Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

With star power to draw on, Gorillaz steps in front of the cartoons

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A month ago, Roger Waters was in Chicago rebuilding Pink Floyd's "The Wall." One of the many themes in that show and its 1979 concept album is the barrier between artist and audience. Waters erects that barrier, building a 30-foot, white-brick manifestation of theater's "fourth wall," behind which his band continues to play. On the other side, the audience is left to watch synced animation projected onto the wall. It's true musical theater.

The Gorillaz ape a similar theatrical approach. A band of cartoon characters, created a decade ago by Blur singer Damon Albarn and "Tank Girl" creator-illustrator Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz presents its live music the way the Wizard of Oz presented his edicts: A screen, sometimes a holographic projector, depicts the larger- and loonier-than-life animated players, and we're to pay no attention to that band behind the curtain making the actual music. Like Waters, the whole conceit began as a way to separate sender and receiver to make a statement about the consumption (or not) of music.

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"It's a very hard point to get across, still," Hewlett said during a recent interview from his London studio. "We live in a time where, for a lot of people, celebrity is everything. We have thousands of huge celebrities who have no talent to offer, but because you see their face all the time you're conned into thinking that they're celebrities. With Gorillaz, we wanted to show that imaginary characters could be bigger than actual celebrities, who are really imaginary characters, anyway. Tough battle that one. We've persevered with it. I think Murdoc [the Gorillaz bassist] is a legitimate rock star -- and believable at that, and a funny one and one of my favorites alongside Keith Richards and Tom Waits."

Gorillaz emerged from the mist when Hewlett and Albarn shared a flat and began spending evenings making fun of MTV. But it's grown beyond mere snark.

"Of course, now I'd like to think that our perspective is much larger than just poking at MTV and the idea of public image," Albarn said in a separate interview. "Now we're to the point where it feels like a comment on popularism itself, our approach to pop music and how it's relative with consumerism. On this record especially, we treat pop culture as a kind of adversary, really. Although it's a loose narrative, and plastic and rubbish is dealt with on a more metaphysical sense, there's something very much worth meditating on with this record.

"We ourselves are a part of the pop culture, but it's OK to dissect it and look at it from not necessarily an entirely positive aspect. Which is not something pop culture is terribly comfortable with. I mean, look at pop music, if you can bear to. Find me some social conscience in it."

The album he refers to is Gorillaz' third full-length effort, this summer's star-studded "Plastic Beach." The album is a set of more pop-oriented electronic and hip-hop songs, many of which make vague statements about the plasticity of culture or the literal plastic humans consume and discard. It features a range of guests, including Lou Reed, Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Mark E. Smith, De La Soul and more, not to mention Mick Jones and Paul Simonon from the Clash. Womack, Jones and Simonon are on the tour, and others are popping onto some dates as special guests.

That's part of the reason the current Gorillaz tour pulls the cartoons back a bit, piercing the veil. With such star power onstage, why hide it? ("I couldn't entertain the idea of putting Lou Reed or Bobby Womack behind a screen," Albarn said. "I'm not that daft.") Hewlett has completed plenty of visuals for the entirety of the concerts, but this time they're on a screen that's up and slightly behind the human band onstage. There's a nautical theme. Jones and Simonon wear sailor suits.

Gorillaz performing "Feel Good Inc." at Coachella earlier this year.

The visuals almost became more central to the live shows, though, instead of less. The original plan was to move past the existing 2-D animation and into a concert of 3-D holograms. They tinkered with the technology and got it to work for their joint performance with Madonna opening the Grammys in 2006. Well, it sort of worked.

"It looked fantastic on TV, but that's it," Hewlett said. "Live, it's impossible to do, it turns out. You can't turn your bass up, you can't turn anything up, because it vibrates the invisible expensive holo-screen stretched between the band and the audience. The holograms go to pieces. At the Grammys, there was not really any sound in the actual theater. The [technicians] we did that with, since then, have fixed the problem, but it's too nerve-wracking to attempt."

"If it were at all possible, we'd be doing it," Albarn said of the holograms. "You just can't do it yet. It belongs to the brave new world, really. ... So the cartoons are back. It's a complete animated narrative above me now. Watching it as we're playing, it feels really strong. I think it's more satisfying, easier for people to watch us and the screen. They're a very strong presence in the ether above us, looking down on us from some kind of digital pantheon."

Albarn said "Plastic Beach" began with 80 pieces of music, so he expects Gorillaz to keep lumbering forward. After this tour, though, he's back to working on even grander stage projects. He and Hewlett collaborated on an opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West," which enjoyed an extended run in London, and Albarn currently is at work on another project "with operatic elements" about a 16th century mystic, due next summer. He also reports that he and the other members of Blur are "still in communication and are intending to do something in the new year."

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on October 13, 2010 3:00 PM.

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