James Mercer is the driving force behind The Shins, America’s premier league indie stars. In Broken Bells, he is paired with Brian Burton - you may know him better as Danger Mouse - producer extraordinaire, and one half of genre-busting Gnarls Barkley. Together, their strengths are united in Broken Bells’ melodic and sparkling reverie.
Their first album together is the product of sessions based completely on spontaneity - relying on each other’s instincts to provide the direction for each song. The results - like the lazy, trippy lead single ‘The High Road’, the funky electro falsetto of ‘The Ghost Inside’, or the taut robotic ‘Mongrel Heart - combine the finest moments of both auteurs, yet manages to sound like neither of them at once.
Clash caught up with the duo in their West London label offices, the morning after their night out with friends Modest Mouse. Cue plenty of water and coffee...
How long have you known each other?
James: About five and a half, almost six years.
Was it just a friendship first or did it start as a musical collaboration?
James: We were just acquaintances. I was a fan of what he was doing and...
Brian: Yeah, I was a big fan of The Shins, so I was always listening to his stuff. We’d see each other on tour and things like that, but it only turned into a more musical thing in 2008.
Was there something you had in common, or were you more interested in what the other person was doing?
Brian: I wanted to work with him as a singer and songwriter, myself. I thought we could do something really different and cool with it - I didn’t know what exactly, but there was an appeal for me to do that. It was just timing - the timing was really right to do something different. I didn’t want to just produce a record or anything like that; I wanted to kinda jump in and write with somebody and make something new and different, and maybe even turn into a band of some kind, and that’s what we did.
Did you have a plan of what you wanted to do once you got together?
James: There was no plan really. I remember you kinda talking about it like, ‘We’ll just get in there, get on an instrument, and see what happens’. And that’s what we did, and it just took off.
Where were you recording?
Brian: We recorded it in Los Angeles in my studio the whole time. He would just come down and stay with me and we would go in every day like a nine to five kind of thing, just go in and write and record at the same time.
It must give you freedom when working in your own studio?
Brian: It’s great, yeah. And we didn’t tell anybody about it either, when we were doing it, so there was no pressure.
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Did your working relationship start easily or was it something you had to work at?
Brian: Yeah, it was very easy. Right at the beginning, we had an outline, the rough song, within an hour or two the first day we went in. So, it was pretty cool. It was like, ‘This works!’ And by the end of the week we had about four or five songs.
Does it always happen like that when you’re working with someone?
Brian: Not always, no. Definitely not like this. This definitely was probably the most fun album I’ve ever made. Well, not probably; it definitely was. I’ve had fun making a lot of albums, you know, but this was definitely the most enjoyable for myself.
How were the duties split between you in the studio?
James: Everything was written there on the spot. We didn’t have any rules as to who would play what instrument. It definitely turned into Brian playing the drums a lot and keyboard stuff, which he’s real good at. I would be like guitars and singing.
Were there any instrumental areas that you thought you might be lacking in as a duo, and how did you cover that?
James: Yeah, sure, but then there are also some things where we both surprised ourselves: ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool!’ (Laughs)
Brian: Yeah, you do a lot of searching and you find the good stuff. You don’t have to worry about the bad stuff, the bad stuff doesn’t wind up on the record. I’ll sit there on a keyboard for twenty minutes, and if I get one good thing, it was worth doing. Same thing on the drums or whatever, I’ll just try and find something. It’s just that search. It’s not how consistent you can be, it’s just finding the really good moments.
James: I’ve got a friend who’s a really, really proficient piano player, and he sometimes feel that in a way it limits him, because he has a huge library of shit he can do, and so he just kinda refers to it all the time. He just goes, ‘Okay, I could do that thing’, instead of being forced to come up with something new.
Does the future of Broken Bells depend on the success of this album, or is this something that might continue regardless?
James: Oh yeah, I think we’ll definitely keep doing this. We’ve already got a lot of stuff for the next thing. It’s just really enjoyable working with Brian.
Brian: It’s exciting to think about what else we could do given the time that it took for us to do this. Hopefully all the promo and touring won’t hold back more music - I think creating the music is always the most fun part. It is necessary to do these things to let people know that it’s there, but I think it’s a lot more fun [making the music].
Is this something that you would recommend to your musician friends; to strike out and do something different?
Brian: I guess so.
James: If you were in the position that we were in. I needed something new and I was really looking for that.
Brian: I’m glad it happened when it did. It couldn’t really have happened much earlier - I don’t think it would have worked out as well.
James: Yeah, if I was still trying to get my own project going, it probably wouldn’t have been the best time. But the timing really, really worked well for us.
Words by Simon Harper
Photos by Champ Ruthwood
Big Chill Festival 2010
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