Virtual band Gorillaz is 'human after all'
After a decade playing hide-and-seek with fans, Damon Albarn is back on tour with his virtual band Gorillaz even though the pop icon swears the spotlight makes him feel like a "stupid pervert".
In 1998, at the height of his success with Britpop giant Blur, Albarn cooked up the Gorillaz concept with his flatmate, the illustrator Jamie Hewlett, as a way to take a step back from the fame game.
"We had this fantasy originally, I wouldn't have to go on tour. At the beginning I wasn't even going to sing," he told AFP in Paris, midway through a world tour taking in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
For its first gigs, the band played behind a screen with images of the virtual band members: Russel, Noodle, 2-D and Murdoch -- the last two closely inspired by their creators.
But they soon came to realise "people need the human aspect," Albarn said -- just like Daft Punk, fellow masters of disguise who in 2005 titled their third album "Human After All".
"In Japan, we played behind a screen and people asked for their money back because they hadn't seen us. They only saw our silhouettes."
Now that he's back in the limelight, Albarn feels he has come full circle.
"I thought I'd have made progress -- but I've just come back to being this stupid pervert at the front of the stage," he joked.
The idea of taking Gorillaz on tour, complete with its two dozen musicians and host of guests, came from former Clash bass player Paul Simonon, who played on the band's latest album "Plastic Beach".
"I thought we'd better go on tour when Paul Simonon said: 'I'd like to play in the band'," Albarn said.
"A lot of the time in the past, it's been singers essentially whom we collaborated with. But Mick and Paul are musicians, who understand the dynamic of being on stage, of presenting a show."
On stage Gorillaz is a riotous, gargantuan affair.
Some 20 artists rubbed shoulders in a Paris show, from a string ensemble to two drummers, a bass guitar, a keyboard, a wind section -- even a church bell, belting out a fusion of pop, rap, electro and world music.
The band's name is writ large in giant neon letters, while videos designed by Hewlett are beamed onto a giant screen, taking fans to the "Plastic Beach" -- the island made of litter -- that gave its name to their third album.
Gorillaz this summer became the first Western pop band to play in Damascus, which is home to one of the guest outfits on the album, The Syrian National Orchestra for Arabic Music.
"I'm not trying to ignore the politics in Syria," Albarn said. "But our experience was only a positive one. I was surprised at how free and open it was."
"We thought we'd get maybe 500 people, in the end there were 6,000. I saw teenage young women with head scarves on the shoulders of their boyfriends. You don't see that very often."
From China to Iraq, Albarn has spent much of recent years scouting the world for new musical forms and talents.
In parallel with Gorillaz, he has produced music in Mali, set up improvised jam concerts with Western and African musicians, and triumphed with a Chinese-themed opera, a sumptuous fusion of Asian folklore and music.
"I like my ideas, and my mind and my soul to be stimulated endlessly," Albarn told AFP. "I think a lot of people in pop music are very conservative, but I know a lot of musicians who have a similar mindset to myself.
"I don't feel exceptional."
After his globe-trotting past decade, does he see himself rejoining the ranks of a regular pop band -- "you and three other good-looking guys," in Hewlett's words.
"At the age of 42 nearly 43, I don't think that's possible," Albarn said.
But he ducked a question about his future plans with Blur, or who would be next to join the adventures of Gorillaz, after the likes of Dennis Hopper or Lou Reed.
"Actors, presidents, Nobel Peace Prize winners, that kind of thing," he mused, as Hewlett offered: "Danny de Vito!"
© 2010 AFP