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The curious story of a successful ‘fictional’ band

Out with a new album, Gorillaz, a ‘fictional’ band with cartoon characters, reinforce their status as one of the most revered rock acts of this era

Gorillaz, London, 2017.
Gorillaz, London, 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

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This piece is actually about a band that is fictional…yet one that is also very real. That could seem paradoxical but then that is what the hugely successful band, Gorillaz, really is. It was in 1998 that Damon Albarn, founder, frontman and main driving force of the Britpop band Blur, decided—on a whim—to form a “virtual band” called Gorillaz.

Blur, a constantly experimenting act that had gained the approval of critics and adulation of fans, were already successful, delivering the occasional hits but also influencing a gamut of other indie bands. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Albarn, a keyboardist and singer, formed Gorillaz. What was astonishing, though, was the sort of band Gorillaz turned out to be.

Albarn collaborated with the artist Jamie Hewlett to form his band. Hewlett, an English comic book writer, created the cartoon characters that made up the band and Albarn made the music. Yes, Gorillaz comprise virtual cartoon characters that are musicians in the band: Murdoc Niccals on bass and drum machine; 2-D on vocals, keyboards, melodica, rhythm guitar, piano and synthesizers; Noodle on lead guitar, keyboards and vocals; and Russel Hobbs on drums, percussion and drum machine. Besides the attribution to the music, the characters have their own personalities—and even give interviews.

In 2001, even as critics and Blur fans were scratching their heads, wondering what Albarn was up to, Gorillaz released their first eponymous album. An unexpected success, it saw sales reaching seven million. Albarn, now 55, used Gorillaz as a project to make music that Blur couldn’t. A polymath when it came to music, he wanted to make music that is a fusion of genres, including alternative rock, hip hop, electronic and world music. The Gorillaz style blends elements of reggae, dub, funk and trip-hop with a pronounced overlay of electronic sound and craft. Since their debut album, Gorillaz have released seven more albums, with their latest, Cracker Island, out this February.

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There are a host of collaborators on this album, some of them heavyweights in the music world. Consider: The eponymous opener on the album features Thundercat, the Los Angeles bassist and producer; Fleetwood Mac veteran Stevie Nicks sings on Oil; on New Gold, it is Tame Impala, the name by which the Australian neo-psychedelic musician Kevin Parker goes; and on another track, Tormenta, Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper who has become a sensation.

The result is a concept album that dwells (but not overly obsessively) on a sort of semi-religious cult that recalls the perils of living online. That theme is something longtime Gorillaz fanatics will no doubt delve into and find allusions and meanings for, especially in lyrics such as: They taught themselves to be occult/ They didn’t know its many strategies/ They taught themselves to be occult/ They didn’t know its many strategies (fantasies)/ What world is this?/ What world is this?

But for the rest, who enjoy Gorillaz for the innovative music they make, there is much to exult about on Cracker Island. New Gold’s dreamy Tame Impala vocals, interspersed with rap verses by Bootie Brown of the alternative hip hop band The Pharcyde, can wipe off even the darkest of moods. Baby Queen, inspired by the crown princess of Thailand, who is believed to have gone to a Blur concert in the late 1990s, is a catchy, quintessential pop song that hooks you no matter where and when you listen to it.

Gorillaz have collaborated with giants in the past. In 2020, on Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez, the artists featured included The Cure’s Robert Smith, Elton John, Beck, Peter Hook (of Joy Division) and St Vincent. On 2010’s Plastic Beach, collaborators included British post-punk band The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys, De La Soul, and the rapper Snoop Dogg. Plastic Beach has been described as “a meditation on the state of our oceans”.

Like Cracker Island and Plastic Beach, many Gorillaz albums are themed on political, social and environmental issues but they are always dealt with playfully, with, above all, eclectically enthralling musical treatment.

Albarn, as I mentioned, is a polymath in music. A keyboardist and composer, his projects span genres and styles. Besides Blur and Gorillaz, he has a myriad other projects to his credit. Rocket Juice & The Moon is his project with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and the legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen; he has been part of the British supergroup The Good, the Bad & the Queen, which featured Allen too but also The Clash’s bassist Paul Simonon and The Verve’s guitarist Simon Tong. Plus, he has composed soundtracks for films (Blur composed a song for Trainspotting); composed songs for plays and operas; and has two solo albums.

Albarn’s Gorillaz, however, really stands out as a story of how a “fictional” band with cartoon characters in a venture that may have started as a joke has become one of the most successful and revered rock acts of this era.

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