Twenty years ago, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett created a visionary concept: the virtual band.
As all of us have learnt a fair bit about living virtually this year, the conception of the Gorillaz – a band made up of a musician, a cartoonist and four cartoon members – now seems particularly prescient.
Albarn tells Sky News: “We are lucky we’ve always had our virtual world… A new kind of creativity is emerging out of all of this.”
Described by Elton John as the “most interesting British musician working today,” Albarn is as prolific as he is resilient.
With chameleon-like ease he has transitioned from Britpop poster boy with Blur – where his songs defined a generation – to master collaborator selling tens of millions of Gorillaz records.
A multi-Brit and Grammy winner, he can also add opera composer and anti-war activist to his CV. It’s no surprise he’s hailed as an icon, by fans and fellow celebrities alike.
With Albarn, you never quite know what to expect.
As the 52-year-old sits down in his north London recording studio surrounded by curious instruments, dressed down in his beanie hat and tracky bottoms, and removing his facemask to sip his tea, his mood is thoughtful.
Unprompted, he launches into an impassioned rant about the response to COVID-19.
The pandemic has had a profound impact on Gorillaz new album, Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez, both logistically and artistically.
“That anxiety is inevitably in it, that we all share,” admits Albarn, who worked on the cartoon band’s seventh collection throughout lockdown from his second home in Devon.
Elton John’s star turn on The Pink Phantom delivers perhaps the album’s most responsive lyrics as “the world fell silent” during the collaboration.
“We had planned we’d fly to Atlanta and meet [Elton] there, and that became impossible, but somehow we still found that spirit via Zoom. It’s been an important lifeline for creative work.
“I’ve never worked like that, it’s always been an in-the-room process, but it didn’t seem to inhibit music in the end.”
The Blur and Gorillaz frontman is buoyantly determined not to be beaten down by the current crisis but acknowledges the sense of hopelessness and desperation in the music industry.
“It’s a medical emergency but an existential one as well.”
He goes on: “You’ve got to allow music to continue… We are trying to preserve everyone’s health at the moment so passionately, we mustn’t ignore live music in that prescription.”
Touring was an integral part of releasing an album, but in the shadow of the pandemic the live music scene has been wiped out and Albarn says it must be revived.
“If people are willing to perform, they should be allowed to, no one should be forced to do anything but if people are willing then somehow we can make it work so everyone can feel comfortable and participate.”
Like many of his cohorts in the arts, Albarn rejects government suggestions about retraining.
He cites the controversial Cyber First advert showing a ballerina called Fatima putting on her dance shoes and suggesting she could retrain in IT: “I was so upset with it,” he says.
“It was such a bad signal to send out to people who were struggling to hold onto their dreams anyway, to literally explode them in their faces was bordering on callous I felt really.”
Despite a £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to support the arts, Albarn says the government has failed to support the music sector.
“It’s sadly something that has been in the DNA of all Conservative governments since Thatcher, the diminishing of the value of the arts, it’s very short sighted and really goes against something I feel extremely proud of,” explains the Song 2 and Beetlebum singer.
“Our British identity is our creative industries and our creative history.”
And Albarn’s frustration isn’t confined to the UK government. Albarn is keen to turn the conversation to the impending US election, and the incumbent president, Donald Trump.
He doesn’t sit on the fence: “As Billie Eilish said we are waiting on the orange man to leave. It would be a very positive thing if he did.
“When I wrote Parklife I was singing about Americanisation, it’s been with us since post the Second World War, and the Marshall Plan, we are very reliant on America and America casts a long shadow.”
“My fingers are permanently crossed and I touch wood a lot as well,” he adds with a smile.
As Britpop leader and frontman of Blur in the nineties (albeit a disputed reign by ‘rivals’ Oasis) Albarn made guitar music more pop than pop.
After decades of huge commercial success, he continues to push the boundaries, reimagining the future. A risk-taker, he’s a rare beast in his industry.
When asked if challenging is more important to him than pleasing his fans, he gives a rare laugh (Albarn is much more serious when the cameras are rolling than when they’re switched off).
“I try to please but maybe sometimes I challenge more than I please, maybe that’s just me.
“It’s more important than ever to imagine the future.”
Blur’s second record, Modern Life is Rubbish, changed the landscape of the UK music scene back in 1993 by acknowledging that the state of things was not good enough.
Now, 27 years later, Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez feels like a pertinent reminder that we once again need to go back to the drawing board, to ensure the future is a place we all want to live in.
Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez is out now on Warner Records.