Through the Ears: The Evolution of Gorillaz Immersive World

“I ain’t happy, I’m feeling glad
I got sunshine, in a bag
I’m useless, but not for long
The future, is comin’ on”

Though these lines may be from British band Gorillaz’s 2001 song “Clint Eastwood,” its sentiment may be relevant for many Gorillaz fans today with the recent release of the band’s newest album, Humanz, on April 28th. This edition ends Gorillaz’s hiatus following their 2010 album Plastic Beach.

Building up to the album, you may also know that Gorillaz broke the Internet with a sudden, unannounced release of four songs from it: “Saturn Barz,” “Andromeda,” “Ascension,” and “We Got the Power.” On top of this, “Saturn Barz” was released with a music video, true to Gorillaz iconic style by being entirely animated.

What’s the whole drawing thing about, anyway?

This animation style, unique to Gorillaz, earned them the title of one of the world’s first virtual bands. Formed in 1998 by Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett, many consider these two to be footnotes in comparison to the “real” members of the band: Murdoc Niccals, 2D, Noodle, and Russel Hobbs. While initially the animated videos had little purpose other than making a mockery of the shallow MTV music videos of the time, eventually Gorillaz became host to a universe all of their own.

Over time, this universe has become increasingly more vast and detailed, also spreading to the depth of the characters themselves. The Gorillaz story-line borders on The Odyssey levels of epic. It spans from the moment the band was formed, including virtually every single music video, song, interview, advertisement, and MTV Cribs episode. The immersion is intense to the extent that, for a long time, I believed  the Gorillaz cast was just full of caricatures of the real band members. Only when I began to look up live performances did I realize that the entire band is fictional.

The complexity and spread-out nature of the Gorillaz backstory is often intimidating to newcomers – where does it all begin? Where does it go from there? Why does any of that even matter? With these questions in mind, I wanted to embark on my own deep-dive into the lore surrounding a band that has quickly become one of my favorites over the past two years.

This story is split up into four major phases, each being directly connected to an album Gorillaz has released (This makes sense since there are often long periods of time between the albums, so a lot tends to change when we don’t see the characters).

Phase One

During Phase One, in 1999, Gorillaz was a one-man gig in the virtual world, made up of only Murdoc Niccals, the band’s bass player and resident Satanist. To this day, Murdoc is often seen as the band’s “leader” due to his outspoken personality – he’s even the only member to have a verified twitter account. Murdoc essentially controls the band despite providing no vocals, instead playing the bass, an instrument which is often seen as one which only supports. Murdoc serves as a clear caricature of big musicians who have let fame go to their heads: egotistical, overtly sexual, and rude. He believes that the world revolves around him, and at least in the context of the Gorillaz universe, it did in the beginning.

True to character, one day Murdoc realizes he needs some new musical equipment, so after visiting a few stores to decide which he wants to rob, he returns the next day by smashing his car through the building. Simultaneously, he also just so happened to ruin the day of the store’s young cashier, Stuart Tusspot, whom Murdoc greets by plowing his face in with about 4,079 pounds of metal.

As punishment, Murdoc was forced to take care of this person whom he had sent into a coma. Ironically, it was only after being in a second Murdoc-inspired car-crash that Stuart woke up, now with a few less teeth and newly-blackened eyes. Out of a coma, he was now left with a severe hyphema, an accumulation of blood in the eye which, in addition to impairing vision, blackens the eye completely. Perhaps in a serious case of Stockholm syndrome, Stuart decides to not only stick around the man who almost killed him twice, but form a band with him. And so Stuart became 2D (Standing for the black holes, or “dents” that his eyes now look like), the vocals of Gorillaz, voiced by former-Blur singer Damon Albarn.

There is no clear transition between or layout of the events leading up to the addition of the remaining band members. In a nutshell, the pair, in need of a drummer, decided to kidnap Russel Hobbs, a man recently-possessed by his friend who was murdered in a drive-by shooting. Not having anything else better to do as a haunted body, Russel, like 2D, decided to stay (That is, as if Murdoc would have let anyone leave).

Did you forget a letter there?

After Russel’s addition, completing the puzzle was 2D’s girlfriend Paula, their first guitarist. And thus- “Gorilla” was formed. And no, I didn’t forget a “z” there.

“Gorillaz” was not always Gorillaz. In this first phase, they were known by the simpler name “Gorilla,” which looking at it now just seems wrong. Luckily for our comfort, this phase only produced one song: “Ghost Train.” Right after this release, Paula cheated on 2D with Murdoc and was promptly kicked out of the band. And remember, none of this is reality. All of these events are happening within the fictional world of the Gorillaz characters. Personally, I’m still trying to let it sink in that this completely fabricated band has just as much realistic drama as any normal popular rock group.

Phase Two

Paula (right) looks a little too much like an angry, older Noodle for my liking.

Marking the end of the first phase was the addition of their current guitarist, a young girl named Noodle. You may think that perhaps the band held some auditions or something and settled on her. Nope. She fed-exed herself from Osaka, Japan straight to the band’s doorstep the second she saw their advertisement for a guitarist. It almost goes without saying that she fit into the group’s dynamic perfectly. The band released several songs, perhaps the most notable at this time being “Clint Eastwood” (2001) and made constant appearances through virtual interviews.

Between Phase One and Two, the virtual band suffered a pretty dramatic breakup. Noodle, after learning fluent English and that she is the product of an organization which raises children to be war machines, returns to the Gorillaz headquarters, Kong Studios, and writes the majority of their second, darkest, and most popular album Demon Days (2005) by herself before the others filtered back in. Since then, the album has been certified double platinum in the United States.

Phase Three

What a badass.

Following this was four years of deafening silence. Not a single word from Gorillaz, no new music, no concerts, no updates to the website. People went crazy, as you can probably guess. Then, one day in 2009 Murdoc conducts an interview, and thus the third phase had begun, culminating with the release of Plastic Beach in 2010. Marking this phase was the return to just the original duo – Murdoc and 2D, stranded on an island made of spray-painted garbage (Or, well, Murdoc is since he’s in hiding from the organization Noodle is from, and 2D is just there because Murdoc told him to be.) Russell and Noodle are completely MIA, so like any rational person, Murdoc decides to replicate them, even going so far as to make a literal cyborg of Noodle.

In reality, while those two are making “Cast Away: The Grunge Musical,” Russell is very angry about who knows what, consumed some toxic waste which turned him into a giant, and has since been swimming in the ocean until he stumbled upon Noodle stranded in a plastic life boat. She seems to have traded in her guitar for a machine gun.

Phase Four

Once again, Gorillaz fell into its own personal, comfortable silence, leaving unanswered questions and theorizing fans in their wake. But right now, the fever has returned with the start of Phase Four, the anticipated album Humanz and an accompanying Spirit House tour in New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam. So far, there’s already massive confusion not only in that the entire band seems to be back together in the “Saturn Barz” music video, but also in that the video itself is one of the weirdest Gorillaz has produced yet. In it, the band explores a house, perhaps a result of the eviction showcased in their most recent music video prior to “Saturnz Barz,” which was “Doyathang” (2000). Soon enough, the band is surrounded by talking slices of pizza, CGI monsters which fall very uncomfortably into the uncanny valley, and Murdoc floating naked in space.

It’s good to have them back.

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