Perfect Sound Forever

Brian Burton: The Hybrid Producer

by Kessiah Gordon
(February 2011)

Across from Charlie Rose sits a lanky, unassuming individual with a modest afro and hazelnut complexion, dressed like a hipster grad student in a camouflage blazer and blue jeans. His demeanor is unthreatening and almost cagey; he furrows his brow when considering each interview question, and shrugs nonchalantly at his own response: "There's always an overall vision I have for something," he mumbles, "though it's not so much premeditated when it comes down to the details." This soft-spoken manner veils a confidence and command evident only in his work. Brian Burton may not appear a celebrity at first glance, but through the prism of his alter ego Danger Mouse he has become one of music's most admired and infamous producers.

In a New York Times profile, Chuck Klosterman notes a paradox of personality familiar among creative types: "He's simultaneously confident and insecure, and he's a natural introvert who elected to become a public figure." Danger Mouse may be a façade deployed to separate Burton's musical prowess from his unexpected humility, but it is the synthesis of these qualities that gives meaning to his work. Artists bend over backwards trying to gain stature in a world cultivated by fractured audiences, the blogosphere, and disintegrating record labels, all while the pop merchants compulsively tap them on the shoulder for even more foul-weather hits. Where do artists like Burton even begin to fit into this environment, or rather, how do they contend with it? Consumers expect a feasible relationship between what they hear and what they see. Is Burton using the ever-elusive Danger Mouse to present a more accessible face? Perhaps first impressions mask a simpler truth, and maybe we need to reconsider the ways we assess certain artists and their work.

Six years ago, Danger Mouse's The Grey Album-- a pirated mash-up featuring a cappellas from Jay-Z's The Black Album over a musical bed of samples from the Beatles' White Album--transcended its status as a mere personal endeavor to become a cultural landmark. On the surface, the idea of putting aggressive hip-hop lyrics over psychedelic rock seems either a novelty act or a conceptual assault on Beatlemaniacs. But this initial perception fails to acknowledge the complexities involved. Burton dissected every rhythmic and melodic phrase from its original context, a labor followed by a meticulous editing process and masterful manipulation of musical scraps. "It is an art form," he explains. "You can do different things; it doesn't have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that." The final product was a deconstruction. The Grey Album isn't simply a hybrid of sounds, but the junction of two cultures and generations most would consider ideologically opposed. Rather than feeling obliged to evoke an immediate response from the listener, Burton will sometimes seek his or her acknowledgement of atypical musical possibilities and sonic connections. One can only wonder how Burton achieved such eclectic musical interests, and why he chooses to place them at the heart of his own creative process.

Born in upstate New York circa 1977, Burton spent much of his childhood in a predominately Jewish neighborhood, where his was one of only two African American families. Under such circumstances, he could have easily been faced with an identity crisis. "My parents didn't tell me anything about why I was different," he insists. "I think that was good. I had no idea why I looked the way I looked, so I had to use my imagination." Thus did young Burton develop a deep fascination with cartoon characters and the fantastical--explaining the moniker "Danger Mouse"-- while also sharing his parent's love for Motown and ‘80s glam rock. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Atlanta, where he became so enamored of hip-hop that it was the only music he consumed. It wasn't until entering college that he confronted the uniformity of his record collection. In one interview, he reflects on his first real experience with psychedelica and music beyond the realm of beats and turntables. "I remember hearing Pink Floyd's ‘Wish You Were Here' in a bar," he recalls. "I remember thinking it was so beautiful. It just put me in a daze . . . and I suddenly found myself wondering, why have I spent all these years never listening to this music?" From there he began to expand his library by purchasing every Pink Floyd record, while also embarking on a quest for new musical interests.

Burton's varied taste is manifest. Gnarls Barkley is probably his best-known project, a partnership with southern singer-rapper Cee-Lo Green that has birthed two well-received records. St. Elsewhere, the duo's debut album, crosses all boundaries by sampling Gianfranco Reverberi, covering the Violent Femmes, concocting irresistible ear candy--yes, I'm referring to "Crazy"-- and inventively layering every track with haunting, soulful croons. Burton's work with Gnarls Barkley seems to deviate from his usual direction; he is not only the producer and engineer, but also the songwriter, performer, and mastermind. But there's a deeper consistency here. At this point in his career, Burton has devised a template for many of his projects. If one strips the qualities that distinguish St. Elsewhere from The Grey Album, the skeleton of Burton's intent comes clear. He has made a habit of merging disparate genres, while also attempting to fashion a coherent relationship between the past and the present. An architect of sound, he builds bridges between canons.

But if Burton is clearly the brains of the operation, why is he so rarely in the visual forefront? When Gnarls Barkley performs live, there are fourteen people on stage in full costume, one of whom is Burton in a pink panther suit, tinkering with machines in the backdrop. Why the distance and the elaborate veneer? Is it correct of me to assume that they are in fact distractions? Maybe that's not the case at all. Audiences have become so resistant to the obscurities in popular culture, feeding entirely off of the accessible. Burton's overall getup--the alter-ego, the costumes, the mask, the constant collabs--could very well be his attempt to change the game.

So maybe I was wrong to accuse Burton of hiding. ''The cartoon thing is a great concept to enable you to be more creative," he explains. "It doesn't have to fit into the real world. It just has to fit into what you create.'' This drift from reality isn't so much an escape as it is an alternative way of perceiving art. It manifests itself not only in Burton's creative choices for Danger Mouse, but also in a new wave of artists choosing to perform in a similar fashion.

Another one of Burton's most renowned productions has been with Gorillaz, a two-dimensional band of four punky primates. But behind those musically minded monkeys exists only one human. Damon Albarn--the front man of the now retired English group Blur-- is the only permanent musical contributor, occasionally persuaded to drop the mask and admit that he is the mastermind behind the virtual band. ''You get sick of your own voice, you get sick of seeing yourself on covers of magazines,'' he told Jon Pareles in The New York Times. ''It's just like: 'This is uncivilized. I'm just a product here. I'm not in control of it and I'm not really saying anything either.' You turn into, well, a cartoon.'' When Gorillaz tours, Albarn and guest musicians including Burton perform behind a screen while video projections come front and center. There is a relevant pattern here, especially with regards to visual appearance. In the Pareles interview, Albarn confessed a truth that epitomizes what Burton is trying to achieve:

The further I can retreat the better. Something happened to me which made me distrust the cult of the personality in music. I don't for one second think that realistically I can completely and utterly become anonymous, because people like to know who's doing what they're doing. But when you look in a kind of book of folk music or written music, and the personality of whoever wrote it comes through in the music, there's not a picture of them next to it, is there? There's just the notes. That's the reason for music.
Albarn and Burton represent a new breed of artists who deny the need for aesthetic perfection because they regard it as a distraction--one that strips music of the contingency essential to any worthwhile reality. They are playfully immobilizing the detours and pleasures, unafraid to excavate and embrace the quirks and foibles. The success of their choices thus far testifies to the power of alternative music as genuine art.

Danger Mouse is a paradigm of the kind of hierarchical shift popular culture desperately needs, where bedroom composers become the new leaders of an art movement. You could argue that beat mining and sampling are nothing new. But it requires great virtuosity to sculpt a cacophony of snippets into something greater than the sum of its parts. "I construct and deconstruct and reconstruct," Burton told Pareles. "We see what tangents you can go on, and then you basically take the best part of all those tangents when you reconstruct." As an exercise in adaptation, sample-based music encourages one to rethink the composer's authority over musical texts. Consumers expect recorded music to reflect what is actually being performed. This has always been an illusion to one extent or another, but Burton is one of those artists who habitually expose it as such, by putting his tech use in the forefront. By deconstructing other songs, he turns the recordings into a palette for his own new work: art that revels in technology but retains the most important pieces from the source.

In her analysis of appropriation and Burton's The Grey Album, musicologist Joanna Demers writes, "refashioning these sounds and reorganizing them into new sonic phrases and sentences, he [Danger Mouse] creates acoustic mosaics that in most instances are still traceable to the Beatles source, yet are unmistakably distinct from it." This approach is a perfect example of deconstructionist method, where a text is pried open, disassembled, and drained of the meanings intended by the author. "To deconstruct the opposition," Derrida has argued, "is to overturn the hierarchy of a given moment." Maybe Burton is doing with music what theorists like Derrida did with literature; as Kembrew McLeod has put it, he "undermines, disrupts, and displaces the arbitrary hierarchies of taste that rule popular culture."

Beyond the literary medium, Burton's influences extend to film and the director's role. In an MTV profile, journalist Corey Moss describes the producer's base in Los Angeles, where he finds bare walls except for a picture of Woody Allen tacked above a computer monitor. "What changed everything was when I got into Allen," confesses Burton. "When I got into 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." Only in the work of film directors does Burton see the kind of mastery over a project he'd like for himself. "I don't make a band's next album," stresses Burton. "I don't like making someone else's songs better. I'm not interested in that. This is where the Woody Allen thing comes back in. I have to be in control of the project I'm doing." Danger Mouse opens up a new role in the music industry: the equivalent of the deconstructionist in literature or the auteur in filmmaking. The bright, ebullient soundscape, cinematic sweep, and Frankenstein pieces found in many of his records become less surprising once his motive is clear.

Burton has learned to adapt to and participate in a culture based entirely on trends. It is no longer about maintaining the longevity of a single artistic endeavor. Harper's editor Bill Wasik accounts for this in his essay on the Annuals, an indie rock band whose name and short-lived success typify the rules of viral culture. "Maybe we all will learn to make art, to find narrative, in this churning, viral culture by embodying the churn, embracing it, by envisioning a life not as some decades-long epic, but as a succession of discretely plotted six-month shorts." As a heavyweight producer, Burton may not be in it for the same reasons as peers Timbaland or Kanye--one hopes that he isn't, for it would be a shame to see him espouse their humdrum narcissism--but he is surely cognizant of the option Wasik proposes. He rarely repeats himself and is always pushing the limits of his musical reserve: "The moment something is defined, it's already in the past."

As of now, Burton is juggling the success of Broken Bells, a project with the Shins' James Mercer, as well as the long-awaited official release of Dark Night of the Soul, a colossal multimedia production made possible by a strange slew of talented bedfellows including the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and director David Lynch. It will be interesting to see what emerges next from Burton's musical lens. Projects like The Grey Album and collaborations such as Gnarls Barkley and Dark Night of the Soul reveal the capacity of artists and listeners to transcend musical expectations. If anything, what Burton has created through Danger Mouse encourages a mutation of the conventional creative process: act as an auteur, or perhaps deconstruct, but do not confine yourself to one artistic medium. With this hybrid means of cultural transformation and Burton leading the masses, modern music might just be saved.

Also see our article about Danger Mouse's Rome project

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