The Madness of Gnarls Barkley

The Madness of <b>Gnarls Barkley</b>
Gnarls Barkley is the best new music gimmick for your buck these days. Only this band, referencing basketball player Charles Barkley for no apparent reason, could perpetrate an inside joke of this proportion. If Gnarls Barkley exists, he is a friend of long-dead rock critic Lester Bangs, the Hunter S. Thompson of music journalism. He was a free spirit, a wild man who carved his own path in life — with his own two hands. And that’s true, except Gnarls Barkley is two dudes with four hands. Two of them belong to Brian "Danger Mouse” Burton, the DJ whose first stab at psychedelic rap — an illegal Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up called The Grey Album — wound up in 100,000 people’s computers on one day (Feb. 24, 2004) alone.

The other two belong to Thomas "Cee-Lo Green” Callaway, member of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob, Outkast consort and a compact, though somewhat overflowing (in parts) ball of James Brown in a bigger body. Green is soulful in the way a skinnier Andre 3000 singing "Hey Ya” could never be, but in the same chord: neo-retro. But Gnarls Barkley, whom Green refers to in the third person, is "like the wind. He’s rarely seen but always there. His musical impact on this society is becoming more and more profound as we speak.”

Green is talking about Gnarls Barkley’s hit single, about how music history belongs to the bold and how it only takes one song. Your song just has to tear its way to number 1 on the UK charts the first week in April, based solely on digital downloads, before stores carry physical copies.

But that’s not enough. The song has to have something universal — in this case, losing your mind — that appeals to everyone. You have to choose change, because change chose "Crazy.” "The connection is that the music is written with a lot of humility and a lot of humanity,” Cee-Lo says, opening up about his most prophetic, brilliant and grand album to date. "It’s very honest; it’s very innocent. It’s very sincere and genuine and you can’t go wrong with that.”

That is St. Elsewhere, Gnarls Barkley’s debut album. Fourteen tracks to send you barrelling from some hyper-kinetic Motown spiritual "Go Go Gadget Gospel” to a warped out world filled with slow-mo emotions, "St. Elsewhere.” Even the unexpected: a cover of ’80s American cult band the Violent Femmes’ "Gone Daddy Gone.” To Cee-Lo, it’s all archaeology. All he had to do was dig.

"I was excavating [my life] for these songs. As soon as I heard the production, I heard the songs. I knew how they made me feel and I trusted DM completely.” Trust makes these songs swell with life’s every pain and pleasure, and often it pains Green to pin it down. "It’s kinda going against the integrity [of what it is] to try and answer questions about it because I don’t know.”

Danger Mouse made the map, a tour twisting through pop culture and Cee-Lo’s diary with one foot in the future, as on "Transformer.” Better than his Demon Days production for Gorillaz, DM seizes new ground rooted to that psychedelic hip-hop landscape he created while blending the Beatles and Jay-Z.

"Danger Mouse really inspired me,” Green says. It started two-and-a-half years ago in Atlanta. Now, the fruit of their labour has outrun their wildest imaginations. "Standing still, there’s no gratification in that for me,” Green says. "If you’re going to play it safe and not take any chances you got to ask yourself, ‘Are you even living at all?’”

Knowing Gnarls Barkley

Hear it once and know why music history belongs to the bold. Gnarls Barkley wrote one song and made history. Most musicians never reach #1. But to tear your way to the top, becoming the first track to reach that apex in the U.K. based solely on downloads, signals change.

Change chose "Crazy." Released the last week of March, a week before the single was in stores, it shifted more than 31,000 units, outselling 15 of its rivals — combined. That DJ Danger Mouse produced it shouldn't surprise you. More than a 100,000 people downloaded his illegal Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up, The Grey Album, on Feb. 24, 2004, thrusting him into the spotlight. This time he'll share fame with Gnarls Barkley's other half.

His collaborator is Cee-Lo Green, rotund member of Atlanta's Goodie Mob, friend to Outkast, a singer/rapper with an unmistakable angst-ridden voice and an ever-evolving soul machine.

"Standing still, there's no gratification in that for me," Cee-Lo says. "If you're going to play it safe and not take any chances you got to ask yourself, 'Are you even living at all?'"

Gnarls Barkley was a risk; DM and Cee-Lo completed 75 percent of their debut record, St. Elsewhere, without a deal. A wild exploration of exceptional scope, it found a seam seldom explored in pop music and pushed. Out poured a sound bound to no single style. It is the new gospel, an electric revival of what came before — fragments of the blues, Motown, psychedelic rock and much more, all re-routed through hip-hop.

"It's definitely a continuation in the tradition of [Cee-Lo’s solo debut] Perfect Imperfections, Common's Electric Circus and Outkast's The Love Below," Green says. "Then again it's completely different. There was no predecessor that would indicate that it would work at all."

St. Elsewhere is Cee-Lo's confession to the world. Some songs are bleak; others burn bright. Most prove intriguing. "Gone Daddy Gone" is a Violent Femmes cover and "Smiley Faces" inspires like a motivational speaker, while "Just A Thought" is downright suicidal. "I decided to go public with, and spoke on, a few things that may be considered taboo."

It's archaeology, Cee-Lo says. Danger Mouse provided the map, conjuring his most engaging production to date. Green just had to dig. "It's almost as if I was excavating [the ruins of my life] for these songs. As soon as I heard the production, I heard the songs. I knew how they made me feel and I trusted DM completely."

Hear him describe it and know "Crazy" isn't some fluke find but the fulfilment of a universal longing. When a song sweeps into your soul with the spirituality of "Jesus Walks" and makes mental illness as inescapable as "Hey Ya" destiny demands our attention.

"The music is written with a lot of humility and a lot of humanity. It's very honest, it's very innocent, it's very sincere and genuine and you can't go wrong with that."

Now, more than ever, he sees his music as necessary to the preservation of originality. "I definitely want people — peers and fans alike — to see themselves in me and that we relate, connect, and bond with each other. It is time for open-mindedness and optimism and progression. We must shake loose of fear and inhibition, man, and move forward. There's a lot of uncharted territory. Gnarls Barkley is the state of mind and the sentiment so it will always be a part of me, and a part of what I'm aspiring to do. Gnarls Barkley is something like taking the red pill. Once you know you don't ever stop knowing."