On its surface, the band’s new album Humanz is one of the most energetic party records of the year – but as 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel tell us, it was the in fact a product of blackmail, manipulation and strife
Gorillaz’s new album Humanz is a party record for the end of the world, an apocalyptic dream that turned out to be not so far from reality. The album’s political undercurrents are lifted up by a host of collaborators – from De La Soul to Grace Jones – that could only ever come together for the end of days. Meanwhile, joyous accompaniments, tinged with an almost chaotic abandon from the band, feel at once rooted in the now and dragged kicking and screaming from some distant, alternate timeline.
With this in mind, then, you might think that everything was peachy in Gorillaz’s camp – but you’d be wrong. While Humanz might sound like a project created by a bunch of mates who’ve put aside their differences and come together for the music, it’s actually a product of blackmail, manipulation, and a complete disregard for people’s boundaries, both personal and musical.
To understand Humanz, you first need to understand Gorillaz. Their last album – Plastic Beach, released seven years ago – was made by just two of the band’s four members: Murdoc Niccals, the group’s bassist/satanist/hedonist-in-chief, and 2D, the beautiful-but-dim vocalist who takes his name from the two dents that Murdoc made in his head while running over and kidnapping him years earlier. When they made the record, 2D was imprisoned by Murdoc, and the rest of the band was replaced: their guitarist, child prodigy and formerly brainwashed war machine Noodle, had been recreated by Murdoc in cyborg form after the real Noodle had disappeared when the band leader tried to have her assassinated, while Russel Hobbs, a one-time radioactive giant and the band’s possessed drummer, had walked out on the group and been swapped out for a drum machine. And you thought relations between the Gallaghers was bad...
Shortly after Plastic Beach’s release, Murdoc was captured by a fleet of ships helmed by the major label EMI and imprisoned in a secret cell below Abbey Road Studios. The terms of his release? A new Gorillaz album. Murdoc’s silver tongue, complete lack of empathy, and fear of further imprisonment was enough for him coerce his fellow bandmates into getting back together and recruiting their biggest host of collaborators to date. Well, ‘recruiting’ maybe isn’t the right word to use – perhaps ‘kidnapping’ or ‘blackmailing’ is more accurate. According to 2D, blow-darts weren’t off limits when rounding up the likes of Danny Brown and Vince Staples. And as for Grace Jones? Apparently Murdoc just really wants her to kick him in the nuts.
So, these are complicated relationships. Yes, Murdoc has kidnapped most of the band at least once, and yes, he has put a hit out on Noodle and removed every shred of self-worth from 2D, but Gorillaz are the most resilient band around. Like the world’s most dysfunctional family, there’s something holding Gorillaz together. Somehow they’ve managed to forgive, forget, and make their most experimental and unrestricted album to date. Trying to get a word out of the band when they’re together is a task beyond the reaches of even the sternest interviewer, so to avoid too much drama, we caught up with each member individually from various undisclosed locations. After some considerable time spent persuading Murdoc to put on some trousers and explaining the ins-and-outs of Skype to 2D, we found out how the land lies after they’ve accomplished the impossible.
2D, shortly after Plastic Beach came out you escaped from Murdoc’s prison, swam across the ocean, got eaten and disgorged by a whale, and ended up living castaway-style on a desert island. Forgetting for a moment that it actually turned out you were just 23 minutes walk away from civilisation, what did you learn about yourself while you were alone?
2D: It was a difficult time. I was still mourning the death of Massive Dick, the whale I’d been living inside for the previous few months. The worst part was being forced to eat Dick in order to survive, which made me sad because we’d become quite good friends. The whole experience taught me a lot. Mostly, try not to eat your friends. Unless you’re really hungry.
Good advice. Things seemed pretty amicable between you and the rest of the band in your latest video, all things considered. How are relations with everyone?
2D: A little better. Murdoc used to practise his torture techniques on me, but since he got into S&M, he’s been beating and torturing himself more than me. So I’m feeling positive.
“According to my therapist, I’m technically a hostage and am suffering from acute Stockholm Syndrome. But I doubt it because I’ve never even been to Norway” – 2D, Gorillaz
Why have you stayed in the band for all these years? You’ve not been treated very well.
2D: According to my therapist, I’m technically a hostage and am suffering from acute Stockholm Syndrome. But I doubt it because I’ve never even been to Norway. Sometimes I do want to leave, but Murdoc won’t let me. Like the time I spent a year digging a tunnel from my room into a local sewage pipe. One night I made my move, crawled through 500 yards of horrible stuff, then ran for it. Unfortunately, being covered in so much faeces made it very easy for Murdoc’s bloodhounds to track me, and I was back at Kong Studios by sunrise.
Do you have any apprehension about Murdoc’s motives in writing this album?
2D: I’m pretty sure he did the whole thing just to get close to Grace Jones. He’s always had a thing for women that could beat him to a pulp. Ever since his first love Kelly O’Driscoll ruptured his spleen on a school trip.
Does Murdoc let you play a part in writing, or are you just a pretty face and a croon?
2D: The truth is, we all play a part in writing. Murdoc just takes all the credit, like the time he told everyone he found Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester, when all he’d really done was go to Leicester, get drunk, and do a Richard III in a car park.
Were you lonely without the rest of the band when making Plastic Beach and in the fallout after?
Murdoc: Don’t be soft. I’m the best company a bloke could want. Besides, I wasn’t alone – I had Veronica with me. She’s the face I draw on my hand. Filthy little minx, that one. But I’ll admit, when I eventually reunited with the others, it was quite emotional. For them, I mean. They were overwhelmed to be in my presence again. It was pretty awkward. Like one of those class reunions where you look around and think, ‘Jesus, these poor bastards haven’t done well at all, what a bunch of losers.’ And yet I just get better and better. Embarrassing, really.
Do you ever worry that having so many high-profile guest features will take the spotlight off of you?
Murdoc: Of course not. Who’s higher profile than me? That would be like asking Emperor Nero if he felt threatened by the chumps that feed him grapes and polish his balls.
Is there anyone you couldn’t get on the album?
Murdoc: Listen mate, if you’re offered the chance to be on the album of the century, who’s gonna say no? I mean, apart from Morrissey. And Sade. And Dionne Warwick. Uh, let’s move on, shall we.
“If you’re offered the chance to be on the album of the century, who’s gonna say no? I mean, apart from Morrissey. And Sade. And Dionne Warwick” – Murdoc, Gorillaz
Alright. Is it true you wrote this album in exchange for your freedom?
Murdoc: That’s fake news. Murdoc Niccals freed himself in order to write the album. And thereby free the minds of the people. Much like Christ, only without all those chocolate eggs.
If you say so. Do you have any remorse for the terrible things you’ve done in the past?
Murdoc: Fucking hell, not this again. Look, if you’re talking about the rumour that I put a hit out on Noodle, then replaced her with a cyborg, and then the cyborg tried to kill me; I mean yes, it’s totally true. But I’d hardly call that a terrible thing. A creative disagreement, just part of the process. We’re all friends again now.
You’re the planet’s most successful virtual band. Are there any other world records you’ve broken that nobody knows about?
Murdoc: I once managed to get a whole avocado into 2D’s ear. Got to have shattered some sort of record, and not just his eardrum. A nice little bonus I discovered was if you push the avocado far enough, you get guacamole out of the other ear.
What can you do that a cyborg Noodle can’t?
Noodle: Lots of stuff. Think, feel, do hot yoga without my circuits rusting. For now, anyway. Because the gulf between human and cyborg is narrowing fast. Machines are becoming more human, and us more digital. That’s something we wanted to capture with Humanz. Murdoc also wanted to capture his genitals, as you’ll see in the ‘Saturnz Barz’ vid, but fortunately we managed to pixelate it before too many people saw.
Even after all these years, we’re still unclear as to where you were after Murdoc tried to have you killed and crashed that lovely floating lighthouse you were living on back down to earth. Where were you all that time, for Plastic Beach?
Noodle: It’s classified.
Okayyyy. So, before you started working on Humanz, you were honing your skills as a pirate, demon, and zombie slayer. Do you ever think you’re better suited to that than playing in a band?
Noodle: Like most humans, I have the capability to destroy as well as create. I do both because I have to. I’ll off demons when they attack, and write songs when I’ve got something to say.
“I’m like the big sister of the group. I comfort 2D when he has a bad dream, Murdoc when he has a bad trip, and I calm Russel down when he gets paranoid about the world’s problems” – Noodle, Gorillaz
You were originally hired as a guitarist. How has your role evolved as the band have moved away from normal conventions of how a band is made up and the many, many genres you now straddle?
Noodle: Musically, I lay down the guitar and write songs. But psychologically, I’m like the big sister of the group. I comfort 2D when he has a bad dream, Murdoc when he has a bad trip, and I calm Russel down when he gets paranoid about the world’s problems. If I need some ‘me’ time I meditate, study astrophysics, or oil my mini-gun. Whatever relaxes me.
Do you think you ever stood a chance of normality, growing up in Gorillaz?
Noodle: Look, before Gorillaz, I was raised by a shadowy super-solider organization as an assassin, so my life was never going to be what you call normal. All those night ops meant no bedtime stories. But it’s my life, and who wants to be normal anyway?
Why would you still work with Murdoc when he tried to have you assassinated?
Noodle: The truth of the situation is always more complicated. Besides, when someone owes you big time, you can use it to your advantage. I haven’t had to make my own cup of tea in ages. After seven years he’s still grovelling.
Russ, after swimming to save Noodle from pirates following her mysterious disappearance, I heard you ingested toxic waste and grew to 60 times your usual size causing a bit of a mix-up which led to your imprisonment and exhibition in North Korea. All things considered, did you enjoy anything about your time as a tourist attraction?
Russel: Enjoy being eye-balled and pointed at all day? I’m not Murdoc. He would’ve loved it, being on-show in the capital, mistaken for some sorta North Korean Godzilla. Man, it was humiliating. They were all laughin’ and takin’ selfies. At least they would have done if they were allowed camera phones. But after a while I realised, this was probably the most entertainment these poor dudes had since someone drew a face on a turnip back in the 90s. So in the end, y’know, I kinda got into it. Turned it into a positive. Took the power back.
Is there more to Russel Hobbs than size?
Russel: I wish people would get over this size thing. Yeah, I swelled 60 times my normal size, but I wasn’t fat, okay? I’ve got an overactive thyroid. People can be damn uncivilised. They see a 60-foot giant and assume they’re up all night crying and spoonin’ cookie dough into their faces. It was my thyroid.
Alright, alright sorry. Moving on, let’s face it, the world is a bit of a mess. As probably the most politically conscious of the group, do you feel pressure for Gorillaz to react, do you think you have the power for change?
Russel: Everyone has the power. Folk just need to wake up and realise it. That’s where we come in. A defibrillator for the masses, jolting them out of their coma. Like we do to Murdoc when he’s really hungover.
“Our history is a dirty, shallow lake, clogged up with grievances, grudges, decomposing bodies. But truth be told, our conflict is what energises us. From chaos comes power” – Russel, Gorillaz
Would it be fair to say you’re the most normal member of Gorillaz?
Russel: Normal doesn’t exist. Just be what you are, screw whatever labels people try to jam onto you.
Your relationships with your bandmates are probably the most neutral of the group. Is Gorillaz sustainable? How long can you really last without killing each other?
Russel: Sure, some stuff has gone down in the past, stuff you can’t forget. Our history is a dirty, shallow lake, clogged up with grievances, grudges, decomposing bodies. But truth be told, our conflict is what energises us. From chaos comes power. Negative energy can always be flipped into positive. Even fear. Because fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. Fear is the path to the dark side. Wait. Might have just quoted Yoda.
What can we expect on the new album now that you’re back, and no longer replaced by a drum machine?
Russel: The 909, baby. Synth dreamland, Chicago style. I laid down the digital groove in the studio. They should call it the 999, for funk emergencies. Get it? Yeah, you get it.
Parlophone release Humanz on April 28