Monkey's Ghost: Gorillaz and the Extinction of Virtual Bands
    • FRIDAY, JULY 18, 2014

    • Posted by: Peter Dolan

    You can't get to Kong Studios anymore.

    As of 2009, when I visited the website last, the massive cubist recording studio and home to the virtual band Gorillaz had been burned, all 200-plus Flash animated rooms reduced to a cinder. The foundation smoldered on its hilltop, engulfed by a sea of refuse and garbage, against a backdrop of apocalyptic skies.

    I remember that it hadn't been in great shape beforehand. It'd sat for the years after Demon Days in disrepair. The band members, long anchored inside their separate bedrooms — you could click their faces for a handful of different sound bites — steadily disappeared. Real estate signage for "" stood outside. The url lead you to a functioning gag-website, until the domain name expired after a year or two.

    Checking up on it over the months, you would find Kong had new decay. More cracks in the wall, another room caved in, another mini-game or double-click oddity (they were innumerable) lost. In a sub-basement, accessible through a hole in the far wall of the collapsing parking garage, a fiery pit gaped. Above it, a digital timer clicked ominously, counting seconds until... something.

    It sat like that from roughly 2005, when touring for Demon Days wrapped, to 2008, when the whole place burned. The story was that it had been arsoned by its executor, Gorillaz bassist, Satanic frontman Murdoc Niccals. During his "pirate radio" sessions — just one of a number of mediums to carry the project's loose plot line that'd framed the music since 2001 — Murdoc disclosed that he'd framed some kids, and used the sue money to fund a new studio, on an island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific.

    I was an internet kid. At 8 or 9 — whenever the video for "Feel Good Inc." screened during an MTV countdown and stimulated my adolescent brain's calibration to anything even vaguely like anime — I fell hard for the Gorillaz package. More than being an animated band, they lived in the internet, and anything to do with the internet was clandestine, special, just for me. I'd be 13 before I realized that I cared about the music itself.

    The sad thing about coming of age on the internet is that, so often, it leaves you bereft. Kong might still be around somewhere, but the road's out. It's gone the way of GeoCities — not erased, but consigned to some inaccessible, back-end data storage room. It wasn't long after Kong Studios "burned" that the link to it on the Gorillaz main page was deleted, replaced by another flash page for Plastic Beach (which remains active) during that album's promotion. Trying to hunt down Kong was like trying to find an old house, a playground, some landmark from your past, only it's vanished. Not even a cinder, just screenshots from unregistered HyperCam recordings of its corridors to prove that it ever existed at all.

    Similarly, and stranger than even that, is to be enamored with a band that isn't really a band — whose lives of fiction are dictated by the relationship between two men, musician Damon Albarn (of Blur) and artist Jamie Hewlett (of Tank Girl), who envisioned the project to be a fuck-you answer to modern pop's artifice. Take the distance between the pop star's image and the actual creation of the music and stretch it, on the rack, to its extreme — make the band entirely fictional. Albarn, along with the ever-shifting group of musicians he enlisted, would make the music, and Hewlett would be in charge of the visuals (he'd later found the production company Zombie Flesh Eaters to deal specifically with the heavy load of the band's music videos.) They would lure with pop, deliver something substantive.

    I remember being slightly disappointed to find out that the "virtual" band lacked real-life counterparts. Noodle, the band's teenaged super-soldier virtuoso guitarist, who the band was mailed via FedEx, has had at least four different voice-actresses.

    The band's anti-consumerist "Celebrity Takedown," "Reject False Icons" branding was appealing, to be sure. But it has never really lined up with the fact that they've been met since their debut with enormous success. The band got their own fully-animated episode of MTV's Cribs, during which Murdoc urinates on the MTV Video Music Award they won for the "Feel Good Inc." video. Their single "DARE" peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart after its release in 2005. Gorillaz have never sold out, but success in the mainstream means inevitably getting caught up in its trappings. I'm reminded of their 2006 VMA performance alongside Madonna.

    And the virtual aspect of the band has meant trouble at times. A 2006 tour was planned using the same holographic technology that had brought the virtual band to life for the first time at the VMAs (previous live performances featured Albarn and a chorus of 20 other silhouettes, playing under screens displaying the band's animated videos). But the tour was cancelled due to technical and budget-related concerns. Twice there have been plans for a feature film, and twice they've been scrapped. During "Phase Three" — the promotion of Plastic Beach that put an end to Kong — Hewlett made the jump from two-dimensional animated visuals to computer renderings, a move that alienated some fans. He explained: "I'm so fucking bored of drawing those characters ... I'm gonna adapt them."

    The long hiatuses filling the gaps between albums, the stagnation that overcame Kong, are the consequence of the mundane fact that the two men in charge lead separate careers. In April of 2012, it was reported that, in the wake of a falling out, Gorillaz was dead, on "indefinite hiatus." One year later, they'd reconciled, and Gorillaz was back. As of this past June, Albarn has been "writing quite a lot of songs for Gorillaz" while on tour promoting his debut solo album.

    Gorillaz the "virtual band" outlived any accusations of gimmicking by virtue of their commitment to that virtual aspect. The detail put into the band's fictional members and their world had been immense, immersive, producing documentaries, books, on such a scale and to such a degree of success that no other project could compare — nor, it would seem, has anyone tried. The closest comparison I can think of are Vocaloids, the Japanese music software that includes a unique avatar for each synthesizer program. Although anonymity still has its appeal — see: Sia — Gorillaz were and remain an oddity. They might prefer the term abomination.

    I don't know that Gorillaz could repeat their success had the moment of their emergence been moved up a decade. The music stands on its own, but the timing of the band as more of an experience was impeccable, and I can't help but wonder how much that had to do with attracting a fan base. Their use of the internet when the internet was still something of a niche was clever, on the cutting edge. In the band's early days, Kong Studios garnered more visits than the rest of the bands on the Parlophone label combined. The first provider of Noodle's voice, Miho Hatori, was the vocalist for trip-hop band Cibo Matto, another group that belonged to a very specific space-time (New York in the late nineties).

    The internet had novelty, then. Now it's a colossus. Now, when memes make their way into everyday conversation, it's deflating. When I was 12, it meant that someone knew — someone else was in on it. And the internet's relationship to music has changed, as well. With the advent of Twitter and Instagram, interface with your favorite bands is at once intimate and nothing special.

    I would like to say that I've grown with Gorillaz — I'm certainly not 13 anymore, and I certainly have a greater appreciation for the music. But neither Hewlett nor Albarn's other projects, admittedly, hold the same appeal. I'm left yearning for something, and it's probably the ghost of Kong.

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