Contemporary Legends: Danger Mouse

Contemporary Legends: Danger Mouse

Brian Burton is technically a producer, but we feel it's not sufficient to call him that. We don't feel 'musician' suits either. Nor 'new-age musical whiz'. 'Contemporary Legend' too seems gaudy as hell but rest assured we're branding for consistency and not dispensing moderate superlatives to make him or anyone else feel good for free.

Nobody seems to know exactly what is proficiency is. In having to explain his skill set a few dozen times Burton has likened himself to a film director; a practitioner of imagery rather than audio. Add 'enigma' to the above and we think that's quite adequate.

To that end it's been said that Burton's alias 'Danger Mouse' works as a artistic symbol more effectively than as a brand. Theoretically his persona is endlessly marketable (think Deadmau5, Daft Punk) but we reckon it provides an omniscient feel to his oeuvre more effectively. We're talking about creative inclinations largely indefinable, here. His persona is useful.

Take Gnarls Barkley and St. Elsewhere, just quickly. Brian and Cee-Lo Green have created a catalogue of haunting, murky, inky fatalistic R 'n' B/hip hop tunes that feel haunting, murky and inky. We don't need to explain the ink and the murk to you; listen to 'Crazy' and you feel the ink and the murk.

Not many producers can fashion images and feelings with sounds and while we can't trace those images and feelings back to any sort of metaphysical genesis helmed by Burton we can point out his techniques in the hope you'll draw some conclusions yourself.

Breaking it down

First of all, check out this clip for 'Kids With Guns', written by Damon Albarn of Gorillaz and produced by Burton as Danger Mouse:

Take particular note of the intro section running from 0.01 seconds to about 0.19. Albarn and Burton give us a pretty sparse arrangement: A single bass track (maybe double-tracked from around 0.10), a programmed drum rack, and some quieted guitar lines sitting in the back-end of the mix.

The sound is dense and fat, made so by a heavily compressed, harshly plucked bass and a grit-filtered kit. Burton gives a heap of reign to low-end warmth, so strength is not lost given the low fidelity put out. Drums are gain-y, harsh – they sound as though sampled from a ‘90s era, DJ Premier hip-hop tune – and this treatment works with the groove to create a subtle hip-hop feel.

Check out also the generous fuzz allowed to settle between kick-and-snare hits – a bloody clever ploy at lo-fi punk authenticity. This intro represents, in a small way, the sound design underpinning all of Demon Days.

Bare the above in mind while you check out this next clip for 'Citizen' by Broken Bells, a more recent work between Burton and James Mercer:

While 'Citizen' is not obviously similar to 'Kids With Guns' w/r/t overall sound design, unmistakable recurrences in music and production are present. Sure, the organ opening is a little gritty, and the acoustically recorded kit thuds with identical density and warmth, but Burton’s influence, you’ll hear, becomes clear in more interesting ways. At about 1.03 in, there’s a pretty wholly arranged chorus section.

Remove for attention the warbly bell-synth track playing rising and falling arpeggios in rhythmic time with hi-hat strikes. The synth lines build upon the chord progression guiding the tune in almost exactly the same way as another, similar sounding synth does in 'Kids With Guns'.

Jump to about 1.04, and the two tracks are uncannily alike. Both sport frail, squelched filters and are both wrapped in swelling, echoed samples that cast a haze over the respective mixes. The result is particularly profound with 'Citizen'; we get a marriage of indie-folk and hip-hop sensibilities none have captured in quite the same way.

Burton has also cast his varied influence upon rock, and to great effect. Check out this clip for 'Gold On The Ceiling' by The Black Keys:

The bloody heady drop at 0.04 should be a clear example of Burton’s hip-hop-leaning production design in play. A fat, warm kick-and-snare combo lays down a ballsy, swingin’ rhythm and we’re given – you betcha – hand claps to boot.

Tambourine shakes and heavily compressed bass notes complete the wall of accompanying noise to Dan Auerbach’s guitar, and Gold On The Ceiling is made something far grittier and more alive than anything mustered by the blues-rock duo prior. Alone, The Black Keys are fantastic, but the Danger Mouse treatment is clear.

He facilitates innovation within a largely same-y rock format, once again adding aged hip-hop flavours to contemporary rock ‘n’ roll and creating something arguably different altogether.

If you’re still not convinced of Danger Mouse’s consistent influence as a producer, consider the following:
- Compare drum tracks between 'Citizen' and 'Revenge', taken from Dark Night Of The Soul,
- Compare the discussed synth lines in choruses between 'Citizen', 'Kids With Guns', and 'Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head', also taken from Demon Days,
- Compare the above now with the chorus section in 'The Ghost Inside', taken from Broken Bells,
- Compare the sampling work in Dark Night Of The Soul with the sampling heard in 'Crazy'

It's all there. Danger Mouse's influence is liberal but never domineering. He and his contemporaries have made producing a proactive, peer-shared and peer-reviewed art form.

Disclaimer: Portions of the above are an iteration of an article produced by myself and published by Soot Magazine in 2013.
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