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Broken Bells: The Not-So-Odd Couple

by Mike Greenhaus on June 17, 2014

Besides proving that they are not a so-called odd couple, if Broken Bells has another agenda, then it is to show that they are not a short-term side project. It is evident from their fraternal banter that they enjoy each other’s company and Broken Bells’ duo format allows both musicians to access a different part of their musical personalities. For Burton, it affords him the opportunity to play in a rock band that he continues to steer outside the studio (which is also a reason that he recorded the album under his own name instead of the Danger Mouse handle).

“Broken Bells is a different way for me to express myself. It is a band and my most creative outlet. It’s just really lucky because it’s still within its own boundaries and James defines what those boundaries are,” Burton says of his varied career. “I feel like I can pour a bunch of ideas into this and because James has really high standards and his own tastes, anything that’s kept is gonna be the best stuff we did. So there’s a confidence that comes along with knowing that I can do that.”

Though The Shins are technically a band, in many ways, the group has always been a nom de plume for Mercer, who remains the group’s only consistent member. In that sense, Broken Bells has given him the chance to craft a canon of songs with a distinct creative partner. Their process influenced his recent work with The Shins.

“Lyrically I wanted to get a little bit more direct, but do it in that way where it doesn’t sound too heavy-handed,” Mercer says. “I also really like the way that Brian works in the studio—the way we write together. I kind of failed to implement most of that in my stuff. But nevertheless, it was inspiring. It still is. There’s a certain casual nature when Brian goes into a project. He’s just like, ‘Start working,’ like we’re digging a hole. It’s sort of nice to go into it like that though, like, ‘Don’t worry—we’re going to sort it out.’”

Mercer credits much of his long-term success with being something of a late bloomer. In fact, he didn’t achieve fame until he was already in his 30s. “I was a punk when I was in my 20s, so I don’t know how I would’ve handled it,” he says. “I think that it would’ve been hard for me to survive all the craziness that comes along with even moderate success. Early on, we had some great moments, but it seems like, for a couple of my bandmates, it turned pretty dark pretty quickly. I was a little older than them, and I think that’s why I didn’t have such a hard time.”

Burton scored his initial buzz in his 20s, but his own self-admitted anxiety has kept him guessing about his career. For him, collaborating with so many talented artists is, in certain ways, a safety blanket. His work with Mercer is not simply an opportunity to blow off steam but also a chance to bring a musician he admires to a different audience.

“The minute you get any extras and somebody gives you something for doing something that you really like to do, you almost feel like you’re cheating,” Burton admits. “I’ve been able to use any success to associate myself with people who I thought really were already great. Since I had those opportunities, it made total sense that my projects have been successful because I’m working with people who I already think are great anyway. If you surround yourself with great people, you feel stronger. That’s why you do it. It’s the association—it’s the people I’m around.”

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