Success is all a bit of a blur
Damon Albarn’s face has become part of the musical landscape since his run of hits with Blur began in the early 1990s.
He’s gone behind the scenes for his role in the cartoon band Gorillaz, yet he’s still the unofficial human face of the group.
Which is why it’s so surprising when Albarn, smiles and reveals something missing when we meet: his front tooth. He’s coy about exactly how it was extracted.
His Gorillaz partner, artist Jamie Hewlett, jokes that he punched the tooth out.
“I didn’t volunteer its removal,” Albarn says, but reveals it’s down to laziness rather than violence.
“I’ve had a cap for a while, now I can’t be arsed.
“I was meant to go to the dentist today but I had a nice weekend with a gap. My daughter’s teeth are coming out at the moment so I’ve gone out in solidarity.”
These days if Damon Albarn wants to walk around minus a crucial piece of mouth furniture he can.
Blur may have been wildly successful, but Gorillaz are a global phenomenon.
Any thoughts that they were a mere novelty act have long passed. Their Grammy for Feel Good Inc (one of last year’s most interesting – and subversive – pop singles) showed even the dull American establishment get it, as well as perennial cultural barometer Madonna, who surreally opened the awards show last month alongside the cartoon characters.
“It’s quite funny the characters have come this far that they get to open the Grammys with Madonna,” Hewlett laughs.
The opener saw them mash up Feel Good Inc with Madonna’s Hung Up.
“It’s Feel Good Inc with Abba, ‘innit,” Albarn says somewhat pointedly of Madonna’s heavily sampled hit.
“The only presence of Madonna is her and her bleedin’ 47-year-old body in a leotard. Of course, if I look that good in a leotard I’ll be happy,” he says. “But you have to begrudgingly give that to Madonna. She’s very good at reading what’s going to happen.”
It may not sound like it, but Albarn used to hang out with Madonna.
“I hung out with her when she first moved to England when she was searching for a castle and a man to live in a castle with. I haven’t seen her for years.”
The Grammys was not the first time the cartoon band have performed live.
Last year Albarn and Hewlett recruited every vocalist (from Neneh Cherry to Shaun Ryder) and guest musician (including Ike Turner) from Gorillaz’ second album, Demon Days, to re-create the record in its entirety live in Manchester. They’ll do exactly the same in New York later this month.
“Gorillaz is an entirely different beast,” Albarn says, comparing the anonymous role to his days front and centre with Blur. Interestingly, Albarn said, many people knew him from Gorillaz or Blur, rather than both.
“When we played in Manchester, Ike Turner took me aside one night and said ‘Man, you remind me of me, I always wanted to stay in the shadows’ I tried to point out to him that I had actually spent 10 years being the frontman for a band.
“A lot of people know about Gorillaz who have no idea about Blur. (And) I still get cabbies in London saying ‘You haven’t done anything since (Blur’s) Parklife’.
“We were always worried we wouldn’t fulfil our pledge to remain totally anonymous, but the vast majority of people have no idea it’s us behind Gorillaz, so we’ve achieved what we’ve wanted to do.”
Gorillaz have long passed any goals Albarn and Hewlett had for the concept they dreamt up one night. Both parents, the pair aren’t surprised by the way children have embraced Gorillaz too.
“Gorillaz has a lot of layers to it,” Albarn says.
Hewlett explains: “It’s dark, but adults can see the underlying theme. My kids see it like an episode of Scooby Doo.”
Some cynics say the cartoon facade is what has allowed Albarn, a pasty Pom, to get away with making hip-hop and selling it to Americans.
“I don’t make hip-hop,” he states. “I play around with the defining principles of hip-hop, but it’s very eclectic. The reason Gorillaz sounds so different to everything else is because I approach it in such a chaotic way.”
Following success of recent live performances, Albarn and Hewlett still have vague ideas for a Gorillaz tour. Unlike the live shows so far, the actual musicians wouldn’t even be on stage (Albarn and the band usually play behind a screen).
A system of holograms would be used, meaning it could run around the world simultaneously.
“It’ll be spectacular if we pull it off,” Albarn says.
“It’s the characters on tour. You could open in five or six major cities on one night. We’ll get around to it, but it’s a massive undertaking.”
In the meantime, Albarn has more music on the back burner. There’s a world music album with Gorillaz producer Danger Mouse which was started in Nigeria, that he insists won’t be a solo album.
And there’s a punky Blur album in the pipeline, but don’t hold your breath.
“I’ve done a few tracks this year, a might do a few more. A few a year.”
And will there be a third Gorillaz album?
“We’re doing something else, me and him,” Albarn says.
“But it won’t be Gorillaz. Or we might call it Gorillaz, depending on what it turns out like. We might call it Monkey. Some kind of simian. It’ll keep evolving.”