Gorillaz Face the Music
Words: Jo Roberts
For Jamie Hewlett, the hard work is done. Well, virtually. “I’m coming in first so I can get a word in,” he grins, as he plops himself down on a sofa backstage at the Key Arena in Seattle, draping his lanky, tattooed arms across the back of the sofa. As we chat, the thump and buzz of sound check of the band who were never meant to perform live starts to hum through the walls.
“We finished updating the visuals for this show the day before we left for America. So after all that hard work, I don’t really want to miss out on seeing the shows happen,” says the British illustrator, who’s now happily just along for the ride.
Hewlett, 42, was once better known as the co-creator of the cartoon Tank Girl but since the day in 1998 that he and his flatmate at the time, Damon Albarn of Blur, also 42, came up with the idea of a virtual band, he’s now more famously the co-creator of the animated superstars Gorillaz.
Since 2001, when the first single, the creeping dub-pop of Clint East-wood, introduced the world to the hollow-eyed, gap-toothed singer 2D, the malevolent, lecherous bassist Murdoc, the mountainous cookie-loving drummer Russel Hobbs and the chirpy 10-year-old Japanese girl guitarist Noodle, Gorillaz have gone on to sell more than 20 million albums and be named the most successful virtual band of all time by the Guinness Book of Records. Their second album, 2005’sDemon Days, earned the band a “best pop collaboration with vocals” Grammy for the single Feel Good Inc, featuring De La Soul.
And indeed, Gorillaz have redefined the term “collaboration”. What began as Albarn and Hewlett’s vision to marry animation and music into something more entertaining and subversive than MTV has, with the release earlier this year of their third album Plastic Beach, evolved into something bigger than either of them ever imagined — the band’s first world tour.
Gorillaz performed sporadic shows in the past and always with 2D, Noodle, Murdoc and Russel fronting the band, projected on to four huge vertical screens, while the band played behind the screens. But when Gorillaz played the Coachella festival in April, the animations were at the back of the stage and Albarn and his collaborators were, for the first time, front and centre.
“Each album has been a pretty different experience,” Hewlett says. “We did say when we started Plastic Beach, the first thing we discussed was that we had to tour it; that was the plan.”
And why wouldn’t you, when artists of the calibre of De La Soul, Bobby Womack and half of the Clash — guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon — agree to join you on tour? And when album guests such as Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed are also happy to drop by for a live performance?
The Plastic Beach tour has been lauded by fans and critics. The New York Post said Gorillaz “ripped the roof off” Madison Square Garden when they played the venue in October. But best of all, Hewlett says, they got an encore performance from Reed.
“He enjoyed Madison Square Garden so much he hopped on a plane and flew to LA,” Hewlett says. “He doesn’t do that apparently, he’s not known for leaving New York that often.
“He doesn’t smile too often but in LA he had the biggest smile on his face. He really looked like he was totally enjoying the moment. It’s great that he’s part of the gang now.”
The door creaks open and in swoops Albarn, smiling and shaking hands, flashing a badass gold tooth and wearing his seemingly ubiquitous black and red striped T-shirt.
He picks up on the band discussion. “When Paul [Simonon, who’d also played with Albarn in the Good, the Bad & the Queen] said, ‘I’m up for being in a band’, I was like, ‘OK, well let’s go on a tour then’,” Albarn says. “We had a bass player, Cass [Browne] has always played drums and I do a bit of everything but not very well. I’m better at singing and playing the piano live. So we had a band.”
And what a band. Live, it swells to about 20 people on stage, including string and horn sections, backing singers and guest vocalists darting on and off. Tonight, half the fun is watching Jones and Simonon flanking the ringmaster Albarn in their captain’s hats and having the time of their lives. Then there’s the guests, such as Snoop, commanding from the big screen, in between Hewlett’s maniacal videos accompanying songs and Murdoc having conniptions about being locked backstage and slagging off “the warm-up band” for sounding like his poor imitators. Visually and musically, it’s mind-blowing.
And while he may be the least-visible member of the menagerie, drummer Brown is as crucial to bringing Gorillaz to life as their originators. He is the main writer of the text and dialogue for videos, the website and interviews (he also wrote the band’s 2006 autobiography, Rise of the Ogre).
“It all goes through Cass’s filter, he’s the guy who writes all the parts,” Albarn says.
“We discuss what the storylines are, we come up with the ideas together,” Hewlett says, “but he does . . .”
“All the hard work,” finishes Albarn.
The band recently unveiled a new character, the mysterious and dangerous Cyborg Noodle. “Well, yes, there’s a story unfolding,” Hewlett says. “I guess this is kind of my answer to the question, ‘Is there going to be a Gorillaz movie?’, which there never is gonna be, ’cause no one’s ever going to give me the sort of money I need to do the sort of evil, twisted story I want to tell,” he says, reducing Albarn to giggles. “So Plastic Beach is our film told in instalments, so through the videos, all the little idents and what happens on the website, it’s all a big story. So Cyborg Noodle is the evil version of Noodle. And Noodle will return.”
Noodle isn’t all sweetness and light though, I start, explaining one clip of rampant shooting I saw online, before Hewlett corrects me. “Oh, that’s the Cyborg [Noodle], you’re getting them confused, y’see. She’s the one with the little cat mask. Hasn’t revealed her face yet because she’s HIDEOUSLY SCARRED,” he roars for theatrical effect. “You’re not paying attention to the storyline, are you?” he teases. “Eh? Ask the fans, they know every single detail,” he chuckles.
“The great thing is that it works on so many levels: either you love the music and maybe you like the videos and there’s the kids who really do get into it all and really enjoy it.”
Which explains the broad audience demographic in this sold-out crowd tonight, including many kids with parents.
‘It’s been an unqualified success — bizarrely,” Albarn says. “But as far as communicating an idea to an audience, who knows? I mean, we always think that when we get to a point where we’ve achieved something that it’s time to stop, don’t we?” he says to Hewlett.
How will they know when they’ve reached that point? “Well, I don’t know; we’ll see how we feel in January [after the tour],” Albarn says. “A period of reflection and sobriety,” he chuckles.
“Are you breaking up with me?” Hewlett asks.
“No!” Albarn laughs.
Then Hewlett makes a surprising comment: “This would be a wonderful point to leave Gorillaz; at the end of this tour, I think.”
“I couldn’t keep going at this size and pace,” Albarn concurs.
Well, it’s difficult to imagine it any bigger, I venture.
“Exactly, that’s what I’m saying,” Albarn says.
Hewlett sees my eyes widening. “That’s not a statement,” he adds quickly. “I’m just saying if that were the case…Gorillaz is more like a big sprawling gang of people you could do any number of projects with.”
Yet the band is still recording. Last month, Gorillaz released a new single, Doncamatic, featuring British singer Daley, and it’s included on a newly released digital version ofPlastic Beach. A wonderful point to leave Gorillaz? Perhaps not yet. But what’s certain is that Gorillaz 2010 is a unique moment in time and, lucky for fans, this particular stage of the evolution is being televised.
“This tour, with these people, is a one-off,” Hewlett says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We’ll never repeat this.”