Late one Sunday night in early September, 93.3-FM disc jockey Sisanie was promoting the station's contest to win tickets to see Gnarls Barkley play live. She waxed poetic about hit song "Crazy" and the "cool sound" of Gnarls' hit album, St. Elsewhere. "Call in now," she said, "and you can win his album."
That statement punches at the heart of The Gnarls Barkley Conundrum. Whether you think of Gnarls Barkley as a "him" (as their colorful marketing campaign would prefer) or a "them," as a mainstream act or an underground act, as an indie band or a soul duo-it's not important. What is important is that you realize the genius of the confusion.
While indie-rockers and pop superstars try to make a living off calculated, concrete identities, Brian Burton and Thomas Callaway are famous because they really don't have an established sense of self. You probably own their songs and still don't know who they are.
Burton's work as Danger Mouse brought him a sort of anonymous fame. His bootleg grafting of Jay-Z's The Black Album and The White Album by The Beatles was a breakthrough for the "mashup" genre, and his work with Gorillaz was nominated for a Grammy. While every artist from MF Doom to Bright Eyes wanted to work with him, the average music fan wouldn't recognize him even if a camera crew was in tow.
Callaway took on the name Cee-Lo as part of the rap collective Goodie Mob. After a few years, he took off for a solo career with L.A. Reid's Arista Records, where he made literate albums of neo-soul and alt-rap.
The unlikely pair met in 1998 at the University of Georgia, where Danger Mouse was studying telecommunications and Goodie Mob was playing a gig. But they didn't collaborate until 2003 when Cee-Lo came in to sing on a few tracks for rapper Jemini, whom Danger Mouse was producing. For the next three years, the duo worked together via e-mail, sending tracks back and forth and eventually releasing the single "Crazy" as a digital track in the U.K. and taking the name Gnarls Barkley.
The song debuted at the top of the charts and stayed there for two-plus months.
The success of "Crazy" also initiated the duo's identity crisis. The bass-heavy pop songs from St. Elsewhere were nothing like Cee-Lo or Danger's previous work. The album placed on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, the modern rock chart, the AC chart, the pop chart, the AAA chart, the urban chart and the mainstream AC chart. Everyone could pinpoint the duo's influences, but no one could put them in a category, which is what made the music appealing in the first place.
But just as the public is beginning to understand them, the duo is starting to pull back. They stopped manufacturing the "Crazy" single after nine weeks at No. 1-tying the record that Queen set in 1975 for "Bohemian Rhapsody"-simply because they were tired of hearing their own voices and assumed the public was, too. They aren't doing press interviews on this tour. They're ordering up Magnum condoms on their tour rider (see sidebar on Page 54). It's chaos.
Onstage, they're rarely themselves. Throughout 2006, they played gigs dressed as Napoleon Dynamite and Pedro, Superman and Clark Kent, Wayne and Garth, and The Dude and Walter Sobchak, as well as dozens of others. Hell, they're even named after a former pro-basketball brute.
And while they parade around onstage in costume, audience members smile, thinking this is the grooviest, happiest music in the world. Few seem to realize that Cee-Lo is actually singing about suicide ("Just a Thought"), necrophilia ("Necromancer") and mental instability ("Boogie Monster").
But most enlightening is "Who Cares?," the duo's take on identity. "I wouldn't call it schizophrenia/ but I'll be at least two people today," Cee-Lo sings. "Everybody is somebody/ but nobody wants to be themselves."
The Gnarls Barkley Tour Rider
Are they superstars or stoners from next door?
The team behind Gnarls Barkley have some interesting demands when they play a show. While the pizza, candy, fruit and chips are understandable enough, eating all those munchies doesn't leave a ton of time to use the Magnum condoms the duo also requested. Some other fun facts about the schizophrenic duo's rider:
* They can taste the difference: While the duo requests bottled water, Dasani and Aquafina are not acceptable.
* Avoiding another "Sweet 16" is a good idea: The first dressing room should be stocked with a pack of Magnum condoms, according to the rider.
* It's smoky in there: The first dressing room also wants a pack of Swisher Sweet blunt cigars.
* That's a whole lotta fun: The duo orders a total of five cases of beer, two bottles of Grey Goose vodka, a bottle of Jack Daniels or Crown Royale, a bottle of red wine and a bottle of Hennesey.
* Crazy all night: The duo wants a total of 18 cans of Red Bull at their disposal.
* Fly high in style: Burton and Calloway request that their plane tickets always be first class, with 22 other members of their entourage flying coach.
* The beds are better: The Gnarls Barkley team requires at least a four-star hotel at all their tour stops with suites for the frontmen.