Damon Albarn is hours away from the first U.S. Blur show in years, but as he kicks back on a hotel patio overlooking a golf course near Coachella, his mind drifts to other things. Like the record he made with Bobby Womack, before the soul legend almost died last year. “He’s OK,” Albarn says, taking a sip of green tea. “We’ve actually just confirmed to play Glastonbury – he’s got incredible spirit, you know?” Or his spectacular Peking-opera-inspired Monkey: Journey to the West, which is coming to New York’s Lincoln Center in July after an acclaimed run in London. “The exciting thing about productions is they change every time,” he says. “I’ll have the perspective this time to actually see if it’s any good.” And he’s definitely psyched about his first solo record, which he recently wrapped with XL Records boss Richard Russell. “Richard does the rhythmic side, and I do everything else,” Albarn says. “It’s sort of folk soul.”
Albarn plans to hit the road behind the LP, playing songs drawn from his entire career, including Blur and Gorillaz, for the first time. And a new Blur LP, which the band would record between festival gigs in Europe this summer, is a definite possibility. “We’ve got a couple of occasions when we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “So we might make the record in a week. If we can, it would be nice.”
What drives you to take on all these different projects? There’s Blur; Gorillaz; the Good, the Bad and the Queen; two operas; and way more.
I get bored extremely easily. Blur was definitely my Nineties, Gorillaz was my 2000s, and then I’ve done a lot of different stuff this decade.
How connected do you feel to songs you wrote, at this point, decades ago?
I enjoy playing them. A lot of the songs were quite dystopian in their worldview. And a lot of that stuff is much more pressing now than it was then. It seemed like the future then, and now it just seems like every day. So I can kind of get into it.
Is there a song that you think was especially prescient?
A song like [1995’s] “The Universal,” which sings about, “This is the next century, where the universal’s free . . . satellites in every home . . . ”
Blur is one of the biggest bands of all time in England, but the tune the band is best known for in America is “Song 2,” which is pretty uncharacteristic. What’s it like to have that in your pocket? The reaction to that song must be so intense.
The “woo-hoo” one, yes. Well, thank god! It really is guaranteed to make the whole place explode. Unfortunately, it’s only two minutes.
In some ways Gorillaz are a bigger band in America than Blur.
Oh much bigger, yeah. It would be nice to play “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.” with Blur, but I can’t. They won’t play them with me! [Laughs] But I’ve just finished a solo record – when I go tour that, I’ll play play stuff from all my different bands.
What’s the record like?
I’ve been making it with [XL Records chief] Richard Russell. We worked together on the Bobby Womack record, and really enjoy working together. He’s done spectacularly well as a music mogul, but I think he wants to focus his energy on producing records. Making a solo record is can be such a disaster, so I thought if we’re going to make a record with my name on it, I should get someone to really produce it – take that responsibility away from myself. Richard does the kind of rhythmic side of it and I do everything else.
How is Bobby doing?
He’s not the healthiest of guys, but he’s able to do gigs and he’s got incredible spirit. He doesn’t let anything keep him down too long, you know? As soon as he opens his mouth and that voice comes out, he’s just transported. It’s such a magnificent voice.
What did you learn from that last huge, spectacular tour you did with Gorillaz in 2010?
That was the most expensive tour of all time. I had 70 musicians. I toured around the world, played massive venues all around the world. I made about 20 pounds by the end of it [laughs], so I won’t be going on another of those. It was incredible fun, I loved doing it, but economically it was an absolute fucking disaster.
Tell me about the opera – the footage I saw online looked incredible.
It’s very eccentric. It’s colorful and youthful and fantastic for kids. I mean it’s just a brilliant thing for kids. My daughter was inspired enough by it to start learning Mandarin after she watched it. And it’s got this wonderful sort of anti-hero monkey who’s just so irreverent and almost . . . amoral [laughs]. Kids love a character like that.
What kind of research went into it?
I had four very interesting journeys across China. Like two weeks at a time. We were taken to some very rural, untouched places far away from the crazy commercial growth aspect of China. Back to places that felt positively medieval. I listened to a lot of traditional music, too. One day I had lunch with a music professor in Beijing and I quite earnestly sat down with him and said, “So what advice can you give me as to how to approach this?” And he took me into this library and there were like 1000 books of Chinese folk music notated and said, “Well, you either do it that way or just . . . do it instinctively.” So I went for the latter.
The Stone Roses are also playing tonight. Are they friends?
We’re not friends, but I know them. We Brits always stick together. And all of the animosity of the Nineties is gone. I mean, I was playing “Tender” with Noel [Gallagher] at the Albert Hall two weeks ago, with Paul Weller on the drums. It’s all in the past now.