Gorillaz used their tour stop in Los Angeles not only to play a packed show at the city’s Kia Forum but also to hold a special advance listening session for their new album, the provocatively titled “Cracker Island,” set for release on February 24, 2023.
Gorillaz albums are always filled with guests, and the Damon Albarn-helmed group reeled in a grip of musical stars to join them on stage at the Forum on Friday night: Namely Beck, Tame Impala and Thundercat, who are among the features on “Cracker Island” — along with Stevie Nicks and Bad Bunny, both of whom were on tour elsewhere (more about the latter shortly).
Beck, dressed like the best man at a wedding circa 1977, turned up once for “The Valley of the Pagans” from his 2020 collaboration with the group, and again for the first-ever unveiling of his song from “Cracker Island,” “Possession Island.” Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker sang alongside Albarn on the already-released single, “New Gold,” accompanied by Bootie Brown, and Thundercat smoothly slid on stage for their rendition of the album’s title track.
It wasn’t just about “Cracker Island,” however, as De La Soul bounced in for “Feel Good Inc.,” Fatoumata Diawara graced the stage for “Désolé” and Schoolboy Q showed up for “Pac-Man,” a first-time appearance for the rapper with Gorillaz. Two nights prior, Del Tha Funky Homosapien joined the group in San Francisco for “Rock the House.” This appearance was particularly momentous as Del sustained serious injuries in 2018 while performing “Clint Eastwood” during the Gorillaz’s set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival. That accident fractured his rib which punctured a lung, and he has not performed since. For the Kia Forum show, Del performed “Rock the House” and the fateful “Clint Eastwood.”
The evening before the Los Angeles performances, a select number of music industry folks were treated to a playback of “Cracker Island” at Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood. A five-month-ahead advance listen is a rare treat— particularly as it was followed by a Q&A with Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett, plus the album’s producer, eight-time Grammy winner, Greg Kurstin.
The playback took place at the famed location’s Studio B, which was glowing with womb-like fuchsia lighting accents. Gorillaz albums one-up their predecessors, and “Cracker Island,” the eighth studio album from the semi-virtual group, is no different. In addition to the aforementioned artists, the 10-song album also boasts Stevie Nicks on “Oil,” Bad Bunny on “Tormenta” and Adeleye Omotayo on “Silent Running.”
Albarn dominated the post-listen Q&A session, fielding most of the questions. He referred to Cracker Island as the multi-platinum group’s “L.A. album,” stating that until this album, “I’ve been very resistant to the considerable charms of L.A.”
Albarn and Hewlett were in Los Angeles meeting with Netflix — they have a project in development at the streaming giant — which Hewlett cracked was proceeding, “at Netflix pace.” In an afterhours meeting with Kurstin at this very same Studio B, Albarn and the hitmaking producer “Hit it off immediately,” according to Albarn and the album-making moved to the Adele/ Sia/ Beck producer’s studio.
“Cracker Island” took “10 to 11 days to make, all told,” said Albarn, a slight exaggeration as later he said they traveled to Jamaica to record “Tormenta” with Bad Bunny and admitted that “New Gold” was the song that took the longest, its 6/4 time signature not helping in its completion.
About working with Kurstin, Albarn said it was “A lot of fun. Quick. Spontaneous. Greg has one of the best studios in the world, analog, everything EQed and ready to go.”
Albarn’s responses were filled with humorous anecdotes. He said that when Bad Bunny arrived in Jamaica via private jet, obviously, he did so without his passport. The prime minister of Jamaica allowed the chart topper entry, “But,” Albarn laughed, “[The prime minister] said, ‘You have to do me a dubplate.’”
Albarn also quipped that, “Elton John can’t follow my melodies because he can’t get his head around my tonality.” This was in reference to “The Pink Phantom,” the song John collaborated on as part of Gorillaz’ 2020 album project, “Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez.”
When someone commented that Gorillaz were well ahead of their time by being arguably the first virtual group, Albarn — who reminded attendees that Gorillaz had a virtual world on MySpace — expressed frustration, saying, “Being ahead of our time means you’re not capitalizing the way other people do.”
He recalled Gorillaz’ performance at the 2006 Grammy Awards when the group opened the ceremony with their virtual members on stage. The group’s dazed and disconnected 2D, Russel Hobbs and Murdoc Nicalls were joined by De La Soul for their winning song “Feel Good Inc.,” and for a few seconds by their fourth virtual member, a dozy Noodle, on Madonna’s “Hung Up,” who then separated from Gorillaz and segued into fresh-and-blood rendition of her song.
“Antiquated techniques,” is what Albarn said of that early attempt at the metaverse. “We were trying to have a holographic representation so we didn’t have to be on stage, which wasn’t possible.”
When asked about what songs didn’t make it onto Cracker Beach, Hewlett said there was an entire album’s worth of songs that are not included. Albarn added that those songs would probably end up the same place as all their other unreleased material, including his “Drunk duet with Erykah Badu.”
Gorillaz have been on a world tour since March 2022, performing at European festivals last month. In addition to the released songs from “Cracker Island,” Gorillaz also perform “Skinny Ape,” about which Albarn said, “Three [new] songs is enough.” The tour continues through the end of October.