Gorillaz Retain Their Edge as Damon Albarn Takes Aim at the "Echo Chamber for the Alt-Right"

The musician discusses Billie Eilish, the art of collaborative pop music and launching "the Last Cult"

Photo courtesy of Parlophone Records

BY Alex HudsonPublished Feb 7, 2023

In spring 2022, during Billie Eilish's headlining performance at Coachella, the Gen Z pop star paused her parade of hits to invite a special guest to join her on stage.

"This man changed my life in a lot of ways and changed my complete view of what music could be, and what art could be, and what creation could be," she gushed when Damon Albarn sauntered out to perform the 2005 single "Feel Good Inc." "This man is literally a genius."

It should have been a triumphant victory lap for the songwriter behind Gorillaz and Blur — clear evidence of how his three-decades-long career has inspired the generations that have followed. But, speaking with Exclaim! about it during a Zoom call from his Studio 13 in London, UK, he remembers the night a little differently.

"I completely cocked up a tune," he says, cutting me off before I even finish my question. "That was because I'm not used to [in-ear monitors]. Everyone in this generation uses in-ears, and it was really tricky. In fact, both weekends — because I played with Flume the next weekend — I had the same problem, even though I had tried to make sure. And I did get my lyrics mixed up. Anyway, there you go. That was that."

Luckily, Eilish didn't hold any of Albarn's perceived flubs against him: "She's fantastic, so she embraced it with a sense of humour, which is appreciated," he adds humbly.

Eilish's admiration for Gorillaz is just the latest example of the band's enduring popularity among listeners of all ages — and Albarn's concerns about the quality of the performance reveal just how devoted he remains to his craft. More than two decades since their 2001 self-titled debut, the virtual band founded by Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett have resisted becoming a legacy act: they've continued to release well-received new material, and their streams far surpass those of Albarn's other projects — including his solo albums, as well as his explorations of dub in the Good, the Bad & the Queen and funky Afrobeat in Rocket Juice & the Moon. Even his zeitgeist-defining '90s band Blur (who are set to reunite this year) struggle to match the continuing crossover appeal of Gorillaz.

Maybe it's because their animated avatars prevent them aging, or maybe it's because their postmodern mashup of genres still sounds fresh, but Gorillaz remain a forward-thinking band rather than simply part of the recent wave of early-aughts nostalgia. In a world where the truth is blurry and so many people hide behind online personas, the constructed artifice of Gorillaz acknowledges its own fiction, making it strangely honest.

"On the last tour in the States, I would go into the audience," Albarn says. "I didn't jump in — I don't do that anymore. I go down some stairs and walk and walk and walk, until I can't go any further, and then I just go into the middle. You meet lots of very different people when you do that: some very small people, like six-year-olds, and then old people, and then their mums and dads, and teenagers. It's mad." 

For the 54-year-old Albarn to walk out into the crowd at a Gorillaz show, without any visual trickery, is a major departure from the project's enigmatic origins as a virtual band with animated members. He initially wanted to remain anonymous, playing the role of Gorillaz singer 2D and performing behind a screen at early concerts. He even intended to keep up the act in interviews, going so far as to invent a fake speaking voice for the character, but the ruse didn't last long. "I fucked it up really early on," he admits with a chuckle. "I found it quite difficult to keep a secret. I wasn't very good at it. My dear friend Banksy is the only one who's managed to maintain his mystique in that period."

Even if Albarn hadn't given away his identity, it probably would have been impossible to keep up the facade: Blur were one of Britain's most famous bands at the time, and Albarn's voice was unmistakable on Gorillaz' 2001 breakthrough hit "Clint Eastwood." Since those early days, he has become increasingly prominent within the band's ever-shifting collage of hip-hop, pop, electronic and global influences. The project's sixth album, 2018's The Now Now, particularly emphasized the singer, with just three featured guests and a streamlined synthpop sound.

Eighth album Cracker Island (out February 24 via Parlophone) follows in that mode. Its 10 songs make it the shortest album in the discography, and while most of the tracks do have featured guests, there are only two rap verses, with many of the contributors singing background vocals while Albarn remains front and centre. Thundercat kicks the digital funk of the title track into overdrive with his nimble six-string bass and falsetto harmonies, while Stevie Nicks's unmistakable voice is given a digital makeover in the background of the sweetly chugging "Oil," and Beck is in crooner mode on acoustic lullaby "Possession Island."

In a rare moment when a contributor steals the spotlight from Albarn, Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny takes the lead on "Tormenta," singing and rapping in Spanish amidst a sonic sunshower of synthetic harps and Latin rhythms.

"When you work together, you've got to embrace each other's joy, and how that is attained within the context of the session," Albarn says of his approach to bringing the best out in his many guests. "If I was going to write a handbook on how to make collaborative pop music, it would be more a psychotherapy book than a music book — for myself included."

In addition to connecting with collaborators, Albarn revisits a peculiar moment from his career with Blur on the sighing "Baby Queen," which reflects on the band's meeting with the Princess of Thailand in 1997.

"She kept taking mini Polaroids of us," Albarn remembers. "And then we went to do the concert, and she'd been placed in front of the mixing desk. She had a throne and these guards around her. So that was kind of mad, and then when 'Song 2' started, she got up on the seat and stage-dived into the soldiers. Everyone else is going crazy, but there's this other kind of youthful exuberance being expressed, and in such a weird gilded cage." While working on Cracker Island, the songwriter had a dream about meeting the Princess again, and the experience worked its way into the album's eclectic universe.

Cracker Island doesn't have a clear narrative, but its imagery and lyrics loosely follow a cryptic religious sect called the Last Cult, with Gorillaz bassist Murdoc as its messianic leader. The cult theme came to Albarn after he touched down in Los Angeles to record the album with mega-producer Greg Kurstin (known for his work behind the boards with Adele, Paul McCartney and many more).

"There's a multiplicity of cults in the world. They're everywhere," Albarn observes. Recording for the first time in "the town of dreams" that is Los Angeles, the songwriter found himself face-to-face with the many ways in which people buy into the false promises of fame, fortune and a better life.

"The thing that makes something a cult is that it has some discordant idea, whatever it is, with normality. That's what defines it as a cult," says Albarn. Rather than being about cults in the traditional sense, Cracker Island is a response to online echo chambers and political polarization — another timely piece of commentary from the artist who famously declared that modern life is rubbish, and further evidence of how Gorillaz remain tapped into the current moment.

When Albarn says "cracker," he's referring primarily to the madness that overtakes the members of a cult — but it could also mean everything from a prize-revealing Christmas cracker to a biscuit to the American slang for a white person.

"Cracker Island would, I suppose, be like an echo chamber for the alt-right. Get everyone on an island together doing it. They are digitally anyway," says Albarn. "And they're welcome to it! I personally won't be visiting that island on my tour. I'll stay on the cruise ship for that one, thank you very much."

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