Gorillaz fan and all-round nice girl Dark Sakura has gone to the trouble of typing this up and sends in the interview. Many thanks to her!
DJ DANGERMOUSE became the most controversial sonic-chef of the mash-up world with The Grey Album. Now he's serving up his production chops with Gorillaz on Demon Days and a feast of platters with MF Doom and CEe-Lo on the menu. So why is he so hush-hush about what he's cooking up in the studio? FM's Richard Thomas puts the heat on to get the real cheese behind the mighty Mouse and his, er, mashed marauder buddy, Dr. President.
Oh, the irony of it all. In the spring of 2004, Brian Burton - aka Danger Mouse - dropped the infamous The Grey Album like a hydrogen bomb on the face of pop culture. A D.I.Y. reinterpretation of Jay-Z's The Black Album (from which he pulled the vocals)and the Beatles' White Album (from which he sampled the music), The Grey Album tested the limits of music copyright law, sparking a one-day, P2P free speech revolution dubbed "Grey Tuesday," and putting Burton on the naughty list of one of the biggest music companies in the world, EMI.
A year later, he was tapped by Blur's Damon Albarn to coproduce one of EMI's biggest releases of 2005, Demon Days, the second full-length by everyone's favorite animated musicians, Gorillaz. The album met with stellar reviews, and the ever-reticent Burton - who at one point would perform in a full-body mouse costume to conquer his stage fright - found a new home with a group who has never shown their real faces onstage.
All this has propelled Burton's stock to such gret heights that he's since employed the services of a full-time assistant and "spiritual-advisor," a black-cloaked mystery figure named Dr. President, who makes a point never to miss a photo shoot or turn down a finely grilled cheese sandwich. More importantly, Danger Mouse fans will get a solid one-two punch to the gut when Burton's collaboration with masked rapper MF Doom - the album DangerDoom: The Mouse and the Mask, inspired by Cartoon Network's late-night animation show, Adult Swim - is released later this year, followed in 2006 by Gnarls Barkley, his project with Goodie Mob aluumnus Cee-Lo. And that's only the stuff we're allowed to talk about...
Despite blasting into the limelight over the last year, Burton is no newcomer. In 1999, he personally mailed select music journalists a non-descript package containing the soundtrack to a film called The Chilling Effect. The CD, produced in Athens, Georgia, by Burton and released under the name Pelican City, represented his first foray into music production. He even wrote the press release himself and, ironically, subsidized the production of the disc by releasing a series of Danger Mouse DJ remixes, many of which contained some of his favorite mashed-up performances behind the decks. Future Music caught up with Danger Mouse at his loft in downtown Los Angeles to find out a little more about what drives the man behind the mouse and how his long, strange trip has affected the way he makes music.
You tend to be a little secretive about your gear and how you produce music. Is that because you don't like people knowing how you make particular sounds?
That's part of it. The other part of it is, when I was doing stuff when I was younger, I would see what people used ant think, Oh I see. If I just got that one thing it would make my stuff so much better. It's bullshit, really. I don't want anybody thinking they need specific items of gear to make them sound a certain way. I don't use anything expensive at all. It's no secret that I use ACID Pro and a regular home PC for a lot of my stuff. That's all, and that's what I've been using for years. Before that I used samplers - an old Emax II and an Ensoniq ASR - and an old Roland keyboard here and there. You don't need a lot of gear. In the end, it's better to have a couple of things that you know how to use well so you can do something that sounds different.
It's ironic that you feel strongly about not propegating the belief that one piece of gear or one program is all someone needs to make it, because I think a lot of people view The Grey Album, ACID, and the whole mash-up craze that way.
People think that loop-based means entry level, but I don't use it that way. Some tracks on The Grey Album have no loops at all, just one-shots. I was programming on a grid. I can't program on Logic or Pro Tools. I've seen people do it - we did some of it during the Gorillaz record - but it's not the same. It's not as fluid or as quick. When I use ACID, I don't need an engineer; I can do it all on the fly. It's very much like a visual collage, in a way. You use your natural instincts when you're hitting a drum machien pad or a key on a kleyboard, and a lot of people's instincts on those instruments are very similar because we listen to the same types of rhythms or music. But when you're dealing with how to compose visually on an arrangement grid, it opens up a lot of creative possibilities that you might not have explored.
ACID was the first program I used. You just have to get creative with it. I use that program like an instrument. Everything I do gets filtered through ACID, because I'm really deep into how I use it. But I really don't think, I wish this program did this, I wish this program did that. That won't get you anywhere. You just have to find the way to do it and then do it.
Do you view The Grey Album as a "mash-up" record?
To my mind, I didn't mash records together. I've done mash-ups before. I'd DJ and then throw two records together. That's fun and it's always been a hobby of mine, but this wasn't anywhere near a mash-up to me. I home I'm not inspiring people to just throw other people's records together and see what they come up with. I don't even like most mash-ups. The problem with DJs and mash-ups now is that people are getting lost in what they're really doing. It's ok to DJ, it's ok to mash-up, it's ok to sample, but just realize what you're doing. It's not your music unless you do something with it that's a lot more than just playing the record.
You always hear that they sell more turntables than guitars at Guitar Center. It's that instant gratification you get. It all promotes that short attentino span that's going on with television, music, MP3s, quick downloads, skippnig CDs to get to the next track.When it comes to DJing, people play stuff for a crowd and get a reactino out of them, but I think they're misled into thinking that this reaction has something to do with them. It's gotten to the point where the instant gratification of playing a record for someone and getting a reaction took over from the time it takes to play a guitar and get a reaction out of some people. I dare you to take a guitar and get the same reaction out of somebody as you can playing a great record. That doesn't mean playing a great record is just as hard to do. It's not. It's a very easy thing.
That's why I haven't done a Danger Mouse record. There's not one record that's a Danger Mouse record yet. I don't even know what that record would be.
How does one make the jump from writing a record like The Grey Album - which you essentially made for your friends - to producing a big record like Demon Days and working with choirs, string sections, and studio musicians?
For one thing, there were no samples on the Gorillaz record. None. There are sampled drum sounds here and there, but tehre are no musical samples, so it was definitely working outside a lot of what I was doing before. You just have to know what you like, what you want and how to get it and do a lot of trial and error. Hopefully you'll get yourself in a position where you have a big record that you're working on. I learned so much working on the record with Damon [Albarn], and it was sink or swim. You just pick it up. At the end of the day, the people you're worknig with - whether it's the choir or string sectino or guitarist - are specialized in what they do. All you have to do is figure out the best thing tehy're doing and how it's going to fit within the context of the whole project. That goes back to putting together a song on a computer-based program. You're looking for all the parts that are going to make something sound right. It's also being able to communicate. I had done stuff before Gorillaz - like the Pelican City stuff - where I worked with musicians, so it wasn't completely foreign to me.
It seems as though your work with Gorillaz is more of a progressino fromw hat you were doing as Pelican City in 1999 and not connected as much with The Grey Album or Ghetto Pop Life.
Yeah, that bridge has always been there. That was the thing that people klnew the least about, and it was a pleasant surprise to people like Damon. He hadn't heard any of that old stuff before we met. Pelican City was a good starting place for me. Back then I was trying to make the music that I wanted to hear. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, so I did it the best I could with what I had. This time around with Gorillaz, it was the same situation, except that I had tons of access to equipment and resources and of course someone like Damon who's writing amazing songs. The dark lushness of what I started out doing wtih Pelican City is what I eventually got to be able to do with Gorillaz. It's like I've been training all this time to do a record like Gorillaz. I couldn't believe my luck when we sat down and starting messing with songs; it was a dream come true. There was no compromising with Gorillaz. It was what I wanted to do and the kind of record I wanted to make.
Do you think it's detrimental to budding artists to stay within the DAW world and not branch out to more organic recording tactics?
The most important thing is for people to know what they like and what they're trining to arrive at musically. You need as many reference points as possible, and you should listen to as much music as you can to know what you're referencing. If you said to me, "All you can have to make music for the next ten years is a computer and these five virtual synths," it's not going to kill me. It's just going to make me be more resourceful and try to do something different. If anything, I think people should be putting more limits on the amount of equipment they're using. I'd like to make an entire record just using apples.
What...do you mean Apple Computers?
No, I mean the kind of apples you eat. You could use the sound of tossing one against the wall as the snare drum. Who knows what else you can get from apples? I'm not talking about trying to do John Cage stuff - I would definitely want it to be melodic and have good sounds. Why does everbody have to pick up a guitar, a bass, a set of drums or a vocal mic? Some of that stuff is great, and I love it musically, but at the same time, if you have the chance to do something enw and something different as opposed to be almost as good as the Beatles or almost as good as Hendrix, what's the point?
That was the whole thing with The Grey Album. I gave myself the limitation that I had to use the Beatles' stuff. I didn't use any outside drums. That's why it sounds the way it does. The whole idea for the record was that I wanted to try this new technique of recontextualizing stuff by turning it inside itself. If I had put James Brown or Parliament drums on that record, it would be huge. If I had just used even a few other hi-fi drum loops, it could have been one huge bangin' record, but it's not. It's all choppy and crazy and weird. I'm surprised people like it.
You've got records coming out soon with both MF Doom and Dirty South alum Cee-Lo.
That's right. The DangerDoom record is going to be the most fun hip-hop record in a long time. Doom is killing it - in my opinion he's the best MC these days. It's a really quirky record that's taken about two years to make. Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan and Talib Kweli guest on it, too. The Gnarls Barkley record is me and Cee-Lo's working together to experiment with a new sound. So far it's all singing and no rapping from Cee-Lo, which works really well since most of the music couldn't really be rapped to all that easily. Cee-Lo really brings the music to life and hist voice is so unique, especially over the top of soem really out-there soundscapes. We've also been working on that record for almost two years.
What did you think of some of the accolades you got for The Grey Album, including GQ naming you a "Man of the Year">?
It's funny. I recently got asked to name which records influenced me the most, and I realized that the most influential records for me by a given band weren't necessarily my favorite records by that band. There's a difference. I think that The Grey Album will prove to be something I can be very proud of by virtue of it influencing or inspiring other people to run with those ides and make something even better. As a producer, my intentinos have always been - from Pelican City on - to create a new role for musicians. What a producer is depends on who you ask. In hip-hop it's someone who does all the music. In rock they don't have to even touch an instrument. My idea in becoming a producer is to assume more of a director's role for musicians.
But as far as the accolades, I mean, think about people like Dylan and the Ramones; The reason these people are so big and influential is because they let people know that anyone can do this. Dylan can't really sing and the Ramones were just a bunch of guys who fucked around. I was hoping the accolades I received would go more in that direction. I don't look at myself as some huge "talent" - whatever that means - and I've never viewed myself as anything more than somebody who just goes out tehre and does shit. You can't choose to be any more gifted than you are, but you can choose to find out what's there and make something of it. You might be the best guitar player that ever lived, btu if you don't pick up the guitar and find out, you'll never know. -FM.