Gorillaz have made waves as the first 'virtual band' to achieve real chart success. Behind the animated characters, however, lurk real engineers and musicians... Sam Inglis tracks them down to find out how they recorded their debut hit.
Two years ago, when Sound On Sound last visited resident engineers Tom Girling and Jason Cox at Damon Albarn's West London studio, Albarn's band Blur had recently finished working with producer William Orbit on their album 13, a recording which involved bizarre instruments, experimental recording techniques and endless Pro Tools editing. The studio had also been used to record Albarn's equally experimental collaboration with composer Michael Nyman, the soundtrack to the film Ravenous. Since then, however, Blur have only entered the studio to record one more single, so Girling and Cox have been able to put their feet up and take it easy...
Er, no. Although the only Blur activity in the meantime has been a Greatest Hits album, Albarn had set up the studio (also named 13) mainly to handle his own side projects — and these have proliferated during the band's time off. There has been two more film soundtracks, Ordinary Decent Criminal and 101 Reykjavik, and a lengthy trip to Mali to record material for an Oxfam‑sponsored project drawing together musicians from every nation on the Greenwich Meridian. The studio has been extended to incorporate what was the adjoining unit, with the control room completely rebuilt around a new desk — a task which inevitably fell mainly to Girling and Cox. And on top of all that, there's been Gorillaz, a project which has yielded a top 10 album and a massive hit single in the shape of 'Clint Eastwood'.
The brainchild of Damon Albarn and former flatmate Jamie Hewlett, who was the artist responsible for the cult Tank Girl cartoon strip, Gorillaz have been described as the world's first 'virtual band'. The idea was that while Albarn came up with a suitable selection of songs, Hewlett would devise cartoon characters to front the band and stories for them to act out in their videos. "Once we'd started doing the tunes, Jamie got an idea of what the characters should be like, and once we'd fine‑tuned the characters, people started to think about the whole story around those characters, and it just started evolving like that," explains Jason. "So the music started first, I think. It was Damon, Tom and myself doing the music, and Jamie used to come down and see what was going on and what style of music we were heading towards. He was doing his sketching and demoing his characters while we were demoing the songs — the same sort of thing but on the drawing front."
With initial demos done at 13, the 'virtual band' managed to attract record‑company backing, and recording commenced on an album proper. Unlike the majority of Albarn's previous projects, the Gorillaz album was largely written in the studio. "The comparison would be that Blur would go into the rehearsal studio and rehearse the songs that were written, and then sometimes even go on tour with those songs before they were even recorded, and then go into a studio," says Jason. "The changing point was working with William Orbit, because he'd work in a different sort of way where he'd get the band to do jamming and then make up tunes like that, and then bring them back the next day and do some more on it. So we were slowly getting towards this way of working. It's a lazier way of working!"
"It's not a conscious effort to work in a different way," continues Tom. "I think the reason why we worked in a different way is because we've got this whole Logic thing going on, so instead of working in a linear world where you're using tape, you've got a hell of a lot more flexibility. I think it gears itself more towards this kind of thing, where you haven't necessarily got a specific goal you're after. It just gives you a chance to experiment, basically chuck a whole load of paint at the canvas and see what sticks, and weed out all the drips of paint that you don't want! I know that Damon loves working in this way now, compared to the way Blur would put a track together."
"At the beginning loads of songs merged into each other," recalls Jason. "Say if we had four tunes, all those four tunes would be made up of all the same bits — there'd be a bit taken from that one and tagged on to another tune, and rather than using what was originally there, we'd turn it into a whole other tune, and that's how the songs evolved. We'd keep swapping bits round, and whatever it sounded best in, we'd leave it in that song and take it out of the other song, and then do something else for that song. The confusing thing was the names changing all the way through. Me and Tom would have our name for a song, Damon would have his name for it, and we'd be sitting there for ages having to listen to all the songs again to find out what he was calling it!
"When we started, Damon would have stuff on his four‑track that he'd been working on at home. And then we'd take a good bit out of that, and come in here and do it again. If it sounded good enough we'd just leave it at that, and that would be the base — it might not even be in the tune at the end, but that's what would kick us off, trying to work out what he'd got on the four‑track. He would have had a drum loop and be mucking about with guitar. Then we'd record it straight into Logic, try to get it into some sort of time in the sequencer, and then you can start doing stuff."
"Normally what happens is that if he's got an idea on the four‑track that's working, he'll have used a drum machine or something as the grounding for it, so we normally just end up trying to match the tempo on the four‑track as closely as possible with the actual drum machine, so we get a constant tempo. Then we record the audio output from the drum machine in so we can set our tempo, and then just start replaying all the bits on the four‑track," explains Tom.
'Clint Eastwood' was in some ways an exception to the free‑form, cut‑and‑paste compositional method employed on the album as a whole. Damon Albarn's initial four‑track efforts with a drum machine and guitar were recreated in Logic at 13, before the other basic instrumental elements and guide vocals were added. Althought the structure of the song was changed, it neither lost any sections to other songs nor gained any. "In terms of sound, the way the song is and the format hasn't been changed much from day one, even though we've had different vocals on it," explains Tom. "Essentially, it's made up of stuff we put together in more or less a day, except the vocals, and then just tweaked. There were a couple of instruments in early versions of the song that were taken out later, but the final version is basically pretty much the same as the first set of arrangements, except for the structure of the song. The actual track's pretty much the same bar a couple of extra drums and the rap, and one keyboard part that's not in the final mix.
"There's no real drums on here. One's off a drum machine, and there's a sample I got from somewhere. Apart from that there's some live percussion on there. You know on a bass drum you've got the lug nuts that hold the skin on? It's actually a load of those in a carrier bag being shaken. It sounds like it's pitched down, too, but it's just EQ'd. The bass is a keyboard bass, which is the Moog Rogue, and on the big fills it's got a low sub‑note which is off a Roland JV. There's a piano in there, which is our little cheesy upright in the other room. The strings came from one of our string machines, the Solina String Ensemble."
"That should have been burned years ago," laughs Jason. "Damon gave us the OK to set fire to it on stage, but we said 'No, you can't set fire to that! It's a classic!' And it's ended up being used on two or three tunes."
'Clint Eastwood' included a rap section from its early days, but the original rap recorded by Girling and Cox at 13 ended up being replaced. "There was a rap on there before done by some English guys called Phi‑life and Cypher, which was used for a B‑side in the end," says Tom.
"That's the version that we do live, as well," adds Jason. "It's a little bit more hardcore, in that English style."
One of the most prominent instruments on 'Clint Eastwood' is the melodica. This cheap wind instrument, with its plastic keyboard, has traditionally been used mainly as a teaching aid, but has become a firm favourite with Damon Albarn for its sound, usefulness as a compositional aid, and capacity to irritate engineers...
"It's one of those school teaching instruments that needs to be brought back," says Jason.
"No, it doesn't need to be brought back, it needs to be binned!" insists Tom.
"Once you've heard it a few times it does get on your nerves," admits Jason. "He plays it far too much, all the time, and on everything."
"When you're trying to edit a gentle acoustic track he'll come and sit behind you and blow it in you ear, and then doesn't understand why we don't appreciate it!" laughs Tom. "We may not end up using the melodica as the finished sound, but he tends to use it as an instrument to write with. It's obviously very instant, you can grab it quickly and just play notes, and that's often how he works out what his parts are. So sometimes it stays as melodica, and sometimes he'll put the part in as a melodica but then replace it with something else. It's just a good, quick way of working out ideas, because if I'm doing stuff on the computer and editing, he can't be playing MIDI keyboards, because I'm changing tracks and stuff on screen.
"The melodica that is used most used to have a pickup on it — a shitty little thing, I think it might have been an acoustic guitar pickup. But these days he just blows it down his vocal mic. He normally does vocal and melodica in the same take, and without any warning!"
Because the free‑form way of working allowed them almost unlimited opportunities to carry on tinkering, the decision was made to bring in an external producer to help finish off the album and oversee the mix. "We just needed fresh ears, basically, to say whether we were on the right track, because we'd spent so much time on it," says Jason. "We were doing other projects while we were doing the Gorillaz album, so it was going on for quite a while, and because it was going on for quite a while, we just needed someone to come in fresh and say 'Yes, it's good.'"
Hip‑hop producer Dan The Automator was chosen, and spent two weeks with Albarn, Girling and Cox in 13. At this stage, Damon Albarn decided that a change of scene was in order, and the company decamped to Jamaica for five weeks to finish the recording and mix the album. "We went to a studio called G‑Jam, which is part of the G‑Street record label," says Tom. "I don't know if it has offices over here any more, but basically the bloke who owns the company owns this estate in Jamaica, so it's got a house and a load of huts where you can stay in, and down at the bottom it's got a little studio which looks out over the sea. Unfortunately the screen was pointing in the wrong direction, so I didn't get to see it! Ideally it's not the sort of studio you'd want to go to to finish off a project, but in terms of vibe, it was quite good."
"We'd been here for ages doing the album," laughs Jason, "so it was great to have an excuse to go on holiday and try to make it work! It was quite a good regime — wake up, have breakfast, go to the beach, come back, do a bit of work, have dinner, back to the beach, and then back to work again."
The point of going to Jamaica was partly to give everyone a break after months of hard work and partly to try to infuse the album with more of a reggae vibe. It was also a chance for Albarn to write his lyrics, most of which were still incomplete or non‑existent, and record the final vocals. "Whenever Damon does his vocals in the first place, it's always just gobbledegook in the melody that he wants," explains Jason.
"The majority of the lyrics were written over in Jamaica," says Tom. "The titles of the songs don't nec essarily bear any resemblance to the lyrics of the song. 'Clint Eastwood' was just called that because a couple of the parts had a sort of Western feel!"
"The hardest part was getting over what Jamaica looked like outside," laughs Jason. "He couldn't concentrate at all at the beginning, and that was the hardest bit."
"We used the Neumann TLM170 for Damon's vocal, and we hired some gear when we went to Jamaica, so I think he probably went through an 1176 as well, or perhaps a Distressor," explains Tom. "We used a Neve 1073, which is an EQ with a mic amp on as well, so the mic was plugged straight into that, and then after that I think it was the 1176 and straight into Logic."
On 'Clint Eastwood', a harmony part was also created from the lead vocal using a Boss Voice Transformer. "It's just a harmonised copy of Damon's main vocal," explains Tom. "For each chorus bit, there is a bit of that underneath the main chorus vocal."
Other vocal effects were also added at the mix: "We've got the rap, we've got reverse reverb on the rap as well, and some delay stuff that we did manually when we were comping the vocal and the melodica stuff," says Tom. "I think it's only the album version that you can hear all this stuff on, though. It's just a delay that's fed back on itself and EQ'd while it's coming back."
"We were just trying to get that tape effect from the digital delay," explains Jason.
As well as overseeing the mix of the album, Dan The Automator also added his own musical elements. "We didn't really use that many samples ourselves," explains Jason. "All the samples came into it when Dan turned up, really."
"They were mainly drum loops," continues Tom. "Pretty much on every song he added one or two drum loops. He put an extra kick and snare on 'Clint Eastwood', when we were in Jamaica, and the other main drum thing Dan put on there is a sort of skip loop which comes in in the chorus. He also recorded a new rap on 'Clint Eastwood'. We actually recorded a rap here, but after our first two‑week session he took our mixes back to America with him and got a guy to do a rap out there, then brought the rap on CD to us in Jamaica, and we stuck it on the record."
Another contribution for which Dan was ultimately responsible was the scratching part, recorded by fast‑fingered Canadian turntablist Kid Koala. "When Dan was here for two weeks Kid Koala was in the country as well, and Dan knows Kid Koala, so he got him in to do scratching," explains Tom. "He did stuff on pretty much every tune, but we didn't necessarily use it on all the tunes. And as you can see from the screen, a little bit of editing has taken place! It was a case of taking the best bits of what he did, and then making it fit slightly better."
For Albarn, Girling and Cox, with their rock backgrounds, working with a producer from the world of rap and hip‑hop required a certain amount of adjustment. "Dan certainly knows his stuff in the realms of hip‑hop," enthuses Tom. "Outside hip‑hop, he can cope with it, but on a few occasions he revealed that he didn't necessarily know so much about stuff. On a couple of tracks we had a real drum kit, and we'd labelled it up on the desk as kick, snare, overheads, and he had to ask what overheads were — things like that.
"He loves his compression! I can't remember how many compressors we took with us, but basically there was the studio we were in, and we more or less took a whole studio with us as well. We took more equipment with us than the studio actually had. There were two double racks of outboard stuff — Neves, Focusrites, 1176s, Dbx 160s, I think we had a Tubetech compressor as well, and basically all the compressors were just turned on full. With the 1176s, we had all the buttons pressed in at once — with a gate afterwards to eliminate some of the noise! We took a couple of our delay units out with us as well, because I think we'd picked the one studio in Jamaica that didn't actually have any delay units."
"I was shocked when we got there, I'd expected to see a whole wall of echo machines!" laughs Jason. "Anywhere they could fit tape, I thought there'd be tape, but no..."
"The intention when we went there was to pick up some sort of reggae and dub vibes, but I think because Dan was there on his hip‑hop tip, we didn't necessarily get as much of that as we had wanted," concludes Tom. "At the same time, though, we were happy with the result anyway, so it didn't really matter."
The combination of rock, reggae and hip‑hop that Gorillaz eventually achieved was clearly to public tastes. 'Clint Eastwood' has been one of the most infectious and unusual singles to reach the top 10 this year, and strong support from the likes of MTV and Radio 1 have seen it hold its position in the upper reaches of the chart in a way that few hits do nowadays. At the time of writing, follow‑up single '19/2000' looked set to repeat its success, and plans are afoot for more ambitious — though currently top‑secret — Gorillaz‑related projects in the future. In the meantime, there's talk of a new Blur album, for which rumour has it that Fatboy Slim may occupy the producer's seat. It doesn't look as though Tom Girling and Jason Cox will be able to put their feet up just yet...
As a band with no public face other than the animated characters created by Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz have had to depend to a great extent on videos for the success of their singles. The production effort involved in creating the promos for their first two singles, 'Clint Eastwood' and '19/2000' not only included storyboarding and animating what was effectively a short film, but adding considerable numbers of sound effects — a job which ended up in the hands of Tom Girling and Jason Cox.
"The '19/2000' video had 460 sound effects in it," explains Jason. "And when you've been working on the tune for however long we'd been working on it, the last thing you want to be doing is spending days listening to sample CDs, thinking 'Is that right?' We took most of them off CDs, but we made some as well — if it takes too long to find one and you know how to get the sound, you just go ahead and do it."
"The car in the '19/2000' video was actually Jamie's Pontiac," says Tom. "We had it outside and and ran cables outside to mic it up. A lot of people weren't happy with us sitting there revving the car up!
"We did the sound effects for the 'Clint Eastwood' video too, and we did that in one mad, 20‑hour day. It was the first time we'd done it, and the first time we'd heard the sound effects library — we hadn't even heard any of the sound effects from the CDs. The library was about 40 CDs, which is a lot of sound effects — about 30,000 in fact."
"The frustrating bit is that they're still working on the video when we're doing the sound effects. They were working right up to the deadline, but we needed to use the final version, so we had to do the effects afterwards," says Jason.
"You think you've finished, and then you suddenly get a new cut, and you've got a new set of explosions or something to cut in," continues Tom.
Video work at 13 is done on a professional Sony Beta machine, a format which caused Tom and Jason a few alarms: "What freaked us right out at the beginning was that you can get two different formats of tape that can fit in it. When these tapes turned up, we were like 'Hold on, they've sent us the wrong bloody tapes!'" laughs Jason.
"When we've done film projects before they've always given us big tapes. We knew where we were with the big ones, and then the little ones turned up!" says Tom.