West London, 8 July, 2005. An edited version of this conversation appeared in Black Book magazine. Refereed by Alastair McKay
Damon Albarn – What have you been doing? They put Festen on as a play, I know that.
Thomas Vinterberg – I’ve done a film called It’s All of Our Love, which 8 out of 10 people totally rejected. It was a big film with American actors.
DA – You mean eight out of ten people rejected love, or your film?
TV – My film. Unfortunately. It was an art project, but of a certain size. A ten million dollar art project. I love it myself, but it’s sort of my troubled child in the sense that it’s the one that is closest to me, but it’s the one that behaves worst socially. So it was sold to a lot of countries, but a lot of people didn’t get it. That’s been out. You probably haven’t noticed, because it was out for 45 minutes.
DA – I’d love to see it. But you have to accept that, as a European, a certain amount of what we do will initially fail in people’s perception, but failure today is invariably success in the future.
TV – Yeah, what is failure? Our profession is being treated as sports. It’s about awards and numbers.
DA – Where do we start, annihilating the system? Between you and me I’m sure we could set out quite a few pointers.
TV – Well the trouble is not what people think. The trouble is what it does to your own head. I got knocked out by it, because I was so spoiled. I was used to people with the arms in the air. And suddenly they took them down. If you’re not very careful, you become like a navigator in a career, instead of an explorer. Maybe that’s too much, but someone who plays, and is curious. Shocks like that can make you become too self-aware. It’s not really nice. But it was great for me in the sense that I got out of an even worse situation, which was the success after Festen, which was hell, creatively.
DA – I’ve discovered that the answer to all of that. When I finished this Gorillaz album, I got straight into the next album. That record is now doing very well all round the world, but I’m so immersed in what I’m doing now that there’s no effect of it’s success on me whatsoever. I’m totally separate from it.
TV – You don’t care.
DA – Yeah, because I’m in love with something else.
TV – That’s the answer.
DA – That is the answer, because you don’t care what anyone thinks. If you care, you’re fucked.
TV – Bergman said to me, right after Festen, he said ‘Thomas, have you decided your next project?’ I said ‘no, I’m thinking.’ He said, ‘you’re fucked’. I said, ‘why?’ He said, ‘Two things can happen to you. One is that you fail, and it’s gonna affect your self-confidence. Even worse, you can have a success, and you’ll become so utterly self-aware that you can’t decide anything.’
TV – So he said, by being in the midst of something, you force yourself to be nonchalant.
DA – A lot of people would say: how dare you be nonchalant?
TV – But it’s about being nonchalant with the big decisions, and then being very hard-working with the smaller things.
DA – Yeah. Absolutely.
TV – But I find it difficult.
DA – I’ll tell you what it does, though. The more you immerse yourself in work, the harder it is to engage in the outside world. With the Live8 concerts, apart from my myriad concerns about entertaining as opposed to educating people, I just had to watch it, and you start to see how fake everything is. The fabric of it all just disappears.
TV – What was it about that thing that made it so fake? Was it the size of it? Or was it political correctness?
DA - I was very vocal in the war. I was anti-war, I was right at the front of the marches, I was campaigning and everything, and I’ve been very vocal about Live8.
TV – I saw that!
DA – And then I get invited to an EMI thing, a summer party, and I occasionally dip in, and I say hello to the people who pay me my wages. I’m nice to them, I talk to them, I have no problem with it, and then I leave, and that’s it for another year. But this time, it was like, ‘Oh, Damon, meet the minister of defence.’ What’s going on? Am I getting too close to the things I don’t want to get close to?
TV – I know what you mean.
DA – It’s frightening.
TV – Well, it’s frightening, but it’s also …
DA – It’s exhilarating.
TV – It’s exhilarating, but you have to think about how you speak, as an artist, as a musician. Are you speaking through your music or are you speaking through…
DA – I’m speaking through my music now because …
TV – Because you felt you got too close?
DA – Yeah. I mean, I got too close back in Britpop. I was invited in to see Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell and John Prescott six months before they won the election. I was sat down, with Tony Blair right in front of me. Alastair Campbell right behind me. And Blair was like, ‘So, what are the youth thinking today, Damon?’ Now this is back when I was 25, and it freaked me out totally. After that there were a lot of strange events, and I got letters from his office saying ‘you can’t say this if you’re supporting us’. Lots of weird shit. So I shied away from everything, from the fame that Parklife had brought me in the country, and the instant recognition everywhere I went. But then I felt compelled to come back a little bit as regards to the war. And now I’m inadvertently a conscientious speaker. I’m a conscience speaker. Every society has them and I’ve just become one. I get called on to comment on everything. But I don’t necessarily want to be there. And what I was saying about Live8 was I question whether it’s possible … as an artist yourself you know that communication is trying to get deep inside people. And it’s so depressing sometimes to see how much information is put out there in a way that it will never get deep into people. So what a waste – what an intellectual wasteland we live in sometimes.
TV - Also it becomes a substitute for having to think. It becomes a sleeping pillow. You know- we’ve been at Live8, we’ve been politically engaged for a whole afternoon, in a park, and now are we done for a year’s time?
DA – The reality of it is that the general public should be being educated. They should understand the subtleties of everything. And they don’t. Live8 is just another example of destroying the subtlety and the sophistication in an issue, and turning it into a fucking text number, you know? It’s wrong.
TV – But your message will be received as unthankfulness.
DA – Yeah. I’m a party-pooper. But I think it’s vital in this day and age that some people are party-poopers. The whole culture is based around the feelgood factor, and America is the arch culprit of this. It’s absolutely incapable of feeling bad. It won’t allow itself to feel bad.
TV – I envy you in the sense that you have a voice in debate about all these things, and still it doesn’t destroy your art. As a filmmaker I’ve been really cautious about…
DA – Making statements?
TV – Yeah, because it could make my films easier to get, and easier to put aside.
TV – Yeah. I’ve done a film called Dear Wendy. It’s a political film, and it’s meant to be political, but I don’t want to give my solution. I don’t want to let people know that I grew up as a leftist in a hippie commune, writing against violence, because I want people to think. I don’t want to do a Live8 concert in front of people.
DA – No, you want people to genuinely engage. I believe we need to totally reinvent our education system. It’s not designed to create free-thinkers like us, is it?
TV – The schooling system you mean? No it isn’t.
DA – Exactly. So, we think like we do because at some point in our childhood we were given the right signals, whatever they were. If everyone was given those signals, although there would be variations on a theme, there would be essentially a consensus that war is evil and we need to get on with people and save the planet. There would be more of an understanding of that.
Related to Africa, how can we somehow in a very meaningful way, get all these parts of the world to be a little bit more in harmony with each other? It’s just crazy, the aspirations and the idea of what the world is, in America, compared to Africa, or compared to China. It’s insane and we’ve got these men, and it is men, who are alienated from everything. I mean, [former Secretary of State for Defence] Geoff Hoon, when I met him, he wanted to talk to me about African music. I said, are you aware that I am a conscientious objector, and to talk to the man who, as secretary of state for defence signed all those papers is slightly difficult for me? I looked him right in the eye for as long as I could, but he wouldn’t look me in the eye.
TV – But did you talk about that?
DA – I did talk about it a little bit, but he said, well I don’t do that job anymore. It was a job, and the boss told me to do that. The boss being Tony (Blair).
TV – Did he say that? That’s amazing. That’s cool.
DA – He said that: the boss likes to do whatever, blah blah. So that’s all weird, because he seemed like quite a nice man, on a one to one basis. I’m just very confused.
TV – Was he ashamed of it? Was he in doubt?
DA – That’s why I kept looking at him. To see if he was.
TV – Did you find out?
DA – Yes.
TV – All over the place?
DA – Yes.
TV – And maybe even a little shame?
DA – I’d like to think so. But I might have been imagining it. It might have been the three mojitos I’d had.
TV – Or something you imposed. That’s what happens.
DA – But I don’t think it’s good to be too sure of what you’re thinking.
TV – That’s called arrogance.
DA – Exactly. So maybe it’s good to be able to go, well maybe I’m not right. Maybe I’ve got it completely wrong.
TV – I was in doubt, whether it was right or wrong.
DA – Really?
TV – Again, born and raised leftist, against war.
DA – Where did you think there were positive things to be gained from totally traumatising an entire area of the world for another 30 years?
TV – I wasn’t aware of that. I had more faith in this operation. I was against it. I was working against it. But I had doubts, because I felt my fathers must have a plan that works out, and they must have thought about what will come after. And I was utterly shocked and disappointed to find out that that was not the case. I was being confirmed in my worst fear, that this world is being run by stupidity. But for a while I was in doubt. I was thinking, they must be hiding a good plan.
DA – I agree with you. I’m always hoping that! Of course you’ve got to hope that they know what they’re doing, and that I’m just a leftie reactionary – that I’m from a bygone age and I shouldn’t be thinking like this.
TV – Exactly. It’s the same thing I feel about the EU (European Union). Here’s a lot of people, well-educated, doubting, exploring people, being paid, running around many hours a day, to make this work. And there must be something they got right. That’s my only reason to support it, because I can’t see anything else other than absurdity. Everyone is working on each other’s plan, and has an understanding of the EU, but still I’m trying to have faith in what they’re doing. But maybe I shouldn’t have had. In the case of Iraq, I was like, wow, is that really so? They didn’t know what to do with it.
DA – (Incredulous) They never thought that through. I went back and I read a book about the partition of that part of the world at the end of the First World War. It was done of such a ludicrous set of rules. Africa’s the same. Look, they fucking just got rulers and went, ‘oh, that bit looks nice to there, we’ll do that.’ There’s no subtlety to it. Unfortunately some of their lines went straight through areas of ethnic identity and split it all up. And that was part of the plan, so that no one could ever focus enough to challenge the status quo.
TV – I understand. But you’re right. History has disappointed us. Many times.
Alastair McKay – Do terrorism and the war make you wonder whether your art is trivial?
DA – I know my art is trivial. I still believe that if there is any job for me, it’s just to try and put little bits of the emotion I’ve drawn from Arabic music, or African music, into the mainstream society. I’m not trying to ape it. Just little bits. The first bits that I picked up on when I started listening to it. And just make it easy for people to have a sense of that. Not a lot of people are going to listen to my records and then go and check out Moroccan music or trance music from Algeria or a Sudanese kora player … but that is the music that a big part of the world that we feel very threatened by – not necessarily as individuals but as an identity…
Everyone plays on the fear. Tony Blair will use that fear to get through more draconian ideas about state control. The terrorists are so deluded anyway. I mean, I don’t know. Where do you turn? Who do you blame? You just aspire to something a bit more emotional and real.
AM – But it does make people feel atomised and alone. There’s this nameless terror which could strike at any time, so fear is prevalent. Do you think art has a role in making people part of a community?
TV – Art as a role in political life is so much larger. What is political art? What talks about politics? The most fragile little piece of art that says nothing about world politics can change a human being’s behaviour. Maybe for the rest of his life, or maybe for the rest of the day. Which encourages him to make decisions that are more generous. That allows vulnerability to be part of the agenda of his day, and allows curiosity. That’s political. That’s where art is important. It’s not important to say, ‘I’ve done a film about world politics that can make you think’, because people do that all the time.
DA – I think the perfect example of that is Mr [Michael] Moore. What’s your take on Mr Moore?
TV – Mr Moore, for me – he’s the big leftist entertainer. He’s the most unscrupulous, manipulative artist I’ve seen, and it’s worse than a Bush campaign.
DA – I agree with you.
TV – And he talks about world politics. He conveys all of my ideas in the ugliest and most vulgar way. So in a way I’m very angry. And yet he conveys my ideas and he sells a lot of tickets, so I’m like, well, all right. It’s sort of a family. It’s a very good example. But if I hear one of Damon’s songs that is about human vulnerability, fragility- that maybe softens a person, and allows himself to be a vulnerable creature, and allows himself to be open to the world. That can change a whole lot more than a fucking Michael Moore film. That’s what I’m saying. So what is art and politics? I don’t know. It’s just not what people think. And it’s definitely not Michael Moore.
DA – Well, Michael Moore helped get Bush back into power. I don’t care what anyone says – he did.
TV – You know, by putting a picture of Bush, and making a voiceover saying what he’s supposed to think at that time…
DA – Michael Moore doesn’t come across as having a lot of soul, so people don’t necessarily believe him.
TV – He’s an entertainer. He’s a cold-hearted entertainer.
DA – The mistake that’s so often made in America is that if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you are a different breed. But we’re all the fucking same! It’s ridiculous. And the same thing with Muslims. And that comes down to the way we’re brought up, and the images and the information. And my objection to Live8 - to bring it back – is what it does to the subconscious of people. They’re feeling euphoria. Why are you feeling euphoria? It’s wrong.
TV – Dear Wendy is a directly political film, and it’s written by Lars von Trier, and I really enjoy that, to be so outspokenly political, but it’s foreign territory for me. It’s not like I had all the words ready for it. But it is directly political. Even though I’m trying to avoid finger-pointing. I don’t understand the word ‘anti-American’. I don’t know what it means. Is that ‘anti-Bush’? I’m not anti-Sean Penn. He’s American. But it will be accused of that.
DA – It’s very difficult in America.
TV – We made a film that is very sarcastic about American gun culture. It’s meant like this- we do like this, what are you gonna do? It’s like an invitation.
DA –That’s quite a Scandinavian thing.
TV – But Brits get it.
DA – Of course they do. They know irony and sarcasm very well. Some Americans won’t get it. They’ll be offended and hostile. They already are. [Variety film critic] Todd McArthy was shooting at it. That’s really sad. That’s not my idea. That’s not my way of being political, to make people offended, because the reaction is just to shut down and be more aggressive. I don’t believe in that. I believe in being open. And that’s what I want to convey to people. My film is entertaining, but in that sense we’ve failed to capture the last part of America, and maybe it’s a big part of America.
AM - It seems that you’re both trying to work against the stupidities of mass cultures, and those big gestures.
DA - Yes, absolutely.
TV - And the arrogance. Which is also stupidity. People have so many public agendas. I love when you tell me that the former minister of defence is in doubt. I’m thinking, good for you. You have a human being.
DA – I was terrified he was going to come over and talk to me, and he did. He brought his daughter over, and then started talking to me about bloody African instruments. I was like ‘Ahhhhh! No! Jesus Christ!’ Ok, accept it Damon, let’s talk about African instruments. The man is a human being, it was his job, don’t demonise people. I’m talking about myself.
TV – But it’s obvious that he does that, because he can’t show you that he’s in doubt, because you might go into an interview and tell everyone.
DA – Exactly. He knows that.
TV – So he talks about African instruments.
DA - Exactly, which is fair enough.
TV – What I love about politicians is that they are very direct. They don’t wrap it up. But this man has been a little defensive, I guess.
DA – The head of EMI was there. The head. And EMI is a big conglomerate. A monster. And the first thing he said to me was, so Damon, what do you think of Live8? I said: You know what I think of Live8, why are you asking me? And he said, well, I totally disagree with you. I realised, shit, EMI are in on this, in a way, they are part of this idea. But then he said, ‘But I’m glad you disagree with me.’
So I’m there with the former Minister of Defence and (Beatles’ producer) George Martin is there. And I know George, and George is a lovely man, and I’ve got so much respect for what he did. And he puts his arm around me and says: ‘Looks like everyone is turning into politicians except for me.’ And then he walks off.
TV - I think you divide things very well. I don’t think it does destroy your music.
DA - But he was warning me, which was good. And I said to him, ‘well, you’ve got John to blame for that, mate.’ I wouldn’t be like this if it hadn’t been for John Lennon. TV - That’s the thing. Kubrick once said if we knew about the Mona Lisa, about the waiter lying under the table, making her happy when this picture was painted, it wouldn’t be as interesting. That’s why I don’t want to talk about my films. That’s the danger of us being outspoken politically. Damon, you have worked it out, because it somehow works. Because your music is still full of subtlety and secrecy and layers. But the fear is always that we could destroy that, and that suddenly people could interpret our film, or music, by the first frame, and then it’s dead, and then we’re gone and we have no voice.
DA - I try to say something in every song, but I say it in such a way that it’s upside down, back to front.
TV – Yeah, but you do it very subtly. No harm has been done. On the contrary. Congratulations on that.