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"Cartoon characters live or die by the artist’s pen, which is not the case with rock stars."
—--Damon Albarn
GORILLAZ IN OUR MIDST
Cartoon Band Draws A Hit With First Album
"I'm not here as a pop star. I'm just here as part of a collaboration," says Damon Albarn of Gorillaz. "I don't want to be a pop star any more; I want to be a musician."

After many successful years with his primary band Blur, Brit-popper Albarn needed a change from all the Platinum records and groupies. So he hooked up with his roommate and "Tank Girl" animator, Jamie Hewlett, to create the virtual band Gorillaz. He focused on the music; Hewlett focused on the imagery. When they both emerged from their respective labs, the pair’s schizoid love-child was a twisted trip-hop and rock extravaganza centered around four principle cartoon characters 2-D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle which range from a 10-year-old Japanese guitarist to a Satanic bassist. And behind the animation, musical "collaborators" Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori, Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club's Tina Weymouth, Buena Vista Social Club star Ibrahim Ferrer, and of course, Albarn make some pretty funky commotion.

The bouillabaisse is surprisingly successful. With the album camped out inside the Top 20, the dreamy first single "Clint Eastwood"which curiously makes no reference to the movie star, but does offer a spaghetti western harmonica themeis giving rap-rock a run for its money at radio and the stylish video is infiltrating MTV. Better yet is the Gorillaz's website (www.gorillaz.com) which continues the characters' adventures online. Albarn showed up in the flesh, but wished he hadn’t when he drew the blank stares and cartoonish attempts at interviewing of HITS’ "Who Shot" J.R. Griffin.

Did you make these characters because you're sick of being a rock star?
It's weird, because a project like this takes an incredible amount of focus. I had the naive idea that, if we used cartoons, I'd have to do less. It turned out that we actually have to explain it more, because it's a new idea. But we're beginning to see that there is a payoff down the line, especially in Europe. We played a show behind a screen with the characters projected on it. We got to focus on the music and not the showmanship. We’re getting out of the loop because kids are really loving the characters and the Internet site. They're not interested in who created it. That's normal with cartoons, but not in music. And to me, that's really refreshing; that tells me that they like the album because of the music and not because of the celebrity aspect of it.

Did you put extra effort into making the music really good because people were going to think that this idea was hokey?
I completely went off on my own little journey with the music and saw it as an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted to do. And that doesn't mean that I became self-indulgent. It may have started as me on my own, but it turned into a completely different animal very quickly. When Dan ["the Automator" Nakamura] got involved, he brought in a lot of new ideas and people.

You picked up a bass player on the street.
People just sort of literally turned up without being asked. Dan Junior, who plays bass on most of the tracks, literally was standing outside my studio and came in because he liked what he was hearing. It turned out that he was one of the greatest reggae bass players of all time. It was really bizarre; I couldn't have planned it better myself. I couldn't explain it, but I didn't argue with it.

Do you worry about the characters becoming more popular than you?
I hope they do—they're much more interesting than I am. And their potential to stir things up in the mainstream is kind of endless, you know? In that way, this band is a very organic thing. We didn't set up this thing where they're already stars. They're a band that has to earn their stripes and they're beginning to. I think that's what makes it completely unique and interesting. Whatever happens to the band, we respond to. People that are into it feel as if they're involved in it in a way that you could never be involved with a real band, so to speak.

Who's easier to deal with, rock stars or cartoon characters?
Cartoon characters—they live or die by the artist’s pen, which is not the case with rock stars.

Did you friends ever warn you, a pasty Brit, not to do hip-hop?
I never subscribed to the fact that I couldn't do hip-hop. It's like telling a kid that he can't play Mozart. Of course the kid can play Mozart, he just has to understand Mozart. It's bollocks. If you've got balls, you can do what you want. Just don't get intimidated—by anything. Just assume that you can do it. And if you can't, no big deal, it's only music.

What do you like more—working with Blur or Gorillaz?
I want this to be a new stage in my life where I can work with anyone I want and use my experience in pop music to make really weird, and hopefully sort of inspiring, pop music. If you can create interesting music and make it popular, that's the best balance. There are a lot of musicians who view the mainstream as being a really horrible, evil place and have no desire to enter that world. But I really like it. That's where I started off and that's where I want to stay.

So there will be another Blur album.
Absolutely. I actually listened to the last album that we did ["13"] on the plane over here. I haven't listened to it for two years. I think it's really good. I can actually say that now with some kind of perspective. If that was good, then there's no reason we can't do even better on the next one. The thing with Blur is that we’re four people who grew up together, and we do our thing. We have a lot of weird things that we might try on the next record. I just like to keep a balance, and in a way this is perfect for me, because I can play around with pop music with Gorillaz and then bring those ridiculous ideas to Blur.

 

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