Unless you spent the summer hibernating in the Arctic circle (and, frankly, who could blame you?) you’ll be aware that the UK seems to have gone ape for Monkey, the new opera/album by Gorillaz’ creators Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett…

From the Royal Opera House to Rough Trade via the BBC’s blanket coverage of the Olympics and just about every broadsheet, the presence of Hewlett’s remarkable visual imagination and Albarn’s deftly avant-pop musical score have been virtually inescapable. And yet with a new short film (‘Monkey Bee’, see below), lengthy stage run (at the O2, opened last Saturday) and new super-high end Limited Edition Box Set just out, this, it seems, is just the beginning.

At times dazzling in its invention and creativity, and altogether truer to the duo’s original vision, Monkey the album is an evolution of Albarn and Hewlett’s much acclaimed “circus opera” Monkey: Journey To The West, their stage adaptation of the classical Chinese story of a Monkey king’s long passage from arrogance and hubris to reward and redemption via suffering and strife.

“We went into an entirely different world when we were making this record,” says Albarn. Recorded in Beijing and London over a period of two years, the 22-track album combines the classical and modern, time-honoured Chinese sensibilities with Western pop, dispensing with the opera’s theatrical arrangements in favour of an electronic backing. Listen closely and you can the influence of Philip Glass, Kraftwerk, The Human League, Minnie Riperton and, in its heart-tugging bittersweet melodies, The Good, The Bad & The Queen. And yet thanks to Albarn’s use of the Chinese five-note scale and lyrics sung entirely in Mandarin, it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

The same striking originality can be found in Hewlett’s artwork. Darker and more menacing than the cuddly Monkey and pals characters he created for the BBC, Hewlett’s artwork bears the clear stamp of his previous work for Tank Girl and Gorillaz, but – influenced and inspired by breadth and depth of traditional China – he’s pushed his artistry further than ever before, often to staggeringly beautiful effect. We caught up with Britain’s foremost graphic art rebel to find out more…

How does your presentation of Journey To The West differ on this album from the opera?

“This version is just me and Damon, and different in that we are working with the same team of people that we have worked with on many projects in the past. It’s our version of the Journey To The West, our personal interpretation of the story and so much more than what we knew from growing up with the TV series.

“When I created the designs for the opera I always had to think about what those illustrations would be used for, costume designs and set designs, depicting scenes and different scenarios. For the album I’ve been able to be a lot more imaginative, with fewer restrictions…this is a more personal vision of my understanding of the story which has allowed me to create something more complex and fine tuned.”

What did you see/buy/collect in China that’s subsequently inspired your artwork?

“I’ve always been interested in Chinese culture. I’m fascinated about everything to do with China and its history. It’s a country with a pictorial and visual culture. If you’re gonna tackle such a big project I think it’s really important to go to the country of origin with a good guide who can take show you all the right places – to immerse yourself in the culture and get a clear understanding of what you are doing. It’s all about drawing inspiration from the smells, the taste of the food, the weather, the people, the scenery and the atmosphere. It could be anything from a cigarette kiosk in a dusty side street to a Buddhist temple. So many parts of their culture feel much more real and exciting than our own. It’s an ancient culture that is still intact and not ruined by globalisation in many rural areas. There’s such a great sense of history, like the people that en masse are doing the tai chi in the square every morning before they go to work. It’s those small things that are a great source of inspiration.”

How much of yourself do you see in Monkey?

“All the main characters represent a little bit of everybody, not only myself. Monkey is a very cocky guy who really wants to be someone but with as little work as possible. Initially he has no real dedication to anything, he wants an overnight fast route to superstardom and in the process he upsets Buddha, who imprisons him for 500 years. But through correcting his ways he becomes a better person. His journey represents what a lot people go through – it’s about life in general and how you can become a better person.”

The climax of the opera, with its amazing colours and magical characters, feels like a kind of psychedelic nirvana…was that the intention?

“Yes. The last scene represents the end of a fantastic journey – when the characters reach nirvana and arrive in paradise. It’s a colourful interpretation of heaven, a psychedelic paradise, the blue Buddha Mountain, the monks dressed in orange and the pink lotus girls. It was our interpretation of what paradise is: a peaceful place where you feel content and can loose the struggles and stresses of life. We really wanted the last scene to make the audience feel like they have arrived someplace really special. Initially we also wanted to have lots of lights shaped like Buddha hanging around the theatres, then as the last scene played out these lights would come on one at a time as part of the journey, but a lack of funding stopped us from reaching the absolute sense of utopia that we wanted to get to.”

Do you have a working routine? And, if so, how much discipline does that require?

“Start early, finish late, listen to music, smoke cigarettes and not being interrupted is my idea of a good day’s work. Too many interruptions results a bad day’s work. I really need my headspace to totally immerse myself in what I am doing… It’s almost like when you are watching a great movie and the phone rings, once you get back to it again you’ve lost the plot.”

Does everything begin first as a pencil drawing? Are you always doodling?


Tell us about the short film you’ve got planned to accompany ‘Monkey Bee’…

“As well as creating illustrations I felt it was important to create a live action short film to show this vision of monkey, a 3.07 film to accompany the song… This was something that I couldn’t do with animation. In my mind it’s a 1970s spaghetti western, kung fu, Chinese musical version of Journey to the West that no one has seen before and that has just been discovered in a dusty film vault. We want to make more short films for other songs from the album.”

What have you and Damon got planned next?

“We are discussing three or four projects at the moment, but have not decided which one to do next. Carousel is one story that that we have been discussing and have been working on for about six months now. But we’ll make a decision on what to go with in the New Year, the timing has to be right and we’re in no hurry.”

A Limited Art Edition Box Set of Monkey Journey To The West – including 4 fine art prints, one signed by Hewlett, plus 84-page hardback book and double vinyl album on 200-gram super-heavyweight vinyl – is available to pre-order exclusively here.

Sean Bidder



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