will.i.am, Hans Zimmer talk 'Madagascar,' new Black Eyed Peas
Black Eyed Peas ringleader will.i.am says he's about "about a week away" from putting the finishing touches on the Peas' forthcoming album, "The E.N.D." But if takes a little longer, perhaps the blame goes to Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer.
Will.i.am and Zimmer were speaking via phone last week to promote their collaboration on upcoming Paramount/DreamWorks feature, "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," which is due in theaters Nov. 7. Together, the pair worked on four songs for the film, as well as a remix of "I Like to Move It," a holdover from the first film.
The high-profile pairing -- Zimmer won an Oscar for his work on "Rain Man" and "The Lion King," among others, and co-wrote the industrial-tinged score of this summer's "The Dark Knight with James Newton Howard -- should generate a fair amount of lobbying for Oscar song consideration. Will.i.am, who also voices one of the characters in the film (a hippo named Moto Moto), helped turned Zimmer's orchestrations into peppy, danceable showtunes.
Of the pair's work, "The Traveling Song" puts some hand-clap beats around Zimmer's strings, and adopts some ever-trendy, electronically manipulated vocal effects, whereas "Big and Chunky" is a more kid-friendly "My Humps." Another holdover from the first film, "Best Friends," is given an embellished arrangement, as well as lyrics and vocals, courtesy of the Peas' frontman. The reworked song will likely bring to mind some of Randy Newman's "Toy Story" work, as it's a sweet, upbeat number driven by acoustic instrumentation and some folksy whistling.
And "Madagascar 2" may not be the last time Zimmer and will.i.am collaborate. When the conversation turns to the Peas' forthcoming album, which will.i.am has stated stands for "the energy never dies," Zimmer interjects: "Will you let me do a remix?"
But when it comes to putting the finishing touches on the album, it seems that will.i.am already has designs on some of Zimmer's retro equipment, which is housed in the composer's Santa Monica studio -- in particular his vocoder. The device is often responsible for the digitally altered vocal effect that permeates pop, hip-hop and R&B today, from T-Pain to Kanye West, and Zimmer says his vintage Sennheiser machine is more fit for Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock than Lil Wayne.
"I've been wanting to call you," will.i.am says to Zimmer. "I've been using this vocoder, and it's the same vocoder that everybody has."
But with or without Zimmer's vocoder, just when is that Peas album due? Will.i.am won't nail down a release date, but says the release date is virtually irrelevant, anyway.
"See, this record is never going to be done," says will.i.am.
He says a version of it may be ready for release in a few weeks, but stresses that it will just be one of many editions. It's the album as software. "Let's say it comes out Jan. 8," says will.i.am, "and it's not coming out Jan. 8, but say that it does. Then on March 8, I would want a different installment of it."
"You’re not confined to the CD," he continues. "So if it comes out Jan. 8, by March 8, you’ll know the tunes people are gravitating toward. So you pull those off, do remixes and different versions, take the chorus and take the best bits and upload it on March 8. Then on May 8 you do the same thing."
As for the sound, will.i.am describes the new album as " "up-tempo energy music," and notes that he's starting to view songs as living documents rather than pieces of an individual album. Yet even when not working with his act, it's clear the Peas are on his mind.
The Peas seemed to have an influence on will.i.am's collaborations with Zimmer. The film's theme, says Zimmer, is "The Traveling Song," which amidst its fluid, island guitar notes alternates references to zoo animals with those of a working, "traveling band." The latter is no coincidence, says will.i.am, as the song is just as inspired by his relationship with fellow Peas member apl.de.ap as it was his "Madagascar" character.
"It’s about being stripped away from your home, and not knowing really where you come from," says will.i.am. "But wherever you are -- because of your friends -- that is your home now. Those lyrics really sum up my life, a black guy in a Mexican neighborhood, and apl.de.ap's life, being giving up for adoption at 14 and coming to America not knowing English. We made it our home because of our friendship, and that’s what ‘Madagascar’ is about."
Likewise, will.i.am says he drew on his relationship with apl.de.ap for the cut "Best Friends" as well. It's a song, says will.i.am, in which he tried to channel the gentle folk-pop of The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian. And while it may seem like a no-brainer to repurpose a popular Zimmer cut from the first film, the composer says he and will.i.am had to fight for "Best Friends" to make the "Madagascar" sequel.
"There’s such a sweetness and purity about it," Zimmer says. "Maybe it’s not as funny, or as noisy and loud as people expect from us. Sometimes you do things, and it takes people a little while before they get it. In some ways our job is to be at least 24 hours ahead of everybody else, and it took everyone a while to figure out this was a good song we had done."
The soundtrack to "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" will be released Nov. 4.
Photo: Will.i.am at the "Madagascar 2" premiere, courtesy EPA. "Madagascar 2" still courtesy Paramount/DreamWorks.