Jesse Thorne (JT): you're listening to The Sound of Young America. I'm Jesse Thorne, America's radio sweetheart. My guest Jamie Hewlett is the creator of the Gorillaz, the cartoon band that has become widly more popular than certainly any cartoon band in history. He's also the creator of Tank Girl, and he recently won the Designer of the Year Award from the Design Museum in London, England. Jamie, welcome to The Sound of Young America. How are ya?
Jamie Hewlett (JH): I'm very well, thank you for having me.
JT: So in looking at your biography, and checking out the stuff you did at the very beginning of your career, at the very beginning of Tank Girl, it seems like there was always a connection in your work, between your graphics work and your comics work and music, and I wonder how that came about, if you were a frustrated musician as a teenager or something like that.
JH: Hmm. No, I've never had any aspirations to be a musician. I've never played, or attempted to learn to play, any instruments. I just love music, and I tend to always listen to music when I'm working so it's note intentionally an inspiration, but it always ends up being an inspiration. I always have, when I started drawing comics years ago I used to draw all day and all night, and live by myself in a flat, and used to listen to Tom Waits constantly for twenty-four hours, then sleep for five then get up and do the same thing. So yeah, I've always listened to music. And so it just sort of creeps into the ideas and the style of what I do.
JT: How does listening to Tom Waits 24 hours a day inform art? [laughs]
JH: I really don't know. It's very hard to actually pinpoint. One of the things you get... I think it's just sort of a feeling, it just gets you excited. Just puts you in the mood for doing what you do, I guess. A lot of Tom Waits songs, he's telling great stories. And it's almost like having a story read to you, having many stories read to you, by Tom Waits, which is kind of a soothing, relaxing thing to have in the background while you're working. But I listen to music constantly. I can't sit there drawing in silence, I have to have music on. And it just sort of helps. It gets me in the mood. Maybe I'll put something loud on to get me started. Then as I sort of get in to it, maybe something a bit softer.
JT: Tank Girl was one of your first big projects and it was kind of an extraordinary success, and I wonder what that was like for you, just kind of as a young guy, and this creation of yours just took off.
JH: I think we sort of came into... it was me and a whole bunch of comic artists who sort of came into the English comic scene at a time when it was going through a bit of a Rennaissance, and there was a lot of old school comic artists still doing the same old stuff. All these magazines did a big feature on this group of new young comic artists, who I was one of, and how we were like the new wave of punk rock comic artists, and I suppose we all played up to that. With Tank Girl which was the first comic strip that I did really, I think we were doing a comic strip for an independent magazine, and the magazine was put together by people who'd never put together a magazine before and there was no censorship or editing. We used to deliver our artwork the morning it was due to go off to the printers, so no one had a chance to check any of the scripts and stuff. It was quite sort of anarchic way of working. So we'd sort of push it a bit further every time we did a strip. So the subject matter became more and more twisted and basically we got away with doing the sort of stuff we might not be able to get away with doing anymore. The editor didn't ever have a chance to read the scripts, because we would just turn up, give it to him, and then it would go straight on a bike to the printers. And then the magazine would come back and they'd realise it was full of foul language and scenes of depravity and whatever we felt like doing at the time. So, you know, it was a good period, I don't think it works the same like that anymore, unless you're producing an underground comic. But we were very much were able to do exactly what we wanted to do. And the magazine became popular. It was selling well, and everyone was reading it. We got a lot of complaints from mothers and fathers who discovered the comics in their children's bedrooms and actually picked it up and read it, and... [laughs]. We had all kinds of weird stuff happen. But we just got away with doing what we wanted.
JT: How did it come to you to make a comic like that, that was full of depravity, and this heroine that was very much known as a punk rock heroine, which was something that wasn't that big in comics at the time?
JH: No. Well we consciously made the decision to do a strip about a female character who was a tough, in-you-face character, and I think after about the third issue all these magazines were writing about this Tank Girl, she's this great tough character, and she's really ballsy, but we felt everybody was going the wrong end of the stick, and didn't quite understand the character the way we did. We saw her as just this loudmouth character who drank beer and got in fights. So we tried to push it in other directions by just making it as outrageous as possible, and trying to think up storylines that were just really childish and really rude and stories where she'd have to eat people's feces and stuff. We'd just see how far we could go before somebody said 'stop, you're not allowed to do that'. And nobody ever did, so we just pushed it further and further until we just sort of ran out of steam and decided we didn't want to it anymore. We were just twenty-one years old and having a laugh really! [laughs] And just really really taking the mickey out of everything else. And, you know, there were a lot of comics around that we didnt' like, and a lot of characters that we didn't like, and we just felt like the anarchic side of British comics, and we wanted to go against the grain and we just pushed it too far [laughs]. I mean, I look back on it, and read some of those comics... the language as well, I mean using certain swearwords that are not commonly used because they're considered far too outrageous, like the c-word for instance. People don't use that word. They still don't use that word. You say that in conversation and people look at you and think 'he's using the c-word'. We used to use that 10 or 15 times an episdoe, as much as we could. We were being irresponsible and having fun with it really.
JT: They're not really qualities you would associate with comic book creators, or people who sit in their room all day and listening to Tom Waits, either.
JH: Well you know we were sort of getting drunk and you know, smoking pot and just being young and enjoying ourselves, really. We used to make up the stories on the spot. We would leave it until three days before the deadline, then we'd just stay up for three days and just do it. I'd start the story before we had the end of the story, but it just seemed to sort of work. I mean, some of the stories were pretty rubbish, looking back on them. But there's a handful of them that I think are really funny, and I still really laugh. So that really got us started in that direction. Then, unfortunately we made a film with Hollywood and it all went down the toilet hole.
JT: How did you... you mentioned running out of steam earlier. How did that brash 21-year-old-ness of Tank Girl run out of steam?
JH: Well I think that was it, when we went to Hollywood and made a film. We were very enthusiastic about it to start with but we were pretty young so we didn't really know what goes on in Hollywood and we believed we would end up with this great film that, you know, was what we wanted. But obviously you can't fight the powers of Hollywood, and the film ended up really awful. And I think we decided at that point 'right, we have to back away from this and put this behind us, or we're never going to work again'. So that's exactly what we did. I stopped drawing comics for a while, and we tried a few other things, and came up with other ideas that never really went anywhere. There was some wilderness years where I was just doing illustrations and earning some money. But that was a real dent in the side of our armour I suppose. And luckily we recovered from it and moved on to do other stuff, but that was like a bear trap that we accidently stood in. Which nearly destroyed it, our reputation over here. But the comics remain intact, and the comics remain the thing that I'm happy with, and I don't really consider the film to be anything to do with me.
JT: I can imagine that after having that film coming out, which was very poorly received, both amongst Tank Girl's fans and among the movie-going public, and among critics - pretty much universally poorly received, that after stepping back you would be looking at your career and being a bit worried that the high point came when you were 22 or whatever...
JH: Yeah [laughs] it was all over. That could have happened. That could have been the way it went. The stuff that's happened since the Tank Girl years has come about by a chaotic path. It was never intended to be this way, and things happened luckily really. You stumble across things, and there's been a lot of ideas, a lot of good ideas, that we've come up with - when I say we, I mean the various different people I've collaborated with over the years, but there's been a lot of ideas for tv shows and comic strips that I still think are really good, but that I haven't got off the ground yet, but someday maybe I will. I think we convinced ourselves after the Tank Girl film that it was alright, and we shouldn't feel bad about it, because Tank Girl was the sort of character who probably would sell out really badly like that, and make shit films. Because that's just how unpredictable we were, and so what? Was our attitude. We were going to have her killed off. She was going to get run over by a milk float whilst going out to get a newspaper or something from the newsagent's. We wanted to come up with a really unspectacular end to the character. And that was the film, we didn't even realise that we'd done it, until 6 months' afterwards we were licking our wounds and feeling bad about it, and we just said, you know what, it doesn't matter. Forget it. It's time to move on, and do something else, and that's an appropriate end to a character like Tank Girl.
JT: When I read how you and Damon Albarn created the Gorillaz, the thing that struck me was less that you were creating this now-cultural icon, but more the fact that I just didn't realise rock n roll stars had flatmates? I thought they all lived in houses like Hammer's house in Oakland with like gold ceilings and stuff like that? [laughs]
JH: [laughs] Yeah, well that's American rock stars. English rock stars, no... well it just sort of came about we just shared a flat for some reason. We'd known each other for a long time anyway, and just by a complete fluke, we ended up hanging out and then ended up sharing a flat. Which was never on the cards, and I never would have suspected that that would have happened, but it just sort of did, through some chaotic occurence. And that's when we came up with the idea. So you never really know what's around the corner, and weird things happen. Then you're sitting there coming up with this idea that we thought could be quite successful if we put some effort into it. And it took off. It was lucky that we ended up in that position. It allowed us to have that idea.
JT: Something that strikes me about the Gorillaz, is that there's an element of it that's almost a parody of rock stars, and rock star culture, and rock n roll culture, and it's remarkable to me that something that has that parodic element - which certainly isn't all of it but it is part of it - would become such a mainstream phenomenon.
JH: Hm, well I think it's got a lot to do with the fact that a lot of contemporary music is made up anyway. There are very few truly truly original bands or singers or artists emerging anymore. Almost everything can be traced to something that happened 10 years ago, that can then be traced to something that happened ten years before that. It doesn't seem to me that there's been any really original new stars coming out. And so much of it seems made up to me. I don't believe these bands that I see on the tv. I don't believe in them. It's not like the days when you'd say The Clash or The Specials. Or even a band like the Sex Pistols, each member of the band was interesting. And you believed in them. I don't get that feeling anymore. I feel it's all really false and contrived. And that just seemed to be the logical step with Gorillaz, Well, let's make it up, but let's make it up and make it really good. And let's cut out that celebrity element that everyone seems to be so concerned with, you know, wanting to be 'I'm a famous pop star', and 'look at me being photographed taking loads of drugs and I find my life's too hard I have to write a pop song'. Ergh. It's all just a load of rubbish. We just had this idea of creating this false band that could be more outrageous than any living band. And then, by doing that, allowing ourselves to create a world where we could collaborate with as many people as we wanted to. We could collaborate with anybody. What we found ourselves with was this network of people who were all working, contributing towards, this fake band, who were the frontmen of the band. These four characters who didn't exist. But behind the scenes, there's all these talented people who are wanting to be involved because they love the idea and they've got something to contribute. As opposing to wanting to do it to be known for doing it, or being photographed doing it.
JT: One of the things about the band that is interesting to me is that having these cartoon characters, these cartoon characters really aren't avatars for real-life people but kind of exist in their own separare world. And some of the characters have contributions that come from multiple real-life people.
JH: Hm. Yeah. Like I said earlier, I don't think there's any true original bands around, I think Gorillaz are an original idea for how to put a band together. But obviously these ingredients that have gone into Gorillaz, from the music to the animation, it all comes from stuff that inspires us, the sort of stuff that's around us. You know, we reference an awful lot of stuff in the videos, and on the website, in the characters, I mean obviously Murdoc is a mix between Keith Richards and a Scooby-Doo baddy. There's all these little ingredients, some of which you don't really think about, because it's burned into your brain, it's just something you're into.
JT: It's interesting to me that your repsonse to music and bands that feel like a recreation of past music is to create this band which is in a lot of ways kind of an ultimate display of pastiche in music.
JH: But without pretending we created it. We don't hide the fact that it's based on all these things that inspire us, and it's a mixture of many different types of music and styles of animation in there which I like. And also it's informative, through the fact that it's cartoons, kids really get into Gorillaz. ANd once kids really get into something you know how they make the effort to find out and be into something, what goes into it. So through that they're learning all this cool stuff, the music we reference, the stuff we put on the website, and what our influences us and what inspires us. Instead of being a band who play music that sounds like The Rolling Stones, and they want to look like The Rolling Stones, but they aren't The Rolling Stones. They're just a very bad copy. If ever you said to them 'you look like the Rolling Stones' they'd say 'oh no we don't, we're a totally original band'.
JT: It's sort of like that phenomenon, I'm always impressed by that phenomenon of bands on myspace that clearly belong to a musical tradition, but they're always careful to market their genre as A Capella / Trip-Hop / Country 'we don't have any influences'.
JH: Well you see that's just ridiculous because it's impossible not to have influences. If you want to be a musician it's because you've grown up listening to music. If you want to be artist it's because you've grown up being fascinated with art. It's very hard not to be influenced by someone who's inspired you. But I think to totally and utterly rip it off is a stuipd thing to do. I'm waiting for a new band to come along who I look at and listen to and get really excited about and think 'wow'. Because the idea of being in a band is a very cool thing. And if it's done right, and you believe in these people then it's really exciting. And it's been years since I felt like that about a band. I remember when I was younger, always feeling like that, but I haven't had that excitement about a new band in a long time.
JT: Do you think that's because the music has changed or do you think that's just because you're no longer, you know, at that formative period in your life where bands can mean everything.
JH: Yeah... maybe it's because I'm an old git. [laughs] Who's lost it. No I think it's because I've been around long enough to have seen it happen. Just to see the circle that it goes in. Every ten years it seems to repeat itself, so I've seen it repeat itself two or three times now so maybe I'm a little bit cynical about it. But it doesn't mean that I don't love music and go out and constantly buy new records and listen to what's going on and be aware of what's going on. Because I'm waiting for something to come along that I can honestly say to 'that's great, and I love it, I'm going to go and see them play and I'm going to buy their album, I'm not going to nick it off of the internet, I'm actually going to spend some money on it.'
JT: Let me ask you this. You talked about the experience of being in a really good band. What it made me think of was, it made me wonder what the role of a graphic artist is in a band. What is your role besides just illustrating?
JH: That's it, that's my role! [laughs] There is and there can be a role for a graphic artist, I remember The Clash, their bass player Paul Simonon originally, well *is* an artist and originally joined the Clash because not only did he look very cool he also designed the look of The Clash, and that was the band. And then learnt to play the guitar very well and then became part of the band. The difference with me is that I can't play any instrument so I just draw the silly pictures! So I'm sort of in a band without being able to play a note.
JT: In hearing you talk about it, I feel like you're more invested in what this operation is and what it means than simply that they mail me the record and I draw a picture of it.
JH: Yeah. Well that is very true, that is the way we work. It's a collaborative thing. Although I don't get up and play instruments and stuff, I do work very closely with Damon, I have a small studio with about 10 people in who work for me, Damon has about 4 people in his studio. And then we have a management company who take care of that side of it. But everyone else sort of works together and shares ideas, and it's a big collaborative effort. Most of the people who work on Gorillaz are friends of mine, who've been pulled in because they have various different talents. The guy who does a lot of the writing for the characters now is a guy called Cass Browne, who used to be a drummer in a band called The Senseless Things, who's been a friend of mine for about 15 years. But not only is he a great drummer he also happens to be very intelligent and very funny, and very good at writing. So it was like, can you do the writing? And then when Gorillaz play live he's on the drums. So everyone has different roles to play, and it's interesting that people are brought in not necessarily because that's their specialist subject, - the guys who do the voices of the characters are all friends of ours - who have no training in doing that, but they're funny people who we hang out with and we got them in. It's a nice way of working, it's like a big group of friends working together.
JT: One of the reason you're on the show today is because a book, that's sort of an autobiography, or excuse me an oral history of the Gorillaz was just released called Rise Of The Ogre [...], and I wonder if... you started the Gorillaz in what, 1997 or 1998, or something like that?
JH: yeah, 1999. 1998-1999...
JT: ... and I wonder if, you know, that's eight years ago now, doing a kind of career-spanning operation like the Gorillaz book, gives you an opportunity to look back at the work you've done, in the way that you were just talking about you've looked back at Tank Girl?
JH: Yeah I think it probably does. A lot of the stuff we've attempted to do with Gorillaz, we've been trying to think of new and clever things that haven't been done before, with some of the performance at the EMAs, and the website is quite cutting edge, and a lot of stuff that's in there, and the videos, and pretty much everything we've done on Gorillaz has been breaking new ground I think. But doing a book is a pretty normal thing to do. And Everybody does it. We just thought it would be a really nice way of - because we've done two albums now and our next venture with Gorillaz isn't necessarily going to be another album in the sense that it won't be in the same sort of style as the things we've previously done, we'll always try and do something different, so we thought it'd be nice to collect together all the stuff that we've done in a book. Because most of the illustrations and interviews appear in magazines and then you don't see them again, and a lot of people will probably just have, in a few years from now a lot of people will probably just have the Gorillaz album, with the sleeve missing, and that would be their only memory of Gorillaz. So we thought it'd be nice to put a book out, which ten years from now you can slide off your bookshelf and look at all the stuff we did. So we thought it'd be nice to collect all that stuff togetether. BEcause we'd written this whole backstory, for the characters, and given them all lives and stuff and a lot of it appeared in different magazines and interviews, and it was all very disjointed, but it did exist in a linear form and so we wanted to bring it all together.
JT: But at the same time that kind of makes you responsible for it, in a way, doesn't it?
JH: Mmm. Yeah. Totally. We are completely responsible. [laughs]
JT: You have to make sure that everything makes sense in there.
JH: Oh yeah, you wouldn't believe the amount of detail that's gone into getting it all right. Yeah it was a big undertaking to do, because it's a big book, it's got a lot of big stuff in there, but it was a nice thing to just do in the end. A nice thing to have and hold. At the end of the day, a memory of what we did.
JT: You alluded to the next project not necessarily being an album, there's been a lot of talk about feature films for like five years, at this point, what is the next project for Gorillaz, what's the story?
JH: Well a feature film is something we've always wanted to do. But I think the last time we set out to attempt to do it, we didn't feel like we were in a position to do what we wanted to do. Because an animated film is an expensive undertaking and it's very hard to put across the sort of story that we would want to do, without getting money from the sort of people who wouldn't want us to tell what we wanted to tell, so we pulled out ourselves from that idea and thought we'll get back to this another time, and this has sort of come back round again now, and this is what we want to do next. We want to find a way of making an animated Gorillaz movie that the score woud be the third album. That's pretty much all I can say without giving away the detials, but we have a storyline, we have that all sussed out. But we're just in the process of figuring out how can we make this? And how can I have final cut over my film, and how can we do this without the wrong sort of people becoming involved and sabotaging it. Because the sort of story we would want to tell wouldn't be your average singing dancing animated kids' feature, it'd probably be quite a dark, weird funny film. But you know, I think we're in a better position now than we were four years ago to achieve that, and there are people who are interested and we're talking to people who are moving forwards but ultimately I'd like to make a really great animated film.
JT: Well Jamie thanks so much for taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America.
JH: Thank you very much, it's been a pleasure.