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Gorillaz’s Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett on Plastic Beach, Skyping With Snoop Dogg, and Their Next Opera

For previous Gorillaz albums, after they'd spent years on the music and artwork, Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett have left most of the publicity campaigning to their cartoon avatars. But last week, for their recent Plastic Beach, the virtual band's third record (and best so far, we think), the pair stopped in New York for a few rare in-person interviews. We spoke to them briefly on Friday about Beach, their next opera, and what to do when Engelbert Humperdinck cancels at the last minute.

Near the end of the promotion for the last Gorillaz album, Demon Days, Jamie said he was tired of drawing the characters ...
J.H.: It's coming back to haunt me, that one. What you have to understand is that a Gorillaz campaign, for me, from beginning to end, lasts about four years. It's a lot of work. So at the very end of Demon Days we were asked if there would be another Gorillaz album, and I said that at that particular time I was a little tired of it and needed to go away and try something else. So we went and did Monkey: Journey to the West and traveled around China and produced an opera.
D.A.: A sort of opera. Not really an opera opera.
J.H.:: It has elements of opera.
D.A.: Fine, a popera. What do you want to call it?
J.H.: An experience.
D.A.: No, I don't want to call it an experience.
J.H.: Well, that's why I called it an opera.
D.A.: Okay, a flopera.

You've said that Plastic Beach is "the most pop record [you've] ever made." Was that by choice or chance?
D.A.: It is the most pop. It's certainly not a pop record in the sense that a lot of the structures in the songs bear any relationship to pop music, really. It's some hybrid. In the editing process, I just sort tried to retain the things that had the nicest melodies, generally. Although I did leave off a few songs that maybe had better melodies than these.

You tried to get Engelbert Humperdinck to sing on a track. What would that song have been like?
D.A.: He was supposed to do it, but then he declined, which was a real shame because that song would have been on the record. Then we thought someone like Asha Bhosle. It's a very dramatic song, very moving. Arabic strings. It's imagining Earth losing its gravitational pull and starting to fall. I'm going to finish that off. The track is all ready to go, it just needs the vocal. We've made contact [with Bhosle] and I think it's definitely going to happen. I'll maybe duet with her; the song has these answering phrases. But that's how it works — you get really excited about something and then it doesn't work. And you go, "What should I do now? Well, I'll try that."

In general, was it easier to wrangle guests for this album than for your previous two?
D.A.: It gets easier. Bobbie Womack, his daughter is a fan, so that's why he was up for it. But after you get to that point, it's really down to whether or not you connect with the person, because there's no point in doing it otherwise.

Snoop Dogg raps on "Welcome to the World of Plastic Beach." He can't be an easy guy to wrangle, especially since he was banned from the U.K. until just recently. Were you in the studio with him?
D.A.: He recorded in L.A. We haven't actually met him.
J.H.: We met him through Skype. We had to direct him through that for the Coachella stuff. He was in L.A. and we were in London at five in the morning. We've chatted.

Since it takes Jamie four years to do the art, have you started work on your next project yet?
D.A.: I have. I've moved onto another opera. An opera opera this time.

The one you're writing with Alan Moore — what can you tell us about it?
D.A.: It's based on the life of John Dee, who was a very influential force in Elizabethan Europe, especially England. He was responsible for creating the concept of the British Empire. So he affects all our lives in one way or another. He was an alchemist … It's about his life.

Do you know what the music will sound like?
D.A.: No, not really. This will be the first time I've stopped writing for six months; I've just been reading about Hermetic magic and catalysts and philosophy, which is what all of his stuff is based on — Euclid and Pythagoras and all of that stuff. It's a lot. And it's been brilliant. I've got an idea of how it's going to sound.

So will we ever see the Gorillaz characters again after this? Are you sick of them yet, Jamie?
J.H.: No, I'm enjoying it. This is the beginning of this campaign. I'll be on Plastic Beach till the beginning of next year. Then we'll see if we'll do anything with the songs that didn't make it on Plastic Beach.

Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images