Blur and Gorillaz man Damon Albarn on the making of their lockdown concert film Gorillaz: Song Machine Live From Kong
Blur and Gorillaz man Damon Albarn tells Alex Green how he pulled off Gorillaz: Song Machine Live From Kong, an online lockdown concert combining live music, animation and dozens of guests
DAMON Albarn stalks the stage, backed by a vocal section of six, as Robert Smith of The Cure sings of "strange times" and rapper Slowthai pogos shirtless in front of an invisible crowd. Gorillaz, the cartoon band dreamed up by Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett more than two decades ago, respond to the music, projected between them and onto a towering screen.
Gorillaz: Song Machine Live From Kong is their first live stream but, unlike their competitors, it is truly live, combining live music with live animation and a bevy of high-profile guests. Ten in-person collaborators, including grime rapper Kano and actor Matt Berry, are joined by a cast of virtual musicians drawn from Gorillaz' most recent album, the lockdown-created Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez.
Conducting this controlled madness is Albarn, the musical brains behind Gorillaz, who has worked tirelessly over the last months to ensure these Christmas concerts go off without a hitch.
"If we get this right it will be a game-changer," he explains a week earlier against the dreary backdrop of a grey function room.
The 52-year-old Blur frontman is camped out at a chain hotel on the South Circular in London, where he and his crew have formed a bubble in order to rehearse for the three shows. After a year of dashed hopes and disappointment for the music industry, the assembled musicians and crew are relieved just to be working again.
"Everyone is happy to be in this bubble," he says.
"Even though it does feel at times a bit like we are in prison."
Albarn is keen to stress that Gorillaz are treading maiden ground and that the performances could go horrible wrong. Of course, he has nothing to fear: Albarn and Hewlett called on the reliable team of creatives including the Block9 production company famed for Glastonbury for this daunting project.
"No-one has ever done anything like this before – but I hasten to add there is a huge potential for things to go wrong," he deadpans.
"When you have cartoons and live music trying to happen at the same time, it's f****** mad really."
If the shows go well, Albarn hints, then Gorillaz will consider rolling out a second season of Song Machine as a hybrid TV show.
The concept of a multi-platform performance combining live musicianship with live animation seems ready-made for Gorillaz. But its realisation also has a lot to do with Albarn's relentless work ethic. The musician has grasped the few opportunities that have emerged in 2020 – writing and recording a lockdown album, performing an opera in Paris, planning these shows.
"In a weird way it has opened up an opportunity which we may not have arrived at if we hadn't have been put in this situation," he considers.
"This actually gives us, for the first time, the opportunity to spend a serious amount of time dedicated to it. How do we do a performance that is completely integrated between the cartoon world and the live world?"
Albarn has been busy elsewhere, tying up loose ends including a film deal that has been gestating for more than a decade. The project, now signed with Netflix, will feature music both new and old.
"We have been trying to make a film since 2006. We have been through many film studios. It's a very different world. But we are signed up to do it, so presumably we are doing it, which would be amazing.
"It would be amazing to have a full-length Gorillaz film. I would love that. I would love to see an hour and 20 minutes of Jamie's animation. You look at most of the animation in the pop world and it is pretty f****** shit. And ours isn't, because it's really expensive."
Song Machine is an anomaly among Albarn's back catalogue in that it largely eschews political statements in favour of a shrug at how weird things have become. But Albarn himself remains willing to discuss the Government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
"This present Government has no empathy with the arts whatsoever and sadly that is a really important part of British culture. It is an essential part of British culture. We live in a pretty miserable country at times and we need our arts to uplift us. It should be part of the prescription for our national health.
"Maybe a little less emphasis on the Premier League just running and a bit more love given to the arts would be a start because, I'm sorry, I love football as much as anybody else, but football alone does not sustain my soul."
News of a vaccine fails to lift his spirits, although he admits the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab is like "the beginning of crawling out of the pit".
"They will have to have one of the other vaccines up and running for it to become more a realistic proposition for everybody," he says cautiously.
"But in a bleak landscape it is definitely a beacon of unbridled joy and hope."
In October, Albarn was in Paris opening a new musical production at the Theatre du Chatelet featuring Malian, Congolese and Burkinabe musicians. It was a feat that would have been impossible in Britain, he says.
"I'm not pessimistic. For me, I have just carried on working. I haven't stopped working. I have done an opera in Paris, I have made an album, I am doing this now. It's not ideal. None of it has been ideal. But I think the secret to this year was to be as adaptable as possible.
"I suppose our own model has always been very fluid. We have made it work for us as much as we can really."
Time in the French capital also allowed him to visit an old friend, late Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, with whom he played in his supergroup The Good, The Bad And The Queen. Allen, who was born in Nigeria, died in April at the age of 79. His illness was unrelated to Covid-19.
"One of the first things I did when I got back there was go and visit his grave and hang out with him," Albarn recalls.
"It was wonderful to be able to do that because it was a massive blow when I got the call down in Devon that he had passed. So many people I work with had a similar moment. He is terribly missed by us and incredibly important to so many people. We constantly think about him."
:: Gorillaz: Song Machine Live From Kong is available to watch on demand at Live-now.com.