Broken Bells: The Not-So-Odd Couple
2014 marks the 10th anniversary of both Danger Mouse’s and The Shins’ commercial breakthroughs, as well as the initial meeting that laid the groundwork for Broken Bells’ formation. In February 2004, Danger Mouse dropped The Grey Album, a genre-blending mash-up of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ “The White Album” that almost immediately turned him into one of his generation’s most talked about producers. Meanwhile, The Shins catapulted from New Mexico-bred cult heroes to a “band that will change your life,” thanks to their prominent placement in Garden State and their sophomore album Chutes Too Narrow, which was released in late-2003. By chance, Mercer and Burton met at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in July 2004, and their friendship blossomed from there.
“We had heard of Danger Mouse because of The Grey Album, like everybody else, and we were all blown away by that,” Mercer says.
“And I had recently heard their second album,” Burton adds. “We were both at the same festival but on different dates. So I came back to watch them the day after I played, and we wound up just meeting and hanging out and became acquaintances after that.”
At the time, Burton and Mercer were in vastly different places in their lives and professional careers. “Chutes Too Narrow was a pretty painful process for me,” Mercer reminisces. “I ended up losing a band member and then, I was under a lot of pressure to get the album done right away. So I ended up going into a studio with someone who was more of a producer to help me mix it for the first time. It was really good to get to know [producer] Phil Ek, but that record was made under duress, and so it was very stressful—the worst stress I’d ever been under. That was an eye-opening thing.”
Burton was in the midst of his own personal awakening. “I was 26 and super excited about the way things were going before The Grey Album happened,” he says. “I wasn’t making any money or anything, but I felt like I was on my way to being a legitimate thing. Every day was something different—I remember Suzanne Vega emailed me before I got sued [for the album] and I couldn’t believe the real Suzanne Vega would email me.”
Mercer and Burton crossed paths during the next few years, often at radio-sponsored concerts, and both floated the idea of working on a project together in the studio. “I didn’t know if I was going to maybe work with The Shins but I just wanted to work with James in some kind of way,” Burton says. “So we said, ‘Let’s go in the studio and try something.’ And from day one, it worked. We sat down together and made our first song, and every day after that, we started making what wound up being Broken Bells. So we just kind of made it a duo—a band.” (They also tested the collaborative waters when Mercer recorded with Burton and Sparklehorse on a track off their all-star release Dark Night of the Soul.)
Though Burton served as the record’s producer and Mercer tackled many of the album’s lead vocals, from the start, they strove to make Broken Bells an equal partnership that took the pair out of their traditional roles. And while key numbers like the haunting “The High Road” and “The Ghost Inside” found Mercer’s trademark dreamy and vulnerable voice gliding over Burton’s classic neo-soul beats and psychedelic soundscapes, the collaboration felt more like a new genetic synthesis than a traditional supergroup. Mercer and Burton split writing duties, jammed with funky keyboards and took Broken Bells on a lengthy tour that married their audiences. Then, they went their separate ways for a while.
“I work on my own all the time, and I usually get frustrated and I’m really glad nobody else can see how terrible the stuff I’m doing is,” Burton admits before asking Mercer rhetorically, “How many times have we pulled ourselves out of something where we’re frustrated? Together, we can do it. So it takes a lot of the pressure off it.”
Mercer agrees: “As any relationship goes, when you first meet somebody, you feel totally inhibited about being perfectly honest about every little thing that’s popping in and out of your head. But now, we trust each other. We’re not worried about someone getting offended or anything.”