Sixteen years ago, when Blur frontman Damon Albarn launched the animated band Gorillaz with illustrator Jamie Hewlett and a rotating cast of crazy characters, their debut single “Clint Eastwood” may have become a worldwide smash — but the entire project still seemed like a lark. The Internet was relatively new, and social media and smartphones had yet to take over our lives, so the sort of “virtual reality” that Gorillaz offered was difficult to grasp. Little did anyone know, when Albarn and Hewlett visited Yahoo Music to promote what would turn out to be the first in a line of five groundbreaking, full-length Gorillaz albums, that their little cartoon side-project would basically predict the future.
“Kids are gonna be not only making music on computers, but they’re gonna be creating amazing sorts of crazy images to go with that,” Albarn said at the time. “And that will eventually mutate into a whole new kind of band, and hopefully a whole new form of entertainment.”
“People won’t go to concerts anymore. They’ll just spend their days glued to their computer screens,” Hewlett added, years before everyone would be live-streaming Coachella at home, watching fan-captured concert clips on Instagram, or racking up milions of views for YouTube stars’ amateur bedroom performances.
What follows is Yahoo Music’s March 2001 Gorillaz interview, when Murdoc, Russel, 2D, and Noodle were but two-dimensional glimmers in Albarn and Hewlett’s obviously all-seeing eyes. Gorillaz’ first album in six years, Humanz, comes out this week.
On their flat, two-dimensional surface, Gorillaz may seem like a new-millennium incarnation of the Chipmunks, the Archies, or Josie & The Pussycats. But Gorillaz are hardly the warm ‘n’ fuzzy kiddy characters of Walt Disney or Hanna & Barbera’s celluloid dreams. See, unlike Jessica Rabbit, they really are bad — they’re not just drawn that way.
First, there’s sociopathic scumbag band leader Murdoc, “a nasty piece of work” with green skin and even greener teeth who “really stinks.” Then there’s mop-topped, vacant-eyed frontman 2D, “a pretty-boy singer suffering with severe brain damage,” and guitarist Noodle, “a 10-year-old, very enigmatic Japanese girl” who ingeniously Fed-Exed herself to her band audition. Finally, rounding out the lineup is drummer/MC Russel, an American gangsta who, due to an Exorcist-style demonic possession he suffered as a child, is blessed/cursed with special powers that enable him to summon up the spirits of dead musicians (and of living ones, too, including Del Tha Funkee Homosapien).
Suffice it to say, don’t expect a Saturday-morning TV show, set of action figures, or limited-edition series of collectible 7-11 Big Gulp cups from the Gorillaz any time soon.
And don’t expect an in-person Gorillaz interview, either. Unfortunately, none of the reclusive band members are here with Yahoo Music today. But their seemingly rude no-show isn’t their fault, really: The technology needed for them to travel from their storyboarded world to ours simply hasn’t been invented yet.
“They arrived [onto the music scene] before the technology became there for them,” explains one of the virtual group’s spokesmen and mysterious collaborators, Damon Albarn of Blur, who is here with Gorillaz’ other flesh-and-blood ambassador, Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, to speak on the animated band’s behalf. “They should be here instead of us, so we’re just here to fill that gap until they can.”
“You know, the technology to do what we wanna do doesn’t exist, so we’re sort of having to make it up as we go along. But we want to get the message across that we’re Gorillaz’ human representatives for now,” Hewlett stresses. “And then later on, they’ll appear themselves. Hopefully.”
So the Gorillaz — especially Murdoc, a self-declared Satanist (“more of a paganist, I would say,” corrects Hewlett) and star-tripping, swelled-headed control freak who once purportedly drove Albarn to file a restraining order — don’t mind having some comic strip artist and a Britpop icon speak for them in press interviews? “Actually, they hate it!” Hewlett laughs. Albarn just shrugs. “Yeah, they’re not that pleased about it,” he adds. “But they don’t have much choice at the moment.”
Albarn and Hewlett, who allegedly “discovered” the fledgling band in London’s Leicester Square, discuss the music and mythology of Gorillaz with such reverence — and with such straight faces — that it’s surprisingly easy to forget that this is just a cartoon band, a novelty act, a cheeky side-project. Or is it? “It’s not just a gimmicky cartoon. They’re as real as any other band,” Albarn argues emphatically. “In a way, this is more honest, really, because celebrities and pop stars have to lie all the time about their private lives.”
“Gorillaz are bred to be pop stars. That’s their job. They’re on this planet to be pop stars and not have a personal life, basically,” explains Hewlett. “They’re dedicated.”
So here’s the official biography of this dedicated young band: Murdoc, the self-appointed Svengali and speed-freak of the group, ran into a lad named Stu-Pot — literally — when he drove his car through the window of the London organ shop where Stu-Pot was employed at the time. Poor Stu subsequently lapsed into a coma, and Murdoc, as community-service punishment for this heinous crime, was sentenced to be the irreversibly brain-damaged boy’s caretaker. Another auto accident took place not much later, when Murdoc — driving recklessly to show off to some girls at Nottingham’s Tesco Carpark, while a comatose Stu-Pot vegetated obliviously in the backseat — slammed into a concrete post, thus sending the hapless Stu flying headfirst through the windshield. This second head-trauma mishap thankfully jostled Stu out of his coma (though to say he ever fully regained control of his faculties would be a gross exaggeration), and Murdoc soon decided it would be really cool to start a new band with his court-appointed young disciple, whom he rechristened with the more flashy stage name “2D.” Later, Murdoc and 2D met Russel while burglarizing the Soho rap record store where he worked. Finally, Noodle mysteriously turned up to answer their “guitarist wanted” ad — looking like the secret ousted fourth Powerpuff Girl as she leapt from her Fed-Ex box, striking a kung-fu pose and brandishing a Les Paul guitar. And, of course, the rest was history: Gorillaz were born. It’s a typical, classic band saga, something straight out of Behind the Music or E! True Hollywood Stories.
OK, so maybe it does seem a wee bit far-fetched, but further fostering Gorillaz’ fiction-as-fact illusion (along with Albarn and Hewlett’s unflappable, unflinching earnestness) is the current state of pop music: After all, Hewlett is quick to point out that today’s over-the-top pop stars are “sort of like cartoon characters anyway,” and then there’s the glut of manufactured teen bands that are so one-dimensional, they make the two-dimensional Gorillaz seem as credible as the Beatles (or at least the Rutles). So, are Gorillaz a reaction against, or a social statement about, this prevailing prefabness in pop?
“There’s a lot of manufactured bands, and they’re all manufactured very poorly. We just thought, if you’re going to manufacture something, why not do it properly?” Hewlett reasons.
“It would be a lot easier to do things in a more conventional way, but we’re trying to change something about the popular culture we live in, because we’re not happy with it,” says Albarn, launching into a recitation of the Gorillaz Manifesto. “We think it’s got some sinister aspects to it which are conditioning people in a really negative way. And that’s what we’re doing this for.”
Sinister aspects? What unspeakable evils have these cartoon superfriends come to rescue the “pop”-ulation from, exactly? “The lack of intelligence and the sort of dumbness that’s encouraged,” gripes Albarn. “When pop music becomes generic — in whatever form, whether it’s hip-hop, heavy metal, or just straightahead pop — it starts to dumb down, and it just loses any soul. It doesn’t really give a worldview.”
Gorillaz’ music is nothing if not worldly. Encompassing the aforementioned hip-hop, metal, and pop along with punk, funk, trip-hop, hot-buttered soul, rump-shakin’ disco, Beasties/Beck-style indie-rock, U.K. garage, U.S. electro, Jamaican dub and reggae, and saucy Latin rhythms, Gorillaz have come up with a phat, phunky-phresh, old-school-meets-new-school sound that they’ve imaginatively termed “zombie hip-hop.”
Of course, much of the international flava of Gorillaz’ self-titled debut can be credited to their many collaborators, including Ibrahim Ferrer of the Cuban combo Buena Vista Social Club, Miho Hatori (Noodle’s alter ego) from the East-meets-West duo Cibo Matto, West Coast rapmaster Del Tha Funkee Homosapien (channeled telepathically by Russel), Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth from the Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club, Canadian turntablist Kid Koala, Jamaican dub legend Junior Dan, and Deltron 3030/Dr. Octagon/Jon Spencer producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura.
With such a stellar supergroup assembled for their first album, Gorillaz will certainly have a hard time topping themselves when it comes time to re-enter the studio (yes, contrary to popular belief, Gorillaz is not a one-off, so get ready for a sequel). But the crafty band members are already full of ideas: Murdoc has repeatedly expressed interest in working with his idol, Sir Ozzy Osbourne, and of course, Russel’s psychic ability to break on through to the other side could lead to countless collaborative possibilities. “You never know what is gonna pop out of Russel’s head, so that’s a bit unnerving,” Albarn remarks wryly.
“Russel can house the spirits of dead singers, so we’re hoping that we might be able to work with Tupac, Elvis, Frank Sinatra… whoever,” Hewlett adds excitedly.
In the meantime, collaborating with his animated protégés has reanimated Albarn’s own career and creativity. “I’ve never had so much fun in my life, just being able to work with whoever I want to, whoever really inspires me,” he marvels. “Now I can, because there’s no actual commitment except for making music. This is a way of remaining underground and simultaneously being mainstream.”
If Gorillaz continue to wage pop-culture warfare as aggressively as they have been thus far (their album’s been a fixture in the U.K. top 10 for three months now, and in the U.S., it’s already charted higher than any previous album by Albarn’s “real band,” Blur), they’ll no doubt soon infiltrate the mainstream completely, paving the way for all sorts of groundbreaking virtual bands. At least, that’s what Albarn hopes/predicts: “I think in a few years’ time this will be the norm, so we just tried to set a blueprint that was of sufficient quality,” he declares. “Kids are gonna be not only making music on computers, but they’re gonna be creating amazing sorts of crazy images to go with that. And that will eventually mutate into a whole new kind of band, and hopefully, a whole new form of entertainment.”
“People won’t go to concerts anymore. They’ll just spend their days glued to their computer screens,” Hewlett prophesies.
However, these days, people are still going to concerts, so Albarn and Hewlett figured Gorillaz should deliver their music to masses via a proper live gig. And so, on one surreal night in March 2001, the Gorillaz came to life at London’s Scala nightclub. Actually, Murdoc, 2D, Russel, and Noodle were larger than life, their Technicolor likenesses towering above the confounded capacity crowd on a 50-foot monitor while anonymous musicians played behind the video screen, shielded from view.
“Actually, I’d like to think that the audience is actually behind the screen,” postulates Albarn. “It’s all reversed. You don’t see a band, although they are there. Because you can’t see the musicians, you don’t know who is there — no one knew Ibrahim Ferrer was there, or whether I was there. There was a sense of mystery about it.”
Amazingly, the majority of the Scala audience seemed to readily accept the fact that Albarn and his famous co-conspirators planned on concealing their superstar identities for the duration of the evening. “There were a few people who kept shouting, ‘Show yourself!’“ admits Hewlett. “But most people bought into it.” Somehow, Gorillaz made the impossible possible, further blurring (no pun intended) the line between the second and third dimensions, and somehow, it all worked.
In fact, so far, most everything Gorillaz have done has worked, in wondrous ways that non-believers in the three-dimensional world could have never predicted. “If it keeps going this way, hopefully in a year’s time we can do concerts and have four characters onstage and some guy sitting up on the roof with a big deck of buttons twiddling things,” Hewlett contemplates ambitiously. “The fact that it’s working means now we have to push it farther and farther. We sold nearly a million singles in Britain alone, and in Europe, it’s on the top of the charts everywhere. So without boasting, it’s working so far.”
He then adds incredulously, “I mean, we had little 12-year-old kids jumping around the playground to Gorillaz and getting into dub and reggae… as opposed to Westlife and Britney Spears!”
Speaking of kids, what about Albarn’s daughter? Does she favor Gorillaz over the teenybop Britney brigade as well? Well, she certainly perks up whenever she catches sight of her favorite new cartoon character: Says Damon with a smirk, “Whenever she sees 2D, she thinks it’s me.”