Italian-Made Western Music, Five Years In The Making
Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton, is one of the most sought-after producers in music. He's worked with some of the industry's biggest names: U2, Gorillaz, Beck and Cee-Lo Green. Yet all the while, in the back of his mind, he wanted to make a record that sounded like a Western.
Danger Mouse isn't just a fan of old Spaghetti Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — he's obsessed with the music of those films, as composed by the likes of Ennio Morricone.
Five years ago, he teamed up with the acclaimed Italian composer and arranger Daniele Luppi to write and craft some new Spaghetti Western music. The result of that collaboration, titled Rome, will finally see release this coming week.
"We met about seven years ago, about 2004. We got together based on our mutual love of this music," Burton tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "The idea for this actual album came while we were working on some of the Gnarls Barkley stuff. I thought, 'Why don't we make an album using this sound as a foundation?' We talked about it for a year before we bought tickets to Rome."
Burton and Luppi wrote and recorded the album in the Italian capital, and brought in some of the actual musicians who played for Morricone and other composers of Spaghetti Western scores. While it's inspired by those films, Rome doesn't have a specific narrative, according to Burton and Luppi.
"There is not a singular story," Burton says. "But it is its own love story that has songs about love, pain, loss and everything else."
Finding The Voices Of 'Rome'
"We sat on the album for a long time before we moved forward, because we really needed to find who the right singers would be," Burton says. "As Jack was finishing his [vocals], I had already started to finish the female vocals. At the time, we didn't know it was going to be Norah, but I think once we had the finished female part, it was easier to see who would do it well. ... She was on board pretty quickly."
From the genesis of the idea through last year, Burton and Luppi traveled back and forth between Italy and the U.S., creating the album piecemeal between other projects.
"We went back every year," Burton says. "First to do the backing tracks, then to do the choirs, then the vocal parts from Norah and Jack. Once we got Norah and Jack done, we had to go back to record the strings."
As for the question of whether they'd write a script to match the music on the record, Burton says it's fine with them provided they don't have to write it.
"We're a little battle fatigued. It took five years for this to come out," Burton says. "If somebody else wants to do this, that's great."
While there might not be a film to accompany the music, visual artist Chris Milk (The Wilderness Downtown, The Johnny Cash Project) is working with Burton and Luppi to create a Rome visual experience, including a possible large-scale concert component.
"This is definitely not something we'd want to skimp on live, so it may take a little bit of time. I think that'd be for the better, though," Burton says. "If it were to come out right now, people would just kind of stare. It'll take its time, but it'll be worth it if we can pull it off."
GUY RAZ, host:
Another butt-kicking superhero, at least in the world of pop music, is a producer who's known as Danger Mouse. He's probably best known for creating this megahit as part of the duo Gnarls Barkley.
(Soundbite of song, "Crazy")
GNARLS BARKLEY: (Singing) But baby I'm crazy, maybe you're crazy...
RAZ: Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton, is one of the most sought-after producers in music; U2, the Gorillaz, Beck, Cee Lo Green. He's worked with some of the biggest names in the industry. And yet, all the while in the back of his mind, he actually wanted to make a record that sounded like this...
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: I'm not joking. Danger Mouse isn't just a fan of old spaghetti Westerns like "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly," he's obsessed with the music; music composed by the likes of Ennio Morricone. And so five years ago, he teamed up with the acclaimed Italian composer Daniele Luppi to basically make spaghetti Western music. And the result of that collaboration, five years in the making, is their new album. It's simply called "Rome."
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: And Danger Mouse joins me now from Nashville. And Daniele Luppi is in our Southern California studios.
Mr. DANIELE LUPPI (Composer): Thank you.
DANGER MOUSE (Producer): Hello.
RAZ: First you, Danger Mouse. What was it about this style of music that intrigued you, that made you want to make a record all about this sound?
DANGER MOUSE: Well, this was the first music that really got me into wanting to make music. I was taking film classes and saw "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" in a film class, and the music stood out more than any music I'd ever heard in movies. And I instantly thought that sounds like something I actually really want to do.
(Soundbite of music)
DANGER MOUSE: The idea for this actual album came right after, maybe while we were working on some of the Gnarls Barkley stuff. I thought, you know, why don't we make an album, you know, using these players, using this sound as a foundation. And we talked about it for about a year before we actually bought tickets to Rome, sat down, wrote music.
RAZ: As you say, you went to Italy to record this record. Daniele, you not only recorded this in Italy, but you actually recruited some of the musicians and voices that sang for Ennio Morricone and these other Italian composers four decades ago. Some of them, many of them, hadn't seen each other in four decades. What was it like when they came to the studio and got together?
Mr. LUPPI: Well, you know, it was definitely kind of emotional for them, I guess. I saw, you know, a few of them, you know, having a tear or so. I overheard the guy say: My God. I, you know, I remember this melody, instruments in the room, you know, and all that. So it was quite interesting to see, although it was actually a fun thing to see how it started very politely, you know, and they were very nice to each other and within, like, you know, an hour and a half, they were yelling at each other and very, you know, going back to the old, you know, days, by all means, including, you know, screaming and stuff like that.
RAZ: You mean, like - they're like: You're singing that wrong, that kind of stuff?
Mr. LUPPI: Of course. Yeah. Yeah. Stuff that, you know, I could tell that they were kind of reentering those roles that they had back then. You know, maybe the leader was always Alessandro di Sangione(ph) and, you know, you could tell that even after 40 years, you know?
(Soundbite of music)
DANGER MOUSE: You know, they didn't know what we were doing. You know, it's not like we (unintelligible) project.
Mr. LUPPI: We didn't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DANGER MOUSE: We didn't know ourselves. You know, I didn't introduce myself as a producer who's done this and done that. I was sitting in the corner and I shook hands and didn't speak Italian. So I just was just there for the most part (unintelligible).
RAZ: They were just appreciative that they were even being asked to kind of resurrect this stuff.
DANGER MOUSE: You know, one of their friends will probably tell them that this record will be coming out. I'm being really serious.
Mr. LUPPI: I'm actually calling them now and let them know, you know, it's finally coming out. Like, some of them were like, what?
RAZ: So, I mean, they did not know. There weren't like, who is this Danger Mouse guy, and isn't he the guy that, you know, made the Gorillaz record? They actually really - they didn't know who you were.
Mr. LUPPI: No. It was Briand (unintelligible).
DANGER MOUSE: Yeah, Briand.
Mr. LUPPI: I remember when the drummer asked me, can you ask Briand what - does he have a band? I mean, does he play?
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: I'm speaking with the Italian composer Daniele Luppi and the American super producer Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse. Together, they're the men behind the new album "Rome," which is music inspired by the spaghetti Westerns of the '60s.
Danger Mouse, you guys mentioned, we talked about the Italian musicians you worked with on this album, but you have two Americans, as well, two very well-known Americans; Jack White of the White Stripes and Norah Jones. Danger Mouse, how did you decide on working with these two voices? What was it about those artists that you made you think, you know, they're going to be perfect for this sound and this setting?
DANGER MOUSE: It wasn't like we decided to get Jack White. I met Jack on tour in 2006 when I was touring with Gnarls Barkley, and he was working on the new White Stripes record at the time. And I just decided to play him some of the music just to kind of impress him, really. I had no intention of really asking him to do it. Just - first, I didn't think he would say yes. And also, I just didn't - we were looking for somebody, I think, originally who might complement the music more. But we never could settle on anybody, and we talked about it, and I remember Jack's enthusiasm.
So we were writing back and forth and I asked him: Hey, remember that thing I played you, that music, that old Italian music that I was doing? What do you think about maybe singing on it? At right around the same time, Daniele had heard the White Stripes on the radio and thought, hey, this guy might be really good. It'd be really different. I said, you know, look, I'm already in contact. It'd be great.
RAZ: Let's actually listen to one of Jack White's moments on this record. This is from a track called "Two Against One."
(Soundbite of song, "Two Against One")
Mr. JACK WHITE (Singer): (Singing) Make no mistake, I don't do anything for free. I keep my enemies closer than my mirror ever gets to me. And if you think that there is shelter in this attitude. Where do you feel the warmth of my gratitude. Ah, I get the feeling that it's two against one. Ah, I'm already fighting me so what's another one?
RAZ: I love these lyrics. I get the feeling that it's two against one, already fighting me so what's another one? He really picks up on the cinematic nature of the music that you guys created together. And he wrote these lyrics on his own, is that the case?
DANGER MOUSE: Yes. Yes, he did. And he was very well aware of these older soundtracks. And it was a new thing for him because I don't think he had ever really written lyrics to other people's music. But I think he pulled it off pretty well. And it really worked having somebody whose voice was much different than the music itself. It just made it much more unique, which is what we all kind of do. Again, we were trying to make something that was still modern in some way.
RAZ: Did you also work in the same way with Norah Jones?
DANGER MOUSE: It was different with Norah. I had already started putting together the melodies and lyrics for a female vocal. And as Jack was finishing his, Daniele and I had already discussed possibly approaching Norah. And Jack brought up Norah on his own without us telling him that. And so we approached Norah and, you know, we already had all this older music and we had Jack involved. And so I thought, you know, we got this. You know, she'll do it. She has to do it.
So I went over to her to kind of beg her to do it, and it didn't really take that. She was really, really open to it and wanted to try something new. And she was on board pretty quickly.
(Soundbite of song, "Black")
Ms. NORAH JONES (Musician): (Singing) Every girl(ph) gets her dreams, cast them through reality, never seem to bother me, I just recently, can't seem to believe, I will never be free...
RAZ: The big question for both of you is now that you've done this, right, without any screen images, are you - I mean, would you ever think about actually writing, you know, a script to match the music on this record?
Mr. LUPPI: Somebody else, maybe.
DANGER MOUSE: Yeah. If somebody else wants to do this, that's great. You know, we have - Chris Milk is involved right now visually, and he's doing some really amazing visual things with the album. That's the next thing that's going to happen in its own way.
RAZ: Here's what I want to see. I want to see a live show; both of you guys on stage, Jack White, Norah Jones, the Cantori Moderni and the images that the director Chris Milk puts on screen. Is that a possibility? Could that happen?
DANGER MOUSE: And you want free tickets. I mean...
DANGER MOUSE: ...there's a whole lot of that going in motion right now.
RAZ: OK. All right. No, I'll buy my own - I'll pay for those tickets. I want to see that show. I'll pay top dollar for it.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: That's producer and composer Danger Mouse. He and fellow composer Daniele Luppi are the men behind the record called "Rome." It's an album inspired by old spaghetti Western films.
Gentlemen, thank you so much.
Mr. LUPPI: Thank you.
DANGER MOUSE: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: And you can hear every track from that album right now. NPR has an exclusive first listen of this record, "Rome." It's at our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.