When In Rome: Danger Mouse

The Producer
rome-DM-2.jpg
Read an interview with producer Danger Mouse about his involvement with the spaghetti western inspired 'Rome' album alongside Daniele Luppi, Norah Jones and Jack White.

Daniele grew up in Italy watching the films and listening to the soundtracks that inspired Rome. How did you come to develop a love for that kind of music?

When I first got to college I was about eighteen and some of the first classes I took were film classes. I wanted to be a film maker, and some of my friends were the same way. There was a music scene in Athens going on too, but I still was more of a film guy, and I started to get really into films. The thing that really stood out was the music from the spaghetti western films that I saw. I'd never heard music like that in my life, it was just such a great combination of stuff. And so when I decided really quickly after not to do film right away - I just wanted to do music, so I could get it done quicker - the first thing I did was I started to make music that sounded like that. I wanted make film music, so the first couple of albums I released were fake soundtracks and things like that - they were just instrumental music I was making in my dorm with other people. So I originally started out wanting to make soundtracks, and those soundtracks were kind of inspired by this stuff, so the first thing that made me want to make music was this kind of music. Eventually I got into stuff like vocals, and everything else, and then eventually DJing years later, but really the jumping point for me to actually make music was hearing this kind of music in the first place.

In those formative years was it easy to come across such records? In the pre-Internet days it must have been quite hard to become a collector.

No. I mean, the first stuff was not so hard - The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, that whole trilogy - you get compilations and things like that on CD. I had a few compilations but then I started working at a record store a couple of years later, where I worked for years, and there was an older guy that worked there, and I could order stuff, so I would find a lot of stuff that way. And over the years more and more stuff got reissued - and then it was actually getting the films: renting the films from the video rental store in the little hipster town I lived in. There was always something to get your hands on.

Daniele spoke of how the images on the records made him wonder who these people were. Did it stimulate you in the same way?

Not initially, no. I didn't pay attention to who was making it, I just looked at composers and saw most of it was the same two or three people that I saw out of the first set of stuff I got - Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Luis Bacalov were the main people I think I saw. I just thought about these composer guys; I never really thought about people playing it - initially anyway.

How did you first meet Daniel?

I first met Daniel in Los Angeles. I had done 'The Grey Album', and the New York Times had asked me to do a playlist of stuff I had been listening to. So I got excited about that, about being interviewed by the New York Times, I thought it was great. So I got this real specific list and one of the things I listed was Daniel's album 'An Italian Story'. I'd found it in a record store just looking for stuff and I thought it was great, and so I put that in my playlist, and then it turned out we had a common friend who saw the playlist and decided they should introduce us. We were both living in LA at the time, so he came over to the house and we hung out, and I showed him my record collection and played him some music I had been working on - the Gnarls Barkley album at the time - and so he helped me out with some arrangements stuff and we hung out a few more times. We always talked about the film music, and we let each other borrow movies and soundtracks and stuff like that back and forth - even though he pretty much knew everything that I had! I didn't know everything he had, but he knew all the stuff I had. But I think he was impressed a little bit with what I had, and so we would trade stuff back and forth and just started working together loosely right away. Then there was this idea - there was an album I always wanted to do where I used this as the foundation of it, but still wanted to make it with vocals and a bigger more ambitious thing, and he pretty quickly was in to the idea of anything I wanted to do. He was up for it, so it eventually happened that way.

So it's kind of an organic and almost accidental thing that Rome even happened.

Yeah. That's usually the way that stuff happens. That's the way it worked with everybody that's involved in the project.

Whilst Rome was coming into fruition, you were working with Daniele on the Gnarls Barkley stuff and Broken Bells stuff. How did he contribute? How did he add to your production process?

Well there was more than that; I used him on a lot of different records. We did some stuff on the first Gnarls album, then he did some stuff on the Dark Night Of The Soul album - some string arrangements there with me - and then the same thing with Broken Bells. It just depended on the situation. It's funny because this Rome album been going on for so long, I've learned a lot from doing this album. In earlier times I would just get the songs to a certain point, and I would do some mock strings or something like that with keyboards - or sometimes I would leave it empty and I'd give it to Daniele and I would tell him what I was looking for, and he would come back with some string parts and we'd pick the stuff and go from there. As I got further on this album, I started doing more string arrangements myself for the Rome album, and going over there and working with him and seeing it all come to fruition. So then, when I did Broken Bells, I knew how to do my own string arrangements, but at the same time, I knew Daniele was really good at them too, so we worked together on the string arrangements for Rome, and we started working together on the string arrangements on the Broken Bells stuff too. So it kind of helped in that way. If I know he's gonna be a part of it, I always leave a certain amount left for him to put his creative input into as well.

Daniele is different from your other collaborators; he's not a singer like Cee Lo, he's not a song writer like James Mercer - he's very much a back room kind of guy. You seem to have attached yourself to someone different every time.

Well yeah, this was our thing; we got along really well, we have very similar tastes in music, so when we listen back to the album ourselves, it's kind of hard for us to figure out who did what. We did so much of it together and we never had issued creatively when it came to that kind of thing. We just got along really well. It definitely took a long time, but that didn't have anything to do with the way we worked together.

That's just because there was so much happening elsewhere?

Well, there was that. It was expensive to do it; there was a lot of travel involved, there was a lot of different moving pieces, and then also there was a lot of label stuff going on, so it just took a lot of time. And yeah, obviously I was pretty busy - I was touring a lot and everything else. But the main reason it took so long was because I personally couldn't decide... I was just really over-obsessed with how this was going to be when it was finished. I sat on it for almost a year, just because I couldn't decide who to ask to do the vocal - I didn't want to ask the wrong people. I just didn't want it to be wrong. I kept putting so much into this, and I just wanted it to be what I thought would be perfect. I felt like I didn't want to finish it just to be finishing it, I wanted to make sure it was right. A lot of it was just people waiting around for me to go onto the next situation where I was sure, like, 'Okay, now is definitely the time to do the strings', and 'Now is definitely the time to get the vocalists'. I just took forever. I guess I didn't want to let go of the album in a way.

What was it you were looking for in the vocalists?

I didn't want this album to be something that was too easy. I think the music itself is definitely inviting - it's dark, it's melancholy, and there's some really good melodies and things like that - but I definitely wanted to expose people who wouldn't normally listen to this album to this kind of music and to the album itself. Obviously Jack and Nora are somewhat popular, but then once I did the female part - I wrote the female part myself, the vocals and the lyrics - so I kind of already knew how it needed to be sung, but then that completely limits who could sing it once the part was already written. The male part wasn't written - Jack went in and did what he wanted to do on the vocals. It's just once the female part was written, it was limited who it would be, so it became really clear what kind of vocalists it needs to be. So then it was, 'Can I get Norah?' And I waited to approach her, and waited after, so that took a while to set up, and then finally I did. It was just all these little things like that.

When writing the lyrics that Norah was going to sing, what kind of narrative were you following? What were you hoping for the songs?

The lyrics were done before I knew it was going to be Norah. There's kind of a loose story in my head about this whole album and what's going on with it. It's pretty much a love story between a guy and a girl, but I don't want to get too much into the details of it; I'd rather let people use their imaginations and see their own stories like you would on any other album. But no, the lyrics were done... I kind of wrote the part of someone and when it was done I thought Norah could definitely pull it off, and she seemed to really be into it.

Had you explained to Jack what you'd written, or did he just come in with his thing which fit in amazingly well?

We talked about the album and what some of the thoughts were, but no, I was writing her part while he was doing his. I didn't completely finish mine until Jack was done, because I wanted it to be kind of informed by that too rather than going two separate ways. So I had written some stuff, and when he finished his parts and recorded, I went ahead and finished the female part and then went to go get the female vocalist after that. Jack definitely helped to give some ideas as to who that could be as well. Jack suggested Norah as well. He was definitely gunning for her, so that helped.

Were there concerns that the bigger the names you brought on board would then become the focal point of the project? That it would be seen as 'Jack White's next thing' rather than the collaboration it is?

No. I personally never worry about that kind of stuff. I've worked with a lot of really good people, and that doesn't really worry me at all. It wouldn't anything like it is without their contributions. So no, I'm not worried about that at all. That happens to me sometimes when I work with people too - I work with somebody and they'll write two sentences about that and one of them will be about me, and it's not even my album. So I know how that goes, and Jack does too. We've all talked about this. I'm more worried about what people will think in ten years than ten days after it comes out. I think it will be fine. I'm not worried about that.

Why do you think the contrast works between Jack and Norah? They're two totally different artists but they seem to marry so well on this.

I think it's the nature of the album itself. The music is definitely pretty melancholy, and Jack's parts are a little bit more aggressive here and there, and Norah's are definitely more a little bit laid back, but I think that's the nature of the album itself and it kind of works that way. I didn't do the track order until all the songs were done. It was probably the easiest album I've ever had with putting the songs in order. It just seemed very easy and natural and there was never really a question.

Daniele was telling me about your adventures in Italy, trying to find the original instruments and musicians. You were saying how meticulous you were in getting the album right, so how meticulous were you in trying to get the right sounds and translating what was in your head?

That kind of stuff, for me when we first started this, was definitely something that I knew was going to be important, I just didn't realise how important it was going to be. Daniele was definitely the person who knew how to get hold of those things - I just figured we would get to Rome and we'd rent what we needed. But Daniele explained to me that's not how it works here. There's no rental shops that have a bunch of old instruments - you have to get on the phone and call this person, call that person, and this person knows somebody else...and we were already there! We were thinking, 'Shit, how are we gonna get all this stuff right away? We need this stuff tomorrow!' So it all happened really fast. We were on the phone a lot, and went out in this van - me and Daniele and the engineer - and we were just driving around stopping at these places, and we'd go up to the door and Daniele would talk to them, and these old guys are in their underwear looking at us like we're crazy, and then they'd come back with a guitar or an amplifier or a keyboard or something. Then they'd explain who played on what album, then they would go get something and come back... It would start in the daytime and then it was the middle of the night and we were waking people up. It was great, the next day we had a bunch of stuff. We definitely rented some things, and we definitely had some stuff that was already in the studio that we could use, but a few of the key instrument we had to get were borrowed from people, and they wouldn't of course accept money or anything like that. That's just old Italy, I guess.

Considering your past work, were the musicians on the album wary of working with this young American guy?

No, no, no. These guys, to this day, I bet have no idea. There's one of the guys who's a little bit younger - he's in his fifties - so I think he knows what's up. I know he does, he's cool and he gets it. At the time - this was a while ago, the first time we went out there - obviously they knew I was American, but they didn't really know - even if I told them what I did, these guys were old guys who had these really simple old lives, they just did their thing. They weren't out recording - they hadn't recorded together in probably twenty-something years. These guys were set up - they didn't really need the money, they weren't working musicians. So they didn't know what was going on, they don't care about that kinda stuff, so it wasn't like I wanted to explain to them so they would know, because there really wasn't a point. I just liked that we got along on this project I was doing, and at the time I didn't tell them who the singers were going to be, because I didn't know myself. We hung out every day they worked, and we'd get lunch, and I tried to communicate with them as best I could because their English was slightly better than my Italian, which is nothing, so it was little by little. They all knew each other, and at the time 'Crazy' had come out and was pretty big. I used samples for 'Crazy', and one of the samples I used was from an old Italian film soundtrack. So I was already actually making stuff - not sampling stuff; I was writing music and having it done that way, which was different from when I did 'Crazy', when I was in my bedroom and could barely afford to get a better computer. At the time, one of the guys I sampled, I asked around and everybody knew where the guy was, so I just sent word that I was there and he showed up to the studio. The only world he knew in English was 'thank you', and that's all he said over and over again, because it was a big hit so he was doing well off some of the back end of that. His name is Gianfranco Reverberi. He came to the studio one of the days, and of course he knew all the guys there - they all played on stuff. Some of those guys could have played on 'Crazy' and I would have never known. All that stuff wasn't credited back then and I never even asked. I just didn't want to bring too much attention to what I did. I just wanted them to do what they were doing. And they hadn't played together for so long, so I didn't want to take any time away from them getting to catch up with each other and hang out. When they first got there, there was tears and everything because they hadn't seen each other for so long, and within an hour or two they were screaming and yelling at each other like the probably used to. Yeah, it was cool.

You self-financed all of the trips you made over. Was it a risk at your own personal expense that all of this would come together?

I'd never done anything like it, but you got to get in over your head sometimes. I guess that's the way I felt: I just felt I was in over my head on the first trip, and then the second trip I felt a little better, and then the third one I felt really confident. It did come together, it's just that first trip you just don't know. The demos of the music - the rough sketches of the songs I had - definitely weren't jumping out at me based on the sound of them, but that was what Daniele was supposed to be doing. So the music was transcribed as sheet music, so you hand them the sheet music, and they sit down and start to play. You have no idea what's going to happen - it could be a disaster! So I didn't know. But luckily, as soon as they all started to play the music, it came to life really quickly, and I was pretty ecstatic.

You have a reputation for having a prolific nature, and working a lot of different things. Is there a danger that you might spread yourself too thin? Do you worry about exerting yourself too far musically?

I've always thought about that and I definitely see that. I'm usually a fan of people who are not so prolific, to be honest. The thing is though that I work with a bunch of other people, so it's not like I'm doing all the work as one. And the other thing is I don't have a life really. I mean, in all honesty this is all I do - my whole life is this. I get up every day and this is what I do. I don't ever really half-ass anything I do - it would stand out so much to me. I do it because I want to be doing it. I'm there because I want to be there. I don't work for anybody - even when I produce records, even though they may think so, after they get to know me in any kind of way it's pretty obvious I'm not working for anybody. I work with people and this is something I want to do. There's moments of the day when you're tired and it feels like a job every once in a while, but that's very very rare. I just can't seem to do anything different. There are times when I feel like I might need a break mentally here and there, but I take them, I do. It's just that this record to me is a good example of that - I just don't think too much about it, I just go. If I'd thought too much about it I would have been way too overwhelmed by it and probably not done it. There's a lot of things I've done in that way where I feel like if I don't just go and do it then it's just not going to get done, and nobody's going to do it. I guess I just don't see it from my side, but I can understand someone else looking at it that way. But this is what makes me want to get up every day, just making music, so if that changes, I'll change what I do, but so far that's what it's been for a while.

Does is still feel like a learning curve? Everything you do is different so you must feel like you're gaining experience. Does it surprise you the fact that U2 will ask you to produce them, since you're still learning?

Yeah, I'm definitely constantly learning. I think that everybody that I work with seems to be that way too. But if I was at the level - and I think every artist always doubts themselves and is insecure about things all the time, and I think that's just the nature of it, and the more people I work with, the more I realise the consistency in that. It feels good to be able to do something like that. Maybe it makes me feel young sometimes, doing that. But I don't really lack any of the confidence when it comes to whether or not I can do something, it's just a case of, you know, having done a lot of records and worked with a lot of people, it's always just, 'Is this gonna be as exciting and fun as it once was?' That's major, for me. When am I gonna get to that project where I go, 'Okay, I'm done. This really isn't the same as it was'. And so far, it has been adventurous, but that's the only thing I really worry about. It hasn't happened yet. But of course, I mean I still learn from everybody - I've been so lucky to have worked with the people I have - people that I've grown up listening to their music and can learn a lot from still. Touring is where I get a little bit run down, and fighting with record labels gets me rundown a little bit, but I always had this Rome album in my back pocket, knowing that I've still got this really great thing, so wait until that comes out. Now that it's finally coming out, I'm a little worried about letting it go. I don't know what I'm gonna have after that - I need to come up with another record that I will just have in my back pocket that I can hold on to, knowing that that's gonna come out at some point and will make everything alright.

It's like a little vanity project, something unaffected by other things that's fueled by love and passion and effort.

I think every musician thinks that they're misunderstood in a way, and I always felt like people looked at what I did as a DJ or an electronic guy or whatever. This is a project that I've definitely always worked on and this is how I started; I started out sitting down, writing music. Originally is was stuff I did in my dorm was pretty bad, or just very very rudimentary stuff, but this is the kind of project that I always would have wanted to make when I first started making music. Thinking about the fact that you have Jack and Norah and this great arranger and composer Daniele with me doing this whole thing, yeah, I just hope I didn't mess it up! I think it turned out okay, and so to me it makes a lot of other stuff I've done make more sense, because this music sounds like what I've been wanting to do for a long time.

It seems like a rewarding experience overall.

When it comes out I think I will feel very rewarded. This thing has been pushed back for months and I've taken so long to finish it. I'll believe it when it happens. When the release date comes round and it's in stores and online I'll believe it then.

What's going to come next once the album is out? Can Rome tour? You've got a massive choir sining on the album, you've got a bunch of seventy-year-old musicians, and you've got four people with very busy diaries: is it going to be a possibility?

Yeah it's a possibility. I mean 'tour' is a very strong word. Can we do some shows? Probably. That's what we're looking into now and everybody involved wants to do it, so that's definitely the next phase, but I don't know if the act of touring will happen in that way. But we almost have to do some shows for this, it will be great to do, so well see about that, but that's definitely in the plans.

And if we were to discuss a follow-up, it's not going to take another five years will it?

You know, I wouldn't discuss a follow-up. I'm not saying yes or no, but I definitely wouldn't discuss it. I don't know; I might already be doing it, I might not, I don't know; it's just one of those things. I'll wait until this comes out and then I'll think about what's going to happen after that, that has anything to do with this. But I think this is its own thing more so than any band I've ever started or worked with or anything like that. This is definitely a pretty stand-alone thing. I don't know what I'd compare it to that I've worked on or that I'm going to work on, but it's given me some more ideas about stuff to do in the future for sure.


Read further interviews with the other 'Rome' participants, Daniele Luppi, Norah Jones and Jack White.

Danger Mouse and his 'Rome' collaborators feature on the cover of the latest issue of Clash Magazine, in shops now. You can access the issue online HERE or subscribe HERE.

Have your say

Sign in or Register to leave comments
-