Monkey see, monkey do, monkey tour: the Gorillaz are back
“I say! They’re fancy!” exclaims Jamie Hewlett when Damon Albarn strides into the pair’s West London headquarters. The object of his fascination? Albarn, his sidekick in Gorillaz, is breaking in a new pair of shiny brogues, just like the ones favoured by Mr Noisy from the Mr Men series. Far from noisy, however, Albarn is a slightly subdued version of his normal combative self. It’s the morning after the election. With his long-term partner Suzi away, Albarn never made it to bed. He spent the entire night on the sofa, glued to the emerging chaos until it was time to take his daughter Missy to school.
“These,” he explains, “are my hung Parliament shoes.” Asked about the result — or, rather, the lack of one — the 41-year-old is a picture of careworn ambivalence. “How do I feel about a hung Parliament? I wanted it.” Did he vote? “Yes, but I’m not going to tell you who.” Even though “there’s no way on Earth” he would vote Tory, most of his irritability over the election is focused on Gordon Brown. “He should have stayed f***ing Chancellor,” says Albarn, as he waits for the kettle to boil. “He should have never had that stupid ambition [to be Prime Minister]. His strength is doing the maths. He would have achieved far more by staying out of the limelight.”
That Albarn feels qualified to comment on people’s suitability to the limelight tells you a lot about where the “virtual” group he formed with Hewlett find themselves right now. Gorillaz were, of course, the band that the two created precisely because a fame-weary Albarn no longer wanted us to look at him — the Trojan horse that carried the singer out of Blur, seemingly never to return. Billed as a “a lo-fi thriller event with 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russell”, Gorillaz’ debut live show in 2001 had the musicians silhouetted behind screens. The one who sang the stoned, dubby hip-hop of future hit Clint Eastwood sounded awfully like the singer out of Blur, but when asked about his involvement with Gorillaz, Albarn coyly kept his counsel.
These days Gorillaz offer a solution to a problem that no longer exists. If the Glastonbury triumph of 2009 with a briefly reunited Blur reminded Albarn how much he had missed performing, last month’s Gorillaz shows at the Roundhouse — no façades, no silhouettes — marked the singer going full circle. In between a stellar array of vocalists such as Bobby Womack, Mos Def and De La Soul, Albarn chipped in with the air of a child who had found a way to make the toys in his playroom come to life. With a band that also had the Clash’s Paul Simonon and Mick Jones together for the first time in two decades, it wasn’t hard to fathom the reasons. Why have a cartoon band when you could have a real one of this calibre?
Hence, the last thing that Hewlett, also 41, did before going home yesterday was to finish work on a poster for the group’s forthcoming tour, which depicts the group’s real-life members alongside their reprobate alter egos. But if the real musicians who played on the group’s recent third album Plastic Beach are reclaiming Gorillaz, where does that leave Hewlett’s animated creations? The sometime creator of Tank Girl seems unperturbed by the question. Apart from there being videos to work on and web content to1 oversee — all of it keeping Murdoc, 2-D et al, very much alive — Hewlett points out that “all my favourite bands are really just a function of the friendships within them”.
In that respect, Gorillaz are no different. Albarn and Hewlett happened upon each other at a time when both had separated from long-term partners. When the time came for Albarn to move out of the flat he had shared with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, it was Hewlett he called to help him to go househunting. “I wasn’t really doing much at that point. Tank Girl had been made into a shit film, but no one was offering me work because they thought I was now too busy to do it. Damon asked me if I could come and give a second opinion on a flat he was thinking of getting, so I came along. I told him it was great and that he should get it. Then he went . . .” — Hewlett mimics Albarn’s faintly surly version of friendliness — “. . . ‘Do you want to live here?’.”
Success has a way of normalising the most improbable ideas. We refer to Albarn and Hewlett’s “virtual band” as if such things have always existed. But at Gorillaz’ outset, there was no existing template for what Hewlett and Albarn were trying to achieve. A decade may have elapsed, but the initial scepticism that greeted the duo’s brainchild — especially from his American label — still rankles. “They said it’d be lucky if the first album sold 25,000. It was just all negativity, ‘There isn’t a band; we don’t know who it is; it’s a cult thing . . .’ Just on and on.”
After all this time, you’d think that it would get easier, so it’s surprising to hear that, even in the wake of Demon Days and the pair’s acclaimed opera Monkey Goes to the West, new ideas have had to be jettisoned when the necessary funding has failed to materialise. One such project, Carousel, was due to comprise a series of interlinked films set to live music. “The story was going to play out alongside this 100-mile long Victorian pier,” explains Hewlett.
Albarn interjects: “The pier was basically birth, childhood, adulthood and so on until, at the very end, you had this carousel with creatures on it, and the carousel was the flashback of your entire life. We’d got pretty far along with that.” While Carousel ground to a halt, real life gathered apace. Albarn and Hewlett took their families on holiday to Devon, where the eureka moment happened that spawned Plastic Beach.
“There were these worn-down bits of plastic in the shingle. Setting aside the effect of them being there, they looked quite beautiful. When I came back I said, ‘Why don’t we do an album?’. When he said he wanted to call it Plastic Beach,” says Hewlett, “it was instant. Those two words opened the door. We googled it. Point Nemo is the farthest point from any land mass on the planet — and there, you’ll find islands, some as big as the British isles, made of plastic densely stuck together. So then, it all became about this place that you can escape to, both a symptom of the problem and a sanctuary from it.” Faced with making a genre-trouncing fin de siècle party album such as Plastic Beach, a traditional band — like the one for which Albarn is still (just about) better known — would have been constrained by its personnel. Seven million sales of Demon Days meant that, when Albarn assembled his wish list of guest musicians, he found that he had minimal explaining to do. Even if Barry Gibb did have to pull out with an ear infection, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack were among those who stepped up. The famously crotchety Reed, says Albarn, was “very Lou Reed-ish” when he came to record his part. “Nice to me, though not necessarily to everyone else.”
Not so Womack. Speaking from his Los Angeles home, the 66-year-old soul legend, who numbers Sam Cooke and Ray Charles among a lifetime of collaborators, was long retired when Albarn sent him a demo of the song that became Stylo. “My daughter is 23. She loves me, but she’s never reacted to what I do the way she reacted to that track.” Sweetly, he seems intent on referring to the group in the singular: “Here I am thinking that I’m hip and I’m saying, ‘I ain’t never heard of Gorilla!’. I spoke to them on the phone, and they were like, ‘C’mon! We heard of you, though!’.”
“The sessions with Bobby were like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” says Albarn. “I played him the track and told him to just improvise. After 45 minutes of amazing singing he passed out. I can’t tell you how worrying it is to see Bobby Womack lose consciousness on your watch. It turned out that he’s a diabetic.”
Albarn wasn’t the only worried one. While he got an energy-restoring banana, the semi-conscious Womack was convinced that he had blown his chance to become part of Gorillaz. Far from it. “I remember eating a banana and when I woke up I was a Gorilla!”
What could it be about a Gorillaz show that can inspire such a disparate range of artists to put their careers on hold and cross oceans for what amounts to no more than ten minutes on stage? Long-time Gorillaz collaborator and De La Soul cohort Posdnuos has a simple answer. “It’s what we take from it as well as what we give. The dressing rooms are always open. At the Roundhouse, we were swapping stories — Bobby Womack with Mos Def; ourselves with Little Dragon — and right there, from the soundcheck, you had Damon making sure everyone was happy. It’s the reason you always dreamed of running off to join the circus.”
Albarn is tickled by the analogy. “Well, that’s exactly what you hope everyone will get out of it. We put more into a single Gorillaz show than most bands do playing a lifetime of shows while making ten times as much in the process. But it’s not about balancing the books. I’ve no interest in that. It’s about making you feel like you’re watching the greatest show on earth.” Finally, the subtext of his election tirade makes itself explicit. Damon Albarn doesn’t have very much in common with Gordon Brown. Lousy at sums, but a natural in the limelight, Gorillaz’ ringmaster has finally accepted who he is.