The most surprising thing about Karen O and Danger Mouse’s exciting new collaboration is that it hasn’t happened before. Both of them burst to fame from the same New York scene at the turn of the century, Karen exploding into the zeitgeist as the electrifying force at the heart of Yeah Yeah Yeahs just a few months before Danger Mouse (super-producer Brian Burton) released the seminal ‘The Grey Album’, a mash-up of Jay-Z’s ‘The Black Album’ and The Beatles’ ‘The White Album’. Since then, the pair have seen Oscar nominations (Karen in 2010 for her work in the Spike Jonze film, Her), and Grammy wins (six for Danger Mouse so far) in careers that have turned out to be just as illustrious as they are influential.
‘Lux Prima’ sees the pair finally join forces in the studio and it is just as strangely wonderful as you would imagine. When the opening title-track was released, it revealed a dazzling nine-minute masterpiece of swirling cinematic instrumentals merged with Karen’s distinctive vocals. A new world without rules or traditional structure, this is the type of record that only a few artists could have created. Dork caught up with the pair in Los Angeles to get the low-down on life in ‘Lux Prima’.
Karen O: I remember meeting him early on, even before ‘Crazy’ [his 2006 Gnarls Barkley uber-banger]. I remember hearing about him, that he was a fan and wanted to work on something. We met up in 2007-2008 about a potential project that didn’t work out, but we would keep running into each other because of mutual friends. I saw him play with Broken Bells a couple of times and started hanging out with him. We were in similar circles, but it took ten years to get into the studio and make stuff together. It was always something we had in the back of our minds.
Danger Mouse: I’d been friends with Nick Zinner [Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist] for a while, but me and Karen were more like acquaintances. She sent me some demos over, some acoustic stuff that was really beautiful and that I had never heard her do before. I had only really heard her in Yeah Yeah Yeahs, so it got me thinking about doing something. The timing was never right until a few years ago when we got together in New York. She was pregnant, but she said she was going to lie back from touring for a while so maybe we could write some songs together finally.
Danger Mouse: It was completely loose. I didn’t know what it was going to be; we didn’t talk about it. I prefer working that way and just seeing what happens. The first week we did ‘Lux Prima’, that showed us that it could be anything, go in any direction. If you do a nine-minute song with a huge instrumental, it was like doing art. I remember that we didn’t have anyone expecting or waiting on us, there was just the two of us. We were playing a lot of 60s psychedelic stuff, soul and R&B from that same period. I always knew that I wanted her to get higher, get that soft, beautiful voice into more songs.
Karen O: The blurry place is to do with this ego destruction that happens when you have a kid, y’know? This was the first music I made after having a child, and they destroy your ego, in a great way. Because this was just such a virginal collaboration between me and Danger Mouse, that made everything so blurry to begin with.
Our intention in a way was to just go with that vibe more than anything else, just push anything like singles and that framework of what happens when you are in an established band out of our heads. To free ourselves of those constructs.
After that first song, ‘Lux Prima’, we worked for about a week, and then every month or so he kept hitting me up whenever he was in town. Once we started making music, that’s when the whole thing came together out of the ether. It wasn’t like we had a concept. It was more like the music led, and then the concept and the themes started appearing.
Karen O: Things shift a lot. Making music is such a mysterious process anyway, and I had no idea what was going to come. In the end, [it was] a lot of connections to the grander scheme of things: consciousness, love, this deep yearning. It’s hard not to think about what kind of world your child is going to inherit, y’know?
That’s what ‘Ministry’ is about, feeling the pain of climate change, mass extinction and shit like that. I was feeling the pain of it all, and just this deep yearning to connect with the nurturing voices of nature and the Divine Feminine again. I wanted to tune back into that because it’s always there and we don’t always pay attention to it.
Karen O: It was awesome because he is so gifted. I’ve only worked with maybe three producers on all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs records, and they’re all different but still similar because they are very enthusiastic, and they’re more easily pleased than Brian is. He holds his cards close; I’m not used to that. I was like, ‘Oh man, is he digging this at all?’ at first. Then he just melts and starts to show it.
It was kind of awesome because my favourite people to work with are the ones are so open and free about exploring things. They have that curiosity and just go for it. He’s like a huge fan of The Beatles and the construct of a song, so it was interesting to see how his brain works because it was more structured than I’ve worked before.
Danger Mouse: This whole process is how we became really good friends. It was the process of getting to know each other, talking about our lives, our love lives, her being a mother and our past. Some days we would spend hours talking before we even went into the studio and started work. There was no real set-up; it was just going in and messing around. I always work in quite a similar way; I’m a little bit limited in how I can give my best. But with her, there’s just a lot of humility there, and it just started cooking.
Danger Mouse: Stuff like that, it’s one of the reasons why I got into music. I never wanted to be an entertainer of a performer. I love Pink Floyd and things where the music is art, these longer, more artistic pieces. Music that’s not gonna come on the radio or these other things that come with singles.
Karen O: It was pretty awesome; we really went on a trip with it, y’know? Just giving yourself the license to do that was so rad, and there’s some weird stuff in there. It just set the bar for what we did on the record, because if this is how we start, then we can go anywhere with it.
Karen O: That song came as a total bolt from the blue; it just consumed me. Around that time, it was the US elections. It was quite a [Karen makes a vomit sound], and it’s stayed that way. It was written after he won the election. I feel like the bully won, y’know? A lot of people felt anger or fear or anxiety about that, especially women because it was just after the whole pussy-grabbing thing. And he still got elected! Oh my god.
That song was a moment to say “I’m going to protect the inner girl within me”, and a message that I’m going to persevere through whatever challenges I face. We’re in it together. The world is a bit crazy at the moment. I’m going to stand up to bullies and hopefully give everyone else that extra bit of courage and support. Will there be more stories coming out about male musicians abusing their power? I would assume so. I feel like a switch has been flipped to a certain degree, and I don’t see it flipping back any time soon. There is a deep shift now. It’s so overdue and so new, and it’s all a bit confusing how to sort out how to process that and talk about it.
Karen O: That was quite the night. Oh my god, it was insane. I remember my mouth going completely bone dry before going on stage with Ezra [Koenig, Vampire Weekend] – not even a molecule of moisture, y’know? And we went and did our thing, and I remember directly in front of us was Leonardo DiCaprio. And when we finished, he stood up and gave me the thumbs up and really clapped wildly. I was like, ‘Is this another dimension we’re living in right now?’ No moisture in my mouth, getting a standing ovation from him, it was a trip man. And there was no speech prepared, zero expectations of winning. Which was like a bad idea, because for twenty minutes up to it being announced, I was thinking that on the one-in-the-million chance that we won, I was fucked. So when they did call ‘Frozen’ as the winner, there was just this huge rush of joy and relief that I didn’t have to go and make a fool of myself [Karen laughs]. So special, but I only need to do it once.
Karen O: Don’t forget to ask me that! Yeah, I don’t know yet when that next record is coming, but it will arrive at some point. It’s not like we’re done, if you’re thinking that. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about last year’s shows [the trio played a series of shows celebrating the tenth anniversary of debut album, ‘Fever To Tell’], because it was such an extremely turbulent and wild period in my life, but it was awesome. The reception was so warm and so supportive of it, it felt great. I thought that playing those songs would be extremely rough, but actually, that was what I was most energised about.
Danger Mouse: This is probably the album with which I have the least idea what the perception is going to be. We haven’t discussed this officially or anything, but we would had a good time making this album so why wouldn’t we make another? I’ve worked with many people more than once, and I think we have made something unique.
Taken from the April edition of Dork. Order a copy below. Karen O & Danger Mouse’s album ‘Lux Prima’ is out 15th March.
Words: Jamie MacMillan