Interview: Gnarls Barkley
Tue, 13 May 2008 10:46:57
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Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo could've easily been a painter. The soulful crooner paints portraits of pain on Gnarls' latest concoction of smoky, space soul, The Odd Couple. Danger Mouse's beats are an active canvas that Cee-Lo populates with raw emotions, ranging from utter joy to complete sadness. However, it ain't all so bad for the dynamic duo. Right now, Cee-Lo's enjoying a little R&R. While at home, he comments, "I'm in Atlanta. It's nice out here. It's been a gorgeous couple of days, brother." Regardless of the weather, Cee-Lo seems to be a hazy voiced prophet, preaching to a disengendered generation that's equally addicted to pain pills and MySpace.
However, like any slow drug, you've got to let Cee-Lo's voice seep in. Once he's in, he takes over. He concocts R&B voodoo with that strange cadence and his huge hooks. He finds the middle ground between The Temptations and Trent Reznor. Meanwhile, Danger Mouse channels both RZA and Spaghetti Western soundtracks, crafting kooky beats that ooze impending danger.
Upon telling Cee-Lo that The Odd Couple is fantastic, he responds with a laugh. "Thank you, man. I'm glad you noticed!" He spoke with ARTISTdirect about The Odd Couple and much more in this exclusive interview.
The album has a smoky, film noir sensibility. Was that era of cinema an influence on the record?
Yeah, I would say so, because the album is a narrative. There's this atmospheric, surreal, cinematic quality to it. This album's not supposed to sound like it's being performed. Rather, it's symbolic of thinking out loud.
Across the album, there are various emotions and vibes. Would you say that each represents one part of the larger brain or thought process?
Of course, I agree completely. It is truly human nature. It's supernatural though. You understand what I mean? It's not surprising. In my opinion, it's crazy how certain artists feel like they have to be something in particular, all the way down. Then they're not varied or diversified. That single-mindedness is more associated with being clinically crazy in the mind's dynamic. Retardation, in the simplest terms, is single-mindedness. Those single-minded artists don't delve into all of the emotions that we have. They have a one-track mind.
On the record, each song is a piece of the larger mosaic that is human experience. Opening with "Charity Case" is especially fitting, because the song has that supernatural ere. It pulls listeners in.
It's one of my favorites. It's one of the first songs that we did. A lot of those tracks, like "Charity Case" and "Run," I've had since we did St. Elsewhere. I went back to re-visit them here.
Did the time in between The Odd Couple and St. Elsewhere help shape those tracks? I don't think this new album sounds much like St. Elsewhere.
Me either, man. I heard that, and I wanted the evolution to be obvious to people, but it wasn't at all. I guess that wasn't a realistic expectation. We definitely improved on the model though.
You've brought soul music into outer space, because anything seems possible sonically in the realm of Gnarls Barkley.
A part of it is just truly second nature. Also, there's an additional agenda of establishing and encouraging that optimism amongst artists and executives alike, where it can be seen as a viable commodity. For an artist, it can be seen as possible or palatable.
You bring the mainstream to you in that context. People have to discover it on their own to really be rewarded by it.
It really does take one to know one. The minute someone has seen him or herself in the music, I applaud them for being honest with themselves and for being real. It's truly human nature. Because there's one thing that I'm certain of, I know I'm being completely honest. The music is completely true to life and the living experience. So anyone that could not fathom or swallow what Gnarls has to offer, I think is in a bit of denial.
They may be completely cloistered off from their own emotions as well. What hits the most on The Odd Couple is the sheer amount of pain that you convey. Was it hard to record and perform the tracks in the studio?
No, actually it was very encouraging that Danger Mouse's production could mirror or compel my pain in that way. I'm a producer myself, and I haven't had that experience with my own production or anybody else's. There's a very kinetic and kindred relationship between us. I guess that misery does have some company. I can say that our experiences were different, but no more or less painful than each other's. Pain is pain, and we have that in common. There's also a growing pain. Can you dig it?
It's funny that you named the record The Odd Couple, because you two aren't that different as artists in terms of creativity.
Right, exactly. It's like are we "odd" together as a duo, or are we "odd" in comparison to everyone else? It's probably a little bit of both. Maybe we're "odd" in appearance, where this time, "The Odd Couple Gets Even."
The album has that classic story thread. There's everything from pain and joy to loss and revenge. You've brought those story elements into this spacey soul music.
Man, that's so cool. I'm going to tell you something else that's cool. I was listening to some demos last night, and it's funny that you would say that you heard, "Revenge." I was just messing around and humming to myself over the demos the words "I Want Revenge." [Laughs] I think that's a little bit of confirmation that I may have to make a song out of it. [Laughs]. I was just writing to these tracks and seeing what I could see. It's like, "Yeah, revenge!"
How do you and Danger Mouse work together?
Definitely, the compositions are complete thoughts before they get to me. So whether it be a chord progression, break or something off-kilter like that, I know it's meant to not only challenge the establishment, but also to challenge me as well. It empowers me, and it encourages me to write in different ways. So the songs end up being as short as they are, because it ends up being an agenda of mine to be as effective as possible in that short amount of time. The songs truly are just the lengths of the demos that Danger sends me. He's said on occasion that if he can hold my attention for two-and-a-half minutes, it may be decent or good enough to use. Our process is as simple as him sending me ten or fifteen things. I don't necessarily like to wander off looking for the song. I would much rather have the instant gratification, but I don't want to be spoiled by that either. So therefore, I do go out and look for lyrics, and sometimes, it seems like these songs are already written. I've described them as Hieroglyphics. They're something ancient, and they're just being unveiled as we excavate. It's all in my head, and I have to reveal it. Our process makes me a believer that music from a total stranger can strike me in such a personal and introspective way. It makes me believe that music can really compel something so deep, dark and personal for me. I couldn't believe that it could do that. It's healed me a great deal. I try to write the songs that I think Danger Mouse would've written, if he wrote the songs. I'm always like, "Is this what you're trying to say?" One exception is a song like "Open Book." Do you like that one?
I love that song.
Me too. That's the one beat I sat down and watched him make. We were on tour at the time, and I watched him make it. I was like, "Oh my, that's awesome." We actually got some studio time, while we were on the road, and I tried to write to it, but I didn't have it at the time. I sat with it a little while longer. I did add the rainforest sound effects to it. After I had come up with a storyline, I initially wanted to name it, "Jungle Book," but of course, I couldn't. "Open Book" is more relevant to the exposed emotions throughout the album and the purpose that I serve as an artist.
You bring all of the color out of the canvas that Danger Mouse creates for you, without ever going beyond it.
Right, I don't go past it. I get in it.
Your creative chemistry comes through more than anything on this album. It's a magical thing.
It's very magical, man. That's why I'm proud of revealing how we work, because this way probably wouldn't be as productive for someone else, because we were only together for about 25 percent of this album. The other 75 percent is done in separate places. I don't like to keep going back at it. By the time I commit to a lyric and record it, I expect that to be the one. Therefore, I also really respect his taste. I want to nail it for him. I want to impress him the way that he's impressed me in a roundabout way. When he calls me back and says, "Yo man, wow. It's great," that's very gratifying and relieving. I do respect him an awful lot, and he brings out the best in me. I still don't think I did my best either, by the way.
Would you say this is the most personal you've ever gotten on an album?
I've always done it that way. I think people took this album like that, because it definitely is a lot more personal, pertaining to me. I did not want to deter the attention from Gnarls Barkley, the entity and the enigma. I didn't want it to become so personal that "being personal" becomes my shtick. I don't necessarily want that. But, I just happened to have a knack for putting the way I feel into song form, whether it be my pain or my love. Pain is always very intriguing and interesting. Especially when people think that someone like myself, prestigious and prominent, doesn't have pain. Current music isn't built off those painful things the way it used to be. I think we bring that back in a very futuristic, yet nostalgic way. So you take your real life, not the façade. You derive it from the actual you. You are the art.
Pain will always be there too. It's the universal equalizer, really.
Right, it is. As ironic as that is, it is.
To be able to get close to it and then look the devil in the eye, dance with him and come back from it should be the goal of any artist trying to really expose feeling.
I agree. Therefore, that is the reason why I don't suggest that anyone take what Gnarls Barkley does lightly or as a joke. It's heavy. It's gangster. It's rock n' roll. It's the real deal.
The fact you can be so catchy and dark makes it even stronger.
I guess I also happen to know what truth like music and denial is as well. It's kind of easy to pinpoint and troubleshoot. They leave all that territory for me to pull from.
With how visual your music is, would you ever want to write or score your own movie, like a rock opera?
I think we should. When's the last time that's been done? What was it Tommy? They don't do that anymore, and it's like, why not? What happened to that caliber of desire and ability? We could do it.
The singing is just like acting. You're getting up there and evoking all of these emotions from yourself.
Exactly, it's a re-enactment of emotion. I don't know. I don't get the chance to talk to a lot of people about it, but this particular album, I know we won't ever get the chance to be a surprise anymore. People are very well aware of Gnarls Barkley at this point. So instead of a lot of hysteria this time around, it seems like everything got very quiet around me. I don't really know how people took to the new record, besides what I read here and there. I log on, and I check out people's opinions. I was really interested to see how people felt. I would almost want to interview you and just really find out what you took from it. How did it affect you?
Honestly, it crept in my head. It made me think, and it made me feel. It evoked so many different emotions throughout the whole thing. It's dark, but at the same time, it's fun to listen to. I've always personally been attracted to darker things, but I think most people are. Why do horror movies and violent video games do so well? People need to let the album creep in. It's like a silent killer. Once you let it in, it's got you.
I'm the same way with it, man. I must admit a lot of my music, including St. Elsewhere, I didn't listen to a lot. We'll live with a project for a year or so before it goes public. So by that time, I've had enough. With Odd Couple, I was very proud to see that outcome of this album. I wouldn't change a thing. I'm a fan of it, and I think it's great. I want more and more people to be exposed to it, not for the sake of an album sale, but for the sake of salvation, to really know that there's good music out there. It doesn't have to be the underground type of music that's not going to be impactful in the viable way, but it can be there in a close way. This is a success story. This is the most outspoken underground music going on, to me. I've got to toot my own horn about it, because kids need to know. They need to know that I know. It's not luck. It's know how, and it's man power.