Top Hats and IEDS

Damon Albarn and Paul Simonon talk fashion, the Clash, Katrina, and the blessed routine of the Good, the Bad, and the Queen.

Critics of Press Play love to complain that I never write about music. Well, eat it, SFist. This week I interview the bassist from the Clash and the lead singer from Gorillaz and do nothing but shoot the shit with them about just how great their new project the Good, the Bad, and the Queen is.

For those not in the know, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz has teamed up with America’s top producer DJ Danger Mouse to handcraft one of the top five albums of 2007 so far. Albarn spent several years assembling a supergroup with a century of collective musical experience comprising Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong, Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, and Danger Mouse behind the soundboards. Started in 2004 with a recording trip to Nigeria, the project has resulted in a star-studded yet discrete, personal yet international work of high art. Released in January, the project wrapped up American touring last week with a regal, once-in-a-lifetime show at the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco before a lucky crowd of erudite musicheads.

The album relies on the classic surprise of a change-up pitch. Instead of whacking the audience with some fastball, uptempo mashup of Blur, the Clash, and Danger Mouse’s beats, the Good, the Bad, and the Queen skulks off to a local dive bar for twelve broody, piano-driven love songs to West London. It was all Danger Mouse’s fault, Albarn says. After the recordings were done in Nigeria, the Mouse turned to London’s sonic melting pot — tossing Allen’s beats here, eliminating the “Lion King factor” there, pumping up the dub, reggae, and punk elements, and telling Albarn to essentially write what he knows.

“[The project] had gone off on many different tangents over the years for Tony and I,” Albarn says. “It was really sort of experimental electro to just sort of a strange Afrobeat hybrid, and [Danger Mouse] was kind of really set on a kind of ‘Englishness.’ And I think it was really nice to have someone who wasn’t English to just say, ‘Do it that way.’ You need that kick to sort of go back to where you’ve already scratched the surface and find out there’s a lot more in it.”

Indeed, the project exudes Englishness, from the cover art to the stage murals, the references to street names, and the album’s mastering. The Good, the Bad, and the Queen is so neo-neo-classical that Albarn completes the image with a top hat that he wears onstage at every show.

“Yes, the top hat,” he says ruefully. “I wish I could take it off. The first gig we ever played was in a little pub called the Pig’s Nose on a little village on the cliffs in South Devon, a fantastic place to play our first-ever public performance. In the back of the pub, they had a ‘dressing-up’ box, and it was in that. I just put it on for laughs and people said, ‘Oh, it looks really good.’ I kind of got stuck with it. I think it helps with the mood of the story. It’s very much a symbol of Victorian England, so it puts a few ghosts on the stage and I kind of become part of Paul’s mural.”

Speaking of the mural: Simonon stopped playing with the Clash in the ’80s and returned to his former love of visual art. After ten years of hiatus, Simonon is now the star, stalking around the stage and swinging his Fender bass in front of his two huge murals of the urban English skyline. He looks very, very cool up there and lets Press Play in on his secret: “Treat it like I’m walking around my living room, I suppose.”

Simonon may look casual, but he’s always keeping a close eye on Allen and Albarn because of the atypical arrangements and advanced drum signatures. “In the Clash it would be, ‘Mick, you count it in, and we’ll see you at the end of the song,'” he recalls. This time, every member has his space and many instruments spend most songs being held instead of played. The spartan arrangements create a tension you can’t find in a full-on cock-rock blowout, and such tension perfectly fits the lyrical themes.

Is it fair to call this a “twilight of the empire” album? I ask. “Oh, I think we’re into the night now,” Albarn says. “America’s twilight, but we are definitely in the black.”

So the themes cross over?

“I think most of the stuff we’re playing applies just as much to America as England,” he says. “Apart from the street names, the album could be about America.”

And the war-weary American psyche has responded to the album. US imperialism has truly jumped the shark in Iraq, and the Good, the Bad, and the Queen provide the consolation of a nation friend who’s been there before. It’s as if the album talks to American listeners watching CNN and says, “There, there, chap. Chin up. Happens to the best of us.” But now we’re not talking about music anymore, so we should go. Damn critics.


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