It's all a Blur


March 1, 2002



The history of cartoon rock is as diverse as any other genre, with a surprising number of sublime peaks over the last 40 years: The Archies. The Banana Splits. Josie and the Pussycats. The Powerpuff Girls. To this list we must now add Gorillaz.


When a sold-out crowd fills the Aragon on Sunday night, they'll hear the music of the cult-favorite hip-hoppers, and they'll see their cartoon heroes rocking out on a giant video screen. They just won't see the musicians who are actually making all the noise.


The simulated simians started out as a fun side project initiated by Blur frontman Damon Albarn and his friend, cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, the man who brought us "Tank Girl." With a little help from a star-spangled cast of guests (among them DJ Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, and Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club), the dynamic duo scored a surprising hit with the single "Clint Eastwood," and 2001's self-titled album went platinum.


Rare indeed is the million-selling band that's been able to resist the celebratory cash-in tour--even if it does exist only in the animated world. I spoke to Albarn by phone from England about this most unique of tours, but we were only allowed to talk if I also agreed to an e-mail interview with all four Gorillaz. Both conversations follow below.


Q. Damon, I have to congratulate you on one of the most brilliant scams in rock history! Blur makes one great album after another, but you can't get arrested in the States. Then, you invent these cartoon characters and sell a million albums! You have to be laughing your butt off.


A. [Laughs] Well, it's not a satanic kind of laughter. I do put a lot of work into it! When you use the word "scam," I know exactly what you mean, but it doesn't negate the fact that it requires probably even more work to pull a scam off.


Q. My impression of Gorillaz is that it started out as a lark and became a phenomenon on a scale that you never expected.


A. It was an idea that Jamie and I had while sitting down and watching telly late at night. I'm glad that all my telly watching has come to something constructive!


Q. Where do you see Gorillaz fitting on the spectrum of cool cartoon rockers, from the Banana Splits to the Powerpuff Girls?


A. I don't think it really works in that way, because the characters never set themselves up to be cartoons, if you know what I mean. They take themselves pretty seriously; they're not sort of mucking about. When we play live, they're as heavy and intense as any band.


Q. You're an ardent student of rock history--I'm sure you know that when Public Image Ltd. made its debut in New York by playing behind a video screen, the crowd rioted and tore the screen down. Is America ready to see a concert where the band is hidden the whole time?


A. I'm kind of slightly concerned about that, actually. I'm also concerned about the 10,000 people coming to see us in Mexico City. That's a lot of people coming to see something that could be this enormous problem ...


Q. Isn't there ever a temptation to lift the screen up?


A. Well, yeah, every night! For me, it's a nightmare. But I've sort of discovered that it's just as satisfying to play for yourself and the musicians who are with you than for the audience outside.


Q. But you're one of the most extroverted frontmen I've ever seen.


A. I know, I truly am. It's not easy, I have to say. But then again, you have to suffer for your art sometimes, and I genuinely am when I'm behind there. I do want to rip the screen down and go, [Vegas showman voice] "Hey, show time!" But I can't, because the idea is, what's more important in this particular project?


Q. I hear that Blur is recording again.


A. Nearly done! It's done us an enormous amount of good to have this break, and it's been good for me and my relationship with the other three.


Q. What did you bring back to Blur from Gorillaz?


A. I won't get intimidated any more into not following my instincts. I do that now. I have done it fairly well, but I do it more now.


Q. I'm having a hard time imagining you being intimidated by anything ...


A. Well, it's the ones who seem like they're not intimated who are the most.


Q. It's been more than three years since "13." What does the new Blur record sound like?


A. [Long pause] It's kind of sort of ... it sounds a bit like PiL, actually. I mean, we'll never sound completely like them, because I don't sing like Johnny Rotten. But it's got that sort of attitude. I've played and hung out with so many different kinds of musicians, literally around the world, since I last made a Blur record, that I sort of feel like someone who was brought up in one country and then spent a long time in another.


Whereas guitar music is still there inside me, it's become something that's sort of a subconscious influence, as opposed to an active influence. The others have all gone on very different journeys. What has amazed me is that I've sort of gone away and done all of this stuff, and I was really worried that we'd be able to relate to each other, but there is something really magical about sticking with your old mates. They just sort of need someone like me to give them a little kick in the ass from time to time.


Q. I hate to bring up that old lament about Blur being chronically unloved in America ...


A. I can't go on about that anymore. I feel loved! I even feel loved in hip-hop.


Q. But will Gorillaz's success translate to Blur?


A. Hard to say, isn't it? But at the end of the day, I've kind of, to some extent, done it now--conquered America--so it's not gonna haunt me for the rest of my life. And I'm really glad! [Heck], that's what Paul Weller's still got in America, that albatross.


Q. But this is where we get back to the scam: YOU haven't done it! The cartoons did it!


A. Yeah, I know. You're right! And I haven't won any of the awards, either. There are only certain things that the band hasn't done that I've done. I do have to say, I thought somebody was winding me up when they said we'd been nominated for a hip-hop category at the Grammys. But isn't that the power of the cartoon? We're so tribal about our music that maybe sometimes we don't listen to it properly. Maybe the cartoons allow a different emotional response to the music. And they're also completely non-threatening.


Q. You can get away with putting stuff in a cartoon that you could never do in real life. All the great political cartoonists know that.


A. Yes, you can; you really can actually get away with anything. We have nearly a million people logging on [to] every two weeks, and that's quite an extraordinary amount of people who are interested in what you've got to say! There is this opportunity for quite a sophisticated satirical element, and I think we do try on occasions to do that. A sort of subtle, slow-drip intelligence--that's what we're kind of about. No overdosing, just a drip.


* * * *


The following Q&A was conducted via e-mail with Gorillaz, and/or the cartoonist behind them, Jamie Hewlett. The band consists of Satan-worshipping bassist/auteur Murdoc (from the Web site: "The snaggle-toothed svengali, his flop fringe disguises a mind like a rusty steel trap"), frontman 2D ("Hit twice on the head when young, 2D is a sweetheart with a blank sheet of paper where a brain should be"), DJ Noodle ("A kick-ass riffmeister, the Asian axe princess"), and drummer Russel ("A hip-hop hard man from the US of A" whose twin idols are Louis Farrakhan and Chaka Khan).


Q. For Murdoc: Is it true that you're a distant relative of Aleister Crowley, and that you were in fact THE baby who appeared in "Rosemary's Baby"?


A. Listen, Crowley's cool, but he ain't no relative of mine. I'm into Satan, baby, not amateur dramatics. And if Crowley's doing magic stunts to impress the likes of Marilyn Manson, then he can stay at home and watch "Addams Family" reruns for all I care! Secondly, I wasn't the one in "Rosemary's Baby," which is a shame, 'cos I would have loved the opportunity to suckle the milk from Mia Farrow's baby-feeders.


Q. You guys recorded with Eminem's posse, D12. I mean, really--why?


A. Oh, shut up! The track we did with them was great. The fact that they also worked with the milky-bar kid doesn't bother me. They were lovely to work with. Very professional. Especially Bizarre, Hip-Hop's answer to Oliver Hardy.


Q. For Noodle: Have you ever noticed that “The Powerpuff Girls” is based on Plato's "Republic," with Blossom being representative of the philosopher king, Buttercup the warrior, and Bubbles the prole/merchant class?


A. Noodle: He who swallows dictionary does not always burp out sense! I do not understand your analogy. I think you’re reading too much into it. Most stories are based around stereotypical relationships and we, as ever-changing society members, struggle to understand the interactions that we all have to face. There are only seven discernible story lines in the history of narratives, and most of these are based around the adoption of these roles. Having said that, it's only a cartoon, as am I, so it's probably got more in common with Pluto's "Republic."


Q. For Russel: Have you ever heard a Brit drummer who knew a thing about grooving in the pocket?


A. Russel: “Grooving in the pocket”? I guess that's street slang for taking it to the bridge and getting on the good foot while playing Pocket Billiards. No. No British guys have any idea of the deep-fried, laid to the side, natural funk, but if you see the weather here, then you'd know why.


Q. Why is there no good British hip-hop?


A. For the same reason that there is no great New York Beefeaters, or good English Greek music. Some things are regional in their description. However, there's elements of hip-hop in Tricky, Portishead, Garage, 2 step, the Streets. And we have two great English rappers who work with us: Psi and Life.


Q. I have it on good authority (she being a former Chicagoan) that Chaka Khan slept with Bingo of the Banana Splits back in the day. Does that alter your high opinion of the lady?


A. I actually heard that it was Chaka who named the band after a particularly adventurous trick she performed. And if she's cool with getting her kicks with a guy in a dog suit called Bingo, then that's cool with me, y’ dig? Ain't that much difference between that and making it with a three-foot high guy in a purple gnome suit called “Prince.”


Q. Finally, for 2D: Naomi Klein's No Logo--why are you guys so big on this book? Oh, wait, I'm sorry--I was mistaking you for that dwarf-looking fellow from Radiohead. No further questions.


A. 2D: Erm. I don't understand. Are you asking me a question or not? Naomi Klein sounds like chunky dog food. All dog food needs a logo, or you won't know what you're buying. I mean, if it wasn't for logos, I might end up buying Nike gear instead of Fila. I mean, logos are excellent. The thing I like most about logos and brands is the fact that it creates a kind of loyalty to the company, so you always know you're getting top gear. If the company says it's cool, then they're probably right. Logos, man, they Rock!