Gorillaz: Man vs Machine

© Jamie Hewlett

Words by:

The Gorillaz narrative is pointing to an apocalyptic event.

Asteroids rain from the sky and dancehall ghouls menace the band members, as a hallucinatory dystopia stirs into action once more and 2D, Noodle, Russel and Murdoc return with another album. Humanz, Gorillaz’ first album for seven years, has arrived at a precarious moment in history. Men in Pyongyang and Washington are beating their chests at each other and nuclear war is a real threat once again. Technology lies on the cusp of sweeping us into a brave new post-human world, while conservative ideologies are desperately trying to send us back to the shitty olden-days.

Plus, the technology itself is by definition untested; our wisest gurus warn us that the artificial intelligence designed to improve our lives may very well take a dim view of flawed human consciousness. Devices with fantastically positive potential can easily be tweaked into lethal autonomous weapons systems. Radical ideas have become urgent realities. “Sitting on your ass twiddling your digits is exactly what the robots want,” Russel Hobbs – Gorillaz’ drummer and conduit for the souls of dead rappers – warns me. “Get us all idle and fat and lazy, so when the war starts they can smoosh us like bugs.”

Increasingly, events in the Gorillaz’ world bear alarming similarities to our own distorted reality. What’s more, the membrane of technology which has, until now, kept them at a safe fictional distance, is thinning. The press campaign surrounding Humanz has seen band members Murdoc and 2D being interviewed, live, by a real human being. In New York, Berlin and Amsterdam, the band have partnered with Sonos to host “Spirit Houses” – a series of immersive audio-visual experiences which invite fans into their virtual home. An augmented reality Gorlliaz app used hosts’ phone cameras to offer users the chance to toggle between realities at a “global listening party”.

Now, they’re talking to me. The good news is they seem to be getting on.

“My relationship with Murdoc these days is pretty healthy,” 2D mumbles. Lead singer and half-wit, his life pre-Gorillaz saw him safely employed in a shop. He was shanghai’d into the band by bassist and lurching demogorgon Murdoc Niccals; concussed, abducted and forced to sing. But that was back in the day – since then tensions have dissipated, with some liquid assistance, 2D explains. “Since Murdoc’s started drinking more he’s had less time to beat me up and torture me.”

Gorillaz made their first appearance almost 20 years ago, landing in a world of post-Y2K optimism. With Murdoc as a driving force, Russel on drums and percussion, intermittently channeling the spirits of his deceased rapper buddies to devastating lyrical effect, and 2D singing and looking vacant, the crew was joined by the somewhat enigmatic Japanese schoolgirl and guitarist Noodle, who arrived from Japan in a crate in response to an ad placed in the NME.

When it dropped in 2001, Gorillaz’ self-titled debut album offered a fresh look at what a band could even be. The fiction itself sprung from the minds of a pair of nineties icons: Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett. Hewlett, responsible for the visual aesthetic of the group, made his name with cult graphic novel character Tank Girl. Albarn, meanwhile, spent the decade fronting Blur. Stylistically, Gorillaz may not have represented such a leap for Hewlett, but for Albarn the narrative opened up a new vista of musical opportunity: the chance to move away from Britpop and its sonic limitations to explore an adventurous new palette of sounds.

The self-titled debut album was followed up in 2005 by Demon Days. A gloomy and compelling response to escalating tensions and ongoing conflicts, the album painted a grim picture of a depleted, hollow world, addressing the ongoing war in Iraq. The band’s world was expanded accordingly; having parted ways, Gorillaz reunited at their base, Kong Studios. After spending the hiatus uncovering her roots as a cybernetically-enhanced supersoldier, Noodle put her skills to good use clearing monsters out of the studio. 2D gave up a job at his old man’s funfair in Eastbourne, Russel returned from LA and Murdoc slunk back from a sordid sojourn in Mexico.

Demon Days was notable for the quality of special guests – spawning two monster hits in the form of the De La Soul collab Feel Good Inc. and DARE, which reinvigorated Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder – and 2010’s Plastic Beach saw the potential of collaboration exploited even further, enlisting legends such as Mark E. Smith, Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg and Bobby Womack.

The band itself relocated from Kong Studios to the plastic beach of the album’s title. A lurid pink island, formed from accumulated waste brought together by the ocean’s currents and crowned with a deeply kitsch Thunderbirds-style hideout, the Plastic Beach provided a haven for the band – until it was shot to pieces by pirates, that is.

“We’re advancing faster than super gonorrhea, whether we like it or not. That’s what the new album’s tapping into.” - Murdoc

And so, the band members once more went their separate ways. 2D was eaten by a whale, Murdoc escaped in a submarine and Russel, grown to gigantic proportions after ingesting an excess of polluted matter, swam away with Noodle safely hidden in his mouth. In one of the more surreal interviews I’ve conducted, the band tell me about where they’ve been over the past few years.

The whale that swallowed 2D has sadly died, and was washed up on a desert island. “It was quite peaceful inside Massive Dick,” he remembers. “At night I would go to sleep with my head on his soft aorta, listening to the slow beating of his heart.”

Noodle, meanwhile, found herself separated from Russel after an unhappy encounter with a whaling vessel. A stint as a pearl diver led to the inadvertent release of a fiendish demon, and a subsequent quest to decapitate it. “Slaying,” she explains, “comes naturally to me. I’ve been doing it since Demon Days. I had to clear out Kong Studios of hordes of the undead. Ruined the carpets, but really enjoyed myself.”

While Russel remains reticent about his experiences, a little digging on Twitter reveals that he wound up captive to Kim Jong-un’s authoritarian regime in North Korea. It’s believed that they kept him in a zoo until he shrank back to normal size, thanks to the paltry food rations he was served. Murdoc also found himself imprisoned, at the mercy of the arguably less sympathetic regime – the record label EMI. Was prison a shock? “More than happy to do a bit of bird, mate,” he shrugs. “I really enjoyed it. Gave me time to work on my cross-stitch and catch up on my hate mail.”

With Gorillaz reconvening in recent years, it’s no wonder that, thematically, Humanz is as intense as it is surreal. Demon Days reflected a dark world rocked by avarice and conflict; Plastic Beach, though more upbeat, was inspired by Albarn’s consternation at the levels of plastic in the sand round his house, the pathos of new consumer detritus ecologies. In an interview with Zane Lowe, Humanz collaborator Pusha T – who was a vocal supporter of Hilary Clinton’s campaign – said Damon Albarn’s instructions were to imagine the new album “conceptualised as a party for the end of the world if Trump wins.”

Albarn’s directions to Pusha T came in spring 2016, months before Trump’s victory. But the Virginia rapper’s bars on Humanz track Let Me Out, which also features the legendary Mavis Staples, reflect the present landscape convincingly. It’s a landscape which sees systemic racism and injustice being confronted once more by a new civil rights movement, as the insubstantial rights won the first time around are eroded once more by Old White Men. “Tell me that I won’t die at the hands of the police,” Pusha raps.

Album opener Ascension sees Vince Staples add his own, less plaintive, two cents: “I’m finna catch a body like I got a gun and badge,” he spits, decrying his land of the free, “where you can live your dreams long as you don’t look like me/ be a puppet on a string, hanging from a fucking tree”. The album may soundtrack a party, but the tone is often serious, if not actually sombre.

That’s not to say it’s not also upbeat: it offers various unselfconsciously fun bangers, such as Strobelight, featuring Chicago house legend Peven Everett and loopy floor-filler Momentz with De La Soul. In my discussion with the band, I ask Murdoc what – if anything – he fears. “Obsolescence,” he tells me. “Of course, not me personally. I’m already a legend. I mean us as a species. In a few generations, humans will probably have been completely mugged off by silicone-based AIs… we’re advancing faster than super gonorrhea, whether we like it or not. That’s what the new album’s tapping into.”

“The robots want us to get all idle and fat and lazy, so when the war starts they can smoosh us like bugs” - Russel Hobbs

Funnily enough, the technological developments that give Gorillaz a voice and interactive, individual identities are the same that stand to fuck us all right up. A mooted advantage of the obsolescence Murdoc fears, as the workforce becomes more automated, is the potential point of departure it offers from the confines of capitalism. Machine labour offers us an opportunity to pivot into a new global structure where humans are afforded the time and space to get on with important, meaningful stuff. The business of creativity, for example.

The balance, though, could just as well tip the other way; through the feared obsolescence our slave technology could as well enslave us. For Russel, a virtual character in a virtual band, accessible through the black mirror of a smart-phone window, we are balanced on a knife-edge. And, he says, we’ll be the ones to decide how we fall.

“Right now,” he declares, “we still have control, still got the power. We can make a choice. And that’s kind of what Humanz is about – this moment of transition we’re in, moving real fast towards some new version of humanity. No one knows how it’ll play out, but whatever happens, it’s all on us.”

Meet The Collaborators: Read the Gorillaz in conversation with their Humanz guests here

For the rest of our Gorillaz coverage, visit Gorillaz: Come Inside

Humanz is out now via Parlaphone / Warner Bros

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