Gorillaz: “I could feel in my bones that we were due this current trouble”

The cartoon band were readymade for an era that has seen the old certainties upended, as epic new album ‘Song Machine – Season One: Strange Timez’ proves

In the almost two decades they’ve been together, from louche 2001 debut single ‘Clint Eastwood’ to recent ska-flavoured tune ‘Momentary Bliss’, cartoon icons Gorillaz have been fine purveyors of apocalyptic pop, head-rattling collaborations and innovative visuals that melt the brain and eyeballs. And, somehow, after everything they’ve done, 2020 is Gorillaz’s year.

Assembled by pop svengali Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, the band – bassist Murdoc Niccals, vocalist 2D, drummer Russel Hobbs and guitarist Noodle – have spent seven glorious albums crafting their inimitable alt-pop in a universe all their own. The latest, ‘Song Machine: Season One – Strange Timez’, released last month, is collaboration-stuffed: Elton John and The Cure’s Robert Smith appear, respectively, on the elegiac ‘The Pink Phantom’ and minimalist ‘Strange Timez’; Joy Division and New Order legend Peter Hook and dance-pop titan Georgia groove through the ‘80s-influenced ‘Aries’; and indie hero St. Vincent assists on the shimmering ‘Chalk Tablet Flowers’.

Gorillaz NME Big Read
2D. Credit: Jamie Hewlett

The latter says she connected with the band on a personal level, telling NME: “We talked about the future in a way that made me jump out of my chair with excitement.” CHAI, a proper ‘one-to-watch’ band from Nagoya, Japan, who feature on the sing-song ‘MLS’, were similarly enthusiastic: “It’s amazing and we are so honoured.” And Ruban Nielson, frontman with psych-rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who slink through the understated ‘Severed Head’, is unequivocal about his attitude to working with the band: “I had no hesitation when getting asked to work on a Gorillaz track. It was like: close email, open Pro Tools…”

The breathless guestlist is indicative of Gorillaz’s enormous star power, while the collection itself is a nod to their endearing eccentricity. Seven of the album’s songs were originally released as ‘episodes’ comprised of videos and accompanying skits. At the time, Russell described the roll-out as “a whole new way of doing what we do, Gorillaz breaking the mould ’cause the mould got old”. Now the songs, along with a whole heap more, are part of a traditional album, but that experimental approach clearly influenced the innovative music.

“Music evolves, adapts. Paradigms shift. ‘Song Machine’ is a chameleon” – Russel

Which brings us back to the point that the group, long preoccupied with notions of dystopia (and utopia: see 2010 album ‘Plastic Beach’), slot right into 2020. They called the album ‘Strange Timez’, for goodness’ sake. You might have noticed that this year has seen the old certainties upended, the climate receptive to a band-who-are-not-a-band recording an album-that’s-not-an-album via remote collaborations. And if you’d rather opt for escapism? The record is packed with so many bops that you can just kick back and let it move your feet (simultaneously screaming into your pillow optional).

In mid-December, we’ll have the chance to do that collectively: Gorillaz will stream Song Machine Live, a series of virtual gigs that’ll bring the album to life. Given the band’s wildly inventive to pretty much everything, who knows what to expect, but one thing’s for certain: like many of us, they’re adapting, innovating and making creative use of a weird new reality and taking refuge in their imaginations until all of this blows over.

Gorillaz NME Big Read
Gorillaz on the cover of NME

Which is why, chatting with the band, I open with the question that every person on every dating app has opened with since the world flipped upside down…

Gorillaz, I am duty bound to ask: how’s your lockdown been going?

Murdoc: “Speaking as someone who’s spent a lot of time in shackles – once did a fortnight manacled to a dungeon wall (although that was voluntary, to be fair) – I’ve learnt a thing or two about incarceration. When I’m banged up, I often go back to the words of Voltaire: “Man is free at the moment he wishes to be.” Read that in the welcome pack at Wormwood Scrubs prison. I didn’t get it at first, so at the time it was fairly unhelpful. But later, it hit me – freedom is in your noggin. Once you understand that, you have the mental strength to endure anything. I also got hammered a lot.”

That sounds… profound. Did any of you consider absconding to Plastic Beach – it seems the ideal place to isolate?

Noodle: “I go to Plastic Beach in my mind. It is a place to start and finish.”

“Back in 2019 I said, ‘Lads, mark my words, you heard it here first – we’re about to have some very strange times!” – Murdoc

Did you fall back into any of your bad habits during lockdown? I’m looking at you, Murdoc…

Murdoc: “If you’re referring to my reputation for blackmail, arson, arms smuggling, insurance fraud and a general penchant for the Seven Deadly Sins – come on, mate, I’d hardly call those ‘bad habits’. That’s just me being me. Granted, I’ve started to recognise some of that behaviour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so I’ve dialled it down a notch for improved team morale. Busied myself with a few old hobbies; really got back into my drone surveillance, and did an online course in how to build a wicker man. It’s ready to go, actually. Just looking for a volunteer…”

I’ll ask around. As a band, you’ve always been quite big on envisaging a dystopic future. Now we’re there, do you feel vindicated or scared?

Russel: “No damn good feeling either one of those. Because where we are is where we are, all we can do is deal with it. We’ve each got a role to play. Maybe you don’t feel that way – feel like you’re just one dude and it doesn’t matter what you do. But that’s not the truth. The truth is we’re all connected, like data chains in an infinite matrix. Every action has a consequence. There’re a million possible futures out there. Question is, which one do you wanna pick?”

Gorillaz NME Big Read
Murdoc Niccals. Credit: Jamie Hewlett

I’ll go with scared. You’ve always tried to innovate as a band, so what came first – the concept for ‘Song Machine’, or the songs?

Russel: “There’s no chicken or egg here, man. They created each other, an infinite loop, serpent eating-its-own-tail type shit. Think of the Machine like a sentient engine, alive to the moment – that’s the whole point. Tuned, wired, ready to react. Because the world spins so fast right now, how else can you keep up? It’s like, you don’t know the end of the story when you’re in it. All you can do is step onto the path, put one foot in front of the other, and see where you get to. My man Picasso said it best: “If you know exactly what you’re going to do, what’s the good in doing it?”

Moving on from existentialism, you’ve got some amazing collaborations in this collection. Is there anyone you’ve been trying to get for ages, who you just happened to catch with too much time on their hands this year?

Murdoc: “Behave, mate. People come to me, obvs. I’ve got a substantial waiting list of big shots and A-listers and pop illuminati who want a piece of Gorillaz action. You wouldn’t believe the bribes I get, either. For example, just last month I got a stuffed moose head in the mail, sent by an artist I won’t name for legal reasons. But he knows who he is. If you’re reading this, mate, it’s not going to happen! Capiche? (Cheers for the moose head, though, looks great over the bog.)”

But there was one collaborator who 2D was particularly thrilled to work with…

2D: “I was really excited to finally meet Elton John, ‘cause we’ve been writing letters to each other for years. It was weird, though, ‘cause when he came to the studio to record ‘Pink Phantom’, he said he didn’t remember writing to me. It turns out I was writing to a man called John Elton, who lives on the Isle of Wight. Me and him have stayed in touch, though. He just got a new job as a forklift driver. Next year we might go to Center Parcs together.”

“I tried for ages to get the group chat thing going with the live band, but I’m not very good with computers” – 2D

Make sure your booking includes free cancellation. So, have all of you been able to get together to rehearse for Song Machine Live, or was it all by Zoom? 2D, You don’t strike me as the Zoom type…

2D: “Yeah, I tried for ages to get the group chat thing going with the live band, but I’m not very good with computers. I did see a nice two-bed flat in East Crawley, though. Then Murdoc said, ‘You muppet that’s not Zoom, it’s Zoopla’. So, we haven’t started practising yet. But I don’t think it matters, because music happens in your brain, so as long as our brains are hooked up, it’ll be alright, I reckon.”

Did you put much effort put into curating the running order, or is the album dead as a concept?

Russel: “Never say die. But music evolves, adapts. Paradigms shift. Like ‘Song Machine’. It’s a chameleon. Sonic camouflage. Rearrange the components and you get something new. What is it? Up to you.”

Gorillaz NME Big Read
Russel Hobbs. Credit: Jamie Hewlett

On that note, you’re also issuing shorter mixtape versions of the collection on cassette, which is lovely, but why are cassettes a thing again as they were always, as a format, quite shit?

Murdoc: “It’s the era of revivals, isn’t it? Vinyl. Film cameras. Handlebar moustaches. Bigotry. Tapes are just a part of that. I mean, we’re a nation known for living in the past, but these days who can blame us? That said, I reckon tapes are brilliant. They’ve got heft. You can chuck ’em at muggers, prop up broken chairs etc. Also, there’s something old-school about having to turn it over halfway through. Makes you work for your music. Granted, there is that ever-present risk of the tape getting chewed up like tagliatelle. But for me, that adds a frisson of Russian roulette excitement; something sadly lacking from today’s music streaming services.”

You’re releasing an almanac as well – did any of you get an annual for Christmas as kids? What were they? 2D strikes me as the Blue Peter type…

2D: “Yeah, we’ve got this book thing coming out soon. It’s called an almanac which is American for annual. I did some interviews in it, wrote some stories and puzzles and that. I was well excited to do an annual, ‘cause I collect them. Got some really rare ones. Euro 96 Annual. Right Said Fred. My top one is The Official Kylie Minogue Annual 1993, first edition. I’ve got some of them special gloves to wear when I read it, so I don’t damage the paper.”

“Lockdown shows us for who we are” – Noodle

Thanks for confiding in me. When did you decide to call this collection ‘Strange Timez’? It seems awfully prophetic…

Murdoc: “Prophesy is par for the course with Gorillaz. Always got my sights scanning the next horizon, ear to the ground et cetera. I could feel it in my bones that we were due this current trouble. Back in 2019 I said, ‘Lads, mark my words, you heard it here first – we’re about to have some very strange times!”

2D: “I thought we came up with that in August?”

Murdoc: “Quiet, 2D.”

Could Season Two please be called ‘Quite Fun And Carefree Times’, then?

Murdoc: “Good news doesn’t resonate, though, does it, pal? Titanic is famous ‘cause it sank and everyone drowned, not ‘cause they all drank sangria and played badminton on deck. It’s like John Lennon, or dinosaurs – legends because they died tragically and in their prime. I’ll take your album name suggestion on board, though, cheers. File it next to 2D’s proposal to do a Gorillaz Christmas single with the Gilmore Girls as backing singers.”

Gorillaz NME Big Read
Noodle. Credit: Jamie Hewlett

That sounds quite good, actually. What are your individual and collective plans for when life resumes again?

Russel: “Wake up, my friend. Life will resume, but not as we know it. What was is buried. New paradigms are rising from the ashes. Our hypothetical future is coalescing around us right now, like data in the cloud, and we need to take hold, reformat the narrative. Aside from that, I’m gonna hit the gym. Hard. My lockdown baking got a little out of hand.”

Noodle: “We live in ourselves. Lockdown shows us for who we are. Everyone. I will travel again when life returns. That is my quest.”

Finally, if you could give Gorillaz, just about to release ‘Clint Eastwood’ in 2001, a piece of advice, what would it be?

Noodle: “You are right. Do not doubt your instinct. It is correct. Follow it.”

– Gorillaz’s ‘Song Machine – Season One: Strange Timez’ is out now. LIVENow presents Gorillaz SONG MACHINE LIVE – 12th and 13th December.  Tickets on sale www.gorillazlivenow.com