‘We live on this stroppy little island …’
Damon Albarn and his band the Good, the Bad and the Queen have been trying to figure out what’s become of England since the Brexit vote, they tell John Harris
‘Well, this is weird, isn’t it?” says Damon Albarn. Six days ago, he was in Mexico City, playing with Gorillaz. Now, he and his bandmates in the Good, the Bad and the Queen are in Kent, taking turns to explain their second album in a fake American diner adjacent to the Maidstone studio where they will be performing on Later … with Jools Holland.
The seats are regulation red leatherette, and there are pictures on the wall of Stevie Wonder circa 1980’s Hotter Than July, a Ford truck and a Route 66 sign. And under glaring lights, as he picks at a vegetarian dinner in a polystyrene box, Albarn is talking about things that feel as if they have no place here at all: English folk myths; the north of England’s coastal resorts; his family’s background in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire – and, more than anything, Brexit. Harking back almost 25 years, he describes the new album as “the next instalment of Parklife. Like Parklife is a world, this is another world. Not entirely the real world, but not entirely far off it.”
Merrie Land comes nearly 12 years after its predecessor. Like that record, this one was created by Albarn, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the trailblazing Nigerian drummer Tony Allen and guitarist/keyboard player Simon Tong (late of the Verve). After that, the similarities end. As if to illustrate the kind of openness and diversity that Albarn thinks Brexit might imperil, the new album has a broader musical palette. Not for nothing has Simonon described Merrie Land as a work of “modern English folk music with a bit of rub-a-dub in it”.
“This time around, people can dance,” says Allen, a youthful 78, with the easy confidence that comes from having made breathtakingly original music since the 1960s. “Even without getting up, they can still have their body moving to the music. Everything is in there. With the first record, people asked me: ‘Tony Allen – what the fuck are doing on this album? We don’t hear you.’ This time around, nobody’s going to ask me that. They can hear me on every track.”
The biggest shift, though, is in the album’s theme. The first record portrayed the murky, bohemian parts of Albarn and Simonon’s west London home turf. To evoke the contorted confusion of Brexit, Merrie Land widens its focus beyond the capital and has an even sharper sense of place. There are moments when Albarn suspends his usual fondness for dealing in mood and texture, rather than lyrical specifics, and clearly speaks his mind.
The title track is a perfect example, featuring more pointedly political lyrics than Albarn has ever previously written. One of its most plainspoken passages questions the strange alliance between a swathe of workingclass Brexit voters and the privately educated opportunists who style themselves as their leaders: “You were the ones who work together / Put the money in the pockets / Of the few and their fortunes / Who crowd the school benches / And jeer at us all because they don’t care about us / They are graceless and you shouldn’t be with them.”
He doesn’t understand why so many people apparently are with “them”. “That’s what I’m really upset about,” he says. “But because my family come from the north, and I grew up in Essex in the 80s, I can feel a great affinity with them as well.
“But this” – he means Brexit – “is wrong. Jacob Rees-Mogg and people in Blackpool should never be together. Unless Jacob Rees-Mogg is prepared to go to Blackpool on a Saturday night and have a fucking great time.”
The referendum result arrived a few hours before Albarn and the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians were set to perform at Glastonbury 2016. “We had this great performance ready and none of the Syrians could really understand why a lot of us were so upset and shocked,” he says. “If I’d had any idea that we were going to act as a people in the way that we have – prior and post – I would definitely have come back a lot earlier, if you know what I mean. As a person who loves their country, I would have expressed a very strong opinion. In public.”
Does he regret not having done that? “Well, I had no idea. I don’t know if I should tell you this. It’s too political …” He mentions Ian Birrell, the journalist who briefly worked as David Cameron’s speechwriter. He and Albarn co-founded Africa Express, an organisation that aims to break down cultural barriers by bringing together musicians from different countries. “He texted Cameron on Thursday [the day of the vote], just at the airport before we were flying to Bristol, to say: ‘What do you think is going to happen?’ And the text came back: ‘It’s going to be fine.’
“So I would imagine there were quite a few people who were surprised. It was very strange. Strange times. And from that point onwards, I’ve been thinking about how to express how I feel about it all.”
Some of Merrie Land’s key songs began to cohere in Blackpool, where 67.5% of voters backed Brexit. “The day after the referendum, I realised I was … guilty, in the sense of having looked in different directions,” Albarn explains. “I’ve played the big towns in England, which is what you get drawn into. But I wanted to
( from left): Tony Allen, Damon Albarn, Simon Tong and Paul Simonon