Jamie Hewlett :
The Gorillaz-Unofficial 2008 Interview

above: Jamie in his new office, February 2008 (Photo: Gorillaz-Unofficial.com). Click the picture to enlarge

Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett recently took time out of his busy schedule to speak to Gorillaz-Unofficial.com about his projects past and present and to answer burning fan questions about Gorillaz! Read on for Jamie's thoughts on Bananaz, D-Sides, Monkey, Phoo Action, the Gorillaz movie project and more! A special thanks to Jamie for his continuing personal support for the site and for agreeing to the interview.

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?

above: The Albarn-Hewlett partnership, pictured here
with their collaborator on Monkey, Chen Shi-Zheng. (Photo: Monkey Press Shot)
“Hello..?” inquires a woman’s nervous, Chinese-accented voice at the other end. We announce that we have come, as arranged, to interview Jamie Hewlett. “I’m sorry, I don’t work here... maybe you could try upstairs?” It turns out later that this was a brief encounter with one of the session musicians here today to lay down strings tracks on songs for the Monkey: Journey To The West soundtrack LP (long-announced in interview, the album is still having finishing touches applied). Next time we’re lucky; the top floor puts us straight through to Zombie’s office manager who thankfully has been expecting us as arranged.

And that’s how neat the new setup is – Damon’s studio on the ground floor, Jamie’s studio on the third. And that’s it. For the first time, the Albarn-Hewlett partnership’s solidarity has extended to sharing a building for their own exclusive use. Sadly (but understandably) there will be no dawdling on the ground floor today, and we’re led up the staircase to Zombie’s inner sanctum. Gorillaz characters, the creations that have helped make this new environment a reality, watch us from prints on the walls (some clearly retained after the Gorillaz exhibition at London’s Design Museum).

Zombie’s office, like its previous incarnations, is a hub of creative activity. It’s open plan, but director Jamie has his own spacious office. A bewildering array of little postcards, clippings, flyers and posters for everything from children’s cartoons to foreign language zombie movies have made the move with him and, meticulously arranged (and he has had the six months since they moved to the new digs to get everything just so), as ever they at once reflect both the artist’s influences and his interests. It’s real landscape-of-the-mind stuff, but there’s no set formula that can combine all these influences – from the arch and the kitsch to the cool and the quirky – into something appealing and new. The creative spark is still required.

above: the Bananaz movie poster.
The film still has no official release at the time of writing

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.

After thanking Jamie for agreeing to the interview, I sit down in a couch in his office and naturally it’s the first thing I ask about.

"The trouble with making a film is, unlike making an album there’s this question of funding," explains Jamie. "At some point you have to get studios involved. That was our problem first time round, with Celebrity Harvest, that didn’t work out. Then we had another idea where Gorillaz were going to be playing other characters in a movie, but we didn’t think that would work in the end. Then we had another idea. But at some point when you’re making a movie you have to get these studios involved. Ultimately we didn’t think that feel we’re in a position to make the kind of movie we want to make with Gorillaz at the moment. There is also the issue of keeping something relevant as well: a full animated movie takes so long to make from start to finish, there’s the problem of whether it will be relevant when it finally comes out. But I’d still like to make a full, lavishly-animated Gorillaz movie someday.  I’d still like to do that.  We have a new project now which is more manageable in terms of budget, and actually it may open doors for us in the future in the film industry."

above: Damon, Jamie and friends party at the Q Awards 2007. (Photo: Q)

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.

above: the Monkey masterminds
But as every fan will know, whilst work on the animated band may have ground to a halt, the creative partnership of Albarn and Hewlett most definitely has not. Into this post-Gorillaz vacuum has arrived, unannounced, a new concept: ‘the Gorillaz project which isn’t Gorillaz’. The first time I heard of this notion was when an earnest Damon, in October 2006, made a point of telling me that Monkey – the Chinese Opera for which he was composing the score and on which Jamie was acting as lead designer – was ‘Gorillaz, really. But we can’t call it that for legal reasons’. On that occasion Jamie told me he hoped we’d cover Monkey on Gorillaz-Unofficial.com, stressing the continuity between Monkey and Gorillaz. But not long after this, the phrase would be used again and again in interview. Monkey was, according to Damon and Jamie, ‘the next Gorillaz project’.

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".

above: Monkey onstage. (Photo: MIF)

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!"

above: Damon and Chen Shi-Zheng at work on Monkey (Photo: The Times)

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?

"Eventually. We even tried to do a recording in Paris but that fell through due to some issues with bureaucracy! We do want to film it and put that out at some point."

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.

above: Jamie on the set of Phoo Action(Photo: BBC)
"The idea to make a TV show based on the characters and ideas in that comic strip goes back ten years. I took it to a lot of studios and producers at the time, but nobody would back it, nobody would touch it. However one of the people who heard about the idea back then got back in touch with us years later, but this was at the time when I was really busy with Monkey. So Mat Wakeham, my friend and associate for many years, headed up things from our side and then when I was free I was able to be around more for it. At the moment it’s just the one show but we’ll hear in a week or two whether they will okay it as a full series. It was written as a full series – it was written as a series back when we were first promoting it. There are some really good ideas in there and I hope we get to make the full thing."

The villains (the titular Freebies) are depicted through costumes in the series, not  CGI like many shows these days opt for. I put it to Jamie that that seemed a brave move in the current climate.

"Yes that was something we felt strongly about. We didn’t want to use CGI. There’s too much of it these days. It’s everywhere. Personally I think costumed villains can be a lot scarier, often, anyway. And there’s something of a lo-fi feel to it by doing it this way as well, which I love. And the Freebies really came out well. Marlon has this great hunch backed stance, it’s just perfect. Burk, the ape character, is played by this massive kickboxer. Of course the irony is that later on in the series, we find out that he is actually a man stuck in a gorilla suit who went insane. But Jimmy, the villain with a basketball for a head, really does have a basketball for a head! [laughs]

above: Cereal box art from The Freebies pilot

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."

During our chat Jamie also revealed how Damon composed the show’s theme tune, and that long-time Damon collaborators David Coulter and Mike Smith (both involved with Monkey and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, with Mike also having worked on Gorillaz live shows) had been credited with the other background music for the show. This creative setup will likely be in place for the full six-episode series.

Having been brought up to speed with Jamie’s current projects (including another also involving Damon that’s also under wraps for the moment), I decided to turn back to the subject of the animated band Gorillaz. Although there had been no new album from the band since the last Gorillaz-Unofficial interview, there had been two further smaller projects.

First of these was D-Sides, a two disc set comprised mostly of material previously released during Gorillaz Phase Two as B-sides, bonus tracks and in a few some cases on promotional-only releases.  Long planned and rumoured, record release schedules and conflicting projects eventually led to it being held back until late 2007.

above: the lavish deluxe edition of the compilation D-Sides
"The record company approached us saying they wanted to do a compilation of the non-album material  from the Demon Days period". Jamie explains of the record. "The idea behind it was that this stuff, and a lot of is really quite good, you’ve got some classic material like ‘Hong Kong’ on there for example, ‘Bill Murray’ too, was spread all over the place on all these releases. Not all countries had had everything, not every fan had the chance to get all the material. Actually, of Damon and I, I was actually more enthusiastic about the idea at the start. Damon did have the idea that maybe these tracks weren’t used for a reason. But my feeling was – and Damon came round to this idea – that there was all this good stuff and collecting it together did make sense; as soon as I got the album I stuck it in my iTunes and that was great to have it all on there. Actually it was especially handy for me because I’ve heard so many bits and pieces of demos and things like that, scattered around, even more than the stuff that was actually released!"

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".

above: Promoting Bananaz at the Berlinale film festival in 2008 (photo: Flickr)

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.

The film has had some press showings in Berlin and Austin, Texas and Reviews of the film have been mixed. Reuters blasted Damon and Jamie’s antics in the film, saying "Their humor is juvenile, the men are narcissistic, and their occasional stabs at real-world political relevance border on the laughable." However the film’s presentation (no voiceovers, no captions, fast and unrelenting pace) have attracted praise from other quarters, IGN arguing that “Levy lets the sounds and images speak for themselves, and the result is a film as daring and avant garde as the band itself". All are agreed however that the film is "Definitely worth seeking out for fans of the band". Jamie himself is confident that it’s a good film, saying “lots of people like it so I think it’s worked out as a good film”, though he admits to finding sitting down to watch himself, as he puts it, “acting like a prat” difficult, indicating his desire to avoid as many premieres of Bananaz as possible!

above: stills from the Bananaz film

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].

above: Murdoc's Metal Band. From L-R: Crunch (drums), Rocky (keyboards)
, Tiny (guitars), Murdoc (bass), Billy Boy (guitars), Munch (band artist).
Their scheduled first album was to have been called 'Gimme Bus Shelter'.
"Murdoc’s Metal Band would have been in the movie Celebrity Harvest, had it been made. The idea was that Murdoc would leave Gorillaz and form a metal band. Eventually he’d end up locking them in the basement of Kong and they’d turn into cannibals. The pink-faced monster you see in the picture in the promo booklet with a couple of members of the band is Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. But Del gone bad. They’re chasing Murdoc in that picture. That picture is one of a few in that booklet that I did as actual mock-up screenshots for the movie. The one with Noodle fighting the Zombies was also a screenshot from the movie. Quite a bit of the Demon Days story came directly from things that were in Celebrity Harvest, especially the darkness. ‘Rock It’ has some similarities with some of those things. The idea with ‘Rock It’ was to have something out there to signal our comeback to the world. It was just a demo we picked out and then my guys here came up with the video. I remember people online were saying it was going to be the new single and all that, but it was only ever intended to build interest. Cass still has all that Celebrity Harvest stuff, the script and our ideas, at his house. Of course in the end the studios we were working with at that point – I think it was DreamWorks – listened to all this stuff about cannibals and zombies and just went ‘riiiight. Now, how about we make it like The Wizard Of Oz?’ [laughs]. It was way too dark for them."

above: mockup still from Celebrity Harvest.
'Del gone bad' and the now-Cannibalistic metal band chase Murdoc

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."

above: Noodle confronts Zombies in another mockup still from Celebrity Harvest.
The mockup stills were later used in the Gorillaz Phase Two promo booklet, hence the text overlay here.
Another huge source of debate on the Gorillaz forums has been Noodle growing up. She aged a little in Phase Two, do you think if Gorillaz returned she would age more?

"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!!).

And soon enough after thanking Jamie for the interview once again, I’m back on the anonymous London street, mind racing from all I’ve heard. No status for the Gorillaz movie. An uncertain future for the animated band. But much more to come from critically-acclaimed, sell-out sensation that is Monkey, through more shows and other prospective releases for fans that can’t get to the shows. More of Jamie’s trademark craziness and cool, not to mention a score from the Studio 13 crew, in the TV series Phoo Action. A big new secret project. And that’s just from the Hewlett-Albarn, or ‘Gorillaz’ side of things, to say nothing of their individual projects.

 So was it a fair trade, a Gorillaz movie for all this? It’s the question that’s bound to cross the minds of many fans. It’s completely understandable; after all, we were all taken in by 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel, the immediate appeal of how they appeared in graphical form, and the music they were made to play. But behind them are two artists who, having earned our respect from following their creative consciences in the past, deserve it still for sticking to the decision that, for now, they want to work on other things. And what’s more, as the Gorillaz animated band and their music came to us in an organic, uncalculated and indeed artistic way, values, themes, and aesthetics that the creators held dear were put into them, and they can be seen in the other fruits of their continuing partnership.

So it’s decision time for many fans. Will you follow their new material? Whatever you decide, you can be sure Gorillaz-Unofficial.com will be covering ‘the new Gorillaz projects’ every step of the way.

above: alternate office shot (Photo: Gorillaz-Unofficial.com). Click the picture to enlarge

Special thanks to Hannah and Tanyel at CMO and all at Zombie Flesh Eaters for help with the interview.