When BROKEN BELLS entered the picture in 2010, they seemingly became involved in the vortex that shuffled around indie, alternative, and hip hop. Names like Beach House and Vampire Weekend were raiding campus charts; James Blake and LCD Soundsystem were book-ending electronic’s reconstituted makeup; and even the unlikely trio of Kanye West/Gorillaz/Flying Lotus were staining spectral moments with a darker paintbrush. It was the perfect year for James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) to grasp the concept of “something has ended” and illustrate a new beginning. One that would start with the lyrical jabs of “The High Road” and “The Ghost Inside”, and eventually travel at warp speed to present their latest period piece, After The Disco (out February 4th).
Even with the groove-focused effort, a highly anticipated spring tour, and an admirable Coachella slot, the duo seem humbled by the highlights. But that’s not to say they’re not fixated on the task of delivering a record that hits both the heart and the feet. At it’s core, After The Disco is the work of two artistic collaborators who know how to take puzzling styles and feed them through grainy aesthetics that feel like an old friend (or in some cases, an old lover). With James Mercer taking in the pleasures of Portland, we chatted with the vocalist/guitarist and put the spotlight on Broken Bells’ chemistry, the pressure to be a contender, and why their latest effort feels like “new territory”.
Given the fact that both you and Brian have worked with different artists over the past few years, was it easy to rekindle your working relationship?
Yeah. I mean, it really just felt like there was hardly any time lost. We went back into the very same studio and I spent some nights in the same small guest quarters at his house so it was sort of like deja vu. It was almost like the whole Shins episode of my life didn’t even happen during those couple of years so it was a very easy transition.
Do you think you were able to challenge yourself with After The Disco?
Definitely. I think in a way Brian has a tendency to do a lot of things that I don’t normally do songwriting-wise so it’s always a bit of a challenge for me to approach different genres and so on. There are a few songs on the new record that are… I don’t know… sort of like old, blues-y sort of things and I’ve never really done any work on that kind of stuff. That was a challenge but it was also something that actually came pretty naturally.
I had the chance to speak with Portugal. The Man who worked with Brian on their last album and they said that he really pushed them and stated “it’s about the notes you don’t play”. Do you find you’re always learning something new when the two of you collaborate?
I think he’s always learning something new too. Like in a moment like that, the expression was probably something he realized in the moment while in the studio. He’s just a very smart guy and producing requires a lot of problem-solving. Like that’s why he’s in the chair, you know?
What influenced the two of you to write a record that’s more “lively and danceable”?
Well, I pushed pretty hard to have more dance-y and upbeat tempos on this album. I think because of the territory we had covered on the first record, so much of it was pretty downbeat and dark, and I know Brian can do so much upbeat stuff. Also, it’s something The Shins don’t really do much of – like the dance tracks and something that could be in a nightclub. I’m always eager to go somewhere I haven’t been. In this case, Brian has been there so it was a bit of a give and take with us (laughs) and we ended up in this sort of new territory that neither of us expected.
Which new song was the most difficult one to finish?
The song “Control” – we actually recorded it in a totally different style and we liked it but we didn’t quite feel like it was working. So we re-approached it and I came up with the guitar hook that’s at the beginning and that kind of sent it down into this whole other direction. I don’t even know what sort of genre it is but to me it almost sounds a little bit “surf-y” with the fuzz guitar and stuff. Like it almost sounded like an ’80s R&B song at first so we’ll release that version at some point. It was a pain because if you have to re-record an entire song then that means it’s been giving you trouble. As far as the easiest one goes… man, that’s tough. “Medicine” came to us pretty quickly as I can recall so that may have been the easiest. It’s one of my favourites too.
Did you learn anything about yourself while making the new album?
One of the things about this record is that Brian wrote a lot of the lyrics for this one. And I enjoyed sort of stepping back and allowing him to express these ideas that he had. He’s sort of in a very different time in his life as he’s single and dating and so on, and I’m married with kids. I don’t know… I guess I felt like it was kind of fun to not have that pressure on me to do a ton of lyrics right after I did that Shins’ record (laughs). And it was fun. It was fun to facilitate the process and not necessarily be leading it.
With your wife being a designer, does she influence any of your creative decisions?
Well, among other things, she’s a journalist as far as her schooling goes and that was her career when I first met her. But since she’s been involved with pattern designing and that kind of stuff. She does have an influence on me because when you live so close to someone and your relationship is so meshed into your lifestyle, they become a huge influence. She’s really great because since she’s a writer, she’s a terrific thesaurus so I’ll often go to her and say, “What’s that word? I’m trying to do this”. She’s been really helpful, especially lately as she’s been helping me write (laughs). At some point, I’m going to have to probably give her credit (laughs). She’s very humble about it all but she’s been a huge help to me.
Given the success you’ve had with albums like The Shins’ Port Of Morrow and singles like “Simple Song”, have you felt pressure to write songs that have the ability to be popular?
That’s interesting. I would have said no two years ago but looking back, I sometimes wonder if the decisions I made weren’t because of exactly that thing. It just seems to work in such a subliminal way, you know? It’s not derived from any one conversation and I don’t really read interviews or criticisms of my work so it’s hard to pinpoint it. But in some way it’s just sort of what happens to you when you work with successful people. With my management team, you’ve got Vampire Weekend and a lot of Jack White stuff, so you do sort of feel like you want to be a contender.
In a way, Port Of Morrow was an attempt to do something that would potentially be successful commercially. And maybe it was the first time that I really felt that need without even sort of realizing it at the time. Coming out of that experience now, I do feel released from it. I did my best and I don’t think I want go down that road any further.
You guys have been heavily rumoured for a number of festivals and mostly because audiences are excited to see you perform live. How do you hope to translate the outer space motif and the album’s themes to your upcoming tour?
Yeah (laughs). We’re going to have some sort of projection stuff, I know that. We’re working with an artist who’s helping us to try to sort something out but nothing is set yet. I’m hoping that we can do some pretty impressive stuff. We’ve recently seen some cool live shows with projections and they’ve definitely got us thinking about ideas.
Do you still have things you need to scratch off your bucket list?
In terms of things that I really want to do in life, there’s lots of stuff. I always think about what’s going to happen when things slow down and what I could accomplish if I wasn’t so busy. It would be really cool to take the whole family somewhere for the summer. I don’t know where but we have neighbours that go to the South of France all summer long. To do something like that would probably be a dream of mine. One day, who knows (laughs).