Saturday 18 November 2017

Charming Man

Eamon Sweeney takes a look at Damon Albarn's multi-faceted career ahead of the 90s superstar's new solo album

Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Damon Albarn is the man with the Midas touch. Lightning rarely strikes twice, especially in the fickle, ever-changing sands of the music world.

When Albarn formed Gorillaz with Jamie Hewlett back in 1998, people thought the singer was completely off his rocker. Albarn had the last laugh as the cartoon pop band proceeded to out sell Blur by millions.

The PR blurb for Albarn's soon to be released Everyday Robots claims that it will be his first "fully realised" solo outing.

Albarn's first solo foray actually dates back to 1996, when he contributed a dreamy song called Closet Romantic to the Trainspotting soundtrack.

What is notable about Everyday Robots is that it appears to be Albarn's most personal and autobiographical album since Blur's 13 in 1999.

Blur's battered and bruised sixth album was inspired by Damon's break up with Britpop 'It' girl Justine Frischmann. Now, Everyday Robots sees Albarn come completely clean about his drug use, pun very much intended.

On the song You and Me, he dreamily sings, "Jab, jab, digging out a hole in Westbourne Grove, tin foil and a lighter, the ship across, five days on, two days off."

Albarn first dabbled in heroin when he lived with Frischmann.

"It's what I found going on in the front room," he told Q magazine recently. "The telly was on so I just thought, 'Why not?' I never imagined it would become a problem."

Albarn's comments will probably shock a lot of people. "I can only say [heroin] was incredibly productive for me," he continues. "Hand on heart."

"But it does turn you into a very isolated person and anything that you are truly dependent on is not good. I wouldn't recommend that and I was incredibly lucky."

In his best-selling memoir, Bit of Blur, bassist and now celebrity cheese maker Alex James revealed that he is jealous of Albarn's self-discipline when it comes to life's vices.

For example, he claims that Damon would chain smoke constantly on a night out, but then wouldn't touch a cigarette for weeks on end. His non-addictive personality seemingly also applied to using hard drugs.

Albarn is straight these days, a committed family man and an extremely prolific musician. In my limited experience, he is a personable, friendly and immensely likable character.

The first time I met Albarn it was in the smoking area of a pub in Rathmines, of all places. He was charm personified. "Alright Eamon, I'm Damon," he said with a warm handshake after we were introduced.

About a year later, I did a lengthy interview with Albarn for Day & Night, which is still easily one of my favourite encounters.

His beloved Chelsea FC had just dumped the mighty Barcelona out of the Champion's League, so Damon was completely over the moon.

"Last night was a truly religious experience," he told me. "I watched the match with my whole family. To witness that with my Mum and my children was very, very special...God, I'm welling up already!"

Albarn told me a yarn about the late Leo Finlay, an Irish music journalist who was the very first industry figure to champion Blur.

"We played at Leo's wedding in Dublin, which I think was in the old law courts," Damon reminisced to Day & Night.

"God bless him. We all got incredibly drunk. I swung out of one of the 18th century chandeliers and got into a lot of trouble.

"I fell on the floor and Sinead O'Connor stamped on my head. That's all I really remember. Leo discovered us, so wherever he is, thank you."

Albarn was also very frank about his old nemesis Noel Gallagher.

"You know what? I genuinely enjoy Noel's company," he said. "I always used to get on with Liam, but there was some unwritten rule where Noel and I completely ignored each other. That ceased one night when we broke that rule. Now, I always look forward to hanging out with him.

"To be honest with you, it's usually only at dos, but he's still someone I can hang out with. We've been through similar experiences and lived to tell the tale, so it's really nice that it's come to this."

Albarn non-conformity runs deep in his family. His grandfather Edward (who is sometimes also referred to as Edmund) was a conscientious objector to the Second World War. A life-long peace activist, Edward Albarn died on hunger strike in 2002.

Damon's father Keith managed the prog-rock band Soft Machine. Albarn and his sister Jessica enjoyed a blissfully happy home life.

"I always thought my parents were absolutely dead right," he says. "I went against the grain in a weird way – by continually following them."

Damon absolutely hated school. "I got bullied," he has confessed. "I brought it on myself because I was an arrogant little fucker. When I was 15, I had a 17-year old girlfriend and that pissed everyone off, especially seeing as they'd spent years calling me gay."

Now, Albarn is hailed as one of Essex's favourite sons.

When Damon was invited to an infamous reception in Downing Street hosted by the newly elected UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1996, he refused to attend and replied, "I'm sorry, I won't be attending, as I am now a Communist. Enjoy the schmooze, comrade!"

Musical maverick, peace activist, proud father, Chelsea fan, former heroin user ... the list goes on and on ...

As the nostalgia industry braces itself for yet another navel gazing retrospective on Britpop for its 20th birthday, one of the greatest songwriters of his time is returning to the fray.

Welcome back, Damon.

Everyday Robots is out on April 25.

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