Gorillaz come out of the mist

KIERAN GRANT

, Last Updated: 5:36 PM ET

Dan "The Automator" Nakamura is, quite literally, not a musician to be taken at face-value.

Under the guise of his smoothie alter-ego, Nathaniel Merriweather, the mixmaster and producer has combined skillful composition with hip-hop hijinx on his Handsome Boy Modelling School and Lovage albums.

He's earned major respect from the stars, whether through invites to DJ on Radiohead's tour or, more recently, a production job on ex-Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha's upcoming album and remix work for Nelly Furtado.

So it's strangely fitting that Nakamura has reached his biggest commercial audience as one of the driving forces behind hit cartoon act Gorillaz, who make their North American concert debut at the Docks tonight.

Working behind the scenes -- or, in the case of tonight's show, behind a screen -- Nakamura and partner Damon Albarn breathe musical life into animator/Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett's arresting visuals.

"You can't determine in advance how well a thing like this is going to do," Nakamura said of Gorillaz's hit self-titled 2001 album in an interview yesterday. "It was done for fun, so it's always a surprise when it takes on a life of its own."

Of course, there is the criticism that Gorillaz is an exercise in style over substance.

"I'd put Gorillaz up against any record," he said. "Seriously, I'm not saying that to be a self-promoter. I'm fully comfortable letting this record stand up on its own without a visual -- I'll stand by the quality."

Gorillaz -- the drawings and their real-life masters -- are up for a best group rap performance trophy at this Wednesday's Grammy Awards for their song Clint Eastwood.

They came away empty handed from this past week's Brit Awards, where they were up six trophies. "It's better to win them than not win them, but I feel that all this stuff is relative," said Nakamura. "We went to the MTV awards last year and lost to Mudvayne. I wouldn't trade places with Mudvayne! It isn't really all that relevant."

The cartoon crew release a new b-side and remix collection, G-Sides, this Tuesday. The same day, Nakamura launches his own DJ mix CD Wanna Buy A Monkey, an excellent collection that fits tracks from artists as eclectic as Tortoise, RZA, De La Soul, Doves, Air, Deltron 3030, and yes, Gorillaz, into a logical and cohesive set.

As for upcoming work, Nakamura has been name-checked for possible work with Beck ("We've had a few good meals together. I assume at some point some good stuff will come out of it"), is working on his own disc for release at the end of 2002, and is plotting another Handsome Boy Modelling School venture with collaborator Prince Paul.

He admitted that staging the Gorillaz shows has been a technical feat. In light of Lovage's highly entertaining performance at the Phoenix last month -- "Merriweather" presided over the gig wearing a silk robe and swilling brandy -- he must be getting the hang of role-playing.

"I think Gorillaz takes more performance aspects to cut through the screen in a way. But," he added, "we're just helping the Gorillaz. They do their thing and we help."


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