Damon Albarn listens to Taylor Swift, Rolling Stones

Damon Albarn on LA: “It’s actually been my least favorite place in the last 30 years. But I realized that was because I’d never really left West Hollywood.”

(Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

As the lead singer (and handsome face) of Blur, Damon Albarn became a star writing songs about England — funny, melodic, stylistically omnivorous character studies like “Parklife” and “Country House,” which along with Oasis’ edgy anthems helped define the rowdy 1990s Britpop scene.

But Albarn’s latest solo album addresses a different place: Iceland, where he became a citizen last year, decades after first visiting in 1997. More Pure the Stream Flows” began when he called a group of orchestral musicians together at his home in Iceland in 2019 to “tune into the scenery,” as he put it.

“Someone with a trumpet would focus on a cloud moving over the mountain,” he said. “Someone else would be playing the waves.” The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced an early end to the sessions. But Albarn — also known for other projects, including numerous stage productions and virtual band Gorillaz — shaped the group’s recordings into songs.

Now he’s bringing the album to the Walt Disney Concert Hall for a one-off concert on Monday night, where he’ll play the songs (as well as some oldies) on the piano, accompanied by a string section. Over coffee last week on the roof of his hotel — it was his second time in Los Angeles in two months after a trip he took in November as part of a Gorillaz-related project on Netflix — Albarn, 53, spoke about his dual citizenship, the upcoming 25th anniversary of Blur’s self-titled 1997 LP, and the legacy of the band’s biggest American hit, “Song 2”.

How have you liked LA in the past?
It’s been my least favorite place in the last 30 years. But I realized it was because I’d never really left West Hollywood. Then last time I was here I worked in Malibu and Silver Lake – I learned to drive during lockdown – and the city just opened up. I discovered there’s another side to LA: less confident, less feeding the beast. Less showbiz.

Your show at Disney is you at the piano. Whose game inspires you?
Thelonious Monk is my favorite. And I was very fortunate to spend some time with Rubén González and just watch him play. It’s a very nice thing to be able to do something that doesn’t require amplification. But it’s actually quite difficult to play a whole concerto on the piano. It’s not difficult to play in a band.

Heavy because it’s so exposed?
You can’t hide behind anything. You get to know if the songs are good or if they were popular at the time because of the sound and the attitude. It’s a day of reckoning – and frankly, one that not much modern music could stand up to.

You think a lot of modern musicians rely on sound and attitude?
Name someone who isn’t.

She may not be to your liking, but Taylor Swift is an excellent songwriter.
She doesn’t write her own songs.

Of course she does. Co-writes some of them.
That does not count. I know what co-writing is. Co-writing is very different from writing. I don’t hate anyone, I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes. That doesn’t mean the result can’t be really great. And some of the greatest singers – I mean, Ella Fitzgerald has never written a song in her life. When I sing I have to close my eyes and just be there. I suppose I’m a traditionalist in that sense. A really interesting songwriter is Billie Eilish and her brother. I’m more attracted to it than Taylor Swift. It’s just darker – less endlessly optimistic. Much smaller and stranger. I find them exceptional.

British pop star Damon Albarn stands looking away

“Re-issuing things that have already seen their day takes up space for something new to grow from,” says Damon Albarn, photographed at The Roof, at the West Hollywood Edition.

(Jay L Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Tell a little bit about your life in Iceland. Is it dramatically different from your life in England?
Not really. Icelandic culture and English culture have parallels. It’s much smaller there — there’s a much greater sense of equality and public accountability. And it doesn’t have that kind of crazy colonial history that never seems to wear off. Nordic culture is preferable to me in many ways.

What draws you back after you return to England?
England is my home. As annoying as it is and as stupid as the politics are, I’m English.

What do you think of the hubbub surrounding Boris Johnson’s lockdown parties?
He’s a serial liar. I don’t know how he keeps getting away with things. Right now it’s like a double lie – first he lies about the parties, then he lies about his achievements, so Brexit, which I don’t think any sane person could find anything positive about.

Ever remember the Tony Blair/Bill Clinton politician-as-cool-guy days?
Before he even came to power, Tony Blair invited me to Westminster to have some sort of conversation about what the youth wanted. I remember walking into his office really hungover and having this overwhelming feeling that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell was standing behind me making faces.

Did you know at the time you were played?
Absolutely. Because then I was assigned a kind of political assistant – an attaché, so to speak. I would say things and then get notes, “Oh, don’t say that.” I thought, “Did you just get swallowed whole by the cops—?” When he won, he threw a big party. I declined. But I kept getting invitations to dinner at Downing Street – handwritten letters from his wife.

Blur turns 25 next month.
I suppose it does. I am writing and recording a song about an incident when I was in Thailand and met the Crown Princess. That was in November ’97. She was only 14 at the time and she came to us and because of the very specific role that the royal family plays in Thailand, they put a throne next to the mixing desk for her to sit on surrounded by I don’t know how many soldiers. “Song 2” started and she stood on her throne and dove into the crowd. The reason I wrote a song about it is because I had a dream about this princess recently; She had grown up and we spent time together in my dream, she as a woman. So there you go: 1997 was a long time ago, but right now it’s not.

Any plans to celebrate the album’s anniversary?
I don’t want anything to do with it. The re-edition of things that have already passed their time takes up space from which something new could grow.

How does a future Blur reunion fit in there? They always seemed a bit reluctant to go out and play the hits.
I don’t care how much you are loved by the smell of your own farts. The biggest representatives of this are the Rolling Stones, who just couldn’t stop themselves. It’s disappointing. Not to say I didn’t absolutely love The Rolling Stones in their heyday – they were great. But do other things in your life. Sing “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as you approach 80? Come on.

Have you seen Peter Jackson’s latest Beatles documentary?
I don’t watch the Beatles rehearse for 17 hours. Again, of course, I love the Beatles. I’ve looked at a few of them and I get it – it’s interesting to see the little nuances. But I do that all the time. A little holiday for bus drivers.

How do you explain your ongoing obsession with the Beatles?
That’s because they haven’t done anything since 1971. Nothing bad happened. Never made a bad record. never got old

They showed a real appreciation for vintage cars in Gorillaz. I was at the Demon Dayz Festival in LA a few years ago when you released George Benson.
He was so brilliant that day. That’s the best thing about Gorillaz, being able to elevate someone, a vintage car, and it feels really fresh at the moment. In a way, Gorillaz is at its strongest when we have these circuses that we put on the streets from time to time — hopefully we’ll do one this year — and it’s just, who the hell is going to hit the stage next?

On Gorillaz, I’m wondering if you’ve ever considered writing songs for a children’s animated film.
That’s kind of what Netflix is ​​about. I promised myself that eventually I’d give up being a pop star and just do really weird things, like an early learning show, but in my quirky left-handed way. That’s my point about the Stones: there’s so much to do, to keep the creative genius alive but ego is so toxic in our society.

And in you?
I struggle with that too. The idea that, hey, I’m really famous and look at my numbers – it’s going nowhere.

“Song 2” made you famous in this country.
This song, it’s outrageous.

Is it an albatross or a gift that always passes on?
No albatross because I never play it. This is a perfect example of something that is more about setting and production than actual songwriting.

So it’s unlikely we’ll hear it at Disney Hall.
Now that we said it, I’ll see if I can try. The original version of this was easy for me to play because it was jazzier and much slower – the “woo-hoo” was more like “woooooo-hoooooo”. I’ll try it. I’ve failed so many times, one more doesn’t really matter.

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