In the sometimes-laborious process of interviewing pop stars there are often hoops you have to jump through before you finally get to sit down for a face-to-face with your note pad in hand and Dictaphone whirring: travel visas to be sorted, errant band members to be located, embargoes to be signed to ensure you don’t blab about your subject’s forthcoming magnum opus to all and sundry. However, for Rolling Stone UK, this is definitely a first. I’ve been summoned to LA’s achingly hip Silver Lake neighbourhood for an audience with Gorillaz ahead of the release of their new album, Cracker Island. There’s a catch, though. At the band’s insistence, I’ve been blindfolded to ensure I don’t reveal the precise location of the group’s new HQ.
Why exactly is unclear, but after what seems like an age of stumbling uphill and cracking my shins on a succession of sharp, unidentified objects, the oily rag that’s been tightly wound around my face is removed and I blink, eyes adjusting to their new surroundings.
I’m sitting on a large, round, leather sofa and, although the curtains are drawn, I appear to be in some sort of chic, 70s-style bachelor pad. All teak, chrome and geometric angles, it’s the sort of place you could imagine Don Draper retiring to – but it’s been seriously neglected. A glass coffee table is piled high with long-since deceased flowers, their pinky brown petals falling onto a shagpile carpet that has been trampled into muddy tatters. To my left, a retro-style television set into one of the walls is noisily blaring out static, while by the window, a large crate of bottles is emitting an ungodly whiff that my now heightened sense of smell places somewhere between toilet duck and Camembert.
Most alarming of all, in the far corner, an eight-foot-high stone column is in the process of being crudely chiselled into some sort of statue. Although the wonky features and jutting chin suggest it’s been based on something a child might have scribbled, it bears a very faint resemblance to Gorillaz’s wraith-like bassist Murdoc. It could be Noel Fielding, though. Or possibly Gollum.
The real-life Murdoc is sat in front of us and is no less arresting. Wearing a bright-pink bishop’s mitre, matching pink gown and cape and with his muddy, knee-high, leather jackboots plonked on the coffee table, he looks like a cross between the Pope and a Gestapo officer. Given the circuitous and needlessly secretive route it took me to get here, it seems fair to ask him exactly where here is.
“The inner sanctum, mate,” Murdoc drawls in a slurred croak that’s part Keith Richards, part The Fast Show’s sozzled raconteur Rowley Birkin QC. “The holiest of holies. The nerve centre of The Last Cult. Where the miracles happen.”
“Also called the living room,” sighs bandmate Noodle, who’s sat next to Murdoc wearing a pink military beret and flicking through a weighty-looking book on ancient occult rituals. “Sorry about the blindfold, that was not my idea.”
“Got to wear a blindfold when visiting the Batcave,” Murdoc announces before turning to Rolling Stone UK with a grin. “I’m not saying I’m a superhero – I’ll let you be the judge of that…”
Since announcing the release of their upcoming Cracker Island album back in August, Gorillaz have been giving fans a glimpse of the bizarre situation that they currently find themselves in. From what Rolling Stone UK has pieced together from social media and oblique statements from Murdoc delivered via email ‘sermons’, the story goes something like this…
After relocating to LA from West London, Gorillaz set up their own mysterious sect, The Last Cult, with Murdoc declaring himself ‘The Great Leader’. Murdoc’s sermons refer to some sort of great prophecy and for a while blue-haired singer 2D – who is conspicuous by his absence today – was spoken of as ‘The Chosen One’, although that role seemed to mainly consist of digging up the front garden and bottling Murdoc’s bath water to unsuccessfully flog as a hybrid of holy water and celebrity scent. This being LA, however, there is also a similarly shady clan right next door, The Forever Cult, whose leader, Moon Flower, Murdoc has developed an unhealthy obsession with.
Somehow, in the middle of this mayhem and madness, they’ve managed to write and record their eighth record. Lyrically picking up themes about cults, a mysterious place called Cracker Island and the digitally fragmented state of humanity right now, the album boasts a typically stellar array of guest musicians. The title track features the unmistakable bass flex and falsetto of Thundercat, while the low-riding groove of ‘New Gold’ pairs Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker with Bootie Brown from hip-hop outliers The Pharcyde. Elsewhere, Beck pops up on the album’s wistful acoustic closer ‘Possession Island’, and they’ve even managed to rope in the talents of Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for the thumping electro pop of ‘Oil’.
Even for a band who have in the past lived on a floating island in the Pacific made out of rubbish while cutting tracks with Lou Reed, De La Soul, Shaun Ryder and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, it’s an impressive piece of multitasking.
I thought you were supposed to be a band – whose idea was it to start a cult?
Murdoc: A cult isn’t something you choose to start. OK, some of the phoney ones, maybe. But this is legit. There was a prophecy, a wondrous vision and all that stuff. In a way, the cult chose us. We are the chosen ones. Which is very culty, isn’t it?
Do you have any previous experience in the field?
Noodle: Not really.
Murdoc: But we’ve dealt with the occult for years. Russ, especially, is very sensitive to hidden energies, picks up all kinds of horrible things. He’s a walking antenna. It’s a curse, really. Isn’t that right, big man?
Gorillaz’ statuesque drummer Russel is sat directly opposite the television, transfixed by the fuzzy snowstorm on screen, a small trail of dribble slowly working its way down his chin. In answer to his bandmate’s question, he very faintly nods without averting his gaze.
Have you found many transferable skills from being in a band to running a cult?
Murdoc: Loads! There’s always a leader, a founder, a singularity that inspires all, the centre of creation – that’s me. And thanks to my time in Gorillaz, I know how to rile up a crowd of devout fans. Showmanship skills come in handy, too. So yeah, bands and cults very similar. Except bands usually draw the line at human sacrifice. But never say never…
Noodle: Cults can be a new way of looking at the world, to understand it better. That is also art. Trying to make sense of this world.
And what exactly do The Last Cult believe?
Murdoc: Oh, loads of stuff. We’re big believers. Yeah. Where do I start… Noodle?
Noodle: Belonging has no geography. That’s important for us. Gorillaz have always brought people together, the cult is another portal for us to do that.
Russ: Follow the rhythm, not the algorithm.
Murdoc: Oh, you’re awake, Russ? Welcome to Planet Earth. Basically, something big is going to happen, something massive is nigh. Question is, what? It’s Russel’s job to figure that out. Although so far all he’s done is watch telly like that girl in Poltergeist.
Russel: [quietly, almost to himself] Truth is in the static. Look closer. Got to figure out the damn clues, put the pieces together, it’s all in there.
Noodle: Russel is tuned into frequencies that most people are not.
My eyes are now accustomed to the dim light (if not the smell) inside the Gorillaz inner sanctum and I can now make out a whiteboard tacked to the wall filled with scribbles, diagrams, theories and rants. It’s the sort of thing you might imagine a crackpot detective sweating over as he tries to figure out who the serial killer is. In the bottom corner, I notice the phrase ‘The Rupture’ has been underlined and circled multiple times.
What’s The Rupture?
Russel: A crack. Gateway to Cracker Island. Beginning of the new tomorrow. It’s what all this is about – just figuring out the fine print, joining the dots, joining the… He trails off and goes back to staring at the television.
Murdoc: Russ thought he’d cracked it, pun intended! He calculated the day of reckoning as New Year’s Eve. Had his bags packed and everything, ready to go to the promised land. Stood there under the Hollywood sign at midnight, waiting for the heavens to rend apart, but nada. Came back with the right hump.
Russel: It’s nigh, all right. Most definitely nigh. The answer’s in the static. Always was. Just got to shuffle the pack. Start over.
Russel gets up and slowly moves his massive frame over to the whiteboard, pulls two magic marker pens out of his back pocket and starts scrawling more unintelligible nonsense, quietly singing to himself as he does so.
Murdoc: Best leave him to it. Continue, pal.
Who has what jobs in The Last Cult?
Murdoc: I am the Great Leader, or High Beacon – because I am the eternal flame that shines, a bit like a cult version of the Olympic torch, or a really dependable lighter you can even use in high winds. Noodle is The Scholar, nosing through books and cobbling together our scriptures and whatnot. Seeker of Truth is Russel, trying to figure out the prophecy. Although should have just named him ‘watcher of telly’.
What about 2D? Where is he?
Murdoc: The less said about him the better. To be honest, I’m a bit worried about the boy. He’s joined some wacky cult.
Noodle: Murdoc is upset as 2D has made friends with the people who live next door, The Forever Cult.
That’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Two cults on the same road?
Murdoc: Not in LA, mate. There’s seven in this zip code alone.
At this point, the door swings open and Gorillaz’ frontman ambles in, cheerily whistling the melody to their recent single ‘Cracker Island’. He’s wearing a blue tracksuit the same shade as his hair and by way of an introduction thrusts a pamphlet into Rolling Stone UK’s hand. Although the spelling and grammar could have done with a onceover before it was taken to the printers, it’s from a group called Forever Wellness advertising a free ‘aura exam’.
2D: Hello, everyone, sorry I’m late, just been out flyering for the other cult. Anyone want a cuppa?
Just to clarify – Gorillaz moved to LA and started a cult. There’s also a cult next door. 2D has left your cult and now joined theirs?
Murdoc: That’s about the size of it, yeah. Can you believe the disloyalty? He’s this close to being officially shunned.
In among all this nonsense, how on earth did you find time to write and record an album?
Noodle: Chaos fuels us. I don’t enjoy every moment, and Murdoc is very annoying, but out of that we always find some new paths that lead to strange and unexpected places.
Is Cracker Island a concept album?
Noodle: Every record is a concept album. There is always an idea that lives inside a work of art.
And where does The Last Cult fit into that?
Noodle: To begin with, I thought it could be something good that we could explore new ways to think, and also that it was a strong concept for the album. But now, I think Murdoc just started it to impress the neighbours.
Murdoc: Absolute heresy! No chuffing way, mate. If anything, that lot are the sham! Why would I bother trying to impress them? It’s not a competition. And if it was, we’d absolutely smash them a new one!
How does the cult next door differ from yours?
2D: They wear blue and are proper friendly. Also, they don’t make me dig holes in the garden or stir Murdoc’s bath.
Murdoc: [To 2D] Toil cleanses the soul! And it’s also the system by which you move up the cult levels. I’ve explained all this.
Who’s in charge over there?
2D: Moon Flower. She looks well soft, like one of them old movie stars and she smells like suntan cream. She says I’ve got a nice aura and something about Murdoc being a false prophet.
Murdoc: Oh, really? False prophet, am I? Then how come there’s paintings of me all over the gaff, showing me looking all holy and stuff? And look what I’m wearing! Look at this hat!
Is she who you were trying to impress, Murdoc?
Murdoc: Not this again! Listen, it’s the other way round! The number of times I’ve spotted her through my binoculars and she’s looking right over in my direction! It’s embarrassing. And a bit creepy, if I’m honest.
2D grabs his phone out of his tracksuit pocket, squints at the screen and announces he has to head back next door as it’s time for his gong bath. This news sends Murdoc into a rage, and he hurls his elaborate pink hat in the direction of the now departing singer.
Murdoc: Oi, get back here! You don’t get to leave the interview early! I was planning to storm out! Right, screw this, I’m going for a soak in the Jacuzzi. Hold my calls. Consider this interview terminated! ‘Murdoc storms out of interview’ – write that down, mate!
Murdoc flounces out in the opposite direction. Noodle gets up, offers a weary smile, then a little bow and follows suit. Russel momentarily looks up and realises that his bandmates have left the room. He shrugs and goes back to starring at the television. Probably best to leave him to it. I’ll show myself out.