AUSTIN, Texas — Damon Albarn is smarter than you might think.
Not that the Blur/Gorillaz frontman's acumen is in question, but conceptually the idea of a "virtual band" seems rather silly. However, there's a crafty motive behind the animated members 2-D, Noodle, Russel and Murdoc.
"Talking about [the music] is something that [the band] likes to do," Albarn said at a Gorillaz album listening party during South by Southwest week (see "Queens Of The Stone Age Are Kings Of SXSW 2005"). "I don't think they appreciate us stepping on their turf as it were. They think I'm delusional anyway, so anything I say can't possibly be right," he said with a rehearsed and evasive smirk.
While Albarn may use his animated characters as a shrewd machination to avoid explaining his personal and musical intentions, what can be gleaned from the cagey Gorillaz is that their new album Demon Days, due May 24, is an opaque affair, both musically and thematically.
"Gorillaz make dark pop; that's what they always set out to achieve," Albarn said. "The whole album kind of tells the story of the night — staying up during the night — but it's also an allegory. It's what we're living in basically, the world in a state of night."
The most obvious difference on their sophomore offering is the absence of Dan "The Automator" Nakamura as the acting musical producer. Instead, Albarn reached out to Danger Mouse based on the strength of The Grey Album, which turned heads last year when it seamlessly and illegally meshed the Beatles' The White Album with Jay-Z's The Black Album (see "Remixers Turn Jay-Z's Black Album Grey, White And Brown").
"[The Automator] wasn't busy, the [project just] needed a slightly different approach," Albarn explained. "Danger Mouse, in my opinion, is one of the best young producers in the world. I think the last record was a lot more simplistic. It was virgin territory — animated hip-hop, reggae, stroke-rock, Latin rock — there's a lot more intricacy with this record."
For Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Brian Burton, a longtime Blur fan, the feelings of admiration and respect were mutual. "It was a no-brainer when there was interest there [from Albarn]," Burton said. "I heard demos of the new record, but the biggest part was getting the chance to be a part of something that's so strong — you just gotta jump on it. I had a very up-and-down year [in 2004], but it was definitely a big up when I got a chance to [work with Gorillaz]."
Like their debut, Gorillaz's Demon Days boasts a cast of colorful characters that aren't animated, including Booty Brown from the Pharcyde ("Dirty Harry"), outré rapper MF Doom ("November Has Come") and a bizarre cameo appearance by Dennis Hopper, who contributes a solemn spoken-word piece ("Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head").
But don't expect Albarn to reveal how the odd pairing took place. "I really feel that the band are going to be pissed if they see me talking about them, you know? And they're a lot funnier than me," he said.
What does speak for itself is the pulsing hip-hop rock of first single "Feel Good Inc." The cut features De La Soul and its shadowy Cloud City-like video ups the ante for visually stunning animated clips.
"I think it's a big step up from the last videos," Albarn said. "The influences range from classic 'Scooby Doo' to [Japanimation house] Studio Ghibli. It's got a lot of different textures to it."
While neither Albarn nor Burton would divulge any details about the next Blur or Danger Mouse albums, they did reveal that an alternate collaboration may be in the works. "We might be working together again this year on something which I started in Lagos, in Nigeria, last year. It could be quite fantastic I think," Albarn said, noting the record would be different from the world-beat Mali Music project he released in 2002. "It's definitely Afrocentric, but it's more of a country-soul record, actually."
A North American tour with "all the characters" is being planned for the summer, but having already cleaned house just two discs into their career, will Danger Mouse be on board for the Gorillaz's third offering?
"It's not really up to us, is it?" Burton said with a laugh, claiming the fickle animated characters could easily change their minds once again.
"It's too early to tell," Albarn said. "Success and things can inevitably ... You know, look at the Game and 50 Cent. That could easily happen to us."
Demon Days track list, according to the Gorillaz's publicist:
- "Last Living Souls"
- "Kids With Guns" (featuring Neneh Cherry)
- "Oh Green World"
- "Dirty Harry" (featuring Pharcyde's Booty Brown)
- "Feel Good Inc." (featuring De La Soul)
- "El Manana"
- "Every Planet We Reach Is Dead" (featuring Ike Turner)
- "November Has Come" (featuring MF Doom)
- "All Alone" (featuring Roots Manuva and Martina Topley-Bird)
- "White Light"
- "DARE" (featuring Shaun Ryder)
- "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head" (featuring Dennis Hopper)
- "Demon Days"