If the national airports are really concerned about beefing up security, there’s no need for federal legislation – they need only turn to the friendly folk at the Hollywood Palladium. After waiting an hour and a half in a security line, suffering the humiliation of multiple pat-downs and feel-ups, the last straw came when I was cruelly forced to watch my brand-spanking-new lighter and full pack of cigarettes sail in a perfect arc toward the waiting trash can.
But for the Gorillaz I would endure almost any indignity.
The group’s live show is a fundamentally arcane creature, and I made the drive down to Los Angeles on March 9, keen to know it more intimately. I was curious to discover how an essentially studio-created band of animated characters could sell out a venue two nights in a row and receive rave reviews for their performances.
Speaking the previous day with Dan the Automator – who, with Blur’s Damon Albarn, is the driving force behind the Gorillaz concept – he was excited about the unique experience audiences are afforded during one of the band’s concerts.
“[The live show] is pretty fascinating,” he said. “It’s not your traditional concert … there are certain things about this idea that are far more interesting. [Seeing the Gorillaz live] is like going to a silent movie where the actors are actually there. If you go there expecting a great rock show, you are getting one. But if you go there expecting to see the musicians sweating away, you’re not getting that. But on the other hand, you’re getting a whole other multimedia experience, which is really cool. So I guess what I’m saying is you have to suspend certain expectations, but in return you get certain other experiences.”
Entering the main concert area of the Palladium, it was obvious this was no ordinary show. Two big screens spanned the stage – one to project Jamie Hewlett’s animated contributions to the Gorillaz concept and another to obscure the band, further adding to their mythos.
For those unfamiliar with Dan’s hip hop production career, personas are not new to the Gorillaz collaboration. In Handsome Boy Modeling School, Dan teamed up with Prince Paul to create the personalities Nathaniel Merriweather and Chest Rockwell.
“It’s not that it makes hip hop more palatable, it’s just that everyone is so serious.” Dan said. “With Handsome Boy Modeling School, Paul and I were just making a statement about how hip hop is all obsessed with drug dealers and gangsters and stuff. So we went with the modeling school idea to poke a little fun at the whole thing. … We just thought, what do these guys gain by putting up such an image? What’s so special about real gangsters that you really want to put them on pedestals? Instead of putting gangsters on pedestals we thought we would put a modeling school on a pedestal, but no one really understood that so it ended up being a character of sorts.”
As for the Gorillaz, Dan’s collaboration with Albarn and Hewlett has yielded some of the most enigmatic personalities in the rock/hip hop genre – the adventures of Russel, Murdoc, 2D and Noodle have become as popular as the music they are associated with. But as the Gorillaz sound continues to make its meteoric rise, the group’s musicians have maintained relative anonymity. This was apparent on March 9 when I realized the opening act was Dan the Automator, much to the oblivion of the Palladium crowd which was eagerly anticipating the Gorillaz. Perhaps better known as a producer than as a performer, Dan sees little distinction between the two roles.
“It’s all performing isn’t it?” he said. “It’s just that when you’re producing you’re making records for eternity. You make it; it’s there forever. When you make a record you’re putting a stamp on a time in your life. When you play live, anything goes. It happens and when it’s done, it’s done.”
Although this cartoon band is now a cash cow for Virgin Records as audiences around the world experience monkey-mania, pitching the original idea to a record company garnered some nervous glances from industry execs.
“[The concept of Gorillaz] came out in Europe under EMI, and EMI was much more into the whole thing than Virgin was right off the bat,” Dan said. “I think one thing that we have that allows us to do that is we all have a pretty decent track record selling music, so [the record companies] aren’t going to say ‘Oh, that’s not at all viable.’ They like their artists to be a little bit out there, so they’re not going to look at us like we are crazy, even though we might very well be.”
Dan wasn’t forthcoming in his opinion of what has made the Gorillaz such a success. He claims his priority in making music is to collaborate with people he respects and have fun making the sort of music he likes.
“Perhaps it’s the sexy personas [people like]. No, I really don’t know,” he said. “Here is the thing: We make the records the best we can make them and hopefully people like them. But you can’t really dictate your market; you can’t really dictate who’s going to buy your records. You have to just do the best you can and whatever happens will happen. For the most part good things happen when you make good records, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll sell tons of copies. I think Jamie’s contribution with the artwork also helps sell the record. It makes it more interesting to kids especially, but it also puts a fresh face on everything.”
Following the international mega-success of the Gorillaz self-titled first album, Virgin is making hay while the sun shines, having recently released G-Sides – a collection of Gorillaz B-side tracks and European remixes.
“It was actually only really intended to come out in Japan, but the demand was a little bit higher than we originally anticipated, so we had to release it in America,” Dan said. “I think it is a fun record, it’s a good listening piece, because it gives you different views of what goes on with the Gorillaz in other venues.”
Dan the Automator has always made records that have involved collaborations within an incestuously small group of people. The various contributors to the Gorillaz – Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Kid Koala, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, and Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club-bers’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz – have all worked with Dan on previous projects.
“We’re all friends. So when Damon called me up and said, ‘Do you want to do a record?’ I said ‘Yeah’ and just brought the other people with me,” Dan said. “I like these people so I’ll continue to work with them whenever I have the opportunity. Koala’s been scratching on all my records – he’s on the Gorillaz, the Handsome Boys, Deltron and Lovage – because we know each other really well musically. As far as these other people go, I work with people who I think are really talented and I enjoy.”
Dan the Automator continues to pursue his musical interests outside the Gorillaz fold, having just released Lovage – Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By, continuing the Nathaniel Merriweather persona. Shying away from major labels, Dan released the album on 75 ARK.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of labels all along. My original gold was on DreamWorks, which is a major label,” Dan said. “The majors have more ability to push stuff through, but there is a lot more red tape. The independents are a lot more open to off-the-wall ideas, but they’re not necessarily able to implement all of them because they don’t have the funding to do it. I like them both, to tell you the truth. They both have their place. If I have my way I’ll continue to do records on both majors and independents for as long as I can.”
But Gorillaz fans need not worry; Dan still has future plans for his fuzzy friends, including another album and an animated movie.
“There is definitely going to be more stuff [Gorillaz] will do in the future,” he said. “Ultimately, we are intending the next album to be a soundtrack score for the movie that we are trying to get made. … Then once that happens, well who knows? The next record is about as far ahead as I can look at this particular project.”
As the lights went down in the Palladium, a 90-minute multimedia extravaganza – complete with smoke and mirrors – unfolded before the eagerly awaiting crowd. I was reminded of the words that Dan said to me when I asked him what he had intended to create with the Gorillaz: “I don’t think you need to analyze the whole thing. I think you can just go with it. … It’s fun.”
“What makes [the Gorrilaz] successful is that we are having a good time making music that we enjoy. I like to have fun when I make music and I like people to feel the fun when I’m making the music,” Dan said.
“I think people like that, we don’t take ourselves so seriously. I think making music and being joyful is ultimately a good thing. Things are heavy in the world right now; it’s nice to have something you can enjoy.”