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Broken Bells: The Not-So-Odd Couple

by Mike Greenhaus on June 17, 2014
During Broken Bells' downtime between records, Mercer and Burton’s profiles continued to rise. Mercer released Port Of Morrow with a new incarnation of The Shins and wrote an original song for the opening sequence of Zach Braff ’s conceptual Garden State sequel, Wish I Was Here. Burton busied himself with production work for Electric Guest, Norah Jones and Portugal. The Man, and he set his eyes toward a second Gnarls Barkley record. Broken Bells reconvened in 2012 to start work on After The Disco, using the same engineers from the first Broken Bells album. At first, they made a conscious decision to use minimal instrumentation in an effort “to make two people sound really big,” though there were subtle differences this time around. Later on, they solicited help from numerous vocal and orchestral players, including the Angel City String Orchestra, and received some outside guidance from Shins keyboardist and Foxygen producer Richard Swift, whose current projects include Marco Benevento and Guster. “I think the first record, lyrically, was a pretty good split. On this record, Brian does a lot more lyrics than me,” Mercer says before volleying his answer to Burton.

“James just got done writing an entire album’s worth of lyrics [for Port Of Morrow] so I think I felt like I was helping him a little. Plus, I had a lot to say,” he admits.

They recorded most of the album during two sessions a few months apart and also dusted off an unused track from Broken Bells. Despite the project’s high expectations, the recording sessions functioned as something of a vacation for both men. Burton says that he was going through a tough time, relationship-wise—which contributes to the album’s darker lyrical themes—and enjoyed the escape of hanging out with Mercer. After touring with The Shins, Mercer used the trips to California as a vacation from his domestic life in Portland and the stress of leading a band on his own.

“Working in the studio was such a pleasure,” Mercer laughs. “I can eat junk food and there’s no real pressure because you know something good is gonna happen— we have that in-built confidence now.” While songs like “Holding on for Life,” “No Matter What You’re Told” and “Leave It Alone” could have fit on the first Broken Bells album, this record is faster and sadder than its predecessor, flirting with a style that Mercer calls “speed melancholy.” They also gained a newfound confidence while working on the album’s title track “After The Disco,” a number that starts off at a frantic pace but segues into a slower waltz. However, despite the album’s title and occasional percussive pulse, there aren’t really any disco songs on the record. “It’s just a phrase about a genre,” Mercer says before recounting a rock-and- roll tale about how David Bowie once told Brian Eno that Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was the future of music.

Mercer believes that their ability to mask the album’s sadder, darker themes with shiny technology and strong beats is a technique similar to the fantasy stories he has always loved. They also both point to The Smiths and The Cure as sonic inspirations. “That was the ideal thing—to make something that you could dance to and that can feel really good but still be melancholy,” Burton says. “The melancholy is still really what draws us to make music anyway. That’s just something we both have in common.”

At times, their partnership became so deep that they co-wrote certain lines together, and they actually are not sure who came up with certain song phrases. “Somebody came to me and was like, ‘That lyric right there— that was yours, right?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know. I think it might be Brian’s,’” Mercer says. “There’s some that I absolutely know are Brian’s, but then there are some that are wild cards.”

Burton interjects: “There are some lyrics which I am sure are James’ but I feel like they’re mine. They represent me and feel like me. We were really comfortable with the way we worked. It was easier for us. I’d play something on the piano and I’d look at James and I can tell whether he likes it or not.”

To the surprise of many Broken Bells fans who came to the project through Mercer’s guarded lyrical work with The Shins, Burton’s Gnarls Barkley partner CeeLo Green had a huge impact on After The Disco. “I didn’t write any lyrics for Gnarls Barkley, I just sat and watched and learned so much,” Burton admits. “There would be all this confusing music but then, this voice would cut through the whole thing and say some- thing in the middle of it. CeeLo is able to say something that sounds like it should be cliché but nobody has actually said it before. And it has a depth to it. I’m a fan of The Shins and James is one of my favorite lyricists—I like that sometimes you can only understand half of what he’s saying because the other half allows me to kind of make up my own interpretation. That is the risk when you’re very direct—you want to try to avoid something that is going to be too self- indulgent in any kind of way.”

Though they have grown into close friends during the past 10 years, Mercer and Burton are still visibly fans of each other’s discographies and listen intently to each other’s answers about their solo work. When Burton brings up The Shins leader’s seemingly veiled lyrics, Mercer is quick to set the record straight: “That’s frustrating for me because even when I was writing my early stuff, I was like, ‘Everyone’s gonna get this.’ I didn’t want to be too revealing about what my songs are about because then they won’t be interesting. It’s a complicated thing to learn the subtleties of that whole thing. You try not to be cliché, but you wanna say something universal.”

In addition to their offstage friendship, one of the reasons that Broken Bells has managed to stand apart from their primary projects is because both musicians bring a unique set of talents. Despite all of his accolades, Burton is not a lead singer, and Mercer enjoys the guidance of a producer who is used to working with career artists. “I really like the way Brian manages to keep a complex thought really simple,” Mercer admits. “There’s a lot that you can do with just sort of giving a picture, almost. So I took from that and I try and do more of that—for The Shins and for Broken Bells. I like being concise and relatively succinct but emotionally powerful. Being a producer is kind of like being the boss—you’ve got a lot of responsibilities.

“Dudes in bands who basically got taken from the pot-smoking, video game, couch lifestyle to playing festivals and having chicks actually give a shit about them have such a crazy transition. It’s so easy to go, ‘Well, let’s just fucking party our asses off for the next five years until there’s serious damage done.’ But what’s good about being a producer is that you’ve got to keep your shit together.”

“We both have strong personalities and opinions,” Burton admits. “I can be a very anxious person and at that time, I needed something like Broken Bells because [the creative process] can either make you more nervous or it can make you calm. It was very calming just how small we kept everything. We were trying to figure out what we were and what we looked like. We weren’t trying to put our faces on the album cover and as this was going on, our art person sent us back something that had to do with space. And we didn’t even tell him that we were talking about it; it just sort of happened. And I was listening to the record and it made the concept of the record completely change without even touching the music again. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is what this kind of is.’”

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