Many Roads Lead to Rome

It is a union that, on paper at least, probably should not work: Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), superstar producer and songwriter of eclectic acts including Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and Broken Bells; Daniele Luppi, Italy-born soundtrack composer and producer; Jack White, chameleon-like musician and producer behind diverse acts such as White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather; and Norah Jones, multi-million-selling jazz/ country/pop singer and songwriter.

Danger Mouse (left) and Daniele Luppi

Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi Give Classic Italian Film Music Ideas A 21st Century Twist


It is a union that, on paper at least, probably should not work: Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), superstar producer and songwriter of eclectic acts including Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys, Gorillaz, and Broken Bells; Daniele Luppi, Italy-born soundtrack composer and producer; Jack White, chameleon-like musician and producer behind diverse acts such as White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather; and Norah Jones, multi-million-selling jazz/ country/pop singer and songwriter. The “band” on their remarkable new collaboration, Rome, consists entirely of Italian studio musicians in their 60s and 70s. The music is a fascinating mélange of classic Italian movie soundtrack sonics and thoroughly modern pop songwriting, vocals, and mixing. Five years in the making, Rome is completely unlike any other album on the popular music landscape—which was the point from the beginning.

The story starts with Daniele Luppi, who created a modern cult favorite with an instrumental album called An Italian Story in the early 2000s. For that project, Luppi, who grew up admiring Sergio Leone’s late-’60s “spaghetti westerns,” Dario Argento’s violent horror thrillers, and the strange and sometimes whimsical work of Federico Fellini, sought to re-create some of the eclectic sounds that made the soundtracks for Italian films of the ’60s and ’70s so distinctive and unusual. Reverence for the stark and lonely music of Leone’s primary film composer, Ennio Morricone, has been widespread in America for many years, but on An Italian Story, Luppi tapped more into strains of Italian film music that had more jazz and bubbly pop elements, from twangy late-’60s guitar stylings, to breezy congadriven party melodies. To capture the authentic vibe of the soundtracks he so loved, Luppi tracked down many of the musicians—most of them retired—who had played on sessions for Morricone, Nino Rota, Nicola Piovani, and other composers, and had them interpret his tunes in a loving (and fun!) homage to the sound they had created. The disc was cut at Telecine Studios in Rome in 2001 and released in 2004 by Rhino Records. Around the time the album came out, Luppi moved from Italy to L.A. and started landing soundtrack work there.

One of the many admirers of An Italian Story was Brian Burton who, as Danger Mouse, was emerging from the remix underground and making waves in 2004 with a viral sensation called The Grey Album, an inventive (and controversial) mash-up of vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and instrumental samples from The Beatles’ “White Album.” That year Danger Mouse also produced Gorillaz’ Demon Days album. Burton, it turns out, was also a huge fan of Italian film music, so he and Luppi hit it off immediately.

“I saw a lot of those classic Italian movies when I was in film classes in college,” Burton says during a break from working on U2’s long-awaited next album. “They had this great mixture of dramatic, melancholy music with strings, mixed with these psychedelic electric guitars. And the way the drums were played had a lot of interesting rhythms—a little bit jazzy, but some of the drums almost sounded like it was coming from R&B or some James Brown stuff . There were also some avant-garde things in there, as well. It was a great mixture of things with a lot going on.”

It wasn’t long after they met that Burton and Luppi began working together: Luppi contributed some bass, organ, and synth parts to the megasuccessful 2006 St. Elsewhere album by the duo known as Gnarls Barkley—Cee-Lo Green and Danger Mouse. The smash hit single from that disc, “Crazy,” contained elements from a piece by Italian film composer Gianfranco Riverberi, and other tunes of the album borrowed from Nicholas Flagello and Armando Trovaioli. The logical next step in Burton’s and Luppi’s friendship was writing music together— and it was that partnership that evolved into the Rome album, which would both pay tribute to and expand upon their mutual love of Italian film music.

“At first we worked independently,” Luppi says. “I have a piano and a Hammond organ, so I mainly worked on those. We wrote sketches and played them to each other and found we were on the same page and we both liked each other’s material.” Burton adds, “I would be writing ideas on piano and guitar, putting melodies together and working on instrumental song structures, and he was doing the same thing, and we would kind of pull them together and add to each other’s songs, or mix them together.”

Once they had a number of pieces written, in October 2006 the action shifted to Forum Studios in Rome, where Luppi once again assembled the cream of veteran Italian soundtrack musicians, including a few who had worked on An Italian Story—guitarist Luciano Ciccaglione, bassist Dario Roscaglione, and keyboardist Antonello Vannucchi—plus stalwarts such as drummer Gege Munari and keyboardist Gilda Buttá. The day before the fi rst instrumental tracking sessions found Luppi scrambling around Rome in a van digging up period instruments for the players—a couple turned up in the collection of a Vespa mechanic, who was paid in wine for the brief rentals; how Italian!

For more than 40 years, Forum Studios has been a center for recording Italian film music. Built underneath an old church in the Parioli section of Rome, and initially known as Ortophonic Studios, the facility opened in 1970 specifically to do soundtrack work—the original owners were composers Morricone, Piero Piccioni, Luis Bacalov, and Armando Trovaioli. Through the years, all sorts of projects have been recorded there, including classical, pop, rock, and jazz albums (Clapton, Quincy, Eno, Chili Peppers, et al), but it is still the go-to studio for soundtracks—Oscar winners Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful, and Il Postino were all scored there.

The heart of the three-studio complex is an enormous live tracking room (Studio A) that can fit 80 musicians and has a high ceiling, several support columns, parquet wood floors, and acoustical treatment on some of the upper walls and ceiling. The control room is equipped with Neve VR Legend 60-channel console with Flying Faders; Genelec 1039A and PMC IB1S main monitors; scads of outboard gear, including Teletronix LA 2A, Urei limiters and EQ, and a wide range of Lexicon digital reverbs; and for this project, the studio’s Studer A820 two-inch 24-track. “Brian and I decided from the beginning we had to record to analog tape,” Luppi comments. “It goes with the sound we were looking for.”

Engineering the sessions was Fabio Patrignani, son of the man who designed the studio for Morricone and company, Franco Patrignani, himself a noted engineer who later ran the studio with his wife. Franco was also a colleague of Morricone’s principal engineer Sergio Marcotulli, whom Fabio assisted while still a teenager. Though Marcotulli is long retired, Luppi brought him into Forum for a day at the beginning of the Rome sessions “partly to show him respect,” Luppi says, “but also because I wanted him to take a look at what we were doing with the mics. He could say, ‘This is how we did it,’ and ‘You know, the drums sound a little better in that corner over there.’ He knew the studio so well.”

The team assembles in Forum’s Master Studio to listen back to tracks.

To Luppi, it was important to record Rome at Forum because “I wanted it to have a big sound. When you record in a big space, you hear the air, you hear the sound of the place. Also, I knew I wanted to have an orchestra and the choir, which that room [at Forum] is perfect for. But even when you record a single instrument—a harpsichord or an acoustic guitar—I wanted it to be close-miked but also have a mic up in the air to capture the room. Doing that let us add less reverb later at the mix stage.”

Though Luppi and Burton arrived in Rome with charts fully written for the basic tracking group, “a lot of times the players took it further themselves and made it better,” Burton says. “Sometimes we would start a song and the whole feel of the song would be wrong, but it wasn’t their fault, because for us it was like, why tell them exactly what you’re looking for? Why not let them try it based on what you’ve put in front of them and see what they do with it? I’ve always found it’s a lot better to let people do whatever it is they’re instinctively going to do even if you have an idea in your head. If you don’t, you might miss out on some really good ideas.”

Early on, both producers fell in love with the thick and snappy bass sound that engineer Patrignani was getting out of Dario Roscaglione’s Fender VI six-string bass and Bassman amplifier with an Electro-Voice RE20 mic and a “wet” EMT plate reverb. That bass is the foundation of most of the songs on Rome, along with Gege Munari’s minimally miked mid-’60s Gretsch drum kit. The studio also has its own echo chamber and that was utilized on a couple of guitar parts for that extra echo-y ’60s sound. Burton liked the bass sound so much he brought a Fender VI onto a Black Keys album he worked on shortly after these first sessions.

While Luppi and Danger Mouse tended to other projects during the early part of 2007, the vocal component of Rome was just starting to take shape. Luppi says that having some time off from the project allowed him and Burton to gain some perspective on where to go next: “If we only had a few months to do this, once we did the [basic] tracks, you might think, ‘All right, this is sounding pretty retro, so maybe we should get an older singer like [’60s pop and rock vocalist] Mina to match the music and finish the record that way.’ But because we had time, we could say, ‘Let’s have a twist—let’s turn in a direction you would not normally go. Let’s not do what’s obvious—let’s do something else.’ So we went more modern and that’s how we ended up with Norah Jones and Jack White on the record.”

Burton had played some of the basics to White, and White liked what he heard so much he volunteered to pen lyrics to three of the “themes” and then he cut his own lead vocals at Blackbird Studios in Nashville (where he lives). A famously versatile and expressive vocalist, White brilliantly uses both his higher and lower registers on his tunes, harmonizing with himself to powerful effect. Burton notes, “We didn’t know which way we wanted to go—higher or lower for the lead vocal—and they ended up sounding really good together, so we left both in.”

Luppi and Burton wanted a female vocalist to contrast with White’s tunes, and were excited when Norah Jones agreed to sing three songs for which Burton wrote the lyrics. Her tracks were cut at Glenwood Place in Los Angeles, where Burton has worked often during the past five years. Her vocals, too, are doubled and tripled and compressed and slightly distorted to give them a more mysterious edge. The song “Black,” which she sings, is good example of the album’s eclectic elements coming together to create an unusual and emotional song: It features some funky wah-wah guitar, “a musical theme that’s like a Serge Gainsbourg thing,” Burton says, referring to the French pop icon, “and then I thought it would be cool to have the lead vocal be a little Dylan-y, but then you have Norah Jones sing it and it turns into this other thing. It’s amazing that it works as well as it does,” he laughs.

With the lead vocals in place for the album’s six songs, Burton and Luppi returned to Forum Studios in the fall of 2007 and added other vocal parts for some of the other nine mainly instrumental pieces— backgrounds by the Cantori Moderni, octogenarian Alessandro Alessandroni’s legendary four-man, four-woman “choir” which added (usually) wordless vocal passages to so many Italian film soundtracks and pop songs in the ’60s and ’70s. (Alessandroni was also the moody whistler on those famous Morricone soundtracks.) Patrignani says he captured the Cantori with three overhead Neumann U87s spaced evenly above them about three or four feet. Adding haunting vocalizations to a couple of tunes, too, was 72-year-old soundtrack warbler Edda dell’Orso.

A whole ’nother year went by before Burton and Luppi went back to Forum a third time, this time to cut strings with the Rome-based B.I.M Orchestra, whom Patrignani again recorded with a large complement of U87s, both for sections and as elevated room mics. Though some of the string parts had been conceived during the initial writing sessions, other arrangements were developed to fit with the finished vocal parts—another luxury of the album being stretched out over a long period.

Originally, Burton says, “We thought of mixing it in Rome, but we decided it would be much less expensive to fly Fabio over here and mix at Glenwood Place [to half-inch analog] rather than having Daniele and me and my mixing engineer Kennie Takahashi go all the way over there. Glenwood has a great board [a Neve 8068], too. But it was really important that Fabio was part of it. He knows how that music is ‘supposed’ to sound, but at the same time we all had our opinions, and we tried out a lot of different approaches, and in the end the album sounds quite a bit different than when we came back from Rome and mixed the backing tracks.”

Indeed, it was at the mixing stage that the album really took on its modern sheen. Even when the backing tracks have that deep ’60s sound, and the strings their languorous majesty, the vocals are 21st-century all the way, panned and effected in interesting ways. Two of Jones’ tracks also clearly owe a debt to contemporary hip-hop, which is definitely Danger Mouse territory. So, though the press coverage of this album has portrayed it as some glorious throwback to an earlier musical universe—and there are the reverbdrenched guitars, wheedling Farfisa organ, spooky celesta parts (played by Gilda Buttá) and prominent strings from that world—the overall feel of the album is quite fresh and contemporary, as you’d expect from a restless creative spirit like Danger Mouse.

“This was never supposed to be a kitsch-y, nostalgia kind of thing,” Burton concludes. “It was more like, ‘Let’s make a record that has a great mood to it, and a great sound as the background to it, and then do modern songs over the top of it, but not make it seem too out of place. I had great confidence that it would work out.”

Adds Luppi, “We wanted to do something creative and unique, make a different kind of pop record for today, rather than just a replica of a non-existent movie soundtrack.”