June 1st, 2005

operesque

2D's a spiky fucker

Justine Frischmann introduced me to Damon Albarn in 1991 outside the Falcon in Camden. His stare was beautiful but glacial; he just wasn't interested. I mumbled something about how his group Blur was playing soon at the Astoria. The next time I saw him was at Subterania, under the Westway. Justine had dragged him along to a Momus gig and he was hating it. He stood up on the balcony throwing tinfoil ashtrays in my direction. When Blur became the biggest group in Britpop it became clear that Damon was a difficult character, prickly and competitive. Nevertheless, the next item in my "memories of Damon" file is me telling Alan McGee (who's just signed Oasis) that Albarn is the most talented songwriter of his generation. Then I remember sitting on a bus and reading how Albarn has titled Blur's album "Modern Life Is Rubbish" as a tribute to postmodern recycling, and how a disastrous American tour has left him feeling more British than ever. Flash forward to Paris, 1994. I've got married, and Blur have released "Girls and Boys". I think it's a terrific single. A reporter from the Daily Record is interviewing me on the Place Du Tertre about my marriage, conducted in rather dramatic circumstances. She wants to know what kind of music I like. "Don't tell me you like that din by Blur!" she gasps. I don't, but I do. I also like the silly dialogue in the middle of "Parklife" about wellbeing and pigeons. And the channelling of Ray Davies, vaudeville and Madness.

In the doldrum years of Britpop I lose interest in Blur. I mean, I see them live in Paris, I hear the singles, I note that their videos are Benny Hill skits directed by Damian Hirst. Nice! But I don't hear the albums. Damon seems to reverse his previous stance on America, developing a love-hate relationship with Stephen Malkmus. Blur becomes Pavement for a while, but Pavement does it better. Albarn buys a house in Iceland. He fucks lots of girls and Justine leaves him. I meet Graham Coxon at a Divine Comedy gig at the Garage and tell him Kahimi Karie would like him to write songs for her, and what's more is selling hundreds of thousands of records in Japan. "That's too many," says Graham, with the same icy glacial "fuck you" stare I'd seen on Damon.

But Albarn does collaborate with one of the Shibuya-kei people: he makes remixes of "Star Fruits Surf Rider" for Cornelius. His tastes seem to shadow mine. He even chooses Julian Opie to do Blur's compilation cover. He gets into World Music and makes a nice record in Mali, then promises to do another in Mongolia. But the next time I really pay attention is in New York, 2002. The first Gorillaz album comes out. Gorillaz is Damon's bubblegum pop cartoon band, only it's maudlin and eclectic. It's also amazingly successful. And the website cartoons, by Jamie Hewlett, are brilliant, redolent of the zany fantasia of Saturday morning Cartoon Network.

I've already been paying attention, in 2002, to Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and Del Tha Funky Homosapien, listening to their Deltron 3030 album of speculative sci-fi hip hop, and I like what they do with Albarn's material too. The first Gorillaz album isn't a purchase, but it's a download, and one I find myself playing quite a bit as I prepare to record my Oskar Tennis Champion album in Tokyo. Somehow, despite Albarn's thousand yard stare, he's family. It's easy to project Japanese forebears for the Gorillaz project: the ape imagery comes from Cornelius, the sampladelica from Towa Tei, the Noodle character is modelled on Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori. The project could be Damon's version of James Lavelle's U.N.K.L.E. project (Lavelle has also been spotted at every London Cornelius gig), but the inventiveness and pathos of Albarn's songs takes them beyond Lavelle's material, even if cut and paste and cellphone collaboration links the two groups.

So, three years later there's a new Gorillaz album, Demon Days, with a new Jamie Hewlett website to promote it. Click your way over to the jukebox in the entrance hall up in the mad scientist's house above the graveyard and you can hear all the tracks. They're full of borrowings, startling sonic tricks, pathos, "rewrites of Ghost Town" (as one reviewer put it), guest raps, nice catchy throat tricks in Damon's ever-evolving vocalisation technique, surprisingly spliced choruses about windmills, and just catchy, catchy postmodern pop music. "Feel Good Inc" is my favourite single of the year, and Hewlett's video for it (click your way to the cinema room) is straight out of Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, my film of the year so far. Demon Days is the kind of record I wish Cornelius were still making. It's Shibuyua-kei, the Beastie Boys and all those 70s-in-the-90s people dead and gone to heaven, reborn as cartoons. It makes me nostalgic for pomo pop. Where did I leave my analog synths? What did it feel like making Stars Forever? Ah, it felt like "anything goes", and it felt like endless collaboration. It felt a bit like joining the Gorillaz, the 21st century Monkees.

2D, aka Damon Albarn, has done it again. He's getting better at what he does, and he was good to begin with. I might even buy the record this time. Keep the spiky fucker in Icelandic beer and hair transplants.