Ridin’ with Bigfoot, Harry and the Hendersons
When Damon Albarn went on BBC2 last week and told an interviewer that he wouldn’t be making another pop album with the Gorillaz, he only really proved one thing: Damon Albarn is a fucking idiot. I never particularly liked the Gorillaz’ two albums, but I had to admire Albarn’s unlikely coup. A lot of aging pop stars gradually grow deeply uncomfortable with the spotlight and look for ways to disappear from the attention that mass adulation brings. It’s a cliche. But Albarn managed to figure out a way to disappear that somehow allowed him to sell more records than he had when he was an actual pop star. In the UK, Albarn had spent most of the 90s as a bona fide celebrity, feuding with Oasis and enduring a drawn-out tabloid-fueled breakup with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann; he led the sort of life that could understandably make someone want to drop out of the pop-culture game for good. In America, though, Blur were culty imports who managed to go gold once on the strength of “Song 2,” a fluke accidental jock-jam. So it’s pretty amazing that Albarn’s self-consciously goofy and deconstructionist pop-art project managed to go platinum in America with its self-titled debut album, and it’s even more amazing that that Demon Days, the second Gorillaz album, managed to go double-plat here at a time when nobody was buying music. Albarn pulled off a rare trick: he took his pop-star alienation all the way to the bank. And now he’s giving up on it. Maybe this guy doesn’t know how good he has it.
It’s a little implausible to talk about the breakup of an imaginary cartoon band, especially since Albarn is apparently the only actual full-time member of the Gorillaz and he can revive the name anytime he feels like it. Albarn worked with a completely different set of musical collaborators for the two Gorillaz albums, though both of those albums ended up functionally sounding pretty much the same. Tank Girl illustrator Jamie Hewlett, who draws the ugly-ass Gorillaz mascots, has been around for both records, but given that he doesn’t seem to write or play any of the music I’m not going to call him a member of the group. Instead, Albarn has taken advantage of the project’s general anonymity to scrounge his rolodex for wish-list collaborators: Del, Ibrahim Ferrer, Shaun Ryder, Ike Turner, Neneh Cherry. He hired Dan the Automator to produce the first album and Danger Mouse, the updated 2005 version of Automator, to produce the second. And he stayed off in the wings the entire time, never appearing in Gorillaz videos and only occasionally taking the stage with/for the group. Rather than actual humans, Gorillaz live shows had the band’s cartoon likenesses playing on big movie screens while the real live musicians hid behind them and played their music in the dark. A while ago, there was some talk of a Gorillaz arena tour featuring holograms, and I can just imagine what a glorious mess that might’ve been. I saw the Gorillaz last year at the Apollo, and their big movie screen was busted, but Albarn still stayed hidden, singing his parts off on the wings of the stage and only allowing himself to be glimpsed during the final song of the evening.
Albarn did pretty much everything he could to deflect attention from himself, including inventing a long and tedious backstory for the cartoon band. It was a cheesy hook, certainly, but it snared a lot of record-buyers and resulted in some weird culture-clash moments, like the time the Gorillaz and De La Soul gave the opening performance at the Grammys last year, immediately disappearing when Madonna took the stage afterwards. Both Gorillaz albums are full of lazy, stoned, half-finished songs, each album only boasting a handful of decent hooks, so it seems pretty likely that the project’s gimmicky image and backstory are what sold it those millions. Last year, Nick Sylvester called Gnarls Barkley “a fascinating instance where the publicists and publicity engines and all the mechanisms of the business of music are more artistic than the music itself,” and it seems fair to say that Danger Mouse must’ve picked up a few tricks from his time as Albarn’s hired gun.
And so now Albarn’s sick of it, or maybe not; he never likes giving straight answers in interviews. But here’s what he told BBC2: “There won’t be another pop record.” Instead, he’s working on a film score for the full-length Gorillaz movie, which will apparently somehow involve noted loon Terry Gilliam. I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to go see a full-length Gorillaz movie, but then Albarn has managed to make hard sells pay off before. In any case, he’s beginning to sound like the Beastie Boys’ Adam Yaunch around the time he discovered Buddha and decided he wanted to quit rapping. And after all, money isn’t everything. Maybe Albarn is having too much fun with his new band, the Good, the Bad and the Queen, which wastes the fantastical rhythm section of Paul Siminon and Tony Allen on a depressive song-cycle of drizzly, beatless pub-rock chamber-hymns. Maybe he wants to get back to writing actual songs; I’m not convinced he’s managed to finish one since Blur’s “Tender.” Or maybe he’s just sick of the whole Gorillaz enterprise. He wouldn’t be the only one.