Cracker Island

Cracker Island

As the headquarters of a producer/songwriter who’s won Grammys for his work with Adele, Beck, Foo Fighters, and more, Greg Kurstin’s LA studio is well appointed. “It’s a museum of ’80s synths and weird instruments,” Kurstin tells Apple Music. “Everything’s patched in and ready to go.” Damon Albarn discovered as much when he arrived during a trip to meet prospective producers for the eighth Gorillaz album. Tired and, by his own admission, uncertain about recruiting a “pop” producer, Albarn quietly explored the equipment, occasionally unfurling melodies on the piano which Kurstin would join in with on his Mellotron—two musicians feeling each other out, seeking moments of creative accord. After two or three hours, Kurstin felt happy enough, but Albarn’s manager was concerned. “She goes, ‘Damon just likes to float around. He’s not going to tell you to start doing something, you should just start recording,’” says Kurstin. “That gave me a kick to get down to business.” He opened up the input and added drums while Albarn built a synth part. Before the day was done, they had “Silent Running.” “Damon seemed energized,” says Kurstin. “He was excited about how the song progressed from the demo. I was thrilled too. He gave me a big hug and that was it: We were off and running.” Discovering a mutual love for The Clash, The Specials, De La Soul, and ’80s synth-pop, the pair took just 11 days during early 2022 to craft an album from Albarn’s iPad demos (give or take Bad Bunny collaboration “Tormenta,” which had already been recorded with long-standing Gorillaz producer Remi Kabaka Jr.). They valued spontaneity over preplanning and discussion, forging hydraulic disco-funk (the Thundercat-starring “Cracker Island”) and yearning synth-pop (“Oil” with Stevie Nicks), plus—in the short space of “Skinny Ape”—folk, electro, and punk. As with so much of Albarn’s best music, it’s all anchored to absorbing wistfulness. “I gravitate towards the melancholy, even in a fun song,” says Kurstin. “And Damon really brings that in his ideas. When I first heard Gorillaz, I was thinking, ‘Oh, he gets me and all the music that I love.’ I always felt that connection. It’s what you look for—your people.” Here, Kurstin talks us through several of the songs they created together. “Cracker Island” (feat. Thundercat) “Bringing in Thundercat was a really fun flavor to bring to the album. This wild, sort of uptempo disco song. I had just been working with Thundercat and we had become friends. I texted him and he said, ‘Yes, definitely, I’ll do it.’ It was very fun to watch him work on it and to hear him write his melody parts. He sang a lot of what Damon sang and then added his own thing and the harmonies. It’s always fun to witness him play, because he’s absolutely amazing on the bass.” “Oil” (feat. Stevie Nicks) “That contrast of hearing Stevie’s voice over a Gorillaz track is amazing. I think my wife, who’s also my manager, had come up with the idea. We’d have these conversations with Damon: Who could we bring in to this project? Who does he know? Who do I know? I had been working with Stevie and become really good friends with her. Damon was very excited, he couldn’t even believe that was a possibility. I think Stevie was just very moved by it. She loved the lyrics and she took it very seriously, really wanted to do the best job. Stevie’s just so cool. She’s always listening to new music, she’s in touch with everything that’s happening and just so brilliant as a person. I love her dearly.” “Silent Running” (feat. Adeleye Omotayo) “‘Silent Running’ really was the North Star for me, might’ve been for Damon, too. It just started the whole process for us: ‘Here’s the bar, this is what we can do, and let’s try to see if we can even beat it.’ I think we knocked out ‘Silent Running’ in two or three hours. That was the fun part about it, just this whirlwind of throwing things against the wall and then recording them—and I’m kind of mixing as I’m going as well. By the end of the day, it sounded like the finished product did.” “New Gold” (feat. Bootie Brown & Tame Impala) “Kevin Parker’s just great. I was really excited to be involved with something that he was involved with. Damon had started this with Kevin and was a bit stuck, mostly because it was in an odd time signature, this kind of 6/4. It’s a little bit of a twisted and lopsided groove. It was sort of put off forever and maybe nothing was going to happen with it. It needed Damon to get in there and get excited about it. I think he liked how it was started, but finishing it was just too overwhelming. I thought, ‘OK, let me just try to piece this together in the form of a song that is very clear.’ That sort of started the ball rolling again. Damon heard it and then he worked on it a bit and evened out the time signature.” “Baby Queen” “Only Damon could come up with such a wild concept for a song. [In Bangkok in 1997, Albarn met a crown princess who crowd-surfed at a Blur gig; while writing songs for Cracker Island, he dreamed about meeting her as she is today.] When I heard the demo, it was just brilliant. I loved it. As a producer, I was just trying to bring in this kind of dreamy feel to the track. It has a floating quality, and that’s something I was leaning into, trying to put a soundtrack to that dream.” “Skinny Ape” “There’s something mad and crazy about ‘Skinny Ape,’ how it took shape. I felt on the edge of my seat, out of control. I didn’t know what was happening and how it was going to evolve. It was a lot of happy accidents, like throwing the weirdest, wildest sound at the track and then muting four other things and then all of a sudden, ‘Wow, that’s a cool texture.’ Playing drums in that sort of double-time punk rock section was really fun, and Damon was excited watching me play that part. That feeling of being out of control when I’m working is exciting because it’s very unpredictable and brings out things of myself I never would have imagined I would’ve done.” “Possession Island” (feat. Beck) “I feel like the best of me when I work with Beck, and I feel the same with Damon. I feel pushed by their presence and their body of work, searching into places that I never looked before—deep, dark corners, sonically. What can I do that’s different than I might do with most people? It’s very easy to fall into comfort zones and what’s easy when you’re making music. Working with Damon really awakened some creative part of my brain that was sleeping a little bit. I need to work with these people to keep these things going. Damon had been playing that piano part during his shows [The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows tour]. That melody was something he would play every time he’d sit down. I started playing the nylon string guitar, and then it became a little bit more of a flamenco influence, and even a mariachi sound with the Mellotron trumpet. I love hearing Damon and Beck singing and interacting with each other that way, these Walker Brothers-sounding harmonies.”

Audio Extras

Select a country or region

Africa, Middle East, and India

Asia Pacific


Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and Canada