By James Montgomery
In a 2005 interview with Wired magazine, Jamie Hewlett, one-half of the brain trust behind Gorillaz, said he and Damon Albarn decided to start the band after watching MTV, as a reaction to the cartoonish parade of pop stars the channel was showing at the time. It made sense, and, truth be told, it was sort of brilliant.
But five years and millions of albums later, things would appear to be slightly different for Hewlett and Albarn. Their first two albums went multiplatinum, and the third — the just-released Plastic Beach — debuted at #2 on the U.S. albums chart. Gorillaz have certainly become a much bigger project than either man had ever intended.
So has all the success softened their stance any? Not in the slightest.
“I remember Music Television really close to its infancy, when it really was video after video after video, bit of news, few adverts, video, video, video,” Albarn smiled. “And, I don’t know, it has changed to a point. It has grown, obviously, and the music isn’t as important anymore. It’s a carnival of the over-privileged in America, isn’t it? It’s brilliant for advertising, though.”
“Now there’s, like, ‘Celebrity’s Dogs’ Cribs,’ ” Hewlett laughed. “Things have definitely gotten sillier.”
One would imagine that puts the pair in a rather uncomfortable spot. Gorillaz are most certainly a popular act, one that — while not in the same stratosphere as the Beyoncés and Lady Gagas of the globe — is certainly “world famous.” Both men freely admit to this, and, to be honest, they don’t seem to have a problem with it. By his own admission, Albarn said he set out to make Plastic Beach the group’s most “pop” album to date.
“Oh, absolutely. I love pop music. … I just love a certain kind of it — the kind that may not look nice, but still reminds me of the stuff I used to listen to growing up,” he said. “Lady Gaga works very, very hard, and so does Beyoncé, to be very, very popular. That seems to be all they care about in life, and that’s fine, you know? It won’t last forever, and if it does, you’ll turn into Madonna, and if you want to turn into Madonna, that’s great — for you. Not for me.”
So while Albarn and Hewlett are comfortable with Gorillaz’s status, they’re not about to let it go to their heads. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are still plenty of cartoonish pop stars left for them to rail against, and they’re just getting started.
“There’s so much, really. I can’t really engage with the stuff that comes out of Simon Cowell’s imagination. I really don’t want to share his imagination, because it’s … his imagination is sort of, by a pool, where he’s endlessly looking at a rubber duck, just floating from one side to the other, pulling his trousers up a little more,” Albarn laughed. “[And] someone brings him a drink, then he goes back again [to watching the duck]. That’s his kind of imagination, and I feel I deserve a little more than that. So all the music that comes out of that entire culture, that’s what I think of it. … I want no part of it, really.”
If you were to explain Gorillaz to somebody who wasn’t familiar with them, there is no way that person would take them seriously. They’re a loose collective of musicians and visual artists who create trippy, sprawling pop tunes and pair them with stories about homicidal monkeys and evil cartoon overlords. It’s pretty ridiculous when you try to describe it, but when you actually spin any of their albums (including the most recent opus Plastic Beach) or watch any of their videos (especially their latest clip “Stylo”), you realize that they have somehow pulled it off. The sharpness of the music and the goofy charm of the peripheral elements have somehow made Gorillaz into a staple band for anybody who is into genre-bending pop experiments.
The two main members of Gorillaz found their way to the MTV Newsroom today. They were not holograms or cartoon avatars, but a pair of Brits — Blur frotnman Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett — who were actually flesh and blood. They sat with MTV News’ James Montgomery to talk about the current story lines going on in the Gorillaz universe, reality TV, Justin Bieber and whatever other bees happened to be in Albarn’s bonnet today. He talked about celebrity culture, his aversion to technology (“People on Twitter are going to have arthritic thumbs in a few years”) and the massive amount of music they went through to get to Plastic Beach (they had 80 songs to choose from and selected 15).
Albarn has always been the cantankerous sort (his battles public battles with the Gallagher brothers as a member of Blur in the ’90s are legendary), and though he has mellowed with time, his dander is still up. Case in point: Even though his latest album is the most “pop” record Albarn has ever worked on, he still doesn’t care very much for the genre. “I love pop music. I just love a certain kind of it — the kind that may not look nice, but still reminds me of the stuff I used to listen to growing up,” he said. “Lady Gaga works very, very hard, and so does Beyoncé, to be very, very popular. That seems to be all they care about in life, and that’s fine, you know? It won’t last forever, and if it does, you’ll turn into Madonna, and if you want to turn into Madonna, that’s great — for you. Not for me.”
On Thursday, Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett came by the MTV Newsroom to talk about the success of Gorillaz’s third album, Plastic Beach, and, inevitably, the conversation shifted to the group’s pop contemporaries, be they Cowell or Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, about whom he scoffed, “[They] work very, very hard to be very, very popular. … That seems to be all they care about in life.”
And that was just the beginning. Because Albarn is a guy who takes his pop music pretty seriously — he grew up on it — and the current state of things depresses him severely. Well, most of it, at least.
“Most of it, I’m not interested in. There is some new stuff I like. … La Roux’s ‘In for the Kill,’ I loved that song. That gave me the kind of pop thrill I used to get when I listened to stuff as a kid,” Albarn said. “It doesn’t last very long in your life, but it helps you through. It hasn’t stayed with me the way [the Clash’s] ‘Combat Rock’ stayed with me or [Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s] ‘The Message’ stayed with me, but it gave me that same thrill. And that’s what some pop music is, and there is always [going to be] popular music, and I hope Gorillaz is in the latter category, where it can last.
“Because, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Good pop music should last, it should be what people listen to, because if you want pop, it’s better,” he continued. “It might not look as attractive or carry the same cultural clichés, but, as for actual music, it’s better. And music is still actually important, and once it loses all sense of integrity, our culture will die.”
We told you he took this stuff seriously. And, as is to be expected when talking about pop music — or, really, anything for that matter — the topic of Justin Bieber eventually surfaced. And, well, perhaps it’s best if those with Bieber Fever just stopped reading right now.
“His hairstyle has really kind of captured the imagination, along with Simon Cowell’s rubber duck,” Albarn smiled. “But that’s just a hairstyle.”