Originally published in Verbicide issue #16
If authenticity is one of the hallmarks of a great band, Gorillaz have a lot of work cut out for them. Not that they haven’t earned their street cred. The new album, Demon Days, is a dark and clever mix of punk, dub, hip-hop, and pop worthy of mainstream and underground attention. In fact, its sound is fucking infectious. But perhaps that is part of the problem. Led by Japanese guitar prodigy, Noodle, the band is a study in music archetypes; 2D is the lead singer and requisite pretty boy, Murdoc oozes with a boozy charisma, and Russel bridges the hip-hop gap. They are also cartoons. For any other band, that would be a major professional obstacle. Society is often too suspicious and jaded to accept things that seem too palatable; too commercial. However, as the old saying goes, good music will prevail.
Luckily for Gorillaz, they make good music. Four years after their band imploded from the stress of mainstream success, Gorillaz have reunited at the fabled Essex Kong Studios to convert the nonbelievers and prove, once and for all, that this cartoon band is the real deal.
If it wasn’t already obvious, Demon Days has avoided the sophomore slump! Are you guys taking your revived celebrity in stride?
Murdoc: Yup, piece of piss. We’ve slipped back as comfortably as a withered hand in an old glove, back to the same old game of sitting here answering an endless list of turdy questions.
Noodle: It’s been really heartwarming to see how many people have responded positively to the Demon Days album. It’s a reassurance that our time was not wasted and also that we made the right record.
Russel: But the notion of celebrity was nowhere near the studio when we recorded the album. It was about making a record of value, something that people would really appreciate, y’know.
Murdoc: Bullshit. The fact that everyone knows who I am now gives me access to everything I’ve ever wanted. Don’t knock it, Russ, seriously.
Murdoc, how did the band convince you to cede control of the Gorillaz to Noodle this time around? I know you are notoriously protective since the Gorillaz was originally your creation.
Murdoc: No one convinced me to “cede control” in the slightest. I was stuck in jail down in Mexico. There was no way out so young Noodle took the helm. And she did a good job. Not as good as I would have done, but still a good job.
Noodle: Er…thank you…I think.
Murdoc: The next Gorillaz album going be a whole load better though. One-hundred percent pure black metal. And you can quote me on that.
Noodle: I’d begun work on this album before the other Gorillaz returned from their adventures. The initial idea was to put down some rough sketches for the songs, and upon their return, we would work them up into complete tracks. But as time went on, it fell to me to complete the vision that I’d had for the album. Alongside producer Dangermouse we managed to complete a vast majority of the music before the others returned. But it was their contributions that elevated that album into the realms of excellence.
A lot has been made of your sudden rise to fame, and destruction at the hands of hard living, exhaustion, and corruption by the music business. Now that you’re on top again, what’s the plan to avoid a repeat of that breakdown?
Murdoc: Avoid it? Love, it’s the best bit. Hard living? Corruption? These are the good times, my friend.
Russel: Even though this album’s bigger than the first one, last time we didn’t really know what to expect, so the excitement, the rush…it was a little too much sometimes. That’s one of the reasons
why I had my….
Murdoc: Big mental breakdown. Ha ha! Keep taking the pills Russ…everything’s fine. As long as you…keep…taking…the pills.
How did you approach creating the somber feel of the new album? Specifically,“Dirty Harry,” “Don’t Get Lost In Heaven,” and “Demon Days” have taken on an eerie choral quality that was absent on the first album.
Noodle: It wasn’t intentional to make the album darker, but as musicians or creative people in general, these things just come out without you seeing. It’s almost as if you’re just a conductor, many of the colours you pick and the textures you choose come out through you subconsciously. You just end up reflecting the spirit of the times, sometimes. And…maybe people are responding to that, and buying the album, without knowing it themselves.
Russel: People respond to something that has soul, or a depth to it. The album isn’t all dark. It does have a gravity to it, but by the outro the feel is really light and optimistic. It’s a balanced record, it points out the darkness and the dark side, but also offers hope and positivity.
Noodle: The choral elements came from trying to find a…harmony…or …something that would offer a spiritual, redemptive quality to the darkness that cloaks many of the songs. “Demon Days” and “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” in particular have that element because they are the outro, exit tracks, and point towards a more harmonious, uplifting outlook.
Murdoc: We found the choir at the end of the street. They were standing on the corner practicing barbershop harmonies so we bunged them five dollars and a couple of malt-shakes and they whizzed on down to our studio.
Noodle’s been quoted as saying,“Every great band is destroyed by their success. Cartoon bands are no different.” It’s interesting because you guys have maintained popularity and credibility as cartoons when human bands so often fail on both counts. Have you ever been marginalized because you are cartoons? And why do you think you’ve managed to find acceptance and reach so many people?
Murdoc: We’re a gimmick with soul, right?
Noodle: The way we present ourselves is as important to us as the music we make. It’s all part of a focused and direct expression.The uniqueness of this presentation is definitely one of the reasons why people have responded to us in the way that they have. It gives people a refreshing entry point into our world. It stands out.
2D: And getting all those superstars on the record helps, too…
Noodle: Well, also because of the removal of egos, people feel less self-conscious about collaborating and presenting their own work alongside ours. It becomes more about the work rather than simply another band presenting their own personalities.
Murdoc: Who are almost universally boring, turgid, life-draining, soul-sapping morons, with nothing other than a fancy haircut and some kind of…grinning baboon-like face. Who wants to buy into that?
Russel, do you feel that being the only American in the group adds anything to the group culturally, politically, or otherwise, especially now that the landscape of politics in the USA have changed so much since last album?
Russel: Well, the pace of New York was far faster than what goes down in Essex. But, musically, it helped me put so much into Gorillaz, just being able to put a lot of the New York soul into our sound. English writers are so great at melody but sometimes lack the heaviness, or the rhythm of the States. So with Gorillaz the blend works real well.
Politically, however, I think most members of Gorillaz share similar views. Access to information now makes politics an issue of global opinions, not just one country’s views against the other. Many people worldwide share the same feelings towards many issues, whether they’re environmental, economics, or issues of conflict.
By now, the new video for “DARE”will have made the rounds with the follow up video for “Dirty Harry.” How was the experience of making that video out in the desert?
Russel: Hot. Really hot.
2D: And sandy…
Murdoc: Christ! See what I’ve gotta deal with?
Noodle: “Dirty Harry” was mainly filmed in the desert around Swakopmund in Namibia, which is in South Africa. The reasoning behind using this location is that no matter how you treat a video after it has been filmed, it’s virtually impossible to achieve that ”real authentic desert“ look down on a beach in Cornwall. So we filmed right in the middle of the proper desert. The nearest town, Walvis Bay, was about half an hour away.
2D: That was a really strange looking place. Sort of a “Germanic” style village. You kind of imagine someone like Augustus Gloop’s family would live there. Which is a bit odd for South Africa.
Murdoc: I’ll tell you one good story, which is funny ‘cos it’s true. On the set of the video, the catering truck was positioned about half a mile away, to keep everything out of the sun. But Russel, the fat sod, fancied a sandwich or something, halfway through filming. So one of the runners offered to take him over there on the back of a quadbike. Russel gets onto the back and they’re just going up the first hill, when the whole bike flips over. ‘Cos it can’t take the weight of this enormous drumming lump on the back! Both of them and the bike were stuck in the sand upside-down for maybe two hours. Ha ha ha! I just
watched and laughed at them the whole time.
Russel: Murdoc was the one who managed to get all the army vehicles for the shoot, but that almost got us in a whole heap of trouble…
Murdoc: See, I was, well, so off my head at one point I just felt awful. I was crawling around the desert floor, trying to find somewhere to crash out. I’d drunk too much of this…er…“snake beer.” I thought I was gonna die. That’s when I saw this vehicle parked up. So I crawled into the front seat of this
vehicle thinking it was a Red Cross truck. I was gonna demand that whoever was in it, that they to take me to hospital immediately, because even by my standards I thought “I’ve definitely overdone it this time.”
Suddenly, right, there’s all this banging on the side of the truck. I’m surrounded by all these army geezers! Carrying great big military shooters! So I lock the door, bend down, hot wire the truck and get the hell out of there, quicksmart. The soldiers were shooting bullets at me, trying to get me to stop, but I thought, Fuck it. I just drove off. Laughing.
When I got to the video shoot everyone was going, “Hey! Nice truck! Perfect. Just what we need.” So, I made out I’d hired it off some local, kept schtum about all the other stuff, and took all the credit. I just figured if the army ever caught up with me, one of those poncey video directors would sort it out. Make some calls or whatever.
So that’s how we got the truck for the shoot. And the funny thing is because of all that, I felt fine again. Sobered me up nicely. Just in time for last orders.
What’s the deal with the “Reject False Icons”movement?
Murdoc: The deal is give us five pounds and we’ll reject a false icon for you.
Noodle: The “Reject False Icons” motif was more a controlling idea that became a catalyst for the creation of the album. “Don’t accept inferior goods,” “think for yourself,” and “make something better than the things that you are being offered.” We wanted to put this feeling into the album.
Murdoc: Look, it’s obvious what it means. You look at the charts, the TV, the films people put out…just the crap that gets shoved down our throats, whole industries built on the idea of make rubbish for people to consume. And you’re actually told to look up to and respect these vacuous personalities. What’s the point? It’s a big waste of time and these people are selling you turds….sling them out.
The G Sides and the Space Monkeys collaborations were great departures from the first album. Will there be a similar follow-up to Demon Days?
Noodle: There’s a possibility that there will be another interpretation of the album, yes. It may even involve the Space Monkeys again.
Murdoc: The first Space Monkeys remix album was great, but it took a year or so to get the smell out of the studio.
As rock stars you are in a unique position because you’re doing what you love. But if it wasn’t music, what would you be doing? What is your second passion?
2D: I’d…er…probably be in a band. I think.
Murdoc: I hate questions like this. “If you weren’t who you are, who would you be?” I’ve got no idea! It’s ridiculous. Actually, thinking about this, I reckon I could turn my hand to anything, booze-smuggling, clocking, car-jacking. Or I’d be a film star or something. Playing myself. probably.
Russel: I’d probably be in school or some further education. I’ve always been scholarly and I’d like to think that if I hadn’t followed the path of music I would’ve still done something that’d give something of value back to my community.
Noodle: I think that as long as I’m playing the correct part at the right time, I would be comfortable and find harmony in almost any occupation. Ultimately the part you play in life, and the reward you feel, depends not entirely on the nature of the work you do, but the way that you execute your duties. If I wasn’t in a band I’m sure I would be just as content, say…
Murdoc: Answering interview questions for some other animated band?
This album features some excellent collaborations. Damon Albarn, Dangermouse, Dennis Hopper, Shaun Ryder…what was it like getting Ike Turner in the studio?
Russel: The man is a legend. Irrespective of the reputation that accompanies his personal life, he has contributed a huge amount to music, and for that reason we wanted to work with him. The piano part he gave to us at the end of ‘Every Planet we Reach is Dead’ was just superb.
2D: And he was a real star in Manchester. Every night he had a brand new suit on that stole the show.
Noodle: All of the guests and contributors were selected because of the role they play in the history of music and the shaping of our references. The idea of putting Shaun Ryder with an Ennio Morricone melody, or Bootie Brown with and Arabic String line, or Dennis Hopper over a breakbeat…. it was about taking apparently conflicting textures and making them work in harmony.
Lastly, any words to the Gorillaz faithful?
Murdoc: Don’t shit on your own doorstep.