Q&A: Gorillaz duo take operatic turn with “Monkey”
By Cortney Harding
NEW YORK (Billboard) – It takes a fair amount of bravery to write an opera based on a 16th century Chinese novel, especially when you’ve never studied opera, have spent very little time in China and don’t speak a word of Mandarin.
But artist Jamie Hewlett and musician Damon Albarn gave it a go anyway — after all, creating a cartoon band sounded preposterous to them in 1999, yet that group, Gorillaz, went on to sell 4.3 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
A recording of the opera in question, “Monkey: Journey to the West,” was released digitally August 24 and on CD September 23 via XL Recordings. For Albarn, who spent the ’90s fronting Britpop sensation Blur, and Hewlett, who co-created cult comic “Tank Girl,” sales aren’t as important as ensuring that Western musicians advance eastward.
Q: How exactly did you come to write an opera without any…?
Damon Albarn: Experience? (Laughs.) I think the willingness to learn and experiment is more important than knowledge. I was a fan of aspects of opera. It’s taken me a long time to really feel comfortable with the vocal technique. Not that we employed that or we had any opportunity to employ that in “Monkey,” because it was such a riot putting this together. We didn’t have tons of funding. We were working with people who couldn’t sing.
Jamie Hewlett: I like working with what you’ve got. I like limitations. I think the reason why we’ve been able to pull it off is because of the limitations we’ve set for ourselves and had set for us.
Q: What attracted you to the subject matter?
Hewlett: We were approached by the Chatelet Theater in Paris, asking if we would be interested in doing an opera on “Monkey.” We were both fans of the TV show associated with the story, which ran on U.K. TV in the ’70s.
Albarn: The story idea came from the director, Chen Shi-zheng, who had a special relationship with the story that stemmed from (his) finding a copy under an uncle’s mattress during the Cultural Revolution. So he wanted to bring a story that he felt was a significant sort of cultural cornerstone that needed to be reintroduced, well, introduced, really, to the West. But he wanted to do it in a new way that would resonate here.
Q: How are you planning to sell the accompanying record? An opera sung in Mandarin about a monkey’s journey doesn’t exactly scream “hit.”
Albarn: Everywhere you’re up against a fairly dumb attitude. To appeal to the masses … you won’t get any satisfaction out of your work. The reason for doing this is not to sell albums, but to put something out that we feel is something we’re proud of. We just put 150,000 tickets on sale for a run at the O2 Theater in London, so the potential is there. We’ve taken another big gamble in thinking we can shift 150,000 tickets for an opera sung in Mandarin. We’re going to give it a go because primarily I don’t care what anyone says, we need to engage with the Chinese. And if parents take their kids to something like this, you know you’re doing something.
Q: Is it important for more Western musicians to go to China and vice versa?
Hewlett: We need more performances in China. Bands are not going to China because the Chinese censors are quite strict. Most music is banned, although the Gorillaz got through somehow. Madonna is banned.
Albarn: Also, because China is such a huge market for music piracy, you can’t tell which acts are popular. You can’t just base it on record sales like you can other places.
Q: How did the BBC come to use parts of the opera in its Olympics coverage?
Albarn: They came and approached us. We were really the only well-known artists that were doing anything or had spent some time working with Chinese projects.
Q: What are your plans in terms of another Gorillaz record or a Blur reunion?
Hewlett: We are going to wrap “Monkey” up and hopefully the production can tour. We have a few new projects we’ve been working on for the past few months. Essentially we all work in the same way, whether we go back to one of our incarnations or we try something else. We have to be really excited about what we’re going to do next. Maybe we’ll have a project about pants.