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The legal hot water has cooled, not his career

Danger Mouse, beyond bumming Beatles, helps on a lauded Gorillaz album, with others due.

June 11, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

How the Gorillaz saved the Mouse. How does that sound for a 21st century fable?

The story was all too real for musician, producer and DJ Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse. In the last 18 months he's gone from respected but obscure underground figure to cause celebre in music and legal circles to key collaborator on one of the most acclaimed new albums on the charts, "Demon Days" by the Gorillaz.

Just recapping the saga seemed to tire the usually intense and restless Burton, 27, as he sat on a red sofa in his downtown Los Angeles loft this week.

"It was just a very bad time," he said. "I was up, I was down.... The biggest burden during that time was emotional. I learned in about five months what most artists would have learned in four or five years."

Burton's burden -- and to some extent his renewed future -- stems from a quirky little experiment he cooked up. Working for a solid 2 1/2 weeks, he spliced together music from rap star Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and the Beatles' so-called "White Album" and called the result "The Grey Album."

He intended it for limited circulation, which might have been a little naive. Once it was out, people burned it and downloaded it until it reached the ears of the media, music cognoscenti and -- uh-oh -- the legal department at EMI Music, a tenacious guardian of the rights to the Beatles' recordings.

Burton was ready for the cease-and-desist letters and was happy to comply when they arrived. But "The Grey Album" was bigger than ever, becoming the focal point of an escalating debate over the fair use of intellectual property.

He also found that he wasn't in the clear legally and faced the prospect of being forced to give up any money he earned from musical activities to EMI.

Ironically, his rescuer turned out to be the same corporation that was after him. First, Burton signed a long-pending contract with EMI's publishing division, and then English rock musician Damon Albarn asked him to collaborate as a producer on the second album by the Gorillaz, his conceptual "band" of four cartoon characters that was signed to Virgin Records, an EMI label.

Burton knew that with his paychecks coming from EMI, the legal pressure would dissipate. It was just a matter of securing the Gorillaz job.

"Damon had to kind of convince" record label executives, Burton said. "They didn't want me to do the record; he's told me that -- 'He's had no experience as a producer and he's done all this stuff with the Beatles, it just doesn't look good. What are you doin'?' "

Albarn got his man, and the two formed a close team in his London studio, Burton said.

With its echoing, deeply shaded atmospheres and ominous tone, the album reflects Burton's own dark musical leanings, and it attracted high praise when it came out in late May.

Danger Mouse's "stunning flourishes ... help place 'Demon Days' notches above any vaguely electronic release in recent memory," Q magazine said in its review.

Albarn and Burton are working on a project with Nigerian musicians -- "Neil Young meets Afrobeat meets the Beatles," is how Burton describes it. He also has albums coming soon with eccentric Southern rapper Cee-Lo, teaming under the name Gnarls Barkley, and with even more eccentric L.A. rapper MF Doom, as Dangerdoom.

Burton himself isn't without his own eccentricities -- he says he can't write music unless he's in a room that has a bed, and he insists that in photographs he be accompanied by a shrouded "spiritual advisor" named Dr. President.

Without serious technical skills as a writer or instrumentalist, Burton is essentially a passionate advocate for rethinking the whole creative process from the ground up.

His first love was movies, and he likens his role to that of a director.

"I don't know how to write a song traditionally," he said. "The only thing I can do really is distinguish what I think is good and bad. As long as you have enough good for three minutes, that's a song to me.

"I can hear somebody play me two songs and I can have an entire concept as to what we should try to do, how I think I can use your voice as a character in a story.... I'm an artist first and a producer second. I don't want to do the next Weezer CD, just to pick a band at random. If we would like to collaborate, I want to do something different. You leave your world and come into mine when you want to try something."

He's currently fielding proposals for what he describes as intriguing collaborations, but you get the sense that his excitement also stems from leaving the "Grey Album" contretemps behind.

"When I did what I did, I didn't think I was doing anything morally wrong," he said, summing up the episode. "Technically, yes, but I don't think either side was hurt.... It was negative for a while, and now I definitely look back on it positively. It all worked itself out."

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