'This record wasn't just about Brexit'
Nearly 25 years since he turned his eye to the British condition on Blur's Parklife, Damon Albarn tackles the UK's EU exit with his new release. He tells Alex Green about his hopes
Beneath a big top perched on Wanstead Flats in east London, a heaving mass of Nigerian, Ethiopian, Malian, Lebanese and South African musicians roll on and off stage.
Africa Express, a pan-continental group including African and British artists, are playing to a crowd of mainly east Londoners on a cold Friday night.
It's a defiant display of multiculturalism on March 29 - the day Britain was meant to leave the European Union - organised by Damon Albarn as a two-finger salute to the orchestrators of Brexit.
Albarn, now 51, wears many hats: observational, poetical frontman of Blur, the brains behind the virtual rock band Gorillaz and the frontman of his so-called supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
Tonight he fills almost all these roles as Blur make a surprise three-song appearance after The Good, The Bad and The Queen take to the stage.
"We're in a period now where everything is make-believe," he tells the crowd.
"It's like Danny Dyer said. It's all a great mad riddle."
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Not since Blur's seminal album Parklife has Albarn turned his eye to the British condition with such raw focus.
Angered and saddened by Brexit, he explored the British condition, or "Anglo-Saxistentialist" as he calls it, in a record entitled Merrie Land, released late last year.
Alongside former bassist for The Clash Paul Simonon, The Verve's Simon Tong and acclaimed Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, he might have created the first great Brexit record.
It's five days earlier when I sit down with Albarn and Simonon as the band begin rehearsals in Acton, west London.
Albarn starts to discuss the record, but it's hard to escape the shadow of Brexit.
"My biggest problem with the referendum was that it very clearly gave licence to some rather unpleasant views being publicly aired and tolerated in a way they weren't beforehand," Albarn says. "We see that everywhere - it's not just this country."
"It's self-imposed division," Simonon (63) adds. "But there was also an element that was simmering, that people were dissatisfied with the way things are."
Albarn, wearing an orange beanie hat, loose jacket, turned up corduroy trousers, and trainers, is quick to rubbish claims Merrie Land is precisely about Brexit.
"This record wasn't just about Brexit. It's an exploration of Englishness at the moment," he says.
"You have to leave names out of it. Naming and shaming is not really for music."
When Albarn began to explore Englishness as the frontman of Blur, the debate was less charged. This changed with Britain's 2016 decision to leave the EU and the fierce public debates that preceded that vote.
Unsurprisingly, Albarn backs a second referendum and is no fan of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage.
"They talk about the voice of the people, or the will of the people, but clearly things have changed," he says.
"I don't know what the big issue is, other than utter fear that they are going to lose.
"If you've got fear of losing it, then what the f*** are you talking about? You know that you are not in the majority anymore.
"On every level, every avenue they go, it ends in a cul-de-sac, which is where I imagine a lot of people who voted Brexit live."
While Merrie Land explores British concepts, Albarn hopes it is not seen by his "European cousins" as niche, examining only the minutiae of Britain's quirks.
"It's a European record as well," he insists. "Everyone in Europe is clearly sick to death of our idiocy here. They're very, very aware of it.
"Some of these songs, I would imagine, resonate abroad."
The seed of the album was planted during a week of studio sessions between Albarn and Allen, the famed Nigerian drummer lauded for his work with Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti.
It grew, unexpectedly, into a project exploring Britain's heart of darkness.
Written between 2017 and 2018, Albarn took "pilgrimages", as Simonon describes them, to places such as Banbury, Southend and St Albans.
"They were day trips with sandwiches," explains Albarn. "Very English."
These fed into his reluctant farewell letter to Europe, manifesting in a magical realism that joins the dots between a Dorset bogeyman called the Horned Ooser, Britain's cathedrals and its now-dilapidated seaside resorts.
The band hooks Albarn to the Brexit live wire, but it also offers him relief from the in-the-spotlight acclaim of Gorillaz.
When The Good, The Bad and The Queen tour the UK in April, they will play in Norwich, Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff, Sheffield and London. But there will be no stadiums. Albarn is keen to keep the project small.
"When I'm doing Gorillaz, it's such a different reaction. It's a global one," he explains.
"You put anything out and within 24 hours it's like eight million people have watched it, or even more. It's a very different dynamic to this.
"It's a strange change of gear. I went literally from playing a stadium in Mexico City to rehearsals.
"But I love that because when you are playing very big places, as Paul knows, it is a very different communication."
When the word 'supergroup' is mentioned, Simonon looks repulsed.
"A supergroup - it's so silly," he says, rolling the word around his mouth.
"That existed in the 70s, but now it's really as simple as people working together. I don't think I'm in that category of super anything."
Albarn chips in: "Supergroups are supposed to play stadiums and we're definitely not a stadium band by any stretch of the imagination."
While Albarn knows Merrie Land is unlikely to stop the machinations of Parliament and the slow onset of political paralysis, what he also knows it can offer is a stark warning.
"This record, it's an emotional reaction to all of that. It's not offering any answers," he says.
"It's definitely part of a bigger warning that should be erected everywhere."
The Good, The Bad and The Queen tour the UK from April 12. Merrie Land is out now