The Man in the Gorillaz Mask
On the wall of his recording studio, Damon Albarn has written “Uncertainty Leaves Room for Hope” in large black letters. Nearby, the phrase “Dark Is Good” has one “O” crossed out, making it “Dark Is God.” These messages loomed directly in front of the mixing board as Mr. Albarn was working on the second album by his alter ego Gorillaz, Demon Days “I quite like the idea of covering the walls with the conversation,” he said as he showed a visitor around the studio. “Then, having transferred that conversation to something permanent or impermanent, you just whitewash over it and start the next one.”
After a decade as the leader of Blur, one of England’s most celebrated bands of the 1990’s, Mr. Albarn started a new, plural identity, as Gorillaz. Usually, Gorillaz present themselves as a two-dimensional band: four cartoon characters drawn by Jamie Hewlett, who created the punky, unstoppable comic book and movie heroine Tank Girl. Now and then, however, Mr. Albarn can be persuaded to drop the mask and admit that, yes, he is the mastermind of Gorrilaz, an invented band whose debut album has sold six million copies worldwide.
“They helped sidestep the inevitable problem of being an aging art-school rocker,” he said with a chuckle. “They solved one identity crisis but helped create another one.”
Blur helped define the pomp and swagger – at once nostalgic and defensive – of Britpop in the 1990’s, then turned scruffier and stranger as Mr. Albarn fell in love with American indie rock. He was swept into a music-press rivalry with Oasis, as he watched his Britpop get misinterpreted, he said. He wanted to recognize a vanishing English culture, not to tout British chauvinism or turn back the clock. The high visibility of pop stardom soon lost its charms. “You get sick of your own voice, you get sick of seeing yourself on covers of magazines,” he said. “It’s just like: ‘This is uncivilized. I’m just a product here. I’m not in control of it and I’m not really saying anything either.’ You turn into, well, a cartoon.”
He also spent time traveling and soaking up music in Mali, Trinidad, Morocco and Nigeria, where he has recorded material for Blur’s next album. “Something happened to me which just made me realize that the whole thing was a con,” he said. “My love of music is much stronger than my love of my own image. I had to separate the two quite dramatically. When I went to Africa for the first time, I got down to playing with musicians and closing my eyes and listening and just not being worried about people looking at me. I lost my self-consciousness somewhat. And now that I’ve lost it, I really don’t want to acquire it again.”
Gorillaz got started when Mr. Albarn and Mr. Hewlett shared an apartment after each of them had a longtime romance break up. Mr. Albarn started knocking together music on drum machines and analog synthesizers, and Mr. Hewlett devised characters: the band as an alliance of subcultures. There’s square-jawed, Satan-touting Murdoc on bass; a laconic, spiky-haired lead singer called 2D; a young Asian girl named Noodle on guitar and the hefty African-American Russel on drums. They have adventures in the band’s video clips, and are about to be marketed as toys. Gorillaz also made a development deal with Dreamworks for a movie spinoff, but abandoned it after three years.
When Gorillaz toured, Mr. Albarn and other musicians performed behind a screen while video projections were shown. After two decades of music video, no one complained about a concert with an unseen band. “With something like Daffy Duck you can feel the soul of the writer behind it sometimes, making some odd, very strong comment,” Mr. Albarn said. “I suppose that’s what I tried to do.”
“Demon Days” is the successor to “Gorillaz,” released in 2001. Mingling rock, reggae and hip-hop in songs with a low-fi charm, the music on “Demon Days,” as on the previous album, is sparse and shifty. Loose-limbed beats from cheap drum machines, the blips and swoops of old synthesizers, distorted guitar and Mr. Albarn’s bleary voice can suddenly make way for orchestral strings, a gospel choir, or a swerve into a different style. The album hints at late-1970’s reggae and early hip-hop; its first single, “Feel Good Inc.,” harks back to Rick James’s “Superfreak.” But where “Gorillaz,” which was recorded before 9/11 and the war in Iraq, had the spirit of a hazy late-night party, “Demon Days” merges its casual grooves with minor-key melancholy. “It’s meant to be night music,” Mr. Albarn said. “But it was made during the day, which I suppose destroys the myth in one sentence. You don’t need to be in the dark to make dark music. And in fact, if you did you’d probably go completely mad.”
Song titles like “Kids With Guns,” “Last Living Souls” and “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead” spell out the album’s pessimism. In the song “Demon Days,” the London Gospel Choir sings, “It’s so hard for your soul to survive, you can’t even trust the air you breathe.” More than one track is punctuated by ominous sirens. “All the songs are like episodes of my worst fears,” Mr. Albarn said. “Maybe, hopefully, I’ve got them out and they’re not going to come true.”
As on “Gorillaz,” there are plenty of guests: the rappers De La Soul, Booty Brown from the Pharcyde, and MF Doom along with Ike Turner on keyboards, the singer Shaun Ryder from Happy Mondays and the actor and director Dennis Hopper, who narrates a parable about innocence, greed and retribution set to a droll reggae bounce. That song leads into a stretch of ethereal vocal harmonies in a clear homage to the Beach Boys. Mr. Albarn said he couldn’t make the vocal parts sound right until he had a minor revelation. “If you’ve ever seen the Beach Boys in footage, they’re all smiling, desperately keeping the upbeat Beach Boy thing alive, while Brian Wilson is just absolutely glum as hell. So I did three harmonies smiling with my face. And then one just being really miserable, which was Brian. Now it’s got that vibe.”
“Demon Days” was produced by Danger Mouse, the alter ego of Brian Burton. His reputation was made by “The Grey Album,” which backed up Jay-Z’s raps from “The Black Album” with samples from “The Beatles,” or “the white album.” Although he already had a cartoon name, his musical instincts were his qualifications.
“I construct and deconstruct and reconstruct,” Danger Mouse said by telephone from Los Angeles. “We see what you have and we go as far as you can, and we see what tangents you can go on, and then you basically take the best part of all those tangents when you reconstruct. The cartoon thing is a great concept to enable you to be more creative, because it doesn’t have to fit into the real world. It just has to fit into what you create.”
Mr. Albarn is working with Danger Mouse on the next Blur album [the Niger album], and after that, he plans to write music for London’s National Theater, moving completely behind the scenes. “The further I can retreat the better,” Mr. Albarn said. “Something happened to me which made me distrust the cult of the personality in music. I don’t for one second think that realistically I can completely and utterly become anonymous, because people like to know who’s doing what they’re doing. But when you look in a kind of book of folk music or written music, and the personality of whoever wrote it comes through in the music, there’s not a picture of them next to it, is there? There’s just the notes. That’s the reason for music.”