Here’s proof that the new millennium will be wild and unpredictable: This year’s best new group isn’t even a group, it’s an animated quartet.

Many people would contend that the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears and the slew of other prefab bands are pretty cartoonish (to put it mildly), but unlike them, members of Gorillaz play their own instruments, write their own songs and converse with fans in their own Internet chat room. At least they’re genuine about not being genuine.

These aren’t your parents’ or siblings’ Archies and Josie and the Pussycats.

Gorillaz is the brainchild of Blur leader Damon Albarn and “Tank Girl” comic book creator Jamie Hewlett.

“It all started about two and a half years ago when I lived with Damon,” Hewlett said recently. “We shared a flat (in London). We had split up with our girlfriends and moved into a party flat for a year. By the end of the year, we had been saying we wanted to work together, ‘What could we do?’ Then there it was sitting in front of our faces – why don’t we do an animated band? At the moment we said it, we started to realize the possibilities and how it really should be a record company’s wet dream, not having to deal with pop stars; they’re all imaginary characters.

“It took off from there. We spent a year, just the two of us, working on it. I was drawing tons of stuff, and Damon was doing demos. We started to get more people involved because it was just too much for the two of us. Damon got more musicians in; I got a bunch of very clever computer guys in because I don’t know the first thing about computers. I come up with the ideas and they do it for me. It’s working out well.”

To say the least. The self-titled debut Virgin album premiered at No. 39 on Billboard’s pop chart in late June; the first single, “Clint Eastwood” – already a Top 10 hit in the U.K. and throughout Europe – is poised for big things stateside; another track, “Tomorrow Comes Today,” is garnering a lot of airplay, and the “Clint Eastwood” video is one of the most popular in recent memory.

Things are going so well for Gorillaz, group members are planning a few concert dates (how they’ll pull that off is anyone’s guess) and are even pursuing side projects. We just don’t know who these guys really are; Hewlett says there’s no direct musician-to-cartoon-figure match.

Hewlett introduces our cartoon heroes:

Bassist Murdoc – “He’s sort of based on a young Keith Richards. He’s the riskiest character in the band; he’s a practicing satanist. He’s a nasty piece of work, a dodgy character who we can get to be outrageous. He’s also contemplating assembling a death-metal band.”

Front man 2-D – “He’s suffering from severe brain damage and is completely stupid. Right now, he’s collaborating with Massive Attack and reggae singer Horace Andy.”

Guitarist Noodle – “Noodle’s from Japan, who arrived in a Fed-Ex crate and no one knows anything about her whatsoever, other than she plays a mean guitar and says ‘Noodle’ all the time and refuses to speak English. We do know that Richie Sambora is her hero; that’s the only thing we know about her, but her story will unfold.”

Drummer Russel – “He’s the hip-hop man from the states who was possessed by a demon as a child and now has the ability to house the spirits of dead singers and pop stars, so we can work with anyone we want. He also just completed a remix of Redman’s ‘Let’s Get Dirty (I Can’t Get in Da Club).”

They really are a record company’s wet dream. With Albarn’s help, an eclectic group of musicians was enlisted for the project – producer Dan the Automator, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori, rapper Del Tha Funky Homosapien, former Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth and Buena Vista Social Club singer Ibrahím Ferrer. Together, they have hatched the boldest mix of rock, hip-hop and world-music this side of the Beastie Boys and Beck.

“Everything takes a certain kind of manufacturing to get it right,” Hewlett said, “so we thought, ‘Why don’t we manufacture a really good band for a change, rather than all this shit?’ Look at the stuff we have to listen to on the charts.

“We did quite a bit of work on it first, then we went to Parlophone (in the U.K.) and said, ‘This is our idea.’ At first, they said, ‘Yeah, that’s interesting. Let’s see what you’ve got.’ We presented them with five illustrations of the band and about five demos, and then they got very excited about it. They already want me to work on the art for the next album, which is a good sign.”

“Clint Eastwood,” which is a nod to the reggae star of the same name, not the actor, quickly shot up the U.K. chart, much to Hewlett’s surprise.

“It came out and went straight to No. 4 on the charts and stayed there for 10 weeks,” Hewlett said, “and we found ourselves smack in the middle of manufactured boy-band crap and we stayed there. We suddenly realized there’s 12-year-old kids dancing to Gorillaz on the playgrounds and getting into dub and reggae and everything else we put into the music.”

Predicting U.S. success is a little more iffy, but Hewlett likes what he has seen so far.

“I’ve always thought that Gorillaz should do really well in America,” he said, “just because of the nature of it. I would have thought Americans would understand it. You have a bigger comic industry and Cartoon Network, and animation is so big in America; it’s not so big in England.

“Damon’s obviously had experience over here in the states (with Blur), and he says, ‘Don’t hold your breath; we’ll wait and find out.’ We shall see. You know, Blur never cracked Germany, really, but Gorillaz are at No. 2 on the charts there and No. 1 in Italy.”

THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: ” ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones. I’ve still got it.”

THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I think it was the U.K. Subs somewhere in Brighton with my brother, because he was a punk. I wanted to be a punk as well, but I was too young.”

MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO: “Can it be a super villain? I love Mojo Jojo. He makes me laugh so much. He’s such a likable villain, isn’t he?”

GORILLAZ ON THE WEB: Monkey around with Gorillaz on the Web @