- Photography by Ms Linda Brownlee
- Words by Mr Dan Cairns
The clatter and clang of a passing freight train drown out the birdsong that has, until now, filled the air. In the distance, the Westway is, as ever, choked with traffic. Surveying all of this, on the penthouse terrace that stretches the width of his west London HQ, Mr Damon Albarn and I spark up cigarettes and luxuriate in the early March sunshine.
Three floors below the terrace lies the recording studio where, last year, Mr Albarn made Everyday Robots - his very first solo album, and a record that is already being described as one of the greatest pieces of music this restless, inquisitive, multifaceted musician has produced. Don't roll out the bunting or hit the dance floor just yet, though. Everyday Robots is also the most personal and, for the most part, downbeat record Mr Albarn has made to date. To understand what inspired its spare, forlorn and deeply reflective lyrics, melodies and soundscapes, we need to follow its writer far, far back - to his childhood in Leytonstone, east London, to the streets, parks and woodland he explored, to the multicultural community he grew up in (a journey described, vividly and beautifully, on Everyday Robots' pivotal track, "Hollow Ponds"). Mr Albarn did just that while writing the album, walking unnoticed around his old haunts.
I do think there needs to be some sort of disturbance in your psyche for creativity to be sparked
"It was very low-key," the singer says. "I just got on the Tube, got out at Leytonstone, walked around, smoked. It helped me realise that the majority of my memories of that time are pretty joyous, really. What I learnt from making the record was that I now understand what happened to me; this happy, boyish, very open kid, living in a very fresh-feeling, multicultural neighbourhood, with a good, strong set of influences, in my house, next door, down the road." That all came to an end when Mr Albarn was nine, and he went on holiday to Turkey with a friend of his parents while they and his sister moved to an Essex village, leading to the start of a radically different life for Mr Albarn on his return. "I had this mad sort of mini-odyssey in Turkey," the 45-year-old continues, "and then came back to Anglo-Saxon rural Essex. And I went to the village school, tanned, from multicultural London, and immediately I was an outsider. And that sense didn't diminish, it grew. I think now that that was the point where I started to become consciously creative. And I do think there needs to be some sort of disturbance in your psyche for creativity to be sparked. I understand that now - and everything preceding that, and since it, begins to make sense. That's why making the record has been so great. It's like, finally, I get it."
Yet there are other things that Mr Albarn doesn't get at all, as the lyrics on Everyday Robots make clear. The title track is self-evidently bleak, with lines - set to mournful descending piano chords, over which a classical-violin sample hovers, menacingly - such as "We're everyday robots in control, or in the process of being sold" attesting to the singer's preoccupation with, and fear about, what mankind's retreat behind mobile phones, tablets and computers, and into a sort of catatonic state of alienation, denial and disconnection, will mean for our collective future.
Mr Richard Russell - owner of XL Records, home to artists such as Adele, The xx and Vampire Weekend - was charged with editing down the 60 songs or song sketches that Mr Albarn gave him. He was also a crucial contributor as Everyday Robots' producer, his armoury of strange samples and beats pushing Mr Albarn way beyond his comfort zone. "Richard doesn't have any real musical training," the singer says, "so he sort of puts stuff on stuff, if that makes sense - and that can be quite challenging to write for. With Gorillaz, you tend to conform to the beat. With this album, a lot of the phrasing is much longer than I'd normally write; it keeps going to the point where you think, 'Is this actually going to stop?'."
Artist and designer Mr Aitor Throup created the artwork for the album
Another key intervention by Mr Russell concerned the album's major curveball, "Mr Tembo" - a song about an orphaned elephant Mr Albarn met while visiting Tanzania with Mr Paul Simonon, the former bass player of The Clash. Within the context of Everyday Robots, it serves as a necessary tension breaker, undoubtedly. But it is also utterly delightful, as the singer, backed by Leytonstone City Mission Choir (who he first heard when cycling past their church as a child), shakes off the surrounding introspection and anxiety and simply throws himself at the song. "That's totally there as a result of Richard," Mr Albarn says. "I saw it as being very much in the 'music for kids' category - I've written a lot of songs for my daughter over the years. So I was like, 'Come on, I'm not going to record that'. But Richard went, 'You have to'. They seem particularly keen on that one in the States, and want to make a really special video for it." When Mr Albarn sang the song to the elephant, it emptied its bowels. Will that detail be included in the video? "I don't think you can get an elephant to crap on demand," Mr Albarn laughs. "But seriously, I can't begin to describe how strong the aroma was. We were in a camp in the middle of the wilderness, the elephant's there with his handler, and I'm stood there with Paul, who doesn't have a sense of smell, so he was fine. On the original version, you can almost hear me retching as I'm singing. The only time I've encountered a stench as bad as that was when a tomcat sat on my chest, turned round and sprayed in my face. I mean, I saw stars. I entered the universe of catdom at that moment."
Let's go back to Turkey, though, and a nine-year-old boy "wandering around on my own", as the singer puts it, "walking into mosques and drinking tea in carpet shops". That visit sounds like a hugely significant experience in terms of how it inculcated in him a desire, and a willingness, to investigate and draw upon influences, and use them in his work. The man recalling that period in his life has, in recent months, visited North Korea, West Africa and South America, among other locations. He is still "wandering around". A natural magpie, Mr Albarn exhibits all the signs of wanting to recreate the multicultural life he grew up within in east London, before that "disturbance", as he describes it. Well, long may he recreate, long may he dig, and long may he roam.
Everyday Robots is released on Parlophone on 28 April
Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER