The Observer, Apr 2006
Plain Crazy: Just who are Gnarls Barkley, makers of the year’s hottest hit? Sanjiv Bhattacharya unmasks the story of a very strange act…
Also at The Observer
‘Music was better when we were kids,’ says Danger Mouse, which is odd coming from someone with a fantastic album due out. But then most things about the DJ and producer are pretty strange, including Gnarls Barkley, the group he’s formed with singer Cee-Lo Green, who sits nodding beside him.
‘We had longer attention spans back then,’ Danger Mouse continues. ‘When we were young we had tapes, and you listened to every track. You didn’t fast forward in case you overshot. And songs you didn’t like turned out to be your favourites, because the album became a person. It grew on you. Now, if kids don’t like the first few bars, they’re gone. You’ve got to grab them. I tell you what the problem is – it’s downloading.’
Given that Gnarls Barkley made musical history earlier this month when their song ‘Crazy’ became the first to top the UK charts based on the sale of downloads alone, this is pretty rich. Although no-one really knew who Gnarls Barkley were, even the Financial Times wrote about this success, and as such ‘Crazy’ has been a pretty effective curtain-raiser for St Elsewhere, the debut album.
Danger Mouse – aka 28-year-old American Brian Burton – is responsible too for an earlier crossing of the digital Rubicon. Three years ago, the little-known DJ mixed the Beatles’s White Album with Jay Z’s Black Album to create the now legendary Grey Album. Originally, 3,000 copies were pressed for friends and friends of friends, as a kind of remixer’s calling card.
Sure enough, word spread and then the Beatles’s record label, EMI, filed a ‘cease and desist’ order because none of the samples that Danger Mouse used had been cleared. On Grey Tuesday – February 24, 2004 – 170 websites put the Grey Album up online to protest the label’s actions, and 100,000 copies were immediately downloaded. Mainstream reviewers hailed it as innovative, dazzling and one of the most important records of the year. And much to EMI’s chagrin, their own Damon Albarn was so impressed – ‘I loved the idea,’ he said, ‘that you can take the past and present and make something futuristic” – that he hired Danger Mouse to produce the Gorillaz next album, Demon Days
And again, reviewers hailed it as innovative, dazzling and one of the most important records of the year and Danger Mouse won a Grammy nomination, although he very much remained a shadowy figure.
If there’s a moral to his story so far, it’s that rules really are there for the breaking.
Now the Mouse Man has a new muse – Green, aka 31-year-old Thomas Calloway, formerly of the Atlanta-based rap group, the Goodie Mob. Heavy and bald with buggy eyes and a raspy laugh, Cee-Lo also has a rich soul tenor, a voice that Andre 3000 of OutKast must envy.
‘You ask me why we’re called Gnarls Barkley and I’m asking you “why not?”,’ says Cee-Lo. He’s hunched over a burger in a hotel suite in Burbank, California, talking about the group for the first time. ‘The name Gnarls Barkley isn’t anchored down. It’s a drifter. A High Plains drifter, I might add.’
Danger Mouse grins. ‘There’s no story behind it,’ he says, reaching for the cheesecake. A Mouse who likes cheese – no surprises there. ‘The name doesn’t have anything to do with anything.’
Not even Charles Barkley, the basketball player?
‘Nope. It’s just like everything else on this record. There was no conscious decision about stuff.’
In person, Danger Mouse cuts a skinny, unthreatening figure. Unassuming and soft-spoken, he likes to listen rather than draw attention. Admittedly, he often favours a mouse outfit for public appearances, but that started while he was DJing at college as a way of overcoming his shyness in front of crowds.
But his mild manner belies a confidence in his own instincts. While dispensing with ‘conscious decisions’ might sound a little ‘out there’ to some, it’s business as usual for Danger Mouse. ‘I don’t look at myself as a traditional producer,’ he says. ‘I work very differently.’ For example, he claims to have a spiritual advisor known only as ‘Dr President’ and about whom he refuses to elaborate. He insists on a couch or a bed in his studios, somewhere he can sleep – a vestige from those nights starting out in his bedroom. And he once said: ‘I don’t know how to write a song traditionally, I only know how to distinguish between what’s good and what’s bad. As long as you have enough good for three minutes, that’s a song to me.’
As it happens, two minutes or even 86 seconds of ‘good’ is OK too. One of St Elsewhere’s charms is its brevity. Another is its enormous range. Like Demon Days it fizzes with ideas, from cartoonish horror stomps to singalong Eighties pop and even a Violent Femmes cover (‘Gone Daddy Gone’). It sounds fresh, unprecious and very post-‘Hey Ya’, but taken as a whole – like so much else in the Danger Mouse portfolio – it’s notoriously hard to categorise. OutKast meets UNKLE with shades of Stevie Wonder? A Funkadelic salad with NERD croutons and a Massive Attack vinaigrette?
‘I call it industrial euro-soul,’ says Cee-Lo. ‘Some of them beats are dirty like a factory. They sound like he’s on the laptop with gloves on. The “euro” is because industrial music is more European like, you know, Kraftwerk or … Aphex Twin or some shit.’
Danger Mouse licks his spoon. ‘I prefer “psychedelic soul”,’ he says. ‘Psychedelic music is pretty much all I listen to right now. Really raw experimental stuff from the Sixties and Seventies, stuff like the Churchills, the Electric Prunes. There are thousands of these bands. They would make music knowing that they could have made it more sellable, but they didn’t. I love that. That’s the spirit I wanted here. Experimentation and melody.’
There is something old-fashioned about St Elsewhere – not so much with the music, but in the notion of an album that exceeds the sum of its parts, that hangs together so the songs bloom in context. It was recorded in Georgia, where Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo first met eight years ago at a talent contest. Back then, Cee-Lo was a star – Goodie Mob were second only to OutKast in the world of Southern hip hop – and Danger Mouse was a struggling DJ with a line in dark, moody soundscapes. Years later when Danger Mouse requested Cee-Lo to guest on an record he was making with a rapper called Jemini, the two resolved to make an album together. ‘But that was before the Grey Album, before everything happened,’ says Danger Mouse. ‘So we recorded it on and off whenever we could find time.’
Typically, their method was unlike the way most artists and producers work together – Danger Mouse made the tracks and Cee-Lo came up with the lyrics and melody, more or less independently. ‘I didn’t really produce him,’ says Danger Mouse. ‘He just found his way through the tracks melodically. However he found his way, that’s how the song went.’
‘Yeah, the tracks were like snapshots of the moon,’ says Cee-Lo, grinning. ‘Like Danger Mouse said: “Let’s go out there, I got a little place, we can kick it”.’
‘I’m welcome there, it’s fine,’ says Danger Mouse. ‘I can make a nice introduction for you.’
‘Yeah, like he was flying the spaceship. And I kind of went outside and did a little … moonlighting.’
The pair are pretty playful – as evidenced by their penchant for dressing up as characters from famous movies. ‘We’ll be doing it some more,’ says Danger Mouse. ‘I’ve been feeling sexy these past couple of days,’ Cee-Lo adds, ‘so we might do The Full Monty.’ But for all the playfulness and humour on the album, there’s an underlying darkness about St Elsewhere, a lost feeling that goes beyond the standard themes of heartbreak or injustice. Cee-Lo sings about doubt and suicidal thoughts, gathering storms and necrophilia.
‘That’s not always literal, the necrophilia,’ he says. ‘I mean, there’s a figurative aspect, like trying to coax love out of someone that’s dying inside, a girl who had her spirit killed. I’m a moody and melancholic kind of guy, honestly. And Brian’s music is like that – dark. It’s not something you can pretend.’
He didn’t have to. The making of St Elsewhere coincided with dark times for Cee-Lo. After the Goodie Mob split up in 2002, he made two solo albums – Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and Cee-Lo Green … is the Soul Machine – both critically acclaimed, but neither quite a hit. When his label contract came to an end, it wasn’t renewed.
‘I had a divorce. I got two kids. I didn’t have a deal. We made this whole record ourselves, without a record company. Things were bad, personally and professionally.’ He did co-write ‘Don’t Cha’ in 2005, which became a hit for the Pussycat Dolls, but beyond that the only work he had was with Danger Mouse, either as Gnarls Barkley, or as a guest on the brilliant MF Doom album, The Mouse and the Mask.
Danger Mouse too has had his share of disappointment. He started out in New York, the son of a teacher and a social worker, listening to hip hop, hair metal and Eighties pop – Wham! as well as Iron Maiden. They moved to Athens, Georgia, when he was 12, where his ears opened a little further – his teenage years were all about the hard Miami Bass sound of Magic Mike, at least until he reached college. There he signed on to take a music course, but they turned him down. ‘They said I didn’t play an instrument well enough. Which was the reason I wanted to get in, because I wanted to learn. But I don’t regret anything.’
Stuck in a telecommunications course instead, he remained determined to pursue music, so he started making beats with whatever equipment he could get his hands on. Since equipment cost money, he started working as a hip hop DJ as a sideline, and that was where he came up with the name Danger Mouse. ‘I loved the cartoon. It was kind of a cult thing in America, so it was pretty cool. It sounded fun. Silly.’
His real passion, however, wasn’t hip hop but ‘dark soundtrack music’. He became such a fan of trip hop and the Bristol sound that when he graduated, he travelled to England, propelled by the romantic idea of making music in the land that produced Pink Floyd and Tricky, where Hendrix first flourished.
‘I fucking hated it,’ he says. ‘London just beat me down, man. I was working in a pub in London Bridge for two years and taking the bus home to New Cross every night. I was just working, trying to meet the rent. I didn’t see the sun for, like, three weeks and I was broke and single. It wasn’t what I expected.’
Two weeks later, in London, I meet up with them again. ‘Crazy’ is perched atop the UK charts, and this startling success means we are not talking in a dodgy pub south of the river, but rather in the Sanderson hotel. “Crazy’ is a kind of weird record,’ says a jet-lagged Danger Mouse. ‘It’s got a lot of elements to it – but from playing the demo to friends we knew that it would act as a gateway for what we were doing.’
What Danger Mouse is doing now, aside from his work with Cee-Lo, is focusing on a second project with Damon Albarn – not another Gorillaz album, he lets slip, but something which started with an African theme and has since ‘evolved’.
‘The important thing is that I keep working with people I like,’ he says. It’s a simple lesson but perhaps the most important, one he picked up in his first year of college when he was so immersed in new music that he couldn’t even name a Beatles’s song.
‘So when I heard that stuff for the first time, can you imagine? Beatles, Pink Floyd – it just hit me over the head. I realised that there was so much I didn’t know about because it was outside my comfort zone. So I just stopped trying to fit in with what was around me and I just went with what I liked – same for friends and music and everything. I decided to be myself as much as I could be, before it was too late. And music was the thing that signified that change for me. It made it tangible. Music changed my life.’