Damon Albarn talks Gorillaz, the future of the music biz (and Blur)
Gorillaz broke the pop mould as early adopters of featured artists. Now they’re doing it again with their star-studded Song Machine ‘season’ of monthly track ‘episodes’. Music Week catches up with Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett, Eleven Mgmt & Parlophone Records and finds them on a mission to change the way the music biz works…
Damon Albarn left the studio with a spring in his step. He’d been down in Devon during lockdown – spending time at the “valley” he bought for a snip in the 90’s when the first cheque came through – “beavering away” in a converted barn on the new Gorillaz project.
“I don’t really work at night in the studio”, he says. “But one night, we’d been drinking. I came out of the studio and I slipped and banged my head on one of the stone walls. It could have been the end…” He pauses. “Thankfully, it wasn’t”
Instead, Albarn went to bed and awoke early the next morning with a massive bump on his head but also “feeling very bright”. He checked his email, hoping for an update from The Cure’s Robert Smith, with whom he’d been having an encouraging, but thus-far fruitless email back-and-forth over a possible collaboration.
To his delight, Albarn’s inbox contained Smith’s first draft of the song that would become Strange Timez which dropped last week as the most-heralded “episode” yet of Gorillaz’s Song Machine Season One project. As the lyrics note, it was a “strange time to see the light”.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing’, Albarn enthuses. “I was so happy. It’s like vintage Robert Smith, a classic Robert Smith tune. When he comes in with the chorus it’s proper, isn’t it? It just gives you that feeling.”
Albarn has been getting “that feeling” a lot lately. Song Machine Season One was conceived before coronavirus as a way for Albarn to “react to stuff, be agile, make the music totally different from the last thing”, rather than spending six months making an album. As it turns out, he was so prolific he ended up making one anyway; Song Machine Season One – Strange Timez is released via Parlophone on October 23, with additional non-episode tracks and a new running order.
“It sounds fucking unbelievable” he grins. “It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever made. It’s really strong because every tune has that single intention to it. To make an album of singles is such a rigorous pursuit you don’t normally do it – but accidentally, we have.”
So songs were written and recorded as and when inspiration struck and collaborators became available, and then released every six-to-eight weeks. When lockdown kicked in, Albarn ploughed on, recording with Hewlett, third member Remi Kabaka Jr and collaborators on Zoom and allowing the “new normal” to seep into the music and lyrics.
And what music it is. Even by Gorillaz A-List standards, Song Machine’s featured artist are next level: from Beck (the lithe funk of The Valley of the Pagans) to 80’s legend Lee John of Imagination (the dreamy The Lost Chord); from Slowthai and Slaves to St Vincent; and from Kano and Roxani to Sir Elton John (delirious ballad The Pink Phantom) all combine to create a genre-hopping, pick-and-mix delight.
“It’s the multi-cultural, non-ageist, gender-fluid thing that makes Gorillaz such and interesting proposition,” says Albarn today, fiddling with his sleeve at his 13 studio in West London, having requested a socially distanced, in-person meeting rather than a Zoom call. “I like having people who are really old and people who are really young all working together, because there can be this wall between them.”
“Everyone’s a pathological collaborator these days. Now, that’s how people work – everyone jumps off each other’s figures and gains traction through that. That’s just the way it goes. But we work with people because we’re into them. It’s an artistic decision. And that’s why the music has a tendency to become very generic very quickly, because they’re all just trying to be more popular. Which is really not a reason to be making music at all…”
Albarn, of course, is popular enough for Blur to have been the biggest band in the country. By now, he oscillates between a variety of critically-acclaimed projects, constantly working on either Gorillaz, TGTBTQ, Africa Express, his solo career, opera work or Lord alone knows what else.
His lockdown, as you might expect, has not been wasted. “It taught me to allow a bit of space around stuff”, although he also enjoyed hours of listening to his massive CD collection, having found an old stereo system and set it up outside his barn studio. Albarn does not subscribe to any streaming service (“I wouldn’t know how to do anything like that!” he chortles) but Gorillaz are anything but Luddites. Long at the cutting edge of technology with their live holograms, 3D videos and AR apps, their streaming and social media stats far outstrip most artists from Albarn’s generation.
And Song Machine is accelerating that trend. Gorillaz were a powerhouse in the sales era (their 2001 self-titled debut has sold 1 millon copies, according to the Official Charts Company, while follow-up Demon Days has moved 1.883.437) and now Song Machine is looking to do the same in streams.
According to Parlophone senior marketing manager Ben Skerritt, the band has added over 700k new Spotify followers since the campaign started (for a total of over 5.8m). There are also 500k new instagram followers (total 2.6m) and after a series of successful video premieres almost 1m new Youtube subscribers (total 6.8m). There have been over 100m streams across all platforms of Song Machine material so far.
“If you look at the data you see the Gorillaz fanbase in every metric of consumption has gone up” says Skarritt. “It’s a revolutionary way of releasing music and hopefully it can become a blueprint for how people can release a lot of music, but make it feel exciting every single time”.
“Song Machine was a streaming drive” says Niamh Byrne, co-manager of Gorillaz et Eleven Mgmt with Régine Moylett. “With each track getting dropped regularly with no advance warning, the tactic required fans to subscribe and follow the various platforms to catch each release. This then fed the word of mouth and social media buzz around each drop, which created our own promotional engine. The downside could have been that by the third or fourth drop interest may have waned, but it’s had the opposite effect and each track drop has exponentially increased the numbers. Gorillaz is a gift, all we need to do is to put it in front of the right people”.
And, as attention shift to the LP, no one is more aware of that than Albarn. He launched the last Gorillaz album, 2017’s Humanz (128.576 sales) with a star-studded concert at London’s Printworks, something he won’t be able to do in the flesh this time. Instead, the band will debut Song Machine Live, a unique mixture of animated visuals and live performance, on LiveNow on December 12/13 across three different timezones.
Perhaps more significant is how Song Machine might change the music biz, moving away from the traditional album cycle to a more Netflix-inspired-binge-streaming model (appropriately enough, Gorillaz also have their own film in the works. Like Albarn’s accident in Devon, it might just be the bang on the head the industry needs to see the world differently. Time, then, to sit down and talk Brexit, Blur and the coronavirus pandemic….
What made you want to work in this new way?
“I’d just had enough of having to finish a whole body of work and wait for six fucking months. I wanted to just do a tune a month and put it out. It hasn’t worked quite like that because of Jamie having to do so much. Animation just takes a long time, it’s impossible to do it any quicker.”
In a way, it turned out to be the perfect method to release music during a global pandemic…
“Yeah, I suppose so – that’s hardly an accolade though, is it? I just wanted to change it up, I didn’t want to be spending six months making an album. I wanted to react to stuff, be agile, make each individual thing totally different from the last thing and not necessarily have to be coherent. But as it’s turned out, we’re going to put it all together, we’ve got a great running order and it sounds fucking unbelievable, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever made. It’s a really strong album because every tune has that single intention to it. To make an album of all singles is such a rigorous pursuit you don’t normally do it – but accidentally, we’ve done that.”
Did you realise you were creating a potential new business model?
“It was an opportunity to be more fluid, be able to change track, sidestep, do anything that you want to do and not get bogged down with one trope. React, evolve, react, evolve. And I suppose that now seems to be a good model! I’ve really enjoyed listening to the Song Machine album, it’s like listening to an entirely different entity. I’d just been concentrating on each episode so to hear it like that was a joy. But it also exists in these episodes, so it’s not tied to that, and every song will have been listened to a lot by the time the album comes out, so it doesn’t matter. That’s for people who like that and the other way is for people who like that.”
So will there be a Song Machine Season Two?
“Yeah. The first season is going well so there’ll probably be demand for a season two. And the lovely thing about it is, you don’t have to wait until it’s all finished to start rolling it out.”
So it could go on forever, like a TV show?
“Basically, yeah, that’s the idea. And the thing is, we can work with anyone. Maybe we’ll do a season where it’s just completely unknown people because I’d love that. In multiple languages, all over the world. It would be nice to distill all that into a Gorillaz project; obscure folk artists, somebody in Paraguay or Iceland, someone in South Korea… North Korea even. I don’t know how that would go down but hey, anything is possible now.”
Hoy do you feel about record labels in the modern age?
“Apparently they exist – but you wouldn’t know (laughs). No, there are people I keep in contact with but, back in the 90’s, I used to think nothing of rolling up to see (EMI boss) Tony Wadsworth, having a cup of tea and talking about stuff. And you remember the days of lunches… (laughs) We lived in a golden age, we really did. If you think about the freedom we were afforded pre-social media, it’s just a different world.”
Has the label suggested potential collaborators in the past?
“Oh yeah. But every time they’ve tried to do it, it’s been a fucking disaster, so I don’t listen anymore. We did allow a little bit of that around Humanz, because I’ve always been eager to please. But it doesn’t really pay off, and no one thanks you when their ideas don’t work (laughs).”
Do the younger artist you work with see you as a mentor?
“Once someone’s in, they’re in for as long as they want. We help each other so yeah, I suppose. It sounds very grown up, so I’m reluctant to see myself that way, but if you can’t give something back, what’s the point?”
Did, say, Slowthai ask you for advice about getting into trouble at the NME awards?
“We did talk after that. Listen, I know what it’s like to get drunk at awards. Thankfully a lot of my most drunk moments were pre-Youtube or social media.”
Gorillaz have a younger fanbase than, say, Blur…
“I don’t think we aim or cater for them, they just come. It’s not because of my music, is it? Well, maybe it’s the combination. At gigs, there’s a hell of a lot of parents with young kids on their shoulders. It’s mad. Gorillaz can go on forever. I can be as old as Rupert Murdoch, like a little Rumpelstiltskin and it doesn’t matter, 2D’s a magnificent avatar.”
It helps with the streaming figures as well…
“I’m glad that I still exist in the modern world. I don’t really follow all that but that’s great. One of my biggest faults when I was younger was expressing my insecurity through ambition like, ‘I’m not doing as well as they’re doing’, all that nonsense you hopefully mature and grow out of. I’m now blissfully disconnected from anything like that. So when someone says, ‘You’ve got X amount of streams’, I’m like ‘Oh great’. I don’t go ‘Woooohooooh! I’m amazing!”
How do you feel about live music being on hiatus?
“It feels like we’re right at the end of the queue. And yet everyone’s allowed to go to the pub and get fucked up. I’ts insane and makes no sense. The money allocated for grassroots music venues is a disgrace. For a lot of people who are determined that music is their path in life, that dream can be destroyed if you don’t keep that flame alive. As soon as people give it a rest, it’s very hard to revive that flame. You lose culture. It’s not worth it. Football, pubs, it seems they can placate the masses. If they’ve got those tow going, then the rest of it doesn’t really matter. It’s a long time ago but I remember the venues in Colchester – the Affair Club, the Andromeda, the Arts Centre – that’s where you get your break. It’s hard enough for people who play instruments anyway, there’s just not a great commercial appetite for that anymore, but this could fucking kill it.”
How are you feeling about the state of the world?
“Brexit is absolutely nonsensical. When you’ve got people like Michael Gove running shit, we’re going to keep on in that direction. Has this not taught us how we should be working together? We’re becoming more isolated. It doesn’t make any sense, I’m really sad what’s happened in this country. I love my country but I don’t love its image of itself. It’s very… cracked.”
How did it get from Britpop to here?
“I was never singing about a renaissance. From Modern Life onwards I was singing a heartfelt expression of my horror at how we were trying to mimic American culture. In Starshaped, there’s a scene where we stop at a services and go through all the fast food – it’s always been on my mind and suddenly we’re the most obese country in Europe. We’ve literally forcefed our psyches with rubbish TV, rubbish food… Modern life is clearly rubbish.”
Is modern music rubbish as well?
“There’s some bad but there’s always good music. I believe the spirit of music will rise, Phoenix-like.”
And how about Blur – have we heard the last of them?
“I really hope not. I love doing those gigs, they’re great, but it’s not something I need to do. I only do it because there’s a joy in doing it. It’s an absolute treat. I can’t wait to sing Parklife again.”
How do you feel about 25 years of Blur vs Oasis?
“There’s still a strange fascination with that brief period, and it was very brief really, when there was all that energy around the two bands. But, in reality, they kicked our arses. I came to terms with that as soon as we realised that they had. And that was fine. I just got on with my own stuff.”
Was it ultimately a good thing, then?
“Maybe. I won the battle, lost the war… and then enjoyed the peace.”
TALK OF THE ‘TOON
Jamie Hewlett is the creative mastermind behind Gorillaz cartoon personas, but he’s also integral to how the band works. He talks to Music Week…
Jamie Hewlett might be the artistic genius behind Gorillaz’s unique visual appeal, but that didn’t stop Lou Reed telling him to fuck off.
“Lou came to the studio and the first thing he said was ‘Who the fuck is he?’ and pointed at me”, laughs Hewlett as he remembers the sessions for 2010’s Plastic Beach. “‘He’s got to leave, get the fuck out'”. So Hewlett and Remi Kabaka left, laughting about Albarn having to cope with “grumpy Lou Reed”.
“But when we came back, they were getting on like a house on fire and they’d made most of the song.” says Hewlett. “That’s Damon’s strength, he just thinks about the song and how to make it work with that person, that’s why the collaborations work”.
Thankfully, the Song Machine cast were rather more affordable, even Elton John, a man known to throw the odd tantrum, graciously agreed to become the first ever featured artist to be animated by Hewlett.
Albarn describes Hewlett’s Pink Phantom inspired portrayal of John as being “as naughty as you can get without actually being naughty”, while Hewlett himself pays tribute to the Rocket Man as “the easiest person to work with”.
“The old pros are always good to work with” he shrugs. “The younger musicians do the music with Damon and then get put onto me like ‘Now you’ve got to work with Jamie’. Most of them are like ‘Who the fuck is Jamie’?”
Despite this self deprecation, Albarn praises Hewlett. “He is a significant artist. He’s very modest, but he should get more credit. There’s no one else who draws like that”.
Song Machine has been intense for Hewlett, with reduced video budgets and lockdown meaning he’s doing almost everything himself. “We are lucky we can still do this. It feels different and fresh and there’s always the element of danger. There’s no safety net.”
On top of the videos, artwork and podcasts, Hewlett has also put together the 220 page Gorillaz Almanac, out in October. It’s been another welcome distraction from “the most uncertain year” of Hewlett’s life.
“It’s not just the pandemic, everything that’s happened this year has been unbelievable. What I’m reading, what I’m seeing is really depressing. If I’d put this year in a comic book, people would have said ‘you’re fucking joking'”.