Gorillaz: Monkey business

What's it like living on a desert island? And, does Snoop Dogg party harder than you? On the eve of their new album, The Independent quizzes Gorillaz bass player Murdoc
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Hello, Murdoc. How can we be sure that it's you answering the questions and not someone else?

M You can't be sure. That's the fun of it all, isn't it? We could have a tedious conversation about authenticity and reality, or we could talk about all the good stuff. Music, magic, rum and GORILLAZ! I know what I'd prefer... And I think you'll find the venom and bile contained in my lovely letters could only belong to me, Murdoc Niccals...

OK, then, why are we emailing the bass player of the band and not the singer?

M You know why? Because Gorillaz is my band. I am Gorillaz. Like the chick with the red "Tin Tin" hairdo is La Roux... And singers are always the nerds anyway. Bass is best.

What are the other Gorillaz like? You seem to pretty much hate each other...

M You misunderstand the fundamental nature of the greatest pop groups. We are what I believe psychologists called "co-dependents". I mean, it's my band but those other three have brought a certain something to the table that really takes us to the next level. Even if I do hate them ... sometimes.

Anyway, when I first started thinking about putting this all back together, y'know, I wanted to start with Noodle ... Noodle was my greatest asset; she's an outstanding guitarist, looks great and is a brilliant songwriter. Noodle wrote most of Demon Days, y'know. I would've done it myself but I was in jail over in Mexico. I was innocent, of course, but it meant she had to do a lot of the last record herself. Until I turned up to fix it, and finish it off ... Unfortunately she was dragged to hell in a sad case of mistaken identity. Fortunately, I'd scraped up some of her DNA at the El Manana crash site and was able to build a cyborg replica which has all of her mad guitar skills! What are the chances? You couldn't make this stuff up, I tell you...

And D is harder to shift than herpes ... Y'know, whatever you think of him, his voice is an integral part of Gorillaz. You can get away with ditching lots of aspects of a band, skipping parts, put it down to "experimentation": but you can't switch the singer. Very few bands get away with that. Perhaps New Order ... Maybe.

Russel is more complicated. He's suffered from bouts of demonic possession for the last few years and this time I just couldn't find him in time ... I must admit though, I didn't really try. I programmed the drums for Plastic Beach myself. A doddle! Drummers are ten a penny, anyway. Still, I miss the big guy. Well, "miss"-ish. He'll turn up when he's ready ... but he's not getting any royalties!

Do you ever wish you were more of a real rock'n'roll band like, say, Oasis or Blur?

M Well, that's a bit of a duff question. Seeing as they've both split up. Again. Or something. But really let's think about it. Would I rather be Murdoc Niccals, master of all I survey with a fantastic record in the can and an island empire to rule, or an ex-member of Oasis, crying myself to sleep every night amid the ashes of my once mighty rock band?

And that Blur band: they were alright, but were a bit, y'know ... wet. Y'know? I mean, cheese and politics are alright for farmers and politicians but it's not rock'n'roll. D'you know what I mean?

I get to slay dragons, sail the seven seas and conquer whole continents with only bottles of rum and the midnight stars as my guide. I can pick and choose who I work with, round the globe, and my band smash through all genres and boundaries, innovating then discarding new technologies in my wake. So, what d'you reckon then, sonny? I think the answer's 'No' to that one then.

Still, I did get a nice Aga in my goody bag when I went to see Blur in Hyde Park last year. A free gift. Keeps my island nice and warm during winter...

What's it like, living on a desert island? Were you inspired by 'I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here'?

M Well, apart from the smell, and the oily seagulls and the constant rattle of all the plastic rubbish that washes up on the shores here ... it's great!

What I was really inspired by was a need to get away very far and very fast. I needed somewhere isolated. Really hidden. Somewhere not even Google could find me. I'd created a trail of destruction, a huge mess ... The Black Clouds, those helicopters from the "El Manana" video, were on my tail. They were cheesed off about some slightly faulty weapons I may have sold them ... They must have got their hands on a new batch because the next thing I know is that they've tracked me down. Bullets everywhere. Shooting out my windows, chucking mustard gas into my hotel room ... going through my mail ... I had to split. And fast.

So I needed somewhere, SOMETHING, unique ... PLASTIC BEACH!

You've got a lot of guests on 'Plastic Beach'. How did you pick them up?

M Various methods. One way is you can phone them up and ask them. You've got to remember that the Gorillaz name goes a long way now, and some people will just agree on the back of that. For many people a Gorillaz collaboration is like a ticket to Disneyland. It's a day off, they can get to take part in this surreal little ghostly theme park that seems to sail round the world with me, Murdoc Niccals, at the helm ... Not many people refuse an invitation.

Is it true that Snoop Dogg parties harder than you?

M Snoop's the granddaddy, isn't he? Doggystyle was for many people the record that really made the leap for them, got them into rap and G-funk ... along with De La Soul, who did the same kind of crossover with Three Feet High and Rising ... But no, I party MUCH harder than Snoop – what's he been saying? When he's got green skin and can smoke 120 Lucky Lungs a day then he can claim that title. Until then, STEP OFF, SNOOP!!

Mark E. Smith: was it a clash of the titans, you and him together?

M More like battle of the brigands! I'm really glad we managed to get Mark E. Smith on the record. I'm not sure he felt the same ... but, y'know ... sometimes I just get bored of asking people. Some of the collaborators I just kidnapped. 'Here. Does this rag smell of chloroform to you?' 'Er ... Rohypnol, anyone?' He's great. I love The Fall. He's on this track called "Glitter Freeze". He wanted to do his part facing north. 'Which way's north from here?' I guess that's his Mecca. I pointed south west, but he went with it anyway ... but we still used his question as a little intro. Sometimes the greatest moments are those little mistakes that you catch in the mix ... when you're just warming up...

Lou Reed: did he tell you any stories about the good old days at Andy Warhol's Factory?

M Yeah, he told us this great one about Liz Taylor, a dwarf, three dozen litres of green paint and a plate of some pharmaceutical substance, but I couldn't possibly repeat it. I grew up on Lou Reed, and the Velvets. Well, not grew up, because that still hasn't happened, but I did listen to them a lot when I was younger than I am now ... And I loved Lou's solo stuff, Magic and Loss and The Blue Mask and Transformer of course. Produced by "Daviiiidd Booowwieeee".

Is Paul Simonon a better bass player than you are?

M No. But even he admits that. I must say though, he is quite good. Good enough, in fact, I even let him play the bass on "Plastic Beach", the title track from our new LP...

You got half of the Clash together for the first time in years. What was it like in the studio?

M It was a very, very special moment for me. And for them, let's be honest! How did this come about? Well, I had commandeered Paul Simonon from The Good, the Bad & the Queen. And it made sense. See ... Gorillaz were always influenced by the Clash ... and Big Audio Dynamite. It was my brother Hannibal who got me into the Clash.

It was him who broke my nose, too, so I've got a lot to thank him for really. But being influenced by them is one thing ... getting them back together, well, Paul and Mick Jones, to work with us, is just something else...

We didn't know that you were a fan of Arabic music. Did you have fun in Beirut and Syria?

M Oh yeah I love that stuff. Just gorgeous ... "White Flag", on the album, opens with a lush and hypnotic Arabic orchestra. Recorded over in Beirut, around the end of March 2009. I went over there in disguise ... I knew I wanted that part of the world on the record, so I fired up the helicopter again and left PLASTIC BEACH and headed for Beirut and Syria. I had to be in disguise because of all of these elements that were after me ... so I chose a black burka as my disguise and flew out to Beirut to record with The National Orchestra for Arabic Music.

While I was over there various guides took me around the city. Which is an eye-opener ... Y'know, the Israelis like to fly their jets really low over the city of Beirut once a month. It's called "sabre-rattling", buzzing the towns in order to pop out the windows.

If they fly low and fast enough, it creates a sonic boom effect, taking out all the windows in the area. It's a part of the atmosphere, and the relentless campaign to keep the city on its toes.

The city is like Port Royal, the old pirate town. Basically you can kind of get what you want, if you want to party in a war zone. Which I guess I did, in my own unique and singular style.

What a fantastic piece to lay on a so-called "pop album"... It's fundamental to open people's ears up to this aspect of the world ... Because if you only read the papers or watch the TV the impression you get is so very different. So it's important to stick things like this out there ... Just erode all this misinformation ... GORILLAZ: we're a public service!

There's a bit of everything on your albums. What kind of music do you really like? What music did you grow up listening to?

M Lovely thick black treacle-y METAL!!! Sabbath and that. That's what really warms the cockles of my filthy black heart. But really, I like all types of music. It just has to be GOOD music. And also Russel really got me into a whole range of hip-hop, soul, dub and classical stuff. Me and D, we're into music but he was a musician. Incredible. Something way out of our league. He turned me onto Schoolly D, Eric B and Rakim, Grandmaster Flash, DC Basehead, The Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron, loads of stuff. The Congos, Neu, Zapp, Morricone ... I also got Holst, Hermann, Debussy, Messiaen ... fantastic, glorious stuff, really rich. But I've soaked that up now. But all he's come up with in the last couple of years is some old Wu Tang B-Side. I like the Clan, but Russel's pretty redundant since I signed up to Spotify...

Any plans to tour?

M Actually it's funny because I was just thinking about this big concert I'm planning and all the espionage going on around it.

I'm not really prone to excitement, due to all the medication and everything, but this is really something! Something unbelievable. Something that we may even tour until we're skeletons...

We're doing Coachella, this fantastic festival in Palm Springs, near Los Angeles. Great golfing round there. It's like a big hot car park in the middle of the desert. And we've drafted in a whole slurry of big-name guest-stars, so check check check it out. 19 April. 2010. We're going to raze it to the ground.

'Plastic Beach' is out on 8 March (EMI). It will be reviewed by Andy Gill in Friday's Arts & Books

Why we love: Gorillaz

Little did Damon Albarn know, when he conceived a side project with the comic book artist Jamie Hewlett more than a decade ago – the first "virtual hip-hop group" – that Gorillaz would become a runaway global success. The band of four cartoon characters (singer D, bassist and spokesman for the band, Murdoc Niccals, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel Hobbs), arrived on the scene in 1998, and their self-titled debut album (2001) had shifted six million copies by the time of their sophomore release four years later. It's no wonder that there is such anticipation surrounding the release of their third album, 'Plastic Beach'.

Boasting the singles "Clint Eastwood" and "19-2000", their debut scored them six nominations in the 2002 BRIT Awards and a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize (it was later withdrawn at Albarn's request). The cartoons may have piqued the interest of their rapidly building fanbase, but the innovation of the music went far beyond the cartoon status of the band.

Gorillaz are all about musical invention. What Damon Albarn, the principal songwriter, does with such panache, is ensure that they never lapse into any genre constraints by fusing a bric-a-brac of musical genres from around the world seamlessly into a cohesive, satisfying whole. They fused dub, hip-hop, reggae, and pop on their debut, while their second album, 'Demon Days' (2005), which scored a further two BRIT nominations, was still more ambitious. For their second album, they expanded by enlisting contributions from guests including Shaun Ryder, Roots Manuva, Ike Turner, De La Soul, Dennis Hopper and Neneh Cherry. Both albums were commercial hits here and in America; while their debut went in at No 3, 'Demon Days' topped the UK chart. In America, the two Gorillaz albums have outsold the whole of Blur's back catalogue.

With the release of 'Demon Days', the band ventured into live performances, and focused on building their success in America. A 40-date 'Demon Detour' across America's radio stations was a start, but their 'Demon Days Live', in early November 2005, saw Gorillaz assemble the collaborators from the album live in Manchester. The next April they performed five nights at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theatre with 87 musicians, including a string quartet from the acclaimed Juilliard School and the Harlem Gospel Choir, and won the prestigious Ivor Novello award for Songwriters of the Year. Over here, they opened the 2006 BRITs with a 100-piece children's choir.

'Plastic Beach' is just as highly anticipated. Their track record is what attracted such a starry list of contributors: The Fall's Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg, Gruff Rhys, De La Soul, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, The Clash's Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Kano and Bashy, all add to the Gorillaz mix. Among the album's 16 tracks, "Stylo", featuring Mos Def and Bobby Womack on vocals, and "Superfast Jellyfish", featuring the winning pairing of Gruff Rhys and De La Soul, are stand-out tracks, as is the mellow orchestral ballad "Rhinestone Eyes", sung by Albarn. It all fits together in their ever-shifting musical landscape. Elisa Bray