By Zachary Swickey
Brian Joseph Burton, the man the music world knows and loves as Danger Mouse, turns 34 today, and his many milestones are rather mindboggling. Growing up on the music of Pink Floyd and Portishead, Burton fit right in while living in London, where he moved to make a name for himself as a trip-hop DJ but instead found himself focusing on making hip-hop beats. But it was a moment of true serendipity that led Burton to where he is today.
While cleaning around his apartment and listening to the Beatles’ White Album, Burton came across his a capella copy of Jay-Z’s The Black Album, and inspiration struck. After completing one song successfully and with surprising ease, Burton took to mashing up the entirety of both albums, creating The Grey Album. The result was clearly not exactly legal since it was the music of two separate iconic acts (Burton promptly received a cease and desist letter from EMI), but the mix became a viral sensation and has likely been downloaded millions of times. Burton quickly became a hot-commodity – GQ Magazine named him one of their Men of the Year in 2004, while Entertainment Weekly named The Grey Album their pick for album of the year.
Burton got his next big break when a well-known musician asked him to produce his new group’s follow-up to their critically acclaimed debut album, Gorillaz. We’re talking about Damon Albarn, of course, lead singer of Blur and mastermind behind many other notable projects. Burton would go on to receive a 2005 Grammy nomination for his production work on the finished product, Gorillaz’s Demon Days.
Burton then made a splash in the art world in 2006 when British graffiti artist/prankster Banksy enlisted his services for a special project. Banksy “obtained” 500 copies of socialite Paris Hilton’s debut album and altered the album artwork – including an album sticker that boasts song titles like “Why Am I Famous?” – while Burton swapped the discs with a 40-minute music mix containing various sound bites from Paris herself.
The same year, Burton started yet another successful project when he joined forces with the current savior of soul, Cee-Lo, creating Gnarls Barkley. Anybody that had access to a radio in the summer of 2006 heard their hit, “Crazy,” as it was the song you couldn’t (and didn’t want to) get out of your head. Burton and Cee-Lo even took their project on the road, armed with twelve other musicians and only appeared as various movie characters during photo shoots and performances. They’ve since donned the garb of many iconic films: “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Pink Panther,” “Back to the Future” and even “Napoleon Dynamite.” Why? Simply because they like to.
Next, Burton re-teamed with Albarn for The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, which also included Clash bassist Paul Simonon, former Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Africa 70 drummer Tony Allen. While not a chart-smashing success, the album was well-received critically and was a favorite in many indie circles.
Soon Burton found himself focusing more on his production duties. In April 2008, Ohio blues rockers The Black Keys put out Attack & Release, which Burton had produced. After teaming with Burton, The Black Keys finally started receiving the mainstream acclaim they deserved. A few months later, Burton produced Beck’s 11th album, Modern Guilt.
During the summer of 2009, Burton was supposed to release his most intriguing effort yet, a music/book collaboration with underground musician Sparklehorse and film director David Lynch, to be known as “Dark Night of the Soul.” The effort was to include a book limited to 5,000 hand-numbered copies with 100-plus pages of original photography from Lynch. The music portion was done by Sparklehorse and Burton, while several notable rock musicians shared the role of guest vocalist: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Julian Casablancas of The Strokes, and Iggy Pop to name a few. Unfortunately, a dispute with EMI led to an indefinite delay (probably had something to do with using Beatles music a few years earlier), but the record was finally released a year later, following the tragic suicide of Sparklehorse, aka Mark Linkous.
Burton then formed another band in late 2009, recruiting James Mercer, lead singer of indie pop favorites the Shins, to create Broken Bells. Their self-titled debut was released in March 2010. It included the catchy “The High Road” and was ranked as one of the year’s best.
A few months later, in May 2010, The Black Keys released their most-successful record to date, Brothers, which was once again produced by Burton. Thanks in part to Burton further expanding the group’s sound, the Keys soon found themselves as a main stage act at many iconic music festivals.
Burton got one of the biggest gigs of his career when U2 asked him to produce tracks for their upcoming 13th album. They have been working on the effort around the group’s busy “360° Tour” schedule since late 2010.
Earlier this year, Burton revealed his newest project, Rome, a collaboration with Italian composer Daniele Luppi. The effort was a labor of love, as it took the pair five years to make. The album was inspired by their shared love of old spaghetti western soundtracks. The effort was recorded with old-school vintage equipment and used several musicians that had recorded the original soundtracks that Burton and Luppi had grown up on. Burton asked his buddies Jack White and Norah Jones (who need no introduction) to be the voices behind Rome.
Burton has been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards (as a producer and artist in Gnarls Barkley), and appropriately received the Producer of the Year award at this year’s Grammys. You can expect another nom or two after the Black Keys release their new album later this year. The man simply does not rest but should take today to savor his success. Happy birthday, Danger Mouse!