Next week, Damon Albarn will release Everyday Robots – his first-ever solo album after more than 20 years as the leader of Blur, Gorillaz and too many one-off supergroups to list concisely. It's an excellent album (now streaming on iTunes), full of melancholy melodies that only Albarn could have written, and ones that he's still getting used to performing live. "That was the first gig I've done with this new band where we walked offstage and said, 'That made sense tonight,'" he says the day after playing a Tribeca Film Festival event with his new backing band, the Heavy Seas. "We needed that."
Everyday Robots is a new kind of album for Albarn. He's drawn on personal experiences for years, along with his trademark character studies and occasional nonsense rhymes, but he's never brought specific scenes from his memory to life quite the way he does in these songs. "It's pretty direct," he says. "Everything but one verse in the song 'Photographs' happened – and that verse was a recurring dream I had as a kid, so it kind of happened."
Some of those memories are quite light-hearted (as on "Mr. Tembo," about an elephant he met in Tanzania); others are heavier, like the verse in "You and Me" where Albarn sings about the heroin habit (now long gone) he had picked up in the Nineties: "Digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove/Tinfoil and a lighter, the ship across/Five days on, two days off." The British music press, naturally, has had a field day with those words. "It's one line," Albarn says, sighing. "It's a strong line, but that's it. It's frustrating, but inevitable."
Stretched out on a hotel lobby couch in a sharp gray suit, a single gold tooth gleaming each time he smiled, Albarn spent half an hour chatting with Rolling Stone.
You've credited producer Richard Russell with prompting you to make a solo album.
Yes, it's his fault.
Had you ever thought about doing one before he suggested it?
No. No, no, no. I don't think I'm that kind of person, really. I mean, with the exception of two or three little bits in songs, I've written everything that I've ever performed, so I've never really needed to get out on my own to express myself. I've never done a solo record because it didn't seem necessary. But this clearly is a very personal record, and so that, I suppose, was the challenge for me. It was like, "How do I make a record that really is a solo record?"
What made you want to write about your life the way you do on this album?
Well, it had to be like that. It's a record about me. That's how I conceptualize it – I've written a song about Damon Albarn, you know what I mean? That sounds a bit weird. Maybe I am a bit weird. But that's how I see it. It doesn't mean that's what I'm going to do next – in fact, before I came out here, I was working on some bossa nova thing for the World Cup, which couldn't be really more removed. This is one aspect of what I'm doing at the moment. It's where I'm being myself.
A song like "Hollow Ponds" almost feels like your version of writing a memoir.
Yeah, it is, yeah. And god, I'd much rather write it like that than have to write a book. [Grins]
In that case, I have to ask: Did you read Alex James' memoir?
You know what, I've never read his book. My mum loves reading his books. But I didn't really feel like I need to read something I lived through.
Fair enough. I love the moment in "Hollow Ponds" where you remember how you stumbled across the title for Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993.
That was a really big moment for me. It was mad. I wish I'd taken a photo. You know, there's me going on about taking too many photographs and not living in the moment, but I wish I had taken a photo. At the end of Edgware Road going up to Hyde Park Corner, there's a long white wall, and there was a bit of graffiti that big [tracing a postcard-sized space on the wall], and it said "Modern Life is Rubbish." That little bit of graffiti changed my life. It was just such a massive thing, so ridiculous. I had to sing about it.
I remember seeing press photos for that album where you posed in front of a bigger recreation of the graffiti.
Yeah, we did that in Clacton, on the sea front, for the NME. And the guy who did [the original graffiti] got quite upset. I mean, I hadn't got his permission – I didn't know who it was. He was quite an interesting character. A true outsider. He used to make buildings and cities out of matchsticks and then destroy them. I wish I remembered his name, because I would love to give him the props for having such a big influence on my life. But if he's a true artist, then I hope he'd be happy that his message came across like that.
Was it difficult to write any of the more personal songs on this album?
Yeah. I wouldn't have been able to do that unless I had someone like Richard. He's a hugely successful music mogul, and he knows how to give it straight to artists. It's good to have an editor… In "The Selfish Giant," I had written the line, "It's hard to be a lover when the TV's on and there's nothing in your eyes." I sang it, and then I was like, "I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with that." And it didn't help that my partner said, "I don't like that song." So I went to Richard, and said, "I don't know if I want to use that line." He goes, "You're mad! That's the best line on the record."
What about "You and Me"? That's probably my favorite of your new songs.
I love that song as well. It's about this sort of post-carnival moment. There were originally two songs, and I think Richard had been listening to Frank Ocean, and he said, "Wouldn't it be cool if we put two songs together?" That's why it's such a long song.
You're also talking very directly about using heroin in that song in a way that you haven't before.
Well, I have two lines.
Were you surprised that those lines caused such a stir?
It's a shame. I put those two lines which were very appropriate at that moment in the record. Obviously it's not the complete story. I mean, I could write a book or a whole record about that experience, the positive and the very negative aspects of it. I chose to just sort of get it out of the way and just put it on the record. Like everything else on the record, it happened. But for it then to be sort of translated, so seemingly the whole fucking thing is about that – and it really isn't. If you've listened to the record you know.
Isn't that a risk of making an album where you talk about your own life?
Yeah, but I mean, personally, I thought the headline on the cover of Q was comedic. It's almost something out of Monty Python, you know? Because according to them I am a drug-taking Satanist, which, if only, is all I can say! [Laughs] If only life was that interesting. Listen, I don't mind, but it's not nice for my mum. It's not nice for my daughter. In isolation, it's quite a shocking sort of thing. For me it's comedy. But I think it's a shame for them as a newspaper that they have to resort to such tactics. Clearly they're not selling many papers, otherwise why would you do that?
Also, why would you do that and then put a really healthy-looking picture of me? At least dress me up with huge great dark shadows under my eyes and a pentagon tattooed on my forehead, or a swastika, do you know what I mean? If you want to make me Charles Manson, make me look like fucking Charles Manson, not like someone who's just come off from a holiday in the Caribbean or whatever. And I know why that happened – because they did the photoshoot before they did the interview, and they have two ways of selling papers. It's either salacious headlines or good-looking covers. They hedged their bets, clearly. Ugh. Whatever.
Would you say songwriting is easier or harder for you now than when you were younger?
I don't think it's any easier or harder. I think it's probably exactly the same. When inspiration happens, it's like magic, and the rest of the time, it's just a hard slog. That's why I do it five days [a week]. I'm a working songwriter and musician. I'm not precious about it – there's no lazing around all day in my caftan. I go to work at 9:30 and I finish at 5. I'll literally stop in the middle of something and go home.
Do you listen to much pop music these days?
Occasionally a pop tune sort of pops up and I really like it, and you get that delicious sense of something that only pop music can get you. But no, I don't follow the charts, which is probably a good thing for me. Otherwise I'd be very disappointed. I've prepared myself for not making a great impact on the charts. I've separated myself from that part of the industry.
Since when? What was the last time you actively tried to make something that would make the charts?
The last record I put out which was a pop record was the last Gorillaz album [2010's Plastic Beach]. It missed Number One in America by, I don't know, about 10,000 records, and I thought after that, "That's it. That was my chance, and I fucked it." [Laughs] That was my probably my one and only chance to have a Number One record in America. I've had a Number Two record, I'll live with that.
I know you're not a huge nostalgist, but you must have noticed that this album is coming out 20 years after you made Parklife with Blur.
I mean, that is completely coincidental. Just the way it's panned out. I'm proud of that record. I still know how to sing some of the songs from that period, so… I mean, it's a long time ago.
Is it a time you remember fondly?
What I remember of it, I remember quite fondly, yeah. Like any time, it had its ups and downs. I was far less equipped to handle it than I am now. I don't know if that's because I deal with it so much better now, or that what was happening then is just not happening now. I'm not sure. I suppose that once I got into that rhythm of being a musician and seeing it as a job, and loving my job, and losing all that preciousness about creativity, then everything got so much easier. I reckon that was around 13 [in 1999]. After that, I started to really loosen up about everything.
Now that you've made one solo album, would you like to continue making more of them?
Well, I suppose if someone asked me to make another one, I might.
I'll ask Richard Russell, then.
Well, I wouldn't necessarily make it with Richard! But I might.
And what about Blur and Gorillaz? Are either of those projects you might return to in the next year?
I think there's a very good chance I'll make another Gorillaz record. I think there is, yeah. But you've got to understand, making a Gorillaz record doesn't require anybody else to do anything. I like making that kind of record. I love electro music – I haven't done a lot of it for a while, and I really enjoy that. It gives me an excuse to buy loads more weird and wonderful synthesizers, which is always a good thing.