Gnarls Barkley Eats Your Lunch
by Dude Mantee, Jr.
A breakfast tray sits on the step outside Cottage 86 at the Chateau Marmont, fragrant beads of grease dripping from each glistening strip of a double serving of crisp bacon heaped on a white plate in the morning sun. Gnarls Barkley is late for our interview in Cottage 84 and after rushing over here without stopping for breakfast, not even coffee, I am standing around with my stomach growling, eyeing that breakfast tray. Maybe I'm crazy, I hum to myself as I casually slide over and reach for a piece of bacon. But just then the door to Cottage 86 opens and a lovely Asian girl, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her luscious torso, grabs the breakfast tray and catches me looking at her as if she is the bacon.
At that exact moment, Brian Burton and Thomas Calloway — better known as Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo, the duo behind Gnarls Barkley — come stepping around the corner. The Asian babe and that plate of bacon will have to wait while I find out what this odd couple has cooked up in their aptly named latest album, The Odd Couple, the sequel to their Grammy-award winning, certified Platinum-selling 2006 album St. Elsewhere. The Odd Couple peaked at #12 on the Nielsen Soundscan charts since its March release and the duo, currently touring Europe (with a stop at the Montreux Jazz Fest) will bring their weirdo act to the Hollywood Bowl on July 27.
The guys are not in their usual costumes (flight crew, Stars Wars, scientists, hippies, astronauts, etc.). Cee-Lo's large frame appears weightless in cool all-white shirt and trousers and sporting dark bubble shades. Brian is slim and serious in plaid shirt and jeans. As soon as we settle into Cottage 84, the handler from Warner Music guides a hotel waiter into the room. The waiter is carrying a tray holding two covered plates. Cee-Lo lifts the shiny aluminum lid to discover a thickly stuffed cheese sandwich with a thick mound of French fries. "What did you get?" he asks Brian. Brian pokes at two taco-like items on his plate. "Duck something," he says. Crepes stuffed with shredded duck.
Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that I will be watching them eat lunch while we talk but I will not be joining them in the eating part. Fuck! These record companies are really cutting back, dammit. How long, I'm thinking — how long before I —. from my growling belly the thought rolls up into my mind, transmuting into a question about time and music and back to Gnarls Barkley, one of the few groups other than Jethro Tull and Rilo Kiley named after a non-existing person.
"How long what?" says Brian, in between bites. "To put the record together? A little over a year." Out of thirteen new songs, the album's single is Run, an over-excited rush of psychedelic soul that inspires visions of 60's go-go dancers in white boots frugging in cages at the Whisky. The video goes in another direction, however, directed by the filmmaking team Happy, the partnership of Guy Shelmerdane and Richard Farmer, and casts Gnarls in an imaginary early '90s public access show on cable television called 'City Vibin'.'
For Who's Gonna Save My Soul, their second video off The Odd Couple, Gnarls will be reuniting with director Chris Milk who helmed the Grammy-nominated video for "Gone Daddy Gone."
How do they choose the single from a new batch of songs?
"It's never easy for us," says Brian, chomping down on the duck crepes, their spicy pungency wafting into the room like a flight of blue mallards over a summer lake.
"Sometimes it's tempo," says Cee-lo, trimming a bright green piece of fresh lettuce dangling from his cheese sandwich. "Sometimes it's a song that describes the diversity of the project as a whole."
"Sometimes not that at all," Brian says. "We try not to let it be too much of how the media gives the song away, through videos or through radio stations, because they make you fit into their process, but we're the ones making the music. We don't think about how to make the songs work in their system."
The system, yeah. The music industry is what they're talking about, "We are in it," says Cee-lo, "but not of it."
Speaking with the kind of confidence that comes from long experience in the indie world — and success on their own terms, the Odd Couple describes their odd working method. Brian lives in LA, and maintains a studio. Cee-lo lives in Atlanta. Half the album done when together, half done separately. They send songs back and forth. "A lot of frequent flyer miles," says Brian, summing it up.
Though they are cinema fans, frequently appearing on stage as the characters from movies like Austin Powers, Pulp Fiction and The Wizard of Oz, they are not especially horror movie fans, but they admit that Would Be Killer, a song from The Odd Couple, would be a great soundtrack or title song for a suspense or horror movie. ìIt is a motion picture," says Cee-lo of the song. But that's not because they write it that way. Nothing that Gnarls Barkley does follows a straight line.
"We don't do too much deliberately," Brain explains. "When it's done, when we can look back on it, then we can be a little objective about it."
That goes for 60's influences that are all over The Odd Couple. Whatever opens with a bouncy Beach Boys-style intro. No Time Soon is a hippy trippy ballad. And Surprise opens with a Fifth Dimension lyric that announces "Up, up and away she goes"
"We definitely listen to music from that era," Brian admits. "We weren't trying to make the music sound like that. But we like the spirit of that time in music. We're inspired by it."
Cee-lo adds, "The music from back then has a timeless quality to it, so it could be here and now."
"We're trying to make music that is timeless," Brian agrees, making sure that I understand that Gnarls Barkley isn't just some retro-band. "But we relate to that music."
One of their more arcane influences is Italian film score music from the 60's and 70's. Who's Gonna Save My Soul first evolved while the duo was touring in Europe in summer 2006. Brian remembers coming up with the song while they were in Venice. "It was the first song, first beat we did that I felt was one hundred per cent Gnarls." He says, "There's some Italian film soundtrack music on this record. Morricone was very influential." Another influence was Morricone's childhood friend Alessandro Alessandroni, the whistler on Sergio Leone's 'spaghetti western' epics and one of the heroes of Italian soundtracks. Gnarls Barkley somehow persuaded Alessandroni's I Cantori Moderni to make a guest appearance on the Odd Couple track titled Going On.
But who is Blind Mary? The song on the album titled Blind Mary seems to describe a real character. Brian hands the question to Cee-lo. "Blind Mary — she's the perfect girl, flawed — but aren't we all disabled in one way or another?"Cee-lo thinks about it. "But her handicap has a bright side," he continues. "She can feel a lot more, as opposed to being able to see. She's not superficial, judgmental or vain. She can see and feel to the core of me and I love her for it."
The man is talking about something that obviously has personal meaning, and there's silence in the room. "That was well said," Brian offers. Cee-lo laughs, a little embarrassed at the little moment of self-revelation.
One of the few tracks recorded while both Gnarls members were together was Open Book, in which Cee-lo's silken voice delivers the words: "I sing the song of peace, it soothes the savage beast." A medley of wild forest sounds finishes the track. But again, no one tried to do a song about peace or wild beasts in forests.
While on a tour bus in 2006, Burton was trying to "deal with different time signatures and stuff and mess with it a little bit. He [Cee-lo] heard that, the tribal thing. Now I can't listen to it and not hear it like that. So it went from an experimental avant garde thing to a kind of tribal song."
I ask about Whatever, a song that seems to be a stoner anthem in which "Fuck you, too" is a key lyric — what's that all about? Brian and Cee-Lo look at one another- "Yeah," they laugh. "Stuff like that happens to us as kids. You have to be able to say fuck it sometimes." The go back to finishing off their food.
At the 2007 Grammys Gnarls Barkley won best urban/alternative performance and alternative music album and gave a terrific performance of their hit song 'Crazy.' I asks them if a monster hit song like 'Crazy' changes your life, makes you a multi-multi-millionaire? They goof around, reluctant to answer. Finally Cee-lo says, ìIt's a huge song that happened to two guys with very moderate tastes. We're not running out to buy a yacht or anything."
It's plain that the costumes, the fictitious name, and their professional shyness masks the enormous pride of two sharp, intelligent guys who are diligent about protecting their talent from the corrosive effects that fame and fortune have exacted on others who have fallen by the wayside. Gnarls Barkley, healthy and well-fed, is destined to be making music to a ripe old age — but what's that going to be like?
"The Golden Years, uh — when does that start exactly?" frowns Brian, wiping the shredded duck crumbs from his lips with a napkin. He's 30 years old and his partner is 32. But they're not thinking about reaching Rolling Stone age.
"I never really pictured myself that way," Brian says. "It's different for me because I don't sing. So there's nothing physical that would deteriorate that way." He means that his getting old won't be a disappointment to Gnarls Barkley fans. He's shielded from fan fickleness by the studio walls.
For Cee-lo, front man and singer, it's a little different, but he's facing the future bravely. "Gonna be a lot slimmer," he predicts. "One pocket full of change, the other full of candies. I'm an old soul."
As for me, I may be crazy, but I'm going to have my fucking lunch, dammit. REX