Jamie Hewlett is sitting at his desk in a basement studio in west London trying to define his job title. “Ummm … artist? Yeah. I’m an artist,” he says.
Hewlett is one half of Gorillaz, the virtual “zombie hip-hop” pop group he formed with Blur frontman Damon Albarn in 1999 and which has sold over six million records worldwide.
With Albarn writing the music, Hewlett created the band’s four cartoon characters: vacant frontman 2D; bandleader and bassist Murdoc Nicalls; African-American drummer Russel Hobbs and ten-year-old Japanese guitarist Noodle. He also oversees all the Gorillaz’s visuals, including promo videos and DVDs, merchandising, the high-tech “live” gigs and the gorillaz.com website.
Hewlett was a widely respected cartoon artist before Gorillaz, having created the seminal Tank Girl strip, which was turned into a Hollywood movie when he was just 23. But the success of Gorillaz has taken him to another, slightly surreal, level: he is part of a globally famous rock group, yet he shuns the limelight and is happiest scribbling painstakingly at his desk at Zombie Flesh Eaters, the Shepherds Bush studio he set up to handle the Gorillaz work.
Gorillaz’s second album, Demon Days, has also led to Hewlett being shortlisted for the Design Museum’s £25,000 Designer of the Year award (along with Tom Dixon, Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity and the Guardian’s art team). The winner of which will be announced on 22 May.
“I don’t know why I’ve been nominated for Designer of the Year,” he says. “It’s very flattering, but I don’t quite understand it.”
With his geek-chic hair, Hoxtonish gait and Brit-hop clothing, Hewlett looks like someone who might hang out with the Gorillaz characters, were they to visit the real world. His thin, wide, cheeky grin recalls that of Gorillaz’s 2D, yet he is softly spoken and modest. He smokes roll-ups with black licorice papers.
The Zombie studio is more like a rock star’s green room than a cartoonist’s workplace: dub reggae plays on the sound system and the fluorescent lights are covered in red gels. A low sofa faces a giant TV screen, while the coffee table is scattered with Xbox controllers. Shelves are stacked with dozens of MTV awards, a knight’s helmet, Pokemon characters and a boxed set of Monty Python videos, amongst other curiosities.
Hewlett’s desk appears to be the only one in the studio without a computer. Instead, it is scattered with drawings, pens and pencils. “I draw everything on paper,” he says (the drawing he did for this month’s cover took him two days) . “I would never use programmes like Illustrator or draw on the computer. Everything is sketched out and drawn up. I’ve only learnt to use Photoshop in the last couple of years. I actually don’t really like computers, but the great thing about working with Photoshop is that if you colour something it comes out like it looks on screen. I’ve spent years painting stuff, and it never comes out the way you want it.”
Hewlett, 37, was brought up in Horsham in West Sussex, England, and began his career drawing Star Wars characters. “My dad was a really great artist, but his parents told him that he’d never make anything out of it, so he ended up working in their butchers shop instead. I guess I got a natural ability to draw through him. But the thing that really started me drawing was going to see Star Wars when I was a little kid. I used to draw pictures of Chewbacca and Han Solo, and do my own little comics, and that’s how it started.”
His influences include cartoonists such as Ronald Searle, comic artists like Mike McMahon, who illustrated Judge Dredd, and animators, notably legendary Warner Bros animation director Chuck Jones.
Hewlett has enormous respect for the cartoonist’s art, which he says is underrated: “Their ability to draw, and the amount of stuff they produce … I mean if you’re a comic artist you have to churn it out. These guys will do like ten pages a week, and each page will have up to eight separate panels, and each panel would be a wonderful drawing. And then you look at a fine artist who might put on a show once a year and produce 20 paintings … I think some of the best artists around work in comics. The animation world as well – I was always a big Chuck Jones fan. That animation is unbelievable, but he was taken seriously because he won an Oscar.”
Hewlett produced his own fanzines while at art school in Worthing. Shortly after leaving college, Hewlett and friend Alan Martin were invited to contribute to Deadline – a magazine containing comic strips and music and culture journalism, which launched in 1988. The Deadline team asked for a strip with a female lead character and the result was Tank Girl – an anarchic strip featuring a feisty, gun-slinging teenage punk who drove around in a tank with her mutant kangaroo boyfriend.
“[Tank Girl] was loosely based on a group of girls I used to go to college with who were unruly and sexy, and kind of bad, which inspired me,” Hewlett explains. “That was a good first thing to do really, but that just became an exercise in seeing how far we could go, seeing how many people we could upset in each episode.”
The strip was a huge cult success and proved highly influential – Lara Croft could not have existed without Tank Girl – and established Hewlett’s style, which combines the counterculture subject matter of American underground comics with the narrative action of superhero strips, along with Mad Max-style vehicles and plenty of zombies, monsters and other assorted freaks.
Tank Girl was turned into a $40 million movie starring Lori Petty in 1995 and Hewlett appeared to be set for the big time. “Can you imagine a 23 year old being flown to Hollywood and picked up in limos?” he laughs. “I mean, they lay all that shit on.”
The movie, however, was a massive flop, grossing just $10 million. “The script was lousy – me and Alan Martin kept rewriting it and putting Grange Hill jokes and Benny Hill jokes in, and they obviously weren’t getting it. They forgot to film about ten major scenes so we had to animate them … it was a horrible experience. I think I spent two years afterwards not doing much, doing stuff for Just 17 magazine, and I disappeared.”
In 1999 Hewlett found himself sharing a flat in London with Damon Albarn after they had both split up with their girlfriends (Jane Olliver and Justine Frischman, both from Britpop band Elastica). The two dreamed up the idea of a virtual band and Gorillaz was born.
As with Tank Girl, the Gorillaz characters are based on Hewlett’s circle of friends and contain numerous in-jokes. Hewlett sees the band as real people rather than simply drawings: “I believe in them. They’re basically us, so a lot of things that we do end up becoming things that the characters do. Damon is Murdoc; a lot of the things that Murdoc gets up to, Damon has done at some point. Or the stupid things that 2D says would come from someone we know who’s a bit stupid.” Which one is Hewlett? “A bit of all of them I suppose.”
Besides generating the characters, Hewlett scripts and storyboards the celebrated Gorillaz videos. He works separately from Albarn, who sends Hewlett demo tapes as he produces them, explaining what the songs are about and suggesting a few ideas. Hewlett does the rest. “[Damon] comes up with some really weird stuff. He’ll just say ‘I’m thinking about this … blah blah … put that in there’ and it all tends to fit in. We don’t have to spend any time talking.”
When approaching a new video, Hewlett visualises the action in his head and then draws each scene on paper. These drawings can take an age: “When I start off doing something, I usually see it perfectly in my head, exactly how I want it to be, and then I’ll spend ages trying to get it on paper. I’ll spend the entire day trying to get it right, and it goes wrong, and I’ll have a really nasty strop and go into a bad mood. I might even go to bed.”
He then scans the drawings and sequences them on an editing suite so they fit the music. “There’s a lot of drawings that sort of move in time with the music and with all the cuts and fades. This rough outline is then passed on to Passion Pictures animation director Pete Candeland, who works it up into the polished final promo. “I’ll supply them with drawings for what it all looks like and colour schemes and stuff, and then they get on with it, and I just pop in a couple of times a week, and correct a few drawings.”
These days, Gorillaz has almost completely taken over Hewlett’s work schedule, although in the last couple of years he has also managed to squeeze in some work for Yoko Ono, animating John Lennon’s cartoon doodles. “We went to meet Yoko Ono, which was a bit weird, and she said to us, ‘Just do what John would have done.’ And we were like, how the fuck are we supposed to think like John Lennon? So in the end, we just thought about them in a really stupid way, and they became really stupid bits of animation with stupid sound effects. I think we got Damon in to do some of the sounds, and I thought they came out really well. They were probably as throwaway as the drawings Lennon originally did, doodling down thoughts.”
Hewlett and Candeland are still working on a DVD version of last year’s Demon Days album (“We do everything: the menu, the graphics, the design, the cover and stuff, and all those jobs from a half page ad in the NME to T-shirts”) and there is work to do perfecting the live Gorillaz shows (the New York gigs, which took place the week after icon’s interview, suffered technical difficulties which saw the 3D projections fail, meaning Albarn and fellow “real” musicians had to take centre stage). He’s also working on a 250-page art book which will read as a fake autobiography of the band.
Also in the pipeline is a project Hewlett and Albarn are creating for the Beijing Opera. This non-Gorillaz venture will be a stage version of the story of the Monkey King from the 16th-century Chinese epic, The Journey to the West. “It’s something I’ve never done before. It has lots of acrobats and weird stage designs. I’ve got to design loads of sets for the performance and costumes.Me and Damon spent a few weeks in rural China travelling around in the back of a minibus meeting tribes, which was unbelievable. We wanted to get a flavour. We met old Chinese shadow puppetry companies, which was mindblowing.”
As for Gorillaz, Hewlett would like the next project to be a feature-length animated film rather than another album. Chastened by his experience with Tank Girl, he and Albarn turned down a “big money” offer from Dreamworks recently; this time, Hewlett would prefer to control things himself.
“I’d really like to make an animated film in this country, with English money and English artists and backers and stuff. I was watching the Oscars the other day, and Wallace and Gromit won again and I found it really annoying that the only animation that this country has to offer is fucking Wallace and Gromit.”
It’s the second time in the interview that Hewlett has mentioned the Oscars: as with his hero Chuck Jones before him, an Academy Award would be the ultimate recognition for a lowly cartoon artist.
He adds: “I’d like to direct a whole film, and then have that compete against the next Wallace and Gromit film at the Oscars.” And beat it? “And beat it, yeah. We just don’t have an animated film industry do we? This country did Yellow Submarine, which was a great animated film, and I just wonder why we don’t do it any more. So we’re looking into doing that next, the idea sprung up last week, so we’re trying to find backers and people who’d be interested in getting it off the ground.”