Jamie Hewlett :
The Gorillaz-Unofficial 2008 Interview
above: Jamie in his new office, February 2008 (Photo: Gorillaz-Unofficial.com). Click the picture to enlarge
It’s a grey February afternoon in West London when Gorillaz-Unofficial arrives at the front door of a three-storey building in a relatively obscure street with houses, a pub and some anonymous newer office developments at the end. So anonymous in fact, that we wonder if we have the right place. A small notice, visible only from up close, announces that this is the new centre of operations for both Gorillaz co-creators - “13 Ltd” proclaims the text, although now the studio from which the company takes its name is Damon Albarn’s main recording base no longer. And that’s it. So which bell to press? The first floor, perhaps?
And suddenly here he is. The man himself. Dressed smart but hip (as always since Gorillaz worldwide success), smiling and shaking hands warmly, he asks “Is anyone out there still interested in Gorillaz then?”. We laugh and assurances are given that yes, indeed, many are. In this post-Phase Two era, however, it’s a pertinent question. To be sure, a well-received compilation of non-album material D-Sides was released as recently as a few months ago, but this was almost all previously-released material (more on this later), and the late and long-postponed release date can be partly be explained by reference to record company release schedules. And what about the Gorillaz movie? Cass Browne, Gorillaz dialogue writer, was still working on the script into 2007. The last heard about it in public were some comments from Damon in April 2007 that yes, the movie was definitely still going ahead, ‘starting in September’… but since then, nothing.
Jamie didn’t go into further detail about why the movie is not now an active project, but it was clear that between interest in a new project and difficulty with the Gorillaz movie project itself, the Gorillaz movie is on hold. Officially, it has no status at all – neither cancelled nor ongoing. Inevitably this invites questions as to the future of Gorillaz. On occasion (such as the furore in April 2007), Damon has even said that the movie would be the last thing Gorillaz ever did. So with the movie abandoned at least for now, could this be the end for Gorillaz? As with the film project itself, the party line is the animated foursome are neither alive nor dead. Yet during our conversation Jamie speaks with obvious warmth and affection for Gorillaz, not only for what the project has achieved so far, but also for the idea of returning to it in future. This comes through not only in his comments on the day about still wanting to do an animated Gorillaz movie, but also reassurances that they will go back to the animated band – they just don’t know when (although it will be a matter of years at the very least). Of course, none of this should be taken as definitive – whilst it’s obviously true that nothing is certain in life for anyone, it’s even more so for the two artists at the heart of the Gorillaz project, since Damon and Jamie just can’t say where the currents of creativity will take them in the course of time. The only thing they know for certain at the moment is that there are no immediate plans.
And it wasn’t to be the last ‘Gorillaz project’, either. He and Damon have another project (the ‘new project’ mentioned above which ‘may open doors... in the film industry’), which was described by Damon at the Q Awards 2007 as ‘the next Gorillaz thing, but it won’t be called Gorillaz. It’s got a name but I’m not going to tell you what it is’. At the moment no information can be released about this exciting new project (Gorillaz-Unofficial was sworn to secrecy) apart from the fact that it doesn’t feature the animated Gorillaz band, and that everyone in the building will have a hand in it somehow or other. But therein lies what’s been most puzzling to fans: how can you have a Gorillaz project that doesn’t feature the actual Gorillaz characters? Reactions have ranged from perplexed, to appreciative, to outright hostile – ‘bring back 2D and Murdoc!’ – and various arguments have raged back and forth. There are as many fans as there are theories. So what’s Jamie’s take on it?
"That phrase was something Damon started saying, and I’ve picked up on it as well. I think the idea behind it is that it’s like how The Who presented their movies – Tommy and Quadrophenia and so on. Those were presented as by ‘The Who’ even though none of the members of the band were in the movies. I don’t think anyone from The Who was in Quadrophenia. But it’s the same people working on it, that’s the principle. In our case, everyone in this building – Damon’s downstairs, we’re upstairs – [everyone in] our new studio who worked on Gorillaz. I can understand that some fans really want to see more stuff from the Gorillaz band, but from our point of view it’s really refreshing to be able to do something new after working with the same characters for so long. But I think we will go back to Gorillaz at some point, we just don’t know [when] right now".
From the start of their promotion of the animated group Gorillaz, both Damon and Jamie have spoken of how the process of creating the virtual foursome was organic, not calculated; this even extended to how they brought the wider creative team together. And if associating the name Gorillaz to other ventures is an attempt to appeal to the wider public (particularly in the US) that first approached the Albarn-Hewlett partnership through 2D & company, it’s not a cynical one. After all, if money was the primary consideration, a third Gorillaz record would be about to drop already. It’s more a case of ‘liked that? Then you might like this’ and a direction towards the common values that anything authorised by the pair will share. Given that the subject had come up, I decided to ask Jamie about these other ‘Gorillaz projects’ that he’d been up to since last year.
Monkey, the Chinese opera for premiered in Manchester last year to great critical success and sold-out crowds. It went on to have a further successful run in Paris, with a special ‘songs only’ one-off show at the British Museum inLondon for Chinese New Year 2008. Featuring cheeky characters in Jamie’s inimitable style and some pop classics from Damon alongside the more ambient parts of the score, the comparisons with the Gorillaz band are not hard to draw. I asked Jamie about the news that Monkey would be heading Stateside in 2008.
"Yeah, we’re taking it to the Spoleto festival in Charleston. That festival is one of the two big opera festivals in the USA. So it was a really big thing to get Monkey on there, especially when Monkey isn’t exactly a conventional opera. The idea is that hopefully it can tour the US, go on the road, and go to all sorts of different places. For the Charleston shows we are having a new set built rather than ship over the original set. It will be a slightly pared down set, just because the original was so massive. For example, the Buddha mountain set needed seven vehicles itself when it was transported. That’s just not practical for a touring show. We’ve faced a lot of problems with the scale of it all because there are not many places that can actually put it on because of the scale of it all. Besides the sets there’s the issue of the cast; it’s a lot to take on, flying out the cast from China and housing and feeding them for a month!"
As for its theatrical run, more shows have been announced at London’s Royal Opera House for this summer. Big names like New York and Tokyo have been mentioned (but not officially confirmed) in the past, and Jamie’s very clear that he wants it to play to as many audiences as possible, complications notwithstanding. But will there be a DVD of the show for fans who can’t make it to see the opera?
A soundtrack LP, the recording of which I had a close encounter with earlier in the day, has of course been mentioned by Damon in several previous interviews. It’s promised to have a slightly more produced studio sound and – tantalisingly for Gorillaz fans – to sound close to certain Gorillaz material in places. The pair also have some inventive promotional ideas for it too, but for now they’re strictly under wraps and no release date is yet set.
Around the time leading up to this interview with Jamie, the press was buzzing with stories about Phoo Action, the television show based on a comic strip of Jamie’s called Get The Freebies (published in the UK style magazine The Face from 1996-97). A pilot episode was shot in 2007 and since the interview was recorded with Jamie, a full series of six further episodes has been given the go-ahead by the BBC. I asked Jamie how this came about.
I wondered if the original strip Get The Freebies might get a reprint on the back of this TV show? (It’s hard to get hold of because it has never been reprinted in English).
"I think probably not. I do have a strong feeling that I want this show to stand on its own. Be a distinct thing from the comic. We’ve had people asking for press shots for the series but for the most part I haven’t drawn anything, I’d prefer they use shots from the series. I really want it to be its own thing. So, probably not. Also The Face lost all the original artwork for the comic. It’s just gone, nobody knows where it went. That’s the story of my life really, I only have about 25% of the art I’ve done, between giving some away, losing some... I recently had someone archive all my original stuff that I do have though, so now it’s neatly organised and catalogued."
D-Sides collected previously-released material but there were two songs that were entirely new, at least in the form they appeared on the record – the new version of ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Film Trailer Music’. What was the story behind the new version of ‘Hong Kong’?
"After we decided we wanted to put ‘Hong Kong’ on D-Sides, Damon wanted to finish off the track. He just wanted to add something extra to it. So he did a session with the strings, and you have them coming in at the end of the track there."
And ‘Film Trailer Music’ (only available on the Japanese edition of the album)?
"We put together a trailer for Bananaz here at Zombie, Seb edited down a trailer and Damon came up with some original music. I wanted it to be like the original trailer for A Clockwork Orange where things flash up quickly. ‘Film Trailer Music’ is the music that Damon came up with for the Bananaz trailer. But in the end, HanWay films decided to use a different trailer for general release. It would be nice to get the original trailer out there at some stage, maybe through the website or on the DVD or something".
Which brings us on to the other piece of Gorillaz work in 2007, the documentary film Bananaz . Bananaz was edited down from hundreds of hours of film recorded by director Ceri Levy almost from the inception of Gorillaz, to 2006. “The director, Ceri Levy, had filmed the Blur documentary Starshaped and he became a friend through that. When we were starting Gorillaz we just had this idea to document the whole process right from the start.” Jamie clarifies. And why did it feel like the right time now to make sense of the material that Ceri had recorded over this time? As well as the fact that for the first time since the project was conceived there were no Gorillaz plans afoot, “we did feel that the shows at the Apollo were a really nice culmination to the project so far, you know, starting from just Damon and I working on it in our flat, to putting on these incredible shows at the Apollo, with Dennis Hopper live on stage, everyone there. Ike Turner on the piano. Such a shame about Ike”. And how was the film put together? “Seb [Monk, Zombie’s in-house video editor] literally went through absolutely everything, which was just an amazing task.” Later Rachel Connors became involved, firstly helping with the arrangement of the story of the film, and then as co-producer, taking the project into the very real world of film, taking care of the business side of things.
Our time was wearing on so I decided to get on to the last part of the interview – Gorillaz trivia questions! Jamie seemed to enjoy the opportunity to have a think over some slightly off-the-wall fan questions.I don’t think we’ve ever heard what your favourite Gorillaz songs are. Gorillaz fan Dhenry wants to know if you could you tell us for the record?
"Let’s see... there are so many good ones... well, ‘Hong Kong’, definitely. A really beautiful song. [thinks] ‘Slow Country’, off the first record. ‘Bill Murray’ as well. Actually I named that song. Damon rang me up about something when he was recording that and it had another title originally. I was just reading a magazine with Bill Murray in at the time and just suggested that as a title off the top of my head. Nothing to do with the song.!
‘Murdoc’s Metal Band’ as depicted in the scanned sketches that appear in the Gorillaz Phase Two promo booklet (as well as in one of the finished pictures in that booklet, and in sketches seen at the Gorillaz Design Museum exhibition) have proved to be an endless source of fascination to fans. Gorillaz fan gh0st wanted to ask in particular, what is the story behind that band, if there is any at all? [asking the question I indicated the band in the promo booklet, and Jamie asks if he can take a look, thumbing through the pages, interested].
Fan MindTheGap wanted to know if you have an opinion on Gorillaz slash?
"Slash..? What is that? [the concept is explained] People actually do that with the Gorillaz characters? I’ve never come across anything like that before. What do I think of it? [pauses] Well I don’t really have an opinion... if people want to do that then it’s okay I suppose... maybe if I thought about it a long time I might be able to come up with an opinion. Does sound like some people have too much time on their hands!"
Fan kittykaboom wanted to ask how come Russel never really gets the spotlight?
"Well he’s the drummer! He’s not meant to be interesting! What do you expect? [laughs] Well he had a large role in Celebrity Harvest, his madness was central to that, and affected them all. But I don’t know if I accept the idea he’s underused. He has had quite a lot happen to him."
Is it true you and Damon were considering a third and final run of Demon Days live shows in Las Vegas for the second half of 2006?
"Yes it is true. We were in serious discussions about that for about two months. The idea of putting it on in Vegas really appealed. But in the end it would have cost too much. The Demon Days live shows actually ended up costing Damon and I money overall. Of course there were tickets sold and that, but the costs of getting everyone there and putting it all on were astronomical. We just did it because it was worth doing. In the end the costs put us off doing Vegas shows, though we were proud of the Manchester and Apollo shows."
"I probably wouldn’t age her anymore. I prefer to draw the character as a young girl, it’s more interesting than drawing a woman would be. That’s the great thing about cartoon characters of course, they don’t have to grow up!"
And with that our time’s up, yet Jamie amiably poses for a photo for the article and wishes us all the best, insisting he still reads the news on Gorillaz-Unofficial.com regularly (so keep those comments polite, kids!!).
Special thanks to Hannah and Tanyel at CMO and all at Zombie Flesh Eaters for help with the interview.