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Gorillaz: King of Virtual Jungle

John Cawley speaks with comic artist Jamie Hewlett about his and rocker Damon Albarns creation of the animated personas of Gorillaz.

Gorillaz brings together cutting edge animation and rock n roll. All images courtesy of Passion Pictures.

Monkeys and music. Whether it be Disneys King Louie scatting in The Jungle Book, Ernie Kovacs Nairobi Trio beating a monotone rhythm or the famed pre-fab four, The Monkees, it seems apes and arpeggios go together like drums and drumsticks. Gorillaz is the latest pairing of simians and syncopation, and like previous primate programs, this manufactured menagerie has many a music follower going ape.

A combination of webtoon, rock group, videogame and legend, Gorillaz is re-defining the music business as much as digital quaked the world of tape. Sales for the Gorillaz recent album, Demon Days is more than two million copies. (Their 2001 debut album, Gorillaz has sold some six million to date.) They have won various awards including several MTV Music Awards. The group is in the midst of plans for another live tour. And talk about a feature film continues.

Born from the brains of comic artist Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) and rocker Damon Albarn (Blur) in England, Gorillaz is bringing new meaning to virtual reality. Gorillaz is more than just another animated web creation, more than just a set of characters designed for a game. Instead of the typical path of originating in one media and slowly evolving into others, this musical group sprung to life in all directions, offering a daring concept that blurs the virtual world with that of the real one.

The groups actual origin came about in 1997 when Hewlett and Albarn were rooming together. It seems around that time the duo began discussing the idea of creating an animated band that would do everything a live band would be expected to do. They figured Hewlett could design the characters while Albarn supplied the music. After some initial tries, the final group emerged in 2000 as 2D (vocals and keyboards), Murdoc Niccals (bass), Noodles (guitars, vocals) and Russel Hobbs (drums, percussion). The imaginary foursome resides at Kong Studios, which is located in a cemetery!

Hewlett and Albarn may have been guided to this concept by animated characters ability to entertain many generations as well as a Peter Pan lifestyle. Characters from Bart to Bugs have been able to survive the years without aging. The creators have even compared Gorillaz to Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Archies. In a recent interview, Albarn stated, Every generation is going to love Gorillaz. You just have to look at cartoons like Scooby-Doo, which are still hugely popular.

Hewlett added, You wont have 2D on stage when hes 62 with his catheter swinging between his legs. Hell always be a charming little cherub. Well be in wheelchairs but it wont matter because the Gorillaz will exist as long as were still into doing it.

It was the fall of 2000 when the Gorillaz burst onto the scene with their official website and their first release, a CD single of Tomorrow Comes Today. More CDs and music videos quickly followed. In 2001 their first live concert occurred at the London Kings Cross Scala. Around the same time their debut album, Gorillaz, was released in Europe. Soon their music was international with such hits as Clint Eastwood, 19/2000 and 911. There has even been a mockumentary on the group entitled Charts of Darkness.

The center point of the Gorillaz-mania can be found at their state-of-the-mind website. It is a virtual world where visitors can tour the studio (over 32 million rooms have been visited), see videos, listen to music, email the group, play games and more. The groups CDs have tricks to find secret rooms and items within the studio. More than merely a destination for followers, the site is, in itself, part of the legend as minor story arcs are played out.

Top image is a shot from Demon Days albums first single Feel Good Inc. and the bottom image is from Dare, the second single off the disc.

One recent event had the police cordon of the studio until Noodles returned to announce a new contest. Entitled Search for a Star, the group sought to find new filmmakers through submissions of new animated characters and music. The goal was to find another talent to work on the Gorillaz phenomenon. Even more amusing was Murdocs attempt to sell some of lead singer 2Ds items on eBay. The auction house ended up pulling the auctions when they read the description, which stated the items had been hand stolen by Murdoc.

Pushing the virtual envelope as far as possible, the group does live concerts, in which their animated forms are projected on a screen. Behind the screen, the band performs. It can be anyones guess who may show up to be part of the performance. The group even gives interviews. (Why not, they answer questions on the web.) In a recent interview they were asked if they came from a long line of pretend pop groups. Murdoc replied, I think Spinal Tap beat us, along with The Stones, Gwar, The Pistols and Chubby Checker.

True to their groundbreaking career, Gorillaz is also blending the concept of creator. Hewlett and Albarn are obviously the genesis and core of this evolutionary band. Hewlett draws all the official images of the band as well as creates and directs the music videos. Albarn is the source of all the groups music, though there is a wide range of musicians and singers who have performed on various songs.

However, it is equally clear that there are many hands behind the final results. Key is Hewletts studio, Zombie Flesh Eaters. There, Hewlett, along with Mat Wakeham (creative director), Susan Oppong-Wiafe, Matt Watkins (webmaster), Tim Watkins (web programmer), Kate McLauchian (graphic design), Tom Thorne (business manager) and Mike Robinson, keep the legend alive, while also building upon it. This is the team that maintains the website, responds to emails from fans, does the animation for the music videos and short films and generally is visual ground zero.

As Hewlett and Albarn continue to monkey with their group, almost anything seems possible real or virtual. They still hope to get a feature film going. A deal with DreamWorks recently went south, but it seems nothing will stop this group from hitting the big screen. When they do, it will no doubt be something as fresh and original as everything else they have done to date.

John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank. John is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney Features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.