Last fall, Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn was feeling bored on tour — so he did what he knows best and started sketching ideas for a new album on his iPad. “If you’re away from home for months on end, it just seems criminal not to try and turn that time into something tangible,” says the English singer-songwriter, 50, who’s released nearly an LP a year over the past quarter-century with Blur, Gorillaz and assorted side bands. The result is The Now Now, Gorillaz’s excellent new full-length LP. With its breezy melodies and comparatively lean cast of characters — Snoop Dogg, 75-year-old smooth-jazz guitarist George Benson and Chicago house veteran Jamie Principle are the only credited guests — The Now Now is a refreshing change of pace from Humanz, the overstuffed set Gorillaz released just last year. “It’s a record within a record, a dream within a dream,” Albarn says. “Sort of like Inception.”
The rest of 2018 is shaping up to be a characteristically busy time for Albarn. In October, he’s bringing his cartoon band to the U.S. for a string of arena dates, leading up to his first-ever Demon Dayz L.A. festival on October 20th. “Gorillaz fans feel like a a big family over there,” he says of the States. “I always get this amazingly warm reception from the fans. So I imagine it will be a family reunion sort of thing.” He’s also preparing to release a new album from The Good, the Bad & the Queen, his collaboration with Afrobeat great Tony Allen, Clash bassist Paul Simonon and Verve keyboardist Simon Tong (their first release since their underrated 2007 debut). “That’s finished, ready to go,” he says. “It’s very much an of-the-moment record — a weird, distorted mirror on the U.K. now.”
Albarn called RS from a Gorillaz tour stop in Amsterdam to talk about cartoon fame, turning 50 and why he still gets stoned.
You and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett came up with the idea for Gorillaz 20 years ago. Does it surprise you that something that started as more or less a joke has become such an enduring phenomenon?
It continually surprises. I have massive waves of despondency, where I feel that I can’t do any more with it. I get very frustrated. But it regenerates itself with every generation. We just played this festival called Boomtown in England. It was a very young crowd, 18 to 23 — they’re the only ones who are resilient enough to throw themselves enthusiastically into the abyss. I can’t figure out why it keeps finding an audience, but it’s self-evident that it does, and that’s an exciting proposition.
With so few guests, The Now Now feels very different from most Gorillaz records. Why not just call it a Damon Albarn album?
Well, because it’s not. It’s [cartoon frontman] 2-D singing, and 2-D actually has a slightly different voice from Damon Albarn. [Sighs] I refuse to refer to myself in the third person.
George Benson is an unexpected guest on a pop album in 2018. Are you a big fan of his?
The sound that he created for songs like [1980’s] “Give Me the Night” is right up there with all the slickest classic Michael Jackson grooves. It’s closely associated, for me, with the time when I started trying to ask girls to dance at youth clubs. All that horrendously awkward stuff. I was about 14, and he was a superstar. But [the music] is even more magnificent because it was the backdrop to that, you know?
Are there any musical heroes you regret never connecting with?
I would have loved to work with John Lennon, but I was in school when he was shot. He was a pivotal influence on me when I was young — his ideas, his attitude, everything. I started exploring my own songwriting by playing other people’s songs on the piano, and “Imagine” was one of the most influential songs on me as a songwriter. It’s not the coolest song to cite, probably, but it’s the most honest for me.
On Humanz, you made a point of editing out all references to Donald Trump. What about this one — do you see a political dimension to this album?
I mean, it opens with the words “Calling the world from isolation.” That’s partly about the sense you get when you’re constantly on the road, but it’s also one of the most challenging issues of our time. Climate change, for example — isolationism doesn’t help that cause.
You were raised in a Quaker tradition. Is that still part of how you view the world?
I had that influence through my grandparents. Deep, deep down, it’s a very strong part of who I am — that sense of tolerance. I think that’s the best thing you can do as a musician, is communicate what you believe to be hope.
You recently turned 50. Congratulations! How did you celebrate?
My birthday started as I got off at the airport in Bogotá in Colombia. It was mainly a nocturnal experience at a high altitude. And then I had a much more modest family affair when I got home.
How did it compare with the cocaine-themed 50th birthday party you attended for your friend Noel Gallagher last year?
Oh, mine was pathetic compared with his! His was spectacular. No comparison.
You and Noel were archrivals in the U.K. music scene in the Nineties, when you were leading Blur and he Oasis. How does that friendship work today?
He’s like a comrade. It’s about that specific moment in time when you both get the carpet pulled from underneath you, and everything you’ve been abstractly dreaming about suddenly becomes a reality. I was 22, and I couldn’t walk down the street without everybody recognizing me. That’s an exhilarating but terrifying moment, and we went through it together.
You reunited with Blur for 2015’s The Magic Whip. Was that a one-off, or can you imagine making another album with that band?
I don’t know! Maybe. I couldn’t give a date, but I’m never going to close the door on that side of my life.
You’ve been vocal about your past drug use and its creative benefits. Do you still smoke pot?
Yes, yes. If I’m in the studio, that’s when I really enjoy smoking weed. Not so much for performance. I mean, I like it for improvised performance a lot, but for something like Gorillaz, it’s best to be a little more on the ball.
Microdosing — where people take small amounts of psychedelic drugs during their workday — is growing in popularity. Does that idea appeal to you?
What, like acid and mushrooms? To work? [Laughs] No! Were I to do that, there’s no way on Earth I’d be able to function in an office.