Damon Albarn has been on a journey of discovery to find the soul of England. It’s a quest which has taken him to some obscure corners of the country but also reignited his love of Oxfordshire.

“Oxford is a wonderful place,” says the Blur frontman, the art-loving musical pioneer behind the groundbreaking Gorillaz virtual band and supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen – whose second album inspired his mission.

“I’d never been to the Ashmolean Museum before,” he says. “I’m a fervent attendant of the British Museum but had never been to the Ashmolean – and it’s brilliant.

“The current exhibition about witchcraft is great. I’m going back with my mum... but not my dad!” he says cheerfully, suggesting his father was far too rational to fall for such mumbo jumbo.

Damon’s travels saw him collecting tales to build a picture of the UK on the brink of Brexit. The result is Merrie Land, the second effort by his collaborative project with Clash bassist and Gorillaz collaborator Paul Simonon, Nigerian drummer and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and Verve and Gorillaz guitarist Simon Tong.

It comes 11 years after their eponymous debut. But while that told an exuberant musical story of London, this time they move beyond the familiar streets of the capital and take the pulse of the whole country.

The result is a thoughtful, observational reflection on Britishness in 2018, which the band describe as “a reluctant good-bye letter” to Europe.

It is no patronising, elitist metropolitan critique of ‘Brexit Britain’ though. It’s an affectionate and broad-minded portrait of the inclusive land they love, albeit a place going through a moment of doubt, disorientation and confusion.

His journeys took him from the familiar flatlands of Essex to London, St Albans, Sussex, Blackpool, Preston, Manchester, Lincoln, Liverpool and beyond to north Wales.

“In many ways the whole record is discovering and rediscovering the country,” he says, talking to me from his base at Studio 13 – the London recording space built inside a former paint factory which shares its name with Blur’s experimental sixth studio album.

“I went gently,” he goes on. “I’d get up in the morning and go off and think and write and I’d have lunch and a cup of tea in the afternoon and go home.


“It’s a relatively small country, and it’s easy to do that from most places – even Blackpool. That’s why it’s important to keep an open relationship with our neighbours.”

Damon is a cerebral machine-gun; talking to him leaves one feeling intellectually strafed, his ideas and high concepts delivered in flat Essex tones. He’s an Estuary polymath, an artistic Renaissance man who is perpetually one step ahead. And while it's not always easy to follow his thread, it all makes sense.

Merrie Land is his musical scrap book; his report back on the state of the nation past, present and, possibly, future.

“For me growing up in London and then living in rural Essex, London was always a magnetic force... but there were one-off real experiences of life elsewhere which were outside my usual experience,” he says.

These included half-remembered childhood trips to Oxfordshire with his Bohemian parents – once coming face to face with the Thunderbird puppets of Gerry Anderson.

This year’s journeys also took him to Banbury. So what did he think?

“Banbury is trying to find its cross – that’s its past,” he says lyrically.

“Many people lay claim to its authenticity.”

“I got the train there partly because of the nursery rhyme,” he goes on. “There are elements of that throughout the record and they point to our origins, which I think is really important. We meditate on that on the record; we look for ideas.”

While in the town he went into the town’s museum and pored over the archives and exhibits, finding public notices that caught his eye and incorporating them into new single Gun to the Head: “Notice here by given, that spring guns and mantraps, to be placed on these premises, so don’t trespass over the line on the map.

“Commissioners for oaths, in the Borough of Banbury, require the owners of rowdy dogs to keep them on their leads.”

He says: “There’s a a lyricism to it. I like the way it connects, and the darkness – the suggestion you can lose a leg by stepping over a boundary.”

He says that to really understand our country we have to look beyond the “imaginary ideas” and journey right back in history.

“We can go back to the Anglo-Saxons,” he says. “They were quite magical people and not at all inward-looking. That’s how I’d define my self as English.

“There’s something beautiful about them we all share and we need to find more time for that.”

He adds: “Even in a place like Banbury there are important contributions from Europe that are wonderful.”

By way of example he cites a Polish supermarket with which he fell in love not far from Banbury Cross.

“It’s a fantastic way to get inside the town,” he says.

“I like to try lots of different things and I think they have given me an unusual amount of pleasure and insight about being open to change.”

The band launch the album with live shows in Blackpool, Glasgow and London and played a pair of intimate warm-ups shows in Tynemouth earlier this week. The gigs are their first for seven years. And local fans are in luck, with plans to bring the show to all the places featured in Damon’s travels.

“I will do something next year,” he says, “I’ll play everywhere on the record.”

And can we also expect a new Blur album? “I’m in my 50th, year and I love what I do,” he says. “I’m going to see how much I can do in one year, and if someone talks to me I’m prepared to listen...”

He even dropped the possibility of a visit back to the county to visit Blur bandmate Alex James’s farm at Kingham for his Big Feastival.

“I’ve never been,” he says. “But I know lots of people who have been and I can’t believe how big it is. I will come.

“It’s about time I did.”

Though he admitted he wouldn't be rushing to any of the Big Feastival's trademark celebrity chef sessions. “I appreciate food but don’t appreciate fancy food,” he says. “And I’m certainly not into any of that Michelin-starred food!"

  • The Good, the Bad and the Queen’s new album Merrie Land is out now on Damon’s label Studio 13.
  • Live shows to follow next year