Gorillaz have always prided themselves on being the biggest virtual band in the world — so it makes sense that the cartoon pop act has adapted well to this dystopian year of life behind the screen. “We’ve just been waiting for this, really,” says Damon Albarn, 52, with a wry laugh.
Albarn spent much of 2020 working on Song Machine, a free-form Gorillaz singles series whose first season yielded an excellent album with guest features from U.K. rock legends like Robert Smith and Elton John (“absolute gentlemen, wonderful human beings”) along with newer hip-hop acts like Earthgang and Slowthai, among many others. Now, he’s crowning the year with a livestream like no other.
Song Machine Live from Kong will offer three completely live performances on December 12th and 13th, blending Albarn, the 14-piece Gorillaz live band, and assorted guests with animated sequences by Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett. “It’s a dream project, which is to get the cartoons and the human beings all doing the same thing in a live moment,” Albarn says. “You’ll see the cartoons on the stage, moving about, doing their thing with the band. You’ll see guest artists in a semi-holographic context, like some sort of original Star Trek beam-up. We’re not on a stage with no audience. It’s a Gorillaz TV special… It will be hailed as a pioneering new form of entertainment, or it will go on the ‘nice idea, didn’t work’ pile.”
Albarn calls from a nondescript hotel suite in South London, where he and the 40 or so people responsible for creating Song Machine Live have been isolating for weeks in their own version of the NBA bubble. He can’t resist joking about the dreary setting: “This is it,” he says as our Zoom concludes. “My night just dissolves into a beige void after this, so think of me.“
But it’s clear he’s looking forward to these performances as a culmination of the irreverent mixed-media concept that he and Hewlett dreamed up for Gorillaz 20 years ago. “We’re still searching,” he says. “In a way, this has given us a fabulous opportunity to go back to the original ethos of what we were trying to achieve, and see if we can somehow articulate that.”
Many musicians this year have tried to translate their live show to a virtual platform. Is it easier for you since Gorillaz have always been a virtual band?
In principle, it should be something that we’re comfortable with, the idea of it. We’ve inhabited that world for a long time, in many ways. It’s a weird thing, though, especially with this record. Because I did it in such an episodic way, I feel like I’m almost in a different time-space with each song. For a song like “Momentary Bliss,” I’m somehow back in my younger self. Then with “Dead Butterflies,” I’m slightly out of my depth in Atlanta. In “Désolé,” I feel like I’m up in the mountains in Switzerland. I’m constantly moving from guitar to keytar to piano… In that super-scrutinized context of a livestream, inhabiting all these places so quickly is a challenge. But an interesting one, nonetheless.
Your career began just shy of 30 years ago with Blur’s first album. Which past self did “Momentary Bliss” take you back to?
When I first bumped into [U.K. punk duo] Slaves, I jammed with them, and I actually lost my voice as a result of it. I just got completely transported back to 1988, 1989 with Blur. They were playing like we used to play, so I naturally went back there, and I lost my voice. Thankfully I’ve only got one song to play with them. That’s the thing with this record: any one of the episodes could have given birth to an album in that sound world.
You performed behind a projection screen on the first Gorillaz tour in 2001. What do you remember about that tour?
Taking my trousers down a lot. And not just me — a few of those gigs were definitely played semi-naked by everybody. To have that many people cheering and into it, but they can’t see you, is interesting. It seems so old-fashioned in a way now, the idea of putting up a screen and playing behind it. It’s from a different world, isn’t it? “Hey, let’s be shadows!” [Laughs.]
Was there a tour after that when you felt like you’d cracked the code of how to bring Gorillaz to a live audience?
All of them have had their successes and their failures. That tour was successful, in that sense. The six or seven gigs we played for Demon Days — that’s all we did — when we played the Apollo; that was an amazing week. We had Ike Turner and Dennis Hopper onstage, and the Harlem Boys’ Choir. It was fantastic. Then I suppose we became a fully-fledged arena band when we did Plastic Beach, and we’ve been riffing with that ever since. It was about trying to get the band to feel like they had the capacity to break out into Earth, Wind, and Fire if they needed to, do you know what I mean?
Now, with this, I suppose we’re taking it to another realm, where you’re not quite sure what’s real and what isn’t. In a way, we’re playing with the idea of a TV show. If this goes well, maybe we’ll make more TV specials, and do something that’s completely lacking out there, which is a really cool music show that highlights new, old, eclectic [artists]. There’s not much of that around.
You’ve had a long and prolific career, making music under all sorts of circumstances. Do you feel that this time we’re living through now is creatively inspiring?
Yeah. I think in the sense of what it’s forced us to do — all of us — then definitely. Maybe nothing will ever be quite the same as it was. I’d like to think that in six months’ time, I’m going to be walking onstage in a big field somewhere, and it’s going to be really warm, and everyone’s going to be really happy. But I can’t say I know that’s going to happen… It’ll be interesting. This whole thing we’re rehearsing is quite introverted; we’re not thinking about projecting. Maybe the music will benefit from that.
Have you begun working on a second season of Song Machine?
Yeah. Why not? I’ll just keep on banging out episodes. It’s what I do, isn’t it? That’s the easy part, making music. The hard part is somehow making it valid.
How does working in that open-ended way compare to digging in and focusing on a cohesive album?
The days of me pulling my hair out worrying about whether I’m making pop music or not are behind me. If I’m even going to entertain that, it has to be in a very episodic manner — hence season one of Song Machine. It’s the eclectic nature of Gorillaz. It almost thrives on being completely open-ended and fluid. It all comes together when the animation and the music meet. Whatever it is, we make it work. And I quite like it.
What else have you been doing to keep yourself occupied this year before you went in the bubble?
Cooking, swimming, yoga. I would love to say I did a lot of reading. I did a reasonable amount of reading. But I also did a reasonable amount of binge [watching] series. My favorite thing was a toss-up between The Bureau and Baron Noir, both French.
How about music? What were your favorite new songs —
You didn’t ask me what books I’ve read.
Please, tell me. What have you been reading?
I got into [Yugoslav novelist] Danilo Kiš. And I’m quite proud that I managed to get through Immanuel Kant’s Moral Law, but it did take a long time. I was having to get up about five o’clock in the morning and read for an hour, because it was the only time I had the attention and my brain was alert enough to be able to try and work out what the fuck was going on. But I got through it! So I’ve done that now, which is not nothing. I wouldn’t claim that I got it all, but I got the gist of it, I think. [Laughs.]
The one album you’ve released under your own name, 2014’s Everyday Robots, is an outlier in your catalog. Have you ever thought about making more solo music like that?
Oh yeah, always. My dream is to do solo records, because I don’t have to worry about anyone else. I just do my own thing. I sing and that’s it. If I do another one, I’d try and open up even more — just try and do something that had no oblique references, from beginning to end. My blood on my tracks. I think I can push myself a lot further. I’m one of those people, I always think I could do so much better than I’m doing. I don’t feel like I have any laurels to rest on. So I have to keep going.