For all the official guest stars that Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn corralled for the group's fifth album, Humanz -- Pusha T, Vince Staples, Kelela and Danny Brown among them -- the most riveting cameo is unlisted: Noel Gallagher, former co-lead of Oasis, bitter '90s rival of Albarn's other band, Blur. Twenty years ago, Albarn and Gallagher were trading potshots as Britpop kings; in 1995, Gallagher famously wished Albarn would "catch AIDS and die." But in 2017, both are pushing 50 and uniting on "We Got the Power," on which Gallagher sings backing vocals. "We've got the power to be loving each other," they declare, "no matter what happens."
It's a startling listen, a duet that would've been unthinkable when Albarn emerged as a Cool Britannia pinup 25 years ago. "I thought [Humanz] would be well counterbalanced with my arch enemy from the '90s," says Albarn with a chuckle while sitting in his room at The Greenwich Hotel in New York. Has the 49-year-old mellowed out? Or is he uniting against a common evil: the rise of Brexit, President Donald Trump and Western populism? He stops short of describing the song, which also features Savages singer Jehnny Beth, as political, but says there's "activism" in its message. "Whenever you get a big crowd here -- Europe, wherever -- it'll mean something, in that moment," he says. "That one's going to be big."
For nearly two decades, the cartoon band has transcended its side-project roots, under the guidance of Albarn and musician/visual artist Jamie Hewlett, with a series of acclaimed LPs that incorporate hip-hop, holograms and high-concept rollouts. The band has risen to the same level of critical and commercial esteem as Blur; both acts have headlined Coachella and had offbeat singles stumble into U.S. radio success ("Song 2" for Blur in 1997; "Feel Good Inc." for Gorillaz in 2005).
For Albarn, who has kept both groups running concurrently since Blur reunited in 2009, Gorillaz's animated presentation has allowed the group to come and go without aging (literally) or being tethered to one era. Yet Humanz (due Apr. 27 on Parlaphone/Warner Bros.) marks a return to the end-time themes that were front-and-center on 2005's Demon Days, which Hewlett says was inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks. Albarn warned the world against Donald Trump rising to the Oval Office as far back as the fall of 2015, when he would add a "Don't fall for Donald Trump / He's such a chump" sing-along to Blur's live performances of "Tender." And indeed, the singer-songwriter says Humanz was inspired in large part by imagining, "What would happen if the world was turned, in some unthinkable way, on its head?" -- a reality borne out by the 2016 presidential election.
"Trump's ascension was one of the sources of energy that we meditated on, when it was like, 'Ahh, that's ridiculous, that could never happen,'" he explains. Humanz is not a conventional protest album against the American president as much as a party record for the apocalypse that his reign might ultimately lead to; "The sky's falling, baby, drop that ass before it crash," Vince Staples proclaims on "Ascension," which has peaked at No. 11 on the Rock Songs chart. The election was a clear catalyst for those overtones, although Albarn made sure that the lyrics to Humanz don't give the president any specific credit.
"There's no references to [Trump] on the record -- in fact, any time when anyone made any reference, I edited it out," he says. "I don't want to give the most famous man on earth any more fame, particularly. He doesn't need it!"
Hewlett says that the group's return with their first LP in seven years -- since they released Plastic Beach and The Fall in quick succession in 2010 -- was not the product of grand design, so much as bar talk between the Gorillaz godfathers back in 2014, after Albarn had just played a show in support of his solo album, Everyday Robots. "We went to some party," says Hewlett, "and in a drunken conversation, he said, 'Do you want to do more Gorillaz?' And I said 'Yeah, do you?' And he said 'Yeah.' And I said 'Right, then.' That was the end of the conversation."
The guest list of Humanz was partly directed by the fandom of Albarn's own 17-year-old daughter, Missy, who loves artists like Vince Staples and Danny Brown. "Some of the decisions for this record were fueled by wanting to impress her still," Albarn confesses. D.R.A.M., the hip-hop hybrid artist best known for his Hot 100 top 10 hit "Broccoli," says he didn't flinch when the group invited him to London to work on a few tracks, including the groovy standout "Andromeda." "I'm just really thankful that Damon and the squad f--k with me like that," he says, offering his theory about how Gorillaz has stayed relevant for so long. "Authenticity, you feel me? I think you can never lose the cool. Once you have it, you can never lose it."
The group will show off their new album at the upcoming Demon Days festival, a single-day Gorillaz extravaganza at the Dreamland Margate amusement park in Kent, England on June 10. Albarn says the festival will include all of the album's collaborators playing their own sets as well as guesting with Gorillaz, with some additional yet-to-be-announced artists also expected. "If it works well, then in 20 years' time, there might be a completely holographic Glastonbury," he says.
He's only half-kidding -- Albarn is hoping that he might have himself replaced by his cartoon proxy for Gorillaz live dates someday. "They're not quite there yet -- still!" he quips in mock outrage over the band's technology having yet to catch up to his ambitions. "I can't f--king believe it. I literally thought 'This time around, it'll be all holographic.' But I'm waiting for that moment."
In fact, it's one of Albarn's great wishes to eventually relinquish Gorillaz altogether. "It's something that I would like to do ... when I can no longer contribute," he says. "I can pass it on to the next generation."
According to Hewlett, the technology that Albarn fantasizes about may not be long from becoming a reality. "I think if there's another Gorillaz album, we likely are going to pull animated characters on stage, and [have them] jumping into the audience, and crowd-surfing, and doing whatever the f--k they need to do," Hewlett rhapsodizes. "That would be a lovely way to leave it -- the characters take over. And then they don't need us."
17 Years of Dark, Twisted Cartoons
Jamie Hewlett, who typically draws "a thousand pieces of art" for each Gorillaz campaign, describes the changing world he has created for his characters.
Gorillaz -- 2001
The group's first designs, which followed Hewlett's work on the Tank Girl comics, were inspired by hip-hop and zombie movies. "They were looking at the darker side of life with a sense of humor," he says.
Demon Days -- 2005
A grittier Gorillaz look was a response to real-world events like the 9/11 attacks, says Hewlett. The video for "Feel Good Inc." features the group trapped in a tower, longing for escape.
Plastic Beach -- 2010
Instead of expanding the band's cartoon universe, Hewlett began "taking stills of the real world and putting them into that." The result is lush album art (below) and more textured video treatments.
Humanz -- 2017
Hewlett, who has been stockpiling art since 2014, relied on digital animation to capture an unsteady moment for humanity. "Are we awake, or programmed?" he asks. "That's the main question on Humanz."
This article originally appeared in the April 29 issue of Billboard.