Welcome to the new world where the Gorillaz return cartoon rock - or more precisely , zombie hip-hop - to the top of the charts with a little bit of help from the Net. Blur 's lead singer Damon Albarn tells Mike Gee that his latest creation is almost the perfect band ... and sheds light on Blur's future plans and his simple - and refreshing - ambitions in life.
Sorry, Damon, but the quote's too good to leave to later: "The next Blur album will make the Radiohead album look like a Travis record." The bugger pisses himself laughing when I tell him I'm going to quote him on that: "Yeah, I know you are, bastard."
Intentional stuff. Damon Albarn knows exactly where he's travelling and these days it's a broad-based multicultural, worldly wellspring of sounds that currently is grooving down a dub-laden, hip-hop smacked freeway of comic invention called Gorillaz.
Net dudes with savvy attitude and all the right looks they rule their own website which is hip and rich with invention - get in there and download and remix and upload and just get with tha' beatz at your own level. For those who want to love the hayzee fantayzee they are: Murdoc, 2D, Russel and 10-year-old Asian axe princess Noodle. Big kids and little get to play, even with their debut self-titled album which hits some wicked grooves - Clint Eastwood is just one of the tracks of the year - and some rather obviously Albarn electronicspheres while snorkling some pretty punky waters at times. Slip the CD into your computer and there's a screensaver, desktops and the key to Murdoc's Winnebago. Dig it!
Pop by cartoon is nothing new. The Archies were pure animated confection and a chart smash in the '70s but the added level of interactivity that Net now offers means Gorillaz can go places no cartoon pop group has ever gone with its audience before.
Gorillaz are Damon's perfect band in a way: no hassles. "The core of Gorillaz is myself and artist Jamie Hewlett and right from the beginning it was 'I'll do the music and that stuff and you can do all the visuals'. To date we haven't found a problem with that. He gets on with what he loves doing and I get on with what I love doing. It's perfect. The perfect band. No conflict. You don't have to worry about anybody else and you can do your own thing." Albarn chuckles. "And Jamie is a really good cartoonist and graphic artist. You only appreciate how good when you realise just how far its translates. That these images can work in any country."
And the website is just amazing. "Yeah, look I love it. Jamie started it just as the album was being finished off in Jamaica and we just basically said we're going to build this studio and slowly we're going to fill it with more and more crazy stuff. There's going to be no rules to it and it's going to be like some mad shopping mall. Yet because of the kind of music it is we never really aimed at it kids or sold it at that level but they've just picked up on it naturally so it's really nice."
The great thing about the record and the site is that they also get kids into some of the best music around that they are never normally going to hear. All of a sudden they get to know about dub and reggae and the original hip-hop and are drawn to names like Dennis Bovell, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Black Uhuru, King Tubby, Lee 'Scratch' Perry and so on
"Exactly, exactly," says our hero enthusiastically. "On the site you can pick out records that are in the band members' collections so it is almost like a library. There's also a lot of books they can go to. It's how I think a Net site should be used. Something which is like a wonderful pool of new knowledge. What's so strange to me is that music - the history of music and the people that have filled it - is so important in our culture yet they don't really teach it in schools."
So where does that oh-so-dirty bottom end come from? "It's funny you should ask that because one of the reasons I began Gorillaz is I had a lot of rhythms I never thought I could use with Blur. A lot of that stuff never really seemed to manifest itself in the music we made together as Blur. After that, I just really go. There's no plan to it. It's very chaotic. I called Dan the Automator in after I'd done more than half of it and felt it would be benefit from having somebody else's focus. So I just rang him and asked whether he was interested in helping me finish it off.
"As far as that dub thing goes, I have the advantage of working with an amazing bass player called Junior Dan who cut his teeth working with people like Augustus Pablo and King Tubby. He turned by accident, really. I'd just started doing the whole Gorillaz thing and it was all in a very experimental stage in my studio and he literally knocked on the door and said 'Oh, that sounds interesting, can I put some bass on it' and told me afterwards who he was. It was just bizarre. "Those sort of things. They just happen. At least they do with with Gorillaz. About three or four months later we had Ibrahim Ferrer in the studio as well. It's an amazing cast of musicians to accumulate. What they all liked about it, I assume, is that it's a real hybrid and it was going in so many different directions at once that you could put your thing in there, watch how it was taken and come out the other end."
And the Tom Tom Club's Tina Weymouth? "I've never met her. I've had a very long and surreal phone conversation with her in Jamaica, one day, after we received her vocals for 19-2000. That came through the Dan The Automator who'd worked with them at some point. He gave her a tape and said 'Do you want to put something on it?' That was amazing really. Tom Tom Club were, in some ways, one of my models for Gorillaz. In the sense that they were one of those bands that made amazing pop songs yet they were also very odd. Of course, she was always one of my heroes. She and Chris [Frantz] are a wonderfully oddball couple, enjoying their life and not falling into any kind of stereotype.
"I'll tell you though that my primary inspiration comes from The Specials - that's the band that put it into my head that I could make reggae at some point. The Specials were the band that really captured my imagination when I was a teenager."
Then there's Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto: "Oh, she's lovely. She stayed with us the whole time we were in Jamaica. I really got to know her quite well. The great thing about Gorillaz and the reason I'm so into it and know that it has a future is because it is such an open-ended book. Because nobody has to ever really stand up and be counted - they don't have to appear in videos and have photos taken - people are much more inclined to have a go to see how it turns out as it is, in a way, faceless."
All this and more in the name of zombie hip-hop as Dames and James have lovingly - and generously - tagged their mutant musical spawn.
Okay, yeah, so you want to know what's going on with the larrikin's club, Blur. Love the lads. Loved the last record, 13. Am so glad Albarn's decided the tangents he created on it should be taken out further. Damon's up for it all, anyway, because these days a natter with him has to cover a fair stretch of turf.
"We've got an idea now of what kind of record we're going to make," he says, almost seriously. "It's very early days but I didn't want to start another Blur record until I had at least some sort of idea of where it was going. In a way I've made the commercial record - inadvertently - with Gorillaz. That's not really where I want to go with Blur. That's something we've worked on for so many years that it should give us - as a band - the opportunity to do new things, tread new territory, without being too worried whether it sells or not. The new thing we do is going to raise a few eyebrows that's all I'll say."
He's also about 90 per cent the way through what he describes as "a labour of love" - the album that he recorded in Mali, last year, with some of Africa's greatest musicans including the legendary Ali Farka Toure. The set - which he's doing for Oxfam - will also be accompanied by some sort of film - possibly in the DVD format. And there's also his soundtrack to the highly recommended Icelandic film 101 Reykjavik (which screened at the Sydney Film Festival). Incidentally, Damon's had a house there since 1997, and used to spend a hell of a lot of time there before he became a family man "but it is one of my favourite places on the planet".
Not bad for a 33-year-old born on the cusp of Pisces and Aries - March 23, 1968 - to a stage designer (for Joan Littlewood) mother and sometimes tour manager (for the legendary Soft Machine) father, Albarn was always going to be in showbiz. He saw his first concert - The Osmonds - in 1974 and by the time he was 15 had won a regional heat of the Young Composer of The Year competition, formed the short-lived pop-synth duo Two's A Crowd and was attending East 15 drama school while also working in a London studio which subsequently offered him a management deal after hearing demos he'd recorded using 3000 pounds given to him by his grandfather when he was 14. In fact, Damon was never going to do anything else. He's a star - more importantly, a damn fine musician and songwriter; better still, he's a really nice bloke. Who cares about the right things. Especially his kid.
"I am lucky," he says. "I'm happy with my career. I do feel I have a lot of options and I intend to keep it that way really. Right from the beginning I just knew I didn't want to spend my whole life being in a band in the sense of the personality cults that develop within them. I wanted to free myself from that and concentrate on being a musician not a personality.
"If Blur was one of those bands where everybody had to hang off each other we wouldn't still be going. I think the older you get the wider the berth you have to give each other. It's keeping that balance between a professional and a personal life that I'm most concerned about. It's very easy to get carried away within your professional life and to kid yourself that is your only life. It's pretty empty if you haven't got a home life, I think.
"I just want to be a good dad and a good musician and a good citizen. I don't want my kid to have a dad who's a musican who's on the road 18 months at a time and he sees for four weeks a year. I want to be around my son as he grows. Just be there.
"I don't really aspire to anything other than making the most of what I've got. Just being positive. A reasonable human being. I don't like - or enjoy - that whole razzamatazz side of the industry and it's with some relief I don't have to do it anymore. But some people really thrive on it. Even people like Radiohead are more into it than I am, ironically. They're very much in the forefront of it all. You know what I'm like. I like to keep me options open."
Go play with the Gorillaz now. Blur will be back.
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