‘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

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Mer­rie band

‘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

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