Jamie Hewlett
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June 18, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT

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What should fans expect from a new Gorillaz album in 2018? Some might be surprised to see one at all — at least coming so soon on the heels of the virtual supergroup’s Humanz, which bowed only last spring.

One easy explanation: Unlike so many of their previous releases, the band’s latest, The Now Now (due June 29), is a comparatively intimate affair, minus the usual wide-ranging guest roster — Humanz alone featured Noel Gallagher, De La Soul, Vince Staples, Popcaan, and Grace Jones, among others — and attendant Mt. Everest of studio coordination such a major undertaking involves.

Frontman Damon Albarn, who turned 50 this spring, was happy to swerve into Now‘s simpler, more stripped-down territory, enlisting drop-ins from just a few select friends (Snoop Dogg and 75-year-old jazz-guitar legend George Benson), and production by James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons, Depeche Mode) and longtime collaborator Remi Kabaka.

At his cozy, windowless studio in West London, the singer sat down with EW to talk about recalibrating his voice, finding his own private Idaho, and getting schooled by a 12-year-old.

HE’S AN ACQUIRED TASTE (EVEN IN HIS OWN MIND)

”This record was really easy to make,” Albarn admits. “I did it in a month with just James Ford and Remi, and finished it at the end of February, which, that’s quite nice, you know?” But fair warning: Snoop aside, the album is just Albarn’s voice. “So if you don’t like my voice, it’s probably not worth investigating this record. If you do like my voice, I would strongly recommend you buy it,” he says, laughing. “Not that it’s so divisive, but it’s an acquired taste, really.”

“My voice has gotten a lot better,” he continues. “A lot richer and deeper, I think. [But] I wouldn’t say I like it. I’m permanently dissatisfied, period, with what I do. I have little glimpses when I’m making something, like, ‘Ahhhh, I love this! This is great!’ And then that moment ends and I just sort of return to, ‘Am I ever really gonna find — I don’t know what it is, but am I ever really gonna find it?’ I don’t know.”

Gorillaz co-creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett
Dhillon Shukla

NOW EARNED ITS AIR MILES

“The record’s all over the place, really,” he says, “but mainly, it’s songs written from the tops of buildings or on buses in America.” One track, “Idaho,” was in fact inspired by a specific trip out West. “We’d just played Red Rocks, so it was on the way from there to Seattle. We spent two days up in the mountains in this very beautiful place, very disconnected — almost like a land that time forgot. I’ve visited the States a lot, but it’s the first time I actually paused in the great vast wilderness that is America. I couldn’t get enough of it, actually.”

Those tracks called “Kansas” and “Hollywood” though? Don’t read too much into them. While he did book a recording session in an appropriately louche hotel penthouse overlooking Sunset Boulevard, “There’s no actual connection,” he says. “Sometimes my original GarageBand [software] titles just stay. I know where the words came from, but not why.”

THERE’S MORE TO COME SOON, FROM ANOTHER CONTINENT

“I’ve made two records this year so far,” he says. Well, technically it’s three. Gorillaz, one from the Good, the Bad, & the Queen, and a collaboration with South African artists.

“I mean it’s only June,” he says, “and I’ve been in South Africa, I’ve been in Mali, I’ve been all over South America… Mali is fascinating, and I just keep going back there. It has a very strong classical tradition with a lot of complicated music that you have to learn from a very young age. I struggle with some of it, I really do, but I love that about it. I’m just learning how to become adequate on the balafon, and I ended up having lessons with a 12-year-old prodigy, an absolute genius… I’ll actually be doing something soon in Mali and in Paris about Sundiata, who was a sort of semi-mythical first emperor.”

If you’ve got the air miles, join him there. Otherwise, you can follow the band at festivals throughout Europe and Asia this summer — or find them closer to home on the North American leg. The Stateside run wraps Oct. 20 in L.A. with the inaugural Demon Dayz festival, where featured supporting guests including Erykah Badu, the Internet, and Kilo Kish will send them off with an everybody-into-the-pool celebration, true Gorillaz style.

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