TGTB&TQ: Telegraph interview 20 January 2007

Discussion about the band and related projects.

Moderators: Caitlin, MrMagpie, tom_cas1

Post Reply
User avatar
rich
Posts: 852
Joined: 07 Sep 2014, 16:58
Location: London

TGTB&TQ: Telegraph interview 20 January 2007

Post by rich » 10 Nov 2018, 23:58

just found this - good on Damon/Paul and early TGTB&TQ...https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/366 ... ience.html

Blur sold millions and Gorillaz sold even more – it seems that Damon Albarn can do no wrong. Will his new supergroup be touched by the same magic?
By Murphy Williams

The legendary bass player and punk sex symbol Paul Gustave Simonon is on a roll. It is his 51st birthday, he is playing with a new band he clearly loves and there are no fewer than three television cameras trained on him. Behind him on stage is the huge backdrop of west London landmarks he painted with a broom; before him is one of the original white bass guitars he played during his 10 years in the Clash, the words 'Paul' and 'What a Jump!' carved into it some 30 years ago. (The remains of the Fender Precision bass he smashed up, a moment immortalised on the cover of the seminal London Calling LP, are currently on show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Ohio.)

Immaculately dressed and with a cigarette permanently lodged behind his ear, Simonon deftly swoops, spins, skanks and shuffles, with never a dud move, then holds up his bass like a snooker cue to give the cameras a parting shot.

Sitting at the piano behind Simonon is Damon Albarn, another of British music's most sought-after poster boys, albeit for a different generation. Following on from the world-famous Blur and Gorillaz, his new incarnation as the baggier, suited maestro behind this latest, nameless project has its 300-strong audience of sophisticated Parisians transfixed. Nevertheless Albarn can't relax. His monitors are giving him trouble. He taps the mike, marches up to the mixing desk and explodes: 'Merde, man! I've got nothing. No wonder I'm struggling. F*** me!'

The crowd is bemused by this rather original tantrum in Franglais, but moments later, he apologises, all blue-eyed beams, and by the end of the hour-long recording, all present are stamping their feet for more of The Good, the Bad and the Queen, as the debut album is called. 'C'est magnifique,' is the consensus. After a particularly stirring encore, Simonon strolls over to Albarn to give him a discreet thumbs up. In response, Albarn picks out the final notes of Happy Birthday on his piano.

The French television show is the conclusion of a long fortnight for the band. In the past week alone, Tony Allen, the 66-year-old Nigerian afro-beat superstar and Fela Kuti collaborator described by Brian Eno as 'perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived', has travelled to New York, Nigeria and England. In Paris they are staying at the modishly decadent Hotel Costes. Its courtyard is dominated by four nude male statues and a towering pine tree, transformed by spray paint and lighting to a rich red.

In its restaurant Simonon ignores the menu to request cheese on toast and the model-cum-waitress looks askance. Allen, a resident of Paris for the past 20 years, translates, 'Croque monsieur?' 'Non, it's not possible,' comes the reply. 'Can't you just make one up?' Albarn protests. 'Non, I'm very sorry.' Albarn is spitting: 'What! You can turn a tree vermilion red but you can't put together a croque monsieur?'

How did this project come together? As is clear from his career thus far, Albarn responds to challenge. The 'Battle of Britpop' in 1995, when he made the Ten O'Clock News by pushing back the release of Blur's single Country House to clash with Roll With It by Oasis, is a case in point. He now finds the whole pantomime excruciating, not least because his competitiveness resulted in daily torment. 'I'd be walking down the street and people would open their windows and turn the speakers to face out so that I could hear that band [Oasis].' When the unprecedented idea of making a cartoon band was dreamt up with the graphic artist Jamie Hewlett in 1998, he threw himself into Gorillaz wholeheartedly, relishing the freedom of anonymity.

'The cult of personality has become so unbalanced in our society that it's not a very cool thing to be any more,' he says. 'Although being famous is fantastic if they haven't got a place for high tea at Claridge's on a Sunday for my mother-in-law's birthday treat.' In creating the most manufactured band feasible, he outstripped the success of Blur – Gorillaz have sold a staggering 12 million albums – and, weirdly, was nominated for a 'Best Rap Artist' Grammy.

In the past few years, Albarn has become an intrepid musical explorer, devouring the music of Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad and China and shaking what the composer Michael Nyman calls his 'Albarn fairy dust' over every project. Not bad for a drama-school dropout who, according to his ex-girlfriend, the haughtily seductive Elastica singer Justine Frischmann, owned maybe three tapes when they first met, one of which was Janis Joplin.

The Good, the Bad and the Queen started life in 2000 when Blur added a track to their 'Best of' album on which Albarn sang, 'Tony Allen got me dancing.' Allen heard the song, was intrigued and got in touch to ask whether Albarn would appear on his own album.

Then Albarn and the fomer Verve guitarist Simon Tong (now the fourth member of the band, who also stood in for Graham Coxon on the last Blur tour and played in Gorillaz) travelled to Lagos and worked with a brass section, a percussion section and some extra guitarists at the Afrodesia studios, all funded by Albarn. 'I had a bit of an identity crisis there, one of my many,' Albarn says self-mockingly, 'and when we came back, that material just didn't make sense. But then [the Gorillaz producer] Dangermouse came on board and decided we should make a great English record and that was a gift. Then I thought, "Let's see if Paul Simonon is up for this." '

Getting Simonon to play bass again was a major coup. Though he couldn't play at all when he first started in the Clash, he went on to change punk rock for ever by merging reggae, rockabilly and disco bass lines into their sound. Million-dollar deals were on offer to reform the Clash before the singer Joe Strummer died in 2002, but Simonon was always reluctant.

Soon after the Clash fell apart in 1986, he formed the short-lived rockabilly outfit Havana 3am, and he played at his friend Kate Moss's Rock and Roll Circus birthday party two years ago (alongside Clash guitarist Mick Jones, Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie, Pete Doherty and Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey, while Moss sang Leader of the Pack), but otherwise he has focused all his efforts on figurative painting, his first love, for the past 15 years.

'I have been asked to get involved with all sorts of musical things,' he says, 'and I said no every time. People stopped ringing, which was good because I could get on with my painting. I spent a lot of time taking evening classes, and in the V&A, learning how to look.' In 2004 he had a solo show of arresting vistas of London and the Thames, 'From Hammersmith to Greenwich'. He has said he would like to be in the line of British painters that stretches from Constable to Leon Kossoff.

Simonon has an animal, Brando physicality and a flawless style, undiluted by time, that has earned him countless wannabes and admirers over the years, among them the American singer Patti Smith. When she saw the Clash play in 1976, she leapt up on stage and whisked him off on the road with her for two days. In interviews back then, he appeared taut, tough, angry to the point of incoherence. Now, as a father of two teenage sons, Claude and Louis, he is an affable gent who winks a lot.

Albarn may distrust the cult of personality, but you don't get much cooler than Simonon. Of all the collaborations Albarn has engineered – with the actor Phil Daniels for Parklife, the artist Damien Hirst for the Country House video, Michael Nyman for the Ravenous film score, the artist Banksy for the cover of Think Tank, Dennis Hopper and Ibrahim Ferrer for Gorillaz – this one is earning him the kind of kudos that could leave the Gallagher brothers speechless.

Not only that, but it is obvious from their on-stage rapport that Simonon genuinely likes Albarn, who has long had a reputation for being difficult, bumptious and a loner – he has been known to spend wild parties at his own house alone in his bedroom, and was once found by himself watching the Brits ceremony on television, this in 1995, when Blur received a life-changing four awards.

Simonon and Albarn have found much in common. They have different backgrounds – Simonon's was rough, broken, itinerant; Albarn's stable, bohemian, middle-class – but 'we are similar in a lot of ways,' Albarn says, 'in our political outlooks, our wide range of interests, our passion for what we do. But he's infinitely better dressed than me, which I put down to the fact that he lived in Italy as a teenager.'

What drew Simonon to The Good, the Bad and the Queen, when so many others had failed? Like the Clash, Blur sang about London life and helped introduce a newfound sense of British identity in rejection of American hegemony. But whereas the Clash never appeared on Top of the Pops, fearing their integrity would be undermined by miming their songs, Blur were pop stars by 1991, grinning on children's TV and being featured in Smash Hits alongside Kylie Minogue. Blur songs commented on the people around them while Clash songs were an urgent expression of the voice of the gutter.

If anything, Pulp or Oasis, with their rousing calls to arms, would seem more natural bedfellows. Simonon was living abroad as Britpop first emerged, but when he returned to London to paint, occasionally picking up a guitar at home to play along to his favourite spaghetti westerns, he liked what he heard of Blur on the radio. 'I felt very akin to Damon's music and attitude,' he says, 'and was full of respect when he refused to go to the victory party at 10 Downing Street.'

'I didn't want to carry old laundry from yesterday with me, and this felt special, like gritty folk songs, more vaudeville in spirit than rock'n'roll. It was like, "Here's some clean sheets, so let's get going!" What you've got on our album is four music lovers making informed choices on how to play this part and hear that note. It's like a response to each other. The whole thing has been a joy – no problems, no moments of abrasiveness, whereas the Clash thrived on that.'

The pair first met 10 years ago at Joe Strummer's wedding reception in a Ladbroke Grove pub. 'Chrissie Hynde turned up with Damon,' Simonon recalls, 'and the next minute, she'd organised this group hug between me, Joe, Chrissie and Damon – an interesting way to meet somebody.' The next time was at Albarn's studio on an industrial estate in North Kensington, where they realised they lived two streets away from each other in Notting Hill, and began talking about the history of their beloved stamping ground. Picking up the bass again was 'like learning to ride motorcycles. Get back on, kickstart it and off you go.' (Trust him to romanticise the more common bicycle analogy.)

Their conversations and jams developed into The Good, the Bad and the Queen, an intimate collection of interlaced, delicately meandering songs presided over by Albarn's wistful voice and pop melodies. 'The album,' Albarn says, 'is about those moments when you're alone in a city and you feel like it's your city, that emotion of being at one with something.'

His lyrics are peppered with oblique allusions to west London's history and the current political climate the band so deplores (in 2003 he became England's most high-profile campaigner against the war in Iraq, lobbying Parliament and placing anti-war ads in the NME ), and yet he seems more open and soul-searching than before.

To look at these days, Albarn is more Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes than Mark Lester as Oliver Twist. Perhaps this is deliberate. The Christmas gig the band played in London had a distinctly Dickensian spirit. Simonon chose London's oldest music hall, the stunningly decayed Wilton's in Whitechapel. After mulled wine and 'light entertainment', including a contortionist, an escapologist and an organ-grinder, compere Harry Enfield, in tailcoat and white gloves, introduced 'that charismatic cacophony of cockney crazy men'.

Albarn appeared in a beard, pinstripe suit like Simonon's, Artful Dodger hat and with a missing front tooth. The band's visuals are left to Simonon, who gave the Clash their name and much of their street rebel look – the Jackson Pollock splattered shirts and Rauschenberg-inspired stencils. 'Our [Clash] manager Bernie Rhodes said that a group couldn't inspire anybody if the audience was better dressed. As Joe said, "Like trousers, like brain." '

We may be in Paris now, sharing a bottle of Perrier and a plate of smoked salmon, but their conversation soon returns to England – 'This stroppy little island of mixed-up people', as their song goes – and London in particular. 'What was so brilliant about Wilton's,' Simonon says, 'is that it was one of the few buildings that didn't get hit. Imagine what London was like before, such a place of histories. Terrible shame, really.'

'That was the starting point for the record, lyrically and ultimately atmospherically,' Albarn, the seasoned interviewee, adds. 'The ghosts in cities, the ever-changing face of cities.'

Ladbroke Grove is now a place where only the wealthy can afford to live. Is the leader of the Tory Party's place of residence still worth celebrating? 'He doesn't live there,' Albarn retorts petulantly. 'I'd know about it if he did.' He catches himself. 'It's more about elegising it. That part of London is incredible when there's a blue sky, the amount of colour in the buildings. Every visible sunrise and sunset brings out everything that I like about that area. I love closing my eyes there and imagining what it was like 200 years ago.

There are constant references to groves, long wooded areas that lead you up to the odd grand house. My mum's parents had a farm in Lincolnshire where I spent a lot of time as a child. My mum read me all of Tolkien. When I was nine, we moved from the East End to a hamlet in Essex. I had a river at the end of the garden and a wood and fields; my teenage years were very, very pastoral. I was really into DH Lawrence and Herman Hesse; they evoked the earth as a magical place. I wasn't very hip.'

Inevitably, Albarn's talent underpins the band, but he is keen to emphasise everyone's contribution. 'It's important to keep ideas fluid. That's why we didn't want to give ourselves a name. Also we've all got other things going on. Nobody wants to be doing this all the time.'

Not least Tony Allen. With more than 60 albums under his belt since the late 1960s, his passion for musical innovation rolls on. As a teenager, he went to nightclubs before rising at 8am to work as an engineer for a Nigerian radio station, soaking up all the different styles he was hearing, and teaching himself the drums. Every month, he devoured Max Roach's drum lessons in the American magazine Downbeat. 'Before I met Fela,' he tells me, 'I did my homework properly because I was not convinced by the way other drummers played "highlife", which is west African music. When I met Fela, he didn't believe I had learnt the drums in Nigeria, rather than the States…'

Allen was made musical director of Fela Kuti's sprawling musical collective Africa70 and later recorded with King Sunny Ade and Manu Dibango. What does he make of Albarn? 'This project feels so natural and unplanned. Fela was a genius – I know I'll never see one like him – and I have the same feeling about Damon. He's unstoppable, just brilliant, and he doesn't bore me at all.'

How does Simon Tong, the youngest and most retiring of the four, fit in? 'Simon is the opposite of Paul,' Albarn says, 'in that he'll never play a wrong note, but he's still very soulful. The space is the thing in his playing.' Wigan-born Tong's first endeavours with Albarn were to learn Coxon's parts accurately for a tour, a soul-destroying task for any musician. He earned his stripes and Albarn now calls him first when he needs a guitarist.

Are Albarn and Simonon enjoying being upfront again? 'Put it this way,' Albarn says, 'whenever I want to I can go out and play on whatever scale I choose, so it's nice to know that's an option, but personally I like it more the way it is now. I love performing music as opposed to entertaining.'

'Which is what we do at the same time,' Simonon adds. 'Years ago in Clash rehearsals, Joe Strummer got a piece of chalk and drew a white line across the floor. On the other side of the line was Mick Jones and [the drummer] Topper Headon and on this side was me and Joe, and he said, "On that side are the musicians, and on this side it's the entertainers." I see myself as half and half.'

As is clear from their shows, Albarn is delighted to be back, but he is still plagued by the public misconception of him. 'I've always been frustrated by this suspicion that because I'm able to do a lot of different things, that somehow I don't really mean it, which is just bullshit.'

David Bowie has also suffered from that, I point out. 'Yeah, except he got really shit, after being luminescently good. For some people, the image and artifice of music gets a bit too much and they retreat into a persona. I don't know if it's wealth or ego or fame… I've managed to avoid that one.'

You have?! 'Yeah, to a degree.' This from the man whose band inspired the 'Blur Story' strip cartoon in the Daily Star. 'OK, I'm famous but I live a fairly normal life. I'm always either at home or making music.' It's true that Albarn has kept the pop-star trappings at bay. He still rides his bicycle, flies economy, resists a nanny for his seven-year-old daughter Missy (her mother is the painter Suzi Winstanley), and spends time in south Devon doing up the house he bought 10 years ago 'for virtually nothing. It's not that big a house, but it's in a beautiful location and that's enough.' He has bought other homes, in Reykjavik, and for his family, 'but that's no big deal, I'm very generous.'

There have been rumours that the original line-up of Blur is going back into the studio for the first time in five years. Certainly the bassist Alex James and Coxon have expressed an interest in reforming. 'It would be interesting to revisit that stuff from the Britpop era again, but I don't really know how I feel about it yet,' Albarn says. 'I'm open to something, and it would be nice to reconcile our differences.' There won't be another Gorillaz album, but a film involving Terry Gilliam, and a holographic tour later this year. Albarn is working on a musical about Ladbroke Grove and has just finished composing an opera, in Chinese if you please, called Monkey: Journey to the West, which will be first performed at the Manchester Festival this summer and then in Paris.

Composing the opera, a reworking of the 1970s television series Monkey, with sets by Jamie Hewlett, involved a discipline bordering, to my ears anyway, on lunacy. 'I've employed quite a lot of mathematics in writing it because you've got to develop a system otherwise you're walking around in the dark,' Albarn says. 'I basically created a formal composition based on the Communist star which is a number series, with rotations and reversals of it. It's not like I dress up in a Mao suit and only eat Chinese food but you have to sort of live it, to study the sensibility and the philosophy, to understand the culture.'

Most people in his position would have had a break by now, I say. 'A break? Yeah, well, we'll have a break when we've done this, and the other thing…' He grins.

What keeps him speeding along? Is making music about survival for him, as Nick Cave has described? 'Yeah, I can understand that. It's a healing process, isn't it. You feel wretched. You write a song. Somehow you don't feel so wretched afterwards.' For this album he would show up at the studio every day with three or four new songs. Does it pour out of him? 'Yes. I've been lucky. It's just been constant for a very long time now. Maybe one day you wake up and it's gone. I don't live in fear of that – it could be quite blissful actually.'

Does he ever feel like he's done enough? 'No,' he says firmly. 'I never feel that, don't believe in that. I haven't finished the opera but I've written all the thematic stuff and got the textures pretty much in my head, and now it's like, "Right, well, I might have to do this again now." Even though I'm happy with it, I know there's so much more. That is the way I've always approached music making: as soon as you've finished something, you see all its flaws and start again.' Is it like Sisyphus, the man forever condemned to push a boulder to the top of a mountain, only for it to roll down again? 'Exactly like that.' A hard life, then? 'It's not hard, it's very interesting. But it is hard being…' Pretty? I interject. 'And gifted,' he adds.

Albarn has had his share of anguish. He endured long-term bullying at school. Every day for six years, he says, other boys called him 'gay' because he wanted to make music. 'My defensiveness comes from that, but it's a common rite of passage. It depends what you do with it.' When he was 26, Parklife entered the album charts at number one and remained in the charts for 90 weeks. The demands and scrutiny of 'the ridiculous stage I found myself on' sparked a nervous breakdown that he wrote about: 'I thought, "I can't cope. Please, somebody, switch me off…" It was like the first day at primary school and a very bad hang-over all at once… The only relief was to cry.'

More disillusionment set in when he agreed to meet Tony Blair, who, he had told the press, 'should ditch politics and join Blur'. Six months before the elections, 'I had this very uncomfortable encounter in his office at the Palace of Westminster. Alastair Campbell stood behind me, John Prescott sat beside me and Tony Blair before me. It was one of those meetings that change your life, because I saw something in him I was very alarmed by. His question to me was, "So what do you think the youth want?" I had a really bad hangover and I said, "They just don't want to be pressurised." '

The next time Blair issued an invitation, to the 'Cool Britannia' PR exercise at Downing Street, which was the first time a political party had used a youth movement, Albarn sent him a note: 'I'm sorry, I won't be attending as I am no longer a New Labour supporter. I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade. Love, Damon.'

Albarn should be a national treasure by now, but perhaps it is his own mixed-up stroppiness that has held him back. The night before the television recording in Paris, the band celebrates Simonon's birthday with offal, oysters and pink champagne at Julien, a splendid Belle Epoque brasserie. So much champagne is gulped down, mostly at Albarn's playful insistence, that an extra bottle arrives on the house. The next morning, he is full of regrets, not for drinking, but for losing his precious West Country black hat at the Wilton's concert. 'I feel such an idiot for giving it away,' he says. 'These kids at the front were saying, "Give me the hat, give me the hat." ' Identical hats have been brought along for the string section, picked up in London for £8.50 each, but Albarn's head is too big, so a new one must be procured.

A minion at EMI Paris is charged with tracking down an identical version, a tough assignment made more so without the right name for the hat. 'It's halfway between a John Bull topper and a stovepipe,' Simonon offers. Calls are made and a hat shop found. Six members of the entourage pile into the minibus. On the way, Albarn is tickled by the idea of a busby instead, and then nearly falls for the flamboyant tricorn he spots in the shop window. The sales assistants in the tiny theatrical outfitters stand rigidly watching the scruffy millionaire's every move. 'Can we have a look at that one?' Albarn asks, pointing at an unlikely floppy felt hat. 'You want to buy it?' 'No, we're just looking,' Albarn says incredulously. 'All right, calm down,' Simonon says gently.

Albarn opts for a straight top hat, and fumbles for some money. 'Do you take sterling?' 'No, of course not,' the shopkeeper says with a look of satisfaction. 'I just don't see why you can't take our money if we can take yours,' Albarn complains, before asking his sidekicks for some cash. 'We're in Paris, France, Europe,' the man says sniffily. 'You can go anywhere with this currency…' 'Yes, I do understand the concept of the euro,' Albarn butts in, his eyes glaring. 'Let's get on,' Simonon says.

On the way to the studio, Albarn is examining his new hat. Does he prefer it? 'I'll get used to it. It says "Made in France" though.' It's very Eton, someone points out. 'No it's not!' he fumes. 'Bloody twats,' he grumbles, staring out of the window.

On tour, the Clash always had an open-door policy backstage. 'You've got to converse with people, especially if you're travelling, because otherwise you're in a bubble,' Simonon says. 'You meet people and they tell you about some place that closed down or the gallery down the road. It's interesting. This situation needs to become like that.'

There are signs that this is happening: on the night of the Paris gig, Albarn chatted for half an hour to a complete stranger. Is he ready to come out of the shadows of Gorillaz and hold court? Fatherhood and a no-nonsense girlfriend have brought him stability and, 'with people like Paul and Tony and Simon around', he feels he can cope with the exposure. 'It's such a lovely band to be in,' he says, 'no egos whatsoever.'

User avatar
Pavlich
Posts: 171
Joined: 30 Apr 2015, 00:15

Re: TGTB&TQ: Telegraph interview 20 January 2007

Post by Pavlich » 12 Nov 2018, 04:56

Yeah this is a great old interview. I made sure to chuck the curry on before I got through it because it's a good read.

Simultaneously made me want to listen to This Is A Low and give The Clash a crack, as well as read about Simonen more and like Damon again. It was definitely lop-sided on those two but there's always going to be the parallels of real Englishness, Londonity, and social observations (and social anger). Made the band itself sound alluring and interesting too.

Also, what's this about?
Not only that, but it is obvious from their on-stage rapport that Simonon genuinely likes Albarn, who has long had a reputation for being difficult, bumptious and a loner – he has been known to spend wild parties at his own house alone in his bedroom, and was once found by himself watching the Brits ceremony on television, this in 1995, when Blur received a life-changing four awards.
Yeah yeah Damon hates interviewers, yeah yeah he's confident. What's this about 'wild parties at his own house alone?' Are we talking a veiled reference to heroin or what? Was he indeed a loner?

Post Reply