Technology was not all it is now when virtual band Gorillaz released their debut single in 2000.
“We were sort of imagining technology before it happened,” said real world frontman Damon Albarn, who formed the group with comic artist Jamie Hewlett.
Now, with the 2017 release of fifth latest album Humanz and a 40-date global tour underway, it seems as though the world has caught up and the pair’s dysfunctional cartoon band members are edging ever closer to life.
Gorillaz has always been a complicated prospect, caught between serious pop music and a cartoon band.
The fiction is easily sustained for fans at home; music videos and thoughtfully constructed websites have carried the narrative.
Making the band work when playing live, however, is more complicated.
Dreams of all-singing, all-dancing holographic projections were stymied early.
Holographic projection dreams
The technology, said Albarn, “doesn’t respond well to low frequencies. So you have to play very quietly.”
It’s also extremely costly, and while Gorillaz have never shied away from engaging with the cutting-edge, the pair are clearly fed-up with pouring cash into tech that isn’t quite there yet.
“We’ve been down that road and we don’t have to prove ourselves in that way, I don’t think,” said Hewlett.
At the same time, the duo recognise a shift in expectation on the part of the audience.
“Live shows are everything now,” Hewlett said. With AV nearing ubiquity in stadium-filling live acts, they’re keen that the Humanz tour distinguishes itself from the high-budget but basic visual spectacle that characterises other concerts.
After all, Albarn said, “even U2 have got huge great screens now.”
Pushing the boundaries
Others have had similar ideas. Gorillaz are now part of a broader trend of artists, keen to push the boundaries of tech and art in live arenas.
Massive Attack have been collaborating with tech-art studio United Visual Artists (UVA) for over a decade.
In their performances they harvest politically-loaded data in real time and present it back to the audience.
Experimental producer Flying Lotus worked extensively with LA-based artist David Wexler to construct a cubic sculpture called Layer.
A stage-upon-a-stage, the sculpture becomes a canvas for projection-mapped animations, distorting space.
For help bringing their show together, Gorillaz turned to set design studio Block9.
“Narrative is a big part of what we do,” said Stephen Gallagher, one of the studio’s co-founders. Block9’s focus on not just building sets, but giving them with a sense of story, makes them ideal bedfellows for Gorillaz.
“What we were trying to do was take all of those different narratives and the way that Gorillaz exist and think, how do we represent that as a live show?” Gallagher explained.
Glitchy after effects
Their solution was to underpin the act with key narrative themes, and apply glitchy after effects to the band’s visual back catalog.
In doing so they created a unified visual language for the videos, played onstage as a backdrop to the live band.
They also created the Oracle, a circular LED screen suspended above the stage on trusses, with motors in the back giving it a broad field of movement.
The Oracle’s mobility bridges the gap between screen and stage, offering a solution to the challenge of integrating performer and cartoon.
The second half of the tour includes live drawings, created during the show by Hewlett.
This, to the pair, represents a triumph: allowing fully reactive communication between the fictional band and its audience.
“A totally immersive interactive experience with the audience,” Albarn enthused. “The only thing that I’m frustrated about, really, is the lack of progress with holographic technology,” he said.
“By now, really, I would like to be sort of co-existing onstage with the characters. It’ll annoy me off if someone does it before me, because I’ve been wanting to do it for nearly 20 years, you know?”