WITH his mop of unruly black hair, full eye make-up, gash of red lipstick and general air of mystery, The Cure’s Robert Smith seemed a tantalising prospect for those pesky Gorillaz.
So it was with some trepidation that the virtual band’s co-mastermind Damon Albarn shared a file containing the bones of a song with Goth-pop’s dark prince.
Gorillaz are back with the Song Machine project
“I just sent him this skittish piano track, a drum beat and my nine-year-old niece’s mad trumpet playing,” he says.
“Robert said he absolutely loved it and I left it in his hands . . . ” Then silence.
Damon explains that “the months passed with hardly any feedback,” just “oh yeah, I might get the chance when I’ve finished something else.”
By this time, he is well into the latest Gorillaz project, Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez with co-conspirator, animator Jamie Hewlett.
Robert Smith’s inimitable features imposed on the moon.
He’s in lockdown in Devon with his family, where he’s set up a studio in a barn, while Jamie’s in Normandy turning the songs into riotous visual feasts for a season of YouTube episodes.
“Luckily for us, the one industry that never stopped was animation. If you’ve been an animator, you’ve been very busy,” reports Damon.
As ever with this creative chameleon, he’s also doing another piece of music . . . in this case putting the finishing touches to The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, written in and inspired by Iceland, where he has a house.
He picks up the story: “I was so relieved that I’d done it that I had a few drinks with Sam, my engineer. On my way out of the barn, I fell over, hit my head and I don’t remember getting back to the house.
“These things can happen when you’re in the middle of the countryside. When I woke up, I had a massive bump on the side of my head but, in my inbox, was an email from Robert Smith.
“It must have been five in the morning. I opened it and there it was, Strange Timez, the song that provided the title of the album.”
Damon Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett make up GorillazCredit: Thomas Chéné
I strongly advise watching Gorillaz Song Machine Episode Six featuring the track, not only for seeing the characters 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Russel Hobbs and Noodle in space suits “spinning around the world” but also for glimpsing Robert Smith’s inimitable features imposed on the moon.
Damon smiles when he considers his interactions with The Cure singer.
“He’s the ultimate night owl. All of his emails were nocturnal… they would start as the sun set,” he says.
“I didn’t realise it at the time but I also discovered that he’s very into astronomy.”
So how far back do they go? I ask. “I met Robert in 1990 in the urinals at Brixton Academy,” he replies.
“I went, ‘Oh you’re Robert Smith’ and he went, ‘Who are you?’ And he said, ‘Hello,’ and we parted company. He’s a man of few words.”
And was Damon a fan of The Cure during his teenage years before founding Blur with Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree?
Jamie’s in Normandy turning the songs into riotous visual feasts for a season of YouTube episodes
“Oh, I loved The Cure, absolutely brilliant,” he says. “Robert’s one of the most wonderful individuals. In fact when I got his contribution, I just thought, ‘Oh God, now I get a chance to sing with him!’ ”
But he adds, “When I actually tried to, our voices just didn’t work together, so I had to do my Sprechgesang, as they say in Germany.”
Sprechgesang is a vocal technique that lies somewhere between speaking and singing and goes back to Richard Wagner’s romantic 19th-century operas.
“I’ve been in the opera world for a while now,” smirks Damon, alluding to his operatic exploits Monkey: Journey To The West, Dr Dee and the new Mali-inspired Le Vol Du Boli.
‘It was nice to have my niece playing trumpet’
I tell the man who once sang Parklife that he’s getting quite high brow these days. “Not really, it’s just an illusion,” he decides.
Damon also describes how Strange Timez came to feature the free-spirited trumpet playing of his niece.
Although the Song Machine project began last year, it has evolved through the most challenging year in all our lives
“She was down in Devon during lockdown and obviously homeschooling was tough,” he says.
“Thankfully my daughter is old enough not to need it but I saw how difficult it was for my sister to do it and she reflects all parents during this period.
“So it was nice to get my niece to come into the studio because she’s learning the trumpet and she just joined in on this particular tune.”
Although the Song Machine project began last year, it has evolved through the most challenging year in all our lives.
If the song Strange Timez reflects a world shifting on its axis, so does The Pink Phantom, featuring Elton John and rapper 6Lack.
Damon says: “That’s a song of this moment with lines like ‘seems to me I’m in a dream.’”
He remembers catching a glimpse of himself wearing a mask, like we all do. “I’m thinking, ‘Hang on, I’m walking down the street and everyone’s got masks on.’ That in itself is kind of mad but I’ve become used to it.”
Goth-pop’s dark prince, Robert Smith, is a confirmed ‘night owl’ according to Damon AlbarnCredit: Getty – Contributor
If the start of the Song Machine project seems like a lifetime ago to Damon, he can be satisfied with the results of his and Jamie’s ongoing endeavours.
There’s the unbridled energy of Momentary Bliss with slowthai and Slaves, the dreamy basslines of Peter Hook on Aries while Beck delivers his classic funk groove on The Valley Of The Pagans.
“In a way it sounds like a collection of singles or a greatest hits album,” says Damon. “By chance, we’ve reinvented the wheel.
“It’s all work in progress but this time all the songs seem to fit beautifully together. It also allows Season Two to roll out immediately.”
“I’m doing different things all the time so it’s nice to spend maybe four days a month making a Gorillaz episode and then doing something else.”
Damon is in lockdown in Devon with his family, where he’s set up a studio in a barnCredit: Getty – Contributor
Another standout is the wistful Dead Butterflies, employing the vocal talent of Damon’s old mate Kano, the grime star recently seen in Top Boy who got a Mercury Prize nomination for last year’s Hoodies All Summer.
“I’ve got massive respect for Kano,” says Damon. “He’s an artist and not in it for fame and money.
“He’s also an individual and we’ve got to hold onto our individuality and fight against the fakery of modern culture.”
‘Don’t feel entitled to anything and live life’
Then there’s Pac-Man, a nod to the arcade classic’s 40th anniversary, with ScHoolboy Q and it’s appropriate 2020 line, “We’re living in a levelled world.”
“A lot of stuff in my songs comes true,” admits Damon. “Attali the French philosopher said all music is connected to prophecy. We’re in tune with vibrations!”
The whole Song Machine idea began in October last year when Damon and Jamie headed to Lake Como, Italy, to record Malian force of nature Fatoumata Diawara for the song Désolé, which means sorry in French. She turns in a typically emphatic performance over a sultry arrangement.
“She’d just had a baby and lives there. What a woman! She’s the ultimate human being, just great at everything,” says Damon.
“Fatou’s a fantastic guitar player and for anyone who doesn’t really know her, check out her performance at the Grammys and you’ll realise what a superstar she is.”
Just these past couple of months, Damon rekindled his working relationship with her for his African opera in four languages — French, Bamana, Lingala and English — called Le Vol Du Boli.
It’s a collaboration with Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako and tells the vivid story of a fetish animist, a person who believes objects contain spirits.
Damon on stage with his animated co-starsCredit: Getty – Contributor
Despite lockdown restrictions, the production went ahead for three nights at Le Chatelet, Paris. “It was sold out every night and they have sold a whole run,” reports Damon.
“It felt miraculous really because we were there for six weeks and every day I thought, ‘right, they’ll pull the plug on this because someone’s contracted Covid’.
“I feel so privileged and grateful to be offered that opportunity, to work at this moment in time, to hear a crowd again. It was pure magic and a tonic for the soul.”
Now back in London and lying low in quarantine, Damon ends our Zoom chat on a sad note that comes with a life-affirming message.
“One of my dearest friends was sadly taken away, but not through Covid, Tony Allen,” he says.
Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Tony plays on new Gorillaz track How Far? featuring Skepta and was drummer in The Good The Bad & The Queen, the group comprising Paul Simonon (The Clash), Simon Tong (The Verve) and Damon. “My big tragedy this year is Tony, one of the greatest teachers I’ve had in my life,” he says. “I miss him every day.”
When they toured the album Merrie Land together in 2018, I remember marvelling at this super cool sticksman keeping the show on track with energy and style.
“He was 80 and died of an aneurysm, very quickly thankfully,” continues Damon. “It was such a shock. I thought he would live to be 100.
“It just goes to show that you don’t know what’s round the corner. So don’t feel entitled to anything and live life.
“Live it positively and don’t be scared of the inevitable.”
Q&A WITH JAMIE HEWLETT
AS part of this week’s Gorillaz extravaganza, SFTW caught up with animator Jamie Hewlett, who spoke to SIMON COSYNS via Zoom from his studio in Paris.
How have you been coping in such a challenging year?
Since January 3rd, I’ve been working flat out. A video for every song is a tall order , but it’s OK. To be honest, the whole quarantine thing worked out fine for me because I disappeared down to Normandy with my wife and spent five months in the sticks, away from society in a farmhouse, just drawing and doing videos.
Have you enjoyed youself?
It’s really been fun, particularly having to include all the featured artists in the videos. For instance, I’ve been having wonderfully long email conversations with Robert Smith. A lot of them were at night time because that’s the way his body clock is set.
I gather you encouraged the Elton song…
Usually when I suggest people to collaborate with, I get told, “Don’t be stupid”. But me and Damon stayed up late talking and drinking and I started playing Elton John songs at four in the morning. Damon was quite moved and said how much he loved them. I just slipped in the idea that we should do a Gorillaz thing with him.
What dealings did you have with Elton?
He said he didn’t want to be in the video because he’d done enough of them and was tired of all that s**t. I said I should animate him and he sent me an email saying, “I love this idea, we should talk.”
I replied, “When would you like to talk?” and he emailed straight back, ‘Now.’ So I said to my wife, “I’ve got to call Elton!” He was an absolute sweetheart and we had a lovely chat. Then I did some drawings. It was actually very easy to do an animated version. As for Damon and Elton, they’re musicians, they’re artists and I think it was a real joy for those two to collaborate.
What reception did you get for the Elton animation?
My favourite quote on social media was some teenager saying, “Finally, my grandma likes Gorillaz.”
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing The Valley Of The Pagans with Beck. That is a strange one because he said he didn’t want to do it at first.
But I said, “I don’t need much, we could do like a FaceTime and you could sing into your phone.” Then I got all this footage he’d filmed himself with a green screen, dancing and jumping around, which was more than I wanted. I had to say, “That’s great but I just want you doing it on FaceTime!”
And who’s next after Beck?
I’m doing Episode Nine: The Lost Chord at the moment, with (Imagination singer) Leee John,
Damon tells me there will be a Season Two imminently…
Funnily enough, I just had a Zoom call with him and he said, “When are you ready to start Season Two?” And I replied, “I’m finishing Season One!” I think he’s already written about five songs. The next question is, “Who can we collaborate with on Season Two?”
Who’s your dream guest?
It changes. We were after Dionne Warwick for many years and we had her in the studio a couple of times but because she’s a pretty full on Christian, she questioned some of the imagery, which was fair enough.
I’d like to work with Jane Fonda, her just doing a narration set to music. Dolly Parton who could be quite magnificent. Damon said, “I love Dolly, let’s write her a letter.” We shall see!
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