features

Gnarls Barkley interview

January 2008

photo by Jeremy & Claire Weiss - thanks to RunMusic PR

This piece was going to run in the Mail on Sunday's Live section, but due to problems with photos - or, perhaps, a fear not that many of the Mail's readers would be entirely prepared for a dose of Cee-Lo in a wedding dress with their Sunday morning corn flakes - it was delayed for some time; then when it ran in a different slot it was extensively reworked to fit a different and shorter format. I liked this original version, though, so think it's worth having it here, in case anyone's interested. It would have been the first piece to run anywhere in the world (I think) during the run-up to the release of the group's second LP, The Odd Couple. The interview took place in January 2008.

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The shaven-headed, heavily tattooed man sat at the table in a corner cafe in a nondescript Los Angeles suburb is giving off strong "don't mess with me" vibes. He's just been explaining how people think of him as 'an ominous figure, a dark, dark person.' Later, he will talk about songwriting as if it was some kind of supernatural possession: 'The things that come to me, that whisper in my ear naturally, I don't ask for 'em. I have become very fond of the demons assigned to me - they've become part of the muse.' But right now, to one little girl, he is neither terrifying nor menacing, but fascinating: like a cartoon character come to life.

Maya is practically fearless. A tousle-haired girl who can't be more than five years old, she walks calmly up to where Thomas "Cee-Lo Green" Callaway is sitting and taps him on the arm. In a second, the singer/rapper's stony frown of concentration crumbles. He whips off his Run DMC-style thick-framed shades and leans over to Maya, grinning. Cooing in a gentle, sing-songy voice, he charms a blush out of his new young friend.

She tells Cee-Lo that her favourite song on St. Elsewhere, the three-million-selling debut album by his group, Gnarls Barkley, is Boogie Monster. 'That's one of my favourite ones too!' Cee-Lo beams. Maya's mum looks on, a little embarrassed but certainly not concerned, and makes small talk with Cee-Lo's Gnarls Barkley partner, the producer Brain "Danger Mouse" Burton.

'When the two of us are together, it's a little bit obvious,' Danger Mouse says of getting recognised, after Maya and her mum have left the laid-back locals' hang-out. The tall producer with the dark eyes, pronounced eyebrows and pile of curly hair is certainly distinctive, yet he is rarely bothered by fans when he's out on his own. 'This,' he says, pointing at a Cee-Lo, 'is the face of it all. And I definitely don't mind that.'

A streetwise former gang member and a college-educated boffin who spent years trying not to be dubbed a nerd; one man at home in the spotlight, another happy to hang in the background and let his music do the talking: despite the years both spent in the same American city, and the remarkable coincidence that they were both born with the same surname (Cee-Lo changed his from Burton to Callaway, his mother's maiden name, following her death in 1995), the differences between the two Gnarls Barkley band mates easily outnumber their similarities. Yet together, these contrary and seemingly incompatible personalities make unusual but compelling music - music that is as dark and dangerous at its heart as it is poppy and accessible on the outside. The title of their new, second album seems more than apt: Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse certainly are The Odd Couple.

Gnarls Barkley hit the headlines when their debut single, Crazy, became the first record to top the British singles charts on download sales alone two years ago.  To say that the record's success was a surprise is a gross understatement. The original plan for the band had actually been to pretend that the records were made by a man called Gnarls Barkley, so that neither Cee-Lo nor Danger Mouse would have to ever talk to the press - but as soon as it became clear how big the record was going to get, that hoped-for anonymity was soon abandoned.

Proving that their partnership was no one-hit wonder, the pair's St. Elsewhere album received rave reviews and quickly went platinum in Britain and America. Yet such huge success couldn't have been further from their minds when they met on what they both describe, giggling at their own pointless mysteriousness, as 'a dark, stormy night' in 1998.

'We met on the campus of the University of Georgia, in Athens,' Cee-Lo begins, fiddling with a Blackberry whose occasional chirrups and text messages he is doing his best to ignore. Danger Mouse - who prefers an iPhone, which he doesn't touch until the interview is over - was a student at the University: Cee-Lo was performing with his band, Goodie Mob. 'Me and some friends won a talent contest to be the opening act,' Danger Mouse recalls, 'and after the show was over I gave him a demo of mine.'

They didn't get together again until 2004, when Danger Mouse, who had moved from Georgia to London and signed to the hip hop offshoot of the British dance music label, Warp, invited Cee-Lo to appear on a remix. 'I asked him if he remembered [the meeting in Athens],' Danger Mouse recalls, 'and he said he did. I didn't believe him then, but now I know that Cee-Lo can remember a conversation that happened years ago word-for-word.'

Danger Mouse played some new material to Cee-Lo, who was impressed, and the seeds of the Gnarls Barkley collaboration were sown. But before they could begin to work together, they both had other projects to finish.

The record that put Danger Mouse on the map was The Grey Album, given away online in 2005. The record was a mash-up of a cappella vocals from the rapper Jay-Z's Black Album set to new music that Danger Mouse had created using samples taken from The Beatles' so-called White Album. After the Fab Four's label, EMI, issued a cease-and-desist order, he was inundated with offers of work. 'But I didn't trust anybody, really, who approached me,' he says. 'I didn't think they wanted to work with me for the right reasons. The Grey Album wasn't what I was trying to do at all.'

He did, though, respond to one would-be collaborator - Blur front man Damon Albarn. As a result, DM moved back to London and began working with Albarn's Gorillaz outfit. As well as producing their second LP, Demon Days, which won Danger Mouse a Grammy nomination as Producer of the Year, he was also roped in to Albarn's next ad hoc project, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, and produced their self-titled 2007 album, too.

'I've probably learned more from Damon than I have from anyone I've ever worked with,' the producer admits. 'He had a huge impact on me: just musically, watching him work, and how I work with him. I look at my projects as before him and after him.'

While all this was going on, Cee-Lo was busy, too. Although he was by no means a mainstream star, the rapper was already something of an underground legend by the time he and Danger Mouse met. Almost the first thing he recorded, aged 17, in his home town of Atlanta, were backing vocals on local girl group TLC's massive worldwide hit Waterfalls. 'I just happened to be around in the studio that day,' he shrugs. 'I could sing, and I was convenient. Nobody knew what that song would become.' But he didn't get rich from it, being paid 'just union scale - three or four hundred dollars. No royalties.'

Cee-Lo spent the mid-1990s rubbing shoulders with the cream of Atlanta's black music scene, sharing a house with many of them, including the city's biggest hip hop export, OutKast. He was even briefly a member of the band in one of their earliest incarnations: but instead he joined Goodie Mob, a four-rapper outfit whose first LP, 1995's Soul Food, became a hip hop classic. At one point the band were doing so well that they bought the entire stock of a bankrupt Atlanta record shop so that they had a ready-made arsenal of sounds to sample.

After Goodie Mob's third album, Cee-Lo released the first of two solo LPs in 2002, but his relationship with his band mates soured. Goodie Mob put out a record as a three-piece without Cee-Lo, titled, in an apparent and very barbed dig at him, One Monkey Don't Stop No Show.

'Something very private went public,' Cee-Lo says of the row. 'In their opinion, it was not meant as personal. But I wasn't surprised when it boiled over.'

Behind the scenes, things went from bad to worse: Goodie Mob had lost their record deal, and one of the other members, Khujo, had a leg amputated after a car accident. But the release of the provocatively titled album so riled Cee-Lo that he felt he had no choice but to fight back. His response was the blistering song Glockapella, included on his second solo album, Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine, in which he makes mortal threats against his band mates even as he makes clear how painful it is to have to retaliate.

'Most of the battles and beefs in rap are stylised and sensationalised,' he argues. 'I don't think any other beef records were as sincere as mine because this was a family gripe gone wrong. If it was somebody who I could care less about, I may not have said anything, but I really do love those guys - they're my brothers. And it's the gift and the curse to have my love, because if I love you and you hurt me, I may hurt you.' He doesn't smile at the recollection, but seems to be trying hard to be honest. 'When I'm in the right, I'm righteous,' he says. 'But when it's bad, it's evil with me.'

His solo records sold poorly, even ...Soul Machine, which should have fitted right in to the same ten million-plus CD collections that had found space for OutKast's world-conquering Speakerboxx/The Love Below - a similarly eclectic and eccentric collection. Instead, Cee-Lo turned his hand to writing for others: a song he'd had recorded by an Atlanta club singer found its way to the head of the Universal label, who were looking for material for a new girl group made up of former burlesque dancers. Don't Cha became the first single by the Pussycat Dolls, and the huge world-wide hit gave Cee-Lo his first big pay day.

So the irony for these overnight stars was that Crazy was neither man's first Number One. It's just that their previous hits - Waterfalls, the Gorillaz' Dare, and Don't Cha (which, even more ironically, knocked Dare off the top spot in the UK singles chart) - had been achieved as anonymous backroom figures, their roles known only to those who bothered to read the sleeve notes. But once Gnarls Barkley's creators went public, they entered the realm of bona fide pop stars. And getting used to their new-found fame has been easier for for one member of the group than the other.

It's fair to say that Cee-Lo relishes the attention of the group's female admirers. The 32-year-old divorced father of three (he has one biological son and two adopted teenage daughters) has a famously wandering eye, and as he winks at another woman leaving the café, his partner giggles over his cheeseburger and fries, shaking his head. 'He's just up to no good!' laughs Danger Mouse, 30, who's clearly seen it all before.

The only time Cee-Lo's appetite for female company has caused any trouble was when Gnarls Barkley were touring the UK in 2006, during Crazy's nine-week run at the top of the charts. A teenage student, Emma Speare, later told a tabloid newspaper about her sexual relationship with the 20-stone star. It remains the only piece published about the band that goes into any detail about private lives they are adept at keeping under wraps, but the tabloid story did not spare many gory details.

'Yeah, I read that slander!' Cee-Lo bellows, grinning slyly, more amused than embarrassed as he lists the things the story got wrong. 'I didn't take her on a shopping spree,' he says with an exaggerated sigh, 'and no, she wasn't able to sign for room service as Mrs Callaway. But she was right about one thing - I am a great lover!'

Despite its unsavoury tone, the story perhaps showed more succinctly than any other piece of media coverage how big the band had become: only proper pop stars, footballers or soap actors get the tabloid kiss'n'tell treatment, after all. And, compared to some victims of similar stories, Cee-Lo got off lightly. At least Ms Speare didn't make disparaging comments about the size of his manhood.

'But that would've been a lie!' he shouts, a manic glint in his eye, as Danger Mouse, realising what's about to come, slumps back in his chair, holding his head in his hands. 'I would've had to send out pictures of my dick!' Cee-Lo continues, as heads turn in the café to look at the crazy bald man in the gold lame tracksuit top who's suddenly started shouting about his penis. 'They'd have been having to keep girls off me after that. It would drive 'em crazy!'

Cee-Lo admits that he's a bundle of contradictions: he describes himself as 'very</i> private, but I still wear a solid gold jacket in the middle of the day.' While Danger Mouse gives the impression he would rather undergo root canal surgery without anaesthetic than allow even the slightest peek into his private life, Cee-Lo is happy to talk about the things he likes to buy now that he has started making serious money from music.

'I like cars, and clothes, and furniture,' he smiles. 'And architecture and property. I bought a ranch a little outside of Atlanta, and I'm about to acquire a few things over here [in Los Angeles] and in Miami. I have quite a collection of cars, and spend a great deal on them. I have a 1965 Chevy Impala - antique west coast style, with the hydraulics on it - a '96 Chevy Impala, a '78 Seville, a Bentley convertible and a 1936 Auburn Speedster, which is gorgeous. I just take it out for a spin - it's my Sunday car.'

He also likes tattoos, though today, a new one, somewhere near his right armpit, is giving him some pain, and he winces occasionally as he gently adjusts the folds of his pristine plain white t-shirt. He considers his upper torso a work-in-progress, and won't be happy until every part of it is fully illustrated. He even has a word written in inch-high Tibetan script running across his skull. 'It means "Wisdom",' he says with a sly grin. 'Though there are those who would say it doesn't show much wisdom to get a tattoo on the back of your head.'

But asking Danger Mouse about what he spends his share of the Gnarls Barkley millions on is not quite as useful an endeavour. Dressed plainly in a neat but not conspicuously expensive suit jacket, t-shirt and jeans, he shifts uncomfortably in his chair and gives every indication of being in pain when the conversation moves away from music. 'I'm not trying to be awkward,' he says, and it's clear he means it. 'You can ask me anything you want, seriously - I won't be offended. But I'll tell you if I don't wanna answer.'

He admits to an interest in cars, but won't talk about it any more than that; he buys quite a lot of recording equipment and instruments; he's a serious movie fan hoping to maybe do some soundtrack work 'eventually, but the story would have to fit the type of music that I think I could do well'; and concedes that he has 'a big bunch of records I've always gotta move house-to-house whenever I'm runnin' round.'

A request to visit the studio he uses in the same Los Angeles suburb as the cafe - near where he has lived for the past four years - is politely but firmly declined. When questioned about a series of photos that appeared on the New York Times's website showing what appeared to be his recording space, he explains that the pictures were of a temporary facility he had set up for only a short time, and in which very little music was created - he only agreed to have the pictures taken because he was about to dismantle it. His relationship with the press is far from prickly, but he is extremely reticent to even explain why he is so guarded.

'I don't look at it like the media really cares too much about me or that I have fans either,' he says, trying his best to explain, but clearly finding even tip-toeing around the topic difficult. 'People refer to us as being in the music industry, but we're not industry people and we don't really have anything to do with that kind of stuff.'

While he has lived in Los Angeles for four years, Danger Mouse is definitely not part of the showbiz set. 'I'm only here half the time anyway,' he says, pointing out that he's spent more time on the road and in studios with Albarn than he has at home recently. 'But it's laid-back, it's sunny, and I love it. There are all these hierarchies and cliques and crap like that, but there is in every major city I've ever been to. Where I live, round here, it's just regular people.'

Although he spent his teens in Atlanta and has lived in London, Danger Mouse grew up in New York. He clearly prefers big cities, and feels that LA offers a kind of anonymity. 'Unless you're Leonardo DiCaprio, nobody knows who the hell you are,' he argues. 'They've got their heads so far up their asses here that unless you're some big movie star you can be pretty damn anonymous. But in a smaller town you'd end up being a bigger fish. I know what it's like for Cee-Lo in Atlanta, and I couldn't deal with half of that shit.'

'They do know me in Atlanta,' Cee-Lo agrees, toying with what he says is a fake gold and diamond necklace, 'because I've been there so long. I make sure that the shock of seeing me around is very minimal. I still pump my own gas, still pick up my own prescriptions, go do my own grocery shopping. Maybe it's cool that I'm still able to, or maybe I'm just not as big of a star as I think I am. Because if you get too big, you can't do any of that - and rightfully so! If I see Michael Jackson in the grocery store, I'm gonna bother him myself!'

They are a more forthcoming on their political views, but only a little. 'I'm gonna vote,' Danger Mouse says, 'and hopefully whoever gets in will be somebody I vote for. I think anything will change the perception of America as long as Bush isn't in there.'

'I don't really have a political agenda, because I don't really think about things like that,' says Cee-Lo. 'But there's a big number of Americans who cannot abide by what's said, but who grin and bear it. Americans have had to be able to adapt to Bush to survive him.' He stops himself, and chuckles a little. 'That's the most sense I've made all day!' he laughs. 'Thumbs up for 'Lo!'

While Danger Mouse is circumspect, jiggling in his seat and picking at invisible dirt on his baseball shoes whenever a question is asked that he doesn't want to answer, Cee-Lo tries to be honest and original at the same time. Despite a happy-go-lucky, larger-than-life exterior, it is clear that there is a darkness and malevolence somewhere inside that Cee-Lo often has to fight to keep hidden. Danger Mouse is referring to Cee-Lo's hellraising teenage years when he says that 'I used to be afraid of people like him,' but it's not hard to imagine that there may be times to this day when the rapper/singer can get pretty terrifying. There is a spirit Cee-Lo channels on the best Gnarls Barkley songs that suggests a soul far from at peace. Whether it's Crazy, with its lyrics about mental imbalance, through his young fan's favourite song, Boogie Monster, and on to the new album's Would-Be Killer, in which he sings about being pushed to the point where he may be capable of taking a life, he's drawing on a past that he both knows all too well, and hasn't entirely managed to escape from.

'Music saved my life, man,' he sighs, thinking back to a past affiliation with gangs and crime. 'I wasn't like this when I was growin' up at all. I didn't have a sensible bone in my body. My life was so isolated and I was so detached that I thought I was meant to be some ominous figure in the shadows. I ended up being comfortable there - I liked bein' an outcast and an outlaw.

'I've always been the hardest guy in whatever crew I'm with,' he continues. 'I guess it's pretty clichéd to say that "He'd either have been dead or in jail" - but I'll say that you can look at me, and see what a positive cause and effect the music has had.'

Pressed on what exactly he means, he says: 'I guess, something as profound and positive as Crazy - as immense as that song is, and as it feels - just imagine that as something negative. I guess it's simpler to say that instead of famous, I'd probably be infamous. I think that I would probably have my own American Gangster episode.'

'I think some people may not understand songs like Would-Be Killer at all,' Danger Mouse says, trying to explain. 'When he wrote it and I listened to it, I was picturing someone taking it metaphorically. But I know him, and it isn't meant that way at all.'

The pair's differing character traits seem to compliment each other rather than provoke unworkable clashes, and the music they make together is very different from their work with other people. So is this a marriage of convenience, or a true love match?

'Sometimes we need marriage counselling,' Danger Mouse smiles, 'and sometimes it's like a honeymoon.'

'I would say that I'm a loner, and I've found another loner,' Cee-Lo concludes. 'And now we don't wanna be without each other.'

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