Every superhero has an alter-ego – often a nerdy, bespectacled young man who never gets a second glance as he strides down the street, searching for a telephone booth or dark alleyway where he can tear off his glasses and become Superman or Spiderman, or grow shirt-bursting green muscles and become the Hulk.
For suave hip-hop superhero Gnarls Barkley, however, his human counterparts are already cool: Producer Danger Mouse provides GB’s brain power and heartbeat, while Atlanta rapper Cee-Lo Green imparts his voice and his soul.
“Gnarls Barkley is a person, for real,” Green insists, “although he’s cunning and elusive. If I saw him again today, I don’t know if I’d truly recognize him.”
Then he lets out a delicious high-pitched laugh and admits, “we were gonna try to hire someone to stand in for us for the publicity, because it’s really about him.”
“We didn’t want it to be a picture of us standing on the album cover,” DM confirms. “Then the record leaked before we were done with it, which is where the mystery came in – people were asking, ‘Who is Gnarls Barkley?’ Songs were being played all over the radio in England, and we still needed to finish the damn record.”
Green and DM’s first single, “Crazy,” made pop history in April, by becoming the first song to reach #1 in the U.K. based on downloads only; here in the U.S., it’s steadily climbed its way up the Billboard charts. By the time St. Elsewhere was released in May, the duo had formed a road band to perform at music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, playing on London’s Top of the Pops, the MTV Movie Awards, and, in September, Austin City Limits.
Clad in ever-increasingly elaborate costumes – they’ve dressed as characters from Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Napoleon Dynamite and A Clockwork Orange, and appeared as dynamic duos like Superman and Clark Kent, cable-access rockers Wayne and Garth and serial killers Freddy Kreuger and Friday the 13th’s Jason – Gnarls Barkley’s hype has steamrolled into bona fide celebritydom. Now in the midst of an extensive U.S. and European tour, DM and Green have ultimately settled in for the long haul.
As any fan of Marvel Comics can tell you, most superheroes have an origin story that’s rife with happy accidents, chemical spills and unlikely meetings held in underground bunkers or island laboratories.
Gnarls Barkley was conceived in a recording studio, during a session for Jemini’s Ghetto Pop Life album. When Green came in to record a remix, Danger Mouse slipped him a tape of instrumental tracks, and the vocalist was instantly hooked.
“That was back in 2003,” DM remembers. “I liked Cee-Lo’s hooks and Southern influences. I used a lot of double-time beats, and I thought that his singing would be cool, because it would be hard for someone to rap to it. I played him some stuff, and he was really into it, so I thought, alright, sure – I guess I’m doing an album with Cee-Lo.”
“His production was compelling and provocative,” Green adds, “and I knew it would provide an excuse for me to expound on a new level. When the track is right for me, I can feel it instantly – it’s like an immediate gratification.”
Two of the earliest songs the duo collaborated on, “Just A Thought” and “Who Cares,” evolved from conversations they had in the studio.
“Cee-Lo wrote ‘Just A Thought’ based on where the breaks were,” says DM. “He wrote specifically to the structure I gave him, which was loose, as opposed to a standard verse/chorus arrangement. He filled the spaces where they needed to be filled, and then I added the organ and bass line later.”
The end result, a plea for psychic peace overlaid with shimmering cymbal crashes and acoustic guitar riffs, makes for one of the most masterful moments on St. Elsewhere. “I prefer peace/Wouldn’t have to have one worldly possession,” trills Green, before snarling, “But essentially I’m an animal /So just what do I do with all the aggression?”
“Well, I’ve tried everything but suicide/But it’s crossed my mind/Just a thought,” he claims, evoking not a cry for help, but the life-and-death battle that’s an essential part of every human being.
The ebullient “Crazy,” a soaring blend of sweet Southern soul and modern pop sensibilities, echoes those thoughts, as Green runs through an Olympics-style vocal workout in a gleeful attempt to describe life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“I can be happy and sad, all in the same day,” Green reveals today. “I’d call that dynamic, not schizophrenic. Suicide is just a thought – it’s probably crossed everybody’s mind. You can empathize, because life can get that bad.”
Armed with DM’s mood-driven productions, Green decided to delve into his own psyche – “almost as if I’m reading my journal, or memoirs,” he says – to write the most personal lyrics of his career.
“It felt like an out-of-body experience, like divine intervention. There was no way I was meant to keep these feelings to myself. ‘Crazy’ is about asking yourself, ‘Am I tripping?’” he says. “It’s about all those people who think it’s simple to live their lives in denial, choosing to be ignorant and thinking it’s actually bliss.”
Shortly after DM and Green brought their creature to life, a funny thing happened. In 2004, Danger Mouse dropped the Grey Album (an unauthorized, albeit brilliant remix of Jay Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album) online, which led to a deal with Damon Albarn to produce Gorillaz’ Demon Days release. Suddenly, DM has become a hot name on everyone’s lips, from GQ magazine to the Grammy® voting committee, who nominated him Producer of the Year in ‘05.
“Luckily, I think I suck,” DM deadpans. “I’m one of those people for whom that kind of stuff isn’t real – if I believed any of it, I wouldn’t be working. Instead, I’m working a lot. The music world is always two years behind me, as far as my projects go. People are still talking about the Grey Album, and I’m like, ‘No, you have to hear Gnarls Barkley.’”
“Obviously, getting a Number One single is cool,” he adds, “but honestly, I’m always surprised how slow the industry is. A lot of inside people heard stuff from this record, but they didn’t jump on it at all. I kinda think I know what’s good sometimes…”
“I’m not tripping on catapulting into superstardom,” Green maintains,” although with this project, it looks like it might happen. If it doesn’t,” he shrugs, “I’m cool. I have time. I figure I’ll be doing music as long as I’m alive.”
But in the end, DM concludes, the Gnarls Barkley project might turn out a little bit different: “You’ve got the Danger Mouse thing and the Cee-Lo thing,” he says, “but putting both of us together turned out to be something bigger than the sum of the parts.”