The Mother(f**ker) of all tours
Gorillaz bring their Escape To Plastic Beach tour to Australia at the start of December, starting in Perth on December 6 and finishing in Brisbane on December 19 (with the final date of their world tour in Auckland on December 21).
The Music Network spoke to Gorillaz tour manager Craig Duffy as he travelled from London, where the band had just played two nights at the O2 Arena, on his way to Birmingham for the penultimate night of the UK leg of the tour.
He talked to us about the logistics of taking this show on the road, what Australian fans can expect, how you actually present an act on stage that doesn’t technically exist and why “you will never see a show like this” again.
Duffy has worked with Blur since the late-1990s and been involved with the live presentation of all of Damon Albarn’s side projects. He was not involved in the early (one-off) Gorillaz shows, but took charge of their live activities in 2001, putting together a tour package that others have frequently regarded as “impossible”.
The current tour began as six rehearsals in front of fan club members before starting ‘officially’ at the Coachella festival in the US in April and taking in the first performance by a major western act in Syria this July. As well as using existing video content on the stage’s main screen, a dozen new sets of visuals were created for the tour, slowly being added as they were finished, with the show adapting around them.
Duffy suggests the hardest part was getting the guest performers to give up nine months of their lives and their careers to commit to touring with the band. All just to appear on one or two songs a night. “But we got that commitment as it’s such a special project and such an amazing show,” he says.
Getting Gorillaz on the road is very different from a standard tour. Explain how it all comes together.
“There are a number of differences. The main one is that this tour didn’t start with a four-piece band. It started with the visuals and the music. There is no ‘real’ band, obviously. It started with the cartoon characters and Jamie Hewlett’s artwork. From there we had to create the whole thing – nominally on paper. Then there were all the collaborations with the musicians. Damon makes all the music and is collaborating left, right and centre with people like Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Bootie Brown and so on. What happens is that it all just grows and grows.”
How is the band put together?
“It’s ended up as a 12-piece core band. We have Mick Jones playing guitar as he played on the record and this was the first time he’s played with Paul Simonon since The Clash split up. Then we are working with a bunch of musicians that we’ve worked with since the first Gorillaz album. So we got the core band together and then had to think about how we were going to present this. Jamie had a lot of visual stuff and he always wants to push the boundaries with the visuals.
We had done 3D before and we looked at doing that again on this tour – effectively having the characters being the band. That just wasn’t viable because of the nature of the current technology. It just didn’t work. We wanted to create a show that stimulated people in so many ways – but which was also very simple.”
How is this different from the early (one-off) shows?
“We’ve got a massive screen full of amazing visuals. We have elements of the silhouette show [where the band played behind screens and the audience could only see their outline] that we did about six years ago, but equally the members are up front on the stage, doing their thing.”
Gorillaz is all about the collaborations. Was it essential to get all the guest performers on the stage?
“We wanted to bring every single one – or as many as we could – of the collaborators from the records on tour. And we could. You end up spending all your money bringing out the likes of De La Soul, Bobby Womack, Kano and Little Dragon. They all played on the records and you’d never seen them on stage ordinarily unless we’d drop into London or New York and do a show. We ended up taking them all out on the road.
In a band party, you’d normally have 12 people, but we have 55. That’s where your headaches start! We have a great sounding band up there. Then you throw in the guest stars who do bits and pieces on a couple of songs. We have as seven-piece orchestra from Syria and a seven-piece brass section from Chicago. People really don’t know what to expect of the show.”
How does the production itself come together?
“Production-wise, it’s relatively simple. We have a massive video screen and a great but very simple light show. The visuals are so much a part of the show that you have to light around that. Big shows tend to go for a lot of lighting. On this tour, there is so much happening on stage and so much going on above on the video screen that you have to be really careful with the lighting. If you get it wrong, you end up destroying everything. The lighting designer has to make the show look great but without detracting from the video. It can’t have the lights on the band in key elements when the visuals should be in there.
We had to light the stage in a way that didn’t flood the stage with light, which is all too common on a lot of the big rock shows at the minute. We wanted to get away from that. It’s quite a difficult show to put together like that – not on a technical level, but on a creative level. Jamie has a creative team that he’s been working with for years and they’re all on top of it. The creative elements always interweave with everything else.”
What has the reaction been like?
“There is so much happening on stage and with the visuals, that it’s really hard to take it all in. It’s such a massive experience that just won’t happen again. It doesn’t make sense to anyone else except us to do it. People are just blown away by the scale of it. It’s almost impossible to tour the way that we are touring as it just doesn’t make any sense. You don’t take 120 people on the road to do the shows that we are doing with a band that doesn’t actually exist!”
How is this different from a standard tour?“There was always a feeling from Damon and Jamie that they didn’t want to go out and just do a rock show. They could easily have got a band together and gone out there and played the songs. There was always a feeling that they didn’t want to do that. Gorillaz are not a common or garden band going out and playing a tour. They wanted to create something special. They wanted to take what they have done and perform it in a way that is amazing.
Everything about the Gorillaz – musically, visually, the whole concept and idea – is about it all being perfect. Or as perfect as we can get it, given that we have to carry all these people and equipment around the world. Visually and musically, it’s amazing and it would be such an injustice then to do a below-average show that went through the motions. You will never see a show like this. It’s such a one-off.”
Is the show being adapted depending on where you play?
“The show is designed to fit on any stage of a certain minimum size. You can’t get 30 musicians on a small stage. We have done theatres, arenas and massive festivals where we are playing to between 5,000 and 100,000 people. The show is basically the same but it can change in terms of how we lay the stage out. We don’t drop musicians, though. The show is the show. We don’t leave musicians behind for certain shows. That doesn’t happen.
A Gorillaz show is a Gorillaz no matter if it’s a 2,000-capacity venue or in front of 100,000 people at a festival. People come and see the shows and they can’t get their head around how many people are involved and how it all works logistically.”
How are the Gorillaz characters woven into the show?
“The Gorillaz are a cartoon band so there is a dilemma of how you present that. The concept is that there is a Gorillaz house band playing the music of Gorillaz. There is interaction with the characters and their story in the performance. You see them popping up during the show. You don’t want to take away from that vision of the cartoon band. We have an amazing live show but we have to be very aware that it’s not about a live band made up of humans.
The main core of the band are those four characters [2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle] that came from Damon and Jamie’s heads 15 years ago. They are still there and still making their presence felt. And that will continue.”
Dare guest vocalist Shaun Ryder is currently appearing in the Australian jungle as part of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here on British TV. Will you be going into the jungle when you arrive in Australia to liberate him?“[Laughs] I couldn’t tell you! It’s a good idea. He should be out by the time we get there. Tempting as it is to go in there and do a little guerilla raid, that’s an unlikely one. He’ll hopefully come and do a few shows with us. We do have people occasionally dropping by, which spices it all up a bit. We had Lou Reed and Snoop Dogg perform with us. Just last night, MF Doom was in town in London and played with Gorillaz. He showed up and ended up performing on Clint Eastwood. Even Damon didn’t know he was going to be there until half way through the show.”
What can the Australian fans expect from the shows?“What Australia is going to get is what we’ve been doing everywhere else. This is about doing the best show that we can deliver. It looks amazing, has a fantastic cast of characters – both live and animated – to create a show that the audience just won’t see again. It’s just a mindblowing show. That’s what you’re going to get in Australia. You’re not going to get any half measures. Our show is a great big show and we want to bring it to the people.
Damon hasn’t been to Australia since we went there with Blur in 1997. He’s not been back since but had such a great time there he wanted to return. Australia is a fantastic place to visit and you never get to play there often enough. We’re all relishing doing this show on the other side of the world in the same format that we’ve done everywhere else. It’ll be a special time in Australia.
You’ll also get the good weather.
“We like that! You might see the characters popping up on the beach somewhere!”
From Plastic Beach to Bondi Beach?
“You never know! It could happen!”