Gorillaz creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett talk cartoons and culture
With their ‘Escape to Plastic Beach’ tour kicking off in Syria on July 25, plus a headline performance at Beirut’s Byblos Festival this week, we nabbed Gorillaz for a chat about their upcoming Middle Eastern gigs. Sadly the band themselves were not available to tell us how this tour came about – chiefly because they’re fictional two-dimensional characters – so instead we interviewed the collective’s two master marionetteers, musical mastermind Damon Albarn (of ’90s band Blur) and aesthetic overlord Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl).
The normally taciturn Albarn, a long-standing world music nerd, speaks excitably about his visit to the Middle East. ‘It’s a wonderful part of the world, somewhat maligned in recent years, but it’s where the origins of a lot of the ideas that we still exist within come from. I don’t think people in the West have any idea about how closely linked our cultures really are.’
Cultural considerations aside, the reason for adding Beirut to the tour was simple. ‘We met a lot of people who asked us if we were ever going to play in Beirut,’ Hewlett says. ‘So yeah, of course we wanted to.’ The show will not, sadly, be quite on the scale of their recent spectacular at the UK’s Glastonbury festival, which saw the band joined by a host of A-list collaborators. ‘Beirut obviously won’t be quite as big,’ says Albarn. ‘And then Damascus will probably be quite small, but I think it’s important that a band like us goes there. And hopefully it will inspire people there enormously.’ However, the band are bringing as much of a show as they can afford, and are happy to lose money on the dates.
Mayhem is something that comes naturally to Gorillaz, a band without a defined sound, stable line-up or aural agenda. Their line-drawn alter egos were originally intended to free the humans behind the band from the normal dramas that dog a high-profile outfit, from tabloid gossip to the expectations of their fans.
‘Oh yeah,’ says Albarn. ‘That was something we were very passionate about avoiding, because it is limiting and bands do get, historically, trapped in their own legends. It’s a relatively new idea, that – music carried by personality. There will always be enormous personalities in music. But we’re taking music back more towards the idea of it being made for people. For example, traditionally in Arabic music, the melody would be sold by a composer, then it would be developed by the people who bought it, so it’s an ongoing thing.’
Freeing themselves from image and ego constraints means the band are free to assimilate whatever sounds and scenes they feel like. ‘I think that’s probably the secret formula to Gorillaz,’ says Hewlett. ‘We can both do whatever we want. It’s up to us how we portray these characters, or how Damon makes the album stuff, or how we do our live shows. If I was directing a video for a band and a record company asked me to submit a treatment, I’d have to appeal to other people’s personalities, and they all want input, and then it all starts to get watered down. The only person I have to show it to is Damon, and if he’s happy then we’re happy. We have complete freedom, and that’s why it works. We can be whatever we want to be.’
Given how Albarn and Hewlett use the Gorillaz characters to shield themselves from the press, are the duo not worried that the shows may be perceived as Bono-esque acts of political grandstanding? ‘Erm,’ muses Albarn, ‘Well, we’re there primarily because we love the region. The only people who make it political are the media. And if it inspires other people to reappraise their attitudes towards countries like Syria, for example, that can only be a positive thing. So the politics are embedded in what we’re doing, but they’re not overt.’
Both Albarn and Hewlett’s affection for Lebanon is obvious, and the pair are already looking forward to spending some downtime in Beirut, sharing stories of the fun they had last time they were in town. ‘We had a fantastic time,’ recalls Hewlett. ‘I can’t remember which street we went to, but it was full of bars, and everyone was out on the street, partying. At one point I think the Minister of Culture walked down the middle of the street, shaking hands with everybody, and high-fiving.’ You know it’s a good party when the Minister of Culture turns up… ‘He wasn’t flanked by bodyguards,’ says Hewlett. ‘He was just like, “everybody having fun?”’
‘Exactly,’ chuckles Albarn. ‘Out on the street asking people how they felt about something. I can’t imagine our Minister of Culture walking down Whitechapel High Street on Friday night, high-fiving everyone, asking them what they felt about particular aspects of politics.’ Gorillaz’ latest album, Plastic Beach, is available now in stores. For info, see www.gorillaz.com.