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Broken Bells: The Not-So-Odd Couple

by Mike Greenhaus on June 17, 2014

It is a slushy day during the polar vortex’s grip over New York City and Shins frontman James Mercer and noted producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton have gathered at a restaurant on the first floor of The Nolitan Hotel. The swanky space is located on the edge of the city’s Lower East Side, a few blocks from the labyrinth of clubs and bars that helped reboot indie rock in the early ‘00s—and have continued to trend as the hipster movement has slowly meshed with high society culture.

Portland, Ore.-based Mercer is in town to meet with Burton—who keeps addresses in both Los Angeles and New York—to promote their second full-length collaboration as Broken Bells. Thanks to the successes of their primary projects and their self-titled 2010 Broken Bells debut, Mercer and Burton have crafted fully recognizable identities and those personalities are on full display at the Nolitan. The well kempt, but more reserved and reflective, Mercer—wearing a tightly fitting button-down shirt that’s tucked into his jeans—sports a trim, dad- rock haircut and beard, while nursing a glass of red wine. The fro-clad, verbose and expressive Burton—who is decked out in a vintage-looking brown jacket and matching dress pants, like he just walked out of wardrobe on an Italian New Wave film—is sipping something a little stiffer. They are nearing the end of a long press day and between questions about Broken Bells’ forthcoming album After The Disco, the longtime friends have a not-so-secret agenda to prove that, despite the differences in their résumés, they are not a musical odd couple.

“People think that we’re some kind of weird duo, but it’s not true,” Burton says almost immediately. “We actually have a lot in common as people. We had similar interests growing up, and we gravitate toward similar things even if we externalize them differently. We have way more things that we like that are the same than are different so that really helps.”

Burton, a single, 36-year-old hip-hop and indie rock producer with a soft spot for Spaghetti Western soundtracks and vintage, analog synths, has left his fingerprints on albums by The Black Keys, Beck and recently, U2. As both a producer and musician, he is also something of a serial collaborator who helped guide all-star projects such as Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, Rome, Dark Night of the Soul and Gnarls Barkley, his chart-topping duo with CeeLo Green. In a separate but equal world, the married, 43-year-old Mercer has aged into one of indie pop’s most respected and reliable voices, thanks to his genre-defining albums with The Shins. After a few of his songs received prime placement in movies early on, he also ventured deeper into the film world by acting in Some Days Are Better Than Others and collaborating with Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock on music for director Chris Malloy’s 180° South. However, despite those impressive credits and uber- cool setting, their conversation veers toward geeky pretty quickly.

“I love situations in Star Trek that are set on some planet far away and basically there are just these hippies everywhere,” Mercer says with a laugh. “There’s something so fascinating to me about that—when you look back and see what they were thinking. It says so much about the culture at the time and reveals a lot about us now.”

“It is the idea of things you can’t predict and you never will, but it reminds you of having a big imagination because every year, you get older and you lose that imagination,” Burton adds, finishing his bandmate’s thought in a way that is reminiscent of their creative process. “We weren’t into the same science fiction, but it was a big thing for both of us growing up. James knows more about older science fiction magazines, but I was a comic book kid myself. It was another lucky coincidence.”

That mutual fascination helped fuel the misleadingly titled but still danceable After The Disco, and those ideals have helped steer the album’s lyrical direction, overall vibe and Broken Bells’ ethos. “I’m interested in the idea of what people in the past would’ve thought songs would sound like in the future,” Mercer muses, while stroking his facial stubble. “That lent itself to me on the first record— the idea that there was a folk song under this glitched shit.”

“That’s because it is the future—just two people go in a room and make something that sounds so big,” Burton riffs off Mercer’s comments.

In a very direct way, Mercer and Burton’s shared childhood interests also laid the groundwork for After The Disco’s rollout, which included a series of short sci-fi films set to the album’s songs and starring House Of Cards’ Kate Mara and Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin. Burton says his current obsession with space dates back to a bonding trip that he took with Mercer to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Observatory when they were finishing the first Broken Bells record. “There was a video where this guy was talking about all these numbers and about how small we are,” Burton says, still in awe. “He presented how many hundreds of millions of stars there are just in our own galaxy and how many tens of thousands of galaxies there are. It was almost comforting.”

For his part, Mercer is quick to reference Ray Bradbury’s 1951 sci-fi collection The Illustrated Man, which takes on the lofty goal of exploring the nature of mankind. “You get all these different stories that are all told in the future or the past but they’re all told in this interesting context,” he says. “I remember thinking that just because it’s sci-fi doesn’t mean you can tell any story you want. It’s still very human—this combination of nostalgia and the thrill of futurism.” “I don’t have any desire to go and try to record an album the old, hard way,” Burton says, brushing off any preconceived notions about how After The Disco’s sound relates to its title. “I’d rather just try to find something new, even if it’s just something that has to do with new technology. There are no disco songs on the record; it was not meant to be a genre description. It’s just a phrase.”

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