Even on a superficial, physical level, they make a peculiar pairing. Brian Burton – far better known as master producer, Danger Mouse (Gorillaz, MF Doom, Black Keys, Martina Topley Bird, The Shortwave Set…) – is tall and lean, with a cloud of Afro hair and limbs that unfold like an Anglepoise lamp. Goodie Mob mainstay and soul vocalist extraordinaire, Thomas Callaway (aka Cee-Lo Green) is by contrast a heavily tattooed mountain of a man, with impenetrable shades clamped on a head bigger and balder than a bowling ball. As Gnarls Barkley, they constitute an imposing double act and are well aware of the impression they make, physically and creatively. Why else would the hottest property in post-modern hip hop cum retro-futurist, psychedelic soul have named their second album The Odd Couple?
The follow-up to their storming, hit-studded debut, St Elsewhere – which featured the era-defining ‘Crazy’ (the first single to hit the Number One UK spot via downloads alone) – the new LP arrives in tandem with no small amount of breathless anticipation. Helter-skelter lead single, ‘Run’ indicates that it’s basically eccentric beats-driven, neo-vintage soul business as usual, an uplifting and genuinely emotion-filled affair with dashes of dark humour and plenty of rug-cutting ops, that sounds both warmly familiar and bracingly innovative. It’s not ridiculous to claim that The Odd Couple re-establishes Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo Green as the coolest post-modern hip hop practitioners – alongside, perhaps, fellow Atlantans OutKast (the other ‘odd couple’) – currently working.
The duo emphatically deny having had any problem summoning the creative energy that naturally flows through any first album and never felt as if they were somehow trying to strike the same match twice.
‘No, definitely not,’ says Danger Mouse. ‘We worked in a similar way this time around, it’s just that it’s not as deliberately planned as I guess it could have been. With all the stuff that’s in there, the only thing we tried to do is make something that’s really… good. That’s all. If you start to look at the system and what’s going to make it easier for you to fit into it and why you’re making the record, then it’s not going to happen.
‘Luckily for Cee-Lo and I, ours was not a typical first record. We don’t live or die by Gnarls Barkley, we do it because we want to. We’re very lucky to have each other and I’m glad to be able to make something that Cee-Lo wants to sing, stuff he feels passionate about. When you hear him singing, you immediately know it’s for real – that’s something that goes back and forth between the two of us. I can’t trigger things in Cee-Lo unless he feels those parts in the music. We feel very connected to each other, for better or for worse.’
It does indeed seem like a powerful chemistry exists between the two, something that goes far beyond the working relationship of a producer/ beatmaker and vocalist/lyricist. On record, Gnarls Barkley sound like a profoundly deep partnership, not a commercially serendipitous hook-up between two artists taking time out from their day jobs. ‘There’s a big responsibility that goes along with that,’ Danger Mouse admits.
‘We’ve never really talked about this before,’ he continues but even though we’re both very much individuals, the more you realise you need somebody else, the more it can put a pressure on yourself.’
Personally or professionally? ‘A little bit of both, I guess. I’m able to come out of my shell and do other things I’d never do without Cee-Lo and I’d have to look inside to see why that is, but it’s still the truth. We toured for over a year together and instead of that breaking us up, like it would some people, it brought us closer. We came to lean on each other more.’
For Cee-Lo, ‘Gnarls Barkley is an internal place, because although you do hear me, I’m personally humbled in the presence of the music itself, since it is all-powerful. It’s powerful enough to compel the lyrics to come out of me; I don’t just have a scrapbook of lyrics and make them fit, I write for every piece of music.’
In 2006, the year St Elsewhere was released, Gnarls Barkley declared that they were ‘at war with the system’. Is it possible to still feel like that, with a chart-topping album to your credit and universal critical adulation? ‘Sure,’ says Cee-Lo, ‘because essentially the system’s aim is to oversee and contain and control.
‘Also, we were talking about a wider context than just the music industry, because the industry mimics the governmental system. We don’t wish to be classified – we wish to just be. When someone sees fit to analyse or categorise us, our artistic nature just disagrees with that. That said, I don’t think anyone really wants to control us; as long as we continue to succeed, they grow in optimism regarding what we’re doing. But it’s like, just know that if this doesn’t work, we can control you if we want to.’
The pair must be well aware of their super-hot/cool status. Does that hinder creativity or is it easy to ignore as the responsibility of those who make such judgments? ‘You hear those things and you consider them all,’ admits Cee-Lo, ‘but ultimately, you just have to carry on. If you are the cool thing for now, then maybe a second or third album later… Which brings us to what our aspirations really are and that’s simply to make records. ‘The spirit,’ he adds simply, ‘stays with you until it leaves.’
The Odd Couple is out now.