This is a story about a monkey searching for immortality. There is kung fu. There is moonshine.
And it’s told by Gorillaz.
Introducing Monkey: Journey to the West, a circus-y electro-pop opera opening this weekend that’s designed by Jamie Hewlett – one-half of the cartoon band Gorillaz – and scored by Damon Albarn, Hewlett’s Gorillaz collaborator and frontman of iconic Brit-pop outfit Blur.
We sat down with Jamie to pick his brain on the show, his kids and the debilitating effects of Chinese “ghost wine.”
InsideHook: So tell me about this monkey. He looks pretty badass.
Hewlett: That’s the best opening question I’ve had all day. He is a badass. He’s the king of the Bamboo Forest. But he decides that that’s not enough, and that he wants to be a god.
So a monkey with hubris?
Yeah. So he jumps on his flying cloud – which all monkey kings should have – and he flies up to heaven and beats up all of the gods, because he’s pretty tasty with his fists. So Buddha decides to imprison him in a mountain for 500 years. And then he’s finally set free and he has to accompany this monk on a journey to the West to save China from its slide into decadence. So it’s a quest.
So, speaking of the quest, why this story?
We were approached by the Manchester International Festival and asked if we would like to do an opera and we said, "Yeah, sure, why not." And they said we have a Chinese director, Chi Shi-zheng, who wants to make Monkey into an opera. We knew the story because it was a TV show. It was huge in England. So we said, "Yeah, absolutely. But before we do anything, you need to send us to China!"
To do all the research!
We met Shi-zheng in Hong Kong and went on a fantastic journey through rural China. You know, the parts of China that you don’t see ... hanging out with tribes, drinking ghost wine…
Ghost wine. It’s Chinese moonshine. About 95% proof. And when you go out with a tribe they pour a small glass and you toast and then they fill it up again and it becomes a competition. They want to show you that they can drink more than you. It’s called fall down wine as well.
How did you fare?
Well I’m pretty good at drinking, but ... it was pretty heavy. We were eating bees and some strange stuff on the streets of rural China. Animals of all descriptions being cooked. It’s part of the culture, and it was fascinating and we came back and said, “Well, we’re going to do the monkey opera.”
Were there visual influences that helped you generate the look and feel of the whole thing?
It’s a collective of everything that we saw and tasted and heard and smelled when we visited China. I did look at a lot of 16th Century Chinese paintings and illustrations, but I sort of preferred the stuff in the Japanese TV series. (Damon and I) really wanted it to be an opera that kids could go see.
You have kids?
I have two kids. Damon has a daughter ... The kids aren’t thinking “That guy’s wearing a prosthetic nose!” and “That’s a wire attached to his back!” and “Who’s that guy behind the curtain?”
Which sort of leads to my next question. On a scale of one to ten, how high would you suggest I get before I go see Monkey: Journey to the West?
(Publicist: You don’t have to answer that.)
(Laughs.) Well, I think the higher you get, the more you’re going to enjoy it.
Glad I have your blessing. Musically, will fans of Gorillaz see a lot of musical similarities?
I mean the music is completely different to anything you’ve heard Damon do before, but still has that energy. One of Damon’s biggest skills is he writes a great melody. It’s full of that.
So if you had to describe this as a sort of “blank meets blank”...
Great. Because I wrote that like five minutes before I came in.
Yeah, I might need five minutes to think about that one. Yeah, yeah, OK …
Sorry. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. Want to come back to that one?
I’d like to give you the right answer to that because I know that when you leave I’ll go “No! I should have said that!”
That’s fine. If you think of it after I leave, you can email me.
Editor’s Note: later that day, we received the following email from Jamie:
“It’s Enter the Dragon meets Ulysses and Siddhartha on the Island of Dr. Moreau.”