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I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Ceri Levy, who captures the essence of all things Gorillaz in his brilliant new documentary, Bananaz...
You have been on board the Gorillaz experience from the very beginning. Did you always feel a sense that there were big things afoot for the band?
Having known Damon and Jamie for a long time I knew they had the talent and determination to make it a very interesting experience. Who can ever say how things will turn out. All one can have is belief and no one could for certain predict that Gorillaz would grow into a phenomena. But as it developed one thing remained constant. Damon continually made great music and Jamie relentlessly came up with great art.
We first met back in 2001 on the Gorillaz debut festival experience at Creamfields. The old winnebago has certainly clocked up a few miles since then - which gig has been the most memorable for you?
I loved all the early gigs as they were new, innovative and were a journey into the unknown. But the most memorable gigs were the first night of Demon Days at Manchester and the last night at the Apollo. Manchester was amazing because weeks and weeks of planning and rehearsals finally came together into the most exquisite, seamless and wonderful performance. Every mark was hit and every cue was perfect! The Apollo was different in that it felt like it may well prove to be the perfect end to filming for me. The journey had started six years previously with two men, one idea and their determined and driving ambition to present Gorillaz to the world. The Apollo with its huge cast and spectacular show seemed to be the culmination for what I had been charting.
Yes, I have to agree. I remember watching the soundcheck at the Apollo shows and it was really rather stop/start as a result of the band's quest for perfection on stage. And that's how it played out. Behind the scenes at the Apollo was frantic in general - was this also reflected in the run up to the frantic shows?
As I remember the run up to the Apollo wasn't frantic at all... In fact it was pretty calm on the whole. I think it became a bit frantic when we got to Harlem because there were problems that had not been encountered in the Manchester shows. There was a really big problem with the electricity supply as I remember which kept blowing. The whole crew kept it together and finally sorted everything out successfully.
After the first record, most people associated with the band (including the band themselves!) claim to have had nervous breakdowns, started questioning reality and wondering what the hell had just happened when a group of 2-dimensional popstars had taken the world by storm. Did you ever think "hang on a second, what have I got myself into here?"
I always wonder what the hell have I got myself into whatever the project! That is what makes life interesting and intriguing! If you ever hesitate and worry what is going on then the moment will surely be lost! As the project grew and grew I stopped questioning or worrying where things would end up and just enjoyed the situations we were finding ourselves in. The hard part was being a lone film maker with nobody around to talk to filmically about things. It can be quite wearing being a one man band with camera and sound gear in hand as I was used to having professional cameramen and soundmen doing jobs I was attempting to do solo. And that meant I could only blame myself for things that I didn't like! But honestly, Bananaz would never have ended up as the film it is if I had had a film crew with me. One man being introduced as a friend, was far less intrusive than a group of three or four people. Also it meant none of the people involved felt uncomfortable. I was furniture as it were! I tried to edit things as I went but I was not adept enough to make things work out. Then finally Jamie introduced me to Seb Monk, who has worked with them for a long time as their editor and the pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place. Simply put, he is just the best editor I have ever had the pleasure to work with!
Documenting the Gorillaz rise to the top must have been an arduous process - about how many hours of film do you think you've accumulated?
In a strange way documenting Gorillaz was never arduous .It was always exciting and always different. No two days were ever the same. Never really counted the hours we had... Just a few big boxes!!
How did you technically film the documentary?
I used a Sony PC 100E which is a tiny handheld camcorder. In fact I got through two cameras with the amount of footage I shot! In the back of the camera I connected a Sennheiser 316 microphone which I carried in my left hand while my right hand controlled the camera! I felt like Jesse James most of the time! Unfortunately, I wasn't able to shoot so cleanly half the time! Normally I direct or produce but don't normally film too much myself! No one to blame other than myself when things didn't work out!!
Do you have any particular memories of any of the fantastic collaborators to have worked with Gorillaz?
There are so many wonderful memories! But I suppose the most wonderful day was with Ibrahim Ferrer when he came in to record Latin Simone. We had been to see him play with the Buena Vista Social Club the night before at Hyde Park and it was truly a remarkable gig! And the thought that he would be coming to Damon's studio the next day was fantastic! I think we were all filled with nervous excitement.And then he arrived and he was a wonderful man and seemed to enjoy the day as much as we did! I was lucky that he did not worry about me filming as he sang live.. I have worked with a lot of singers in studios but when I went into the vocal booth with him it was like being in the presence of one of the most beautiful and emotional voices I had ever heard and it was only a foot away from me... This footage was used for the Demon Days live shows and I think that emotion really came across on a large screen over the proceedings...
Yes that was absolutely brilliant. Were you a fan of his before?
I had been familiar with the Buena Vista Social Club for quite a few years so I was really waiting in anticipation to meet him. And I can safely say that he did not disappoint!
Were you a fan of any of the other collaborators before the project began? Many fans couldn't believe some of the star names attracted for both albums. It must have been a great experience to see such wonderful talents up close and personal.
I knew the majority of artists work and Rise II the Pharcyde and Three Feet High and Rising were two of my favourite albums ever so I was gobsmacked that De La and the Pharcyde were involved! The great thing about all the collaborators was that they were all wonderful to meet and work with. An incredibly creative and supportive group of people.
What has been the most noticeable change to the group over the last 8 years?
How important is the Gorillaz' story arc to what you filmed? Did you try to keep this in mind at all times or did you look more toward capturing a raw document of what exactly transpired behind the scenes?
I hope the story arc is captured within the film and that the rawness of the movie is a document to a greater or lesser extent of how the project has unfolded up until now...
Gorillaz have written some pop classics, club anthems and beautiful ballads over the years - have you got a favourite Gorillaz track?
The Sounder with Phi-Life Cypher and Demon Days.
We mustn't forget of course that Gorillaz are as notable for their imagery as for their music - with much owed to chief stylist Jamie Hewlett. Is there a striking image from over the years that sticks out as a particular favourite?
Hmmm, I suppose one of my fave images is one of the first of them playing live... the one with Russel with the sticks in the air behind the rest... Just so powerful and let you know this band could play! I also love the pic of Russel in Ike Turner's basement on page 174 of rise of the ogre...
Murdoc Niccals has long claimed that Gorillaz collaborator Damon Albarn has pulled himself up on the coattails of Murdoc's career. But you documented some of Damon's earlier work with Starshaped in the 90s. Has Murdoc got a bit more to be thankful for than he lets on?
It is not for me to argue with Murdoc.... But Damon has been doing this music thing successfully for a lot longer!
Just how ambitious of a project was this? What sort of differences were there between Starshaped and Bananaz?
Starshaped, I consider, was a silent movie and Bananaz is definitely a talkie! But both were years in the making... For me I think so many music films and documentaries don't particularly work because the film maker has only two weeks with a band and you know everything has been homogenised and the band have had CREATIVE CONTROL (the most dangerous words in the world for a documentarian) ie the guts and truth have been stripped out! But both Starshaped and Bananaz could only have happened because of the full support of those involved and no interference.
When you set out to make a documentary - what are you looking for? What are you hoping will happen over the course of the project to make it a success? Is there a magic formula?
All you can ever hope for is a story! Something that has a beginning, middle and end. And I think we have managed to do that with Bananaz... You also have to make sure it keeps a shape and flows. There were several scenes that were wonderful but never helped the story of the film... Thank God for DVD extras!
Murdoc is notorious for his appetite for women - but we hear 2-D's quite the charmer on the road as well. Any insight as to who might have the most luck with the ladies?
There are times when a good documentary filmmaker puts his camera down and does not record the other side of rock and roll life! Once the party starts the camera stops! And if I revealed the things I know about Murdoc and 2-D I may never work in this 2 dimensional world again! Let alone 3 dimensions!
What are your plans for Bananaz in 2008?
There are interesting plans afoot but I don't want to say too much until things are fully worked out. But I promise that this film will satisfy Gorillaz fans as well as music fans. And it will be well worth the wait!
Will you be following Gorillaz from here on out? What do you think your next project will be?
One can never say never but I think I might go and film something a little more sedate like bird watchers for a year or two... Probably find out they are more rock and roll than musicians!!
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