Published Apr 28, 2017When Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett came up with the idea for a cartoon band 20 years ago, they thought the possibilities were endless. So far, they've done just about everything they could imagine. But when asked why fans can't yet experience a Gorillaz hologram concert in the comforts of their own home, Albarn immediately airs his disappointment.
"I'm kind of pissed off that it hasn't happened by now," he says. "That's what the original concept was leading to. Here we are, 20 years later, and they haven't invented that technology. Then again, I can't even keep up with everything we do. I'm just an old fool with a Nokia phone."
Since they released their self-titled debut in 2001, Gorillaz have rewritten the rules of what a band can be. Albarn and Hewlett might be the brains behind the operation, but with the actual members themselves — Noodle, 2-D, Murdoc and Russel — being cartoons, Gorillaz could still be with us into the next century.
"We're both getting close to 50, so how much longer can we do this for?" asks Hewlett. "There could come a point where we find the right people — a songwriter, some musicians, and an artist — that can continue on, and we could just pass the torch down to a younger generation. I think it's quite a good idea."
"It's one of those bands that I think could go on forever, like a franchise," adds Albarn. "It could become something like Superman or Star Wars, because we don't actually have to be anywhere near it. Anyone can make a Gorillaz album. I suppose there is a family recipe, which would require me to pass the envelope to somebody else. I think what I love about it is it can be whatever I want it to be."
This year Gorillaz release their fifth album, Humanz. They will also be touring around the world, continually finding creative ways to work their social media accounts and releasing jaw-dropping music videos, like the recent 360 degree virtual reality video for "Saturnz Barz," which immediately set the YouTube record for VR videos. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"We've also written an animated TV series and we have a clothing company that I've designed all of the clothes for, which are being manufactured at the moment," Hewlett says. "We're doing everything we can with Gorillaz, but it's a lot of work and responsibility. Unfortunately, I'm still the only artist on this project. I don't have anybody who draws like me, so I've struggled to keep up the demand for artwork."
The idea of what Gorillaz can be is ever-changing, but the roles of its two founders don't. "The rules are clearly defined: I draw and [Damon] makes the music because he can't draw and I can't make music," explains Hewlett, who is best known for co-creating the Tank Girl comic. "I don't tell him what to do and he doesn't tell me what to do, but we do discuss things."
While the music tends to precede the art — Albarn sends Hewlett the demos as soon as they're cut — the first thing they usually come up with is a title and everything else comes spilling out from there. The duo named this new album Humanz as a playful take on the band's name and its spelling, but the meaning runs deeper than some witty wordplay. Hewlett feels it's "appropriate because the cartoons are becoming more human than us." It was Albarn who came up with the name though.
"Obviously that kind of put a smile on my face when I thought of that," Albarn says with pride. "I had some longer titles that explained the album more, but I thought Humanz was the closest I could get, in a sense, for an album with both male and female voices. The conversation is futuristic in the sense that it's stuck in a time when everything is glitched. I thought Humanz was a simple way of saying that."
Gorillaz have never been afraid to get political with their concepts. The first track they debuted from the album was "Hallelujah Money," a biting commentary on "power, big business and humanity." The accompanying video, featuring vocalist Benjamin Clementine inside Trump Tower, was released the day before Donald Trump's inauguration. That was no coincidence.
"That song was written about an imaginary inauguration in March of last year," admits Albarn. "So we had to put it out [on January 19] because it was literally written for that moment. The conversation at the beginning, when we started getting people involved, was this record is imagining ourselves in the not-too-distant future when something happens that really takes everyone by surprise and changes how people imagine their environment and world is really meant to be. It's meant to make you feel confused, anxious and disorientated.
"I did use Trump as this dark, weird fantasy, and it just happened that as we were close to finishing the record it was very possible," he adds. "We finished the record when he was actually elected, and unfortunately what we imagined came true."
Much like how the narrative for 2010's Plastic Beach included a theme of environmentalism, the political ideals within Humanz are not forced upon the listener. Gorillaz are still making incredibly entertaining and inventive pop music, and as we've come to expect, this album features the wildest, most impressive group of collaborators yet. With a guest list that includes Grace Jones, D.R.A.M., Popcaan, Kelela, Mavis Staples, Vince Staples and even Albarn's former Britpop rival Noel Gallagher, Humanz finds Gorillaz once again proving their taste-making skills. But when it comes to taking credit, Albarn gives that to the secret third member: his teenaged daughter.
"She's one of the main, major curators of this record and I wanted to make a record that she would listen to. She tells me if something is too slow. She's quite vocal about that stuff, so I do listen to her. I think she's cool with it, and I think her friends like it as well. Or they seem to."