"The epidemic showed us all that we really ARE connected..."

Gorillaz might well be indestructible. A titanic pop force, their ability to renew and regenerate has allowed them to outstrip their peers. The pandemic, though, is an entirely different challenge.

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It could have all been so different. When Gorillaz kicked off 2020 they wanted to embrace a new means of creating, a different method of collaboration. Song Machine moved the multi-media outfit away from the standard write an album, release an album, tour an album formula, allowing them to deconstruct different studio narratives on a song by song basis.

Launching with the exquisite ‘Momentary Bliss’ – a raucous collaboration with incendiary Northampton rap gobshite slowthai and Kentish punk duo Slaves – it was designed as a means to shake up and overhaul Gorillaz’ methodologies. Speaking to Clash, 2D sums up their motivations: “Well, it’s like, if you do the same thing for ages you get knackered… like, if I lie down too long I get tired so I have a rest by standing up. And if I’ve been standing too long I find a nice bit of wall and lean my face against it. Albums aren’t tired but maybe they need a bit of a shake up like old orange juice. And ‘cos everyone’s busy watching episodes on tv we thought hang about, why not make some episodes too? If only we had a machine that could crank them out. And then we did.”

But then everything changed. Gorillaz’ world was hemmed in by a series of disastrous headlines, with an unknown quantity from a remote city in China wreaking havoc. Somehow, though, Song Machine persevered – follow up singles have included everyone from Georgia and Peter Hook through to The Cure’s gothic prince Robert Smith, JPEGMAFIA, and Elton John. “It’s all about energy,” Noodle adds. “There is beauty in combining elements that can bring to a positive combustion. Which we saw best when all took to the stage (Song Machine Live) and performed live for the first time – it was beautiful energy, fireworks.”

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Picking who to work with is seemingly haphazard, in that gleefully creative Gorillaz fashion. Moving from majestic Malian artist Fatouma Diawara to Schoolboy Q, Song Machine winds a diverse path, resulting in some thrillingly unexpected diversions. “I mostly used a spiritual dartboard,” says Russel, when asked about how each artist was approach. “Each number on there is related to an artist, genre or type of doughnut, it was actually an old ouiji board I stole from Murdoc. But you get the idea… So we hit the number dialled up the relevant souls and the rest is herstory. Also I always keep some dice in my pocket. Have you ever read the Dice Man or played the game?”

Answering a question with another question, Gorillaz are forever leading us down rabbit-holes, pushing the conversation through portals. Indeed, they’ve built a few of the latter themselves – indeed, it became something of a lockdown speciality. As Song Machine built an identity of its own the respective videos allowed fans some insight into Gorillaz’ world, with each member absorbing the impact of coronavirus in their own way.

Noodle, for instance, is a martial arts expert, someone who can take down any protagonist in her way. Faced with something she can’t see, however, brought about new challenges, ones that shook her to the core. “As the mind is first battlefield,” she notes, “lockdown allowed a vigorous exercise of this very important landscape. There is no usual sense in fighting COVID, we must do this at molecular level.”

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Russel, however, wasn’t too concerned by his botched plans – he just caught up on TV. “I had a zoom with my younger self one day,” he admits. “He told me that an Ayahuascan witchdoctor was trying to get in touch with me. We met up in my mind three weeks later and we decided to seek out the source of true meaning and that search became Hobbs Hot Sauce, in three delicious flavours, try it on scrambled eggs!”

When coronavirus shut down the world, each of us was left disconnected and alone. Responding in individual ways, Murdoc opted to build an orgone accumulator – based on the work of Wilhelm Reich, he added a few dazzling reinventions of his own.

“Not sure I like your tone here, mate,” he queries us. “The study of Orgonomy demands huge dedication and sacrifice. I’ve spent months in a box wearing nowt but my underwear. Not to mention the horrible experiments 2D bravely volunteered for. So a bit more respect, yeah? But if you really want to expand your walnut-sized noggin, book yourself a month off work, sign a few accident waiver forms, and come and try it first-hand. How are you with confined spaces and electrodes?”

Well, the Clash office is a bit poky these days, Murdoc. Rather than take him up on this offer, though, we probe a bit more – lockdown shifted the dynamic within Gorillaz, bringing old tensions to the surface. The communal nature of creativity won out, however, and Song Machine: Season One ended with 2D extending a helpful – if not exactly loving hand – to save Murdoc’s life.

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“The bonds between the band are quite stretchy and elastic… like elastic bands,” says the singer. “The thing about elastic bands is they stretch well far apart but after a while they yank back together, so we had to pull Murdoc out of trouble or us lot would have got yanked back in.”

Indeed, eagle-eyed fans spotted that the actual Song Machine in Gorillaz videos features a sticker of erstwhile comrade Ace, the Powerpuff Girls anti-hero who previously claimed a place in the band’s line up. A cryptic signal to his eventual return, perhaps? Murdoc is giving nothing away: “I believe it was Wikiquote who said: ‘they are never truly gone for they stay in your heart forever.’ Fancy way of saying Ace is gone but not forgotten. Bit like the vegan chicken tikka 2D cooked for me last night. Although for different reasons. I haven’t felt right all day.”

Engaged in an act of continual transformation, Gorillaz place as one of pop’s most remarkable phenomena is long-since assured. Battling a global pandemic, the group managed to release a string of remarkable singles with bona fide icons, reinforcing their curatorial streak in the process. Song Machine is a triumph, but that’s not all they’ve managed to complete – that most dystopian of years also saw Gorillaz complete their first ever almanac, a kind of three-dimensional treasure trove for fans.

“Books have often been made to mark momentous years in history,” shrugs Murdoc. “You had the Bible in 0. Classic. Kicked the whole year thing off, really. Then you had 1984, George Orwell. Can’t recall what happened in 1984 but it must have been massive. And now 2020. Shoe-in for worst year ever. I mean, they closed the pubs. Says it all. Some day, your great-great-great grandkids will be at school, learning about years that shaped history, and the teacher will bring out a dog-eared copy of the Gorillaz Almanac 2020. It’ll confuse the shit out of them, but hopefully lead to some illuminating discussions.”

“I loved it,” Russel interjects, “but I gotta tell you the truth, I got involved coz 2D told me it was a type of brandy. But, seriously, how else do you mark the most surreal year this century?”

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The pandemic shouldn’t mask the other issues facing the planet, however. 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of the band’s album ‘Plastic Beach’, a powerful song cycle that focussed on climate change and the impact modern life has on our surroundings. Beck collaboration ‘Valley Of The Pagans’ was a nod to this milestone, and the video allowed Gorillaz to return to Plastic Beach, and revisit those themes.

“How can they not be relevant?” Russel demands. “The epidemic showed us all that we really ARE connected, that the internet of humans is real. I’m only a cartoon but it’s a damn shame it takes a virus to tell humans how perilous the modern world has become. What it showed us with the vaccine is that we can get our shit together, when it hits the fan.”

Amid the otherworldly, strangely hallucinatory headlines of the pandemic, Gorillaz’ resolute path was a godsend. Entering a new year with a fresh collaboration, it allows the group to get their teeth into the fashion realm by collaborating with iconic British brand Fred Perry. It’s a natural fit, one that Gorillaz have embraced with open arms.

“Indeed mate, very exciting,” nods Murdoc. “To be honest, given my status as a quintessential exemplar of British culture, I’m often approached by heritage brands. Just the other day I grimaced my way through a two-hour Zoom pitch where a couple of execs begged me to be the new face of a well-known variety of legumes in tomato sauce. Keep dreaming, lads. But then Fred Perry comes along, and it just clicks. Timeless clobber which we can put a Gorillaz twist on. 2D’s a big fan too.”

2021 starts with optimism. If the vaccinations continue, if we all work together, then the pandemic might just ease into memory – friendships can be rekindled, families can be reunited, and our lives can flower once more. Gorillaz are launching Song Machine: Season Two, with countless fresh collaborations already being booked up. When the subject of live shows – socially distanced or otherwise – is broached, it seems that the group are already feeling optimistic about what this year could hold.

“It will be brilliant to get on the road again, I’ve really missed the motorway service stations,” 2D laughs. “Ever since 2021 started the lights on Song Machine have been blinking on and off… maybe it’s on the blink or maybe it’s having a think ‘cos Song Machine’s got a mind of its own, but stay tuned yeah? Cheers.”

It's now 20 years since Gorillaz released their phenomenally successful debut, and since then they’ve never done what has been expected of them. With lockdown beginning to ease it feels as though all bets are off once more – they’re the perfect soundtrack for our regained freedom.

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The Fred Perry x Gorillaz collection is available globally, exclusively online, from Thursday 20th May at 11am BST.

In true Gorillaz style, you can explore the collection digitally via the band’s virtual and current HQ – their motorhome. Those wanting to shop the collection must register their interest online before the launch date at fredperry.com/gorillaz.

Alternatively, scan the QR code on your copy of CLASH Issue 118 Gorillaz to route through to the store.

Registered individuals will be sent a link to the virtual experience on the morning of the launch. You can also access the digital experience through select in-store portals. Details of participating Fred Perry shops can also be found online.  

Clash 118 Gorillaz Digital Version is also available to buy now here.

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Words: Robin Murray

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