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Gnarls Barkley's unexpected success

Gnarls Barkley’s unexpected success — The group reminisces about their 2006 hit, and responds to controversy surrounding ”The Odd Couple”

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It’s March 18, three weeks to the day before Gnarls Barkley’s second independent-minded major-label album, The Odd Couple, is scheduled to drop. The disc’s first single, ”Run,” is off to a sluggish start — a modest No. 36 on Billboard‘s Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, it remains absent from the all-important Hot 100 rankings. Pop’s Midas man, Justin Timberlake, makes a cameo in the video for ”Run,” but that hasn’t seemed to help much. And then, out of nowhere, without any notice, The Odd Couple is suddenly available at various online music retailers, including iTunes. This is not a mistake, but instead a reaction to one: It is how Atlantic Records, the group’s label, decided to deal with the fact that the album had already illegally leaked elsewhere online.

”I knew it was coming,” says one half of the Gnarls duo, producer Brian ”Danger Mouse” Burton, on the day of the surprise release. ”Every day, I expected to get a call saying it leaked, and eventually I got a call saying it leaked.” At Atlantic The Odd Couple‘s unauthorized release prompted a passionate response: ”I wanted to hunt down the person who leaked the album, drag ’em into the street, and beat ’em,” says Atlantic Records president Julie Greenwald, not mincing words. ”It wreaked havoc on all of us…. The marketing plan went out the window. It was like a state of emergency, chaos, and anarchy.”

This isn’t the first time the psychedelic soul duo — Danger Mouse pairs with singer-songwriter Thomas ”Cee-Lo” Calloway — have been affected by an online fissure. But the last instance worked in their favor. Three years ago, a leaked version of their anthemic single ”Crazy” landed them their deal with Downtown/Atlantic, and digital sales alone drove the ubiquitous hit to the top of the U.K. singles chart. It was the first song to achieve that feat. Its massive success quickly propelled their debut CD, 2006’s St. Elsewhere, to sell more than one million copies, earn two Grammys, peak at No. 4 on Billboard‘s top 200 chart, and give every college kid and SUV-driving dad in America alike a cool new album to love. But while the Internet has played a vital role in their success, the Gnarls pair remain skeptical about the online distribution of their music. In fact, Gnarls not only retired ”Crazy” as a stand-alone single in the U.K., they didn’t even make it available as a digital single until a week before the album dropped Stateside. ”We didn’t want it to get overplayed,” explains Danger Mouse, ”but apparently, it didn’t help.”

Two years on, Cee-Lo, 32, and Danger Mouse, 30, are feeling pressure to match the megasuccess of ”Crazy.” Looking around the Web, it appears the CD leaked on March 4, with blogger reviews following a day later. Early reaction was lukewarm. Take, for instance, Idolator’s March 5 critique: ”It’s difficult to listen to The Odd Couple without waiting for a perfect pop moment that never arrives.” Stereogum’s analysis was similarly tepid: ”If you can keep your eyes open despite the muted, soothing tones of the production, there are some fine songs.”

While it’s likely that the initial ho-hum reaction to The Odd Couple was a factor in the decision to make it available ASAP — after all, the label wouldn’t want time to allow bad word to spread — there’s also speculation that its renegade release was an attempt to fabricate a media splash in the absence of having a ”Crazy”-size hit. ”It wasn’t premeditated,” counters Greenwald, who says the label has perfectly realistic expectations for Gnarls’ second offering. ”No one is expecting Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo to deliver ‘Crazy.’ That’s a once-in-a-lifetime record…. The beautiful thing is the Gnarls album is magnificent, and we believe that people who hear it will want to buy it and support Gnarls because they’re an unbelievable band.” And she’s right. ”Crazy” was in itself an accident — lightning in a bottle captured in one take that became a fluke hit. But with The Odd Couple, both Gnarls and their label are getting a reality check as they confront the lowered expectations for a cool band that became an unlikely pop phenomenon.

Three weeks prior to the abrupt release of The Odd Couple, Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo were sitting pretty in a garden suite at a Beverly Hills hotel on a sunny afternoon. Before panic set in, they spoke of their expectations for the new album with measured enthusiasm. ”There’s no formula to it, so you can’t expect to imitate the success or the reception of [St. Elsewhere] because time has passed, we’ve changed, and we’re changing every day,” Cee-Lo said. ”There’s always gonna be a risk factor in any artistic outing or endeavor. It’s always gonna be an act of faith. All we can do is just be genuine and honest.”

Gnarls have been an eccentric source of intrigue and unpredictability ever since their inception. They’re an extremely popular indefinable act, neither alternative rock nor hip-hop. They’re notoriously press-shy. They do not collaborate with other artists as a group, only as soloists. And they refuse to be photographed or perform together unless they’re wearing outrageous costumes like The Wizard of Oz‘s Tin Man and Cowardly Lion — or, as in the case of this magazine, a bride and groom. ”People draw all kinds of conclusions from the way you wear your jeans or what shoes you’re wearing,” said Danger Mouse, casually outfitted in a camouflage army jacket with a chic scarf wrapped around his neck as he lounges with his pajama-bottomed bandmate. ”Our music is not about our lifestyle, who we kick it with, how we talk when we’re around them, the dances we do, or where we go shopping. So why show things that imply any of that stuff?”

In an era when bling rules and sneaker pimps rock the charts, Gnarls are certainly an anomaly. The duo’s eclectic roots trace back to the University of Georgia, where they first met 10 years ago. Danger Mouse was a telecommunications major and an aspiring producer; Cee-Lo was part of a popular Atlanta rap group called Goodie Mob, which, along with OutKast, helped put Southern hip-hop on the map in the early ’90s. After recording a few demos under the name Pelican City, Danger Mouse formed a crew called Rhyme and Reason, which was tapped to open for Goodie Mob at a concert at his alma mater. That’s where he met Cee-Lo, and the two instantly bonded over their shared love of the British trip-hop band Portishead. They didn’t keep in touch but were reunited in 2003 by a mutual friend. ”Danger asked if he could play me a few things he had been working on,” recalls Cee-Lo. ”I was blown away, to say the least. It was the sound of my soul. I said, ‘I would love to use some of your stuff,’ but he was like, ‘I don’t just do tracks, I do albums.’ So I said, ‘Let’s do an album.”’

By then, Cee-Lo had left Goodie Mob and released two solo discs, 2002’s Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections and 2004’s Cee-Lo Green…Is the Soul Machine. Danger Mouse had also put out a CD, 2003’s Ghetto Pop Life, but he didn’t break through until 2004’s The Grey Album, a hugely popular mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album, which — again, the Internet playing its part — spread online as a free download until the Beatles’ reps put a halt to it. They intermittently worked on St. Elsewhere from 2003 until 2006. ”It was an independent joint venture, paid for out-of-pocket by Danger and myself,” says Cee-Lo. ”We didn’t even have a formal deal in place until ‘Crazy’ hit No. 1. Nobody had any idea that it would become what it is today.”

‘The Odd Couple’ is a decidedly darker and more pensive effort. Where St. Elsewhere‘s superbly produced psychedelic beats, provocative lyrics, and soulful vocals reflected the duo’s devil-may-care interest in quirky experimentation, their new material signifies the work of two musically adventurous thrill seekers who’ve clearly developed a tighter bond, deepened trust, and greater understanding of each other’s gifts. But what will ”Crazy” fans make of Gnarls’ dense new sound? It’s hard to say. ”It’s certainly carrying on in the tradition of Gnarls,” says Cee-Lo. ”These songs lean a lot more toward the literal than the tongue-in-cheek feel of St. Elsewhere. But it’s still just as fun and imaginative.”

After releasing the new album with little to no advance publicity, and with ”Run” stalling out of the gate, it’s unclear where Gnarls go from here. Within hours of its debut, The Odd Couple shot to No. 1 at iTunes. Still, it’s possible that Gnarls’ hard-core fan base had already purchased the new album online by the time the disc arrived in stores, which could affect the retail life of the physical CD. Cee-Lo’s already working on a solo project, and later this year he’ll reunite with Goodie Mob for their sixth album. Danger Mouse has also been working on extracurricular activities — producing new albums for blues-rock duo the Black Keys and British songstress Martina Topley Bird. But with an upcoming tour in the works, Gnarls remains their top priority…for now. ”What we’re doing is not plotted,” says Danger Mouse. ”We didn’t do the first record thinking we were gonna do a whole bunch more…. We had our own careers up until this point, so we weren’t waiting for something like this to come around. We’re having fun with it now that it did, but it was never like, ‘Finally!”’

So what if there’s no ”Crazy” on The Odd Couple, anyway? The whole point is about making terrific music outside the box, which is exactly what they’ve done. ”We make music for people who are really into music,” says Danger Mouse, ”not for people who are sitting around waiting for us to make one cool song.” This time around, you’ll have to settle for one cool album instead.

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