Feature: Blur frontman scores unlikely U.S. hit with Gorillaz
Blur frontman Damon Albarn had pretty much given up on having success in the United States. Two Blur records--1997's self-titled effort and 1999's "13"--were modest hits, but that's as big an impact the English pop band was able to make.
Imagine Albarn's surprise when the eponymous debut by his side project, Gorillaz, spawned the radio and MTV hit "Clint Eastwood." The album, which debuted at No. 39 on the Billboard 200 album chart five weeks ago, sits at No. 27 on the latest chart.
"I'm just sort of coming to terms of it, really," Albarn said via telephone from London. "I spent 10 years coming to America, basically toured my ass off over the years.
"It's [success] when you least expect it. I thought to myself, 'I've given up. I'm never having a record in the charts in America.' I was comfortable with that and accepted it. ... Now the album is expected to hit the top 10 in a few weeks' time."
The Gorillaz album is a collaboration between Albarn and his former roommate, cartoonist Jamie Hewlett, the creator of the comic "Tank Girl." The group as a whole--for those who haven't seen the video for "Clint Eastwood"--has cartoon identities: there's 2D (a pin-up singer), Russel (a menacing looking rapper), Murdoc (a Satan-worshipping bass player) and Noodles (a 10-year-old female guitar prodigy).
"Jamie and me shared a flat for about eight months. We had both kind of done our thing. I'd done Blur and he'd done 'Tank Girl.' We wanted to come up with something that we could use both of our sort of passions. Really that's how Gorillaz came about.
"I just wanted to do something that I had no idea where it was going. Gorillaz is the perfect medium to start that journey, really. Cartoons can do what they like. Cartoons are humans or the result of humans, but they have so much more freedom than we do. I can disappear, so to speak, and replace myself by 2D. That's the way the record started."
As his idea came to fruition, Albarn called producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, as well as a wish list of contributors, ranging from Del Tha Funky Homosapien to Buena Vista Social Club's Ibrahim Ferrer.
"We rang [Ferrer] up and said, 'Any chance'--and I'm being cheeky--'you could sing on this track?' He came over to England and sang on it. I was speechless. Working with him--he's a true master and a beautiful, beautiful man."
Despite his U.S. anonymity, Albarn is one of the most recognized public figures in the United Kingdom. Gorillaz has been a dream for him because he can hide behind the 2D character. In the U.S. he's known primarily for Blur's "Song 2"; the tune, with its catchy "Woo hoo" chorus, has provided the soundtrack for various movie trailers, commercials and news segments.
"No one knows who [Gorillaz] is [in the United States]. I haven't really got to the public at large in America. We have no history whatsoever in the purest sense. In the States, we're truly a cartoon. I always felt in the beginning that the only place where the Gorillaz idea was really going to realize itself was in the U.S. because of my lack of whatever there."
The Gorillaz songs, he admits, were originally written for Blur.
"I just needed a period [away from Blur], a sabbatical, and it turned into a sort of new job. I have a good dilemma, but a dilemma nonetheless. In some ways the whole Gorillaz record were sort of the songs that would have gone to the next Blur record, but I've sort of developed them and arranged them."
Will there be another Blur record? "Yeah, I sincerely hope so. It would be a real shame if it didn't [happen]."
For now, Albarn is concentrating on bringing the Gorillaz to life. The group has done a handful of gigs in the U.K. and, after visiting Japan in August, is planning a jaunt through the United States. When performing live, Gorillaz play behind a 50-foot video screen airing cartoon images of the quartet of characters. Occasionally, its human members appear as silhouettes throughout the show.
"We've been getting some crazy offers from people who are very, very, very well known. I don't want to say who. We're just deciding whether we go with other people, or over there on our own in September."
"It's really starting to be very expensive to have a 50-foot video screen. For an hour and a half, we're a band who plays behind [it]. We haven't done that many gigs, but we're getting it together now. The kids seem to like it. It was a total experiment but they like it."
That curiosity, Albarn added, could be why Gorillaz has been successful in the United States.
"This is something new and that's cool. I was worried that it was going to be a bit too challenging--a gig where there's no people. But it's worked out well."