Gorillaz become 'Monkey' - interviewDamon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and I stand on the balcony of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden where the huge stage work on which they have collaborated is now performing, looking at flames roaring out of the pavement grille five floors below us. A restaurant kitchen is on fire.
"That's bad down there. It's about to explode any minute," Albarn observes, with the air of a man who knows his underground fires. Flames are shooting up a couple of metres and surrounding shops have been evacuated. Shouldn't we move back a little? "Maybe," says Albarn over the empty street, "but I kind of like the danger."
Albarn has made a career out of flouting danger, albeit usually of the musical kind. The former Blur front man, and Hewlett, the whiz-bang graphic artist with whom he devised the "virtual" band Gorillaz, are also two-thirds of the collaboration that has produced Monkey: Journey to the West.
Monkey, a kind of contemporary, Chinese-acrobatic opera based on a Ming Dynasty saga about a naughty monkey king who wants to be immortal, is the brainchild of admired Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng, who has directed several contemporary Chinese stage spectacles in the United States.
Albarn wrote a score based on the Chinese scale and Chinese musical forms; Hewlett designed the characters and sets. The lyrics are in Mandarin, with simple surtitles. Nothing about it should work, but Monkey has been getting rave reviews since it premiered at an arts festival in Manchester last year.
Not many musicians, I suggest to Albarn, would be prepared to take on a tradition as ancient and rarefied as Chinese opera without flinching.
"Yeah, but ..." he begins - having seen the cavalry arrive in the form of the London Fire Brigade, he has settled back to his coffee - "I'm not really worried about stuff like that. I don't think I'd have set foot in the Royal Opera House if I were concerned about things like that."
When it came to it, Albarn knew about as much - or as little - about writing opera as he did about Chinese culture. "There was the same level of ignorance about them both, really. I don't speak the language and I'd never written anything remotely like this before."
They had no idea if they could do it, says Hewlett, but they weren't going to knock back the suggested research trip to the rural areas of China. Chen took Albarn and Hewlett to China five times in all. It took Albarn 18 months to produce his first piece, a rhythmically souped-up take on girly Chinese pop called Heavenly Peach Banquet.
"I find it very humorous," says Chen. "Hong Kong pop is so pretty and naive. This is Damon pretending to be naive and you are laughing at him. Messy is a bad word, but he took a melody, messed it around and put noises into it, twisted and processed the sound so that none of it is as it seems."
Hewlett, meanwhile, was working on drawings of the characters that would meet Chen's approval. At first, Chen says, he was referencing his research too heavily. "They were too Chinese. It took him a long time to get away from that, to draw Monkey from his own imagination. I wanted to give people a surprise, to get away from what had been done. And Jamie has a great sense of humour when you hang around with him and I wanted that to come through. It is a comic strip, after all."
Hewlett says now that he thinks he had an easier task than Albarn. "As an artist, I can't go wrong really. It is a culture completely made up of imagery: the language is written in characters, it's all pictorial."
This month sees the release of a studio album of the Monkey music, with graphics by Hewlett that are much darker and more perverse than the glowing designs he did for the sets and stage characters.
"I wanted to put the album out so that there is a record, literally, of how I think of it in my head," says Albarn. But the music should stand alone, he goes on, because none of it was composed as an accompaniment to action.
"I wasn't going to start making music that drives the narrative, because that's just naff; it becomes like film music or cartoon music. 'Now they're running.' You can't really work like that. I just wrote an awful lot of music and slowly kind of put it together."
He says he composed his own music using the pentatonic scale; elsewhere, he has described writing with the aid of a system of five- and seven-pointed stars that he would rotate, supposedly at random, to produce unexpected combinations of notes. Even so, as the critics observed, the music was absolute Albarn.
"One of Albarn's more remarkable tricks," wrote Alexis Petridis in The Guardian, "also demonstrated on 2002's Mali Music album, is his ability to somehow impress himself on world music in an unassuming fashion."
What makes Albarn's approach to the Chinese idiom entirely distinct, says Chen, is his approach to rhythm and the sounds he discovers. His orchestra ranged from strings to the tuba, but also included Chinese instruments such as the pipa - a kind of lute - and the Ondes Martenot, a 1920s electronic instrument that produces a wavering sigh, a bit like the sound of a saw. Albarn and his collaborators also invented their own instrument, a kind of klaxon made of Plexiglass, to produce the sounds of China's roads alongside the drone of classical strings.
"For me, especially with the record, it's very much a modern piece," says Albarn. "It's not trying to evoke the time of legend at all. It's very much in sort of downtown Beijing, Shanghai or Tokyo. It's very much the modern Asia: slightly kooky, very colourful, quite sexy, but still a quite sinister place."
Inevitably, the morality of investing in Chinese culture has been questioned, especially since some more universally friendly versions of the Monkey characters were commissioned by the BBC as a promotional link for its Olympics coverage. Hewlett's Monkey, Pigsy and Tripitaca encounter various pieces of sporting equipment; the tone is frivolous. There is a kind of discomfort, Albarn told British music journalist Paul Morley, in the fact that he is used to being in the protestors' camp.
"I now find myself in the strange position that, while I agree with the stone-throwers, I understand the glass that is having stones thrown at it. I'm not agreeing at all with what China is doing, but I think it is important that a dialogue keeps going or they'll disappear behind a wall forever."
Hewlett, too, says it is worth keeping the lines open. "If it does all blow up in our faces, I would still stand up for the fact we did this. The level of understanding in the West of this vast country and its people is very low and, if you get a chance, why not do what you can to shine a light on its ways?"
Come September, however, they will both move on to the next project which, they have said vaguely, may be called Carousel, may have something to do with Spain, but, at the moment, is just a lot of ideas and pieces of music. The challenge is to keep doing things that are completely different from what's gone before. And if they seem impossible, so much the better. That sense of danger: it keeps things lively.(Pics: monkeyjourneytothewest.com)