The men behind Gorillaz put a musical spin on Chinese folklore
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have an unusually fruitful partnership going. Back in 1998, the frontman for UK rock darlings Blur teamed with the London-based visual artist behind Tank Girl to form Gorillaz — which they refer to as “the first virtual pop band.” Combining Albarn’s pop smarts and Hewlett’s zany drawings, the group was fronted by a quartet of cartoon characters. While it was very high-concept, the project has been a chart-stormer, yielding a number of hits (including Clint Eastwoodand Feel Good Inc.).
Gorillaz seemed like an ambitious enough endeavour, but Hewlett and Albarn have ventured even further into left field with their latest project,Monkey: Journey to the West. Three years in the making, Monkey is an opera based on a classic Chinese text. The story of a mischievous chimp and the characters he encounters in his travels, the piece mixes allegory, satire and Buddhist philosophy.
Albarn and Hewlett adapted the Monkey tale into an innovative stage presentation: part opera, part acrobatics, it is helmed by respected Chinese theatre director Chen Shi-Zheng. Since premiering at the Manchester International Festival in June 2007, Monkey: Journey to the West has sold out massive theatres and won raves from critics. Now, Albarn has reimagined the project as an album, enhanced with Hewlett’s beautiful visuals. On a recent visit to Toronto, Albarn and Hewlett discussed their love of Chinese culture, their mutual disgust for British art star Damien Hirst and their next collaborative effort.
Q: The text that you adapted for Monkey: Journey to the Westis a cornerstone of traditional Chinese literature. Was it important for you guys to go through your own journey in putting this piece together?
Jamie Hewlett: We just wanted a free trip to China, to start with, which we got. And then we formed a relationship with Shi-Zheng, the director, and felt that he was someone we wanted to work with. It’s not often that there’s a third brain in a project when we do stuff together, but we liked him well enough [to want to collaborate]. We didn’t do anything for a year, and then we were like, “OK, we need to get started on this project, so can we take a trip to China again?” We managed to squeeze about three free trips to China out of it, which was important. We immersed ourselves in Chinese culture and grew to love it.
Damon Albarn: At the outset, it was as alien to us as it would be to anyone else. It’s a different world, the eastern side of the planet. The sun rises on a different day than it does here. Language operates in an entirely different way. The function of music is far more rooted in its origins than it is here. You get the sense that it’s partly because it’s pentatonic – which is in a sense a more limiting system, because it’s five notes as opposed to eight or whatever.
Q: What aspects of Chinese culture did you find most striking?
DA: Well, the way people approached eating, the way people approached drinking.
JH: There was a lot of drinking. The Chinese like to drink. They like to have drinking competitions with you. There was a lot of drinking and then trips in mini-buses around mountain roads at high speed, followed by more drinking, followed by high-speed mini-bus rides around even more dangerous mountain roads, overtaking all corners, followed by more drinking…
DA: Followed, always, by the eye of the government in a car.
JH: That was the first trip. Then the second trip was primarily me and Damon and Shi-Zheng and his assistant, and we basically did our own thing. So we didn’t have the escort stopping us from going down certain roads or going into certain establishments. We got to sort of have a bit more fun. We climbed Monkey Mountain and reached the summit, found a monastery full of Buddhist monks and a huge gold statue of Buddha.
We found ourselves above the clouds, looking down and unable to light our cigarettes because the air was so thin. This mountain was full of wild monkeys as well, that have been known to attack people at night. And then we climbed down the other side of the mountain, and halfway there, Damon disappeared. Then my knees went, ’cause I have torn cartilage in both knees. I couldn’t walk and had to be carried down by these two Tibetan guys, who put me in a bamboo stretcher and then ran down this very, very steep stone path. And monkeys were nicking our packed lunches! So that was kind of scary.
Q: In the past, Damon has been responsible for the music and Jamie has been responsible for the visuals. Did that change when you were trying to imagine Monkey’s world?
DA: Monkey inhabits a very clear world, so for us, it was like, “How can we put that world into our world?”
JH: You have to understand, we went down a lot of dead ends, a lot of wrong streets, before we reached the right place. At the beginning, there was talk about making it a bit contemporary – like, maybe Monkey’s bamboo forest was a high-rise with scaffolding, the monkeys were all little teenagers, the Spider Woman’s lair was a disco, and they were a bunch of old tarts hanging out and trying to get in on Monkey’s VIP.… You know, you go down all these wrong roads—
DA: They’re not wrong. Maybe you take an element of that idea and juxtapose—
JH: It’s part of the process, sure. It’s like sifting for gold, and there’s a tiny little nugget and you’re like, ‘OK, I’ll use that.’ Eventually you find the direction you’re going. That’s why it’s taken three years.
Q: The Monkey: Journey to the West album debuted on the British charts at number five. Pretty impressive for a recording with operatic vocals in Mandarin and weird electronics.
DA: I’d never even thought about making a record, but Jamie said he wanted me to make one.
JH: Because everybody who saw the opera came out humming the songs and asking if they could buy it. And I was listening to recordings of the actual [performances], that weren’t great quality, and thought it’d be so nice to have it on a CD.
Q: Did you have a specific message you wanted to communicate with the Monkey project?
DA: No, it was more like, “C’mon chaps, let’s get our heads around this, because it might seem very foreign, but as a society, we have to start facing up to facts.” The facts are that this part of the globe is going to govern so many aspects of our future and our children’s future. And also, they’ve got an awful lot of stuff to give us. Primarily, I think their approach to health and well-being. They’re not Communists; they’re commune-ists. They’re very, very good at working together. They’re not as arrogant as we are. They’ve figured out the greatness of green tea. If we could get that to become a daily routine, what an unbelievable effect it would have on our society. We’re actually offering a free cup of green tea with every album bought. [Laughs.]
Q: Do you guys ever have qualms about being white British dudes and borrowing from so many different cultures?
DA: [Pretends to do a double take.] What? I’m not white.
JH: He was Spanish last week. Damon likes to basically try being from a different culture every month. He picks the culture, and then literally – mentally and physically – becomes indigenous to that culture. Sometimes you have to remind him that he’s just a white bwoy, he’s just a honky.
DA: My Missus reminds me that I’m just a white boy daily. Don’t worry.
Q: What’s next for you?
DA: We’re doing another Gorillaz record. We came back from summer holidays and realized we could do exactly what we wanted to do with Gorillaz. Essentially, Jamie just had to agree to draw the characters again. ’Cause I just do what I do anyway.
JH: I’m so f—ing bored of drawing those characters. But then we had a moment where we had a new angle on it.
DA: Well, you won’t be bored of drawing them again.
JH: I’m gonna adapt them.
Q:Now that everyone knows the guys behind Gorillaz, does the concept still hold appeal for you?
DA: Making the records has really nothing to do with the characters. The characters take on whatever stuff it is that we’ve done. And they run with it however they choose to.
JH: Whatever stuff we produce, it’s just stuff. [Laughs.] We produce stuff. Musical stuff, physical stuff, plastic stuff. Definitely produce a lot of plastic stuff. Everything we’ve done is perishable. [Laughs.] It will not be remembered a hundred years from now – it’ll be stuff. We need to erect a statue of [Damon] on Ladbroke Grove!
DA: We need to start working in precious stones. I’m starting to get a bit concerned that Damien Hirst’s trajectory is just so much greater than my own. Purely because he’s done stuff that people think will last long enough to pay lots of money for it. It’s ridiculous! To be totally honest with you, I knew him when he was at college, and I felt we all were, like, peers —
JH: Don’t get started on f—in’ Damien Hirst! It’s just stuff! We do affordable stuff; he just does really expensive stuff. But he’s cornered the market where he knows he can sell anything for an awful lot of money to some stupid asshole art buyer. He creams it off ’em, and he does it with a smile on his face.
DA: I think he’s brilliantly wrong in what he does. But maybe that’s what we need to do with Gorillaz. We need to do them in stone-encrusted gold.
Q: Seriously, what are you guys planning to do to make Gorillaz exciting again?
JH: We really can’t say what we’re doing next. We just started. You’re only the second person we’ve told that Gorillaz is making an album, actually. We were instructed to keep it a secret. When we told the record company, they went “Woohoo!” – you could hear them shouting in the background – and then said, “Don’t tell anybody!”
DA: We’re not entirely certain; we generally just go with our gut. I dunno. We are obtuse and quite abstract, really. We play a game but it’s not strictly the game. Sometimes it really works and sometimes… [Laughs.] Actually, usually it really works.