An Interview with Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon
Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Paul Simonon (The Clash) have a new group together. It’s called the Good, the Bad and the Queen. The music they play is loose like comfy clothes and stylistically untucked—English songs constructed without zips and buttons, but underpinned with a twangy gusset courtesy of Tony Allen, the Nigerian drum master. Their first, eponymous album was released in early 2007 on the Parlophone/ Honest Jons label.
If the group has a purpose, it is to explore themes arising from Albarn and Simonon’s mutual love of their home territory: North Kensington, that storied part of west London mythologized by The Clash following the fiery race riots of ’76. This handsomely decayed (and renewed) couple of square miles is variously identified as “Notting Hill,” “Ladbroke Grove” and “Portobello” by those who live there, depending on which bit of it they choose to identify themselves with. “Notting Hill” usually means well-heeled bohemian; “Portobello” means mercantile bohemian; “Ladbroke Grove” or “The Grove” means you have a lot of reggae records. Well, it used to. Paul Simonon has spent much of the past thirty years drawing and painting the area: its people, its weather, its fetishes, its street furniture, its debris. The area proudly retains a melting-pot identity, but be aware: there’s an awful lot more money now than there was in ’76.
The Believer met Paul and Damon in a swanky new café off Powis Square. Both men wore black pinstripe suits and open-necked shirts, Paul’s in the open-weave, big-collared Jamaican style. He wore a key round his neck on a chain. The cafe would not permit the members of the Good, the Bad and the Queen to smoke.
I. BANKRUPT GROVE
THE BELIEVER: How did you meet?
PAUL SIMONON: Our first contact was… well, it’s the old Chrissie Hynde story.
DAMON ALBARN: I got a little demo through the post from Chrissie Hynde, which turned out to be Ray Davies [Kinks singer] writing “We Close Our Eyes” at the piano many, many years ago. Don’t know exactly when. It might have even been the sixties, actually. So I’ve got this recording of him at the piano… She was doing some performance for MTV or something, back in 1994, and she wanted me to play the piano while she sang. She didn’t want a big arrangement. She just wanted it to sound like it was her and him. I expect she asked me because there were glaring similarities between what we [Blur] were doing then and what the Kinks had done. Also, about a month before I’d sung “Waterloo Sunset” with Ray, so I was having a real moment. My first contact with what, at that age, I considered to be the living past…
PS: I was impressed. I was thinking, Well, wasn’t that a bit intimidating? And you just went,“Er, no…”
DA: Well, if you think about it, I mean, singing “Waterloo Sunset,” which I still feel captures something about the light in London at that particular moment of the day—it felt very easy to sing, to be honest with you, because I’d grown up trying to sound like that, or trying to dissect it. So I just did it. It’s like learning to run a hundred meters at school. You can do it. How well you do it is another matter. So Chrissie and I finished up playing this song, had a few drinks, and she said, “I’m going to Joe Strummer’s wedding reception. Do you wanna come?” I was a bit taken aback. I didn’t know whether it was appropriate, having been brought up in a reasonable manner. I thought it would be a bit rude, a total stranger turning up. But she convinced me to go. So I got there. And there they were, the Clash. Can’t remember who else was there—that was enough to take in. And Joe was in a very good mood, obviously—it was his wedding reception. They always start out well. And at some point there was a kind of group hug thing…
PS: Instigated by Chrissie Hynde, in that American way. Well, I suppose it’s quite an American thing to do, isn’t it? A group hug? Maybe rugby players do it here, but, well, that’s another thing. So Chrissie said, “Come on, group hug!” We sort of sidled up to each other with our arms hanging down by our pockets and had this group hug. It was kind of strange.
DA: I felt comfortable and at home. Nice.
PS: Warm. Hah!
BLVR: What did you think of Damon, when you first met him?
PS: Well,I liked his music.We didn’t have too much time to talk.
DA: I don’t really remember much more than that, to be honest with you. We might have done some chatting, but I don’t remember it.
PS: We were all quite sort of merry… And I never saw Damon again till April last year.
DA: Despite being very, very close neighbors.
PS: It’s strange our paths didn’t cross, since we all lived in the same area—Ladbroke Grove, Portobello Market. The timing—it hadn’t been written that we should meet.
DA: Yeah, it’s funny. I never saw you round the place, but I always used to see Mick [Jones, Clash/BAD guitarist].
PS: We were all there, though, and you just didn’t realize it. Put it this way: I was outside my home in Oxford Gardens once, cleaning my motorcycle. These Italians came up and said,“Do you know where Paul Simonon lives?” I went, who? “Paul Simonon of the Clash—do you know where he lives?” No idea, mate, sorry. And off they went. It wasn’t as if I had a balaclava on…
DA: What I have noticed about this area is that people who are very recognizable don’t seem very recognizable round here.
PS: Do you think it’s because they’re carrying shopping, maybe?
DA: You could see the royals walking down Portobello Market and you wouldn’t know them from anyone. The only time you ever get to identify anyone is when there’s a paparazzi scrum around them. Or scum, to use another word. But I do think there’s an equality here— I mustn’t get carried away here and say “everyone’s equal”—but there’s a weird leveling that goes on. And the market being the focus of that—well, no one on the market’s impressed. In fact, I know what it is: because no one is impressed, you can’t get away with posturing. It’s almost as if the posture is to not posture.
PS: The thing is, I can’t really compare it to anywhere else, because this is where I live and where I’ve always lived. If we lived in Finchley, I might feel the same way about Finchley. But I grew up here and accept everything that goes on here as normal. It’s maybe only when you step out of it and travel that you realize that it’s unique. I mean, Portobello Market is the main artery, and then there’s all the offshoots, including the Earl Percy, that add up to the thing that is “Portobello.” Me and Damon have discussed in the past how you’ve had the Irish here,how they were brought over to dig up the roads—
DA:A lot of people got dumped here.
PS: Well, it was a cheap place to live.
DA: Where I live, Westbourne Grove,started off as Westbournia—it was a very chic, slightly out-of-town location which came into being when the train line came to Paddington.
PS: William Whiteley [of Whiteleys department store] opened his first shop there.
DA: It was formerly the land of Lord Hill, who was the commander-in-chief of the British Army at the time. He sold off his land to a developer. But even then it was called Bankrupt Grove as well, because the rents were so extortionate that people were constantly going out of business. Then it seemed to me that the area just became a sort of dumping ground for immigrants. But there’s always been a foothold for artists and their ilk, and so the dialogue has always continued. It’s going through another period of relative—well, not relative—real affluence at the moment. But yet again all the East Africans have been dumped in this part of London and so, like any environment, once an immigrant group gets a foothold it’s like… well, it’s like the layers of the earth, isn’t it? It’s hard to know who’s the most compressed here.
II. “IT’S MORE FUN WHEN YOU CAN HEAR WHAT’S GOING ON.”
BLVR: How did you re-meet?
PS: I got a phone call from Damon’s empire and they said about meeting up and having a chat and listening to some music.
DA: I was sitting in the studio with Brian Danger Mouse and Tony Allen [the Nigerian drum master who drove Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat] and we’d had terrible problems in Lagos, where this record started. All the bass players Tony seemed to know out there were all people who’d played in Paris. And no disrespect to musicians in Paris, but there is a tendency, I’ve found, amongst African musicians in Paris—I’m going to get myself in a lot of trouble with this… Um, in Paris generally they have an incredibly open mind to music but their application of it is a bit… a bit…
DA: Overrefined, yeah. Put it this way: a lot of the early world recordings—like Salif Keita’s, for instance—a lot of them were totally destroyed by the community of musicians in Paris, who have a tendency to aspire to big studios, to god-awful production, and to ten-string basses…
PS: To overplaying.
DA: Overplaying to a ridiculous degree. And music very quickly loses its charm in that environment, I’ve found. When you’re talking about Tony Allen you’ve got to have the right bass with him, and, not through any fault of his but because of the reverence in which he’s held, he got channeled and found himself among musicians who were very, very articulate but weren’t saying anything.
PS: Less is more.
DA:Well, I don’t think of you as articulate, Paul, but you do say an awful lot more. You know what I mean?
DA: The kind of musician I’m referring to, you could tip ’em in a studio with Tony Allen, and immediately they’d be following him all over the shop, but, but… well, it wouldn’t really mean anything. I love the whole thing about Paul, and I thought, Let’s just see if this works, and we took it from there. And once Paul was in, suddenly every day there was a new revelation about how much we had in common, and the real idea of a band came into being. Prior to that, there wasn’t a band. There was Tony and me and Simon the guitarist, but there wasn’t a band.And when Paul came in it became a band—and also I had something to write about. I had someone to talk to about stuff I was interested in.
PS: First time we met we spent about three hours talking about books, films, music, and the area we live in. And what Tony does musically is very complex. It’s not normal for me. I’m used to charging from A to B and then to C, with variations. Rock and roll, and reggae—quite simple in some ways… But to be confronted with Tony was like, blimey, where do I go from here? All I did was apply my usual approach, and in some ways it worked, because I’m not wasting time trying to chase around what he’s doing. And that allows enough space for what he’s doing. We can’t all be Jimi Hendrix.
DA: Y’see, I don’t like musicians like that. I’m not really a great Jimi Hendrix fan.
PS: Hendrix didn’t really need anybody else. But with Tony it seemed to work because of my approach. It’s about the combination working. I found out the other day that our guitarist, Simon Tong, was saying, “I found out my part because I was trying to make some space for Paul.” It’s like everyone’s trying to make space for everyone else, which is very polite, but it works because we’re actually playing together. There are no rules other than don’t crank up over ten. It’s more fun when you can hear what’s going on.
DA: The great thing about this band is that if we make another record—which’d be really nice—it won’t sound anything like this one. Because we’ve got so many sort of… groundings, we can really do something completely different every time and it’ll still sound equally natural, which I like.
PS: That was our approach in the Clash, too. That’s how you learn, how you go forward. You know, we’ve done that now, but we’re already further down the line. So by the time the first record’s out, we’ve already moved on.
DA: I like the fact that you have to start all over again every time. I really like that. Otherwise you’re just feeding something that doesn’t need feeding, and that is the complacency and the sort of… the new religion… well, it’s not a new religion, it’s over forty years old now, but the religion of consumerism.
BLVR:The compulsions of late capitalism?
DA:Yeah.You’re somehow contributing to the emptiness of everything. If you don’t change and you do exactly the same, then you’re just becoming as invisible as someone like Paris Hilton, who is famous for nothing other than being famous, you know?
III. THAT OLD OH-IT’S-ALWAYS-RAINING-AND-MISERABLE-IN-LONDON THING
BLVR:Was there a book or film or record that revealed the common ground between you?
PS:Yeah, I suppose so, yeah, Dickens. And Damon had this book about public hanging in English history. But Dickens comes up in everything.
PS: From Dombey and Son to Oliver Twist, his descriptions of London. Gustave Doré’s etchings of London. His journey through London…
DA: I tell you what it is: both Paul and I can see today in the past.
PS: A building, the name of a street—it leads you on a journey to find out more. So you read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, or you watch the David Lean films, and there’s countless others I can’t recall right now. We’ve just started talking about Music Hall—the vaudeville in this country—and all these things are just starting to come together. Paintings by [Walter] Sickert…
DA: We have a very open view of the world and a great interest in everything in it, so in a way we don’t feel shackled by the political correctness in this country, where you can’t really articulate your Englishness. We feel like we’re free of that. It’s obvious that we’re not BNP-supporting white supremacists [as in the extreme right-wing, racist British National Party], so we can actually talk in these terms.
PS: I don’t know whether it’s an English thing, but there is, it seems to me, a tradition of English poets who celebrate the fact that it’s an awful day—it’s raining, it’s cloudy, and my love has left me. But I’m still here and at least it’s raining…
BLVR: You sound like a right pair of twenty-firstcentury flaneurs.
DA: What’s a flaneur?
BLVR: Iain Sinclair, who wrote Lights Out for the Territory, that wandering-and-wondering-about-London book—he’s a kind of a flaneur. A flaneur is a person, usually bohemian in stripe, who walks the streets of the city ingraining himself in them, all the better to register their beauty, I suppose…
DA: Well, I’m not an extremist. But sometimes when I’m on top of this hill that we live on, I close my eyes and imagine the forest that once stood there and see the reflection of the sun setting down in the valley of the Thames and… and if that’s a flaneur, then that’s what I am.
PS: I’ve seen it, too. When I was doing a whole series of paintings of the Thames, I was at the top of the ShellMex Building—which was hard to get into because they thought I was going to abseil down the outside of it—I was there for months painting and painting. And there were moments when the whole structure of the city would fall away and for a second I could see Roman London. And then it was the Queen Mother’s birthday and there was a flight over the city, of Lancasters and Spitfires, and then I’d be seeing London in the Blitz.When you’re painting hard and really concentrating, you forget you’ve been standing there for an hour and you’re freezing cold and you go into, well, not quite a dream state, but maybe more what Buddhists do when they meditate—you go into another realm and things seem to enter a different mode.The physicality is nonexistent but your mind is there.
BLVR: William Blake?
PS: Yeah, yeah. I’m quite curious—knowing what Peckham Rye is like—that angels appeared there.
DA: It’s a kind of yearning to invest spirit into the land here. I’ve spent a lot of my life looking outward to find spirit, either in Africa and India, or Iceland, the north. I think it’s an important journey to make—you have to be able to find the same spirit and magic under your feet. The things that have always maintained it for me have been these references: Blake,“Jerusalem,” Dickens, Robin Hood, Chaucer, D. H. Lawrence. Not so much Shakespeare, really. He doesn’t evoke the same thing to me…
BLVR: What happens to your extremely cultivated sense of the Other, if what you’re looking at is what’s right under your feet?
DA: You have to get clear of the artifice around. You have to dig into the earth and understand that the earth is the same here as it is over there.
PS: When you travel a lot, you have to come back, and the first day or two you just marvel at how London is. I mean, I lived in El Paso and then L.A. for about a year, and when I came back to London, because I’d been deprived of the seasons, and the changes that brings— well, I immediately got my paints out and dashed down to the canal and did a painting of the gasworks, because it was raining. It was amazing. And that completely cured me of that old oh-it’s-always-raining-and-miserable-inLondon thing. I was in L.A. previously, with Steve Jones of the Pistols, and he’d be going, “Cor, just think of all those silly sods back in Shepherds Bush, all cold and raining, and here we are in the sunshine on our motorcycles with no crash helmets, having salad…”There was all this backslapping. But that’s a reality I don’t like. I like this. This works for me, the way it is, being here.