Hell’s Bells and disco balls
The Shins frontman James Mercer on how he and Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton came up with the second Broken Bells album, ‘After the Disco’, and their mutual love of the Bee Gees
James Mercer has had several identities over the years, but to call his latest endeavour a “side project” would be doing both him and it a disservice. As frontman, songwriter and sole remaining founder member of the The Shins (one of the finest indie-rock bands ever to roam the planet), Mercer’s talent for writing literate, intelligent pop songs has been rightly lauded. When he teamed up with producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, to form Broken Bells, it wasn’t so much a meeting of minds as an explosion of ingenuity. Side project? Ha!
Although Mercer and Burton have been acquaintances since 2004, it wasn’t until several years after their first meeting that the possibility of a collaboration was mooted.
“After [the 2007 Shins album] Wincing the Night Away and all the touring, I really felt like I needed a break from The Shins,” explains Mercer. “I wanted to stay creative, but do something different. I’d been talking to my manager about that part of it, and then I spoke to Brian about it – and Brian was also in a similar space, and wanted something new and different, and he had the idea of us forming a band . . . Well, that’s not quite true; we didn’t even know if we were going to form a band, or just do a record. He was very casual about it, but I had never really done anything like that; I hadn’t collaborated, writing-wise, in a long, long time. I hadn’t ever really worked with a producer in a full producer role, either, so I was kind of nervous. But we scheduled some time, and I went down to LA, and it really took off right away. Within a half-hour, we had the sketch of a song up on the board, and we were on our way.”
The pair’s self-titled debut proved a huge hit in 2010, even bagging a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album. After its success, and the fact that there were ideas left over from the initial sessions, Mercer says that it was a no-brainer to do a second album.
Like its predecessor, their new album, After the Disco, is the result of the two musicians working together in person at Burton’s Los Angeles studio; there were no song scraps or ideas being passed back and forth via email, or anything like it. Although it was recorded piecemeal over the course of 18 months, with sessions snatched whenever Mercer took time off from touring with The Shins, that method of writing entire songs together in the same room makes for an undeniably cohesive album. With Burton largely looking after the beats and production and Mercer on melody and lyrics duty, the writing process was a fluid one.