Q&A With Brian Burton of Broken Bells, Playing Georgia Theatre Wednesday

Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, became a household name in 2004 after The Grey Album, his inspired mash-up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ self-titled “white album,” went viral. Since then, he’s become one of the most in-demand music producers of our time, teaming up with CeeLo Green in Gnarls Barkley and helming records by Beck, the Black Keys, Norah Jones and others. Most recently, Burton produced U2’s the-call-is-coming-from-inside-your-MacBook opus Songs of Innocence.

Burton, a former Athens resident and UGA student, returns to play the Georgia Theatre Wednesday, Oct. 1 with his current project, a collaboration with Shins frontman James Mercer called Broken Bells. The group released its second LP, the sleek, funky After the Disco, in February. Flagpole got Burton on the phone for a quick chat.

Flagpole: Hey, Brian. What are you up to today?

Brian Burton: I’m just in L.A., working. Me and James [Mercer] are messing around with some stuff. Just hanging out in the studio.

And you guys are getting ready to go out on tour—when was the last time you were back in Athens?

I was in Athens in March or April. We were on a tour and had a day off, so we went to Athens for the day. It was during Spring Break. 

Ten years removed from the Grey Album, how do you view it on a technical level and on an influence level, in terms of what’s come after?

For me, obviously it helped people to get into whatever I was doing. So, that was good. I didn’t really intend for it to do some of the things it did. All the legal stuff, I still think that was a big part of the hype behind it—it was this “illegal” album you weren’t supposed to have. That definitely helped the story.

But back then, I remember saying, “I don’t know what impact it’s gonna have; ask me in 10 years.” And now it’s 10 years [later], and I still don’t really know what it’s done. Technically, I think that was some of the most time I ever spent sitting in front of a computer, chopping up samples and working that way. I don’t really do that so much anymore. But I’m starting to think maybe I should, so I’m getting back to doing some sampling these days. But, I don’t know, it’s not really for me to say, as far as whether it’s had any kind of influence.

I remember saying, ‘I don’t know what impact it’s gonna have; ask me in 10 years.’ And now it’s 10 years later, and I still don’t really know what it’s done.

It seems like the concept of the producer has changed over the last 10, 15 years. How do you think that has affected pop music?

I think a lot of it is the name, and the role—what we call a producer then and now. I remember listening to a lot of hip hop music, and the producer was just the guy who made the music. And in rock music, the producer sometimes didn’t touch any instruments at all. The guy who was the producer was the guy who had the job, or had parents who had some money [so he could] buy equipment…

Now, everything’s gotten cheaper, and it’s easier to make music yourself, so more people are doing it themselves. I’ve benefited from that myself. When I was in Athens I had 20 jobs, just so I could buy equipment and make stuff. I think it’s just gotten a lot easier over the years. It’s kind of shifted, so even in rock music you have producers that make a bunch of the music, as well. It kind of all blends together now.

With Broken Bells, you’ve moved away from the sample-based stuff and incorporate a lot of live instrumentation. Was that a reaction to what you had done before?

It was a little bit conscious. It’s me and James playing instruments, so it’s not really samples or anything like that, but how I treat the music afterwards—I still chop it up and mess with it. I did want to try to do something different. But I don’t know that’s always that way it’s gonna be. We might do something different next time.

I went years without working with [samples]—I just used the people I was working with as the samples, I didn’t need to go to records. And I had to learn to play stuff myself a little bit better. But I kind of miss sampling, so I need to get back into it. 

What’s the creative process like with Broken Bells, as opposed to Gnarls Barkley or any of the other projects you’ve been involved with?

With Bells, me and James just kind of come in with nothing and then we pick up instruments, playing each other melodies, and start writing songs and recording then and there. Whereas with Gnarls, I’ll [come up with] the music first, and then CeeLo will come up with a vocal idea. It’s a little more compartmentalized.

With other bands, sometimes they’ll have ideas, and then I’ll take the ideas apart, or keep the parts that work and redo others. Each situation’s a little different. With Bells in particular we just kind of go in—like, today, we came in and we don’t have anything. And we’re just gonna start messing around in the studio until we come up with something.

We’re looking forward to having you back in Athens.

I’m looking forward to it myself. I haven’t played there in years, so it should be fun.


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