The former Blur frontman talks about music and capitalism as Gorillaz take their Plastic Beach tour to Syria.
Damon Albarn in Damascus
Damon Albarn has something of a reputation for arrogance. Excitable, cynical and taciturn in turns, the former Blur frontman has had difficulty shedding the precocious boy-wonder image, but now, as he takes his Gorillaz Plastic Beach world tour to Syria and Lebanon, seems to have finally emerged as a conscientious musician with serious intentions about changing the world.
There's no doubt he has a sharp tongue, of course. Asked at a press conference what it feels like to be one of the first bands to play in Syria, he snaps at the shrinking journalist: "What, have there been others?" before moving on to how young people in the Middle East can reconcile their traditions with new identities. Albarn looks every bit the rock star, even while perched on a plastic chair on the lawns of the Damascus Citadel, but at 43, the former Blur frontman's trademark boyish features are now set in a rather more mature and pensive visage.
We meet an hour before the show he has described as "a really special occasion", and behind him, a collection of bored but amused National Service officers smoke idly, watching technicians put the final touches to the mammoth stage, which is dominated by the enormous lettering of the band's name. No one has any idea what to expect from the night. "If there weren't 100,000 people at our show in London, I'd be annoyed," he explains to me, sitting on the grass in front of the Citadel ahead of the press conference. "But I don't have any expectations here. If we played to just two people it's OK."
The Plastic Beach tour has seen the members of the "world's first virtual band" stripped of their animated alter-egos to emerge as a monster live stage-band. Gone are the holograms, and with Jamie Hewlett - the band's visual co-creator - notably absent, Albarn seems finally to be taking the credit as the master puppeteer. The unexpected stop-off in the Arab Republic was Albarn's idea. He visited the country to record the Plastic Beach orchestral grime mash-up, White Flag, with the Syrian National Orchestra for Arab Music, working with The Good, the Bad & the Queen collaborator and friend the Syrian rapper Eslaam Jawad (also known as Wissam Khador). Claiming a long-held fascination with Arab culture - instilled by his father, a professor of Arab Studies - he insisted the band include the ancient capital on the album tour.
And he's clearly made the most of it. Albarn spent five days in Syria, travelling to Palmyra with his family, and arranged for further collaborations with Sufi poets for his upcoming Gorillaz project - an opera about the 16th-century mystic and alchemist Jon Dee. "I am really, really interested in that stuff at the moment," he says, sounding more like an enthusiastic schoolboy than a world-weary pop musician.
The 14 tracks that made it on to Plastic Beach were reportedly whittled down from more than 70 laid down in collaborative efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere. The other tracks have yet to find a home, but Albarn doesn't rule out an Arab-themed Gorillaz release. It is a strange match though. The conflicted lives of the postmodern band's animated members - Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle - desperately trying to navigate their way in a hedonistic world of consumerist overload and fickle celebrity culture, are somewhat redundant in a country that has only gained access to satellite television and internet access in the past 10 years.
So how do the Gorillaz' themes translate? "I think these people are very hip to mass consumerism, whether they choose to engage in it or not, but they know it is there, that it is unavoidable," says Albarn. "I think we present something that moves in that same kind of pace." This is the kind of talk that you can expect from Albarn: socially aware, rather vague and scattered with portentous references to things such as "the dark machinations of capitalism".
"That's what we deal with, really, the dark machinations of capitalism. But I think we deal with it in an exhilarating kind of way, so it's not too sort of, ah, heavy." His motivations for coming to Syria are genuine. It's no secret that the Syrian leg of the production, complete with 93 personnel and a full album cast including the orchestra, The Clash's Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, the UK grime MCs Kano and Bashy, the soul legend Bobby Womack, De La Soul and Bootie Brown - has actually lost money. The move was driven, he says, by a desire to expose western audiences to Arab music and culture and pave the way for an important intercultural "dialogue". He insists, in response to a question about the cancellation of the GorillazSound System Tel Aviv concert following May's Gaza Flotilla massacre, that it is apolitical.
"If people want to know why we are here, to make it political or humanitarian, then it's humanitarian," he says. Yes, he acknowledges, Syria has things to answer for. "But so has Israel, and then again..." He leans his head back and, rather startlingly, lets out a roar of frustration. "So does America, so does the United Kingdom - my goodness me, so does the United Kingdom." Syria is not the last stop. Albarn says he has plans to fulfil a long-held desire to play in Iraq and Iran.
"I don't see any reason why not. If we can play in Syria it means we can play in Iran, we can play in Iraq." Stroking his stubble thoughtfully, Albarn points out that he doesn't see any conflict in his role as a musician with a message. "I'm not a politician," he says. So, this is finally music for the people? "Yes. This is definitely music for the people." And the people responded. More than 3,000 of them packed the Citadel to watch as the band took to the stage in pirate costumes, half an hour later than planned to factor in the evening prayer.
In a booming drawl, Snoop Dogg appeared in pirate regalia on screen, inviting the audience to land on the Plastic Beach, the animated mythical garbage island appearing above them. The war-themed animated backdrops supported a performance that combined new songs from the album and slammed versions of favourite singles from Demon Days and Gorillaz. A psychedelic extended version of O Green World proved a highlight, while from the new album, Bobby Womack let rip on a thumping Stylo.
But it was The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music's enthusiastic intro to White Flag that saw the audience swell with emotion, prompting one young woman to scream: "I'm at home!" "I didn't expect so many people," said Damon at one point, taking in the crowd. An aptly chosen Feel Good Inc drew the evening to a close and as Albarn waved goodbye, he shouted "I love you". We believed him.