It seems like it's going to be work at first. Damon Albarn's first real answer to my first real question -- something about Blur deciding not to tour in support of 13 -- is a not-unpleasant but rather vague, "Yeah." Not an encouraging sign in an interview. At least he makes eye-contact. Then Albarn starts to talk. He gets up, moves across the room and pours himself a cup of coffee. With every sentence, he seems to brighten, like he's winding himself up.
Damon Albarn: I think we're trying to design a new way of working.
Kieran Grant: Uh. Um. It seems to be in keeping with the material. I don't know if "13" has any less of a live feel, but there seems to be more of an emphasis on the recording as part of the composition.
DA: Touring does not give you enough time to write and think and listen to music. By the very nature of touring, you're under some kind of obligation to dwell on certain songs. Once people pay to come and see you there's an obligation, and I don't think we want to feel that obligation because it only frustrates us. And we don't need to do it for the money. I'd make a lot more money if I did, but that's another thing that troubles me: You don't even actually notice it, but you're out there gratuitously making money.
KG: Is that an ethical problem for you? A moral one?
DA:I have to say, I'm very comfortably off. I don't know what it is I earn a day when I'm working. Something ridiculous like 4 or £5,000, just for sitting here. (Laughs) What's the sense in making more than that.
If you actually analyze how much you're getting paid for what you're doing, it's a bit sick really that musicians and actors can have such - (he makes a face) - temperaments. I want to ensure that people will be prepared to pay for me to make my music for the rest of my life.
And, in a way, I think it's better, early on, to change the regime to where it's just: (Indicated voice of the record company) 'These people (Blur) make records, and that's it. If we can get anything else out of them as far as promotion is concerned that's a bonus, but essentially, just expect them to do that'."
KG: That's a nice level to work toward.
DA: Absolutely. And ("13") is a good album to do it on because it's an album that people are prepared to talk about a lot. If we'd chosen to do it on a record that really wasn't that interesting, it would have been a different thing altogether."
KG: I think it was hinted at with the last record. With this album it sounds like you are deconstructing Blur. Deconstructing the expectations.
DA: A lot of people have said that. It's back to a kid with his Lego, isn't it? There's an infinite amount of things to do with it.
KG: So at the start of this, was the Lego all over the floor?
DA: Yeah, and I hope at the end of this the piece will be all over the floor again. I think that's what we try to do with every record. I think every kid should only be give a certain amount of Lego. They should use their imaginations. (Laughs) The kids that just get more and more each year get bored of it.
KG: Looking back, was there a point where you did realize that this thing was going to divert away from people's expectations? Maybe even your own pop sensibilities?
DA: Not really. I don't want to be in league with Britney Spears and 'N Sync. It would be silly for me to think I could compete with them anymore. (laughs)
The weirdest thing is, it seems like Offspring are turning into a Britpop band. The video and everything. It's really weird. America's got this insane habit of picking up on English trends, like, three, four, or five years after they've happened and then thinking that they're their own. I was astounded to see that.
KG: Likewise, music in Britain seems to be going in a different direction: "13" has more to do with The Beta Band, maybe Spiritualized. Even groups like Belle & Sebastian, who are quintessentially British-sounding, are pushing things further away from Britpop.
KG: They sound quite American, yeah. You don't. But you knocked down that box around you that was Britpop.
DA: Our use of the British idiom was a lot different than most peoples', because it was a sarcastic, angry thing, and all those jolly songs were ripping into British culture.
KG: Maybe those didn't translate to American audiences.
DA: No, they didn't even translate to an English audience. Only a few people got it. But that's alright.
KG: But was there a point where you felt like you'd achieved what you'd set out to do initially? And were you freed to kick the band's style around the bloc
DA: Uh. How d'you mean
KG: Maybe after The Great Escape, it seemed like you maybe mastered being 'Blur, Chapter 1' and it was time to --
DA: Yeah. I think we've always felt like we were completely inadequate and we're just apprentices. Graham's painting on "13" is called The Apprentice. That's what we feel like. We feel like we're just beginning all the time.
KG: In a weird way, do you feel more comfortable when you're scratching the surface of some idea? Rather than going through the motions after record 5. Look at R.E.M. or U2, groups who stopped making their best records when they got too 'good' at it.
DA: I agree. I think everyone should go on to something different. Unless you're a Cuban... master or something. There's nothing specific about my culture. I think, by the very nature of where I come from, I'm being truer to my roots than if I just kind of stuck to one thing
(Record company comes in and gives us the five-minute high-sign).
When I was a kid I was subjected to West Indian music, Indian music, European music, everything. I'm just scratching the surfac
KG: At least you have yardsticks, like the Brian Enos of the world.
DA: I actually go to the same health club as Brian Eno. (laughs).
KG: I read one story that compared "13" to (Eno's 1974 album) "Taking Tiger Mountain".
DA: That's the kind of record I'd like to make. And I whenever I have a chat with him, I always tell him he should write more pop songs. Some of those were as good as anything that was around at the time
KG: I have to fly through some questions here before we run out of time. There's this idea that your top song in North America was Song 2.
DA: And will be forever.
KG: Were there thoughts about putting a 'Song 2' on this album.
DA: Naw. That's just not our style.
KG: Was that song a ticket to freedom as much as a stylistic burden. I just read that the U.S. military wanted it and you turned them down.
DA: Yeah. It was for the (official unveiling of) the Stealth bomber that just got...
KG: Knocked out of the sky?
DA: Yeah. I like the idea of some Serb going 'wah-hoo!' after that! (laughs out loud). (Song 2) gave us the sense that we weren't going to be complete shmucks in North America for the rest of our lives. Up to that point, it was, 'Is there something wrong with us? Are we just too provincial for our own good.' But the fact that it did so well and it's become so synonymous, and it was used on The Simpsons for chrissakes... Regardless of what anyone might say to us about how it never really cracked America, it did get on The Simpsons.
KG: Punching a few holes is better than breaking America.
DA: Breaking America turns you into a mushy mess anyway. I don't see any band that have really broken America and come out the other side a better band.
KG: Usually, conquering America coincides with discovering it, and that can create a lot of problems, creatively.
DA: Yes it can. (laughs)
KG: It seemed ironic to me that you waited until you had the highest profile of your career before unleashing such a personal record.
DA: That was coincidence, really. It wasn't planned. But in many ways, focusing so much on getting to that point in my career resulted in everything collapsing beneath me. That's where the record comes from.
KG: Is it problematic to work a record like this? To talk on a daily basis to strangers about the end of a long relationship. (The album is about Albarn's breakup with Elastica's Justine Frischmann).
DA: I tend not to talk about it. I just look at people with an icy stare when they start to talk about it. (laughs) Something personal would cease to become personal if really explained it. Forever more this will be my exit. It's a celebration of the whole thing even though it was very acrimonious. Do you know what I mean? I didn't want to just leave it. I feel like I've given it a...
KG: Viking funeral?
Record company intervenes to end the interview).
DA: Let him get in a few more questions.
KG: Did you really apply for dual citizenship?
DA: With Iceland. After four years you can apply for it.
KG: Do you own a home there?
DA: Yes I do. I don't feel that comfortable in England. I love the country. But I get a lot of... I don't know. Iceland is a place I've felt a kindred spirit with. If you're allowed to have someone's passport, you feel that you belong. I haven't really worked out why. I just love the people there. And It's a good way to stick your finger up at the English establishment.
KG: Do you get left alone in Iceland?
DA: Yeah. Well, everyone knows who I am. Everyone knows who everyone is.
KG: Have you learned the language?
DA: No, you see, that's the thing that I feel bad about. I've not been able to learn.
KG: What is your next film music project?
DA: I'm doing an Icelandic film with Einar from the Sugarcubes. And I may be doing the music for the film The Beach (note: Leo DiCaprio's next movie). I'm only at the talking stage on that one.
I definitely want to do more. It has everything. And you don't have to use your face. I want to become anonymous. Not a complete recluse, but not have to ever sell myself on anything other than my music, which in the pop business everyone has to do. I feel lucky that I'm even getting the chance.
My classical training has paid off. It's been a bane in my life because I'm always being accused of being a middle-class prat by certain people. Hopefully I'll get the last laugh on that.
KG: One of the vindicators on "13" is that, even though William Orbit produced it, it's not really Orbi-fied. You seem to have held on to the reigns.
DA: No, and it wouldn't be. He's great. He gives just a little bit, a nudge, and there are so many bands who would benefit from him giving them another angle, another option.
KG: Are the few shows that you're doing going to be doing of a larger scale? ("Tender", the current single, features the London Community Gospel Choir).
DA: In Toronto it will just be us. We did a gig in New York with the Boys Choir Of Harlem, and we had the Mixed Choir of Compton in L.A. Are there gospel choirs in Toronto? I don't know.