Damon Albarn On 'Everyday Robots' And The Birth Of Britpop

Apr 24, 2014
Originally published on April 24, 2014 5:30 am

Damon Albarn's credits are legion. He's the frontman of Blur, the British band who created a giant catalog of forward-thinking guitar pop and one enduring, stadium-rattling jock jam. He's the vocalist and principal songwriter of Gorillaz, the animated supergroup who managed to give the iPod a little street cred. He led Bobby Womack out of long career stall and into 21st century cool, co-producing the soul legend's left-field comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, in 2012. He has scored film, theater and opera, collaborated with Malian blues stars — and next week, he'll release his first proper solo album, Everyday Robots.

One credit, however, still seems to trump them all. Along with his bandmates in Blur, Albarn is often credited with helping usher in Britpop: a sound that surfaced in the UK in the 1990s, as British rock bands sought to redefine and distinguish themselves from the American rock of the time. Albarn says that for him, the phenomenon dates back to 1992, when he spent two months traveling in the U.S. He came back to what he now calls "a dysfunctional home": an England on the verge of becoming very American.

"I've come back from America, and I sort of foresee a very powerful American cultural wave — not just music, but everything," Albarn recalls. "You know, you had shopping malls decades before us. Everything had a lot more sugar, a lot more salt. We had four TV channels; I'd come over to America, and there'd be hundreds already."

Albarn spoke with NPR's David Greene about how resistance to America's influence created a fresh but insular scene in English rock — and what happened when the Britpop bubble burst. Hear more of their conversation, as well as music from Everyday Robots, at the audio link.

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The musician Damon Albarn is out with his first solo album. And if you haven't heard of him, not to worry, the musician himself isn't surprised.

DAMON ALBARN: Yeah, I mean I don't think people really know who I am at all, to be honest with you. I mean, I think they might know of a lot of stuff I've done over the years, but they don't know me.

GREENE: Here some of the stuff Albarn has done. the British rock band blur.


BLUR: (Singing) Woo hoo, when I feel heavy...

GREENE: That is with the British rock band Blur. Now, how about this one?


GORILLAZ: (Singing) Feel good...

GREENE: That's Gorillaz, another British music project.

Damon Albarn gets credit for helping to redefine British rock in the 1990s, ushering in the sound known as Britpop. Bands like Oasis and The Verve were also part of that genre. These were British musicians trying to find their own sound different from the American rock of the time. Damon Albarn points back to a two-month trip he took across the United States.

ALBARN: That was the catalyst for Britpop. One hundred percent, it was that experience in 1992 in America that created Britpop. I mean, for me, that's what I was reacting to.


ALBARN: It's kind of mad that an American experience created something which was interpreted as such a quintessentially English experience.

GREENE: And so, were you trying to create something that reminded you of England and home and resisting any intuitive change?

ALBARN: Yeah, but I was also - I was, you know, it was a dysfunctional home.

GREENE: The dysfunctional home he was imagining was Britain as it would look invaded by American culture. It's a vision he outlined in songs like "Magic America," off the Blur album "Park Life."


BLUR: (Singing) Buildings in the sky and the air is sugar free...

ALBARN: I'd come back from America and I sort of foresee a very powerful American cultural way - not just music or things, but everything - the whole of America. The whole, you know, you had shopping malls decades before us.


BLUR: (Singing) Took a cab shopping malls...

ALBARN: Everything, you know, had a lot more sugar and a lot more salt, and a lot more media, a lot of television channels, you have - when I first went over to America, we had four TV channels. And, you know, I come over to America and there'd be hundreds already.


BLUR: (Singing) Then found love on channel 44...

ALBARN: And it wasn't meant as a celebration. It was more of a commentary.

GREENE: About England at the time.

ALBARN: About what was going to happen to England.

GREENE: It was going to become more like America, you feared.

ALBARN: It was going to become more American...

GREENE: And did it?

ALBARN: ...which it did, 100 percent. We all became more American.


BLUR: (Singing) He likes to live in magic America with all those magic people...

GREENE: Britpop became a way for British people to express their identity and to tap into national pride. All of which made some of the rockers pretty uncomfortable, including Damon Albarn.

ALBARN: And that's how Britpop became so big in a way, is because it was a bubble and other people started coming into that bubble and then, you know, it wasn't a particularly expansive bubble, not a great deal of elasticity. So the object, once the bubble (unintelligible) craze was the pop it and see the bigger picture again.


ALBARN: (Singing) When your soul isn't right and it's raw to the night, it's in your hands.

GREENE: And so Albarn, one of the most influential voices in British rock is now on a new and more personal exploration. He keeps it simple on his first solo album, reaching back to the England of his youth.


ALBARN: (Singing) Heavy seas of love, radiance is in you.

GREENE: On this song, "Heavy Seas of Love," he thinks of a choir from a church near where he grew up in northeast London.


ALBARN: (Singing) Heavy seas of love.

There was this Pentecostal church in the end of my road and it's called the London City Mission Church. And I remember, vividly, standing outside with my bike just listening to the voices on a Sunday and feeling very uplifted by it, but not being able to go in or look through the windows because it was a very big gate and I was a small person at that time, so the gate seemed even bigger and imposing steps up the front door.

GREENE: To the kid it was kind of this mysterious place where this beautiful sounds was coming.

ALBARN: Yeah. Exactly.

GREENE: And not so mysterious when you went back, because you were actually able to meet the choir and make part of this album.

ALBARN: Yes. They were a memory and although it's not the same people singing in the church, they know people who did then and it's still people from the community. So I just, I found an appropriate move to contact them and I think there was a connection there.


ALBARN: (Singing) It's in your hands.

GREENE: As part of trying to see the big picture, as Albarn puts it, he's been traveling a lot to Africa, highlighting the talents of African musicians, and also introducing us to one particular elephant in Tanzania, who had been adopted by some of Damon Albarn's friends - hence, the song, "Mr. Tembo."

ALBARN: It was written for an elephant, a one-year-old elephant called Mr. Tembo who turned up at this place called Mkomazi in Tanzania - orphaned - mother had just been killed by poachers. And these friends of my partner and me, they took this baby elephant in and I mean it was very, very cute.


ALBARN: (Singing in foreign language) (Singing) Can I sing to you bout Mr. Tembo and what he's got to do.

GREENE: I understand the elephant did not have the best reaction when you sang the song.

ALBARN: No, well, I mean without actually asking the elephant why it reacted in the way it did, I think it will always remain a mystery. But he did sort of come up to me, stare at me, sniff me while I was playing and then he (bleep) himself.


GREENE: Related to the music or not related maybe?

ALBARN: Unclear.



ALBARN: (Singing) Mr. Tembo's on his way on the hill with only this song to tell you how he feels.

GREENE: Damon, thank you for spending the time with us, and good work on the album. We appreciate it.

ALBARN: OK. Thank you very much.


ALBARN: (Singing) It's where he is now, but it wasn't what he planned.

GREENE: Damon Albarn, his first solo album "Everyday Robot" comes out on Monday.


GREENE: (Singing in foreign language) (Singing) We all sing for you‚ about Mr. Tembo and what he's going through. He get's up early while you are still in bed.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.