ashthomas//blog: Danger Mouse Profile in NYT


Monday, June 19, 2006

Danger Mouse Profile in NYT

Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), the hip-hop producer, was given a lengthy profile in the NY Times Magazine this weekend, in "The D.J. Auteur", by Chuck Klosterman. Danger Mouse is the producer behind Gnarls Barkley, DangerDoom, and the latest Gorillaz album. He rose to prominence when he mixed The Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album to create the very popular and illegal The Grey Album.

The first striking aspect of the interview is the fact that Danger Mouse feels more closely akin to film directors than other music producers. He describes how the example of Woody Allen changed his perspective on life:

When I got to college, I saw 'Manhattan' and 'Deconstructing Harry.' I thought to myself: Why do I relate so much to this white 60-year-old Jewish guy? Why do I understand his neurosis? So I just started watching all of his movies. And what I realized is that they worked because Woody Allen was an auteur: he did his Thing, and that particular Thing was completely his own. That's what I decided to do with music. I want to create a director's role within music, which is what I tried to do on this album.

Klosterman agrees with the idea that Danger Mouse is the sole guiding figure behing Gnarls Barkley:

When Gnarls Barkley performs live, there are 14 people onstage. Technically, however, Gnarls Barkley is just two people: Danger Mouse (the aforementioned Burton) and an Atlanta-based singer-rapper named Cee-Lo (born Thomas Calloway). But in a larger sense, Gnarls Barkley is really just one person, and that person is Burton. Cee-Lo is essential, but he's essential in the same way Diane Keaton was essential to "Annie Hall": he is the voice that best incarnates Burton's vision, so he serves as the front man for this particular project. Burton will aggressively insist that Gnarls Barkley is a two-man game, but that seems more magnanimous than accurate.

Klosterman goes on to compare DM to Phil Spector and Brian Eno, other producers who often had defining influence on the sound of the music they produced for other artists. DM has a lot in common with Eno in particular, Klosterman believes, since both could be said to use artists simply as vehicles for their own sound. There is, however, a difference, Klosterman observes:

Though Eno was the intellectual force behind groups like Roxy Music and albums like "Heroes," he was never the star; the star was always someone else (like Bryan Ferry or David Bowie). What's atypical about Gnarls Barkley is that the star is Burton, even though he's barely visible onstage. Burton has the kind of paradoxical personality that's weirdly familiar among creative types: he's simultaneously confident and insecure, and he's a natural introvert who elected to become a public figure. More significant, he's a highly focused dude, and that focus is clear - Danger Mouse wants musical autonomy. He wants to be the first modern rock 'n' roll auteur, mostly because he understands a critical truth about the creative process: good art can come from the minds of many, but great art usually comes from the mind of one.

This may seem a new phenomenum to Klosterman, but to someone the same age as DM, it is not surprising. The last fifteen years have seen the rise of the superstar producers. Those who in the 70s and 80s would have stayed hidden and largely anonymous in the recording booth are now recognisable and putting out albums under their own names. This is roughly contemporaneous with the growth of the commercial appeal of hip-hop and electronic music. Rather than being obscured behind the guy with the guitar, in the 90s the person who fiddled and tweaked the knobs became the creative force. The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Liam Howlett of The Prodigy all became as famous as traditional rock'n'roll stars. These days, I am as likely to look for music based on producer as the artist. Producers like The Neptunes and Kanye West go on to be more famous than the artists they produce.

The biggest asset of the article is DM's description of the story behind The Grey Album, which Klosterman calls "the most popular album in rock history that virtually no one paid for". Hearing the rationale behind and origins of the album from the man himself is the centrepiece of the profile:

'The Grey Album' is so misunderstood. I didn't even call it 'The Grey Album.' If you look at my original files for those songs, they're labeled 'The Black-White Album.' And the thing is, most people who have that record think the way it sounds is the way I wanted it to sound. And that's not the case at all.


One day I was cleaning my room and listening to the Beatles' White Album. I was kind of bored, because the other hip-hop work I was doing was really easy. Somebody had sent me an a capella version of 'The Black Album,' but I was already doing stuff with Cee-Lo and Jemini and Doom, so I didn't want to waste my beats on a remix record.


So I'm listening to the White Album and I'm putting 'The Black Album' away, and I suddenly have this idea: I decide to see if I could take those two albums and make one song, just because of the names of the two albums and because they're perceived as being so different and because I've always loved Ringo Starr's drum sound.


I sat down and tried to make one track, and it happened really fast. Then I tried to make a second song, and it took a lot longer, but it still worked. And I thought, Wow. What if I can do the whole album? It was almost this Andy Warhol moment, where I made a decision to do something artistically without a clear reason as to why, except to show people what I could do. And I could never do an album like that again. I still don't know where I found the patience to make those songs. It took me about 20 days in a row, and those were all 12- and 13-hour days. And the whole time I was doing it, I was terrified someone else would come up with the same idea, which would have ruined everything. Because really, the idea is pretty simple.


I thought it would be a weird, cultic record for techies to appreciate, because they would be the only people who would understand how much work was involved," he says. "But then it was taken into this whole different world, where a million people were downloading it at the same time. At best, that record is just quirky and odd and really illegal. I never imagined people would play those songs in clubs. I also think the people who love it tend to love it for the wrong reasons, and the people who hate it tend to hate it for the wrong reasons. I think some people love it for what it supposedly did to the music industry, which was not my intent. I did not make 'The Grey Album' for music fans. I made it to impress people who were really into sampling.

Danger Mouse's love of genre-bending seems inevitable when one considers his youth: growing up in a white neighbourhood in New Jersey he listened to Poison. When his family moved to Atlanta, he started listening to RZA and immersed himself in hip-hop. He describes how a beer in a bar caused him to look beyond the rap world:

I remember hearing Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' in a bar... This was around 1995. And I remember thinking it was so beautiful. It just put me in a daze. I asked someone what it was, and they were like: 'You don't know? This is Pink Floyd.' Now, I had heard of Pink Floyd, but I never really knew what they sounded like. I had never actually played Pink Floyd records. And I suddenly found myself wondering, Why have I spent all these years never listening to this music? And the reason was that I was afraid to do anything that would have seemed socially unacceptable. I was afraid that people wouldn't think of me as this hip-hop guy, because hip-hop was my Thing. So then I went out and bought every Pink Floyd record.

The article ends with a description of the current popularity of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo's project Gnarls Barkley. There are plenty of interesting nuggets of info, for example, that their touring drummer used to be the drummer for Nine Inch Nails (hard to imagine that this could be a NINer in a Chewbacca costume). Or the origin of the name Gnarls Barkley:

Burton was in a cafe with several friends in Silver Lake, Calif., and everyone at the table started making up fictional celebrity names like "Prince Gnarls" and "Bob Gnarley." When someone came up with "Gnarls Barkley," Burton wrote it down. That's the whole story.

Danger Mouse has upcoming projects with members of The Roots and Damon Albarn, so it is quite possible that his best is yet to come.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks ash,

very interesting read- what a breath of fresh air DM is.
i'm checking your spot lots, so keep posting up

keithrow international

2:07 PM  

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