Broken Bells is a collaborative effort between James Mercer of the Shins and Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the producer extraordinaire and one half of the duo Gnarls Barkley. This year, the “super-duo” released its second record, After the Disco, a record which often recalls its title genre.
Mercer spoke to Weld about the band’s deliberate process and how it translates to its live performance. He discussed his relationship with Zach Braff and an unlikely connection to Alabama before the Broken Bells set at Iron City on Oct. 2.
Weld: Does it take more time for you guys to release a Broken Bells record because you’re simply too busy with other projects, or is it simply a matter of quality control?
James Mercer: I guess if we had gone straight into doing another Broken Bells record, we probably would have shaved about another year off. But, I guess in a way, yeah, I went off into the Shins thing and Brian has his production career. It’s funny because to us, it really didn’t seem like we ever quit. Even during that year where I was doing Shins stuff, there were times that I would come down and we’d work on something in the studio and just kind of keep honing away at a few of the songs. I don’t know; maybe it’s both. There are other projects we do, but we’re kind of picky about what songs we let exist out there, you know?
Weld: How much of the recording process do you and Brian spend in the same room, or is it done remotely?
JM: Oh, we do it all in the same room. It’s rare that I come into the studio and Brian already has something prepared. It’s usually, we’re hanging out and just grabbing instruments and trying to find cool chord progressions and stuff like that. It’s mostly as a band in the studio going for it.
Weld: When you’re recording, is it just the two of you, or do you bring in additional musicians?
JM: We do bring people in, but it’s usually at the end. Maybe we’ll have a horn section that we think should happen. Things like that. But generally, it’s just us playing all of the instruments.
Weld: As the name implies, After the Disco recalls a lot of disco elements. “Holding on for Life”‘s falsetto is very Bee Gees; was that deliberate or accidental?
JM: It was totally accidental [Laughs], which is probably hard to imagine, but you know, I was in the vocal booth just kind of riffing and trying to come up with a melody, really, for any part of the song, because that chord progression just kind of lives throughout. I hit upon this one melody, and I liked it, so I jumped it up to falsetto just for the hell of it, and Brian really liked that, so he had me just start doubling it. And as soon as you start doubling it, that’s when it starts to sound like the Bee Gees, we discovered [Laughs]. Then the certain reverb and stuff on it, you know? Which is cool. I love that stuff. There’s something about those Bee Gees songs that stood out from the rest of the pop music of that era and I was happy to kind of “crack the code” on their style.
Weld: So you would consider disco an influence? Those themes weren’t done out of any kind of irony?
JM: Well, we didn’t think about disco musically, so much. There’s probably some relation to the fact that we called the record After the Disco, but we really were just kind of…that was a lyric that we had in one of the songs and there was something melancholy about it. I wanted the record to be – I was hoping to get some dancey stuff on the record, but just because it has kind of been an aspiration that I’ve had for a while. It rarely seems to happen for me [Laughs]. It’s almost like a coincidence in a way. We had a few songs on this that had a bit of an uptempo and a downtempo beat, and then we also happened to call the thing After the Disco. It’s strange, but true.
Weld: When you’re writing on your own, without Brian, what distinguishes a Shins song from a Broken Bells song?
JM: The lack of Brian’s writing, the collaboration that Brian and I do, if I’m sitting there working on something with Brian – he’s right there, maybe coming up with lyric ideas or a bass line or a keyboard hook. He might then write the hook – we really collaborate. It’s a process where we leapfrog around on the song and complete it together. Shins is this more traditional thing where I’m sitting, usually, with an acoustic guitar and a cup of coffee and I’m putting together chords and trying to find a melody to link things together. It’s much more isolated.
Weld: So there’s never a moment where you’re sitting alone at your own home and writing a Broken Bells song? That’s always a full collaboration?
JM: Right. Exactly. I kind of got it in my head and just made that the rule.
Weld: How do you guys find time to sync up and tour when you’re so preoccupied with other things? Do you just decide, “Alright, 2014 is a Broken Bells year. We’re doing that this year.”?
JM: Yeah. Exactly. We’re both really invested in Broken Bells and we really want it to succeed. We just take the time out. You’ve got to. We both see the whole live thing as an integral part of a band. You have to have that. We wanted to tour. We feel like, once you do a record, you’re proud of it, too. You don’t want to shortchange the whole project by not going out and promoting it.
Weld: What’s the makeup of the band you’re touring with that will come to Birmingham?
JM: We’ve got a total of four people on stage. It’s Brian and myself and then Dan Elkan and a guy named John Sortland. Dan Elkan plays guitar and keyboards – he was with us the last time we toured. And John Sortland is a new addition – he’s a really great drummer and bass player and keyboard guy, he can sort of do everything. I actually found out that he used to live in my house in Portland – he used to rent that house, years and year ago.
Weld: I’ve heard musicians discuss leaving for Portland because there is more anonymity up there. Do you feel bothered there when you’re out for a cup of coffee?
JM: I don’t. But I don’t get recognized, hardly, anywhere. I think it’s a niche audience that we have. If I’m ever recognized, it’s usually because I’m two doors down from the venue where we’re going to play.
Weld: The Shins added a great original track to [Zach] Braff’s new movie this year – when he calls you, do you just open up the doors and give him anything that he needs?
JM: [Laughs] I try. When he told me he was doing a movie, I was like, man – that was such a big thing for us. I had to talk to him about it and find out what he was doing. He sent a rough cut of the movie to us and we watched the movie and I thought it was a great movie – it was sort of about things that I’m now going through in my life. It wasn’t really hard once I – I was struggling because he had some really cool songs plugged in and I was supposed to try to replace them. They were like these brilliant songs by Bon Iver and stuff like that. And I was like, “You know, I can’t out Bon Iver Bon Iver.” [Laughs] So he allowed me off the hook – he said, “Write a pop song that makes sense to you about this film and we’ll put it at the end.”
I came up with that piece and he loved it. Once I did that, he was thrilled by it and put it right in the end credits. He was really flattering with his praise. It’s a cool relationship. I wrote the song straightforward about the characters.
Weld: Have you discussed Broken Bells in his work or is it too different from what he does to be included?
JM: You know, I haven’t. He just asked for a Shins song. I don’t really do this. I don’t have directors of films hitting me up for songs for movies. The one time I did it was Spongebob. That’s, like, my favorite song I’ve ever written.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
JM: The Stooges. The Doors. The Beach Boys. Talking Heads. The Ramones. Is that five?
Weld: That was five. That was quick. No one had ever breezed through that that quickly. Thanks, James. And safe travels to Alabama.
JM: Man, it’ll be cool, you know, I lived for a while – there’s an Air Force base in Alabama. I think it was near Montgomery. Is Prattville a town down there?
Weld: Absolutely! That’s a suburb of Montgomery.
JM: Yeah. I went to Prattville Elementary. It was more than a year – I was first grade or second grade. Air Force stuff. We were in and out. I have very fond memories of the forest there. I’d walk around with my dad. I remember backyard barbecues, heading down to the coast – is it those white beaches? – we’d go down there in the summertime and it was great.
Broken Bells come to Iron City on Thursday, October 2. Doors open at 7 p.m., while the show begins at 8 p.m. Hamilton Leithauser opens. Tickets are still available for $31.