Artist Spotlight: Gorillaz

Gorillaz is a band that plays… well, it’s hard to figure out what exactly they play, because it exists at a strange crossroads of rock, soul, electronic, and hip-hop that usually somehow hashes out to be a peculiar sort of pop. Like, I think, most mainstream fans of the band, I discovered them through the singles that supported the release of their 2004 album Demon Days.

The band consists, within its own internal fiction, of four members: terminally-stupid, terminally-pretty lead singer Stuart “2D” Pot, demonic bass player Murdoc Niccals, genetically-engineered supersoldier turned rock god Noodle, and metaphorically- and literally-haunted drummer Russel Hobbs. In reality the only permanent musical fixture of Gorillaz is Blur frontman Damon Albarn, collaborating with illustrator Jamie Hewlett, creator of indie comics Tank Girland Monkey: Journey to the West, along with a truly staggering number of collaborators, session players, and guest artists that may even be too big to refer to as “a small army.” Despite the name, none of the members are apes, though Hewlett’s distinctive art style results in all of them, especially 2D and Murdoc, having long arms and distinctively simian features. The tumultuous relationships between both the fictional and actual members of Gorillaz has served to inform much of their history– this spotlight will mostly focus on which one I find more interesting in any given moment.

According to Hewlett, the idea for Gorillaz was born in 1997, when he and Albarn were sharing a London flat, and found themselves watching MTV together– the idea of a band of cartoon characters as a commentary on the artificial image of pop musicians. Their first song was “Ghost Train”, which only saw the light of day later as a B-side.

In 2000, Phase One of the Gorillaz project began with the release of an EP, Tomorrow Comes Today. The EP did not chart but was an indie success, and three tracks from it found their way onto Gorillaz’ 2001 self-titled debut album– including two of its singles. The leading single on Gorillaz was “Clint Eastwood”, still among the band’s most recognizable songs, featuring Del Tha Funky Homo Sapien in the persona of Del Tha Ghost Rapper, one of the spirits of Russel’s dead friends who possessed him to hide from Death during Phase One.

Phase One continued into 2002 with “911”, a song written in response to exactly what you’d think, G-sides, a compilation of B-sides from the singles and the remaining tracks from Tomorrow Comes Today, the remix album Laika Come Home, created in collaboration with dub group Spacemonkeyz, and the DVD Phase One: Celebrity Takedown, which included both the videos for phase one as well as a virtual tour of the band’s fictional Kong Studios (adapted from the original Gorillaz website) and a series of animated shorts. A film was also planned, but fell through quickly during preproduction. During Phase One, little of the storyline was revealed, instead the focus was on establishing the characters.

Phase One was a tumultuous beginning for Gorillaz– even before work on Tomorrow Comes Today had begun, a gruesome love triangle resulted in the expulsion of original guitarist Paula Cracker from the band. Shortly after putting an ad in NME magazine for a new guitarist, Noodle arrived via shipping crate from Japan. Perhaps surprisingly, given that it is one of their rockier albums and his background is in hip-hop, Russel was the primary creative force of Phase One. Following their disastrous trip to Hollywood, the band took a hiatus lasting more than a year. 2D worked at his father’s carnival, Murdoc spent some time in jail in Mexico for bouncing a check in a brothel, Noodle went to Japan in search of her origins, and Russel had a breakdown and lived in Ike Turner’s basement following an encounter with the Grim Reaper that removed his friends’ ghosts from his body once and for all and triggered a nervous breakdown.

Phase Two of Gorillaz began in December of 2004, when their website was updated with a new video featuring the song Rockit. Subsequently their second album, Demon Days, was released the following May. Demon Days was a commercial and critical success, led by the single “Feel Good, Inc.”, an anthem of the 2000s and the only song in Damon Albarn’s entire career to enter the Billboard top 40. Collaborators on Demon Days included Ike Turner, MF Doom, Shaun Ryder, Dennis Hopper, De La Soul (who would return on many subsequent Gorillaz projects), and Danger Mouse. Demon Days is five times a Platinum Album in the UK and Double Platinum in the US.

Phase 2 continued with the Phase Two: Slowboat To Hades DVD, which like its predecessor, featured shorts (including an episode of MTV’s Cribs and the Channel Four “Alternative Queen’s Speech” featuring 2D) and a tour of the now-dilapidated Kong Studios, the illustrated “autobiography” Rise of the Ogre, which filled in many story details for phases One and Two, and another combination B-side compilation and remix album, D-Sides.

For the concert tour supporting Demon Days, the virtual characters were planned to be projected on stage using an innovative holographic technique, however this proved impractical and the projection was only used at a handful of special events, including the 2006 Grammys, where they performed with an also-partially-holographic Madonna. The final tour consisted of only two limited engagements, one at the Manchester Opera House and the other at the Apollo, with the actual performers in full view.

Phase two was Noodle’s baby– according to in-character interviews, she composed nearly the entire album herself. The Phase Two storyline also focused heavily on her, culminating in her disappearance and presumed death at the hand of mysterious attack helicopters. Following this disappearance, the band underwent another of their infamous hiatuses. During this time, Murdoc allegedly traveled to hell in an attempt to rescue her, 2D went to law school and then Beirut, and Russel… just sort of hung around.

Phase Three was anchored by the album Plastic Beach, originally intended to be the first of a trilogy of albums. It was perhaps the poppiest of Gorillaz’s albums yet, and featured numerous collaborators– over eighteen on a sixteen-track album, including Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Snoop Dog, Lou Reed, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon formerly of The Clash, the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music, and, of course, De La Soul.

Following a multi-year bender involving becoming an arms dealer in the Gulf of Mexico, however, Murdoc was struck by the muse. He burned down Kong Studios for the insurance money, kidnapped 2D, created a cyborg clone of Noodle, and fled the country to escape from a network of pirates known as the Black Clouds, taking 2D and Cyborg Noodle with him. They settled on an island of floating garbage in the Pacific at the furthest point on Earth from any landmass, which Murdoc named Plastic Beach, there to begin phase 3 alongside a demonic being known as the Boogieman. Noodle, having resurfaced, and Russel, having grown to giant size as a result of coming into contact with large amounts of toxic waste, followed Murdoc, 2D, and Cyborg Noodle to Plastic Beach, intending revenge. The resulting three-way battle between Noodle, Cyborg Noodle, and the Black Clouds saw Plastic Beach destroyed, Cyborg Noodle going haywire and turning on Murdoc, and 2D eaten alive by a whale– his worst fear. Murdoc resurfaced in what he believed to be Hawaii, but was actually a condemned house at 212 Wobble Street in London.

Unlike previous phases, there was no supporting DVD or B-Side album for Plastic Beach. Instead, an entire additional album was released. The Fall was recorded on the road using Damon Albarn’s iPad during the North American leg of the Escape to Plastic Beach concert tour, and released digitally in December of that year. No animation was associated with it and what role, if any, it has in the fictional lore of the band is unclear– though some speculate it may have been a personal project by 2D while imprisoned on Plastic Beach. Unlike Plastic Beach, The Fall includes only a handful of collaborations: one song each with Bobby Womack, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon. A collaboration with Pharrell was also recorded but remains unreleased.

In addition to The Fall, a live EP was recorded as an iTunes exclusive, and two singles were released– “Doncamatic” in 2010, featuring Daley and “DoYaThing” in 2012, featuring James Murphy and Andre 3000. DoYaThing was commissioned by Converse to promote a limited-edition collection of shoes designed by Jamie Hewlett, and its video serves as something of an epilogue for Phase Three, showing all four band members and the Boogieman more or less peacefully reunited at Wobble Street. and its canonical status is somewhat ambiguous, especially in light of the story revealed in the last year or so for Phase Four.

Following the release of DoYaThing, Hewlett and Albarn had a falling out. It looked for many years like that would be it for Gorillaz, and it was as good an ending as any. However, only a few weeks later, they had reconciled and confirmed that there would be more Gorillaz eventually. Phase Four was originally planned to launch in 2016, but the finished album did not release until this year. Humanz has been described by Albarn as being a concept album about reacting to a political crisis– during the production of the album, during the US primary season of 2016, he instructed his collaborators to sing like Donald Trump had been elected president. Part of the delay was due to the fact that Donald Trump was indeed elected president, and Albarn decided to edit the album to remove any overt references to The Annoying Orange, however a number of songs, in what I am sure will continue to be a theme across popular culture for the next several years, are unmistakable as anything but an indictment of him. This has resulted in perhaps their least commercial-sounding record to date, with a strong turn towards hip-hop of a somewhat experimental nature and an international cast of collaborators, including Gorillaz mainstay De La Soul, Popcaan, Grace Jones, DRAM, and Carly Simon.

As for Gorillaz themselves, following the destruction of Plastic Beach, Russel, carrying Noodle in his mouth, swam for it, but was harpooned by Japanese whalers, washed up on the shores of North Korea, where starvation caused him to return to normal size; Noodle fell out of Russel’s mouth, washed up in Japan, released an ancient evil from a giant clam while Pearl diving, and once again traveled to Japan to battle it; the whale that ate 2D beached itself and died on the shores of Mexico, where 2D believed himself trapped on a desert island and lived for some time on rotting whale meat; and Murdoc and Cyborg Noodle bailed in a submarine which was captured at sea by agents of Gorillaz’ record label, who gathered the other members and put them to work recording again. (As for the Boogieman and Cyborg Noodle, he was apparently destroyed, and she now lives in Lincolnshire, where she corresponds with 2D– but Noodle has her head, which she is growing a bonsai tree out of.)