BRIAN BURTON DIDN’T GET MUCH SLEEP LAST NIGHT, and it’s all Beck’s fault. On a Wednesday morning in early March, Burton is trudging toward a Starbucks near his Los Angeles recording studio, where he wrapped up a session for the next Beck album just a few hours earlier. “Some of it was fun, some of it wasn’t,” is all he will say about the evening’s work. Inside the coffeehouse, Burton — who is better known as the virtuosic, boundary-breaking producer Danger Mouse — orders a ham, egg and cheese sandwich but no coffee. He never drinks it. A caffeine boost “seems too easy,” Burton says, eyes bleary behind aviator shades: He has been working almost nonstop for the past few years, only recently starting to take weekends off.
Danger Mouse is the perfect hitmaker for Obama’s America — a hip-hop fan whose life was changed by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. “Hip-hop was what I knew really well,” Burton says, drinking Vitamin Water back in his studio’s control room. “But it’s not what inspired me to make music. It was the older rock stuff I started to hear.” His sound blurs the line between samples and live instruments, slipping warped hip-hop beats under the orchestral twang of Ennio Morricone, the analog punch of the Beatles and the unhinged freedom of psychedelic rock. Singer-rapper Cee-Lo and Burton just released The Odd Couple, their second album as the experimental rock-R&B duo Gnarls Barkley. The album may not spawn a hit on the order of 2006’s smash “Crazy,” but its futuristic combination of fractured robo-beats and go-go-‘booted Sixties textures does manage to sound like no other music in recent memory. “My initial audience is Danger, and Danger alone,” says Cee-Lo. “He has impeccable taste. I aspire to impress him.”
Though he’s become one of the most famous producers in the world, Burton, 30, doesn’t churn out hits for superstars — the high-profile Beck gig is an anomaly. He turns down most big-name offers, reserving his colorful, cinematic production style for more personal projects. “I only go with what I really am passionate about,” he says. “I want to be around for along time, not necessarily the hot guy.” Burton’s other current album is Attach & Release, by the Black Keys — on it, he essentially became a third member of the Akron, Ohio, indie blues-rock duo. “It was total teamwork,” says singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach. The band was impressed both by Burton’s musical prowess and by his willingness to spend his Gnarls money: One night in an Ohio Wal-Mart, Burton bought a fifty-inch TV so he could watch DVDs while he was in town.
Burton’s next few projects are even more eclectic. He’s working with Martina Topley Bird, a former protegee of trip-hop producer Tricky, and a British band called the Shortwave Set, for whom he unleashed the full force of his Beatles obsession, recording Mellotron-infused tracks that sound like they were recorded in Abbey Road circa 1968. Also coming is an elaborate Morricone homage called The Rome Project, for which he’s using the composer’s former musicians and studio.
What does all this music have in common? Burton — dressed like a hipster grad student in jeans, brown Converse, striped blue blazer and white T-shirt — fluffs his modest Afro as he considers the question. “I like to think that the stuff I do is very visual,” he says, “where you’re able to really have your own visions and dreams and thoughts based on what you’re hearing. Because a lot of music can take you out of that and can be overbearing, where you just picture the person singing.”
Burton cultivates an air of mystery. Before a reporter visits his studio, he has a bunch of employees run in and strip it of personal effects. This reticence has helped lead to some confusion over what he actually does in the studio: Though he’s best known for his prowess at sampling, these days Burton mostly plays live instruments — drums, guitar, bass, keyboards — editing the results until they sound better than his chops allow.
Burton was an underground hip-hop producer until he achieved wider fame through 2004’s The Grey Album, a stunt that was as audacious as it was labor-intensive: He lifted bits of the Beatles White Album to serve as backing tracks for the vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album.
In his studio’s control room, a copy of the book Recording the Beatles sits next to a rack of vintage keyboards, and an Eventide effects processor is programmed to a preset called “Lennon.” Burton loves the band so much that he can’t bring himself to name a favorite song — though his favorite album at the moment is Revolver.
Burton has spent a lot of time thinking about race, about black and white music — he says it’s at the core of what he does. Both of his parents are black, but he happens to be light-skinned. “People don’t know what I am,” he says. “And I didn’t know when I was younger.” First, he was one of the few black kids in a Jewish neighborhood in the New York suburbs, and then his parents moved to a mostly black neighborhood in Georgia, where he felt culturally out of place. “I was obviously so different in each environment I was in, and I just wanted to be the same. I didn’t want to stand out.”
But then, at the University of Georgia, he discovered Sixties rock – and he vowed never to throw up walls around himself again. “I just was in horror,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe that there’s all these films I hadn’t seen, all these records I hadn’t heard because I didn’t want people to think I was weird.” He sits up in his chair, seeming less sleepy all of a sudden. “That was what made me want to make music. You know, maybe I could show other people how similar we all are.”