Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett on Writing a Chinese Opera, Eating Toads

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Matthew Weiner, accepting the award for Outstanding Show We Could Be Watching Right Now If It Weren't For the Stupid Emmys. Photo: Getty Images

If you haven't yet heard about Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's first post-Gorillaz project, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation: It's an opera, and it's in Mandarin. Monkey: A Journey to the West, composed by Albarn and designed by Hewlett over the course of the last three years and a number of trips to China, is an odd, engaging spin on an ancient story — a Buddhist fable about the immortality-seeking Monkey and his journey to enlightenment — that's miles away from anything these two have ever done before. (Don't worry, non–opera fans: They're also working on a third Gorillaz album.) Monkey is currently playing at London's O2 tent under the direction of Chen Shi-Zheng, and its soundtrack is out in the U.S. today. Last week, at the Spotted Pig, Hewlett and Albarn (sporting a shiny front gold tooth) fielded questions from reporters. Some highlights, after the jump.

On their ambitions:
Hewlett: We didn't have any idea it would be quite this large scale when we started. We originally thought it'd be six months' work, and it ended up taking, well, three years from when we first sort of went to China.
Albarn: We're moving upwards is one way of looking at it, but I think we're sort of just moving around. We've had some interesting meetings while we've been here in the States. Once you've done something on this scale, it sends a message to a lot of people that you can do work on that scale.

On overcoming obstacles:
Hewlett: Some of the costumes got misinterpreted, and they ended up looking like "Disney on Ice" costumes. We didn't have time or money to remake them, so we actually ended up going to a kung fu store in Manchester, buying loads of kung fu stuff, messing with it.
Albarn: When [the performers] arrived in Paris [for rehearsals], some of them couldn't sing. And the other ones that were cast from Beijing's school of performing arts had a very strange idea of how they should sing. They kind of sounded like something off Pop Idol. We had to kick all of that out. Just be yourself, don't try to sound Western. Don't try to mutate into something 'cause it could get a bit ugly.

On their first contact with the Monkey story:
Hewlitt: We remember Monkey from when we grew up. It was a TV series in England, in the late seventies.
Albarn: It was a really wacky Japanese TV show. It was the biggest show in England for a while for my generation, that sort of 38 to 42, people that age now. Everyone knows it.
Hewlitt: Back when we had three channels, there was BBC2, and Friday night, coming home from school, you watched Monkey.

On writing Chinese music:
Albarn: It's quite hard to write in the [traditional] pentatonic scale. [I thought], How can I write this and it not sound really cliché? And really like a Westerner trying to do Chinese music? I came up with this really simple system there looking at the Communist five-point star. I got a tin one from China, and I had it stuck on my mixing deck. And I put the two together: five points, five notes. And I designated a point on the star to a note … the sequencing was in the pentatonic. And I went on: a seven-point star, a twelve-point star, thirteen-point star, I got up to fifteen-point star. I liked kind of drawing them all out.

On previous miscalculations:
Albarn: When we first put Gorillaz out, we were like, "This is just gonna kill it in Japan. It's gonna kill it in Japan." But it didn’t! Because of Noodle's eyes. Because in anime, they’ve all got the big eyes. It was a real problem, and it's okay now. They’ve kind of accepted it. But at the time, it was a problem.

On China:
Albarn: It’s ridiculous. It's some of the most pristine, beautiful stuff I’ve ever seen in my life. And I think I’ve traveled fairly well. There still is a feudal peasant society; the vast majority of people are in that. Then you have Beijing and Shanghai, and Shanghai in particular, it makes Blade Runner look out of date … and then you go a hundred miles down the road and you’ve got a guy with an ox and car. That’s China
Hewlitt: Or an 80-year-old woman with a basket of rocks on her back with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, smiling.

On Chinese cuisine:
Hewlitt: The Chinese smoke very heavily and drink heavily. But they eat incredibly well.
Albarn: And they do t'ai chi. It’s quite a good balance.
Hewlitt: We went into a restaurant and ordered toad, and the woman brought two live toads out to our table and said, "Which one do you want?" So she flipped it up upside down, threw it on the paper, picked it up, chopped it up, threw it on the frying pan, and then it was on the table a minute later. Incredibly fresh.

On dreams:
Hewlitt: I wanted to be a clown.
Albarn: I wanted to be a fireman.
Hewlitt: I really wanted to be clown. And I thought, If that fails, I'll be an actor. That can't be hard.