Welcome to the new world where the Gorillaz return cartoon rock – or more precisely , zombie hip-hop – to the top of the charts with a little bit of help from the Net. Blur ‘s lead singer Damon Albarn tells Mike Gee that his latest creation is almost the perfect band … and sheds light on Blur’s future plans and his simple – and refreshing – ambitions in life.
Sorry, Damon, but the quote’s too good to leave to later: “The next Blur album will make the Radiohead album look like a Travis record.” The bugger pisses himself laughing when I tell him I’m going to quote him on that: “Yeah, I know you are, bastard.”
Intentional stuff. Damon Albarn knows exactly where he’s travelling and these days it’s a broad-based multicultural, worldly wellspring of sounds that currently is grooving down a dub-laden, hip-hop smacked freeway of comic invention called Gorillaz.
Net dudes with savvy attitude and all the right looks they rule their own website which is hip and rich with invention – get in there and download and remix and upload and just get with tha’ beatz at your own level. For those who want to love the hayzee fantayzee they are: Murdoc, 2D, Russel and 10-year-old Asian axe princess Noodle. Big kids and little get to play, even with their debut self-titled album which hits some wicked grooves – Clint Eastwood is just one of the tracks of the year – and some rather obviously Albarn electronicspheres while snorkling some pretty punky waters at times. Slip the CD into your computer and there’s a screensaver, desktops and the key to Murdoc’s Winnebago. Dig it!
Pop by cartoon is nothing new. The Archies were pure animated confection and a chart smash in the ’70s but the added level of interactivity that Net now offers means Gorillaz can go places no cartoon pop group has ever gone with its audience before.
Gorillaz are Damon’s perfect band in a way: no hassles. “The core of Gorillaz is myself and artist Jamie Hewlett and right from the beginning it was ‘I’ll do the music and that stuff and you can do all the visuals’. To date we haven’t found a problem with that. He gets on with what he loves doing and I get on with what I love doing. It’s perfect. The perfect band. No conflict. You don’t have to worry about anybody else and you can do your own thing.” Albarn chuckles. “And Jamie is a really good cartoonist and graphic artist. You only appreciate how good when you realise just how far its translates. That these images can work in any country.”
And the website is just amazing. “Yeah, look I love it. Jamie started it just as the album was being finished off in Jamaica and we just basically said we’re going to build this studio and slowly we’re going to fill it with more and more crazy stuff. There’s going to be no rules to it and it’s going to be like some mad shopping mall. Yet because of the kind of music it is we never really aimed at it kids or sold it at that level but they’ve just picked up on it naturally so it’s really nice.”
The great thing about the record and the site is that they also get kids into some of the best music around that they are never normally going to hear. All of a sudden they get to know about dub and reggae and the original hip-hop and are drawn to names like Dennis Bovell, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Black Uhuru, King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and so on
“Exactly, exactly,” says our hero enthusiastically. “On the site you can pick out records that are in the band members’ collections so it is almost like a library. There’s also a lot of books they can go to. It’s how I think a Net site should be used. Something which is like a wonderful pool of new knowledge. What’s so strange to me is that music – the history of music and the people that have filled it – is so important in our culture yet they don’t really teach it in schools.”
So where does that oh-so-dirty bottom end come from? “It’s funny you should ask that because one of the reasons I began Gorillaz is I had a lot of rhythms I never thought I could use with Blur. A lot of that stuff never really seemed to manifest itself in the music we made together as Blur. After that, I just really go. There’s no plan to it. It’s very chaotic. I called Dan the Automator in after I’d done more than half of it and felt it would be benefit from having somebody else’s focus. So I just rang him and asked whether he was interested in helping me finish it off.
“As far as that dub thing goes, I have the advantage of working with an amazing bass player called Junior Dan who cut his teeth working with people like Augustus Pablo and King Tubby. He turned by accident, really. I’d just started doing the whole Gorillaz thing and it was all in a very experimental stage in my studio and he literally knocked on the door and said ‘Oh, that sounds interesting, can I put some bass on it’ and told me afterwards who he was. It was just bizarre. “Those sort of things. They just happen. At least they do with with Gorillaz. About three or four months later we had Ibrahim Ferrer in the studio as well. It’s an amazing cast of musicians to accumulate. What they all liked about it, I assume, is that it’s a real hybrid and it was going in so many different directions at once that you could put your thing in there, watch how it was taken and come out the other end.”
And the Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth? “I’ve never met her. I’ve had a very long and surreal phone conversation with her in Jamaica, one day, after we received her vocals for 19-2000. That came through the Dan The Automator who’d worked with them at some point. He gave her a tape and said ‘Do you want to put something on it?’ That was amazing really. Tom Tom Club were, in some ways, one of my models for Gorillaz. In the sense that they were one of those bands that made amazing pop songs yet they were also very odd. Of course, she was always one of my heroes. She and Chris [Frantz] are a wonderfully oddball couple, enjoying their life and not falling into any kind of stereotype.
“I’ll tell you though that my primary inspiration comes from The Specials – that’s the band that put it into my head that I could make reggae at some point. The Specials were the band that really captured my imagination when I was a teenager.”
Then there’s Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto: “Oh, she’s lovely. She stayed with us the whole time we were in Jamaica. I really got to know her quite well. The great thing about Gorillaz and the reason I’m so into it and know that it has a future is because it is such an open-ended book. Because nobody has to ever really stand up and be counted – they don’t have to appear in videos and have photos taken – people are much more inclined to have a go to see how it turns out as it is, in a way, faceless.”
All this and more in the name of zombie hip-hop as Dames and James have lovingly – and generously – tagged their mutant musical spawn.
Okay, yeah, so you want to know what’s going on with the larrikin’s club, Blur. Love the lads. Loved the last record, 13. Am so glad Albarn’s decided the tangents he created on it should be taken out further. Damon’s up for it all, anyway, because these days a natter with him has to cover a fair stretch of turf.
“We’ve got an idea now of what kind of record we’re going to make,” he says, almost seriously. “It’s very early days but I didn’t want to start another Blur record until I had at least some sort of idea of where it was going. In a way I’ve made the commercial record – inadvertently – with Gorillaz. That’s not really where I want to go with Blur. That’s something we’ve worked on for so many years that it should give us – as a band – the opportunity to do new things, tread new territory, without being too worried whether it sells or not. The new thing we do is going to raise a few eyebrows that’s all I’ll say.”
He’s also about 90 per cent the way through what he describes as “a labour of love” – the album that he recorded in Mali, last year, with some of Africa’s greatest musicans including the legendary Ali Farka Toure. The set – which he’s doing for Oxfam – will also be accompanied by some sort of film – possibly in the DVD format. And there’s also his soundtrack to the highly recommended Icelandic film 101 Reykjavik (which screened at the Sydney Film Festival). Incidentally, Damon’s had a house there since 1997, and used to spend a hell of a lot of time there before he became a family man “but it is one of my favourite places on the planet”.
Not bad for a 33-year-old born on the cusp of Pisces and Aries – March 23, 1968 – to a stage designer (for Joan Littlewood) mother and sometimes tour manager (for the legendary Soft Machine) father, Albarn was always going to be in showbiz. He saw his first concert – The Osmonds – in 1974 and by the time he was 15 had won a regional heat of the Young Composer of The Year competition, formed the short-lived pop-synth duo Two’s A Crowd and was attending East 15 drama school while also working in a London studio which subsequently offered him a management deal after hearing demos he’d recorded using 3000 pounds given to him by his grandfather when he was 14. In fact, Damon was never going to do anything else. He’s a star – more importantly, a damn fine musician and songwriter; better still, he’s a really nice bloke. Who cares about the right things. Especially his kid.
“I am lucky,” he says. “I’m happy with my career. I do feel I have a lot of options and I intend to keep it that way really. Right from the beginning I just knew I didn’t want to spend my whole life being in a band in the sense of the personality cults that develop within them. I wanted to free myself from that and concentrate on being a musician not a personality.
“If Blur was one of those bands where everybody had to hang off each other we wouldn’t still be going. I think the older you get the wider the berth you have to give each other. It’s keeping that balance between a professional and a personal life that I’m most concerned about. It’s very easy to get carried away within your professional life and to kid yourself that is your only life. It’s pretty empty if you haven’t got a home life, I think.
“I just want to be a good dad and a good musician and a good citizen. I don’t want my kid to have a dad who’s a musican who’s on the road 18 months at a time and he sees for four weeks a year. I want to be around my son as he grows. Just be there.
“I don’t really aspire to anything other than making the most of what I’ve got. Just being positive. A reasonable human being. I don’t like – or enjoy – that whole razzamatazz side of the industry and it’s with some relief I don’t have to do it anymore. But some people really thrive on it. Even people like Radiohead are more into it than I am, ironically. They’re very much in the forefront of it all. You know what I’m like. I like to keep me options open.”
Go play with the Gorillaz now. Blur will be back.
HEY HEY WE’RE THE MONKEYS!
Four years ago Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett shared a flat and partied with the Spice Girls. Then they invented Gorillaz. The weed-soaked cartoon collective has proved so successful that even Blur are rattled. “We’re already working on a second album”, they tell Paul Elliot.
Damon Albarn would like Liam Gallagher to be in his band. Not Blur, mind you, but Gorillaz, the unorthodox spiky pop/hip hop collective run with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett and fronted not by Albarn but by four of Hewlett’s cartoon characters, named 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel. These are strange days indeed for Damon Albarn. But is he serious about getting Liam in on the act? “Liam’s a fucking brilliant singer,” Albarn says. “I really mean it. I don’t think he’s had any particularly strong songs to sing for years, and that’s someone who thrives on a great melody. I just don’t know whether he’d be able to do that. If they…” the word weighs heavily, “could deal with that.
“I’m not trying to cause problems,” he adds cheekily. Given Liam Gallagher’s ongoing animosity towards Blur – at last year’s Q Awards, some five years after the Blur v Oasis feud raged in the tabloids, Liam heckled Blur bassist Alex James with shouts of “Fatboy” – a collaboration would appear unlikely. Nor would Albarn expect Liam to take up his offer. He is merely outlining the near-endless possibilities of Gorillaz under whose name he is free to make music outside of Blur’s remit: hip hop, reggae and more. “It was a risk: Damon singing reggae,” Albarn concedes. “But 2-D singing reggae is fine. He’s not bad at it. It works because it’s not trying to ape anybody.
“Excuse the pun,” he smiles.
It is a fresh, sunny day in west London. Damon Albarn drinks ginger beer and smokes Marlboro Lights at a street corner café adjacent to the studio complex where he and Jamie Hewlett developed the Gorillaz project, and where Blur recorded their two most recent albums, Blur and 13. At 9.30 this morning, Albarn reconvened with Blur members Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree on Primrose Hill in North London, where The Rolling Stones posed for the cover of Between The Buttons. Not only did this meeting mark the beginning of Blur’s “next stage”, an informal plotting of the group’s seventh album, but, Albarn notes, it also helped reassure his bandmates that Blur’s career will not be derailed by the success of Gorillaz.
“They haven’t found it particularly easy,” admits Albarn. “As I’m sure I wouldn’t have if I had been on the receiving end of someone else in the band doing something that just went bang.”
Following the success of Clint Eastwood – a Top 10 hit in the UK and Italy and even in Germany – where Blur’s music has met with indifference – Albarn plans to work the Gorillaz album for the next 10 to 12 months. And with a second Gorillaz album already in the making (Damon hopes to secure the rhyming services of Redman for one track), it is proving a greater distraction than previous Blur side projects; Coxon’s “difficult” solo albums Sky Is Too High [sic] and The Golden D and James’s beery Fat Les singalongs. However Blur’s trip to Primrose Hill presented a good omen. On a pathway leading to the hill’s peak is a graffiti’d quote from For Tomorrow, the first dong on Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish.
“Graham said it’s been there for a year. We’re walking together and here’s this huge quote. If that isn’t a sign that we should make music again together, I don’t know what is.
“The next Blur album is going to be a very different beast entirely. No one’s got any idea where we’re going with it.”
Jamie Hewlett has been hailed as a god by certain over-zealous comic book enthusiasts. As creator of cult heroin Tank Girl, Hewlet is more accurately described as one of the most influential pop artists of the past 20 years in that Tank Girl predated both Lara Croft and “girl power”. Hewlett arrives at the café from a meeting with his lawyer. He and Damon speak in gibberish code regarding a legal matter as Albarn ponces one of Hewlett’s cigarettes. They smoke the same brand and wear similarly baggy-arsed jeans. As Hewlett picks at a plate of chicken and rice, Albarn removes his red baseball cap to scratch his head. His hair is close-cropped and receding at the temples. No longer the fresh-faced poster boy of Britpop, Albarn has wisely elected to leave the popular “Hoxton fin” do to the likes of Fran Healy.
Born mere weeks apart in 1968 (the Chinese Year Of The Monkey, ergo Gorillaz), Albarn and Hewlett enjoy an easy rapport at odds with their first meeting in 1990 when Hewlett interviewed Blur for Deadline magazine, home of the Tank Girl comic strip. As Hewlett recalls, Albarn was “arsey, a wanker”. Alex James was roaring drunk and threw up during the interview.
“Graham had arranged it because he was a big fan of my drawings,” Hewlett explains. “Then I started going out with Graham’s ex-girlfriend, so he hated me. Now all of them hate me apart from him,” he sniggers and nods at Albarn, who in turn squirms in his chair, suggesting that Hewlett’s comment is not entirely made in jest. Albarn shakes his head and refuses to be drawn on the subject. Oddly, despite their own intitial misgivings and those of mutual acquaintances (“They told me he was a cunt,” Hewlett says, “and they told him I was a cunt”), Hewlett and Albarn opted to share a flat on Westborne Grove, which Albarn still owns. It was 1997. Both had recently truend 10 and were newly single following long relationships, Albarn’s with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann. “We’d have amazing parties,” Albarn says. “We’d go out and come back with 40 people.”
Guests at one party included members of Radiohead and Pavement, Kate Moss and two Spice Girls, whom Alban refuses to name. At the time newspaper gossip columnists claimed he had slept with Spice Girl Melanie Chisolm and All Saints’ Shaznay Lewis.
“There’s be chauffeur-driven blacked-out Mercedes Benzes outside until eight in the morning with really famous people rolling out, but the tabloids regularly took pictures of me going off in the morning on my bike to buy milk,” he says.
“The front soor was open all night,” says Hewlett. “If a photographer has walked in up the stairs they could have got a right old scoop.”
Never mind the Met Bar: Albarn and Hewlett’s flat was the place to be seen. Indeed as they lazed one afternoon watching TV, the pair listened in disbelief as first David Bowie and then Pete Townshend left answerphone messages enquiring as to the date of the next party.
“Fucking Pete Townshend and David Bowie are leaving messages and we’re ignoring them!” Albarn hoots. “But,” he adds gravely, “It had to stop. You start looking at yourself and thinking, I’m behaving in a disgusting way. It’s good fun but I’m not happy with it. I can’t possibly do this for much longer.”
The fun stopped when Albarn met Suzie Winstanley, the mother of his two year-old daughter Missy. “We did eight months of that and I’d never want to go back.”
For Jamie Hewlett, mixing with showbiz glitterati was not a wholly new experience. In 1990 [note – this is factually incorrect, it was 1994], aged 23, the former art student from the sleepy Sussex resort of Worthing spent six months in Hollywood and Arizona making the $50 million Tank Girl movie, featuring Lori Petty in the title role opposite Malcolm McDowell and Ice-T. By this point Hewlett had been drawing the character for six years and was bored. By this pint Hewlett had been drawing the character for six years and was bored.
“We were going to kill the character off when MGM phoned up,” he shrugs. “We knew that if MGM got their hands on it they’d fuck it up, but we didn’t care because they offered quite a lot of money. Enough to make me go, Ooh, OK!”
Hewlett recommends watching Tank Girl with the volume turned down to zero. “It looks alright,” he says, noting that the film’s costume designer is now Madonna’s personal stylist.
Tank Girl recouped only a fifth of its production cost. Hewlett hardly helped by rubbishing the film in UK press interviews. “I got a letter from MGM saying keep your fucking mouth shut, basically!”
At least the premiere party prepared Hewlett for the rigours of flatsharing with Damon Albarn. “My girlfriend has done an E and one of Ice T’s buddies took a real shine to her. He wanted to take her to Drew Barrymore’s club and then on to his place by the beach. She was so off her tits she gave him our home number. We did a runner.”
Hewlett and Albarn offer a guided tour of their individual studios, twin hubs of Gorillaz operations, which are reached via a heavy security door just past the café’s toilets. Six people work in Hewlett’s clean, modern office space, developing his original Gorillaz characters for a 30-minute short film to be screened on Channel 4 and updating a fast-growing website which attracts 350,000 unique users per month; one third of the EMI server’s traffic.
Downstairs is Albarn’s Studio 13. In the first of three rooms, two scruffy men are piecing together computer graphics for a new Gorillaz video, an all-action spectacular featuring a high-speed car chase, deafening explosions, and alien attack and a giant moose. Albarn is certain that “the kids!” will love it. The remaining two rooms are pokey and stuffed with ephemera: boxes of exotic percussion instruments, two large aquariums, Albarn’s Dutch bicycle, a “bass sitar” purchased on a recent visit to Nepal (prior to the annihilation of the royal family) and a huge furry green head as seen on the Monster Munch adverts, which the singer bought at a local market. A mixing console and piano serve as reminders that it was in this unlikely setting that Blur and Gorillaz music was recorded, although Albarn took considerable pleasure in cutting his vocal tracks in Jamaica.
“I flew in a little plane over Blur Mountains to the north east of the island, and I was given a suitcase of weed. That lasted for about three weeks. We had to get another suitcase. I smoked spliff, drank rum and ate ackee and saltfish and fresh mangoes for two months. By the end of it, the locals were hanging out every night. That’s when we knew we had a good record.”
Albarn describes Gorillaz as “a genuine collective” which began as an equal split between himself and Hewlett. Albarn wrote the songs while Hewlett invented the band members. Forget Popstars, or indeed the original simian pop puppets The Monkees: here was the ultimate manufactured pop act.
San Franciscan hip hop producer Dan Nakamura, best known as Dan The Automator, supplied the beats. A prodigious worker who records on average four albums per year, Nakamura met Albarn in London. The pair worked together on last year’s Deltron 3030 album. Nakamura is currently producing what he describes as “a public service record” entitled Music To Make Love To Your Old Lady By, inspired by Serge Gainsbourg and featuring ex-Faith No More singer Mike Patton.
Another key contributor is bassist Dan Junior, whose CV lists Bob Marley, Lee Perry and King Tubby among previous employers. Dan Junior rents a studio along the corridor from Damon’s. He heard the Gorillaz music, knocked on Damon’s door and asked if he could join in. They’re an eclectic bunch. Luckily, funny little cartoon people tend to look better on MTV than some blokes in their mid-30s.
“Kids who like Gorillaz don’t care who’s behind it,” Albarn says. “They just like the music and the characters and they love the website. It isn’t a cartoon jokey band. Something that two years ago we thought was totally revolutionary is working so well because it’s part of the zeitgeist.
“We did set out with very noble intentions to be completely anonymous, but as soon as the first EP came out it was like, Oh, that’s Damon’s vocals.”
With Gorillaz an open secret, Albarn and Hewlett’s gameplan is working beautifully.
“The older audience knows it’s us two,” Hewlett says, “but the best audience for Gorillaz is your 12 and 13-year-olds. They’re probably getting the most enjoyment out of it, because they’re not thinking, Oh it’s those two wankers. There’s different levels. If you’re not interested in the characters you can just get into the music.”
One young fan is Jamie’s five-year-old son Denholm Sweeney. When Missy Albarn sees a picture of 2-D meanwhile, she calls him Daddy.
Damon Albarn is on a roll. In May he won a £500 bet with Keith Allen after their celebrity football teams clashed at a charity tournament (Albarn fielded two useful “ringers” in Nottingham Forests’s Chris Bart-Williams and former Spurs star Micky Hazard). Now Gorillaz is shaping up to be the surprise success of 2001.
Of course, and white rock musician trying his hand at reggae and hip hop is risking ridicule, and Albarn’s cause is not helped by Alex James’ description of him as “the blackest man in west London”.
“That was a bright comment, wasn’t it?” Albarn groans. “It doesn’t matter how it was meant, it was still a bit ignorant.”
Given that Blur’s The Great Escape was arguably the whitest album of the ‘90s, it is surprising that Albarn should select as his favourite pop songs of the past year Craig David’s 7 Days and Fill Me In, Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women Parts 1 and “all the one-off garage singles”. But this, he protests, does not a “wigga” make.
“I’m not gonna go down this line,” he snaps. “It’s a national pastime, trying to pick holes in stuff. It’s just that the older I got, the less interested I was in adolescent guitar bands. I moved out of the indie world a long, long time ago, way before it started to manifest itself in the music I was making.”
Do you feel you’ve made your point with Gorillaz, and if so, what is it?
“You tell me what you think the point is,” he sniffs. “How do you know I was trying to make a point?”
Perhaps two points: that the manufacture of pop stars does not end with Hear’Say, and that Damon Albarn is free to do as he pleases.
“Oh sure, absolutely. The last two Blur albums were hardly commercial disasters, they both had big songs, Tender and Song 2, which was ridiculously big, but not bigger than Clint Eastwood. I think we’ve managed to eclipse it. That song is black, whitem you name it.
“I think pop music is great at the moment obviously because I’m involved with it again. I’m right back where I was with Parklife which is where I should be and where I want to be. And I don’t have any of those hang-ups I had. I’m happy to be making music for kids. I don’t give a fuck. I know who I am now, and I want to make music that people love. It’s as simple as that.”