The Naked Apes: An Interview with the Gorillaz

Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn’s (Blur) idea for a thoroughly manufactured, animated and performing (in the classic sense) antidotal pop group has now bubbled up through the mucky soup of today’s mediocre pop landscape and staked out its own pristine territory. The Gorillaz were brought into solid existence through a fanfare of Hewlett’s supremely impressive graphic art/imagery coupled with the latest audio birthing techniques, courtesy of Albarn. Helping to sharpen the finer points were musical collaborators Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Miho Hitari (Cibo Matto), Tina Frantz (Talking Heads) and Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer. The Gorillaz have been presented as consisting of four core members. 2D is the handsome black-eyed, slack-jawed vocalist. Murdoc is the band’s originator, a self-taught bassist and part-time Satanist. Russel, a Zombie hip-hop hard man, the ghosts of his dead crew reside inside his head. Then comes Noodle, a 10-year-old Japanese axe maiden, riff generator and cucumber cool martial arts badass. A self-titled debut album was released in the US on June 19th through Virgin Records.

They exist primarily through their wholly interactive and visually impressive web site and record company press releases. In an effort to gather information, I met with Messrs. Hewlett, Albarn and web site co-creator and fellow Gorillaz activist, first name Matt. They took some time out to accommodate a few questions and to walk me through the present, past and future of Gorillaz and their amiable human interfaces.

This one is for Matt and Jamie. Would you describe yourselves as Gorillaz’ image consultants?
Jamie Hewlett: Image consultants?
Matt: I don’t know if I like that at all.

What would you describe yourselves as?
JH: I don’t know really

I don’t mean you personally, I mean in relation to the band.
JH: Good question . . . I don’t know . . . (laughs) . . . just one of the band.

A lot of time and effort has been spent on creating the existence of Gorillaz. How do you feel when it’s casually written off as novelty or as someone’s side project? Does it make you feel angry or do you expect it?
JH: Well, I think we fully expected there was, you know, going to be a bit of a . . . it’s not a one off, it’s not a novelty, the idea is we do it for as long as we can, as long as we want to and as long as the ideas are good, and as long as we’re excited by it . . . so it’s a bit annoying, I hate bad press. I can’t take it (laughs).

How have you been received in the British music press? They’re notoriously fickle, aren’t they.
JH: Well, I mean, the NME slagged us off one week, and then the next week we were on the [front] cover and they loved us, and then the week after they slagged us off, and the week after they loved us.
M: And this week too.
JH: Oh they like us this week, do they?

Well they’ve got to retain credibility and seem to do it by playing for both sides.
Damon Albarn: It’s perfect for them because they can like Gorillaz and slag me off, so you’ve got one page praising the band, and another on a personal kind of attack on, you know . . . what kind of clothes I’m wearing.
JH: When the first single came out, the one that wasn’t chart eligible, some band was talking about it. I can’t remember who, but they said they loved it, everything about it, except for the bit that he did (points at Damon and laughs), and he did the whole song!
DA: Well I realize, for some reason, my personality really got up peoples noses.

Well, I mean you’re a “pop star” aren’t you . . . essentially.
DA: Yeah.
JH: I think that’s it isn’t it, I think it’s the good looks that really rubs people up the wrong way (laughs).
DA: For me, I can’t seem to get away from the personal aspect of it and make music. I’m just so bored of it, because I know I’m a good musician and I want to concentrate on making music.

They’ve got to sell newspapers as well though, haven’t they?
DA: Yeah, but you know we’ve given them something that sells newspapers and also deflects the kind of whole celebrity bullshit that music is more and more involved in.
JH: We’ve had some damning write-ups and we’ve had some glowing write-ups, we’ve even been called racist.

Really! Why did you get called racist?
JH: Some guy said we were racist because Russell looks like a Gorilla.
DA: But, but that was the same article where the journalist said that in two years time I was going to wake up in a fetal position just with the sheer shame of this travesty that I’ve created.

That’s kind of harsh.
DA: (nodding in agreement)
JH: Funny thing was we met with him recently, didn’t we. But you know, at the end of the day what we are trying to do is do something different really, and enjoy what we’re doing, especially for me, I’ve reached a point where I find it very hard to even get up and be bothered to draw anymore. I’ve had enough and I’d like to do something else, and this is something that I can do and I really, you know, get a buzz out of doing it, so when this goes off the boil well God knows what I’m going to do . . . change my job.

You run your own company called Zombie, isn’t that right?
JH: Well, we had to set Zombie up to handle Gorillaz, because it was just us two to start with, just me and Damon for the first year putting it together, and then suddenly it started getting really huge. We started thinking ‘Oh fucking hell’ we need some people, and I got Matt in straight away, because I’ve worked with Matt on and off for years and I thought that would be enough, we still need more people, because there’s just six people at the moment. We wanted to do everything because Damon’s studio and our studios are in the same building, so everything to do with Gorillaz is done under the same roof . . . and we program the web site, design the web site, we do all the album covers, single covers, merchandise, press images, fucking everything.

It’s got to help being in such a close proximity to him.
JH: Oh absolutely, absolutely, that’s the only reason I think it’s working as well as it is because we’re not letting anything be done by anybody else.
DA: With the exception of coming personally to do interviews which is, you know, in England we don’t really need to do that anymore, everyone loves the band so they’re happy to hear the band musically, apart from that we can actually do everything in our little studio which is a whole new way of looking at . . .

It cuts out the bullshit. . . . yeah, and you can take something entirely around the world and never have to lift a finger really. I mean you have to do a lot of work, but you determine your mobility far more yourself.
JH: The idea was to do something different . . . exciting . . . something that excited us. I can’t do anything if I don’t enjoy it.
DA: From my point of view I really want to make commercial music again. What happened with Oasis was a great laugh for everybody, but for me personally it had a profound effect on my entire life and the rest of the band — especially Graham — got very, very badly scarred by the whole thing, and really I don’t blame him for not wanting to be public. So the whole dynamic of Blur changed completely and it was a great experience, and I learned a lot from doing those kind of records and came out the other end a better musician and much more . . . sort of . . . focused . . . but I still like making pop music I love the idea of competing with the shit . . .

You’re not going to let people grind you down, basically.
DA: No, and I also wanted to work with hip-hop musicians and I just couldn’t imagine that it would work with me . . . my face (laughs)

Did Noodle get permission from her parents to play with Gorillaz?
DA: We don’t know who her parents are, we’re going to Japan in August to play and all will be revealed.
JH: We’re saving the story of Noodle until we’ve thought of it (laughter). No, no I have a few ideas.
DA: That’s the nicest thing about it, it’s a very organic process, the ideas come from what happens, people that log onto the site give us ideas as well, it’s not virtual but it is truly interactive.
JH: It was just the idea if inventing a band who were actually very cool, and people really wanted to know about it, as opposed to so many bands nowadays where you don’t actually give a shit. I was into bands where you knew all their names.

I was in a magazine store down the street before coming to this interview and there was a magazine, I can’t remember which one, and they were running something like Radiohead vs. Travis on their front cover asking which has got the best album.
DA: I think we created that, that versus thing, that whole fucking . . .

It’s the after effects, because they’ve learned they can sell a lot of newspapers and magazines through this idea.
DA: . . . it is amazing that its still going, you know, it’s six, seven years old.
JH: We’ve been saying for months and months and months that, you know, about Travis being the band that if you were stuck in a lift [elevator] with them you wouldn’t know it, and they’re calling their album The Invisible Band aren’t they, you see everyone’s taking the piss out of them for that, I quite like the way they’ve got along actually.
DA: Yeah, but it still doesn’t detract from the fact that they are what they are (laughter).

The album’s style is pretty eclectic, would you say this is a result of the musical collaborators being able to express themselves outside of their accepted roles.
DA: Well you’ve got an 80 year old Cuban . . .

How was it, working with him?
DA:. . . amazing . . . unbelievable, he came to my studio, he actually came from Cuba to my studio, to sing the song . . . it was one of the highlights of my . . .

. . . I imagine him to be a really nice sweet guy
DA:. . . a beautiful, beautiful man I mean, you know, he spent 20 years as shoe-shiner on the streets of Havana and then became an international superstar and has not changed . Working with him was like nothing I’d ever experienced, his humility and yet his command of his voice was just astounding.
JH: It’s all been taped, we’ve got a friend who’s been making a documentary.
DA: Yeah, from the day that we came up with the idea.
JH: Literally the first day we came up with the idea, we thought ‘fuck it’, he’s a mate of ours, he’s got a camera, he’s got about 52 hours of footage now and he’s got all the Ibrahim stuff on tape . . .
DA: . . . it should be quite interesting because it really will document the entire process and people love that kind of thing . . .
JH: . . . from just the two of us sitting there with a sketch and a demo to wherever.

You’ve got a cartoon special coming out soon haven’t you?
JH: Well that’s being done at the moment.

When’s that going to be ready?
M: September . . . October.
JH: We’re having trouble keeping up with all this stuff, there’s too much to do, we’re also in the process of thinking about the second album as well, how to do that, and there’s talk of a film. What’s the point in doing the second album the same way as we’ve done this one, you know, do it differently, there’s two maybe three albums in this, who knows, maybe more, maybe not. Part of the real fun that we find with this, is as soon as these kids get into this band it’s amazing the sort of shit that we can get them into from Satanism to Zombies.

You can turn them on to music that they wouldn’t normally listen to
DA: It’s big in the playgrounds of Britain and that means they are now listening to Latin and Dub and that’s really exciting.
JH: Little 12-year-olds in the playground getting into dub and reggae as opposed to whatever else they have to listen to.
DA: It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, because I always wanted to be in The Specials . . .
JH: . . . coolest band ever.
DA: . . . and then I wanted to be in Massive Attack . . . and that’s kind of what I’ve mixed really is The Specials and Massive Attack together to make Gorillaz . . . that’s really what it is.
JH: That’s the sort of stuff we grew up on, when I was a little kid watching Top of the Pops.
DA: I just like bands that mix cultures together and create something entirely new out of it that’s just positive, it’s nothing else but positive, otherwise . . . otherwise you just get caught up in all this factional shit.

It must be frustrating, because you have this idea and that’s what you want to do and all this petty bullshit is involved because of who you are.
DA: Well that’s just something I’ve learned . . . and I’ve learned from my mistakes . . . hopefully.
JH: I thought it would either be a complete flop or it’d be cult thing we didn’t quite expect it to be this big.
DA: We’ve started moving to remixes and Redman asked us to do a remix so we’ve just finished that . . .
JH: 2D’s worked with Massive Attack and Horace Andy, hasn’t he.
DA: Yeah.
JH: So it’s great, we actually said at the beginning it’d be great if they all split up and do they’re own solo projects . . . Murdoc would do a thrash-metal album, which he [Damon] could probably bang out in a week. Matt: He [Jamie} could bang out the metal artwork in the following week.
DA: . . . in about an hour (laughter).
JH: I’d love to get into some really fucking dark heavy metal.

I was reading an interview with you [Damon] where talking about getting the best distorted sound from your guitar.
DA: On our Redman remix I did a guitar riff and I like . . . . I like decaying distorted sound; I like using amps when the batteries are about to run out.

How do you check that the batteries are running low?
DA:Well you just wait until it’s about to go, and you’ve probably got about two minutes and you’ve got to get it right in that time.

So you’re a connoisseur.
DA: Yeah . . . yeah, but not really big distorted sounds just little ones.

Its not about the amps, it’s about the sound
DA: Exactly. They’re not macho distorted sounds.
JH: If you end up being experimental in England and coming on with shit like that people just call you ‘arty wankers’, don’t they.
DA:They call you Radiohead. No, that’s not fair. My only thing with Radiohead is that it’s so stylistic now, it’s so stylized, what’s the point in not writing great songs, it’s great doing all that with different sounds, different rhythms but what’s the point.

Do you think they’re bordering on being pretentious?
DA: They’ve had so many people saying they’re absolutely amazing, they feel they have that room to do exactly what they want.

That’s must be good for them.
DA: Exactly. I’d much rather . . . well, if I was going to get caught up in the Radiohead vs. Travis thing I’m definitely in the Radiohead camp.
JH: We had Thom Yorke on our web site as well . . . [impersonates] “Hello . . . hello it’s Thom Yorke”.
M: He’s really interested in the Internet. I think he does quite a lot of work on their site, and with releasing Amnesiac online.
JH: Which must have been really hard with the record company.
DA: . . . it’s getting easier and easier.