Gorillaz in the midst of bizarre musical journey
Blur's frontman Damon Albarn isn't monkeying around with his 'virtual anti-band', writes Barry Egan
'I ain't happy, I'm feelin' glad/I got sunshine in a bag/I'm useless, but not for long the future is comin' on," sang Damon Albarn on Gorillaz hit Clint Eastwood in 2001. When quizzed once what kind of sunshine was in the bag, he replied: "I don't know that we can answer that one for you. That's top secret. That's the kind of information governments don't give out until 50 years after."
Albarn and Jamie Hewlett -- the Blur singer and the iconic comic book designer respectively -- are two cheeky monkeys with attitude and ideas all their own. Former flatmates, they started Gorillaz in 1998 as a sort of anti-band. Well, it was a virtual band made of post-nuclear cartoon characters.
"I think you really have to concern yourself with providing alternatives," he said of his fake band (doubtless an alternative to fake culture). Their videos are full of bizarre but cool fictional cartoon avatars with sad, troubled faces. When Hewlett and Albarn get together their faces are rarely sad or troubled, primarily because they are too busy laughing their heads off at each other.
Interviewed together by a New York magazine earlier this year about their new album Plastic Beach, the banter between the two was infectious and, not surprisingly, a little left of centre. Hewlett, who drew all the characters for the album's visuals and videos, was reminded that when Demon Days, Gorillaz's 2005 album, was released he said he was tired of drawing the characters.
" I was a little tired of it and needed to go away and try something else. So we went and did Monkey: Journey to the West and travelled around China and produced an opera." The badinage that ensued says something about the creative synergy between the two in the Gorillaz ...
Albarn: "A sort of opera. Not really an opera opera."
Hewlett: "It has elements of opera."
Albarn: "Fine, a popera. What do you want to call it?"
Hewlett: "An experience."
Albarn: "No, I don't want to call it an experience."
Hewlett: "Well, that's why I called it an opera."
Albarn: "Okay, a flopera."
What originally started out as Albarn and Hewlett's multimedia project in 1998 has grown exponentially into something huge -- definitely not a flopera -- both in scope and popularity.
When U2 had to pull out of the Glastonbury festival headline spot during the summer, Gorillaz were drafted in to replace them on the main stage. Last month I saw them headline Benicassim in Valencia, Spain, in front of 30,000 people on a hot Sunday night. It was an ambitious but ultimately enthralling show: equal parts futuristic jamboree and genre-mashing pop extravaganza. With the former Clash men Mick Jones and Paul Simonon on either of side of him -- on guitar and bass respectively -- Albarn started the show with a video montage featuring Snoop Dogg singing Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach. A gargantuan video screen above the band showed cartoon images which were linked to the songs throughout. Gorillaz were then joined onstage, for various songs, by De La Soul, Bobby Womack, the Syrian National Orchestra, Bootie Brown and a quartet of female cello players in standard-issue sailor outfits.
Shaun Ryder, Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys and Mark E Smith appear overhead on videos and in the mix on samples. They played many songs from their glorious new album, Plastic Beach, which is 'sing-a-long-a' in places and outright difficult in others, but worth the effort in the end. Damon gives the Eighties-sounding On Melancholy Hill echoes of a Scott Walker: "So call in the submarine/ 'round the world will go/does anybody know/if we're looking out on the day."
Lou Reed is his usual dry-voiced self on Some Kind of Nature ("Well, me, I like plastics and digital foils"). Bobby Womack delivers soul-god emotion on Stylo and Cloud of Unknowing. Snoop Dogg's does his stoned rap on Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach and rhymes "in focus" with "the world is so hopeless". The album overall has a theme of New Age doom, about the planet and the ocean in particular.
"If you meditate on plastic or the sea," said Albarn recently. "I think all the songs kind of fit into that in one way or another. And then we kind of developed it and situated the new Gorillaz 'base' at Point Nemo -- the most remote island on earth -- and alluded to the fact that the plastic detritus in the Pacific Ocean had all collected. It's gentle, it has environmental thoughts scattered and peppered around every bit of this record. But at the end of the day, it's not just that. It's in a way more colourful than that."
Gorillaz play the O2 Arena on November 11, tickets priced €59.80.