz tour of America has two shows left but he has been there for five weeks and there have been some 30 shows.
"It's been incredible," he tells me, sounding happy. "Just incredible, I mean it's a huge task this tour, easily the biggest thing I've done since the heyday of Blur in the mid-90s or early-90s or whatever, but of course in many ways it's bigger, certainly in terms of the scope."
There cannot be a lot of margin for error; it must be a tough job wrangling everyone together?
"What, you mean in terms of sorting the catering?" And he chuckles slightly before explaining, "It has been tight for us, financially, this tour. But you have to make decisions, you have to be prepared to stick your neck out and take risks and you know this has been 10 years in the making so I think it's worth the risk, even if it is tight. So what? It's about sharing this experience with people and challenging yourself to move forward."
Gorillaz, Albarn's conscious attempt to bury himself in work and in the work following the success of Blur, is, he says "a gimmick with a lot of life in it", laughing off the idea that it is in any way, really, a gimmick. It can certainly be read as a comment on how, at his pop-star peak with Blur, he had been turned into a cartoon character, by the fans, by the press, by himself. And at first Gorillaz played on this entirely, appearing as a studio creation - sporadic, gradual live appearances saw video screens of the cartoon characters fronting for the "real" band; the musicians hiding (in more than one sense).
Now the musicians share the stage with their alter-egos created by Jamie Hewlitt (known for his Tank Girl strip, and an old friend of Albarn's). And with each Gorillaz album the cast grows. But, impressively, the audience grows too. So Gorillaz, a flexible unit that has been releasing albums across 10 years, is quite the anomaly in that the project embraced new technology to put across its message, but has also worked at building up the brand in the old-fashioned way of breaking the artist bit by bit, adding to its audience with each release.
"Well, yeah that's right," Albarn agrees, "I mean this new album, Plastic Beach, hasn't sold as many copies as Demon Days, that's still the biggest album we've done, but I guess in a relative sense it's true, because in terms of today's record sales figures compared with when we released Demon Days five years ago we are doing okay, so yeah, it's good. It's good."
There's a beat. And then, "You know, it's the way it should be, though. Really. I mean that's how it has to be done, build the act up, make the work count. Release things when you think they are right."
Albarn has regularly gone on record to voice his disdain for the X-Factor and Pop Idol-styled shows. So it seems appropriate to follow up what he's saying about brand-building, time-taking and musical-care with a sound bite:
"Well, it's just an empty vessel really, innit? I mean I just find that there's nothing there at all. It's pointless. And I think the really sad thing is that it's actually just wrong to build up these hopes and to build this hype because where it is really wrong is that there'll be a generation that will be left standing there with nothing. They will actually have nothing. None of this music is going to last. None of these acts will mean anything at all. And there will be a generation just left standing there holding this...this...empty vessel." No chuckle this time. All business.
But of course Albarn hasn't just taken his time to build Gorillaz up across the last decade. There was a final (for now?) Blur album in 2003's Think Tank (an arguably underrated release in the band's catalogue because guitarist Graham Coxon was already off making solo albums, taking some of the band's fans with him) and, before that, Albarn collaborated with Michael Nyman to create the score for Ravenous (click here for a sample of that). There was the album Mali Music and the album The Good, The Bad & The Queen named after the "supergroup" Albarn assembled with legendary drummer Tony Allen, Paul Simonon of The Clash, Verve/Gorillaz guitarist Simon Tong and hip-hop wunderkind Danger Mouse.
So how does Albarn achieve more than just the overnight success he mocks the idol competitions for? How is he seen as not flooding the market? Fans seem respectful of his varied projects, mostly interested at least.
"Well it's all about the palette you use. I mean, I'm still the same songwriter, I have the same ideas. In that sense it's all the same but the entry point is very different, the palette is different. With Gorillaz, I mean, really, it has no form," break for a brief laugh, "hopefully it will feel like a benchmark really, this group. I mean that - it has been a rewarding experience. Also you have to remember that the reason I have been able to do all these things is because I work hard at them and I have not been touring. I gave up touring and focused on the work of writing. I have a young family so touring was not desirable, not ideal. And so I started working five days a week with a studio I've built, treating it like a 9-5 job. I've been bringing up a family and I've been enormously productive because of not touring and having a home studio - it's really that simple. I'm interested in a lot of different music and I have worked hard to put it across."
There will be, he says, another album by The Good, The Bad & The Queen ("well, I would hope so, definitely") but something that Albarn thinks will probably please fans of that sound is a record by a new band that he is "three-quarters of the way through; I need to get this finished, but there's also another Gorillaz record I'm finishing up too. I've actually taken a mobile studio with me on this tour, because it's the longest I've been out on the road since, as I say, the days of Blur at its peak, so I have that luxury now of recording as I go."
The album that is three-quarters finished is "another band with Tony Allen; centred around what he does. But this time it's him and me and Flea from The Chili Peppers and some of my favourite African musicians will be involved also. Flea of course is an anagram for Fela and Flea is so into this music - so that's been great."
The hookup with Flea came about because Flea journeyed to Nigeria as part of Albarn's Africa Express project. I tell him I'm surprised that he has not worked with Ginger Baker, given the shared love of Nigeria, of the music of Fela Kuti, given Albarn's propensity for collaboration.
"Ginger? Oh yeah, well we were going to do something. We did talk about that, I would have loved that. But he's very crippled with arthritis in the hands now, so that's a real shame. He's not playing as a result. But yeah, I love what he does and that would have been great: him and Tony Allen playing..." the thought trails off.
But before the new Tony Allen/Flea/Albarn band/album, Damon wants to release another Gorillaz album.
"It's basically a tour-diary as a record, I guess it's my love-letter to America. I used to be very baffled by this place, and I guess I still am in some ways; America confused me enormously. But right now with all that's going on this is a good place to be and this has been a great tour, the shows have been very special. The audiences are the closest to mid-90s Blur audiences; I mean it's really been wonderful. And we're getting to play to good-sized crowds. And they know this music; they're really into it. They know it well. So that's great. I mean that's what it's about, right?"
Albarn repeatedly mentions Blur so I ask about the reunion shows and the future of the group. I suggest that the recent documentary felt cathartic for the audience, so that was surely the case for the band too?
"Oh absolutely. I was pleased. The whole thing was a lot of hard work and self-discipline - and all that work culminated in a performance at Glastonbury that was an emotional peak for me. Something that, as a performer, I don't think I'll better - not that particular feeling anyway, I don't think I'll get more from any performance or experience than that."
So a world tour then? A new album?
"There won't be another world tour for me - for anything - for five to six years; it would seem unlikely. I have a young daughter and it's just not feasible, it's too long away from home. This has been great, but it's too much after a while and so, no, there won't be any tours for me for a while, I should think."
But the Gorillaz tour remains a huge excitement, especially given the scope and size of the shows ("there's 70 musicians on stage" Albarn explains proudly) with a cast of friends and musical heroes. The show, coming to Auckland on December 21, features De La Soul, Simonon and Mick Jones of The Clash, Mos Def, Little Dragon, National Orchestra for Arabic Music, Gruff Rhys, Shaun Ryder and Bobby Womack.
"The funny thing about working with your heroes, as so many of these people are - it's strange really, the more you get to know them as people, the more you think of them as just people - which they are. And you realise that you're all helping each other. They're getting a lot out of this and there's a lot of mutual respect. For me seeing Bobby in action again has been great; here was a guy who was just done, really. He was spent. He was finished with music, he wasn't doing anything and he felt used up, I guess. And he's had a whole new start with this album and this tour and that's been amazing to feel part of - he's really starting to come out of himself on this tour and that's great."
There'll be a rest from touring and though Albarn won't confirm or deny new Blur material, there will definitely be new material from him: beyond the projects he's already mentioned, he says there is interest for him to return to film scores, though "the thing there is you really need to be working with a director who likes what you do; who is open to giving you a certain freedom to work with your ideas and explore them. But I love film music, I love listening to it and I love doing it. So that's something I'd consider again."
There's also the small issue of a Damon Albarn solo album. There has been a collection of demos, some lo-fi recordings, a solo track for the Trainspotting soundtrack, but would Albarn ever consider a proper studio solo album?
"I've promised myself that one day there'll be a proper ballad record, I don't know - 'Damon Albarn Sings Ballads' or something," he breaks off for a chuckle.
You could call it 'Damon Albarn Sings Damon Albarn'?
There's a hoot of laughter now, almost out of control, and then, "Yeah, Damon Albarn Sings Damon Albarn, I like that, I'll write that down."
We conclude with Albarn telling me to pass on to New Zealand readers that he's "really excited to be making it back down there. It's been a long time. I know we were there when Blur was probably at its peak, or in around that time anyway, I don't remember when exactly; it was a long time ago, but I do remember liking the country and I am looking forward to coming back. It's great to be able to bring this show there.
Gorillaz play Vector Arena, December 21. Will you head along? It sounds like a must-see show; the last chance to see him for a while. What do you think of Albarn and (all) his music? What's your favourite album/project he has created/been involved with?
Postscript: Albarn doesn't remember our own Darcy Clay opening for Blur and playing his version of Song 2 as the intro to his second song. But he laughed when I told him ("it was a long time ago, but good on him, that sounds a laugh").
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