BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
My impression of Gorillaz is that it started out as a lark and became
a phenomenon on a scale that you never expected.
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
Where do you see Gorillaz fitting on the spectrum of cool cartoon
rockers, from the Banana Splits to the Powerpuff Girls?
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.
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?
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 ...
Isn't there ever a temptation to lift the screen up?
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.
But you're one of the most extroverted frontmen I've ever seen.
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?
I hear that Blur is recording again.
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.
What did you bring back to Blur from Gorillaz?
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.
I'm having a hard time imagining you being intimidated by anything
Well, it's the ones who seem like they're not intimated who are the
It's been more than three years since "13." What does the new Blur
record sound like?
[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.
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.
I hate to bring up that old lament about Blur being chronically
unloved in America ...
I can't go on about that anymore. I feel loved! I even feel loved in
But will Gorillaz's success translate to Blur?
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.
But this is where we get back to the scam: YOU haven't done it! The
cartoons did it!
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
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.
Yes, you can; you really can actually get away with anything. We have
nearly a million people logging on [to www.gorillaz.com] 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.
* * * *
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
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
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.
You guys recorded with Eminem's posse, D12. I mean, really--why?
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
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
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
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!