Damon Albarn resurrects Gorillaz with the dystopian party of Humanz
“Imagine a night where everything that you believed in was turned on its head. How would you feel?”
Just over a year ago, Damon Albarn was beginning, in earnest, to make the new Gorillaz album, Humanz. As he reached out to the predictably dizzying array of collaborators, that was the main question he asked them: a basic premise plucked from a looming disaster out on 2016’s horizon.
Soon after the official announcement of Humanz and some weeks from its release, I am with Albarn at his hotel on a torrentially rainy day in Manhattan. The last time I spoke to him, in 2014, he was promoting his first true solo album under his own name, Everyday Robots. Perhaps understandably, he was a little bristly and evasive if you asked him about the prospect of new Blur or Gorillaz at that time.
“What makes a Gorillaz song different than anything else I do is very simple: I just use synthesizers,” he said. “Are you asking me if I’ll make another album someday with synths and drum machines? Sure.”
Today, he doesn’t say anything nearly as reductive or dismissive of Gorillaz. Now that it isn’t one of those past lives people still want to ask about, but instead revived and once more offering him this type of songwriting outlet, he comes across almost giddy about the whole thing, gleefully sharing anecdotes about working with specific artists or indulging granular questions about the process behind making these albums.
It’s been just over seven years since Gorillaz’ last full-fledged album, 2010’s Plastic Beach. (Quickly on the heels of that, there was also The Fall — first released as a download in late 2010, then physically in April 2011 — though with its departure from the usual structure and approach of Gorillaz albums, it felt more like a coda to the Plastic Beach era than a new chapter.) Part of the reason for the long wait is a falling out between Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, who provides the visual component of Gorillaz. They patched up whatever issues they had some time ago, but Albarn’s also become an increasingly booked-up artist in the years since Plastic Beach. There’s been talk of new Gorillaz music for a while now, sometimes coyly and other times definitively, but it still had to come after roughly five years of the project being totally inactive.
It’s actually not a terribly long break considering the time between other Gorillaz albums, but for a chunk of time we thought there would never be any new Gorillaz music, so it feels like a momentous return no matter the time elapsed. First started by Albarn and Hewlett almost two decades ago, what could’ve been a one-off side project developed into an idiosyncratic pop force — a virtual band, a multimedia project, a constantly morphing and malleable collaboration. It’s as crucial to Albarn’s identity as an artist as Blur is. Given how much has changed in the years between major Gorillaz releases — in music, in technology, in the world — it was exciting to think of what might happen when Albarn returned to this style and headspace of writing. It was exciting to think of what the hell the album might be about, because Gorillaz releases inherently come with their own set of internal rules and logic. They can be about anything.
“A night where everything that you believed in was turned on its head” was, of course, the way Albarn prompted contributors to consider the prospect of election night arriving and, somehow, Donald Trump winning. He was thinking about this when it still seemed like a distant, deluded possibility. But the American fever nightmare of it — a grifting game show host becoming president for his celebrity — is the exact kind of bizarre, upside-down narrative that makes sense on a Gorillaz album.
“[Humanz] is a journey through that night, post-whatever that was,” Albarn explains. “That news. When you go out that night, how do you feel? This record was anticipating that night but trying to make a party out of it.”
There’s always been something post-apocalyptic about Gorillaz. Whether in the music or the visuals or both, Gorillaz combined ancient myth from faraway places with the plasticity of pop commodity and the theoretically low art of cartoons. It meditated on all the disposable things in modern life and then smashed them together into diverse, warping albums, like so many lost voices and ideas and images digitized into some kind of altered immortality. In Hewlett’s accompanying videos, the post-apocalyptic narratives were more direct, as the band’s four virtual members found themselves beset by mysterious enemies in strange, destroyed lands, fleeing one destruction after another. But whether it’s those stories, or the nature of the music, or the nature of Gorillaz as a concept, there’s something end-times (or at least post-now) about the whole thing: like we’re watching the process of someone collecting all this detritus and creating a new world out of it.
From a songwriting standpoint, Albarn started Humanz by demoing on his iPad (the way he made all of The Fall). His rule in the beginning: “I just wanted to make a fast record again.” By his own estimation, Albarn has made some “slow, atmospheric” records in recent years, and that is certainly true of Everyday Robots and mostly true of Blur’s excellent 2015 comeback The Magic Whip. Though it’s hard to look at the left turns Albarn’s career took in the 21st century and think the man had ever really started repeating himself, that’s how he felt. Here, he wanted nothing under 120BPM and no acoustic instruments. Originally, perhaps inspired by the artificiality of the sound or perhaps simply in tribute to Lou Reed, he considered naming the album Transformerz. He axed that name when his teenage daughter told him it’d only remind people of those big, loud Michael Bay movies these days, and after a few other discarded options, he settled on Humanz, which seemed to sum up the various ideas of the album.
Once he had all the sketches in place, the long process of fleshing out the album began. In addition to his one-line prompt about the night where everything changes, he set a few other ground rules.
“We wanted this record to convey pain, joy, and urgency,” he says. “Those were the three tenets. You couldn’t enter the dark fantasy unless you were going to carry those three superpowers with you.” After you settle that, what does the night look like? “Everything changes. Mankind becomes slightly different and has a slightly different perspective and sensitivity about everything,” he says, continuing to flesh out the genesis of the album’s many collaborations. “People are slightly more digital. Truth is distorted and manipulated. Glitched, almost.”
He continues: “I was trying to imagine the spirit that might be present in a big city in the United States [on that night].” Some of the songs reflect an atmosphere, some of them have a very specific image or story in mind. One of the deluxe edition tracks, “Ticker Tape” (which features Carly Simon), is about a ticker tape parade where nobody comes out. “It’s in moonlight, it’s in black and white, it’s in monochrome,” Albarn describes, growing a bit more excitable as he paints the picture. “I was having a lot of fun imagining some pretty dark, fantastical things, which in a way have…that spirit has manifested itself.” (Ironically, it isn’t very hard at all to imagine the scene of “Ticker Tape,” given those dismal photos of the would-be parade from Trump’s inauguration.)
Albarn begins the process of building the album around his ideas by conveying all this to potential guests via letter. (“[Some] people are really excited about the prospect,” he says, then adds, chuckling, “You also have people where you have to explain what it is.”) Then, there might be a conversation, or a Skype session. Then they’ll meet in person. Then, maybe and finally, they’ll get to making music. Ninety-eight percent of the time, Albarn is in the studio with his collaborators, giving them lyrics or notes or the song as it exists, and working on pieces of it together. Plenty of times, people come in and record and don’t make it onto any of the finished products, whether album tracks or B-sides.
Though he understandably demurs to mention any of the Gorillaz collaborations that could have been yet never made it out into the world, he’s a little more forthcoming about all the times he’s been rejected, which also happens a lot. There was already the bemusing frustration of the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb showing up to finally record his part for Plastic Beach, only to suddenly develop an ear infection as he arrived at the studio and promptly leave. This time around, Albarn faced his second rejection from Dionne Warwick.
“This time she got into the studio and I managed to play the piano with her but it still didn’t work out. I’ve been dumped by a lot of potential suitors,” he laughs. Morrissey and Sade were amongst the other artists who passed.
With so many years having elapsed between Gorillaz records, it was easy to imagine all the new names that could make sense (or surprise) within this world Albarn’s dreamt up. And, as usual, there’s wish fulfillment — Danny Brown and a Gorillaz beat go together as zanily well as expected — and more surprising moments, like Ben Mendelsohn’s narration interludes or Albarn enlisting both Jehnny Beth of Savages and his one-time nemesis Noel Gallagher to assist on the uplifting closer “We Got The Power.”
Once he actually corrals everyone and has his studio sessions, things can play out a variety of ways. Sometimes he needs a specificity to the part, and he notes that younger artists are sometimes more concerned with coming in and getting their part right. Other times, it mutates or comes into focus as they’re in the room together. Grace Jones’ ghostly turn on “Charger” was the result of her singing over the track for four hours, ad-libbing and vibing to it. At a later point, Albarn had the studio floor covered in cut up pieces of paper with everything she’d said, finding the fragments that worked and eventually crafting the song from there.
The far-reaching results of these kinds of processes yield albums that wind up broadening the world for those of us who venture down the rabbitholes suggested by Albarn’s collision of sounds, traditions, and voices. That was particularly true of Demon Days, where Gorillaz really crystallized into this form from the more modest exploration of the debut. That’s an album that impacted a lot of young listeners in the mid-’00s — including Vince Staples, another ascendant name since the time of Plastic Beach, who leads the charge of Humanz with “Ascension.” A fan since Gorillaz’ sophomore album, Staples met Albarn a few years ago. Albarn told him the name of the beat and Staples took it from there.
“I was happy to be a part of the project,” Staples says of working on Humanz. “The song is great, but it does not compare to the things that [Damon] has taught me about myself and my art, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to know him.”
Not every connection forged by Gorillaz is as deep, one would have to imagine, but it’s a telling glimpse into how the collaborations Albarn seeks are a little different than sending a finished track to somebody and asking for a guest verse. Just as Demon Days or Plastic Beach opened new parts of the world to us listeners, it’s striking to hear Albarn talk of these albums and consider how much his life and stature has shifted from once simply being the frontman of a very British rock band. De La Soul — who are now the only guests to appear on a Gorillaz record for the third time with the quirky, propulsive “Momentz” — have simply kept popping back up because they and Albarn have become such good friends.
It’s a distinctly different role to play, rather than sitting in a room with three other musicians and writing an album or orchestrating a musical. There’s as much architectural design, editing, and curating involved in making a Gorillaz record as there is songwriting. Albarn asserts that nobody was really making pop music quite in the same way before Gorillaz, and any imitators since haven’t done it to this extent.
The end result this time around with Humanz is another Gorillaz album lined with genres and voices entangled. Yet, sonically, it most recalls The Fall on the first few listens. As opposed to the density of Demon Days or the sun-soaked melt of Plastic Beach, Humanz continues with some of the bleary-eyed nocturnal qualities of The Fall, sickly rubberiness meeting wistful meditations.
“It’s unashamedly about America,” Albarn says of Humanz. “But not geographically.” As opposed to The Fall‘s sleepy tour travelogue, Humanz pushes forward, drawing on our country’s themes and artistic traditions in an attempt to decipher an event as theoretically unexplainable now that it’s real as when it was simply imagined.
“I was talking to a mate over lunch,” Albarn says as he collapses into an antique-looking chair in his hotel room. “We were talking about working together in 2020. It’s like that these days. The older I get, the further away the projections are, which is sort of counterintuitive, really.”
At 49 years old, Albarn is starting to look and sound his age a bit more than the guy from the past — that one who seemed to have stolen a whole lot of supplies from the Fountain Of Youth, that one who still could occasionally come across as a bristly celebrity pop star. Any conversation with him now, despite his past angst regarding the media, is mellow. He’ll be matter of fact about his career, then drift into abstract musings. That’s the stereotype about him now: that amicably half-asleep drawl. But even though he might discuss his insanely busy and scheduled calendar nonchalantly, he also displays a still-youthful energy when the right topic fires him up. He spends most of our conversation folded over like a teenager with his shoes up on the chair but becomes animated when we veer into particular topics, like the state of the world that’s impacting his current projects.
Of course, it has to take a good deal of energy and focus to move between the different projects Albarn stacks up after one another, despite that recent reputation he’d accrued as a lethargic balladeer. He’ll tour Gorillaz most of this year, including bringing the new Demon Dayz festival — which at first seemed to be only occurring in Margate, England — to Chicago. (He has to tour the album heavily: as he notes, these records are not cheap to make, given the expansive and convoluted nature of the process.) After that, he’s basically booked through 2019. There’s another musical on the horizon, this time based on the Malian epic poem Sundiata Keita. Supposedly, he has dozens more Gorillaz songs hanging around, so, who knows. He doesn’t offer any details or concrete plans yet, but also reveals he’d recently talked with producer Tony Visconti (famed for his work with David Bowie) about working on something — something also involving Paul Simonon.
Speaking of Simonon, that’s where Albarn’s 2018 is likely headed: Right around the time Humanz will see release, he’s hoping to be finishing up a second album from the Good, The Bad, & The Queen, his for-now one-off project that included Simonon, the Verve’s Simon Tong, and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. By the time the new album comes out, it will be more than 10 years since the first. Then positioned as Albarn’s London album just over a decade after Parklife, his return to this particular project will also find him going back to that political, homebound territory — he teases it as his first “post-Brexit commentary” and says it’s so far an extension of the first album but with a more soulful direction and more Afro-centric rhythms, describing the whole thing as being “an Afro-soul Parklife, if that’s possible.”
At this point, we’re used to this version of Albarn — the furiously prolific songwriter, juggling many projects of varying profiles at any given moment. “It’s akin to crop rotation, though not quite as straightforward as that,” he says of shifting between these worlds. “There is something to be said for leaving stuff alone and coming back when you really feel an empathy for it, and not doing it just for the sake of it.”
Within all of that, it’s easy to forget that Gorillaz has been a going concern since the self-titled came out in 2001, has had a string of hits Stateside that you still hear all the time just randomly in public, and still represents one of the weirder about-faces for a rock frontman in pop history. For some, Albarn might now be more synonymous with Gorillaz than with Blur — that is, if you even know the name of the mastermind behind Gorillaz’s music. All of which is to say: For all the riches and surprising detours that have come to define Albarn’s career, the announcement of new Gorillaz music finally arriving was still a big deal.
“They come into focus when there’s an urgency to them,” Albarn says of moving between projects, and of occasionally taking many years between installments by one act or another. And, looking around the world in early 2016, he had a hell of a lot of material to find that urgency for Humanz.
“I don’t think there would be Gorillaz if there wasn’t America,” Albarn ventures. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world that has the sort of resources to keep something like Gorillaz afloat, other than America. It’s big. It really is. God bless America.” He delivers the final line with a sardonic grin and a laugh.
Aside from the thematic premise of Humanz there’s also a practical definition underlying the idea of Gorillaz as an American project from a British artist. Back when Everyday Robots came out, it seemed as if you’d hear every variation of how and why people knew Albarn’s music: old indie dudes who had loved Blur in the ’90s and kept following him; people who knew Gorillaz hits and figured out who he was, then dug backwards; people who were just realizing the guy was one and the same even though they’d liked both.
But no matter how you cut all of that, Gorillaz had major hits in America; Blur had one, and it was their piss-take on American rock music. When it comes to those of us who were teenagers in America during the mid-’00s rather than the mid-’90s, this stuff is ingrained — the singles from Gorillaz feel more like they’re ours than any of the Blur stuff, no matter the degree to which the latter is also rightfully beloved.
It underlines the strangeness of Albarn’s career — a frontman from one of the last true pop moments for rock music who transitioned into the role of producer and background mastermind for a virtual, amorphous band. Yet the cartoon component, the original impetus of Gorillaz as some kind of Pop Art commentary on celebrity and pop stardom and all that, now feels of its time. (Again, it’s somewhat shocking to realize Gorillaz is a project that’s been around for almost 20 years.) Rather, the thing that’s slightly weird about Albarn claiming Gorillaz as the American project in his body of work is that it often felt more like a digitized, globalized project built from and for the 21st century’s changing landscape. Perhaps it couldn’t exist without a place like America and the music therein, and perhaps it couldn’t make sense without the model of a melting pot culture this country supposedly wants to represent, but it quotes almost as liberally from African and Caribbean and Asian influences as it does from Western ones, whether those are Stateside or European. Maybe the drive to collapse all of those together is more inherently American than British.
“Spiritually, the music and the way it’s constructed — that comes from an American idiom,” Albarn argues.
None of this was really on Albarn’s mind when he and Hewlett first concocted this whole thing in 1998. He wanted to make electronic music, and he was burnt out on Blur in that moment.
“I destroyed myself,” he says of subsuming his celebrity behind four cartoon avatars. “I wanted to be on my own at that moment. That’s why I did it.” And maybe only some of this was on his mind 18 years later, when he started composing Humanz. (“I thought just upping the tempo was going to be enough for a 49-year-old,” he jokes regarding any new stylistic explorations for Gorillaz’ newest outing.)
“The actual essence of making music doesn’t change from one project to another,” he explains. “It’s just the environment I choose to put myself in that changes dramatically. There’s only way to make music and that’s to channel yourself into it. It exists anyway.”
It’s true that all the component parts are out there waiting to be assembled. All these years later, with new Gorillaz music out in the world, the lingering power of its concept lies more in how Albarn looks out at what exists, and how he brings it all together. They were always interested in that — “like two words that shouldn’t work together, genres that shouldn’t work together, colors that shouldn’t work together.” One of his reasons for calling the album Humanz was the balance of male and female voices across all the songs, and you could also point to the diversity of race, genre, and nationality within those same tracks.
That’s the thing about Gorillaz and all that dystopia: It draws on those disparate elements to present a utopia that shouldn’t be all that far out of reach. From the bleak premise Humanz opens with, it ends with a rallying cry, punctuating the album-length argument with a simple message in “We Got The Power”: There are ways to build a better world.