BROKEN BELLS INSIDE OUT: Pt. 2—The Mad Scientist

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We continue our story of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and James Mercer.( In Pt. 1, published yesterday ,Mercer outlined his musical arc with The Shins and how his gradual disillusionment with the band primed him for a musical collaboration with Burton.)

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

Tempe, 2014: Gripping his bass, Brian Burton rotates in place like a dervish in slow motion, his shoulders hunched slightly and his head thrust downward. He doesn’t look at the audience, though I don’t think anyone feels slighted; here is someone obviously in the zone: someone who takes his music and his work seriously. That’s the kind of commitment you hope for when you plunk down your hard-earned cash for an expensive concert ticket.

What distinguishes his performance from song to song is the fact that he keeps switching instruments: first, keyboards, then bass, then drums, then back again, each tackled in the same workmanlike manner. He oscillates between staring off at some fixed point in the distance and keeping his eyes shut in concentration. Only once, at the very end of the show, does he square himself with his surroundings. As James Mercer introduces his bandmate and songwriter partner, Brian turns to the crowd, his sleepy eyes taking us in and his heretofore pursed mouth breaking into a sheepish grin. The crowd goes nuts. When I see this, I have to laugh. I know that grin, and it fills my heart with joy to see it. Prior to this night, I had been wondering what Brian would be like as a performer. Would he be arrogant and ridiculous? Would he be just another rock idiot? I had no idea. The last time I saw him play was seventeen years ago, when we shared a stage together.

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Athens, GA, 1996: Brian Burton lay sprawled on the floor of his dorm room in a gray t-shirt and baggy cargo shorts and rifled through the 1000-plus CDs he kept carefully organized in what he called “the crate”: a massive hinged Pelican case that he had lugged from temporary home to temporary home throughout his college career. Hip-hop comprised 99.99% of the collection and Brian was an acknowledged authority on that genre. When we had first met, just a few months earlier at the RA (Resident Assistant) orientation for the University of Georgia’s Myers Hall, I asked him if he would put together a mix tape for me. I was always asking people to do stuff like that, and in most cases people would forget, or would get back to me six months later with something they’d hurriedly thrown together on their boom-box. But Brian spent the rest of that day polling his friends and whittling down an internal list of what should go on this mix. About a week later he presented me with three tapes (I believe I had only given him one tape for the project). One of these was devoted exclusively to Wu-Tang Clan, the other two were more general mixes. Brian’s careful curation brought me into contact with the music of The Roots and The Notorious B.I.G. as well as a number of less-known artists of the ’90s whose names I have unfortunately forgotten. Later, after some cajoling from me, he grudgingly lent me his two Tupac CDs but made it clear that he considered Mr. Shakur a lightweight, a mere dilettante in the art of rap. Both Pac and Biggie met their demises during my period of tutelage, and I remember Brian being deeply shaken when the latter shuffled off his mortal coil.

Brian looked up from the crate, lines of consternation snaking their way across his forehead. “Should I sell the whole thing off?” he asked. “Am I ever going to listen to this stuff again?”

“I don’t know. I said. “Maybe you’ll come back to it?”

Something had happened. Something seismic. Over a matter of weeks, Brian had fallen hard for the genre that was just then coming to be known as “trip hop.” Massive Attack had drifted into his orbit, along with an album called Whiplash by the band James. While not technically an electronic act, James had collaborated with Brian Eno on that record, and the result was a hybrid of organic instrumentation and synthetic beats. Brian became fixated on the disc’s second half, where, track by track, James seemed to metamorphose into Kraftwerk.

But the band he truly obsessed over was Portishead. They possessed the full package: killer beats, unusual instrumentation (Their hit song “Sour Times” made prominent use of a sampled cimbolan, courtesy of Lalo Schiffrin), tasteful use of reverb, strong melodies, and a noirish visual aesthetic that shrouded the band members—literally and figuratively—in darkness. It was Portishead that nudged Brian away from simply collecting music and into making it. And, as with all of his pursuits, he didn’t take half measures here. Just a month or two after he first heard that percussive downward cimbolan pattern in “Sour Times,” new musical equipment began to materialize in his dorm room: microphones, patch cables, samplers, synthesizers, and the pièce de résistance: a Vestax MR66 six-track cassette recorder.

One afternoon, over lunch at Oglethorpe Dining Hall (“O-House”), I asked how he had been able to afford all that stuff. Since I too had musical ambitions, I wanted in on his secret. He explained that he’d taken out five credit cards. “Each bill is only about $35 a month,” he said, “and by the time they really begin to add up, I’ll be on my way to making money off this. It’s a good idea for people like us, a good way to start out.”

I followed suit, buying up a bunch of expensive music equipment of my own. And, from this distance, I can say that Brian’s credit card idea was one of the single worst suggestions I’ve ever acted on! It worked out for him though.

With the MR66, Brian was up and running. Now he could build the rudiments of songs out of programmed beats and looped sections of movie soundtracks (he had a fondness for the Nixon score). Much of this material was long on atmosphere and short on structure, but he took a significant leap forward in the Spring of 1997 when he began collaborating with our mutual friend Ashley, a piano major and singer with a fondness for Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls. She became Brian’s first musical partner and lent her vocals and lyrics to some of his earliest songs. Since she had no real interest in electronica, her contributions imposed on the material an earthiness and straightforward pop sensibility that distinguished it from Portishead, Morcheeba, and the other prominent trip-hop acts of the time.

It’s been a good seventeen years since I’ve heard any of these songs, so I have no idea how they hold up, but I do believe they contained the template of the work Brian is currently doing in Broken Bells. And it is Broken Bells—not Gnarls Barkley, The Grey Album, Dark Night of The Soul, or any of his other major projects—that hews closest to the melodic space-pop aesthetic he first cultivated on these early tracks.

I mention this to him during our interview in Tucson.

“That’s funny,” he says. “Other people have told me that too: Jacob and Alex from back in Athens. Yeah, I never thought about that until they said it. These are obviously other people who were around when I was doing that kind of stuff. What makes the material similar is there’s drama and a sadness and melancholy to it. It’s beat driven. Then there’s a vocalist that really stands out. I was always trying to work with vocalists, to do things I couldn’t do, and make something new, something different.”

Alex from back in Athens. That would be Alexander Motlagh, a towering Iranian-American with close-cropped hair and a deadpan scowl that he often deployed for comedic effect. Alex is now a film producer and has collaborated with Brian on a number of Broken Bells’ videos. Back then he was a fellow RA who often ended up paired with Brian for night rounds. The two bonded over a love of movies: a mutual obsession they explored in detail over those long hours ostensibly spent searching the dorm hallways for troublemakers (and typically looking the other way when they found them). Alex immediately grasped Brian’s potential in a way that, frankly, I didn’t. I still labored under the idea that someone angling for a career in songwriting ought to know how to play a musical instrument. Brian didn’t possess a lick of conventional musical ability at that point and it didn’t occur to me that he might someday turn his attention to teaching himself those skills with the same single-mindedness that had enabled him to assemble the DIY equivalent of Abbey Road Studios in a 10×15 ft dorm room. In my limited experience, people who played instruments usually picked up their knowledge in their teens or earlier, and people who attempted to learn in their twenties typically gave up due to the demands and distractions of adult life. I didn’t take into account that Brian ignored such distractions, rarely left his room, and seemed to require even less sleep than most of the other students at UGA.

And yet, while I couldn’t have imagined the career that Brian ultimately charted for himself, I thought enough of his compositions to invite him along to a jam session with some of my acquaintances from the peripheries of the Athens music scene. It was an incongruous mix: the fresh-faced hip-hop kid with close-cropped hair (his signature fro, beard, and sunglasses were still well in the future) thrust among a bunch of hirsute patchouli-drenched stoners hunkered down in some dark shack on the edge of town. Yet this turned out to be one of the most exciting jam sessions I ever took part in. Our gathering that day included, I believe, members of the bands Grand Moff Tarkin (named after Peter Cushing’s crusty old general in Star Wars) and Belloc (named after the duplicitous French archaeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark), plus my decidedly non-hippie friend Greg and myself. For each “song,” Brian would take the lead. He had brought along a massive synthesizer (possibly a Roland) into which he’d loaded a bunch of his beats and samples. During the jam, he’d start with a beat and then, in real time, would began laying in drones and sound effects, creating a sonic bed over which we played. I remember one of the guys—a wild-haired, King Crimson-obsessed guitarist—leaning in and out of the shadows, his face locked in a chemically augmented grin as he peeled off atonal solo after atonal solo. We all took turns contributing to the hypnotic wash of sound, and in so doing we put ourselves in a collective trance. This went on for hours. I think at one point we spent 80 minutes jamming on a single continuous piece.

We all got pretty excited by this, Brian especially; this was the first time he had played in any kind of a band context and he’d more than held his own. So, we took the next logical step: we booked a gig at a local venue. Leveraging the modest connections Greg and I had in the scene, we secured a slot opening for a band called Blue Stockings. Our act was listed on the bill under my name, but the actual ensemble—which, for the show, consisted of Greg on bass, Brian on keyboards, and me on guitar—remained unnamed. The plan was for me to play a handful of songs solo and then bring the other guys up so we could embark on a free-from improvisation while David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch played on a background screen. Things went so well during rehearsals that we were confident we could recreate the magic of our original jam in front of an audience.

The crowd turnout that evening exceeded expectations. Virtually all of our friends and acquaintances showed up, along with Blue Stockings’ audience and a smattering of curious passersby. It was the closest to a full house I’d ever encountered. I stepped up to the microphone filled with a mix of elation and nervous energy. And then, I began to seize up. I fixated on technical details: something was out of tune; the balance between guitar and mic was wrong; something, somewhere, was feeding back; I was playing in the wrong tempo—you know, those thousand-and-one granular concerns that the audience doesn’t give a crap about but can consume the nervous system of an emotionally fragile performer. I kept starting and stopping songs, switching guitars, doing whatever I could to tamp down the creeping terror. I got through two complete songs and three aborted attempts and then, rattled and exasperated, I called my friends up to join me.

I’ve often characterized what happened next as my “Axl Rose meltown.” In reality, it was probably a panic attack. After just a few minutes of flailing away on my guitar alongside Greg and Brian, I stopped abruptly and told the audience that I couldn’t do it anymore and that they could have their money back. Then I fled the stage.

I’m not sure what I expected would happen next, but Greg and Brian kept playing and the audience stayed put. And with me out of the way, things began to cook. Anchored by Greg’s bass, Brian took his first steps toward creating a new musical form, his form: a Frankensteinian hybrid of post-punk, new wave, and old-school hip-hop. I like to think of this as the moment Danger Mouse was born. This was Peter Parker getting bitten by the radioactive spider.

As I slunk out of the building, I took one last look back to see my friend leaning over his keyboard, bobbing his head as he twirled knobs, pressed buttons, and wrested magic out of the air.

Tempe, 2014: Brian leans over his keyboard, bobbing his head, separated from his baptism in fire by almost two decades. A number of things have changed: now, he actually plays the keyboard (and, to my ears, plays it well). And, he dresses to the nines. But other things remain the same. There, behind the band, hangs a large movie screen lit up with a shifting array of hallucinatory images. In this case, though, Brian has not appropriated the work of David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs. This material has been commissioned by the composer and directly reflects his vision, which seems to consist of attractive women in space helmets splitting apart into geometric patterns—which in turn burst into new patterns, everything spinning around like Japanese fans. It’s a fever dream of the future that might have been conceived by interior decorators of the early 1960s. A future, in other words, that is in the past.

After the show, I track down one of the members of the opening band and ask her to send word to Brian that I’m here.

“Brian?” she asks.

“Um. Danger Mouse.”

She reappears moments later and motions for my wife and me to follow her. My stomach tightens as we make out way backstage. How will this play out? Can Brian and I get back to where we were in 1997, given all the distance and time that has elapsed? I’m certainly not the same person I was then, thank God. Will he be? Do I have any right to wish for such a thing?

Having followed Brian’s career over the years, I have seen several encouraging signs that he has kept it real. Despite his high profile in the music business (multiple Grammys, authorship of some of the most viral songs of the last decade, and production credits on too many mega-selling albums for his success to be considered a fluke) he has never once graced the tabloids or the virtual pages of TMZ.com. He doesn’t tweet or maintain a social media presence of any kind. In the few interviews he has given, he has never failed to sound intelligent, gracious, and levelheaded. I don’t know who mentored him, but he has navigated his celebrity with a grace and class that seem almost anachronistic in our tawdry era.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about a thing regarding our friendship. Backstage I discover the same guy I had known and loved in Athens—older and calmer, to be sure, better dressed, and perhaps a bit more guarded around strangers, but just as sweet and funny and considerate with his friends as he had always been. Something he says about our mutual friend Alex—”Everything you always loved about him has just gotten better”—could just as easily be applied to him. What’s more, he treats my wife as if she has been in on the adventure from the beginning, which means a great deal for me. We spend the evening rehashing old stories and catching each other up on all that has happened since. Mostly, though, we geek out on our current musical obsessions, resuming a conversation that comprises the single, continuous thread of our friendship. Appropriately, we wrap our night with a liquor-soaked analysis of Wu Tang Clan.

To be continued… in Part 3, we wrap things up with the lads and take a look/listen to the group’s masterful music. Meanwhile, in lieu of a track from the Burton/Lurie musical summit (e.g., we couldn’t locate anything), the YouTube audio track below is early, pre-“Danger Mouse” music that Burton did under the name Pelican City, as a kind of soundtrack for an imaginary film, and tantalizingly called “Danger’s Theme Pt. 1.”

Photo credit: James Minchin. Danger Mouse/Lurie illustration by Greg Caparell, courtesy of Bootleg Magazine where it originally appeared.

 

 

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