Creators of Gorillaz, musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, began working on a new Gorillaz project in November 2007 called Carousel, which evolved into Plastic Beach, the group’s third studio album. In the November 2007 issue of Q, when asked what his top priority for 2008 was, Damon Albarn replied “Well, I’m doing the next Gorillaz thing, but it won’t be called Gorillaz.” In the February 2008 Gorillaz-Unofficial interview, Jamie Hewlett elaborated on this, saying “I think the idea behind it is that it’s like how The Who presented their movies – Tommy and Quadrophenia and so on. Those were presented as by ‘The Who’ even though none of the members of the band were in the movies. I don’t think anyone from The Who was in Quadrophenia. But it’s the same people working on it, that’s the principle.” In a July 2008 interview with The Observer he also said, “Gorillaz now to us is not like four animated characters any more – it’s more like an organisation of people doing new projects. […] That’s my ideal model – Gorillaz is a group of people who gave you this, and now want to give you new stuff.”
In the Observer interview, Hewlett said that there is “a new project which Damon and I are working on now, called Carousel, which is even bigger and more difficult than Monkey, and it isn’t going to fit anywhere and no one’s going to like it, ha ha ha! We’ve started work – I’ve done a lot of visuals and Damon’s done a lot of music but we haven’t figured out how they’re going to fit together. I can’t say much about it yet but it’s sort of like a film, but not with one narrative story. There’s many stories, told around a bigger story, set to music, and done in live action, animation, all different styles, well… originally it was a film but now we think it’s a film and it’s a stage thing as well and… look, it’s basically us doing what the fuck we want without worrying about whether it’s for a record company or a film company or whatever. So I’m not sure how it’ll pan out, or even if it will happen. But Damon’s written around 70 songs for it, and I’ve got great plans for the visuals, but right now, at this moment, it’s still just a really good idea.” Carousel was to be about the mystical aspects of Britain.
Damon Albarn got the idea for Plastic Beach while on a beach next to his house: “I was just looking for all the plastic within the sand”, he said. On 17 September 2008, Albarn and Jamie Hewlett announced that they would be doing another Gorillaz album in an interview with CBC News. Hewlett said that from their work on Monkey, “we just learned more about what we do, musically and artistically. That’s a great place to come at when we come to another Gorillaz album. It doesn’t have to be animation and music”. Hewlett also expressed annoyance at having to draw the band members again: “I’m so fucking bored of drawing those characters. But then we had a moment where we had a new angle on it… I’m gonna adapt them”. In a later interview Hewlett said: “they’ll be the same characters, but a little bit older and told in a different way”.
Albarn said in September 2008 that he wanted “to work with an incredibly eclectic, surprising cast of people”. As with previous Gorillaz albums, Plastic Beach features a number of collaborations with other musicians and music groups. The album features Snoop Dogg, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Kano, Bashy, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Gruff Rhys, De La Soul, Little Dragon, Mark E. Smith, Lou Reed, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Yukimi Nagano, sinfonia ViVA and The Syrian National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music.
Albarn began recording material for a new Gorillaz album around June 2008. He travelled to Beirut in March 2009 to record with the National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music. The following month, he recorded with Derby-based orchestra sinfonia ViVa. Grime rappers Kano and Bashy, who feature on “White Flag”, both had the flu during recording. Kano said “We weren’t feeling great, the music was out of our comfort zone, it could have been a complete disaster”. Bobby Womack knew nothing about Gorillaz and was initially unsure about the collaboration, however, his daughter liked Gorillaz and convinced him to do it. Womack was told to sing whatever was on his mind during the recording of “Stylo”. “I was in there for an hour going crazy about love and politics, getting it off my chest”, said Womack. After an hour of recording, Womack, a diabetic, started to pass out. He was sat down and given a banana, before waking up minutes later. “Sweepstakes”, the first song Mos Def recorded with Gorillaz, was done in one take. Mos Def described the song as “one of the greatest things as an MC that I’ve ever done”. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon completed their portion of the title track “Plastic Beach” in a day.
Several musicians who collaborated on songs for the album did not end up having all or any of their songs appear on the final album; some guests announced to have collaborated with the band do not feature on the album. British garage rock band The Horrors were invited to play on the album after Albarn heard their 2009 album Primary Colours. They recorded a track with Albarn, but no songs with the band appear on the final album. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Posdnuos of De La Soul said that the group had provided vocals on two songs for the album, “Electric Shock” and “Sloped Tropics”. De La Soul only features on one song on the album, titled “Superfast Jellyfish”. Gruff Rhys recorded two songs – “Superfast Jellyfish” and “Leviathan”. The latter, described by Rhys as “more of a night-time song, a three o’clock in the morning, speeding down the autobahn evading West German police-type track”, does not feature on the album. Mos Def said that he collaborated with Albarn on three songs; however, Def only appears on two songs on the album. Albarn had previously announced that musician Barry Gibb would feature on the album but Gibb did not turn up to any recording sessions. Animated Gorillaz bassist Murdoc said the band had collaborated with actress Una Stubbs, however, she too does not appear on any of the album’s tracks.
Albarn said in an interview, “I’m making this one the most pop record I’ve ever made in many ways, but with all my experience to try and at least present something that has got depth.” He added, “I suppose what I’ve done with this Gorillaz record is I’ve tried to connect pop sensibility with … trying to make people understand the essential melancholy of buying a ready made meal in loads of plastic packaging. People who watch X Factor might have some emotional connection to these things, this detritus that accompanies what seems to be the most important thing in people’s eyes, the celebrity voyeurism.”
The first time Albarn went to Mali, he was taken to a landfill where he saw people “taking every little bit, a little bit of fabric to the fabric regenerators, or the metal and the cans to the ironsmiths and the aluminium recyclers, and it goes on and by the time you get to the road, they’re selling stuff.” When Albarn went to a landfill outside of London to record the sound of seagulls for the album, he noticed a juxtaposition between the way the two countries dealt with rubbish. “They’ve got more snakes… like adders, grass snakes, slow worms, toads, frogs, newts, all kinds of rodents, all kinds of squirrels, a massive amount of squirrels, a massive amount of foxes, and obviously, seagulls. […] This is part of the new ecology. And for the first time I saw the world in a new way. I’ve always felt, I’m trying to get across on this new record, the idea that plastic, we see it as being against nature but it’s come out of nature. We didn’t create plastic, nature created plastic. And just seeing the snakes like living in the warmth of decomposing plastic bags. They like it. It was a strange kind of optimism that I felt… but trying to get that into pop music is a challenge, anyway. But important.”
Albarn says the album maintains a lot of the melancholy from Carousel. He worked hard on making his lyrics and melodies clear on the album. “Loads of orchestral stuff” was recorded but only a fraction made it onto the final album.
Release and promotion
On a black background is red uppercase text in a thick wavy font. The top line says “Gorillaz”, the second line says “Plastic” and the third line says “Beach”.
The Plastic Beach logo used in promotional videos.
A new picture of the band was published on 9 December 2009 on the cover of the UK edition of Wired magazine. On 14 January 2009, Albarn made an appearance as a guest DJ on BBC Radio 1, premiering demos of three new Gorillaz songs – “Electric Shock”, “Broken” and “Stylo”.. “Stylo” went to be heavily edited in its final version, while “Broken” remained mostly unchanged. “Electric Shock” did not make the album, though samples of the song were used in “Rhinestone Eyes”, as well as the intro orchestral separated into bonus track “Three Hearts, Seven Seas, Twelve Moons”.
On 20 January 2010, the official Gorillaz website was heavily revamped to fit the Plastic Beach theme. Over a period of time, a numerous amount of short clips were posted on the site, mainly showing various shots of a large Plastic Beach model backed by segments of new Gorillaz music. Out of the 13 short clips, only 2 of the clips had audio that would eventually end up on the album. The tracks were “White Flag” and “Pirate’s Progress” (an extended version of the Orchestral Intro found on the album). Also on the website was a countdown timer, which on 23 February 2010 counted down to zero. After a significant delay, a new full Kong studios-esque interactive Plastic Beach “Beachsite” was uploaded onto the website, opening certain sections of Plastic Beach to be visited by guests.
On 21 January 2010, Gorillaz member Murdoc “took over” NME Radio and Yahoo! Radio. He played a 45 minute set of songs while providing exposition on the story of Gorillaz. A total of four broadcasts were uploaded online, leading to the release of the album. All four are now available on the official Gorillaz website.
Short animated “idents” have been released for fictional band members Murdoc, 2D, Russel, and the Noodle cyborg. The first depicts Murdoc fleeing from an unknown, rifle-wielding assailant, and the second depicts 2D’s abduction and transportation to Plastic Beach by a masked figure. The third features a snippet of the song “Three Hearts, Seven Seas, Twelve Moons” playing in the background. The track can be found as a bonus track along with “Pirate’s Progress” on the iTunes Deluxe edition. Russel’s ident has him stomping off of the edge of a pier and diving into the ocean, presumably headed to Plastic Beach for reasons unknown. The fourth feature a zoom in on the cyborg, its face plate open. A fifth ident has been released, showing a luxury cruise sail being bombarded by torpedoes coming from planes flying above it. A crew member rushes over to cabin 13 to warn a passenger, who is revealed to be Noodle (wearing the Oni Mask), that the cruise is under attack by pirates and he was told to escort her to the lifeboats. Noodle then grabs her briefcase and opens it, revealing a gun, and passes the crew member while heading out, presumably to face the pirates. Noodle’s ident acts as a trailer to the “On Melancholy Hill” music video, which was released on June 15.
On 26 February 2010, a “minimix” of the album was made available on the official website to download for free. The minimix is an eight-minute composition of songs from the album, a number of which had not been previously released.
“Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach”, “Rhinestone Eyes” and “White Flag” were premiered on the Australian radio station Triple J on 28 February 2010, in respective order, at one hour intervals. On 1 March 2010, NPR debuted the entire album via streaming. Later on in the day, the album also become available for streaming at Guardian.co.uk.
The album has produced two singles as of August 2010.
* “Stylo” was the first single from the album, released digitally on 26 January 2010.
* “On Melancholy Hill” became the second single from the album which replaced “Superfast Jellyfish” and was released exclusively on iTunes on June 15th.