The idea of charismatic Blur frontman Damon Albarn hiding behind a fictional cartoon band to make an experimental fusion of hip-hop and garage rock probably seemed crazy at the time.
But the Gorillaz’s 2001 debut album sold more than 6 million records worldwide and spawned “Clint Eastwood,” one of the most despondent, yet strangely mesmerizing, hit singles in recent memory.
Now comes “Demon Days,” the Gorillaz’ highly anticipated follow-up, which debuted at No. 6 on the album charts last week with 107,000 copies sold. No longer regarded as Albarn’s quirky side project, “Demon Days” already has a catchy roller-skating iPod commercial attached to its first single, “Feel Good Inc.”
For the latest album, Albarn invited the usual assortment of haphazard guest stars: Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton, the producer behind the infamous Grey Album); De La Soul; Ike Turner, MF Doom, even Dennis Hopper. The Associated Press met up with the band at New York’s Soho Grand Hotel for a discussion of things both real and imagined.
AP: Demon Days is darker than its predecessor and a pretty somber album for a cartoon band. What set the mood?
Albarn: The album exists kind of in the nighttime entirely except for the last song, which kind of alludes to a new day. Its about demons, it’s about where they descend upon the earth whereas the other record was really quite more direct. It’s a moody record but we live in very moody times.
AP: Was Danger Mouse’s work on The Grey Album enough to invite him on board?
Albarn: Yeah, last year I switched on the radio and I thought the loudest bleep out there was Brian’s so I reined him in. Brian is the best producer I’ve ever worked with and the youngest producer I’ve ever worked with. I used to be younger than my producers but now I’m older than my producers and I think that works for me, that works better cause you get a good kick up the ... everyday.
AP: How did you get involved with the iPod people?
Albarn: That’s not much to do with us. I’ve kind of realized over the last 15 years that the business side is to be left to the professionals.
AP: Yeah, but Blur’s music was in tons of commercials as well.
Albarn: I’m slightly ambivalent to the whole relationship between the whole advertising world and music. I think sometimes it works and sometimes it’s a really bad mismatch. I think on this occasion its fine because the iPod is like your own mini-library and that can’t be a bad thing. It promotes eclecticism and that’s very much what we are about so it’s a good relationship.
AP: Collaborating with De La Soul and Neneh Cherry make sense, but how did you get involved with people like Ike Turner and Dennis Hopper?
Burton: I’ve known Ike for I guess a couple of years out in California so I had been talking to him about music a lot and talking about working together and then the song (“Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”) came along in the studio, just kind of light bulb moment, just kind of, ’Like whoa he’d be great on this,’ so we went back and played it for him and he just did his thing on it. He had a piano solo on it and it turned out great.
Albarn: The whole Gorillaz concept is one for mavericks; it’s a way for people who never have a chance to work together being able to ally behind the cartoons. Like with De La Soul they are mavericks in hip-hop and they understand pop as well so I think that’s why it worked. Dennis Hopper, the whole album kind of deals with demons and he’s a kind of past master of dealing with his demons and that particular tune he’s on (“Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head”) is playful about innocence being taken from us all. It’s kind of apocalyptic in a sense, that’s why he’s the light bulb that kind of came up.
AP: One of the standout tracks on the album, “DARE,” features Shaun Ryder. How did you get him recording in top form again?
Albarn: I really wanted Shaun, I mean when you talk about resurrecting Shaun Ryder you really mean it. Shaun, in British culture, holds a very special place — he’s sort of a poet and a visionary. Shaun helped ally ecstasy and music, in fact he was probably responsible for first bringing it into the country, and look at the influence of ecstasy on American music now and hip-hop. That really essentially comes from Shaun Ryder and his gang.
AP: Are there bits of you in your cartoon alter egos?
Albarn: I don’t feel particularly like the cartoons.
AP: Murdoc sounds a lot like Billy Idol actually
Albarn: (laughs) Yeah but Billy Idol was just trying to be Keith Richards, it all comes back to Keith Richards. He’s a clear inspiration in this band — the spirits of him anyway.
AP: Hiding behind illustrations is a way of keeping people out of your personal lives and letting the music speak for itself, but how do you balance the cartoon images with reality?
Albarn: Well we try not to come out, just when we get forced out. They hang a really big carrot out, like a really good meal or something. It just seems to me, having done the whole kind of celebrity thing not so much in this country but definitely in Europe, it seems after a while people become kind of enveloped in their own image and can’t really escape from it and I think it sort of breeds a kind of laziness in people. You know I don’t see the biggest bands in the world really developing much over their careers these days, not compared to the Beatles or the Who or the Stones you know what I mean?
AP: Weren’t you going to make a Gorillaz movie with DreamWorks?
Albarn: We had to terminate it due to artistic differences. We worked on it for two years. We were working with them and it just didn’t work out for us. Maybe we weren’t ready to make the film. We’re still intent to make it but maybe well do it a different way this time but anyway the idea for the film sort of turned into ’Demon Days’ so we didn’t lose that train of thought really.
AP: Will you be touring behind a screen again?
Albarn: That’s not something that we want to do this time, to be honest we haven’t worked out how to do it. Gorillaz gives us great advantages but also poses difficulties and one of those is how do we recreate it without us being visible ... But whatever happens we disappear. I mean we come out of the shadows occasionally to sort of help the idea along but essentially its not about us, its about music.