Monday 19 February 2018

Danger zone

Record label wars won't stop Danger Mouse, he tells Eamon Sweeney
Record label wars won't stop Danger Mouse, he tells Eamon Sweeney
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Brian Burton from White Plains, New York, is better known to the world at large as Danger Mouse, an extraordinarily prolific producer behind some of the records that matter most from everyone from Gorillaz to Beck.

He's also one half of the chart-topping duo Gnarls Barkley, winner of Producer of the Year at the 2010 Grammys and a notable musical inclusion in a recent prestigious round up of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century. Not bad for a 33-year-old who first made a name and a bit of notoriety for himself by splicing together two albums.

Suitably suited and booted and ready to talk business in London's swanky Soho Hotel, Burton is happy to clarify a rumour doing the rounds that his latest clients are none other than U2.

"Yep, I've been working with them for a while," he reveals. "I'm afraid I really can't say anything else apart from confirming that I'm working with them." Fair enough, but can he at least say that he's enjoying the challenge of the project? "Sure, you can say that," he grins. "But I didn't say that!"

Burton burst to prominence with the release of the definitive mash-up record, The Grey Album, in 2004; a stunningly bold, daring and highly illegal sound clash of The Black Album by Jay-Z and The Beatles White Album. The respective record companies of both parties involved understandably went completely crazy when The Grey Album was put out for free on the internet, but years later Jay-Z himself paid tribute. "I think it was a really strong album," Jizza said. "I champion any form of creativity, and that was a genius idea to do it. And it sparked so many others like it... I was honoured to be on -- you know, quote-unquote -- the same song with the Beatles."

Burton has never done things the easy way. He could be racking one lucrative production gig after another and spend his spare time counting the cash, but the self-confessed workaholic has spent the past five years and a hell of a lot of his own money painstakingly recording the hugely ambitious Rome with Daniele Luppi in the Italian capital.

"The internet wasn't even killing music when we started this album," Burton laughs somewhat ruefully. "It was expensive, but I couldn't tell a label what it was going to be, because I didn't really know myself. I didn't know how big it was going be. I didn't want to be in a situation where I'd take money off a company, and then they'd say they didn't like the choice of singer or he or she wasn't big enough for the amount they were putting in, or whatever. It could easily have been me and Daniele both funding it, but with my tricky record label situation, I didn't want to have anyone else's money tied up in it. He was always saying he'd come in half, but I was like, 'Keep it. I don't know how long this is going to last'."

Ah, that tricky record label situation. Last year, EMI finally released Dark Night of the Soul, a collaborative album with the late Mark Linkous. The project had got messily prolonged and delayed due to disputes with the label.

"That's all done and dusted and luckily this record is coming out in a very positive environment, which is what it deserves," Burton says. "That's another reason it took so long. As far as popular sales go, there always will be room for albums and passion projects. Things change all the time. There's no point trying to predict the future, do what you want to do. That's all we tried to pull off. There was always the annual discussion. 'Is it going to come out this year?' Now that it's out, I can't wait to do the next thing."

While Danger Mouse is a familiar name to music fans in this part of the world, his co-creator and collaborator on Rome, Daniele Luppi, is not widely known outside his native Italy where he's noted for several soundtracks. A stylish Luppi flanks Burton, wearing an immaculately tailored and presumably Italian suit.

The Venetian-born Luppi came up with a very novel and Italian way of trying to secure the vintage analogue equipment they wanted to use but couldn't hire, scouring Rome for gear using fine wine as a means to barter.

"Barbera was my preference," Luppi reveals. "A Primitivo from southern Italy at 18 degrees. You've got to be a very solid man to have that. We couldn't rent any vintage gear in Rome. We really wanted to go that extra step and capture some atmospheres we liked from soundtracks in the 60s and 70s, so we wanted to get not just the players, but also the instruments that they used back then. The only solution was to use networks of friends and the only way to thank and acknowledge them was to give them some wine. They loved that."

Rome is one of the most romantic cities on earth and quite possibly the most popular place in the world to get hitched in. Likewise, Luppi sees Rome the album as a "window on to human life," broadly dealing with romantic love.

"We felt it was interesting to think of the album as a narration on a relationship," Luppi elaborates. "It's not specific or a detailed story about a man and a woman, but a more general piece about feelings. We're influenced by very broad emotions and feelings in listening to soundtracks. The tension and dynamics that happen between a man and a woman was a good hook for us to hold on to."

Has Daniele ever heard the Milanese proverb that Rome is like a prostitute; she'd do whatever you want to do on the first night, while Milan is the shy girl that grows on you and ultimately becomes the love of your life?

"No!" he laughs. "My mum is from Milan and my father is from Rome, so I can't comment. It's a bit like New York and Los Angeles. They only make sense when you live there and not when you observe from outside. The temperature where you live is so important, which is why in the Caribbean they're so relaxed and enjoy life. Rome and Milan are far enough apart to have their own food, climates and traditions, but, having said that, a remark like that mainly comes from a south against the north mindset though. I'm very attached to Rome. Rome the way I imagine is not the city of today. Maybe the city of Rome never existed. It's a city that's fabricated through the movies that I've seen. I guess I'm kind of fantasising for that city in my mind."

Burton looks a bit bemused about all this talk of the Milan/Rome and north/south rivalry. "I haven't a clue about any of this stuff," he chuckles. "I gotta just say I love the food though."

"We recorded from early morning to late night and we ended up having dinners at 3am," Luppi continues. "If he [Burton] saw any monuments, it's because we were driving from one place to the other."

Two extremely familiar, well-known and highly prolific vocalists in their own right both grace Rome, Norah Jones and Jack White. "They were both really into it," Burton says. "They brought it into the next space of becoming something more unique and special. As soon as we did The World with Jack we knew it had to be the last song. It felt like we could then close the door. We wanted to make something that was unique and special and would last a long time as a classic album of some description. Sure, that's ambitious, but we didn't know when we first started that we'd even get Jack and Norah involved and again, how long it would take! We totally believed in the initial stuff we did, so that created a momentum of its own. The whole thing was an adventure. Thankfully, it turned out to be a very, very good one."

Rome is out today, see review page 11

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