Plastic Beach, Subtle Environmentalism and ‘Sunshine in a Bag’
Gorillaz co-founders Jamie Hewlett, left, and Damon Albarn have a hit on their hands with Plastic Beach.
The latest Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, is one of those rare critical and commercial successes that have become even less likely as record sales decline.
Not bad for a virtual band created by Blur front man Damon Albarn and his then-flatmate Jamie Hewlett (co-creator of Tank Girl), in response to what they saw as too many gilded personalities making their way onto the airwaves and MTV.
If the world wanted a fake band, the Gorillaz co-conspirators reasoned, why not deliver the goods?
The group they invented, made up of fictional cartoon avatars, went on to score several worldwide hits on the strength of its accessible sound, informed to equal extents by hip-hop and Albarn’s Britpop past, with a healthy dose of sonic experimentalism thrown into the mix.
Plastic Beach tastes like candy, but it packs a deceptively nutritional punch, mixing classical elements, world music overtones and loops seemingly crafted in a studio with thousands of instruments, all of which combine to attract the ear to repeated listens. Albarn’s melodic sense never ceases to amaze, while celebrity guests — Snoop Dogg, Mark E. Smith, Gruff Rhys, Bobby Womack and other heavy hitters — on all but four of the tracks add variety to the sound.
Maybe that’s why this record has been stuck on repeat in Wired.com’s Brooklyn satellite office, where it sounds better each time. (And there could be more to come: Albarn recorded more than 70 songs for this release, the Gorrillaz’s first in five years. He and Hewlett are apparently considering sequels, in true comic-book-hero style.)
The dynamic duo sat down with Wired.com in New York hot on the heels of an appearance on The Colbert Report and a headline performance at the packed Coachella music festival. “This is the first day we’ve really talked about [Plastic Beach],” said Albarn as we began the interview, “and we won’t be talking about it again.” (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Wired.com: For starters, I’d like to get your stance on technology …
Damon Albarn: Can we call a friend? (Laughs.) Can we ask the audience?
Wired.com: The videogame aspect of the Plastic Beach album is a fairly unique use of technology — that’s not something every band does.
Albarn: We’ve always put fun and games on the website, but we started out doing stupid games like potato-peeling games as a bit of a joke, really. They were so popular that we started doing more, and realized that people really, really enjoyed playing them.
Wired.com: Are you up on the Twitter and everything?
Albarn: I haven’t got a computer. But I do like drum machines and keyboards — everything I can get my hands on.
Wired.com: I’ve been told that during this tour, you’re moving away from the cartoons onstage and more toward live performance.
Albarn: I don’t get that. Someone said that, but it’s more cartoons, in a sense. Yes, we do have a very strong, identifiable band — Mick Jones and Paul Simonon [both of The Clash] and all the guests that come along, almost on a conveyor belt. On each song, a different spirit arrives on the stage. But we’ve got a 70-foot screen behind it, which is all animated.
Jamie Hewlett: We’d never actually used the animations in a live-show sense before — we’d only done it for the Grammys and the [Video Music Awards], which works on television. But if you’re there at those events, you’ll notice that you can’t turn your bass up, because it’s a visible screen that you project onto. As soon as you play, it goes boom-boom-boom-boom.
Wired.com: I’d never thought of that.
Albarn: You can’t do a live gig with [3-D] holograms at the moment. There is no technology to do it. We know how to do it, but you can’t play a proper, stonking, kick-ass gig with holograms because — [whispers] it has to be super quiet. If anyone who reads this knows a way of doing it — we’d love to have [the virtual Gorillaz members] dancing around with us onstage. It’d be brilliant.
Wired.com: Maybe some Wired.com reader will have an idea.
Albarn: Well if they have, please get in contact with us, because we need that.
Wired.com: On to the music. I love the new album, and everybody else seems to be really happy with it, too — what’s the theme behind it, the Plastic Beach motif?
Albarn: If you meditate on plastic or the sea, I think all the songs kind of fit into that in one way or another. And then we kind of developed it and situated the new Gorillaz “base” at Point Nemo [the most remote island on earth] and alluded to the fact that the plastic detritus in the Pacific Ocean had all collected. It’s gentle, it has environmental thoughts scattered and peppered around every bit of this record. But at the end of the day, it’s not just that. It’s in a way more colorful than that.
Wired.com: And it’s fun, not preachy. When you think of environmentalism, you don’t always think of fun.
Albarn: Fun! Exactly, it’s fun. Especially with kids, you’ve got to capture their imagination before you say anything. Otherwise it’s going to go in one ear and out the other, isn’t it? Forget about it — they’re not going to listen.
Wired.com: I’ll try to keep this about Gorillaz, but I was a big Blur fan, and I’m also a big fan of The Fall. I’m envisioning you and Mark E. Smith working together — what was that like?
Albarn: Ffffffsshhh…. Well, if you know of Mark E. Smith, you know he’s a … he’s quite a … He’s quite the individual, is young Mark.
Hewlett: It was a very pleasant day — he’s really, really cool. By the end of the day …
Albarn: Very bright. A little bit beaten-up through the years, you know.
Wired.com: Yeah, he’s been going pretty strong.
Albarn: He has been going pretty strong, and I think that catches up with him a bit later in the evening, but we’re all fans, so we could just listen to it forever. There was a lot more stuff he did, but I felt on this record you get a sense of him. I know it’s not much of him, but he’s there. And that’s important. He’s at the top of the charts in America. He’s there.
Hewlett: There’s another version of “Glitter Freeze,” which is quite an epic song, where he was having a long, long chat, and we’ll put that out at some point. He plays the part of a pirate on a ship, the Glitter Freeze, and he’s just singing about swabbing out the deck. Einar from the Sugarcubes plays his mad parrot, squawking in his ear, and it has a real sort of [Ennio] Morriconian lift to it at some point with some of the harmonies that Damon does. Personally, that’s my favorite version, but it was [Albarn’s] decision.
Albarn: I can’t even remember how I did that, I should really go back in. We’ll put the other version out, but it just didn’t sit with the other songs on this release.
Hewlett: I like when there are all sorts of different versions of songs; it shows it’s loose and playful — that’s what’s really strong about Gorillaz. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Wired.com: But I read somewhere on Wikipedia or somewhere, where it’s all true — everything on the internet is true …
Albarn: Of course it is …
Wired.com: … that you had over 70 songs for this record at one point. That’s pretty hard-working for a playful group.
Albarn: No, it’s just having fun. It’s not hard work. Music is not hard work. It requires a lot of concentration, on occasion, and it can be hard work keeping your concentration up. But the actual process of creating music is fun. If you think that making music is work, then don’t make music.
Wired.com: What is your songwriting process like? A lot of the songs are cinematic and visual — do you have a visual aesthetic in your head, going in?
Albarn: No. Jamie gets the demos as they’re evolving, and he just goes with it, and does his own thing. We talk, because we work in the same building. We’re in each others’ hair most days anyway, but no, no, no — that’s his thing, the music’s my thing, and we just let it go where it goes. [To Hewlett] Do you think we’re disorganized?
Hewlett: No, not really. It’s a little bit chaotic, but it always comes together, because, basically, you make it come together. We don’t sit around a boardroom table on a Monday morning and discuss what we will achieve — he’s just making music and I’m just drawing, and everyone else in our studio is doing what they do. It’s quite exciting and fresh.
Albarn: Anyone who’s got a good idea — it goes in. Paul [Simonon] has really worked on the look of the band onstage, and it really works now. Cass Browne, who writes all the storyline and dialogue for the characters — he goes and does his own thing, but there’s always a loose approach, and Plastic Beach is the kind of glue that glues everybody’s ideas together. If you can make the connection from someone else’s idea back to there somehow, then we’re happy — it all doesn’t really have to make too much sense (laughs).
Wired.com: I asked my Twitter and Facebook people for questions for you, and one was, “What kind of sunshine was in the bag?” (Listen to the right.)
Albarn: I don’t know that we can answer that one for you. That’s top secret. That’s the kind of information governments don’t give out until 50 years after.