As frontman and lead songwriter for modern indie legends The Shins, James Mercer had been steering the band’s musical mast for 10-plus years when, in 2009, he broke from the group to join Brian Burton—better known as Danger Mouse and one half of Gnarls Barkley—for a change of course. Already fans of each other’s music, the two knocked out several songs in the course of one week, calling the sonic chemistry Broken Bells and, soon after, releasing a self-titled debut that merged Burton’s signature off-kilter grooves and Mercer’s soft falsetto. Now set to release their second album, After the Disco, Mercer and Burton teased fans with a new single and two short films, Part One: The Angel And The Fool, and Part Two: Holding On For Life, that chronicle the story of two star-crossed lovers spawned by Burton’s own failures in love. We spoke with Mercer about having Burton take over songwriting duties, sailing away, and recording bird calls in the middle of the night.
AUX: A while back you had an interesting mock interview where you interviewed yourself, and for the most part the “interviewer” ignored your responses. Was that inspired by an actual journalist?
James Mercer: (Laughs) It was with a bit of satirical edge to it. I was really poking a bit of fun at the idea of someone interviewing you about music. No offense to you guys, of course.
No, that makes sense. Is it frustrating trying to explain your ideas when there wasn’t some grand scheme you had in mind?
I think for me there’s two ways to talk about [music]. There’s the proficient grant art writer student who can talk about music with the perfect vocabulary and make it [sound] articulate and really say nothing at all the whole fucking time, which to me is the most annoying way to talk about art. And then there’s this sort of stumbling over your words, totally inarticulate and don’t really get anything across either, way. You know?
It’s the most natural way.
But it is kind of frustrating.
Well, then I guess the real question is, if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what building would After the Disco resemble?
Was that not one of the questions?
It definitely is.
(Laughs.) What would After the Disco be? Lord. It would be sort of like a modern building that has classical notes to it. Maybe some mid-century sort of building. A public building from the mid-‘50s. I don’t know enough about architecture, but something like that I guess.
You approached the first album kind of with an intentional blank slate, but now you have a reference point. Did you just continue from where you left off?
We basically started from scratch. There was one song we worked on previously [from the first album] that we wanted to finish because we really liked it called “Medicine,” but the rest of it was just new stuff that we worked on. Once we got together again it felt very much the same. It was like getting on the bicycle and going.
Both your debut and this album both have a pretty similar succinct number of songs on them. Any special significance?
Brian and I both like shorter records for a number of reasons. I think as a listener there’s just something inherent in that half hour to 45 minutes that works with the modern world. To expect someone to sit down for an hour and a half and devote all of that time listening to pop song after pop song is just a bit much. Personally, I’m not into double records, it’s generally a bad idea.
Was there a theme going into this album?
It’s built a lot around personal experiences, mainly Brian’s. I had just written a whole record full of lyrics, but Brian had a lot of stuff he wanted to talk about. He’s a single guy, he’s dating and doing all that, so I think he had some stuff he wanted to get off his chest. We talked about the themes and the song ideas he had lyrically and we just started cranking away on it.
How does that work since he’s, as you said, this single dude and you’re married with two kids?
It works pretty well. I remember what it was like to be single, and we also talk a lot because we spend a lot of time together inside and outside the studio when I’m down there working with him. It’s not too hard to help him elaborate on things, but he really led the charge on a lot of the songs lyrically and it was kind of cool to not have to be totally responsible for that.
Brian said that the After the Disco short films revolved around the idea that we’re all looking for that one person or thing but if you depend on that you can ruin everything by settling or putting everything into that one thing.
Well, I think he’s in this situation where he wants to find somebody and he just hasn’t quite decided on what he needs and it’s hard because I’ve been out there. L.A. is a crazy place to even contemplate that stuff.
Was the idea of settling down or being unsure of what you want a fear of yours as well?
Yeah, definitely. There were a lot of relationships [I was involved in] and you’re like, am I just not giving enough to this relationship and that’s why it’s all fucked up or do I need to find somebody else? And there’s always that worry that you might commit to the wrong person which can be disastrous. Nobody wants to deal with that.
I think one of the standouts on the album is “Control.” How did that song come about?
It started out as a R&B song actually, but we started messing around with it and at some point I came up with that guitar hook that opens the song. After the guitar hook came in, Brian changed the whole production concept for it and it took on a sort of ‘60s vibe. I actually really liked the older version of the song that sounds like an ‘80s R&B type song, so we’re probably going to put it out as a B-side or something.
I’ve also heard that the early version of “Hold on for Life” sounds like an early ‘90s Dr. Dre song.
No, it just had that vibe. The initial thing you hear is kind of this science fiction sounding synth line, and and Brian [added] this ghetto whistle type of sound. So I suggested that we add modulation to it so it would sound a little bit more sci-fi and that changed the feel. But if you heard it without the modulation it would sound very much like a Dr. Dre [song].
You seem to be fond of using outside sounds and nature in your music.
On “Sailing To Nowhere” we did get the sounds of the docks, but we didn’t really do much of that on this album. We did do a lot of sound effects stuff, but mostly stuff we created in the studio.
I also ask because it seemed to be a signature of yours with The Shins, especially on Wincing the Night Away, where you used the sound of birds on “A Comet Appears,” and I remember hearing you actually brought out a mic in the middle of the morning to record them for the track.
Yeah, that was strange. I guess, especially with Shins stuff, there’s a point where you get so immersed in an album and in a project everything starts to take on meaning. I heard [novelist] Zadie Smith, who is this really articulate and smart woman, talking about the [same] concept and it was really interesting. She was saying there’s this magical thinking that can happen that I’ve rarely experienced but she seems to experience. Maybe because she’s so brilliant. But I think that was one of those moments where I was constantly hearing these warblers because I was working so late. Around 4:00 a.m they would start up and that was right about when I would start to get tired and I pretty much ended up recording it and putting it on that record.
Did any of the songs on this album take on weird or different meanings?
This record happened so quickly. I really thought we were going to spend another month on it working on everything but it was like, “Damn, we’re pretty much done.” So we ended up throwing up all the elaborate detail work at the end while mixing and stuff which was just really fun. Probably the most fun about making any record is mixing and embellishing everything.
There seems to be a real sense of ease when you talk about Broken Bells. Is it fair to say we’ll see another Broken Bells project soon?
I’m picturing another record, I just don’t know when. I don’t know if I’m going to do another Shins record next or what but yeah, there will definitely be more stuff after this, It’s just a question of what.
[magazine month=”February” year=”2014"]