The new Gorillaz album began with the idea of a party, a party for the end of the world.
“When we started making the album, a year and a half ago, we had this idea that we discussed with everybody who came on board: we said, ‘imagine in the future, Donald Trump becomes President of the United States’,” says Jamie Hewlett, the art side of Gorillaz. “At that time it was such an absurd idea. So we were laughing about that and Damon was saying, ‘there’s a huge party, a global party, not to celebrate but to commiserate’. A party to celebrate the end of the world.
“Because this is what we do nowadays – when something bad happens, we just all get fucked,” he continues. “This is how we deal with things. So imagine the party … and imagine the hangover the next day. This was the place that we wanted to start at.”
It’s been seven years since Gorillaz’s last album, but the band’s four cartoon members – Murdoc, 2D, Russel and Noodle – are all looking well. Humanz isn’t released until Friday but we’ve already seen the group pop up in a new music video by Hewlett (which can be viewed as a regular animation, shown above, as well as in a VR format) and an app, created by B-Reel, which uses augmented reality to let users explore the Gorillaz house. On the album’s release day, the app, via a virtual ‘dousing stick’, will guide fans to 500 locations around the world for a ‘worldwide listening experience’.
Clever use of the latest technologies is something we’ve come to expect from Gorillaz, with the band’s animated front allowing ample scope for Hewlett to play with how audiences might interact with them. “There’s no point in doing what we’ve already done,” he says, “there’s no joy in that for us…. It has to evolve, and I guess setting yourself a little bit of a challenge and embracing new technology means you step up a little bit and it advances and becomes something else.”
At the band’s formation, back in 1998, the idea of a virtual band offered freedom: for Hewlett, it presented an opportunity to play at creating the perfect manufactured band, while for Albarn, it was a chance to shake off the shackles of Blur and experiment with other musical styles.
“When we first started, the idea of an animated band was scoffed at by many people,” recalls Hewlett, “especially the music industry. I think a lot of people, when you said animated band, their first impression was maybe a skateboarding dog with a baseball cap….”
For Hewlett and Albarn though, the intention behind the band was earnest. “It was deadly serious, because I felt at the time, when everything was manufactured – there were a lot of manufactured bands, boy bands and girl bands – you’d lost that authenticity of a bunch of people coming together and forming a band,” says Hewlett. “We were always saying to each other, ‘if you’re really going to go to that much effort to manufacture, to get songwriters and stylists, and audition people and find the right look and the right voice, and the right video director, why the fuck can’t they do it properly? Why does it always look so shit, it seems like a no-brainer.’ So that’s why we decided to do Gorillaz.”
The band has inevitably evolved over the years, though the central conceit of being a cartoon band has remained in place, even though, according to Albarn, any real attempt at keeping the band’s true identity secret lasted, “about ten minutes”. “We were first introduced to I think it was Rolling Stone in America and at that point I was the voice of 2D,” he says. “We did the interview as the characters and about 20 minutes in I just thought, ‘you know what, I can’t be fucking arsed with this’.
“I really tried to be completely anonymous about it,” he continues. “We did our whole first tour for the first record behind a screen. But I found that almost impossible – that drove me mad. From having been a frontman to then, performing to a similar crowd, but from behind a screen….”
Despite this, the bluff has worked to some extent, particularly because of Gorillaz’s collaborative approach, which sees multiple artists – from the hippest, newest acts to icons of the music industry – make guest appearances on every album. On Humanz, Benjamin Clementine, De La Soul, Kelela, Danny Brown, Pusha T, Vince Staples, Grace Jones and Mavis Staples all appear, alongside many others.
“It was built on collaboration,” says Albarn. “I mean, I got to meet Mavis Staples and Grace Jones – there are not many bands where you could put those two in the same band. And Noel Gallagher.
“That was how it started. Day one that was what we were gonna do. So now it has it’s own kind of orthodoxy, which is just ‘draw from a very large pool’.” Five albums in, the list of collaborators is so long that it’s almost easier to list those who have turned down involvement (including Dionne Warwick and Morrissey, apparently) than those who’ve come on board.
The collaborative approach and the relative anonymity of Gorillaz has also allowed Albarn scope for more musical experimentation than might have been possible in an ordinary band set up.
“If Blur brought out a hip hop album they’d be shot down,” says Hewlett. “There was total freedom as an artist to do whatever you want. It’s different if you are a draw-er because you can experiment, but musicians, really once they start off down a certain road, people expect that from them and if they try to branch out into other things, people don’t like it. But behind Gorillaz we can do whatever the fuck we want. It’s very liberating.”
The set up also allows access to the elusive youth audience, which may be harder for Albarn to reach without the virtual construct. “This time the kids that are really excited about it are like 18-21,” he says. “I know they wouldn’t want to be called kids, but when you’re nearly 50, they are fucking kids. One of them’s my daughter. She is a fan but a very harsh critic and has been a great curator and harbinger of the truth. She tells me when I’m not being cool. She enjoys telling me that I’m not being cool.
“Most people who like Gorillaz, especially in places like the States, they don’t know who I am at all, they don’t know who’s behind it, which is great,” Albarn continues. “I doubt that I’d have such a big Afro-American audience if they’d known it was me. It’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz isn’t it? Except I’m a little bit taller.”
What is perhaps most unusual about Gorillaz is how Albarn and Hewlett have managed to continue the commitment to the art side of the project throughout the years. All too often, profit margins seem to eat into the visual aspect of a band’s output but here – perhaps because it is so central to Gorillaz’s identity – the art continues to be as important as the music.
“There’s a complete 50–50 divide,” says Hewlett of how the duo work together. “I’m everything visual and he’s everything musical. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t discuss what each other is doing. But I’m not a musician and I have complete faith in Damon’s ability to write songs. And he’s not an artist, and I don’t think he has complete faith in my abilities! No, I think it’s easier for him to get involved because it’s a visual thing. I have my opinion about the music and I stick my nose in here and there but never musically, that would be foolish.”
“I give him [the music] quite early on, before it’s finished,” says Albarn. “I’ve always just given him my earliest demos…. I trust him and he trusts me. I let him get on with what he wants to get on with, and I get on with what I want to – it’s perfect.”
There’s an element of competitiveness to the relationship too, however. “He has his own very individual interpretation of what he thinks I’m on about, and sometimes I don’t think he understands,” says Albarn. “But that’s kind of what makes it work. Because if it was purely my thing…. He’s got a lot more humour. He’s different to me, he’s funny. I’m not saying I’m not funny, but I’m probably a bit more polemical, if I’m left to my own devices, whereas he’s more comic. And that’s a great combination – ’cause somewhere in the middle when we get it right, we really get it right.”
“It’s not like we sit down and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do this time, let’s have a board meeting’,” says Hewlett. “It’s more organic, and it’s also very much attached to what’s happening in the world as well, because you can’t help but be inspired or upset or driven by worldly events…. It eventually starts to take some form and it grows from there. But we never discuss it, it’s almost like a game. It’s almost like we should ‘just know’.”
The Gorillaz artwork doesn’t simply reflect the music either: fans can find detailed information online about what has happened to the various animated band members in the seven years since the last album. While much of the narrative is fantastical, Hewlett admits that some of the tales of 2D, Murdoc et al’s antics over the years are rooted in truth.
“Most of the stories come from things that actually happened,” he says. “To us. But I can’t attach the individual stories to certain people without causing embarrassment. Let’s just say we’ve had some adventures in our time. And Gorillaz is not just me and Damon, it’s a huge family of people who have all been part of it for a very long time and we all hang out and we’re all family in a way, and crazy things happen … and then it goes into the characters of course. The ideas are just all around us all the time so it’s quite easy … Damon’s a great one for giving me story ideas.”
The life of Gorillaz looks set to expand even further this year, with the band hosting a day-long festival, Demon Dayz, at Dreamland in Margate in June, and a world tour following. Hewlett also has plans, funding willing, to bring out a Gorillaz clothing line and to create a TV show based on the band’s characters.
At the risk of sounding lofty, perhaps the greatest benefit of being in a cartoon band is it allows Hewlett and Albarn a kind of immortality – the opportunity to never age and even, potentially in the future, pass the mantle of the band onto someone new.
“We did say maybe there would come a point where we would pass it down,” says Hewlett. “Find the hot new person writing songs and the hot new artist and just go ‘ahhh-aaaa’ and pass it down to them. It’s timeless really. Music and visuals – the two things are made to be together and when they’re put together correctly it’s so strong, it’s so powerful.
“But we’ve still got it,” he continues. “I know the older I get, the better I get at drawing – of course, that’s a natural process. And Damon’s music is always getting better, because you draw from your experiences. It’s not about our faces, it’s not about us, it’s about that. So yes, maybe we’ve created something that can just keep going. But if we don’t do it properly and it’s shit, then it stops.”