Gnarls Barkley Reinvents Popular Music, From Here to Estonia
Part I: Soundtrack for a Superhero
I’m in my Honda Accord, heading to a Los Angeles recording studio to interview the members of Gnarls Barkley about their new CD, The Odd Couple. Unlike Gnarls, my car is not cutting-edge. And thus, I’m hoping to find parking somewhere a few blocks away—then I can walk up to the studio of Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, and neither he nor his Gnarls partner Cee-Lo Green will notice my uncool ride.
I shouldn’t be so worried. In fact, my obsession with Danger and Cee Lo’s opinion of my automobile is antithetical to what Gnarls Barkley is all about. After listening to The Odd Couple earlier this morning, it occurred to me that the duo’s avant-garde pop sensibility challenges other musicians to unlock their own creativity and make truly unique music. And Gnarls Barkley is designed to have this effect on its listeners, too: Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse want us to be ourselves! To celebrate our idiosyncrasies! These dudes don’t care what kind of car I’m driving. I’m an idiot. I’m going inside.
The studio reinforces my hypothesis about perception vs. reality. You’d think it would be a flashy space with three secretaries wearing headsets in a mod waiting room where I’d be forced to sit awkwardly in a hanging-ball chair. Danger’s studio is actually nondescript—not quite dingy, but very worked-in, with computers and keyboards lining the walls. The down-home feel sets me at ease as the guys walk in and introduce themselves.
I’m immediately drawn to how laid back they seem. They give off a regular-guy vibe, even though nothing they create, either independently or as Gnarls Barkley, has any hint of regularity. They also both have an understandable “here-we-go” look on their face, the kind you get when you’re about to embark on a several-month-long publicity tour promoting your latest creation.
Cee-Lo wears a gold satin jacket, black jeans and an inch-thick diamond bracelet over his heavily tattooed arm. Danger Mouse is sporting a vintage grey blazer with a shirt underneath that says “Cassius Clay” in red cursive. I’m distracted by the fact that I could never pull off the blazer-over-shirt look, and by my bubbling excitement to ask not only about The Odd Couple, but also their obvious love of ’60s music and melancholy pop. And of course I’m also curious as to how they maintained any sort of artistic vision after birthing the monster that was their ubiquitous smash, “Crazy.” But instead of getting to any of that, I spend the first two minutes rambling about the following idea:
“I think The Odd Couple is the soundtrack for a tortured superhero.” They look at me and nod politely. For reasons still unknown to me, I continue: “Yeah, when I heard the album this morning, I felt like I was listening to a story about a very lonely superhero who raced from planet to planet looking for someone to love. At one point, I even saw myself as the superhero, and I was floating underwater looking up at the moon through the water, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of being who I was destined to be and the sadness that no-one could help me with that.”
Cee-Lo flashes a big smile, and Danger Mouse says, “That’s why we don’t like telling people what these records are about.”
It turns out that this is one of Gnarls Barkley’s main goals: to create a mysterious new sound that allows for individual interpretation. They accomplished this with their first album, St. Elsewhere, which crossed all boundaries by sampling Gianfranco Reverberi, covering the Violent Femmes and unleashing a pop masterpiece that could be heard everywhere from here to Estonia. Literally. It was #1 in Estonia. Number üks with a bülletään!
The Odd Couple is a continuation of St. Elsewhere’s sound. “We weren’t trying to depart from what we’d done because what we had done was so fractured and different from itself anyway,” Danger says. “If anything, we just wanted to do better. We felt like we could do better musically.”
And they did. The Odd Couple goes deeper than St. Elsewhere, creating a visual soundscape. It’s as vivid as if Gnarls shot a movie and put it on CD. Both albums strive for this effect, even beginning and ending with the sound of a filmstrip starting and stopping. And while this framework enhances the music’s cinematic feel, it’s really the depth and colors of the music that provide the imagery. Cee-Lo’s lyrics are more personal than before, without being clichéd. Danger Mouse again showcases his love of spaghetti Westerns, but his music is more brooding this time. St. Elsewhere offers a glimspe of Gnarls’ world, but The Odd Couple sets you on a journey—in my case, an underwater superhero fantasy I shared in embarrassing detail with both members of Gnarls Barkley.
Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse went about creating the songs on The Odd Couple in the same manner as St. Elsewhere. Danger laid down a bunch of demos and sent them to Cee-Lo, who wrote lyrics to certain tracks if he felt emotionally drawn to them. I can see how some people (myself included) would think Danger Mouse is the puppet master pulling Gnarls Barkley’s strings, simply because he’s choosing the source material. But Danger Mouse goes out of his way to make sure Cee-Lo gets credit as a collaborator. “Everything that was there, everything that you hear, was something that he decided to take and work on lyrically,” he says. “In the same way that I’d try to lead him with the music, he’s led the direction of this album by picking the songs that he did.”
Their complimentary nature is remarkable. Here’s an exchange they had after we talked about the popularity of “Crazy”:
Cee-Lo: “Every now and then, I can’t help but feel like I coulda sang that song better.”
Danger Mouse: “And I’m thinking, ‘I’m lucky as hell he sang that song over that track.’”
Cee-Lo: “I’m lucky that that track made me like that song.”
I mean, maybe I’ve lived too long in L.A., where you can only wear a “save the whales” T-shirt if you’re being ironic, but it’s refreshing to see two musical powerhouses who not only enjoy making music together, but also actually like each other as people. At one point while we’re at the studio, Danger Mouse gets up and grabs Cee-Lo a VitaminWater—just because. Maybe if Lars Ulrich had gone out of his way to fetch James Hetfield a bottle of Aquafina in the middle of an interview, Some Kind of Monster would’ve never been made.
Part II: Baby Hulk
Not to dwell on the superhero theme, but Cee-Lo reveals that, as a child on his neighborhood football team, he was known as Baby Hulk. “I was a young, powerful menace,” he says.
The Hulk didn’t wear a gold jacket or a diamond bracelet, but with Cee-Lo’s stocky build, you can see how the soulful singer earned his nickname. Danger Mouse, on the other hand, is tall, reedy and bearded. He says their physical appearances—as well as their personalities (“the yin to each other’s yang”)—inspired The Odd Couple’s title.
The album’s concept yields other interpretations, as well. “It’s the marriage of musicality and melody,” Cee-Lo says. “The odd pairing of something sung soul over something folky.”
And then, of course, there’s the idea that Gnarls Barkley, with its extremely vivid sound, likes to name its albums after visual media. Both The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere were TV shows (although I don’t know why you’d name a revolutionary neo-soul album after a medical drama starring Howie Mandel).
Yet for me, The Odd Couple really refers to the band’s place in the pop music world—one half of the couple is Gnarls Barkley and the other half is the rest of what’s out there. There’s Gnarls, and then there’s everybody else.
And in this interpretation, maybe it’s not so absurd to imagine Gnarls Barkley as—wait for it—a superhero, soaring from galaxy to galaxy, searching for both inspiration and people who want to be inspired.
The duo’s strength lies largely in its ability to bend time, traveling back and forth between the trippy 1960s and the computer-dominated modern world. Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse don’t exactly exploit the friction between the eras. Rather, they find surprising ways to integrate the two. Danger, for instance, samples choral passages along the lines of the Mamas & the Papas or Free Design—groups that lived in a liberated era, yet carried a certain melancholy in their harmonies. Gnarls also borrows heavily from the funky ’70s. While the musicians claim not to have discussed musical influences while making the record, they both adore Sly and the Family Stone. Apparently Cee-Lo fell in love with a coveted Sly bootleg Danger picked up while touring Japan, leading Danger to get his partner a deluxe box set of Sly’s complete works for Christmas—VitaminWater redux. Cee-Lo’s vocal power (“he’s got some range,” Danger brags) evokes the rawness of the Funkadelic era while channeling everyone from Al Green to Nina Simone. Danger’s cut-and-paste production echoes Odelay and Paul’s Boutique. Add all of this up and underpin it with a heavy bassline, and you’ve got a unique new-school/old-school pastiche, a sophisticated pop collage that’s accessible enough to resonate around the world.
Part III: “You can't be mad at ‘Crazy’”
“Crazy” is to Gnarls Barkley what “Creep” was to Radiohead or “Loser” was to Beck—and not just because they’re all self-deprecating tunes with one-word titles. They’re also great songs created by artistic visionaries who happened to be embraced by the public. With this in mind, I ask about the influence “Crazy” had on the new album. Danger Mouse is quick to say that, while it was difficult at first, he thinks it helped them: “I think we went out there a little bit more so. There was no attempt to do what ‘Crazy’ did.”
“It is pretty amazing. It’s awesome—‘awe’ being the root word,” Cee-Lo says. “It’s got a Guinness World Record for, what is it? Oh, most radio formats.”
“Crazy” was also the first song in the U.K. to be #1 via downloads, and it won a Grammy. “Crazy” was even covered at my wedding reception last year. The song had enough crossover appeal to get my in-laws’ friends from New Jersey to put down their gin and tonics and shake their collective booty on the dance floor. And then there was that whole #1 in Estonia thing.
As much as Gnarls Barkley didn’t set out to make this crossover smash, Danger Mouse is definitely grateful. “I think that ‘Crazy’ is gonna help people hear this album,” he says. “You can’t be mad at ‘Crazy.’” What Gnarls can get mad at is touring and playing “Crazy” on a seemingly endless journey around the world, which in turn kept them from their studio craftwork. “It just kept on being one more,” Danger Mouse says. “Just one more tour, just one more tour. And then it was two years later.”
“And let’s face it,” Cee Lo adds. “That’s a lot of wear and tear on this beautiful body.”
They re-iterate that their time is much better spent in the studio creating new sounds than being out there sharing the same creations over and over again. If they want to be influential in any way, they have to keep making new music.
“We talk about this a lot recently,” Danger says. “We really feel like we want to have an impact, musically and just on people in general, and to do that, you have to make records and put them out. That’s what people used to do. We look back at like ’67—I always talk about that. It was the first two Doors records, first two Hendrix records, first Pink Floyd record, two Beatles records, two Rolling Stones records—everything. That’s what you do. You go make music. I think for us it’s just as important to maybe play for people and have fun with it, but to get back in there and make some music, and get a lot of our music out there.”
And with that, Gnarls Barkley shows another old-school side of its personality. Here you have one of the most cutting-edge pop groups in the world, and they’re talking about striving to make an impact, to be timeless in a world of disposable media. They achieve this timelessness on The Odd Couple. The first track grabs you and sends you spinning, and each subsequent song lasts for two, three, maybe three-and-a-half minutes tops before ending abruptly. It’s as if Gnarls Barkley wants to let us know that they’re digging what they’re doing, but they’ve also got to keep moving. And before you know it 40 minutes have gone by, and your journey with The Odd Couple is over, and you’re not a superhero anymore. You’re just you, driving home in your Accord, distressed that you’re no longer racing from planet to planet, but also content with the knowledge that you’ll hear from the odd couple again someday. Their adventures have just begun.