Gorillaz broke the pop mould as early adopters of featured artists. Now they’re doing it again with their star-studded Song Machine ‘season’ of monthly track ‘episodes’. Music Week catches up with Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett, Eleven Mgmt & Parlophone Records and finds them on a mission to change the way the music biz works…
Damon Albarn left the studio with a spring in his step. He’d been down in Devon during lockdown – spending time at the “valley” he bought for a snip in the ’90s when the first cheque for Blur’s all-conquering Parklife album came through – “beavering away” in a converted barn on the new Gorillaz project.
“I don’t really work at night in the studio,” he says. “But one night, we’d been drinking. I came out of the studio and I slipped and banged my head on one of the stone walls. It could have been the end…”
He pauses. “Thankfully, it wasn’t.”
Instead, Albarn went to bed and awoke early the next morning with a massive bump on his head but also “feeling very bright”. He checked his email, hoping for an update from The Cure’s Robert Smith, with whom he’d been having an encouraging, but thus-far fruitless email back-and-forth over a possible collaboration.
To his delight, Albarn’s inbox contained Smith’s first draft of the song that would become Strange Timez, which dropped last week as the most-heralded ‘episode’ yet of Gorillaz’s Song Machine Season One project. As the lyrics note, it was a “strange time to see the light”.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing’,” Albarn enthuses. “I was so happy. It’s like vintage Robert Smith, a classic Robert Smith tune. When he comes in with the chorus it’s proper, isn’t it? It just gives you that feeling.”
Albarn has been getting ‘that feeling’ a lot lately. Song Machine Season One – in which the band drops a new ‘episode’, consisting of a collaborative song, an accompanying animated video, created by Albarn’s monkey business partner Jamie Hewlett, and a bite-sized podcast – was conceived before coronavirus as a way for Albarn to “react to stuff, be agile, make the music totally different from the last thing”, rather than spending six months making an album. As it turns out, he was so prolific he ended up making one anyway; Song Machine Season One – Strange Timez is released via Parlophone on October 23, with additional non-episode tracks and a new running order.
“It sounds fucking unbelievable,” he grins. “It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever made. It’s really strong because every tune has that single intention to it. To make an album of singles is such a rigorous pursuit you don’t normally do it – but accidentally, we have.”
So songs were written and recorded as and when inspiration struck and collaborators became available, and then released every six-to-eight weeks. When lockdown kicked in, Albarn ploughed on, recording with Hewlett, third member Remi Kabaka Jr and collaborators on Zoom and allowing the ‘new normal’ to seep into the music and lyrics.
And what music it is. Even by Gorillaz A-list standards, Song Machine’s featured artists are next level: from Beck (the lithe funk of The Valley Of The Pagans) to ’80s legend Leee John of Imagination (the dreamy The Lost Chord); from Slowthai and Slaves (the spiky Momentary Bliss) to St Vincent (spry dance anthem Chalk Tablet Towers); and from Kano and Roxani Arias (Dead Butterflies’ dislocated trip-hop) to Sir Elton John and 6lack (delirious ballad The Pink Phantom), all combine to create a genre-hopping, pick-and-mix delight.
“It’s the multi-cultural, non-ageist, gender-fluid thing that makes Gorillaz such an interesting proposition,” says Albarn today, fiddling with his sleeve at his 13 studio in West London, having requested a socially distanced, in-person meeting rather than a Zoom call. “I like having people who are really old and people who are really young all working together, because there can be this wall between them.”
Gorillaz have done plenty to break down that wall. When they started, 20 years ago, collaborations outside of the rap world were for one-offs and novelties. Now, after welcoming everyone from Shaun Ryder to Neneh Cherry, Grace Jones and Noel Gallagher into his world, he notes that “everyone’s a pathological collaborator these days”.
“Now, that’s how people work – everyone jumps off each other’s figures and gains traction through that,” he shrugs. “That’s just the way it goes. But we work with people because we’re into them. It’s an artistic decision, whereas [for some people] it’s more of a commercial decision. And that’s why the music has a tendency to become very generic very quickly, because they’re all just trying to be more popular. Which is really not a reason to be making music at all…”
Albarn, of course, is popular enough for Blur to have been the biggest band in the country. But now, he oscillates between a variety of critically-acclaimed projects, constantly working on either Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Africa Express, his solo career, opera work or Lord alone knows what else.
His lockdown, as you might expect, has not been wasted (“It taught me to allow a bit of space around stuff”), although he also enjoyed hours of listening to his massive CD collection, having found an old stereo system and set it up outside his barn studio.
Albarn does not subscribe to any streaming service (“I wouldn’t know how to do anything like that!” he chortles), but Gorillaz are anything but Luddites. Long at the cutting edge of technology with their live holograms, 3D videos and AR apps, their streaming and social media stats far outstrip most artists from Albarn’s generation.
And Song Machine is accelerating that trend. Gorillaz were a powerhouse in the sales era (their 2001 self-titled debut has sold 970,564 copies, according to the Official Charts Company, while 2005 follow-up Demon Days has moved 1,883,437) and now Song Machine is looking to do the same in streams.
According to Parlophone senior marketing manager Ben Skerritt, the band has added over 700,000 new Spotify followers since the campaign started (for a total of over 5.8m). There are also 500,000 new Instagram followers (total: 2.6m) and, after a series of successful video premieres, almost 1m new YouTube subscribers (total: 6.8m). There have been over 100m streams across all platforms of Song Machine material so far.
“If you look at the data you see the Gorillaz fanbase in every metric of consumption has gone up,” says Skerritt. “It’s a revolutionary way of releasing music and hopefully it can become a blueprint for how people can release a lot of music, but make it feel exciting every single time.”
“Song Machine was a streaming drive,” says Niamh Byrne, co-manager of Gorillaz at Eleven Mgmt with Régine Moylett. “With each track getting dropped regularly with no advance warning, the tactic required fans to subscribe and/or follow the various platforms to catch each release. This then fed the word of mouth and social media buzz around each drop, which created our own promotional engine.
“The downside could have been that by the third or fourth drop interest may have waned, but it’s had the opposite effect and each track drop has exponentially increased the numbers. Gorillaz is a gift – the music and artwork is consistently good – all we need to do is to put it in front of the right people.”
And, as attention shifts to the LP, no one is more aware of that than Albarn. He launched the last full-scale Gorillaz album, 2017’s Humanz (128,576 sales), with a star-studded concert at London’s Printworks, something he won’t be able to do in the flesh this time. Instead, the band will debut Song Machine Live, a unique mixture of animated visuals and live performance, on LiveNow on December 12/13 across three different timezones.
Perhaps more significant, however, is how Song Machine might change the music biz, moving away from the traditional album cycle to a more Netflix-inspired
binge-streaming model (appropriately enough, Gorillaz also have their own film in the works). Like Albarn’s accident in Devon, it might just be the bang on the head the industry needs to see the world differently. Time, then, to sit down and talk Brexit, Blur and the coronavirus pandemic…
What made you want to work in this new way?
“I’d just had enough of having to finish a whole body of work and wait for six fucking months. I wanted to just do a tune a month and put it out. It hasn’t worked quite like that because of Jamie having to do so much. Animation just takes a long time, it’s impossible to do it any quicker.”
Did you realise you were creating a potential new business model?
“It was an opportunity to be more fluid, be able to change track, do anything you want to do and not get bogged down with one trope. React, evolve, react, evolve. And I suppose that now seems to be a good model!”
Will this be how Gorillaz work now?
“Yeah. The first season is going well so there’ll probably be demand for a season two. And the lovely thing about it is, you don’t have to wait until it’s all finished to start rolling it out.”
So it could go on forever, like a TV show?
“That’s the idea. And we can work with anyone. Maybe we’ll do a season where it’s just completely unknown people, I’d love that. In multiple languages, all over the world. It would be nice to distill all that into a Gorillaz project; obscure folk artists, somebody in Paraguay or Iceland, someone in South Korea… North Korea even. I don’t know how that would go down but hey, anything is possible now.”
How do you feel about record labels in the modern age?
“Apparently they exist - but you wouldn’t know [Laughs]. No, there are people I keep in contact with but, back in the ’90s, I used to think nothing of rolling up to see [EMI boss] Tony Wadsworth, having a cup of tea and talking about stuff. And you remember the days of lunches... [Laughs] We lived in a golden age, we really did… If you think about the freedom we were afforded pre-social media, it’s just a different world.”
Has the label suggested potential collaborators in the past?
“Oh yeah. But every time they’ve tried to do it, it’s been a fucking disaster, so I don’t listen anymore. We did allow a little bit of that around Humanz, because I’ve always been eager to please. But it doesn’t really pay off, and no one thanks you when their ideas don’t work [Laughs].”
Do the younger artists you work with see you as a mentor?
“Once someone’s in, they’re in for as long as they want. We help each other so yeah, I suppose. It sounds very grown up, so I’m reluctant to see myself that way. But if you can’t give something back, what’s the point?”
Did, say, Slowthai ask you for advice about getting into trouble at the NME Awards?
“We did talk after that. Listen, I know what it’s like to get drunk at awards. Luckily a lot of my most drunk moments were pre-YouTube or social media!”
Gorillaz have a younger fanbase than, say, Blur…
“I don’t think we aim or cater for them, they just come. It’s not [because of] my music, is it? Well, maybe it’s the combination. At gigs, there’s a hell of a lot of parents with young kids on their shoulders. It’s mad. Gorillaz can go on forever. I can be as old as Rupert Murdoch, like a little Rumpelstiltskin and it doesn’t matter, 2D’s a magnificent avatar.”
It helps with the streaming figures as well…
“I’m glad that I still exist in the modern world. I don’t really follow all that but that’s great. One of my biggest faults when I was younger was [expressing] my insecurity through ambition like, ‘I’m not doing as well as they’re doing’, all that nonsense you hopefully mature and grow out of. I’m now blissfully disconnected from anything like that. So when someone says, ‘You’ve got X amount of streams’, I’m like, ‘Oh great’. I don’t go ‘Woooohooohooh! I’m amazing!’”
How do you feel about live music being on hiatus?
“It feels like we’re right at the end of the queue. And yet everyone’s allowed to go to the pub and get fucked up. It’s insane and makes no sense. The money allocated for grassroots music venues is a disgrace. For a lot of people who are determined that music is their path in life, that dream can be destroyed if you don’t keep that flame alive. As soon as people give it a rest, it’s very hard to revive that flame. You lose culture. It’s not worth it. Football, pubs – it seems they can placate the masses – if they’ve got those two going, then the rest of it doesn’t really matter. It’s a long time ago but I remember the venues in Colchester – the Affair Club, the Andromeda, the Arts Centre – that’s where you get your break. It’s hard enough for people who play instruments anyway, there’s just not a great commercial appetite for that anymore, but this could fucking kill it.”
How are you feeling about the state of the world?
“Brexit is absolutely nonsensical. When you’ve got people like Michael Gove running shit, we’re going to keep on in that direction. Has this not taught us how we should be working together? We’re becoming more isolated. It doesn’t make any sense, I’m really sad what’s happened in this country. I love my country but I don’t love its image of itself. It’s very... cracked.”
How did it get from Britpop to here?
“I was never singing about a renaissance. From Modern Life [Is Rubbish] onwards I was singing a heartfelt expression of my horror at how we were trying to mimic American culture. In [Blur documentary] Starshaped, there’s a scene where we stop at a services and go through all the fast food – it’s always been on my mind and suddenly we’re the most obese country in Europe. We’ve literally forcefed our psyches with rubbish TV, rubbish food… Modern life is clearly rubbish.”
Is modern music rubbish as well?
“There’s some bad but there’s always good music. I believe the spirit of music will rise, Phoenix-like.”
Have we heard the last of Blur?
“I really hope not. I love doing those gigs, but it’s not something I need to do. I only do it because there’s joy in doing it. It’s an absolute treat. I can’t wait to sing Parklife again.”
How do you feel about 25 years of Blur vs Oasis?
“There’s still a strange fascination with that brief period, and it was very brief really, when there was all that energy around the two bands. But, in reality, they kicked our arses. I came to terms with that as soon as we realised that they had. And that was fine. I just got on with my own stuff.”
Was it ultimately a good thing, then?
“Maybe. I won the battle, lost the war… and then enjoyed the peace.”