Gorillaz creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett on the cartoon band’s past, present, and future
by Simon Vozick-Levinson
Not many musicians can hang with the likes of Harry Potter, Homer Simpson, and Carrie Bradshaw. But when EW assembled its list of the 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years for the cover story now on stands, we had to include Gorillaz, the fictional cartoon quartet that’s fronted three real albums (2001′s Gorillaz, 2005′s Demon Days, and this spring’s Plastic Beach, all stellar). I spoke with Gorillaz’ human creators — Tank Girl visual artist Jamie Hewlett and Blur singer Damon Albarn (pictured, seated left to right) — about the project’s past, present and future. Read on after the jump for our full Q&A.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A good place to start might be the late ’90s, when you first hit on the idea of making a cartoon band. What was the initial spark for that?
JAMIE HEWLETT: We shared a flat in London, and I think we were just sitting watching MTV. We felt that you had to wait a long time before anything decent came along. There would be the odd Spike Jonze video or Hype Williams, and then the rest would be pretty bad. So we had the very simple idea: Let’s do an animated band. There was no great formula or great plan. We started messing around for about six months. I was doing designs, Damon was doing demos. It sort of grew from that. And it’s still growing now, 10 years later. It’s a project that is growing larger all the time. For me, definitely I don’t feel it’s complete. I don’t know about Damon’s thoughts on that. But I think it’s something that can continue to grow until it reaches a point where we can’t really go any further with it. We haven’t reached that point yet. I don’t know if we will.
Was there a particular look you were trying to capture when you were designing the characters, Jamie?
JH: I wanted them to look cool, but not in wacky animation terms. I wanted them to each have an individual character that was interesting. As a group together, they needed to project an image that appealed to us — which for us has always been slightly demented, a little bit dark, a bit broken. That was the vibe. We didn’t want them to be cutesy characters on skateboards doing street surfing or whatever they call it. Extreme sports. [Laughs]
Damon, how much did you think about the characters when you were making the music for these three Gorillaz albums?
DAMON ALBARN: [Chuckles] Um, well, to be honest with you — Jamie’s saying, “Don’t let me down here.” Well, it’s really difficult. I believe that they’re a kind of manifestation of our collective psyches. The music is in a way married to that. So in that sense they work together.
Do either of you have favorites among the four characters?
JH: Well, obviously [fictional bassist] Murdoc‘s a bit of a favorite.
DA: I think we haven’t really explored as much as maybe we should do. The voice of Murdoc is very strong. Maybe we should find three equally strong voices, and then we could actually have conversations. [Laughs] There are so many things we can do to develop it.
JH: It’s very difficult.
DA: In a way its imperfections are what make it interesting to us. Because we certainly haven’t achieved anywhere near as much as we can with it.
When you’re sending out these demented missives from Murdoc’s mouth, what appeals to you about that? Is it fun? Is it freeing?
DA: Well, yeah. You can say things which if they came out of my mouth would be deeply offensive to an awful lot of people.
JH: It is very freeing when you take yourselves out of the equation, and liberating, because it allows you to experiment. We’re both artists — of sorts. So the ability to experiment and try different things is extremely important. To be able to go off and do a Chinese opera, for instance, we might have been laughed at if we had tried that 15 years ago. I think we’ve allowed ourselves to attempt to do anything. And that means that coming to work every day is exciting.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve been able to do with the Gorillaz characters?
DA: I enjoyed playing the first tour behind the screen. That was very obtuse of us, but highly enjoyable. But it became difficult to continue that. I think the human element of the band just demanded that we have a bit more life. I think playing with holograms at the Grammys was partially successful. It was great on TV. It had a great atmosphere about it. You know, just being able to be as eclectic as we continue to be visually and musically is our primary motivation for doing this. Oh yeah, and playing at the Apollo in Harlem for a week…
JH: The list is long, isn’t it, really?
DA: Playing Coachella this April was also just another whole experience which I hadn’t anticipated in the context of Gorillaz.
I was there, that was really cool. With the success that Gorillaz has seen, have you been amused to see this virtual band that you created taking over the world?
DA: [Exhales] Um, well, we just always feel there’s so much more we can be doing. So I don’t think we really look at it in those terms. We’re very critical of ourselves.
JH: There are moments of joy.
JH: Glimpses. For instance, as Damon just said, Coachella, there was definitely a buzz going around after the show. We were very excited. But of course then you move on the next day and think about the next thing. Don’t dwell on stuff for too long. As he said, there’s always, always room for improvement. And we’re in the process of improving what we did at Coachella for the next time we play.
DA: I think anything in the performing visual artistic world, you have a brief moment where you can have some perspective on it and enjoy the vibrations. The rest of the time is just hard work and frustration. I wouldn’t sell it as a lifestyle, really. 99 percent hard work and frustration. [Laughs]
How does doing Gorillaz compare to the hard work and frustration of being an artist in general or playing in a band?
DA: Um, well…Yeah, I mean, I suppose I am qualified to say this. Each individual thing has an entirely different character. But this is one of the most demanding things. I don’t know if it’s as demanding as putting on an opera. But quite close. It’s definitely as expensive.
JH: Yeah. We are a non-profit organization, Gorillaz.
DA: We are going to declare ourselves very soon.
JH: [Cracks up]
What in particular makes it so much more expensive than performing as a band?
JH: Well, videos are expensive.
DA: Do the maths, really.
JH: Having a live show that has all of those people on stage, who all have to be flown around the world and put up and paid for.
DA: Traveling around the world to record. Everything is expensive. Modern life is expensive.
JH: We don’t think about the cost. We think about what we need to make it work, and then the cost hits us in the face six months later.
DA: [Laughs] We’re kind of like a show that comes to town, and then when everyone realizes how much it owes, we’re off to the next town. [Both laugh heartily]
JH: One step ahead of the bailiff.
DA: The repo man.
JH: The repo men are coming for us. [More laughter]
DA: Well, we know Jude Law, so he’d be probably all right.
You mentioned trying to constantly refine the presentation even beyond what you did at Coachella. Can you tell me anything about what ambitions you have?
DA: There are definitely areas. Mos [Def] at the Roundhouse, he dressed up. The costume really worked in context with everything else. So I think maybe a bit more of that. I certainly think each song has a different world to it, or a lot of the songs do. Maybe that would be a way of punctuating the moods. I don’t know. How can you say something is perfect when it’s such an open book in the first place, you know? It’s impossible. We accept that sometimes we’ll get it really right, and sometimes we might, you know…
JH: And I don’t think we’ll get it perfect in this run. By the time we play the last show from this album, we’ll still be unsatisfied with little elements of it. But that’s a very tall order, to expect to walk away from it and say, “That was the best it could be.”
At one point you had discussed doing a Gorillaz movie. Is that something that you’d still like to do?
JH: I think we’re doing a movie, but in our own way. It’s not two hours long at the cinema. It’s a movie that plays out over the next year, and you have to catch all the different scenes by going to concerts and going online and seeing videos and stringing it together.
DA: And maybe at the end of it, we might have enough material to actually edit a proper movie together.
JH: We can only do a movie if we do it ourselves without any interference. We tried an animated movie first time around.
DA: People writing scripts and that sort of stuff is problematic for us, because neither of us can read.
JH: [Laughs] No, neither of us can read scripts. We just need pictures.