Gorillaz in his midst

KIERAN GRANT

, Last Updated: 2:57 PM ET

Blur's Damon Albarn was already sizing up the local cartoon competition during a visit to Toronto this week to discuss his latest project, the animated trip-hop outfit Gorillaz.

"I've heard about this Prozzak," the British singer said, referring to the two-dimensional Canadian pop stars during an interview at a Queen St. W. cafe Thursday.

"I don't think they'd stand a chance with our lot."

Probably not. But Gorillaz -- Albarn's new collaboration with U.S. hip-hop producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, among others -- are more than a potential predator for weenier ink-acts.

Centred, supposedly, around "2D," a singer who specializes in migraine headaches, and "Noodle," a 10-year-old guitarist from Japan who FedEx'ed herself to the band, they recently laid down a fine debut EP, Tomorrow Comes Today, for Parlophone Records in the U.K.

A full-length album, recorded in Jamaica, will hit Canadian stores April 24 through EMI.

Albarn wouldn't reveal 2D's true identity -- the voice sounds very much like his own -- but he did admit that Gorillaz have given him a creative working holiday away from the rigours of Blur life.

"I just get involved in things that get me going at that particular moment," he said. "I work on enthusiasm. And you can do what you like in a cartoon. They're a kind of release from the expectations of the real world."

It's also part of a globe-trotting endeavour that's taken Albarn to Iceland to Africa to Jamaica and back since the release of Blur's 1999 album 13. Both criticized and praised for being deliberately uncommercial, 13 didn't do much to enforce the group's status as chart-topping Britpop heroes, nor did it capitalize on their 1997 smash, Song 2 (the "woo-hoo!" one).

The singer said Blur's recent Best Of compilation, which packaged a string of well-worn hits with one terrific new track, Music Is My Radar, was a stop-gap release, a commercial sop to keep EMI happy while he spent time with his baby daughter, Missy, travelled to Mali in Africa, and got the lead out with Gorillaz.

"Without being completely blatant about it, I wanted space to be able to do a lot of other things," Albarn said. "There might not have ever been a Gorillaz without (Blur's) greatest hits."

Albarn compared his Gorillaz experience in Jamaica to working in a "music lab where people were brought in to have experiments conducted on them."

Subjects included U.S. MC Del Tha Funky Homosapian and Cuban crooner Ibrahim Ferrer, singing a Spanish version of Latin Simone, a song that Albarn -- er, 2D -- performs on the Tomorrow Comes Today EP.

"He drank a whole bottle of whiskey, and then sang," he said of 70-something Buena Vista Social Club star Ferrer. "It was a beautiful experience."

Beautiful enough to keep Blur out of the studio for the time being, apparently. Albarn is also at work on an album of Mali-inspired music.

Blur were originally scheduled to begin work on a new album next month, though that's been put off while the band works out the details.

"Damon's getting all World Music on us at the moment," guitarist Graham Coxon told me in full eye-rolling tone during a chat two months back.

"Bless him," Albarn said when I mentioned the comment.

"No, I'm trying to go back to the kind of songwriting esthetic I had on (hit album) Parklife. They won't be arranged in the same way at all -- they'll just be songs that are accessible to the public. It's too complicated being anything other than mainstream with Blur. That's where it belongs. We still feel that the mainstream in Britain is not represented well enough by intelligent musicians.

"But first," he added with a laugh, "I have to help the Gorillaz out. I'm one of the interfaces to the real world for them."


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