Suicidal thoughts, sex with a dying woman, Transformers and bogeymen all tied together by a fictional character that looks like psychedelic children’s show character HR Pufnstuf and is at least $35 in debt? You don’t have to look any further into the minds of Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse, collectively known as Gnarls Barkley.
The two met three years ago, when Danger called Cee-Lo to work on a remix. The vibe was so right, they started thinking about a whole album. The result is their innovative debut, St. Elsewhere, which draws on influences as varied as hip-hop, electric pop, acid jazz and rock and roll.
“The entire reception has passed my personal expectations,” Cee-Lo said on Wednesday about Gnarls’ lead single, “Crazy,” which has spent eight weeks as the top record in the U.K. and is becoming an across-the-board hit in the States. “It’s great. I’m glad. I’m satisfied.”
Cee-Lo said the record is about living.
“Soul is your life. It’s your life’s experience, your life’s work,” he explained. “Of course life imitates art. It’s not about one thing. I tried to word [the song] generally so it may pertain to so many different circumstances. To me, I think we’re born into a grand degree of uncertainty, which is life. One degree is chance. If you’re not gonna take any chances, you’re standing still. To stand still for your whole life is crazy.”
While “Crazy” is about life, “Necromancer” takes a look at death.
“It’s naughty/ Very naughty/ Necrophilia,” Cee-Lo sings on the song. “Without a care/ I’m compassionate about killing her/ … She was cool when I met her/ But I think I like her better dead.”
“That song is about this figment of my imagination,” Cee-Lo explained. “This woman, in her spare time, only complained about the life she wasn’t living. After she picked her poison, whether it be a drink, smoke, et cetera, she becomes more bold, more outspoken, more sensual, funny, charming. All these different things. She realizes everyone is more receptive toward her. She wants to be like that every day. So there goes your habit. So it’s storytelling, not so literal.
“A lot of the album is true to life, but a lot is this vivid imagination I have and good clean fun,” he added.
Mouse and Cee-Lo’s roles on St. Elsewhere were very clear: Danger came up with the craziest beats he could concoct, and Lo would get just as wild with the lyrics, whether it meant singing or rapping. Over the past three years, the two did about half the album together and the other half by mailing each other files back and forth. The result: a record about salvation, going to the disco, the contemplation of suicide and freedom, among other things.
“Gnarls is a character — kinda the idea that Cee-Lo and I had when we were doing music,” Mouse said. “[The music] was different than me and him — a different voice, feel — and when we looked to see the influence of what we were trying to say, not just to each other but to people who would be listening, it became easier to let Gnarls speak for what we’re trying to do.”
Part of Gnarls’ background info is that he owes Cee-Lo $35, and he’s an older gentleman who looks like HR Pufnstuf and likes hash browns.
“It made more sense that way,” Mouse said. ” ’Cause we could not make sense [of the music] ourselves. At the end of the day, we gave credit where credit was due. We basically did the best we could in explaining what the experiment was. Kinda like Frankenstein.”
“The Gnarls I know is visibly older than Charles,” Cee-Lo added about the similarity in names to NBA legend Charles Barkley. “But I also heard a rumor that Charles was named after Gnarls.”
Gnarls, Danger and Cee-Lo are going to do a few concerts in the U.K. in June and say they are thinking about a U.S. tour soon. Their next single could be the Violent Femmes cover “Gone Daddy Gone” or “Smiley Faces.”