This week we're hearing the first album by the world’s coolest virtual band, Gorillaz.
Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett started up this project as a kind of anti-band, driven by wanting to tear down the artifice of celebrity from music. What they gave us in 2001 was an album of hypnotic electro hip hop crossed with rock, punk and dub, delivered by a motley bunch of cartoon characters. Murdoc, 2D, Noodle and Russel have re-framed the possibilities of what a band can be, and have taken us on adventures far and wide. This album provided for a fascinating point of departure.
I approached Gorillaz debut record with a mix of wry amusement and cautious excitement upon its release in 2001. What kind of gimmick was this? An album of songs by a cartoon band?
The cynicism was short-lived. I loved the record’s lo-fi electro/hip hop while absorbing the hypnotic, far away landscapes and shenanigans of the animated ‘band members’. They became as iconic and as recognizable as any of the world’s coolest rock stars.
They’re not the first virtual band we’ve ever seen, but they’re the most successful. With a new album due this year, it seems like a good time to look back on the record that introduced us to this motley bunch.
Whilst Damon Albarn gets a lot of the attention for making the music, Gorillaz co-founder and animator Jamie Hewlett’s intrepid characters are equally as vital to bringing this music to life. They are key to why we love this band so much.
You might remember the huge breakout success of Jamie Hewlett’s comic character Tank Girl in the '80s. He also did album artwork for a bunch of bands in the '90s.
But where did the inspiration for the Gorillaz gang come from?
To get a glimpse it’s worth looking a little deeper into Jamie Hewlett’s life and work.
His main early influences include MAD magazine animators like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis and Harvey Kurtzmann. He was also inspired by Chuck Jones characters like Daffy Duck and Wile E Coyote. The impact of legendary French artist Moebius is also especially evident.
Japanese anime and in particular Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle In The Sky are key influences. Cast your eyes over Windmill Island, a fantasy location used in Gorillaz clips.
Hewlett grew up loving zombie flicks and sci-fi classics like Blade Runner. But it seems he also had a soft spot for religious horror. The Pazuzu spirit that features in The Exorcist appears around the Gorillaz Kong studios, on t-shirts and videos too. Perhaps explains why Murdoc is a Satanist and Russel was ‘possessed’ by the spirit of Del Tha Ghost Rapper aka Del Tha Funkee Homosapien.
In 2007, Hewlett and Albarn (both born in the 1968, a Monkey Year) gave an ancient Chinese tale the Gorillaz treatment. They adapted Monkey: Journey to The West for the stage. As an opera no less! They released the accompanying album in 2008.
You could draw a parallel here. The four mismatched souls (the monkey, the fish, the pig and the priest) go on a quest that seems to have no end. It's a lot like that of the four Gorillaz members who encounter their own boundless adventures and mishaps.
As a kid Jamie loved the first Star Wars movie (aka Episode IV). He’d mock up his first attempts at a comic strip drawing Han Solo and Chewbacca. His parents didn’t hang onto those very early artistic forays. Jamie, perhaps having learnt from this, apparently, keeps all his own kids’ drawings.
In recent times, Hewlett has been learning oil painting and put together his first fine art exhibition, which included a series of '70s film posters, pine trees and hand drawn tarot cards.
One can only imagine how these endeavours will surface on the aesthetic and sound of the upcoming Gorillaz album. But it’s safe to say, I can’t wait.