The Demon Days That Gave Us 'Humanz'
We talked to Gorillaz guitarist Noodle about reuniting with Murdoc, 2-D, and Russel seven years after 'Plastic Beach.'
Some time last year, Noodle, Gorillaz's scrappy lead guitarist and sole female member, decided it was time to get the band back together. Things had been in disarray since the ill-fated attack on the band's Plastic Beach—a garbage island they wouldn't have even been if it weren't at Noodle's urging for a 2010 reunion. The foursome was separated, and Noodle wound up in Japan, working for a pearl diver, and, while on the job, she accidentally released a shape-shifting demon that she found at the bottom of the ocean. Noodle spent years tracking said demon, which infiltrated Tokyo's criminal underworld, before it ultimately met its demise by decapitation at Noodle's katana-wielding hands. So where did she go from there? She put herself in a cardboard box addressed to Murdoc of course, and shipped herself off to London. Thus begins the story of Humanz, Gorillaz newest album.
What happens in the long gaps between Gorillaz albums is complicated if the band's mythology is to be believed. While Noodle was battling Japanese demons/mafia dons, the band's leader and bass player, Murdoc, went on a trans-continental bender. Drummer Russel was blown up 60 times his original size and found himself in Pyongyang, where the lack of food brought him back down to normal size. Vocalist/pianist 2-D was eaten by a giant whale and spent a significant amount of time inside its belly. There is much more to the story, which you can read about exhaustively on the Gorillaz Wiki, as well as on the band's Instagram, where the more recent parts of the story have played out.
In reality, the reason it's taken the band so long to make a followup to Plastic Beach is fairly simple. Creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have said that it takes a very long time to create an album and design the accompanying visuals, and by the time the process is complete, they're ready to do other things. The band's literal humans also had a falling out several years back, which had left the fate of the Gorillaz uncertain since Plastic Beach and its digital-only followup The Fall. For a while, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a new chapter in the canon that would see the gang back together for another album at all. But now we're just days away from the release of Humanz, and, as both the real and imagined threads go, both the band's human and cartoon components have been through the ringer to get here.
That brings us to where we are now, with Gorillaz back for a 19-song album full of varied styles and guest spots from D.R.A.M. to Popcaan to Carly Simon. It is vaguely political, though Albarn said he stripped the album of any direct mentions of Trump. But according to Noodle, above anything else, Humanz is a party. We talked to her a little bit about the process.
Noisey: What's it like playing together after so many years apart?
Noodle: Like putting on a damp swimsuit. Weird and uncomfortable at first, but then you get used to it.
Can you talk a little bit about your journey to reunite with the rest of the band? What about where you've been post-Plastic Beach? Can you describe your journey a little bit?
So much has happened, but I'll just give you the highlights reel. Plastic Beach was OK, for an island made of garbage. It smelled so bad it even covered up Murdoc's unique odour, so things were pretty good for a while. But then pirates attacked. Russel (who was a giant at the time) helped me escape, but some whalers thought he was a whale and harpooned him. I washed up on Japan where I became a pearl diver, but then I accidentally released an ancient demon from a pearl which I hunted across Japan to the Tokyo underworld where I finally lopped off its head. After that I fled a Yakuza death squad and FedEx'd myself to London, reading Moby Dick along the way. This morning I ate a boiled egg, and now I'm talking to you.
How has the band's sound evolved since the last record?
Gorillaz are like sharks, if we don't keep moving we die. Or maybe that's just a myth? You'd have to ask the shark. Anyway, Humanz is faster and more urgent than Plastic Beach. We recorded in Chicago with local collaborators like Pevan and Jamie Principle to capture a feeling of the Chicago warehouse sound, propelled by twisted 909 beats. And parts were recorded in New York, bringing a different complexion to the record—a clash but a good clash.
How would you describe the story of this album?
It's up to you. To me, it's a party album. But the most messed-up party you ever went to, where you're not sure if it's a celebration or a wake. Everything is subverted. Even the cheese and pineapple sticks. Pineapple and cheese. Just wrong. Take the very first track, Ascension. Normally you ascend into heaven, but here we're lifting up to some new kind of hell, full of wrongness and horror. But you know, in a fun way. Make sense? I hope not.
There are so many good guest spots on Humanz. I particularly like the song you guys do with Grace Jones and the one with Pusha T. How did you link up 24 artists that are so varied?
My cosmic lasso. I twirled it around and caught them all, drawing them in from the farthest reaches of the cosmos. It was beautiful but frightening. Well that's how I remember it. We also sent out some emails.
How did you cull the album down to 19 songs? I've heard there's more where that came from.
Yeah there are many. But you never cull, you let things take shape. Once you have all the tracks, those that fit pull together naturally. The rest are never lost, just waiting for their moment in the sun. Like the new life forms 2D is germinating inside an old pizza box.
Some fans were worried you guys would never reunite. What made it happen? Did you ever worry you guys wouldn't make another album?
You can't worry about what may or may not happen. The one constant in this universe is chaos, so who knows what brought us back together? I like how Russel once put it: 'Our paths entwine, then separate—like a messed-up pretzel'. Right now we are together, so let's celebrate the moment. With a delicious pretzel.
Russel is huge now, but how have you personally changed in the past several years? What about the rest of the band? And how do you relate to that?
Don't say that to Russel. He's very sensitive about his weight. It was just temporary gigantism due to a food allergy. But we've all been through a lot, we're all different people now, each with our own interests. Russel is very political, I read a lot of philosophy, 2D enjoys counting, and Murdoc is just a really terrible person.
Do you have any regrets?
Last week I read an article titled '10 Things You Never Saw On A '10 Things You Never Knew About' List'. I will never get that time back.
What's the best part about making music with the rest of the Gorillaz crew again?
Playing live. Once every 33 years, our planet races through the trail of a comet and the sky explodes with thousands upon thousands of meteors. I witnessed this on the summit of Mount Fuji, in the black of night, as I fought Maazu, the hell demon I accidentally unleashed on to the world. The sky burned like fire as our weapons clashed. And let me say, what I saw that night couldn't even be the warm-up act to our shows this summer… So hope to see you all there! :-x
Photo courtesy of the band.
Leslie Horn is Noisey's managing editor. Her favorite Gorillaz song is 19-2000. Follow her on Twitter.