- Text by Cian Traynor
Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon have been asked almost every question you can think of. Between The Clash, Blur and Gorillaz, they’ve both been behind some of the most compelling moments in British music over the last four decades.
To be granted time with either of them is the kind of opportunity you just can’t turn down. But there is a slight catch. Whatever conversation may be worth having – whatever topics might actually be worth taking a punt on – must be squeezed into a 15-minute phone call.
The pair are busy playing summer festivals across Europe as The Good, the Bad & the Queen alongside former Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen – a band whose combined experience often sees them labelled as a ‘supergroup’. Together they’ve made what Damon has described as “the next instalment” of Blur’s Parklife: a searing album about what it means to be British, and just their second record in 11 years.
Whereas 2007’s The Good, the Bad & the Queen felt like a loving tribute to multicultural London, Merrie Land is inspired by a nation on the brink of burnout. The Brexit referendum set “an alarm bell” off in Damon’s head, inspiring him to visit places like Southend, St. Albans, Liverpool, Preston, Lincoln, Manchester, Brighton and Banbury to better understand what was happening to the Britain he thought he knew.
But it was in Blackpool where a creative response began to take hold. This was a place with many layers: a part of the country built on working-class pride, a tourist attraction with a distant heyday, a seaside town surrounded by some of the UK’s worst living conditions and drug problems.
Damon kept coming back until The Good, the Bad & the Queen finally rented a corner studio in an old dancehall near Blackpool Tower: an open space, flooded with light, where the four musicians tapped into a sense of decayed elegance and absorbed the weight of memory around them.
Nearly two years later, the 51-year-old musician is sitting in an office within a converted Victorian building just under the Westway in London. He’s just had his morning coffee and sounds like he’s still getting into gear: his voice deep and slightly groggy, his words carefully chosen. Paul Simonon, speaking on a separate call, sounds like he’s been up and at it for hours: an old-school gent who doesn’t have much time for bullshit.
It feels like a lot has happened since Merrie Land came together in Blackpool. After a well-received release and two dozen gigs, the political backdrop seems just as dire – if not worse. That means there’s a lot to talk about – enough to make an already intimidating prospect even more challenging. To make the most of it, the same questions were put to both musicians in separate interviews, almost an hour apart, with their answers presented here together.
Has there been anything that you learned in your fifties that you wish you knew in your twenties?
Damon: Even 51 is very different to 50. At 50, you’re obviously at a crossroads and by 51, you realise what road you’re going down. You just hope you’ve made the right decision! [laughs] But I think you inevitably begin to see a bigger picture. Things that used to drive me to partial madness at 25 don’t necessarily bother me at all anymore. I’d like to think I’m more relaxed.
Paul: Well, blimey. I wished I had read more books and maybe I should have gone to school. But, then, I am the person I am because of those experiences. Not going to school meant teaching myself, you could say. It would be nice to have known more, of course. But Mick Jones used to make a comment that would make me laugh: “Youth is wasted on the young.” I don’t really regret anything. If I feel there’s something lacking, then I’ll just address it. As long as you can realise when you’ve got to catch up, it’s down to you to sort it out.
What’s the most memorable thing another artist ever said to you?
Damon: Paul McCartney said, ‘Always think about what it’s going to look like tomorrow.’ What you say, what you do – just think about the consequences before you do it. Be present when you make the decision. You can’t control everything. But the point is if you know why you’re doing something, there’s more of a chance that – come tomorrow – you’ll be able to justify it. [laughs]
Paul: It was something Bo Diddley told me. He always carried his own guitar. I said, ‘There’s a person over there who’ll carry your guitar for you, someone who looks after the equipment.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I always carry my own guitar because if I rely on that person and one day they’re not there, suddenly I have a problem.’ That was an important lesson for me. I try to rely on nobody else but myself, which means not blaming anyone else either.
Fear and doubt are part of the creative process and most people have no idea that successful figures struggle with insecurities like everyone else. What can you tell me about that side of being an artist? At this point in your career, do you any insecurities?
Damon: God, yeah. That’s standard form for a writer. You’re constantly racked with insecurity and fear of death. If you don’t have that, don’t be a writer. There’s no point. You’ve got to have a lot of bad traits. [laughs] It doesn’t all come from goodness. On a daily basis, I find moments where I’m blissfully at one with the universe and for the rest of it, I’m struggling in one form or another.
Paul: I wake up with insecurity every morning. The thing is, it’s trying to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. As long as I’m focused on doing something creative, then that helps. I question everything I do… and maybe that’s a way of trying to improve myself, to be better. I’m wandering around the dark, just like anyone else, but sometimes I see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel… and I’m just trying to go towards that, trying to find a direction that feels right to me.
Merrie Land started from a point of confusion. Having gone through the process of writing it, performing it live, absorbing everything that’s going on, has it made anything clearer about the state of England?
Damon: I suppose it confirmed my suspicions that there was an emotional wound which was not healable; a festering wound in our society. It also became obvious that the very notion of Brexit had little to do with addressing that problem. In fact, it was almost trying to distract people from those social issues, in a way, by giving them such a binary choice. By voting to leave, they felt they were somehow part of a majority who believed that the system had betrayed them and that they needed a change. It focused it on the Europeans, rather than their own system. That’s a terrible mistake. It’s our own society that’s fucked up. So it confirmed that democracy is quite a dangerous thing when the wrong question is posed. You’ve really got to get your question right if the answer is going to be a binary yes or no.
Paul: It’s a difficult one. In general, everyone’s still confused as to what the hell is going on. But in terms of having made the record, I guess it makes you re-evaluate your position in relation to the past, present and future. It helps blend all those things together.
Having lived through different political eras, does this feel much bleaker than anything you’ve experienced before?
Damon: It’s fractured. It’s like the mirror smashed on the floor and now there are a thousand different mirrors. Which one is the true reflection of who we are? Everybody’s phone has a million different emotional broadcasts that they receive and feed into. It’s very hard to know if we’re headed for a period where these tropes become even more extreme or whether we’re just more aware of everything.
Clearly, there’s very little consensus in the government or in parliament for anything, really. I suppose the only hope is that we move forward and start doing what they do in Europe more, which is work within coalitions, i.e. give everyone a voice and stop being so binary about everything. But I don’t feel a great amount of optimism in that sense, to be honest with you. Not at the moment, with Boris due to become Prime Minister. That is not a reason to be cheerful.
Leaving the EU is just not what we need to sort out. The EU will either continue to exist or not. That’s got nothing to do with the social issues we have. Partly it’s our education system; we need to change that and get rid of private schools, investing hugely in public education. How are we going to move forward without a workforce that’s at least relatively equally educated? It’s not gonna happen. That’s the beginning and the end of it – and it’s got fuck all to do with the EU.
Paul: I’ve seen quite a few prime ministers coming and going. I know people have some strange sense of nostalgia now but I remember growing up and thinking that everything was pretty grim, actually. This sounds ridiculous but I never remember seeing olives, for example. What I did enjoy and benefit from was experiencing different cultures, whether it was food, music or lifestyles. Growing up in Brixton, an area that was prominently West Indian, I just assumed the whole world was like that. The problem with the political situation at the moment is that people fail to recognise that this country was built on immigrants.
I think people are blinded by something and I just feel embarrassed for their backward attitudes. My grandfather was an immigrant who left Belgium in the First World War. Joe Strummer was born in Turkey. There are strong elements of The Clash that would not exist if we’d had the same attitude of reducing or stopping immigrants from coming into the country. I like being a part of Europe. It’s a brilliant thing.
Do you believe in the power of public protest?
Damon: Of course I do! Very much so. When we marched in 2003 against the Iraq War, that was very justified, especially given the outcomes. You could say – although it’s a very broad brushstroke – if the governments had listened then, we wouldn’t have ended up with Isis, with the mass exodus of people from Syria, with people being terrified into thinking a million immigrants were going to turn up on their doorstep. We wouldn’t be in this situation. So I believe in genuine public protest but I also feel a little disillusioned when the response seems to be, ‘Ah, let them do that. They won’t turn up next weekend.’ I think if you look at history, there have been some profound public protests that have really changed stuff. But it has to be about consensus, about building on something; not just doing it and then letting it dissipate.
Paul: I think protest is important. Whether it makes a difference, I really don’t know. I actually see the Iraq War protests as a disappointment. Over a million people marched to tell Tony Blair we shouldn’t go to war and that didn’t make any difference, did it? I don’t know how to get those in power to listen, but I do believe it is important to express yourself if you feel strongly about something. That’s one of the strongest things about music: you just need ears. It can suggest ideas, in a conscious or unconscious way, about changing things. As long as everyone is aware of that, it might help move things forward a bit.
What is the biggest misconception people have of you? What’s the thing that people consistently get wrong?
Damon: I don’t know… What do people think about me? Tell me and I’ll say if it’s right or wrong. I don’t do social media. I think maybe if I did, I would really regret it. It’s like smoking, isn’t it? Sadly, I did have that first cigarette at 16 or whenever but I’ve managed to stay away from social media. I’ve never sent anything out into the world. I’m not that bothered, to be honest with you.
Paul: Misconception? People can’t even spell or pronounce my surname right! That would be number one. [laughs]
Most people have no idea what it’s like to be famous. What impact has success had on you personally and artistically?
Damon: It’s had some very positive effects in that it does wonders for your self-confidence. The reverse of that is… it can heighten neurosis, especially as you get older. You realise that you are perceived as something and I think that’s quite difficult for a lot of people. Extreme examples are… who I should say? Ugh, I don’t want to be mean to anyone so I won’t, but they’re pretty obvious.
Paul: Success, to me, is being able to afford doing whatever the hell I like. That’s a major difference-maker. Rather than having a nine-to-five job and only being able to create on the weekends, I can paint and make music all the time. In terms of fame, I don’t rate that. I’d be embarrassed to even think of myself as famous. I’m just someone who does what he does. From what I’ve noticed, famous people are sort of trapped in a bubble. It could be a bubble of self-delusion, it could be a case of having success early on and still thinking that’s who you are at age 60. I wouldn’t enjoy that. It strips your freedom away.
Do people ever ask you for advice? And if so, what do you tell them?
Damon: I do get asked quite a bit, really, mostly from young musicians. Sometimes it’s a suspicion that something needs changing and they just need it confirmed by someone. Other times, you find yourself saying, ‘No, don’t touch that. That’s great already.’ It works both ways.
Paul: It depends on what the situation is. If someone’s tryin’ to work out how to draw a tree, I’ve got advice on that. [laughs] Occasionally I get teenagers asking me about playing bass and I’ll say: ‘Right, what you need is a Ramones record and a reggae record that you like.’ From those two things, you can at least hear what the bass is doing and they’re quite straightforward to play along with, as long as you’re in tune. That’s a good starting lesson.
If you knew you absolutely could not fail, what one thing would you do?
Damon: Uhhhh… jumping off a cliff and being able to fly? [laughs]
Paul: I’ve no idea. If I’ve never tried something, I’ve got no gauge on whether it’s possible. All I could do is try my best. Maybe drive a u-boat down the Thames? I don’t know if that would be considered a success…
When you look at the trajectory of musicians’ careers, there’s a pattern in that it usually takes them a certain number of albums to figure out their own creative vocabulary, and then everything else is a slight deviation from the same thing with varying degrees of success. But you never know what you’re going to get with what you do. What drives you to keep going?
Damon: I just love the adventure of music every day. I mean this week – a week when I haven’t done anything else – I’ve done a tune with Massive Attack, I’ve done a tune with Moonchild, I’ve done a tune with Joan as Policewoman. That’s the way it goes. When I open the shop, anyone can come in – as long as they want to embrace the fundamentals of making music, which are an open spirit and a good ear. I just love the journey of it. It’s maybe not quite as hectic as I used to like it, but I’m still an adventurer nonetheless.
Paul: Well, I never know what I’m going to do next! But I suppose if you put a microscope over whatever I do, there are consistencies and they’re all things that I’m interested in. You could string a line through the lot and see that they do actually all join up. There’s an eagerness to learn and to find out what’s going on around the corner, [to find out] what it’s in the news today. That curiosity is just trying to move myself forward in some way.
The Good, the Bad & the Queen play London’s Somerset House on 17 July. Merrie Land is out on Studio 13.