If music today has become a producer’s medium—and some might argue that it has, with fractured audiences, disintegrating record labels, and increasing desperation for foul-weather hits to keep the whole thing afloat—then 31-year-old Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, might very well be the most prolific knob-twiddler around. Four years ago, Burton’s The Grey Album, a homespun (and illegal) mash-up of the Beatles’ “white” album (1968) and Jay-Z’s The Black Album (2003), infamously announced his presence. Free, unofficially released, and available almost exclusively online, the songs were downloaded, file-shared, and bootlegged by the millions before lawyers got involved. (Burton had never received permission from either the Beatles or Jay-Z to use their music.) The project, though, did prove valuable in other ways: Despite Burton’s almost patent inscrutability—a character named “Dr. President” appears in many photographs taken of him, and he has a long—standing propensity for dressing up like a giant mouse—he has very quickly become one of the industry’s most in-demand producers. Burton mostly produces full-length albums, and the list of artists that he’s worked with—from hip-hop square pegs Gemini and MF Doom to Damon Albarn’s cartoon electro-pop quartet Gorillaz and indie dance-rock band the Rapture—continues to grow both in length and eclecticism. In the last four months alone, Burton has delivered three very diverse records: The Odd Couple (Atlantic), his second effort with Southern soul singer Cee-Lo Green under the banner of Gnarls Barkley; Attack & Release (Nonesuch), by ragged, bluesy rock duo the Black Keys; and Beck’s latest, Modern Guilt (Interscope). Here he talks to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh about the peculiar—and sometimes perilous—business of being the man they call Danger Mouse.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: I’m going to start by doing that thing that people have done to me in interviews: I’m going to read back a quote of yours from another interview. I read this article where you said that you felt you were drawn to a sort of “sadder side” of music, a “darker side.” When I was growing up, certain kinds of music caught my ear. Later on, I was able to find out that even though the kinds of music I listened to were all different, there were some technical similarities and certain chords that hit me in particular ways. So when you say that you are drawn to sadder or darker music, what do you really mean?
DANGER MOUSE: Well, part of it does have to do with things like chord structure and movements. It is definitely more than a coincidence that particular notes and structures make people feel certain ways. But I find that the kinds of music I’m drawn to are those that a lot of people take for granted. I actually didn’t find out about a lot of music until I was older. Some people have been listening to the Beatles their whole lives; I didn’t discover them until I was 18 years old. As a result, I’m still very affected and moved by their music—maybe in a way that’s different from someone who grew up around it. I have no shame in making music that maybe, if you listen to it long enough, you’ll realize you’ve heard this or that part of it before. I’m still very excited by an amazingly written song, so that’s really the thing that I work on when I make records with people. I suppose I could try to be some avant-garde artist if I wanted to, but that doesn’t interest me as much.
SS: I think that music is a very difficult art form in which to be avant-garde. When we sit down to listen to a piece of music, I think our implicit hope is that we’re going to find it beautiful, or at least emotional, on some level. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of hearing some music that would be classified as avant-garde and going, “Well, that’s interesting . . .” But you don’t connect with it emotionally.
DM: You’re right. It is very difficult because whenever you experiment with something, it’s very easy to take the emotion out of it. And going back and forth between wanting to be respected artistically and wanting to move people is its own challenge. One of the reasons why I’m working so much right now is that I’m in a place where I feel like I have a good mix of things going on.
SS: When you’re working with all of these different people, do you ever find that any kind of jealousy sets in on the part of some of the people you’re creatively “dating” simultaneously?
DM: [laughs] You know, I’m going to be vague about it, so it’s not obvious who I’m talking about. But I have had that happen, yes.
SS: How do you deal with it?
DM: I try to deal with it by making jokes about it with the new people I’m working with so they don’t get that way, too. [laughs]
SS: You’ve done two albums with Damon Albarn [the Gorillaz’s Demon Days and The Good, the Bad, & the Queen’s self-titled album]. You’ve now done two Gnarls Barkley records with Cee-Lo [St. Elsewhere and The Odd Couple]. Do you have any kind of rule about working with people you’ve worked with before?
DM: No, not really. But I think the feeling that we’re going to work together again usually starts to come up before the first project’s even done. The Black Keys and I have already talked about starting on something new.
SS: With Gnarls Barkley in particular, what were the differences between working on the first and second records?
DM: St. Elsewhere was about three years in the making. We started on it before I had done The Grey Album, so in the beginning it was really just about me trying to get to work with Cee-Lo. He was a much bigger artist than I was at the time. We got together when we could—when he could, really.
SS: So was it different to have a schedule to work around for The Odd Couple?
DM: There was somewhat of a schedule, but it was much more about both of us thinking, Wow, when we do this next thing, a whole bunch of people are going to hear it. It was exciting in a way because we felt like we had just started to hit a groove. We spent a year on tour together, where we saw each other in a lot of different lights. It helped us to go deeper.
SS: When you’re making a record, how much material do you throw away?
DM: Surprisingly, I don’t throw away that much. I don’t move forward with a lot of things unless they’re going somewhere. You also have to remember that when you’re working with other artists, you have to be really careful about how you deal with that stuff. I’m obviously really opinionated, but as a producer, you don’t necessarily want the person you’re working with to try to impress you—you want them to just be themselves. Then you can edit or mess around with what they’ve come up with. But you have to allow the artist that space.
SS: I find myself in situations a lot where I have to say to someone, “This can be better,” and it’s hard to say that.
DM: A big part of making an album is that you want to have enough material—you want to have enough stuff for people to hear and know that it represents you. So it does sometimes turn into a situation where you’re saying to the person you’re working with, “Well, what do you want?” But then there are other times when I work with people and they’ll turn to me and say, “How do you want to do this?” And that’s actually when I work best. Even with artists I love, only about a third of their music is what really hits the sweet spot for me.
SS: When you’re focusing on the part of their music that you like, do you ever give them any sense of why you don’t like the other part?
DM: [laughs] Sometimes I do pontificate and let them know. I try to use other songs or bands as reference points—it seems like the easiest way to get across what are really differences of taste or opinion. If you know what kind of music somebody loves, then you can kind of figure out why they do what they do.
SS: I want to form a political party that’s based entirely on what music people listen to. To me, it’s a much better barometer of what they think and feel than their political stance.
DM: I’ve had nightmares about having to kick people out of my band because they’ve said that they don’t like the Beatles. I’d wake up and turn to them and say, “You like the Beatles, right?”
SS: I come from a generation that was surrounded by popular music, but I don’t know if anybody’s ever going to move the ball forward as far and as fast as the Beatles did.
DM: What affected me the most about the Beatles was that they were the biggest band in the world and they could have done anything they wanted—
SS: And they chose to keep pushing themselves.
DM: It was their choice to do that. Those kinds of choices have meaning because the more options you have, the harder it is to make them. You see why a lot of people don’t stick around very long.
SS: Why do you think that’s the case in music especially? Is it just the metabolism of the industry?
DM: I think that it’s fear. The musicians themselves don’t seem to know enough about why they’re in the positions they’re in, so they’re afraid to lose those positions. If you’re 22 years old and you can’t believe you’re even in the position to have a career making music, the first thing you’re going to think is: Maintain. Don’t lose it. And that’s precisely what causes you to lose everything.
Making music you love doesn’t necessarily mean that you deserve billions of dollars or worship from anybody.Danger mouse
SS: The traditional models for success are just also disappearing.
DM: Well, in the history of humans making music, how long have musicians actually been rich and famous? In the end, I think musicians know that getting up in the morning and making music you love doesn’t necessarily mean that you deserve billions of dollars or worship from anybody.
SS: That’s why my attitude, even on my larger-scale movies, is to make them cheap. The less these things cost, the better for everybody.
DM: It’s the Jean-Luc Godard thing: To make a movie, all you need is a girl and a gun.
SS: That’s true if you’re Godard—but most people aren’t. I’ve heard you say that you don’t necessarily believe in talent.
DM: No, I don’t.
SS: But I’m wondering if you’re making a distinction between talent and skill.
DM: I guess I just look at talent as a very subjective thing. I mean, if you never tried playing an oboe, how do you know you’re not the most talented oboe player ever? The point is that if you don’t love it, then it doesn’t matter. No matter how naturally gifted you are, it’s your passion that’s going to make you better and maybe touch some people. There is no genius—there is only love.
SS: I recently decided that I’m not an originator. I’m a synthesist.
DM: A synthesist?
SS: Yeah, there are people who are originals and the stuff they make really is new. It isn’t based on anything else. But I’ve decided I’m not that-I was never that. My abilities are to synthesize a wide range of references and ideas into something that feels relatively unified and coherent.
DM: You don’t think that those people you think are truly original have thought similar things about themselves?
SS: I don’t think those original people even think about it. They don’t live in the third person like I do.
DM: See, that was the basis of this discussion I had with Cee-Lo when we wrote the song “Crazy” for St. Elsewhere.
SS: What was his attitude?
DM: Well, it was exactly that. I was thinking that people have to believe you’re crazy in order to take you seriously as an artist. If you’re wandering the streets, talking in gibberish, nobody ever asks you to change anything about your art because there’s no context for people to look at what you do. But you and I can’t help that we’re normal guys, and because we are, people try to separate out our work, to pull it apart. You can’t change who you are, so I think that the only thing you can do is just never talk to people about stuff and then hope that maybe does something.
SS: We’re breaking that rule right now.
DM: I know. There you go.
SS: So, finally, what are you wearing right now?
DM: No comment. Too much of a reveal.