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A Quietus Interview

When In Rome: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi Interviewed
The Quietus , May 17th, 2011 10:08

Stuart Kirkham talks to Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi about their new project Rome, working with Jack White and Norah Jones, and why Ennio Morricone will always be the Maestro

During the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, Italy's burgeoning domestic film industry created three highly important sub genres; The Italian or 'Spaghetti' Western; the Giallo (highly stylish, sleazy sex horrors) and Poliziotteschi (brutal police/street gangster flicks highly influenced by the US - in particular Dirty Harry and The French Connection). Hugely popular in their native homeland, the public's insatiable appetite for these extraordinary movies saw the studios of Rome produce a multitude of films over a 20 year period. Led by directors like Sergio Corbucci, Umberto Lenzi, Dario Argento, Guilio Questi, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci, Giulio Petroni, Mario Bava and Sergio Leone, this talented group of filmmakers were making pictures that were full of creative expression and highly vivid imagery. Transferring these celluloid treats into fitting music scores came a new order of Italian composers known as 'Maestros', responsible for creating the incredible music to these more and more outlandish movies. Ennio Morricone, Giorgio Gaslini, Bruno Nicolai, Piero Umilani, Guido & Maurio De Angelis, Riz Ortoloni, Stelvio Cipriani, Pierro Piccioni Alessandro Alessandroni, Armando Trovaioli, and Goblin were some of the chief protagonists in this field, bringing a very dramatic sound and style to the world of Italian film music and in the case of Morricone's Spaghetti Western scores, a style which totally revolutionised the movie soundtrack.

There to execute the composers' musical ideas with the required vivre, skill and excellence were a core of Rome based musicians. They included the I Marc 4 (a highly innovative Italian studio combo who recorded some astounding library LPs), Alessandro Alessandroni (who played the distinctive guitar parts and supplied the whistling on the Morricone Spaghetti scores), Nora Orlandi and Alesandroni's 8 piece choir – The I Cantori Moderni – which included the very distinctive wordless vocal of soprano Edda Dell'Orso. Edda Dell'Orso is the voice of Italian cinema; she decorates endless soundtracks with her ethereal, seductive three-octave range. It's a style that Alison Goldfrapp deployed to fine effect on Felt Mountain.

So what you had therefore was this prolific body of talent across the directors, composers & musicians who were all constantly working with each other and coming up with new dimensions of sight & sound. Films such as Don't Torture A Duckling, A Man, A Horse, A Gun, All the Colours Of The Dark, Light The Fuse… Sartana Is Coming, The Great Silence, Lizard In A Woman's Skin, Femina Ridens, Torso, Death Rides A Horse, Viva Django, Profondo Rosso, What Have You Done To Solange?, Blood & Black Lace, So Sweet, So Dead, Citta Violenta, Calibro Milano 9, Forbidden Photos Of A Lady Above Suspicion, Who Saw Her Die?, La Mala Ordina, Four Flies On Grey Velvet and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage are fine examples of where the genius of the director-composer-musician amalgamation comes to the fore. The music across these films is loaded with an emotional depth that makes it completely wrong to label it as 'lounge'; this is not Music To Watch Girls By or Martin Denny style exotica or sweetly played 'tux funk' with strings, but deep, powerfully emotive and complex sounds characterised by acid grooves, lush orchestral arrangements, sinister chord sequences, heavy prog, psychedelic jazz, harpsichord, twangy guitars and captivating passages of sensual melody.

It's this collective of film directors, composers and musicians who are the inspiration behind Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi's new album Rome. By enlisting the services of the original musicians (who are in now in their 70s), it brings a definite class and elegance to the album. Rome, however, is not an imaginary soundtrack, but a concept record that became an intensive five-year labour of love where no detail was overlooked. It had to be recorded and constructed in the same way as the great Italian ones. From analogue recording techniques used at The Forum Studios (where many of the great soundtracks were also made), to scouring Rome for vintage instruments (there are no such hire facilities in the city so Danger Mouse & Luppi traded bottles of wine in exchange), it's the fine attention to detail makes Rome sound so good – and the bass in particular is phenomenal. A Fender V1 borrowed from Goblin's Fabio Pignatelli, and played by Dario Rosciglione, the sound and drive it gives the album is exceptional.

But Rome is by no means a tribute album trying to replicate the sonic template laid down by Morricone & Co. For Rome differs because it has contemporary pop songs within it, delivered by the voices of Jack White and Nora Jones. White's cleverly treated multi-tracked vocal works to exceptional effect in particular on 'Two Against One' (listen to it on headphones for the full dynamic), the interplay with the I Cantori Moderni creating a widescreen sensation of uneasiness and deadly intent, but the biggest surprise is actually Nora Jones. On 'Season's Change', she steals the show with an intoxicating vocal deliciously supplemented by a majestic arrangement laid down by Danger Mouse and Luppi.

With its excellent instrumental passages – particularly the way the album opens with 'Theme Of Rome', crisp production, melodies, arrangements and quality of musicianship, Rome is a majestic record. It's to be enjoyed as an entire piece of music with fictional characters that allow the listener to create it's own story and pictures.

Five years in the making and now finally the album Rome about to see the light of day, how are you feeling about it – absolute joy? Relief?

Danger Mouse: A bit of both, but also I'm a little nervous about it because I've had this project in my back pocket for a long time. It's definitely helped me get through some stresses knowing I had this record as a safety net. Now I'm not going to have that anymore with the album done, I may need to call in something else that I can work on for another four or five years. But I'm proud of the record.

And the central feeling behind Rome?

DM: To me, it's just really the feel of a lot of the players. The way they played and the way the recordings were, it sets a really good backdrop. And that's what I was looking for to make the album. This album was never supposed to be a fake film soundtrack or anything like that. I had an idea to make an album - 'Should we write some songs?' and then 'how great would it be to get people who can play way better than I can'. And also to have a certain feel. Then I can make something come to life. You know you've already got the references in your head once you hear certain kinds of music, and if you mix that with something else then maybe it will be something new or something different.

That was the idea; we weren't trying to do a Buena Vista Social Club or anything. I just wanted to make an album that had a really great setting and backdrop. That's how it came together and that's why the players that we used were used. Obviously once we got some bigger names involved with the vocals, the ambition of the project started to get bigger and I started to understand it would be much more than that, but that was really what it was. For anybody who knows my record collection or listens to stuff I seem to take from when I pick music, it seems like a pretty obvious thing to do.

Daniele Luppi: What Brian and I tried to go for were epic feelings within the music – violence, passion, death, sadness, melancholy, love and happiness. Always very strong, epic feelings because I think Italians as people are used to having these emotions manifest. It's a very deep record.

Daniele, I've heard you be described as a modern day Morricone.

DL: [laughs] I don't see any other human being matching the grandeur of Ennio's genius, but I'm like many other people [in] appreciating his talents. They resonate very much with me because I grew up with that stuff, and other people's works like Travaoili and Pierro Piccoli. They all have a capability of reaching into my heart and brain. Ennio is the best product to have ever come out of Italy. What a guy.

This output of film score music across 1963-82/83 from the Maestros is so prolific isn't it – quite an astonishing body of work to discover...

DM: It is really interesting that what they did was sometimes indistinguishable – in fact, many times - but that was fine. It's like looking at a bunch of bands running around 1966 and 67 and they are all trying to cite the Beatles in their own way. They all had a very similar aesthetic and everything. This was kind of the same way. I think they weren't really big movies, so they were all on limited budgets. They had to adopt experimental ways of doing things. Sometimes you'd have whole scenes where it's just 1 guitar plucking. I learnt all about that from Daniele.

Film was the first thing that got me. I wanted to be a filmmaker and this music just jumped out at me. When I first started to make music, the first thing I tried to do was make instrumental music that would be for films that I'd make up. So I did some indie released stuff of just my own instrumental albums that were fake soundtracks. That's how I really started making music, and this type of music has always – with everything I've done – been in there.

DL: It was such a small crowd that made it happen - around 20 musicians that played for all the composers. It was an amazing coincidence of great movies and amazing players. Let's not forget that back then, all these genius composers wrote the music on the paper but then you've got the performers – like Alessandroni, the Marc IV and Edda Dell'Orso, so it was an spectacular combination of all these stars aligning. Growing up in Italy with all these movies meant I really consumed and absorbed all those sounds and textures.

What is it about these soundtracks that makes them so uniquely Italian? They are not the same as their French, German, American, or English counterparts are they?

DL: Well, first of all there's a huge difference between US and European composers and soundtracks. Within Europe, Italian output is super different from everybody else. Each country did their own thing but there is a distinct difference with Italy –harpsichord, for instance. A superb old instrument and the Italians really used it. I would say the Americans used it more in a jazz way which is brilliant and genius, but the Italians actually use it to make these very painful and strong melodies. Specifically in the city of Rome.

'The Rose With A Broken Neck' is a great title for a song It immediately conjures up classic Italian Giallo horror...

DM: [laughs] Yes, it is, but that was all Jack - he came up with the lyrics for that song and that's how it got the title.

When did you begin getting into Italian soundtracks?

DM: When I was living in Athens, Georgia from 1995-2001. I worked in a record store for half that time and that's where some of the older guys and collectors would pass stuff on to me. Then over the years I've been able to afford more so I have been just trying to build up my collection.

What were the early soundtrack albums to have made an impression on you?

DM: Luis Bacalov's Django! and Il Grande Duello (Storm Rider) soundtracks, Morricone's Revolver, Pierro Picconi, various scores by Riz Ortolani like Mondo Cane. I also listened to a lot of Italian library albums. A lot of stuff you get with these guys were on compilations from the 90s because back then that was all you were going to get – there weren't many full soundtrack albums being released. I liked the Jess (Jesus) Franco stuff as well, that had some really cool music to it with Bruno Nicolai.

Sacco e Vanzetti is an amazing soundtrack, and one I really, really love. Morricone with Joan Baez singing - that was so cool! It was an idea that helped with Rome, in getting somebody that's not necessarily known for singing with that particular style of music.

With the influences, vintage instruments & recording techniques deployed, were you ever concerned that Rome might turn out sounding too retro or pastiche?

DM: It wasn't really much of a concern. I think that it's sitting down writing melodies and songs. I can't really be picky. I'm just trying to look for the best thing I can come up with, and then I'll pass it by Daniele. Daniele checks it out and tells me what he likes the best and he does the same thing with me. Daniele will come up with an instrumental track and I will listen to it and write a string or choir part. We really did everything together. We have really similar tastes so it's hard for me to remember who did what.

That's all I can really do is find the best stuff I have, if some of it's kind of similar, that's fine, it's not a big deal to me. I think that where it really came into it was when there was going to be particular songs that have lyrics and melodies which lean towards somewhat more traditional, actual songs. That was where I knew I could turn it into something a little bit more unique, with the three female songs I had written. Jack [White] had already done his tracks and with them finished, it was a little easier to tell who would be good to sing the female vocal and from there on in everyone was in agreement Norah [Jones] would be great. I knew this was a little bit different for her, but she was really into it.

Were Jack White & Norah Jones always first choices for the album?

DM: Well I didn't actually know who would sing on the album for almost a year after we did the initial backing tracks, because I really just wanted to make sure we got the right people. Jack was actually one of the first people I played any music for, but I definitely didn't play it to him with the idea of asking him to sing on it. I didn't think he'd have the time, I just didn't know how it would work. Then eventually I emailed him because he really responded to and loved the music, so I asked him 'What about singing on it?' and he just said 'Sure', because he was looking for something unique. On all the songs of his he doubled his vocals - the high and the low. Initially it was done to see which one would work better ad after we did them, we thought it sounded good with both of them on there.

For the female, there were other people I had thought about but once the part was written, Norah was definitely the first person. I thought her vocal would really push the melodies, she did such a great job. When she finished singing 'Season's Trees', that was exactly where the song was supposed to be. I couldn't imagine anyone else doing it.

DL: I think once we finished the first backing tracks, we really had time to think not only about the next steps, but 'We've got to do something different here'. I think what really brought me and Brian together more and more was finding that twist, something that was not immediately logical. Somebody else could have recorded like we did, but then maybe they'd think 'Let's get a singer from the 60s like Raul who sang all the Spaghetti Western songs' and carry on in that direction. Also, many people would have mixed the record in a way that was a replica of how they did it back then. What was really cool with Brian was that we acknowledged that nobody was rushing us, so we thought 'Well we've got this great music, what would be very unexpected would be to get some very contemporary singers in'. That's how we felt, and we mixed it as a pop record. In our minds, at least, we were creating something original but using some very familiar elements.

We'd already thought about Jack separately and then we just convened and found out we were on the same page. To have Jack's voice which is really abrasive and strong over this elegant music, was a huge turn in the making of Rome. Norah was the other twist, we wanted a contrast to Jack and she was just perfect. We compressed and filtered her vocals and credit to Brian here because very few producers would have chosen to do what we did with Nora's voice.

Can you describe the Forum studio made famous by Morricone & Co. Is there an aura to the place? Did you enjoy recording Rome in the same way as the original Italian recordings were done - using vintage equipment, recording live and straight to tape?

DM: Well for me ,I didn't really know so much about it - Daniele was the one who told me more about it. I'm not a big studio guy, I prefer smaller set ups. But there was definitely a feel to the place. We had Morricone's original engineer come by as a favour to check that we were set up correctly. There were all these crazy echo chambers underneath and it was amazing to see how all these old details really did make a big difference to the album I did enjoy making a record this way. You just have to be a little bit more sure of what you are doing ahead of time. There's a lot more to do. For me it was easier to do because I had Daniele so we could run stuff by each other and in the end we were pretty confident with what we had.

DL: There is definitely an aura. First of all the studio sits underneath a church so to get in from street level, you have to descend a long series of stairs and you are underground. You understand you are going into something old, a place with character and history. The players were saying it had the same smell of recording equipment from 40 years ago! There's also a beautiful room where they store all the tapes. I saw the original tapes for 'Duck You Sucker' (A Fistful Of Dynamite) in there! All the Edda and Alessandroni parts. When you see the actual tapes that had all these recordings, you feel inspired. To me the studio worked as an amazing glue. It was a glue between me, Brian and the musicians.

And what about getting all the old players together, were there any difficulties there?

DM: No, it was all pretty easy. It's not like they knew who I was or anything like that, I was just the American guy with Daniele who had met some of them before and we were just recording this new album. I don't think they would have known who Jack White or Norah Jones was. It wasn't really a big deal being made of the whole thing. There wasn't really the concept where people were understanding what we were really doing, which was fun. I don't think we knew what we were doing initially anyway. They were a little surprised that we wanted them to do what they had done a while ago, but they were into it. For them it was like a day back at work where they hadn't worked there for a long time. A lot of them hadn't seen each other for a long time and there were some tears for the first but within a couple of hours they were shouting and screaming at each other so I think they were right back into it pretty quickly.

DL: The first year we went there was 2006, and that's when we recorded the band and they played all together like the old days – on tape. They were all recording together on different tracks but at the same time, so to make a better isolation between the instruments, you put these soundproof panels in that don't allow the musicians to see each other. But still they can hear themselves in the headphones and it was amazing. At first they were very polite but after half an hour or so they were like 'Why do you keep pushing behind the beat?' and fighting already [laughs].

The biggest emotional point that I felt was when we did the choir. I mean, the Cantori Moderni had not performed since the early 80s and there were members that hadn't seen each other for 25 years. When they came in the room, I saw some of the women with tears in their eyes. They were just blown away to see each other. For me to conduct that choir that I had heard on so many records.. it was incredible. To have the great Edda Dell'Orso asking me 'Well Maestro, do you want me to do it a little more like this'. I was like 'Am I dreaming here?'. It was an immense privilege and honour to work with all of them.

Finally, could we ever see 'Rome' presented live?

DM: We're working on it. Everybody involved wants to do it, so we're just trying to figure out the timing of it and how many shows we can do. It won't be a full on tour but hopefully we'll get a few different cities in, we're working on it right now.

DL: The only thing I can say is that it must be done the way the record was made. The right instruments, players and atmosphere. If we can do that it would be lovely!

Rome is released by Parlophone on May 16