It started as something of a prank almost two decades ago. Blur frontman Damon Albarn and comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett, flatmates at the time, were watching MTV and, hugely underwhelmed by the videos they saw (back when music television actually once played music), decided to form a cartoon band. Three years later, their group, Gorillaz, had sold 7 million copies of their eponymous debut album and been named the Most Successful Virtual Band by Guinness World Records.
How was it possible? Well, for starters, there was Albarn’s knack for infectious melodies and the canny melding of elements from alternative hip-hop and electro-pop, which spawned bona fide pop anthems such as “Clint Eastwood.” There was also his unerring choice of star collaborators, from rapper Snoop Dogg to Clash guitarist Mick Jones and even 77-year-old R&B legend Mavis Staples, who appears on Gorillaz’ fifth album, Humanz.
It wasn’t just about the music, though. Hewlett—the artist behind iconic late-’80s comic character Tank Girl—crafted the perfect pop avatars to engage fans: cute but confused singer/ keyboardist 2D; Murdoc, the band’s evil-mastermind bassist; formerly demonically possessed drummer Russel; and Japanese guitar virtuosa Noodle. Each has his/her own superpower and also a rich backstory that is expanded—often with surreal plot twists—with each Gorillaz release.
The new album is no exception: Before the quartet met up in London to record Humanz they were scattered across the globe. 2D was stranded on a supposedly deserted island where, due to his poor survival skills, he had to subsist on rotten meat from the whale that had transported him there. Russel, who grew 60 times in size after eating radioactively contaminated fish, was captured in North Korea and exhibited in a cage as a Godzillalike attraction. It was only when he reverted to normal, thanks to a limited diet, that the regime’s leader let him go. To cut a long story short, there was a lot to talk about when The Red Bulletin got the chance to interview the singer and the drummer…
THE RED BULLETIN: Gorillaz have been a band for almost 20 years now, and in that time you’ve had to deal with some pretty hairy situations. What’s the secret to maintaining a successful working relationship amid the drama?
RUSSEL: Restraining orders. Gotta love your British legal system. Nah, only kidding. But, you know, getting out of each other’s faces does help. Because we’re different people, [we’ve] all got our own thing going on. Noodle reads a lot of existentialist philosophy; I’m highly politicized. 2D likes finding shapes in the clouds, and Murdoc is just a terrible person.
Which of your fellow bandmates’ special skills have proven most useful over the years?
2D: Noodle grew up in a super-soldier program where she learned hand-to-hand combat and how to use heavy weapons. Those skills have helped us fight off pirates and zombies—and Murdoc when he’s drunk.
RUSSEL: She used to choke him with a jujitsu move – but since he got into S&M, choking him only makes the situation worse. Now she just clips him with a tranq gun.
Russel, imagine you’re in a recording session and 2D spontaneously combusts. Which singer would you replace him with?
RUSSEL: First off, spontaneously combusts? If that happens, I’m asking some serious questions. Area would need to be locked down—nobody goes in or out, get forensics in. ’Cos people don’t just combust, y’know? Not in my lifetime.
2D: What about that inflatable lady Murdoc kept in his cupboard?
RUSSEL: Oh yeah. She lit up like the Fourth of July during a postcoital cigarette. But let’s suppose forensics found no foul play at the scene… If we had to replace 2D, maybe we’d bring in Shirley Bassey – a national treasure and she sings like an angel, just like 2D. Of course, that’d make Shirley the number one suspect in 2D’s vaporization. She had the most to gain.
What’s the most ‘rock star’ thing you’ve ever done?
2D: That’s more Murdoc’s department. I get a bit tired of the rock-star stuff. Someone once threw their knickers at me on stage. They were dirty, so I took them home and put them on a 60°C [140°F] wash. I gave them back to her at the next gig. Then she started bringing her laundry to me at every gig. It got quite time consuming. Especially the woolens.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring pop stars?
2D: Being a pop star is cool sometimes but not other times, like when people take photos of you going to the toilet. So I’d say, “Don’t get into it for fame; do it ’cos you enjoy it.” My favorite job was running the dodgem cars [bumper cars] at Eastbourne Funfair. I’d go back in a second, but Murdoc threatened to take me down, Gladiator-style, if I ever left Gorillaz. He has a whip and a trident and a leather loincloth, so I know he’s serious.
2D, which of the survival skills you learned on the desert island are proving most useful back in regular life?
2D: Learning that you need very little to get by in life: just a fire and some food. It was an enlightening experience. I’m actually hoping to go back to the island some day—partly to learn more survival skills and also ’cos I left one of my flipflops. The flip, I think. Or maybe the flop. Never know which is which. The point is, they belong together—the distance must be really painful.
If there had been no whale to live off on that island and you’d been forced to cannibalize yourself, which of your own body parts would you eat first?
RUSSEL: What is wrong with you, man? That’s messed up! What, you want me to say I’d chew on my big, sweet ass? That what you want? That I’d chew my own ass? No way I’m saying those words. You’d only quote me out of context. I know how you people work.
2D: I’m a humanitarian, which means I don’t eat human meat. But you’d be surprised how much nourishment you can get from eating your clothes. I made quite a nice shredded T-shirt salad to accompany the whale blubber.
Russel, on your latest adventure you grew 60 times your normal size. How does your perception of the world change when you’re a giant?
RUSSEL: You learn that people can be very uncivilized when it comes to a person’s weight. Always judging. Sure, I was big, but I’ve got an underactive thyroid. People see a towering giant and assume you’re awake all night, sobbing into a tub of Cherry Garcia while listening to “All By Myself” by Celine Dion. It was MY THYROID!
If your new album, Humanz, were an iconic film, which would it be?
2D: That’s not easy. Maybe Brazil [Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian fantasy]. On the surface it’s quite fast-paced and seems light-hearted, but it’s actually a really dark fantasy about a scary new future.
RUSSEL: Got to go deeper, man. Think about it. Maybe we’re all in a movie RIGHT NOW and we don’t even know it. A billion smartphone cameras pointed our way, and some psycho director calling the shots. Unplug, people. ’Cos when the credits roll, there won’t be no sequel.
In recent years, we’ve witnessed the rise of Japanese virtual pop star Hatsune Miku. What do you make of her and other animated musicians?
RUSSEL: I’m no conspiracy nut, but I got some hard truths for you: most pop stars are animated. Every move they make is controlled, every word they breathe is scripted. But Gorillaz, we’ve got substance. We’re probably the most real thing out there.
Your track “Hallelujah Money” is a cry for greater humanity. If we got rid of money, what could we use as currency?
RUSSEL: What would be the point in getting rid of money just to swap it for a new currency? It’s still power in some other form, and power is what’s distributed unfairly. Forget currency, what we need is a global revolution, meaning complete constitutional demolition, then a new start with a rigorously egalitarian system.
On June 10, you’ll be hosting your own one-day music festival, Demon Dayz, at Dreamland, an amusement park in Margate on the UK’s south-east coast. What can revelers expect?
2D: Candyfloss, dodgems, and the smell of soggy chips: the three greatest things in the world. Unfortunately, the manager says I have to work that day.
RUSSEL: What 2D’s getting at is all you folks with Demon Dayz tickets get to use the theme park, as well as catch Gorillaz at our first festival since the Escape To Plastic Beach World Tour. That was seven years ago. Whoa, a lot’s changed since then – Murdoc even became a feminist. Anyway, we got a crew of artists and friends joining us, but I can’t say much more about that now. You never know who’s reading.
What would be your dream theme-park attraction?
2D: A happy version of a ghost train, with tangerine trees and rocking-horse people, where you ride through the clouds on dodgems and get free cotton candy. No ghosts, though—that’s key. We see enough of them in our line of work.
RUSSEL: Tell me about it. Ghosts really get under my skin. Literally. It’s kind of an affliction, harboring the souls of dead rappers. Like having indigestion that rhymes. Personally, I don’t have time for theme-park rides. I’m too busy just clinging on to this out-of-control roller coaster we all ride, operated by The Man.
2D: Do you mean Paul?
2D: He runs the roller coaster at Dreamland.
RUSSEL: No. The Man.
2D: Oh. I don’t know him.