Danger Mouse and Brooklyn singer-producer Sam Cohen didn’t set out to make a political album when Amazon asked them last November to create a pseudo-soundtrack for dystopian political drama The Man in the High Castle.
“It was just a couple of dudes that wanted to make some cool music and that’s what we tried to do,” Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton, tells Rolling Stone. “But everything turned into that. Every conversation that has to do with anything of the time or artistically winds up going in that direction.”
It’s been nearly five months – 148 days since November 8th, 2016, to be exact – since The Man in the High Castle went, for some, from niche alternative-history show to a prescient totalitarian reality series. Loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, it envisions a world in which the Allies lose WWII and the United States is divided into the Greater Nazi Reich and Japanese Pacific States, forcing its inhabitants into total government control with a massive curtailment of human rights.
Bob Bowen, Head of Music at Amazon Studios, wanted to create an old-school radio program called Resistance Radio that would live online as a supplement to the show. Envisioning a series of covers of old songs by modern artists, he reached out to Burton to contribute a few tracks. Burton was skeptical.
“A Sixties cover record with a bunch of different artists, you think you were going to hear something you’ve heard before,” he says. “It didn’t sound good on paper. It didn’t sound like something that I’d normally want to do.”
“There’s certain elements of music that always will feel and sound good.” –Danger Mouse
But Burton talked to Cohen, his friend, collaborator and artist on Burton’s 30th Century Records label. And after recording a few test songs and convincing Amazon that the duo should curate and produce the entire project, their minds were changed.
Lucky for us. Resistance Radio: The Man in the High Castle Album is sui generis; a haunting collection featuring Beck, Norah Jones, Karen O, Grandaddy, Kelis and more covering primarily ballads recorded in 1962 or before (the year the show takes place) and an early front-runner for one of the year’s best albums. The temporal restriction is an advantage, with the decade’s Beatles and psychedelic-rock domination not existing in this universe filled with American songbook standards like “The House of the Rising Sun,” “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Burton and Cohen may downplay the album’s political ramifications – “Recording an album of covers for Amazon is not the most politically radical thing I ever did as a project,” Cohen says – but in an age where a modest, working-class Springsteen cover band becomes an international lightning rod, it’s impossible to separate, say, Sharon Van Etten’s mournful cover of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” on an album called Resistance Radio from the current landscape.
“It’s a musical project and all stems from our love of music and sound and notes,” Cohen says. “But if people view this as a resistance to Trump, I’m fine with that. That’s the side I land on. If you get too preachy about your side of things, you get high fives from the people who agree with you, but you alienate everyone else and the conversation stays stagnant, which is so much of what’s the problem in this country right now. That said, these are songs that everybody likes – it’s on an album called Resistance Radio and points to a show about what it would feel like if the U.S. was under totalitarian control. Everyone should have a problem with totalitarian authority.”
After Burton and Cohen agreed to the project, Bowen sent the duo a preliminary list of 150 songs as a starter guide for the compilation. The pair began obsessively researching multiple versions and covers of many of the songs, but time was not on their side. With the show’s second season premiering in mid-December, the pair had four weeks to select the songs, record the music, recruit 16 different vocalists and mix and master the album.
The duo recorded the music for covers of Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow’s “Taste of Honey,” Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy” and the spiritual “Motherless Child,” using the three unfinished songs to entice potential vocalists. In many instances, they recorded the music not knowing which singer would appear on which track. The Shins’ James Mercer was the first to finish his vocals, so Burton and Cohen sent all subsequent vocal candidates his track. “Every
pitch came with an MP3 of a mix of what James had already done,” Burton says. “Like,
here’s what it could be.”
With such a tight time frame, Burton and Cohen became skilled multi-taskers. While Burton worked with singers in Los Angeles, for example, Cohen was in a New York studio recording additional strings and horns. “Songs were going out all the time,” says Cohen, the album’s engineer and bandleader. “Every day, I’d get like five texts [from Brian], like, ‘Can you upload so-and-so? I think so-and-so will do it, but they need it right now.'”
Artists were quick to sign on for the unique project. For many of the participants, their covers doubled as love letters to their favorite old songs.
“I was lucky to have been given a master list early on of all of the song options and after scanning the list, I knew immediately I had to do ‘Love Hurts,'” Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle tells Rolling Stone of the Everly Brothers song made famous by Roy Orbison. “It has always been one of my all-time favorites and I just love Roy Orbison and his version of the song so much. I mixed in a little recent real-life experience and tracked it at home alone one night and sent it off to Brian.”
“The first time I tried watching the show was the day after the election. I turned it off after five minutes.” –Sam Cohen
“I grew up hearing so many different amazing versions of it, so I was a little trepidatious about doing it,” Kelis says of her orchestral, funk-heavy version of the Miracles’ “Who’s Loving You.” “It’s such a staple in my mental repertoire and felt like part of my upbringing. But I tried to not think about all the other versions and approach it like a new record.” Added Norah Jones of her take on “Unchained Melody”: “I’ve known that song my whole life so I didn’t even need a lyric sheet.”
One of the most remarkable things about the album is its sonic deference to the time period; listening to it feels like discovering an obscure, dusty LP. Burton and Cohen aren’t strict purists – “We’re recording into Pro Tools,” Cohen says – but used older equipment and pressed the album straight to vinyl, mastering it off the original vinyl record. The result is, to quote Lytle, a “spooky-sounding” collection far removed from overpolished modern techniques.
“It’s a tactile, sensual thing,” Cohen says of the album’s old-school feel. “It hits your ears when it’s of that period and transports you immediately and just has a different texture than new music. … If this were to sound super clean and super hi-fi, that would be everything you would expect from a covers album of today and it would just fall flat. It’s just recognizing that sound. It’s not punchy. It’s gooey. Like completely soft around all the edges the way a photograph is blurry in the corners.”
“It doesn’t need nostalgia to have that feeling,” adds Burton. “I have nothing to do with the 1960s. I love the music, but it doesn’t remind me of any era that I was part of. [But] there’s certain elements of music that always will feel and sound good. If you’re going to do a period piece, you get the costumes and sets and do it accurate because you want people to feel that way that weren’t there.”
Our conversation with the pair naturally veers back to the election and the show’s role as an unintended mirror for Trump detractors’ worst fears. But the duo remain wary of overanalyzing the album’s non-musical implications. It’s only their second interview around the project, but they know what’s coming. “I know [interviewers] don’t want to tell you the questions they’re going to ask, but [I wondered] if we are just going to have to be sitting around talking about Trump,” Burton says.
Burton and Cohen hadn’t seen the series until after the album was completed, but for at least one of them, it felt uncomfortably resonant with current events.
“The first time I tried watching the show was the day after the election,” Cohen says. “I turned it off after five minutes.”