From the start, there was something mysterious about Danger Mouse’s latest project, “Dark Night of the Soul.”
Word of it first came at the South by Southwest music festival in March, on a poster that simply listed the name Danger Mouse — the record producer and member of the R&B duo Gnarls Barkley — along with the singer-songwriter Sparklehorse and, among others, the director David Lynch. A YouTube video in Mr. Lynch’s unmistakable style stirred interest but added no details.
It was classic teaser marketing. And yet when “Dark Night of the Soul” was finally unveiled a few weeks ago, it still left fans puzzled. The project, it turned out, is a large-format book-and-CD package that Danger Mouse was releasing by himself, with 50 photographs by Mr. Lynch intended as accompaniment to the album’s 13 songs. But the CD is blank and recordable, and a sticker on the shrink wrap explains cryptically: “For legal reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will.”
Bloggers and journalists speculated widely about why Danger Mouse, whose real name is Brian Burton, had withdrawn the music from the book. A statement on the project’s Web site (dnots.com) blamed “an ongoing dispute with EMI.”
In response, EMI issued a statement that offered no greater clarity but hinted at a negotiation: “Danger Mouse is a brilliant, talented artist for whom we have enormous respect. We continue to make every effort to resolve this situation and we are talking to Brian directly. Meanwhile, we need to reserve our rights.”
In most cases this turn of events would signify defeat: an artist battles a record label, and his music vanishes down the memory hole. But in the peculiar way that Danger Mouse has built his career, “Dark Night of the Soul” seemed to be an oblique victory, in which failure at official business can generate notoriety and, ultimately, lead to success in other endeavors.
For fans the sticker’s winking reference to illegal downloading — “Dark Night of the Soul,” like most albums in the age of leaks, is widely if unofficially available free online — was amusingly familiar. Five years ago Danger Mouse released “The Grey Album,” a mash-up that used unauthorized Beatles and Jay-Z samples and became a bootleg Internet phenomenon. The once-obscure Danger Mouse was instantly catapulted to fame, getting high-profile gigs producing Gorillaz and others; Gnarls Barkley, his group with the singer Cee-Lo Green, scored a No. 1 hit around the world with “Crazy.”
“From ‘The Grey Album’ on, he has proven himself a master of improvisation,” said Jeff Chang, author of the hip-hop history “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.” “He’s really interesting tactically, in terms of trying to figure out how to position himself and still come out ahead.”
In a telephone interview Danger Mouse said that he and Sparklehorse (whose name is Mark Linkous) had worked on “Dark Night of the Soul” for two years, with a plan to maximize creative input from everyone involved: they gave instrumental tracks to singers they liked — among them Iggy Pop, Suzanne Vega and Julian Casablancas of the Strokes— and asked them to add vocal parts however they saw fit.
“We’d say, ‘We thought you might be great on this song,’ but didn’t tell them anything else,” Danger Mouse said. “ ‘Just listen to the music, and see if you have any ideas — some lyrics, or some vocal melodies.’ We trusted each person without having to guide them very much.”
Neither EMI nor Danger Mouse would comment on the legal matter. But according to several people with knowledge of the situation, who would not speak publicly because the contractual matters are confidential, Danger Mouse’s situation is most likely related to a long-term recording contract he signed early in his career with Lex Records, a British independent that later entered into a joint venture deal with EMI.
As part of that arrangement, EMI apparently ended up with global rights to certain subsequent recordings by Danger Mouse. But not all: Gnarls Barkley is signed to Downtown Records, with distribution by Atlantic. (Further complicating things, Tom Brown, the founder of Lex, said of Danger Mouse, “Ultimately he is signed to Lex Records.” But he would not elaborate.)
Lately EMI and Danger Mouse have been engaged in contentious renegotiation talks, these people say, although no new agreement has been reached, and Danger Mouse has pulled the music from “Dark Night of the Soul” because he feared he would be in breach of contract with EMI if he released the music through any other outlet.
Danger Mouse said he financed “Dark Night of the Soul” himself: he paid for all recording sessions, Mr. Lynch’s two-day photo shoot and the costs of printing the book. All artists involved worked without payment, he added.
“Dark Night of the Soul,” with the blank CD, is available for $50 in a limited edition of 5,000 copies, and the music can be streamed at NPR.org. Mr. Lynch’s photographs are on view at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles through July 11.
When asked, Danger Mouse entertained the idea that “The Grey Album” and “Dark Night of the Soul” were made more intriguing by the unorthodox way they were released. But he added that neither involved any intentional strategy to orchestrate controversy.
“I definitely knew that it was illegal,” he said of “The Grey Album,” “but I never thought it would be big enough for anybody to really care.” In an interview Mr. Lynch chuckled at the absurdity of releasing a CD with no music. He had been invited to contribute visuals to the project, he said, but was so taken by the concept that he ended up singing two songs. One, the title track, summarizes the album’s haunted theme with a noirish piano part and a scratchy vocal that sounds like a lonely late-night radio transmission.
“The same way that visuals can come out, lyrics can come out,” Mr. Lynch said. “You’d listen to the music, and then here comes the mood, and here come the lyrics, and away you go. It’s like the Surrealists’ kind of thing, where you trick yourself into coming up with something.”
For his part, Danger Mouse said he was disappointed with the legal and financial complications of “Dark Night of the Soul.” But he said he was pleased that what was always meant to be a small, arty project has been able to reach audiences unaltered, however strange the delivery method. And given the controversy around the project, which burnishes Danger Mouse’s image as a subversive, it seems likely that the book will sell out eventually and earn back his investment.
“I’m just trying to break even with this, if that is possible,” he said.
“There wasn’t anything on the creative side that had to be compromised in order for this to come out,” he added. “So on the one hand, the whole thing is kind of bittersweet, but at least on the creative side it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
Tags: Danger Mouse, Gnarls Barkley, EMI, Lex Records, Iggy Pop, Julian Casablancas, The Grey Album, David Lynch, Music Industry, Brian Burton, Sparklehorse, Dark night of the Soul, NPR.org, Atlantic Records, Downtown Records, Global Blog Network,