Blur’s Damon Albarn and the creator of Tank Girl unite to form Gorillaz, one of post-modern pop’s strangest experiments.
By Michelle Kleinsak
It must be awfully hard trying to make meaningful music while living under the limelight’s magnifying glass throughout most of your twenties. It could almost make you want to disappear behind a cartoon façade.That’s exactly what Damon Albarn, frontman for the Brit-pop band Blur, did with Gorillaz. The unusual band — all its members are cartoon characters — is the brainchild of Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett, who is responsible for the popular Tank Girl comic book series.
The appeal of cartoon anonymity was not lost on Albarn, who spent many years being dissected by the often brutal and intrusive English press. “Jamie and I spent our twenties being successful in many ways, but the residue of that success had left us questioning what we were doing and the nature of the world we lived in,” Albarn says. “One of the things that really got to us was the nature of celebrity and the cynicism of popular culture. That was really the genesis of Gorillaz, besides the fact that he’s a cartoonist, and I’m a musician, so the logical thing to do was to create an animated band.”
Gorillaz is a hip-hopping virtual foursome that includes 2-D, a blank-eyed pin-up of a lead singer; Murdoc, a sometime Satan-worshipping bassist; Russell, a spooky American who handles the beats and rhymes; and Noodle, a 10-year-old Asian rocker girl who is the cross-pollination of Jimi Hendrix and Hello Kitty.
The list of flesh-and-blood musical contributors is just as varied: The album was produced by Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, who also co-produced Handsome Boy Modeling School, and features guest spots from rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Miho Hatori from Cibo Matto, and Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz of Tom Tom Club/Talking Heads fame. Even Latin crooner Ibrahim Ferrer from Buena Vista Social Club pays a visit.
With so many marquis-headlining talents working on one record, you’d think there would be a preponderance of prima donna posturing. “No way,” Albarn says. “It’s a very fluid, non-celebrity collective of musicians who just happen to want to work in the mainstream. Everyone who worked on Gorillaz signed up for it knowing that there are no stars. The only star is the band itself.”
“You’ll never see who the musicians are because it doesn’t matter. It’s funny. There’s no actual proof that I’m on the record at all.”
The band will continue to spread its message of egalitarianism, Wizard of Oz-style, when Gorillaz takes its show on the road this summer. Just as none of the musical contributors will come totally clean about their roles on the record, none of them will appear on tour either. Instead the real life band members will play behind a screen that mostly shows their animated counterparts, occasionally flashing to Albarn and company in silhouette.
“You’ll never see who the musicians are because it doesn’t matter,” says Albarn. “It’s funny. There’s no actual proof that I’m on the record at all. People just assume it’s my voice. And you assume that you are talking to me. But it always strikes me that using the telephone or the Internet is a similar kind of mind-fuck as driving down a road and assuming that no one is going to crash into you.”