Encounter with Gorillaz in New York
Typed out and translated by 2-J on gorillaz-unofficial. The original article is in French.
In two albums, the group has laid out its eclectic universe, which lies somewhere between cosmo-pop and manga animation. Behind its success, the genius of Damon Albarn.
Gorillaz concerts look like a Beneton advert. A Chinese zither player, a black choir, some mixed race ‘Hip-Hoppers’, and a little white guy, at the back, behind his piano. A guy called Damon Albarn, 100% British, every inch of him the fair Anglo-Saxon. This spitting image of a young Dutronc formed the band Blur in the 20th century, then Gorillaz after that – a weird concept fed on cartoons, new technologies and diverse musico-ethnic mixes. It’s he who wanted this tonight, a total art event more risky than a skateboard on an ice rink. Nobody forced him to do it. He could have stayed in the cold in his Albion, remained in jeans and kept his hair long, putting out the tunes for the Girls & Boys, keeping up his ingenious rehashing of the Kinks, Jam, Beatles and dawdling over that money-making formula. Except he didn’t, this guy wanted to play. He went crazy for Africa, recorded an album Mali Music with Tounmani Diabate, founded a Soul and resissues record label (Honest Jon’s), became infatuated with the work of Jamie Hewlett (creator of the comic Tank Girl) before becomming part of a virtual duo with him, to which the name of a monkey was attached. The predictions were that he’d fail, but he succeeded in every way.
Of course, there were precursory signs of this demanding, compulsive desire. It’s necessary to put on the first Blur album again, Leisure (1991), turned out by Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon, inseparable since their first meeting as 15 fifteen-year-olds, on the benches of Colchester school (Essex). This inaugral album is witness to a beautiful XTC-esque inventiveness (XTC were a were a group famous for turning out classic ‘made in England’ melodies) to which is added the precocious Romance of Bowie. And you can see, behind the graphical identity and the upmarket videos, great artistic ambitions. Three years later, the album Parklife signalled their consecration (four Brit Awards) and the start of a long squabble with the Gallagher brothers, (big) heads of rival group Oasis. The tabloids indulged themselves in covering their little cockfight and relayed their incendiary declarations. But artistically, whilst Oasis struggled in vain to reproduce their first two albums, Blur searched further afield, taking their melodies to a new level of complexity, clouding the issues. “We could have churned out our tune Girls & Boys forever, changing the words, adding some bass, even busting the guitars up,” Damon Albarn confided to Telerama 10 years ago. “We could have turned on the pop charm again, and above all not departed from the established formula. But what would have become of us?”
In 2000, the departure of Graham Coxon didn’t stop the group from coming together again. And even surpassing the guitar efforts of all the other purveyors of Britpop. Because Albarn has a trick up his sleeve: a flair for keeping up with the times. The title of the last Blur album “Think Tank” (2003) announced the direction: a repeal of musical boundaries, a mixing of genres and influences (notably African ones).
At the same time, this classicaly-trained musician composed the soundtrack to a film (Ravenous, by Antonia Bird) and started up the mad experience that is Gorillaz, half-music and half-comic, the first two albums from which have both sold 5 million units worldwide, without the musicians appearing other than hidden away Daft Punk-style behind animated videos in which artificial manga heroes frolick (2D, Noodle, Murdoc and Russel). The music itself placed in a definitive melting pot, crossing electro-rock-soul-rap with hints of Caribbean and Cuban influences. Albarn surrounds himself with foriegn musicians and composes hybrid pieces that are both cosmic and cosmopolitan. ‘Black, white and Blur’ music.
It’s not surprising then, that he chose Harlem as the place to stafe his series of New York concerts. It’s the 2nd of April, in front of of the Apollo Theater, this mythical place where Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown all made their debuts… along with so many other black jazz (wo)men that Albarn has chosen to confront. Emissaries from the world’s press are present, seated under the lights, in the middle of the fans. Gorillaz only really appeared once before (and no longer from the shelter of a screen) at the time of a series of remarkable performances in Manchester, last November (the concert is available on DVD). The group wanted to do it again at the Apollo “where the dreams are made and legends are born” says the slogan which papers the walls.
But the dream turns to nightmare. Ten seconds after the curtain comes up, Damon Albarn appears on stage and warns, in his black polo shirt: “We have some technical problems”. This beautiful euphemism concerns the giant screen which dominates the stage… and which stays stone dead during the concert. Not a drawing nor a video is shown. Not even a hologram. Imagine making Jean-Michel Jarre play in a two-room apartment. For Gorillaz, it’s the same thing. To play without the famous cartoons which give the project its visual force is like trying to run a marathon hopping. And considering the cost of the ticket (70 dollars) for a light show with no light, you can understand the disappointment of the audience. The next morning, the Washington Post will tell of a ‘flop’ and will show even more scorn that the group assured itself good takings via its promotional advert and merchandising (vinyl toys, skate boards, etc).
Still, the musicians were there, making up a little group of around thirty in total, around half of which were the string section. Along with a generous helping of guests: Neneh Cherry, Roots Manuva, Shaun Ryder, Ike Turner (on piano, ridiculously), the members of De La Soul, a choir of children from Harlem. And a Damon Albarn seated in the shade, in the background, more conductor of the orchestra than solo performer. The mix works as on the album, as strange and successful. This ‘concerto for rappers and an orchestra, topped with pop melodies’ could have remained in the domain of experimentation. But no, the mix takes off and catapults its radio-friendly songs (Feel Good Inc.) to the those of music-loving ambition and the denizens of the discotheques. The concert will last the same amount of time as the album Demon Days (reproduced in the order of the songs) maybe sixty-six minutes or so.
There will be no more after this, it seems. No more concerts, no more CDs. Gorillaz refuse to ape themselves. Blur, by contrast, should be reborn : they’ve announced a new album for 2007 (Albarn says that he doesn’t want to hurry himself). It doesn’t matter in the end. It’s not necessary to follow the one or the other, only the effervescent demiurge at the origin of both, this ogre Albarn with his beautiful mouth and his Picasso-like assurance, his ‘I don’t look for things, I find them’ side. His latest extravagance? Monkey Journey to the west, a grand choreographed show coproduced with the Berlin Opera, Manchester International Festival and the Theatre Du Chatelet. You don’t know what it will look like. You only know that Albarn courts a risk of failure once again… as any triumph inevitably does.
Interview with Damon Albarn
Because he refuses to ape himself, the Brit is always working on a project.
Telerama: You’ve just given a series of concerts in Harlem, which were said to be the last by Gorillaz. Why?
Damon Albarn: I like to move on, and when a project has some success, it’s definitely time to move on. There is so much to create musically… Gorillaz necessitates a lot of people. It’s me who’s answering your questions today, for simplicity’s sake, but I’m not a represntative of the community of musicians and lovers of music, image and graphic design. Sure, I write the songs, but I wouldn’t be able to carry it on my own. In recent times I can say that I’ve dedicated more time to relationships with people, inspired by the notion you can give yourself to a groupe of people and nothing else matters, apart from my family… thanks to this group of friends, some creators, I wanted to make Gorillaz evolve. When I was younger, I didn’t have the patience. All that interested me, with my band Blur, was the energy of the moment, the spirit of it all. My musical vocabulary was very limited. Now that I have all these assets at my disposal, I want to enjoy them to the full.
Telerama: When you listen to a Gorillaz song, you’re struck with the fluidity of the music, its natural side, when, on paper, adding the styles together would seem fraught with problems…
Damon Albarn: That’s definitely because the people involved with the project have all lived a lot, musically, as performers but also as listeners, before coming to the project. For my part, it’s in the process of listening to others, their sound, their culture, that I prepared myself for Gorillaz. A lot of soul music, reggae, world music. But with a sense of irreverence. In making uncertain choices, like a kid in front of a amazing buffet of food. I stuffed myself, without worrying about the established order, or any hierachies. Hip-Hop, for example, I discovered in a complete disorder. If I liked an album, I listened to it all the time, at the risk of passing over another more important artist… I made my own ‘mix’. And all this music grew inside me.
Telerama: How does the musician select from amongst all these influences?
Damon Albarn: It’s like a collection of foriegn languages, faced with which you feel intimidated at first. And then, little by little, you maanage with what you have, with your little personal vocabulary. It’s like leaving for a foriegn country… at the start of Gorillaz, the most determinate influence was without a doubt Jamaican music. It was in imagining a juxtaposition of reggae sounds and dub with my British pop culture, that Gorillaz took form in my mind. Then Hip-Hop came to the fore, which interested me because of its urgent side. Then all kinds of Latin music – it’s still what I listen to the most – I added to the mixture.
What’s amazing about music, it’s that when you think you’ve exhausted the resources of a genre, something totally unexpected jumps out at you. You open a draw and realise that there are still three more draws inside that one. At the moment, for example, I’m in love with music that comes from Panama, where they play some of the most vibrant music that I’ve come across… rummaging around, discovering, finding new ways, that’s amazing. In my case, this appetite has also seen realisation in the forming of a reissue record label, Honest Jon’s, that I founded with two record collector friends. It’s a way of getting music heard, music that should never stay confidential.
Telerama: How did you work out the sound and the concept of Gorillaz?
Damon Albarn: If there’s a concept at all, then we discovered it in the making of everything, in the mad energy of recording the first album. People passed through the studio, each one brought his or her contribution… for the second, everyone had a precise idea in their head of what Gorillaz had become. And that lead to Demon Days, which is, it seems to me, an excellent pop album. So there’s no reason to follow up that direction. If there’s another Gorillaz album someday, it’ll need to be very different. The project itself, its spirit, would have to evolve in order to keep its relevance… as for the songs I’ve put behind me, I tell myself that they’re there to stay. I’d like kids to learn them in school. That’s be an amazing recognition.
Telerama: At the start of Blur, admit the Brit Pop boom, few people seemed to believe in your potential as a songwriter and above all, your ability to stick around.
Damon Albarn: Yeah, they had me down as a dirty little brat, and Blur as a band of revelers without a future. But if you look back at my words at the time, you’ll see that I answered: “Give me some time, give me fifteen or twenty years, and we’ll talk again, we’ll see where I am then”.
Telerama: Which is, today, in the position of one of the most influential figures on the British music scene! Did you think you had such a beautiful career ahead of you?
Damon Albarn: I always believed in myself. I knew that I had a certain talent for melody and sound, the way of putting them together. In the same way that people feel from a very young age attracted to film making, I knew that putting together sounds was going to be where I had my adventures, and any intimate development… also, it just so happened that I received a classical musical education. At the time, I didn’t want to talk about it too much, but I knew that I had this base, these musical muscles. Actually: some years in musical classes at school, first on violin, then in composition for string ensembles. When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I had a music teacher who was a bit of a loony, Mr. Hildrecht, who knew how to make us interested in comedy musicals. he took us to see some concerts, pushed us really. I believe that you can hear something of that in certain Gorillaz songs.
Telerama: Do you write specifically for Blur, specifically for Gorillaz?
Damon Albarn: At the start, there’s no difference. Well, at the start, there’s nothing at all. No special intention. Just silence, and the desire to find a sound or vibration which leads to something more. When I write, it’s Damon Albarn that it’s about, not Blur or Gorillaz. It’s only later, when the song starts to take on a structure, that I look to lead it in a precise direction… Right now, I’m starting to write a comedy musical for the National Theatre of London. A commission. But as for the rest, I don’t want to bother myself with the context. I’m just looking to find good melodies… at my house I have a reduced amount of equipment available to me, a guitar, a piano, a drum machine. I write something every day. Sometimes, it’s a complete song, sometimes, just a musical theme. I don’t want a recording studio in the house, because I want my writing process to be as simple as possibe. If you have too much equipment there, you get lazy in your writing.
Telerama: You churn out projects very quickly. At the risk of going too fast?
Damon Albarn: It wakes me up in the middle of the night, full of panic, asking myself how I’m going to make the deadlines. But I’ve learned to have confidence in myself. I have a certain strictness, which guards me against taking the easy way out. I try to set the bar quite high, because I tell myself it’s the best way to do things. Sometimes, I’d like to be less cerebral about things, less ambitious ambitious about my projects, and just fool around, make some easy albums. But I always finish by coming back to my work station by saying to myself: “come on, let’s keep going!”
Telerama: How would you define the Damon Albarn style?
Damon Albarn: My songwriting is English. I know it’s that way. If the Gorillaz songs pleased people who bought the album, maybe that’s because they found in them the permanence of the the British colour, insular, in my voice, my ways of singing. It’s almost a genetic thing, beneath my desire to open myself up to other sonic cultures, there is, written in me, this British identity.
Telerama: You’ve never known rejection. Since the first Blur single, success was there.
Damon Albarn: Maybe with Blur, we knew how to make the right choices at the right times. For seven or eight years, the life of the group was like a big permanent party. But then, you have to imagine a musical life that accords with the logic of this total party atmosphere… I am staggered to see all these young English groups who go around in circles after two albums. How many will ever know adult life? As for those who succeed in holding on more than five years, they often live in the nostalgia of their first success. As if they could only really be happy, in rock, at the age of 20 or 22! There should be a law against that: musicians shouldn’t be allowed to repeat themselves.
Telerama: You don’t speak to the English press…
Damon Albarn: No, never anymore. That doesn’t interest me. They ask me my opinion on everything, and for my part, I don’t feel authorised to give it… it’s more agreeable to me to talk to a French publication from time to time. Without a doubt – even if this might seem a bit stupid – because your country, France, took some honourable positions on the international stage, in particular regarding the Iraq war. So most often, I try to live at a distance from the media. Anyway, my private life isn’t confined to music, to Blur, to Gorillaz. Amongst my best friends, there’s a doctor, a Tube boss, a carpenter. With them, I don’t talk about music much.
Telerama: what place do you think you’ll occupy in the history of British pop? What if we said to you that you might be seen as a sort of Ray Davies (The Kinks) of the 90’s and 00’s?
Damon Albarn: I don’t know, you’re embarrassing me… I’m only 38 years old, so… I just want to say the same thing as I did when I was starting out: give me fifteen or twenty years, and we’ll see where I am then.