Q&A With Cee-Lo Green of Gnarls Barkley
In 2006, Gnarls Barkley, the subject of a June 26 Westword profile, scored with what to most ears was the song of the year – a little single called “Crazy.” Although lead singer Cee-Lo Green makes it clear in the Q&A below that he never attempted to repeat this feat, he acknowledges that he’s dealing with the repercussions of the tune’s success anyhow.
Green speaks from Paris, and after offering a few comments about his visit to the City of Lights, he contends that The Odd Couple, Gnarls’ sophomore album (and the second collaboration between Green and producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton), is a step up from the first; notes that he’d never envisioned “Crazy” as a global smash; weighs the expectations of reviewers and the public; tips his lid to the late James Brown, the inspiration for the Odd Couple track “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul”; emphasizes that Gnarls Barkley will continue with or without a record-contract extension; provides an update about a reunion of The Goodie Mob, his original hip-hop collective; and says that he’d be further along with a solo project if there were more hours in the day.
It’s not easy being Green.
Westword (Michael Roberts): How is Paris today?
Cee-Lo Green: Paris is being very kind to us.
WW: What are you there for?
CG: We’re currently on tour, promoting the new record, The Odd Couple, and we’ve done, so far, one of three shows here in Paris.
WW: And the audience was receptive?
CG: Yeah, they were surprisingly receptive. I guess due to what I hear, audiences here can be a little stiff and a little rigid and a little composed and a little conservative. But of course, we are not (laughs). And I think each opportunity we have to win them over, I think we do toward the end.
WW: For me, the new album is a big step forward for you guys. I’m going out on a limb and guessing that you probably agree with that.
CG: I do agree. I do believe that we’ve improved quite a bit.
WW: From your perspective, why is the new album a step up from its predecessor?
CG: It’s concentrated but not contrived. It’s outspoken but very organic. Its predecessor is incomparable because it’s the first of its kind, and of course, there’s that time and place where it happens. It cannot be reduplicated. You do live on. Literally and figuratively, you’ve experienced more, and hopefully your experience will extend over into your artistic endeavors. That’s what we would call evolution, and evolution is just natural law and order and its always a work in progress. So therefore, this is still not our best. I’m confident in saying we are strong where we are and there are better days to come. I’m actually a lot better than I was yesterday. And I guess mentally, for an artist, we live with the music for a year in advance before people get a chance to hear it anyway. Not to say we’re over it. We’re just past it and already off wondering what we can possibly do next or what’s going to happen to us next. Because we are compelled and we are moved to do what we do. It’s not an attempt at anything.
WW: Is the evolutionary process you’re talking about fueled in part by the two of you knowing each other better and trusting your instincts that much more?
CG: Yes, definitely us knowing each other better. I have a better idea of what Gnarls Barkley is and what it should be and what it could be. And then I gained a lot more trust with the people, the population. With the embrace of the first album, it gave me the audacity to be honest yet again. That was very encouraging. But it’s always an act of faith, because you just never know.
WW: The reviews of the new album have been all over the map. Some critics have really embraced the album and others have talked about it as a disappointment. Is that something you expected considering the scope of what happened with “Crazy”?
CG: Yeah, I guess it’s something you could expect. Again, the reason why the first project is incomparable is because it hit everybody from a blind side. It was just this dynamo of a thing, a force of nature. This time around, everyone, including ourselves, are a lot more aware of Gnarls Barkley and were able to formulate opinions about earlier in the process. Due to the anticipation and the expectations – you know what I’m saying? We, of course, didn’t set out to disappoint anyone, but all we could truly be was ourselves and continue on. I think it would have been a lot more disappointing for us to attempt to do another “Crazy” and it be obvious and deliberate and us not succeed at it and us feel afterward that we should’ve just gone with our hearts. We didn’t want to fail at being honest. There’s always success in being yourself. So I believe that we are completely successful and victorious, and you just can’t please everyone. And we weren’t even trying to. A lot of our music ends up being cathartic and very expressive and inventive and experimental. So it’s never our intention to be entertainment or amusement to anyone. If you’re entertained or amused by it ultimately, then so be it. That’s just fine. But we don’t start off that way.
WW: It sounds to me like you went into the project not thinking about commercial expectations. You were thinking creatively, not commercially…
CG: Definitely, man. And actually, it was the same recreation for St. Elsewhere [the band’s 2006 debut album]. So to this day, the journalists would argue that they wanted another “Crazy” or something like that. But we were just as surprised. “Crazy” is no different than any of the other thing that we’ve done – I don’t think. I’m not sure how it’s different. Maybe that’s something I’ve got to figure out in time. But it’s equally eccentric and it was never meant to be as commercially celebrated as it was. It’s a very serious song, as is the album as a whole. We don’t concentrate on singles. We’re reveling in the glory days of the full-length album. That’s what we’re all about – complete thoughts.
WW: I wanted to ask you about “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul,” from the new album. That’s a song that can be interpreted a number of ways. Do you like the fact that it’s capable of inspiring multiple interpretations?
CG: Definitely. That’s why I’m always a little leery about explaining about songs in interviews, because I don’t want to ruin the way someone has applied it to their own life and their own experiences. But I guess I have gone on record a few times since then by saying I wrote that record about James Brown. When I was growing up, our elders made the music, and we didn’t mind watching our mothers and fathers perform. They were older, and therefore the music was wiser, it was more experienced, more lived in. With the loss of a James Brown and the loss of so many who have paved those ways, it’s like who’s going to save our souls now? Because today’s music seems to be a bit like birth control. It’s like casual sex with no procreation. Can you dig it? And that’s a little unsettling to me. And the last line of the song says, “I’m tired enough to lay my own soul down” – meaning I may have to save my own soul. And therefore, I sing as if my life depends on it.
WW: That could also be seen as your way of saying that you can save some souls out there, too. Do you see it that way as well?
CG: I definitely can. I’ve got the spirit. I surely do. I think it’s obvious and I don’t mind you knowing that I know. But my soul first. You know what I’m saying. And all other souls a very, very close second.
WW: You talked about your confidence that the group can get better with each succeeding recording – but you’ve also said that there may only be one more Gnarls Barkley album in your future. Is that set in stone? Or are you open to other possibilities?
CG: We’re definitely open to other possibilities. I think I can elaborate a bit on that comment. What I was trying to say is that we’re contractually obligated to do one more album. Whether they want to extend our agreement thereafter remains to be seen, and if we wish, we’re more than able to fund our own situation. So not one album literally or forever. Just under contract.
WW: I wanted to talk to you about other projects you’ve been involved with. One is a new Goodie Mob album, which has been discussed for a couple of years. I understand that you’ve already completed some tracks. Is that right?
CG: Yes, we have – and sometimes it’s a little bittersweet that I can’t do it all. I’m working on working harder. Just as I’m in Paris in support of this project. The Goodie Mob doesn’t have a situation just yet, and I’m hoping me succeeding otherwise helps better the bargaining power to negotiate on behalf of the Goodie Mob and get us in a proper situation. You understand what I’m saying? And hopefully, it can be somewhere near where I am now, so it can be all inclusive. That would be ideal, so even if another label picked the situation up, there would be contractual indifference about where and how it can be done, since I’m exclusive otherwise. That’s the only unfortunate thing about it, but there’s nothing unfortunate about me being exclusive. So it’s a little bittersweet for me not to be able to act on Goodie Mob a lot more urgently, because I would like to. The brothers are being patient with me.
WW: You were talking earlier about how soul music was made by more experienced performers, and there was a wisdom that came from that. I would think the Goodie Mob would be able to deliver the same kind of thing – but the music industry often seems ageist. It only seems to want the new and the young instead of veteran talent. Is that frustrating to you?
CG: Yeah. America eats its young. And hey, that’s not an insult. It’s an observation. And you’re right. But I do think I’m old enough to be the elder and young enough to be the youth. There’s a difference between age and experience. We’re not children, but we’re still young men – and experienced. And I do believe that there is a place for us, and we have to insist and make a place. With that being the logic of the industry, of course that’s factual, and it hits me being anti-establishment – and I always have been. I’m in the system but I’m not necessarily of it. Anybody who doesn’t want wisdom would like to at least serve as an alternative. It doesn’t have to be everything the music is or the industry is about. I know that pretty girls sell records and little kids sell records. I understand what the demographics and the different genres are. But as long as we can exist as an alternative, it’s fair to me.
WW: One of the things that often gets lost amid all of the changes that are taking place in the music industry right now is that older listeners are more likely to actually buy music as opposed to downloading it for free. So I think labels would have more of an incentive to sign an act like Goodie Mob, whose fans have been around for a while.
CG: Exactly, exactly. And therefore, you see how the logic is actually illogical. It doesn’t even make sense to me. It’s like, why not, man? We won’t be taking money out of your pocket. But maybe you would be creating your own competition. Of course, a capitalist society has to have someone to capitalize on, and the younger are easier. It mimics the behavior of a pedophile if you ask me.
WW: Are you also working on a new solo recording? There’s been some talk about that, too…
CG: Yeah, I have a formal agreement for one, and I’ve been informally working on it. But touring is quite vigorous. So I don’t stretch myself too thin. And I give it a hundred percent to those who are looking forward to coming to the show in Denver. You’ll get a hundred percent from me, and it’s hard to give a hundred percent as far as a performance is concerned and then try to leave there and go straight to the studio and do a hundred percent there, too. Maybe if my music was a different kind of music. It takes a little bit longer for me to do what I do. But you see what can happen if you allow me to take my time.