'I Don't Understand That Potato Reference': A Bizarre Conversation With Damon Albarn About Gorillaz and America
Damon Albarn is a little late and very sweaty. He emerges suddenly from somewhere among the circle of trailers, out from behind the ping pong table. His face drips and his hair is mussed. He plops down at the wooden picnic bench with the weight of the road, thousands of fans catered to near-nightly and 21 Gorillaz shows this year successfully behind him.
He immediately lights a joint. He's earned it.
“Is that courtesy of the festival?” I ask.
“Oh, I just figured, because I know III Points Festival usually gives joints out to the artists as gifts– ”
“I don't smoke anything if I haven't watched it been rolled, ya know what I mean?" he quips, flashing a gold-toothed grin that says “I've learned my lessons the hard way.”
At 49 years old, Albarn has spent more than half his life as the frontman of one iconic rock outfit or another. He released his first single with Blur in 1990, and by 1991, they were British pop stars. The band was beloved by American audiences, albeit more as a cult and critical favorite -- but hey, “Song 2” is still used in car commercials 20 years later.
Britpop may have been a hard bridge for middle America to cross, but when Albarn created Gorillaz in 2001, its amalgamation of sonic styles spoke to this country's dynamic musical and cultural diversity. It didn't hurt to be largely rooted in American hip-hop style, or to name the project's introductory single after all-American icon “Clint Eastwood.”
“Gorillaz in America is very rewarding," the head Gorilla comments. "It just is."
Throughout the conversation, Albarn's eyes dart around the compound, his head turns this way and that, his face sags in thought (or is it total disinterest? I'm never sure). Sometimes his words trail in an endless “uhhhh,” before suddenly picking up some new thread of his choosing. He punctuates thoughts by swinging his head dramatically back to center with a wide, wild, shining smile. If Albarn takes after any of the Gorillaz' fictional members, he's most definitely wild-eyed,
“For someone who's been 10 years coming here and been very marginalized...” Pause. “Those same people were into it, but not like this, you know what I mean? So, that was nice, because I feel like I did a 10-year apprenticeship, and I did another 10 years of building this up -- and now, finally, I'm sort of in a position where I can't muss and grumble, as they say.”
Gorillaz' love affair with the States has only grown since the cartoon band's early-century debut. Latest album Humanz was directly inspired by the rise of conservative populism that's gripped our country, as well as parts of Europe. Albarn instructed all the LP's collaborators to write dance songs for a world meeting its end. While all mention of Trump's name was removed from the final product, the album was released on Trump's 100th day as President, maybe on purpose, maybe not. It was only fitting that Gorillaz began its first tour in seven years Stateside shortly after.
“It's been very productive, extremely productive. Very hard working, very rewarding,” the singer comments. “I try and use whatever place I'm at as an interface -- an emotional interface, and at the moment, that's Gorillaz, and in the moment, that seems to be endlessly in America.”
“Not endlessly.” I remind him that he's scheduled to head back home to Britain after this stop in Miami and a final show in Texas at Austin City Limits.
“But endlessly… endlessly… endlessly," he rebuts, his head swirling to the music of his own searching mantra. “Musically, it's like, endlessly in America. It's just – ahh, I can't think about anything else when I'm here, and I start to understand sometimes some of its seemingly internal belligerence, when the boat goes a certain way, because it's truly like that for so many people here. I'm speaking from a moment of revelation about the psyche of America. That is something I could never understand, and now I understand it a lot more. I don't know if that helps anyone.”
It does help Albarn's writing process. It always has. In 2011, he released the Gorillaz subplot LP The Fall, written and recorded on an iPad while the band toured 2010's Plastic Beach with no intense forethought. He once called it “a kind of diary of my experience in America,” and this go-round has been similar.
“I've done quite a lot [of writing],” he says, waving his hand and shifting in his seat. “I performed a song that I wrote in Idaho called 'Idaho' in Seattle and Los Angeles. Another song called 'Hollywood' which I recorded in Hollywood, which we rehearsed (for tonight), but we didn't feel that it was ready. I've got a couple more that I might try tomorrow, but we're running out of time anyway. But um, no, yeah, no. I've been doing that a lot. Yeah, it's great. Well fuckin', record labels – ”
A sudden smashing sound and shout from the ping pong players behind us steals his attention.
“Gabriel!” he yells at Gorillaz tour drummer Gabriel Wallace, a large man fond of baseball caps who doesn't necessarily not bring to mind the group's fictional drummer, Russel.
“I don't like your table tennis…,” Albarn pauses as he continues, “...method. It's… weird.”
Gabriel has totally left the table and walks right into the middle of the compound. He's got a paddle in each hand, takes a big breath, and roars into the night, paddling his chest like an actual gorilla might, before bursting into a run and jumping clear over a nearby love seat.
“You're shit,” Albarn yells. “Fucking walking around like you're a fucking, just – well, all right! But fucking take it out on your drums -- but no fills!”
He turns back to me, grinning those golds. “Sorry.”
“No, it's alri-”
“Oh, band dynamic!” he shouts through a smile as he throws his hands in the air. He's a ringleader at a circus of his own creation. He knows his life is a show, and yet he says he's “not huge on showmanship.”
“I really don't see the point in sharing concert footage,” he says with a grimace. “I have no interest in watching anybody. It's the whole thing. It's the experience. It's all about the smells, everything. Everything.”
I ask if there's anything I should know before he takes the stage tonight.
“Well, I was more clean-shaven in Los Angeles,” he says. “But that was only because, I'd, um … we'd had a few days off, and I was … I'd come out of Idaho and I was – you know what I mean. So I thought I'd start again.”
“Living that potato life,” I joke.
“I don't understand that potato reference.”
“They, like, make a lot of them.”
“But it's all mountains,” he exclaims excitedly. “It's all fucking mountains. You can't grow potatoes in mountains. It sounds like a stupid idea to me. I can see the silver in Idaho. There was a massive silver rush. I can imagine that, but not the potatoes. I don't want to sing about potato fucking farms. I'm just saying. I don't want to sing about potatoes. I want to sing about silver mines.”
Another sly smile.
If Albarn judges a place by its impact on his imagination, he must be thrilled Gorillaz' first-ever Florida performance is here in Miami. He won't give the crowd hits "Dare" or "Feel Good Inc.," but he does have something special planned.
“Tonight, we're going to play 'Plastic Beach' for the first time, and it's…” He waves his hand in the air to imply that it is exactly and entirely a song about and for this so-called Magic City's glamorous and vice-ridden surreality. “That's the kind of music I like to write, and at some point it really makes sense, and then it goes out of focus again.”
Maybe that's how Albarn's brain works.
“This is about getting to know yourself,” he says of life on the road. “This is really important you know – and fucking hell. I knew I was going to have some kind of mid-life crisis this year. I knew I would, and I have had aspects of midlife crises, but I've also learned a lot about myself, for good and for bad.”
Those deep personal insights include being able to survive with far less sleep than he ever imagined. He's also watching far less television.
“I think my guitar playing has improved so much from what it used to be,” he says. “To be in the shadow of Graham [Coxon, Blur guitarist], it's hard. He's a brilliant guitarist. I'm just functional, but I enjoy my functionality.”
Since the tour has been going well, he says it makes him want to continue, but what's in store for the Gorillaz, he can't be bothered to say.
“Well, I mean, who knows,” he says, brushing it all off. “I've got so many other things to do, um, before I do this again. A lot of things. They're going to be beautiful, big, massive; my projects.” He folds his fingers into a fat “okay” sign, pantomiming Trump and his promise for tax cuts.
“In other news tonight, um, I've got an album with The Good, the Bad & the Queen.” That's his super-group with The Clash's Paul Simonon, The Verve's Simon Tong, and drummer Tony Allen. “We're working with (frequent David Bowie collaborator and producer) Tony Visconti, and then I've got something in Mali about Sundiata.” That means a follow up to 2002's Mali Music, where he collaborated with Malian musicians, this time inspired by the epic poem of Sundiata, the country's founding emporor. But there will be no more talk of future plans this night.
“Is that Thundercat?” He turns to his friend nearby to confirm that starting hum is truly the beginning of III Points co-headliner Thundercat's set. Albarn takes one last long drag from his joint and stands up without any real goodbye.
“Have you ever worked with Thundercat?” I manage to ask.
“No,” he says, flashing one last golden smile, his words purring with Murdoc-ian, laddish swagger. “I'd like to – I think. I've got to have a look. I've heard he's terribly talented.”