Karen O and Danger Mouse on joining forces for Lux Prima and criticizing your collaborators
Lux Prima, the debut record from acclaimed producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O, is a decade-in-the-making project made up of electronic nocturnes, sleek synths, and alternating sweet and ragged lullabies. It also reflects the final result of two patently distinct artists entering a studio with no agenda beyond the act of creation itself.
“We were on this exploratory path,” Karen O tells EW, “not really knowing what it even sounded like or where we were going.” Free from the burden of expectations, the duo produced a record that drifts between ethereal daydreams and profound contemplation. Many musicians like to equate their albums to journeys that must be undertaken, but in the case of Lux Prima, it’s true. While the finished result is a remarkable achievement, the creation of the project is as much at the heart of the album as the notes and words themselves.
Ahead, Karen O and Danger Mouse discuss the long-germinating LP, the best way to collaborate with an artist, and whether they’d work together again.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you two been talking about working together?
KAREN O: I think the first time was in 2008. We were in New York talking about the songcraft of the Beatles. It was a songwriting conversation, which I really appreciated. We did talk about collaborating, but it wasn’t quite the right time or thing. Then, almost 10 years later, we started talking about it again.
DANGER MOUSE: We were both working in 2009. I think Karen sent me some stuff for [her solo album] Crush Songs. I played her some music I was working on too, but neither one of us thought that this was the one because it wasn’t really a project for the both of us. It would’ve been a small way to work together, but not an actual thing. Eventually, we were in New York, in 2015. Karen was pregnant, and that’s when things really solidified.
You entered into this project having had no discussions about what the music would actually sound like. Were there any touchstones in terms of genre or influences that you had in mind or did you truly start with a blank slate?
DANGER MOUSE: It was just the two of us listening to music and talking and then jumping right into the studio. The first day, we started on what turned out to be “Lux Prima.” We really just went for it. That’s how I like to work, and it seemed like that was fine with Karen as well. We would just jump on stuff and start playing around. We started developing our own way of communicating with each other, musically. We were crafting it as we were going. It was really the sound of us figuring out what we didn’t know we were about to actually do.
KAREN O: It was definitely an expedition of sorts, and it just worked. It revealed itself to us in this crazy way. There wasn’t a moment of, “Oh, this is what we want to make.” It was more like, “Oh, this is just what we’re making and we’re going to find out what it is at the end.”
It sounds like a scenario where a lot of trust is necessary to really get where you’re trying to go.
DANGER MOUSE: The quicker you know that you can play really bad stuff to someone and they’ll be comfortable telling you they don’t like it — and that the reverse is also true — the better. Then you’re off and running. It’s just about how quickly you can get to that point. It’s like, “Okay, this person is not just going to humor me and I don’t have to do that for them. I can play bad stuff and not feel embarrassed because of it.” You start to feel that happening, and it was very quick for us.
KAREN O: Brian told me a couple of stories about working with some of the biggest people in rock ever — or in my lifetime, at least — and being able to say no to them. That blew my mind that he could do that. That takes a f—ing titanium spine to be able to do that with certain artists. When I heard that he could do that, I was like, “Well if that’s the case, he can tell me whatever he doesn’t like.” I’m going to just be like, “All right, dude, I trust you.”
DANGER MOUSE: The first record I did was [2005’s Demon Days] with Gorillaz. I’d never produced an album before and it was Damon Albarn, who is amazing, but he’s a very big personality. That was my trial by fire — right away. So I didn’t know that it could be any different. I thought, “Oh, this is what this is.” That was really fortunate for me, I think.
Karen, Lux Prima represents the first music you’ve released since having your son in 2015. Do you feel these songs, at least in part, reflect your experiences thus far as a parent?
KAREN O: I was curious to see what the massive shift of bringing a life into the world does to your perspective as a mother and as a woman and as a person. I was curious to see how that was going to express itself and articulate itself in the lyrics. With “Woman,” there’s almost this spirituality about it for me in terms of having that profound experience of creating life and how I felt so much more connected with the bigger picture. I felt like I wanted to be protective and supportive — like how you’d want to raise your kids. You want to make sure that they feel loved and supported. Yes, they’re going to have to go out there and take some hard knocks, but you give them a base of confidence to go out there and face it all. I feel like there’s like a bit of that, in a more poetic way, in some of the songwriting for this.
You’ve both contributed music to films and television. Karen, you actually went to film school. Brian, you’ve long professed a penchant for cinema. Do you feel that shared interest in visual mediums had any role in shaping the mood of Lux Prima?
DANGER MOUSE: I think with the music we were making, it wasn’t necessarily so much about the output of playing — like this energy of a band that just wants to put something out there. That’s not really what we were doing. I think it was more us making stuff that we could listen to and then take back in ourselves. It was really for our own listening pleasure in a lot of ways.
KAREN O: I agree. It’s this idea of wanting the listener to have a movie playing in their head while they’re listening to it. It’s less extroverted. It’s a more introverted experience, but with little spikes — little flavor bursts — of extroversion in there for balance.
Do you feel like your experience could lead to further collaborations down the line?
DANGER MOUSE: Given all the time it took us to do this, I don’t think you ever really have in your mind that we’re going [to] get together, do this one thing, and then turn our backs on each other and that’s going to be it. I still dig Karen, so why not?
KAREN O: Yeah, we haven’t pissed each other off bad enough yet where we’d never want to work together again.