The interview: Jamie Hewlett
The year of the monkey
His is the pen behind Eighties comic-strip heroine Tank Girl, virtual band Gorillaz and the opera Monkey - and soon you'll be seeing his animated title sequence for the Olympics on TV. He tells Mark Kermode how a shy boy turned into a great graphic art rebel
* The Observer,
* Sunday July 20 2008
* Article history
Jamie Hewlett's Senseless Things
'This is going to be the summer of Monkey!' declares Jamie Hewlett, smoking a roll-up and cradling what appears to be a freshly picked leaf in a cup of hot water ('sage tea', apparently). In the West London headquarters of his design and animation company, Zombie Flesh Eaters (he fell in love with walking corpses after watching the films of George Romero and Lucio Fulci), Hewlett oozes a mischievous cool. In the Eighties he became a cult star after creating the ass-kicking comic strip Tank Girl and went mainstream more recently with the success of his satirical 'anti-band' Gorillaz, for which he won the Design Museum's Designer of the Year Award in 2006. For my money, he is the definitive face of post-punk British pop culture - edgy, angular and out there.
I first met the country's greatest graphic art rebel a couple of years ago, and we bonded instantly over a shared love of 'video nasties' and cult sci-fi. He had just won the Design Museum award, and I was interviewing him for BBC2's The Culture Show. As we talked, he doodled a cartoon depicting himself as King Kong and me as the Exorcist - an excellent omen. I found him intelligent, loquacious and funny, despite his insistence that he loathed interviews. 'It's not that I never do interviews, or that I find them traumatic,' he says now. 'It's just that I'm basically not that comfortable doing them.'
Hewlett's profile is currently growing faster than ever, thanks to Monkey, an ancient Chinese character revived by Hewlett and his longtime musical collaborator Damon Albarn. The first salvo was the opera, Monkey: Journey to the West, a visually extravagant affair designed and animated by Hewlett ('what you see is me, what you hear is Damon'). It premiered in Manchester last year and comes to London's Royal Opera House this week, complete with acrobats, silk dancers, contortionists, puppets and projections.
The second part of the Monkey project is a forthcoming album featuring studio versions of music from the show, accompanied by Hewlett visuals, which will be 'much darker - it's essentially Monkey the way Gorillaz would do it'. But the third, highest-profile and most surprising development is the animated musical title sequence for the BBC's television coverage of the Beijing Olympics, which will bring Hewlett's work to new audiences.
'It looks wonderful and I'm really thrilled by it,' says Hewlett. 'It's gone through so many changes because there are so many departments at the BBC, and the Olympics is their biggest gig of the year. Damon and I are used to having the luxury of doing exactly what we want, and we understand that this whole idea of using animated ancient Chinese characters is quite a wild-card for them. But somebody at the BBC had seen the Monkey opera and they put our name into the mix. And I think we've managed to keep the BBC happy, to tick every box, without ruining the original idea. I mean, the characters aren't wearing running vests!'
Far from it. Indeed the two-minute sequence looks undiluted vintage Hewlett, as Monkey battles his way through a perilous pilgrimage using magic and martial arts which playfully invoke a range of Olympic events. The complete film will kick off the BBC's coverage on Wednesday and will then be edited into bite-size chunks which will play throughout coverage of the games. As Hewlett observes, 'It'll be impossible to avoid.'
Born in 1968 ('the year of the Monkey!'), Hewlett discovered at an early age that 'drawing would relax me. To this day, my pet hate remains being interrupted when I'm drawing. Which actually happens a lot - you know, people dropping into the studio. Some people think it's because I'm shy - which I am. I have a problem with making eye-contact with people, or with holding eye contact. But when I'm drawing, I just love being in that zone. And so I tend to love being in a room on my own with the door shut.'
In his childhood home in Horsham, West Sussex, Hewlett lived across the street from an art college where he would spend his Saturdays. 'My mum was into pottery and embroidery, very artistic, and she knew some people from the college, which I think was how I got into it. My dad, who was a head-hunter, was also an incredible artist, and when he was very young he was a really good cartoonist. But his mother said it was ridiculous to think of doing that for a job, so when he turned 16 he went to work for his dad.'
Hewlett's first loves were the cartoons of Chuck Jones, particularly Daffy Duck, Wile E Coyote and Pepé Le Pew, much of which 'still remains my favourite stuff'. At the age of nine he drew a strip cartoon version of Star Wars - his first graphic novel. Sadly no copies survived ('my parents weren't very good at keeping things, which is why I treasure my own sons' work so much now - I don't want to lose anything'). An early passion for Mad magazine ('brilliant') and the French graphic bible Metal Hurlant (later republished as Heavy Metal) introduced him to the work of artists like Jean Giraud, aka Moebius, who still casts a long shadow.
While off school sick one day, he watched Hayao Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky on daytime TV ('God knows what it was doing there') and was transfixed by the strange beauty of Japanese anime - check out the Gorillaz video for 'Feel Good Inc' and marvel at the floating windmills which seem to have drifted directly from Miyazaki's masterpiece. One Saturday in 1982 he saw a screening of Blade Runner, which was showing in a double-bill with the French-Czech cult sci-fi cartoon Fantastic Planet, a formative 'adult animation' experience. Throw in an early encounter with The Exorcist (source of the Pazuzu demon which haunts Gorillaz artwork and videos) and the co-ordinates of Hewlett's future adventures in graphic art were locked and loaded by the time he left Tanbridge House Secondary School.
At Northbrook art college in Worthing Hewlett worked with two friends to produce the fanzine Atomtan, a post-punk comic named after a track from the Clash album Combat Rock. His big break came in 1988 with the launch of Deadline, an edgy magazine blending articles on music and culture with comic strips. The mag's star was Tank Girl, a spunky post-apocalyptic heroine with a kangaroo boyfriend who became an international cult. Tank Girl made Hewlett a star, a leading light of the new-wave comic book industry. It also bore within it the seeds of the one major failure of his career - the Tank Girl movie of 1995, widely recognised today as a key example of how not to translate an anarchic comic-strip into big screen entertainment.
'Yeah, thanks for bringing that up!' says Hewlett, laughing. 'Basically, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I remember we filmed it in Arizona, in this extreme heat, and Rachel [Talalay, director] had just discovered that she was pregnant, which made her very emotional and snappy. So there was Ice T, dressed as kangaroo, and Malcolm McDowell, who was incredibly bad tempered the whole time, constantly rowing with Rachel, and key bits of the movie just got missed - they simply forgot to film things. So we had to draw loads of establishing shots of buildings. And then they had two endings, that were both shit, and I seem to remember that there was an animated ending. Was that in the finished film ...?'
I think so, yes, although frankly I've tried to blank it all out.
'Oh God, you hated it, didn't you? But my main memory of that whole affair was the premiere at Mann's Chinese theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. They had spotlights in the sky, helicopters flying overhead, and they drove the tank from the movie down the street. There was this vast crowd, and in the middle of it all was a compere announcing who was arriving. 'Hey everyone it's David from Baaaaywatch!' And then I showed up, and I was feeling so embarrassed. 'Hey it's Jamie, Jamie Hewlett, the creator of Tank Girl! Hey Jamie, how're ya feelin' tonight?' And all I could bring myself to say, in front of this huge crowd, was 'Er, I need the toilet.' Then I went in and I sat in front of Ice T and his posse. And people were talking and getting up and walking out, and all I could hear was, 'Yo Ice, you look cool as a kangaroo man'. And when it finished the lights came on, and everyone - everyone - was looking at me, and it was the most humiliating experience of my life. Horrible. But hey, I was 26 years old. And I learned something. I'll never make that mistake again.'
Indeed, Hewlett emerged from the Tank Girl debacle professionally unscathed, embarking on new adventures with the animated pop group Gorillaz, co-founded with Blur frontman Damon Albarn.
Born seven days apart, Hewlett and Albarn met through Jane Olliver, mother of Jamie's two sons, Denholm (after Elliott) Sweeney (after Todd) Hewlett, and Rocky Serpico Hewlett, who 'hates his middle name at the moment, but when he's old enough to see the film, I know he'll be proud'. Jane was involved with the band Elastica, whose co-founder, Justine Frischmann, was Damon Albarn's girlfriend at the time.
'Me and Damon absolutely hated each other at first,' Hewlett recalls. 'Damon was very competitive, and I had the whole Tank Girl thing going. Then in the late Nineties I split up with Jane, around the same time Damon broke up with Justine, and for some reason we decided to get a flat together. We'd spend hours watching MTV and wondering why everything on it was so terrible. I think Damon was tired of being the frontman for Blur, and I was just aghast at how boring most pop groups are when they're interviewed. Look at them, on television, all sat on the couch with nothing to say. So we said, "Let's make up a fake band".
And so Gorillaz was born, with Albarn providing the music ('the music always comes first') and Hewlett designing four animated characters who would 'turn the whole notion of a pop group on its head. Because when the members of the group aren't "real", you can make up histories for them that are as ridiculous and outrageous as you like, and then suddenly it becomes interesting. So Murdoc [Gorillaz' bullish bassist] could be the most ego-driven pop star, the sort of person you would hate in real life, and it's just really funny because he's a cartoon. And it worked - for the kids who are really invested in Gorillaz, who went on the website, played the video games, and collected all the interviews, it became a whole world for them.'
There are, of course, animated pop precedents, from one-hit wonders the Archies to synth-pop darlings ABC. 'Yeah, and the Osmonds, the Jacksons, even the Sex Pistols were animated at some point,' says Hewlett. 'But apart from the Archies they all already existed as pop groups. But Gorillaz now to us is not like four animated characters any more - it's more like an organisation of people doing new projects. The new Monkey album will be 'from the people behind Gorillaz', in the same way that the Who 'produced' Tommy in all its various forms - on record, on stage, on film. That's my ideal model - Gorillaz is a group of people who gave you this, and now want to give you new stuff. We did two pop albums, and that's great, but I don't think I'd want to do another one.'
Instead Hewlett and Albarn are collaborating on other projects, notably Monkey. 'Damon and I spent three years immersing ourselves in Chinese culture when we were preparing the opera,' says Hewlett. 'We'd been to China many times and had the real privilege of travelling round the rural areas, staying with tribes, which no one gets to do. Once you get outside of the cities, what you find is a culture that is still intact - that hasn't been spoiled by Western influences.'
Ironically, the production of Monkey itself threatened to sully the very cultural purity with which Hewlett was so enamoured. Originally co-produced by the prestigious Théâtre du Chatelet in France, the show is directed by Chinese-born New Yorker Chen Shi-Zheng ('we call him "Susan"') with a young Chinese cast who found themselves rehearsing on the outskirts of Paris.
'Many of them had never left China,' says Hewlett, 'and most of them didn't speak English. But they learned pretty bloody quick! So here they were in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and they got days off and spending money. The girls were fascinated by Disney stuff, and bought loads of Disney merchandise, while the boys were buying Nikes and Levis - all the stuff they couldn't get in China. And then they discovered McDonald's! And Damon and I were thinking, "OK, this is very exciting for them, and we can't be cultural stalwarts about it all." But when they started sitting round the piano and singing songs from Chicago, that was it! Damon called them all together, and with Shi-Zheng translating into Chinese he went into this great big rant. "Don't fucking sing that shit! I don't wanna hear any of this cabaret crap! You're not gonna eat this food. And don't be spoiled ... please!" Because they were such a great bunch of kids, so wonderful, and we'd brought them here and suddenly we were faced with this guilty spectre of them being ruined by western culture.'
It all sounds a bit like The Man Who Fell to Earth, the sci-fi oddity in which an innocent spaceman comes to earth in search of water but is seduced by alcoholic consumerism and winds up a drunk.
'Yeah, it's exactly like that - "please don't become the kids who fell to earth!"'
Hewlett's own kids, aged 12 and eight, continue to be the shining suns around which his own dark star revolves. Both have demonstrated an enthusiasm and aptitude for the medium that first helped their former 'anxious kid' father escape into a world of magical possibilities. 'They do some pretty amazing drawings,' beams Hewlett. 'I mean, I know everyone thinks their kids are special, but they both draw comics, which is something I do have a slight understanding of, and their stuff is really good. I joke that I want them to work hard at their skills so that when I get old, and my hands are wizened and unable to hold a pen, they can carry on the family name in art.'
For someone who has described himself as 'anxious' and 'awkward', Hewlett seems genuinely happy. Part of this happiness is down to his relationship with Kate McLauchlan, a designer with whom he's worked on a range of projects from Gorillaz to Monkey, and who has been his girlfriend for the past three years. 'She's very chilled out, a very calm woman - a twin, actually - who puts up with my daily lunacy and calms me down. She has a lovely soft voice, and she never gets angry, even when I get wound up.'
But, I say, you don't seem the angry type either. More ... sulky.
'Yeah, that's it, I'm sulky. It's true that if I don't achieve what I want to achieve at work I get really pissed off, and I can't relax, or sleep, and I do need calming down.'
What Hewlett hopes to achieve in the near future 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.'
Sounds intriguing. So what is it - a film, an album?
'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.'
And that, I think, is the essence of Hewlett's true talent; the fact that whatever medium he's working in, from drawing comic books and CD sleeves, to designing operas or doing animated promos for sporting events, it's always the idea that comes first. In a world of increasingly corporate entertainment, it's this dogged, anxious, slightly worried dedication to the 'idea' above all that makes Hewlett so special.
That, of course, and the zombies.
1968 Born 3 April, in Horsham, West Sussex. Educated at the local Tanbridge House School and Northbrook College.
1988 Launches his character Tank Girl for Deadline magazine and his career as a graphic artist.
2001 Gorillaz, the animated band he formed with Damon Albarn, release their debut album.
2006 Wins the Design Museum's Designer of the Year award for his Gorillaz artwork.
2007 Reworks an ancient Chinese tale with Albarn to create the opera Monkey: Journey to the West which sells out at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. The production transfers to the Royal Opera House this week.
2008 BBC3 screens ku fung drama Phoo Action based on Hewlett's characters. With Albarn, he creates the opening credits sequence to the BBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics. Michal Goldschmidt
· Monkey: Journey to the West runs at London's Royal Opera House from Wednesday to Saturday this week. The Monkey studio album is released next month. The BBC's coverage of the Beijing Olympics starts 8 August.