If Brian Burton were a filmmaker, he would be a gifted auteur managing to pursue his vision within the Hollywood system but not without difficulty. The producer, better known by his pseudonym Danger Mouse, first made his name in 2004 with The Grey Album, his inventive but illegal splicing together of the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album.
Since then he has produced acts ranging from Gorillaz to the Black Keys and devised the chart-topping duo Gnarls Barkley with singer Cee Lo Green. In February he won the best producer award at the Grammys, pop’s equivalent of the Oscars. It was the fourth time he had been nominated in five years. Now Burton is working on U2’s new album. We wait to see how his hip-hop-influenced, postmodern production style will be applied to the Irish behemoths. (Splicing Bono with Gandhi, Grey Album-style?)
In the meantime, he has another project on the go, a long-running labour of love that has finally reached fruition: Rome is a sumptuous tribute to the music of Italian cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, made over the past five years with the Venice-born soundtrack composer Daniele Luppi.
I meet the duo on a day when London is doing its best impression of Rome in springtime. Outside the private members’ club Soho House, the sun beats down from a blue sky and the city goes about its clamorous business. Inside, in a room whose windows are flung open, sitting at a table littered with water bottles and coffee cups, Burton and Luppi are dressed in sharp dark suits and ties. They look like they’ve ridden into town in an open-topped Alfa Romeo, ties snapping round their ears as some funky but sophisticated tune shimmies out from the stereo.
Rome is a love letter to the lush, swinging sound of a vanished era of Italian film history. Ennio Morricone is the best-known composer to emerge from it but there were numerous others too, such as Piero Umiliani and Piero Piccioni, who serviced the needs of Italy’s thriving popular cinema, churning out scores to romantic melodramas, horror films, spaghetti westerns, erotica and the pulpy crime fantasies known as gialli.
Burton, 33, grew up in Spring Valley, New York, and then Atlanta. His first encounter with Italian film music was through the westerns he watched as a student at the University of Georgia in the mid-1990s. It made a powerful impression. “That’s essentially what made me want to start making music,” he says. He loved the mix of dramatic and sad melodies, the psychedelic elements, the reverb-laden guitars. Finding out more about Italian film soundtracks became a “mini-obsession”.
Luppi, 38, spent his childhood watching 1960s and 1970s Italian films on television in Venice. He, too, grew obsessed by their soundtracks and wrote a solo album in homage to them, An Italian Story, which came out in 2004. At the time Luppi was living in Los Angeles, working on film and television scores. Burton, also then living in LA, admired An Italian Story, and a mutual friend put the pair in touch. Burton contracted Luppi to work on Gnarls Barkley as an arranger, a role the Italian has reprised on other Danger Mouse-helmed productions.
Both are film and music geeks: Luppi used to shush his family and place a cassette recorder by the television while watching films so he could listen to the soundtracks afterwards. “When I get interested in a director, I try to get hold of everything he’s done. With music it’s the same thing,” he says. Burton, a comic book nut in his youth, murmurs agreement.
I picture one of them whistling the theme to Once Upon a Time in the West during a quiet moment working together on some other project and the other having a eureka moment. Let’s make a soundtrack album! “No, it wasn’t anything like that,” says Burton, abruptly terminating my fantasy. Rome, it turns out, wasn’t built in a day: the idea evolved over time; then in 2006 they went to the Eternal City itself to start recording it.
The album features two American A-listers on vocals, Norah Jones and White Stripes frontman Jack White. The musicians, however, were recruited from the players who appeared on the original soundtracks: men in their 70s and 80s now, such as Alessandro Alessandroni, who led the choir that sang on films by his childhood friend Morricone. “He was also the whistler and the guitarist,” says Luppi. That’s Alessandroni twanging away and whistling on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s famous theme tune.
Rome’s fidelity to the music of 1960s/1970s Italian cinema extends to the kit it was recorded on. Not content with rounding up the original musicians, Burton and Luppi assiduously tracked down original instruments as well. “For that I had to use my best connections,” says Luppi. Italian musicians of a certain age have their own variety of barter economy. “Vintage wine for vintage equipment, I guess that’s how the exchange worked.”
In the 1960s, the general trend for film soundtracks was away from orchestral music towards (cheaper and easier to produce) pop. In Italy, however, the two traditions came together. Reverberating guitar riffs, sweeping strings, choral arrangements, luxuriant lounge music – this catchy mix of symphonic and pop styles is warmly evoked by Rome.
Have they thought about sending the album to Morricone to see what the maestro thinks of their efforts? “Not really,” says Burton. “You’d always be curious, but I’d have to send every other record I did to Paul McCartney, so it’s just not something you can think about.” His laughter has a rueful edge.
The question of McCartney’s approval has, in the past, weighed heavily on Burton. The Grey Album’s unauthorised sampling of the Beatles incurred the wrath of the band’s label EMI, which promptly sent Burton a cease-and-desist letter. McCartney recently claimed that he secretly enjoyed Burton’s mixological reworking of the White Album and that it was the record company that came down hard on it. “No comment,” Burton says. He and Luppi exchange a look that is either amused or knowing, or both.
By a strange quirk Burton has ended up being signed to EMI: Rome is coming out in the UK on its subsidiary, Parlophone. In true auteur fashion, Burton’s relations with the label have continued to be rocky. A collaboration with film director David Lynch and the late alt-country singer-songwriter Mark Linkous was derailed in 2009 by a legal dispute between Burton and EMI. The album, aptly named Dark Night of the Soul, finally came out last year.
Rome was self-funded. “I had a record label issue that was going on that I wanted to protect Daniele from,” says Burton. The Lynch project? “I can’t get into it. It was a few things. But I didn’t want this album to be caught up in that as well.”
It’s not the first time he has wagered his own money on his work. “I definitely broke the bank on The Grey Album,” he says. Before then there was the set of rare Jimi Hendrix bootleg records that he sold to move to London in 2001 to pursue his musical ambitions. He thought it’d be easy to buy them back. “But they’re really difficult to find, some of those albums.”
Note to a certain record label. If you want to put a spring in Danger Mouse’s step, you now know what to get him: a complete set of original Hendrix bootlegs. “That’d be a good peace offering, yeah.”
‘Rome’ is released in the UK on May 16 on Parlophone and in the US on May 17 on Capitol