Damon Albarn on Blur's Big Return, Banksy, 'Really Fast' New Gorillaz LP

Singer also talks 'Alice in Wonderland' musical, why Austin Powers should sing "Parklife"

"I still try to avoid it like the plague," says Damon Albarn of playing with Blur. Credit: Nathaniel Welch/NY Times/Redux

Blur were one of the most popular bands of the Nineties — everywhere except here in America, where most mainstream listeners know them as the "woo-hoo!" guys thanks to their lone U.S. hit, 1997's "Song 2." But their stateside reputation has grown over the years since their 2003 split, and next week, Blur (who returned with a strong new album, The Magic Whip, last spring) will play their biggest American non-festival gigs ever, at L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl and New York's Madison Square Garden. Frontman Damon Albarn called from his London home to talk about why he both loves and hates getting back together with his old bandmates; his plans for a new album with his most successful non-Blur project, Gorillaz; and more. "I'm on my sofa, and I've just put dinner on for my family," he says. "Hopefully, it will cook while we're talking, and my multitasking genius will transcend this Tuesday evening."

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Brit Pop, when Blur and Oasis were archrivals. Do you think all that competition was good for the music?
It was definitely a lot of fun. We used the ghost of the Sixties to cover the skeleton of the modern age. It was a strange morphing, an interesting prototype time. Tabloid and celebrity are the things that drive things. But a lot of the music from then has got a real atmosphere to it. Lyrically, I don't think people write stuff like that anymore.

You and Noel Gallagher have squashed the beef, right? Do you hang out much?
Yeah, occasionally. I always enjoy his company. He's hilarious.

Do you listen to much new pop music? What's the last great record you heard?
I love [French-Cuban R&B duo] Ibeyi. I like lots of stuff, but I can't think of the names.

OK. Just to throw a name out there — what do you think of Kanye West?
I think he's pretty unique.

How about Taylor Swift?
Remarkable, but not unique. Anyone else? We can keep going.

Drake?
He's not as consistent as he could be.

Future?
Really interesting, and sometimes exhilarating.

Rihanna?
Well, she's on the cover of NME, so she must be cool. 

Your Alice in Wonderland musical, Wonder.land, is opening in London soon. What drew you to that material?
Alice in Wonderland terrified me as a kid. I was very disturbed by the Duchess in particular. She figured in my nightmares.

I read that the musical is meant as a commentary on the Internet. Is that right?
Yeah, a little bit. More importantly, it's about identity. It's very easy to have multiple identities, to be sort of passively schizophrenic all the time, because of social media. But it's a lot more fun than that. 

Are you looking forward to playing Madison Square Garden with Blur?
Is anyone going to come see it? I wonder. Will anyone bother?

I'm going.
Well, that's one person, and I know a couple of other people who are coming too. So we're looking at three, at least. But, yes, I'm excited. I've always felt that we deserve at least one reasonably sized gig in New York. It's something we dreamed about back in the early days — you'd hear of someone playing there and think, "Christ, that'd be something!" But we never did it.

Do you enjoy playing with Blur now?
I still try to avoid it like the plague, to be honest with you. But something weird happens once I've stepped onstage: I just have the best time. And then as soon as we get off, I say, "Never again." It's very strange. There has to be some sort of psychological paper that explains that emotion of trying to not do something; and then doing it, and then loving it; and then as soon as you've done it, trying not to do it again.

How come you try to avoid it?
I don't know. I sort of forget sometimes that I did all that work, all those years ago. But then we have such a fine time onstage — it has a very emotional undercurrent, but it's also fun and silly and noisy. That's a fantastic recipe, to have all of those elements colliding into each other. 

Do you have any surprises in store for these shows?
It's going to be very interesting performing a song like [1994's] "Parklife" in Madison Square Garden. I haven't got any answers to this, but I'm trying to find an American comic actor to perform it. I think that would be really fun. I asked Mike Myers — he's a lovely guy. I imagined him as Austin Powers doing "Parklife." It'd be quite a wonderful thing. But unfortunately he couldn't do it.

What about Jerry Seinfeld?
Well, it has to be someone who's kind of into the band, I suppose. The reason I wanted Mike Myers is that he knows that record. I wouldn't want to put someone in an awkward position.

What else are you working on now?
I'm in the very early days on a new Gorillaz record. So far, it's really fast, and it's got quite a lot of energy. I've been stuck on piano, somewhere off Broadway, for years now. I want to go somewhere completely opposite of that.

What do you do with your leisure time if you're not making music?
If there's a football game on, I'll go to that. Or I'll just go into the countryside and sit by the sea and cook and walk and do yoga and eat porridge. This week I'm going down to [Banksy's Disneyland parody installation] Dismaland to meet some people there. [Ed. Note: A few days after this interview, Albarn performed at a farewell concert for Dismaland.]

Are you friends with Banksy?
Yeah, I've known him since about the year 2000. A long time.

What do you make of the tabloid story that alleges British Prime Minister David Cameron performed a sex act on a dead pig when he was in college?
He's cooler now that he's admitted he smoked a bit of dope than he was before — that hasn't done him any harm, has it? He probably wrote [the rumor] in the first place! I wouldn't trust those politicians, apart from Jeremy Corbyn, who obviously is a favorite.

What about American politics? Any thoughts on Donald Trump?
Hmm. Maybe we could get him to do "Parklife" with us!