It’s been seven years since we last heard from Gorillaz. A lot has happened in their animated world—members were kidnapped, one was left for dead and demons were slain—but a cartoon fantasy was no match for what’s transpired in real life. Things make about as much sense in our world as they do in theirs, which makes now the perfect time for the two to sonically collide again. The virtual band returned in April with Humanz—a frenzied party record to help us cope with the chaos—and a U.S. tour that brings them to Las Vegas for the first time ever during Life Is Beautiful. Frontman Damon Albarn, who co-created Gorillaz with artist Jamie Hewlett, chats with Vegas Seven from his London studio on how the new record came together, why he loves collaborating and what he’d be listening to if the world were to end.
Why the name Humanz?
I needed something that was snappy that drew in all the ideas on the record, and also had a bit of humor about it. Originally we started off with the name Transformer, but my daughter thought that was a really naff name and that people would think that we were, like, trucks that turned into robots. I was obviously referencing Lou Reed, but the idea of transition about us—humans changing at the moment, everything in change, the world in change—that was the idea.
I read that when you were working on the record, you told your collaborators to envision a worst-case scenario where Trump gets elected.
Yeah, it was like a cartoon fantasy: “Imagine if a reality star became president of the United States. How would you feel on that night if that happened?” That sense of uncertainty and chaos, really.
Now that it’s a reality, has that changed the meaning of the album?
No. If you put it on, I suppose it should sound now-ish. It’s not about Trump at all. I wanted to set it in the near future because when you write a record, it’s not going to manifest itself until a year [or] a year and a half later. That was the reasoning behind that, and I thought that was the most intriguing narrative we could explore in the context of what I wanted to do.
Let’s say—very hypothetically—that the world is coming to an end. What are you listening to right before that nuclear warhead strikes?
[I’m] listening to the birds—if there were birds singing—or the sound of a breeze in the trees or water running—just something really elemental. Because that’s where we come from, and I suppose if it’s the end, I would like to be as close to the beginning as possible.
Gorillaz has always been a very collaborative project; Humanz is no different. What do you look for in a collaborator?
I never have a real agenda when I start as far as who I’m going to work with. The spaces get filled one way or another. … Once someone’s interested in working with us, I might have three or four tunes that they could potentially work on, and then we just let them choose the one that they feel the most akin to.
It’s very free the way we work. I always have to take the attitude that if it doesn’t work with someone, I can always do it, but it just happened that on a lot of these tunes the ideas worked out, so I wasn’t needed. I didn’t feel I needed to overstay my welcome a lot of the time, you know? I’m comfortable being somewhat of a curator.
My entry to your music was through Gorillaz, because I was a big hip-hop head and huge fan of Del the Funky Homosapien and Dan the Automator. Out of curiosity, what’s your relationship with hip-hop?
I think I can recognize the good from the bad. I’ve always got an open ear, but I’m not trapped in that world by any sense. My taste is utterly eclectic, and I can go from one thing to another very easily and not feel like I’m losing sight of stuff. I embrace all music, really, so my relationship with it is the same as it is with all music.
You’ve worked with De La Soul multiple times; they’re on the new record, you’re on their last album. What’s your fascination with them?
I really like them as people, and that’s probably why they ended up on the records. Because when they’re in London, they always pop in to say hi. And if I’m making a record like this, then they’re always going to kind of go, “Oh, can we try that tune out?” It’s that kind of relationship, really. They’re friends, and I like working with people I like. I mean, why wouldn’t you?
You and Noel Gallagher have had a famous rivalry in the past, but you guys got into the studio for “We Got the Power.” What was that experience like?
Really great. I love working with Noel. He’s very funny; he’s got a very different way of approaching recording than me. But that’s the great thing about collaborating and producing, you just learn so much about how other people [work]. You think that the way you do it is the only way, but it just isn’t. Everybody’s got a different approach to it, and I love that. … What I respect and like about the way he works is he’s very melodic and his voice is super accurate. Once he’s established what he’s singing, he will nail it every single time.
You’ve only done one official solo album (2014’s Everyday Robots). It seems you prefer more collaborative projects.
I don’t really see it like that. Gorillaz is as much a recorded thing as a live experience. In a way it becomes an awesome thing when you see it live, because it’s just this conveyor belt of energy that once one amazing singer leaves the stage, another one comes on. It’s a totally different approach and a different sound. The momentum gathers during the evening, and I love it. Also, I don’t have to do all the work, which is even better.
You have your hand in multiple projects. When you’re writing songs, how do you decide: “This is a Gorillaz song,” or “This is a Rocket Juice & the Moon song”?
It’s just what I’m working on at that particular moment. Sometimes there are tunes that could go either way. If you want to be really simple about it, for example, I’m recording next month with the Good, the Bad & the Queen, and that’s a completely acoustic thing. There are some keyboards, but it’s more like piano and a Hammond organ. Whereas Gorillaz is, and especially this time around, it’s just completely electronic—there’s no acoustic instruments at all. That in a way sets the parameters that define something, and also lyrically as well. The Good, the Bad & the Queen is a very different set of imagery I’m trying to create to. Gorillaz is a very different world, you know?
There was a bit of a rift between you and Jamie Hewlett a while back. What brought you back together?
We worked together almost continuously for almost 10 years, and we needed a bit of a break. No big deal.
I feel like you guys took a huge risk with Gorillaz, mashing all these different genres together and then saying, “Fuck it, let’s just be an animated band”—and it worked. Did you think it would become this big?
If I stopped and thought, “Does this make any sense?” it probably wouldn’t. I never really worry about that. I just let it go wherever it goes.
It’s very anarchic, really. All the sum of its parts make up something unique, but if you took any individual bit, you’d go, “Oh, well, that just doesn’t make any sense.” I’m just hoping no one expects it to make sense.
I think that’s the beauty of it.
I hope so. That’s a modern thing anyway—nothing feels like it makes sense anymore.
On the production end, what separates the Humanz live show from previous Gorillaz tours?
I’ve really gone for funk this time. I’m heading toward Earth, Wind & Fire; that’s my ultimate destination.
This is the first time Gorillaz will perform here. Why now?
Well, we were asked. I don’t think we’ve been asked before.
Are you looking forward to playing the festival?
Yeah, I think our visual light show and animation will fit perfectly into the neon of Las Vegas.
There are several acts on the festival lineup who appear on Humanz—De La Soul, Kali Uchis, Vince Staples, Pusha T. Should we expect them to jump onstage with you?
Absolutely. I’m trying to bring as many people that I can. It’s a ludicrous thing logistically to try and get all these people in the same place all the time. Hopefully the vibe is great and people want to be part of it. It’s not possible for me to buy people’s attendance—they have to want to come. Most of the time that’s the way it goes, but people are busy so you have to accommodate that as well. Because of the way [the show] is set up, we can do things in multiple ways without losing any of its magic.
You’re doing your first-ever 2-D animation live interview (which aired April 20 on YouTube Live). How is that going to work?
People around the world can talk to the characters in real time, and they will be on their screen as 2-D characters moving, reacting. … It’s really, really, really state-of-the art stuff, and it might go terribly wrong.
Are you and Jamie voicing the characters?
No. 2-D and Murdoc. They exist, don’t they?