Gorillaz: The Side Project That Could
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a decade since the release of the first Gorillaz album, and the unimaginable saturation of the single, “Clint Eastwood.” Back in 2001, the project—a musical and visual collaboration between Blur frontman Damon Albarn and British cartoonist Jamie Hewlett—seemed like a larky one-off between two old friends bent on eviscerating the one’s celebrity. Loads of fun, but not necessarily the kind of classic project one might anticipate would have staying power—or more importantly, record-selling power. Now, 10 years in and two more albums later, Gorillaz has evolved into a multi-media, shape-shifting, arena-filling powerhouse. The cartoon band’s new album, Plastic Beach, is proving to be one of the year’s biggest success stories. Both Albarn and Hewlett seemas happily surprised about this fact as anyone else.
T COLE RACHEL: It’s interesting, I was thinking about where I was in my life when the first Gorillaz record came out. Hard to believe that was a decade ago.
DAMON ALBARN: Ten years. Frightening, isn’t it?
RACHEL: That particular decade passed pretty quickly.
JAMIE HEWLETT: Well it was pre-9/11, that’s what was even weirder about it. It was from a more innocent world.
RACHEL: Yeah, New York feels like a different place now. Did you ever think that ten years on you’d still be doing this project?
ALBARN: No, not at all.
HEWLETT: No, each day as it comes.
RACHEL: It’s hard enough to make a successful record—no matter what kind of music you’re doing–but even harder when it’s so conceptual. Still, each Gorillaz record seems to be bigger than the previous one.
ALBARN: It is tricky, but I mean, that’s why it started off this time around with such a big sweep of ideas. Because I produced it on my own, I had to be brutal with myself. I left off a lot of stuff that I really liked so the album wasn’t too long. It’s difficult. Trying to make a good pop record is really difficult. One that you’re actually proud of and not hating yourself because it’s so cynical.
RACHEL: It’s interesting, so much of what people have responded to this time is that it’s so much more of a pop record.
ALBARN: I thought that it would be my last pop record ever—so there was a chance it would be listened to in that way, you know what I mean? But it’s obviously not. I’m sure there will be others.
HEWLETT: Out of all the songs that you did, I think, is you picked all the most poppy ones.
ALBARN: They aren’t even the most poppy ones that I picked!
HEWLETT: What about that other song, “Globe?”
ALBARN: I could’ve made “Globe” into a club banger.
HEWLETT: Yeah, I suppose. You could still do that though.
RACHEL: Pop music gets such a bad rap.
ALBARN: Yeah, but it shouldn’t. What about that MGMT song? It’s pure pop. I thought, not bad, that delivers something really popular but something that is dealing with something, addressing something.
RACHEL: Pop music doesn’t have to be stupid. There is this idea now that pop music, by its very definition, is always gonna be dumb.
ALBARN: No, pop music used to be amazing, because the audience for it was different. There were only a few radio stations and there won’t so many people making music back then, either. It’s definitely harder to be an interesting pop artist these days–it’s possible, but it’s not a given. There’s so much stuff out there that has no soul whatsoever. That is just smothering. It’s like a sort of fungus, a bacteria. A pop fungus. Grown in an aquarium. If one fish gets it then it all starts to spread, it’s like that.
RACHEL: Thinking back to when this project first started, has the concept of Gorillaz changed radically?
ALBARN: It’s gotten more defined, I think. I think that we set out to do to at the start wasn’t always going to be possible. There were lots of ideas that we hit on along the way, especially playing live. We’ve tried it different ways. Originally we played from behind a screen where you can’t actually see anybody, which seemed to upset a lot of people.
HEWLETT: It’s fun though. For me, Gorillaz has to be fun, playful, and a bit loopy. You have to go, what’s going on? As long as it’s that, than I think it’s Gorillaz.
ALBARN: I’m surprised we didn’t get lynched for that behind-the-screen business. All these people going, “It’s starting, it’s starting,….what?” We had people asking for their money back, like, what the fuck was that? The second time we had big cartoon silhouettes. And this time we’ve got a huge screen…
RACHEL: And a giant band.
ALBARN: This band is so much fun to play in.
HEWLETT: It’s a very fun band filled with people who are basically a bunch of cartoon characters themselves.
RACHEL: Hearing the songs played live with so many people on stage is really interesting. The band, along with the visuals, gives the whole thing a whole new dimension.
ALBARN: It’s different from the record, most definitely…
RACHEL: Which ideally is what makes the live experience worth seeing.
HEWLETT: It should be something totally different. Otherwise, what’s the point?