Why Broken Bells take great pleasure from their own work

Brian Burton, left, and James Mercer pose for a portrait in New York. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
Brian Burton, left, and James Mercer pose for a portrait in New York. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
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When James Mercer and Brian Burton announced their collaboration towards the end of 2009, they were already two of the most-respected names in music.

Mercer was the brains behind New Mexico’s indie-pop heroes The Shins. While not household names, they were, in no small part thanks to Natalie Portman’s character’s endorsement in 2004 film Garden State, the favourite band of a certain type of sensitive music fan.

Burton, meanwhile, was one half of Gnarls Barkley with CeeLo Green, a world-renowned DJ largely thanks to his Grey Album - a mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album - and producer, with albums by the likes of Gorillaz, Beck and The Black Keys on his CV.

Their coming together as Broken Bells was always going to be interesting, and their self-titled debut was certainly that. A string of festival appearances and a world tour duly followed, although a year later they’d both returned to their day jobs. The Shins released their fourth album, Port Of Morrow, Burton got to work on U2’s forthcoming album (on which he remains tight-lipped today) and, for a time, it looked like a second Broken Bells offering would have to wait.

“We knew about halfway through making the first album that we wanted to carry on working together,” says Burton. “We didn’t know there’d be another album as such, just that we’d do something again sometime.”

Somehow, they found time to write and record After The Disco, due for release in early February. Current single Holding On For Life perfectly sets the scene for its arrival, with Mercer’s unmistakable voice crooning a melancholic melody over Eighties synths and a thick beat you might find on a Dr Dre record.

There’s also a chorus which, if you squint, could easily be the Bee Gees at their harmonious best. Given the allusion to disco in the album’s title, that connection makes sense, even if it was accidental.

“The disco in the title is more in the sense of a disco as a nightclub, rather than disco music, so we were naive for thinking people wouldn’t make that connection,” says Burton. “Then there’s those Bee Gees harmonies. But we didn’t plan any of it, honest.”

While many will be eagerly awaiting their second album, it’d be difficult to find bigger Broken Bells fans than the duo themselves.

As the sole creative force behind The Shins, Mercer, hamstrung by embarrassment, says he doesn’t feel comfortable expressing what he really thinks of his music. When it comes to Broken Bells, though, he feels free to say exactly how proud he is.

“It’s not all me, so I can be a fan again,” he explains. “It doesn’t feel too close to the bone. Above all, the thing I like most about working with Brian is that it allows me to do the thing I’m best at; to hear chords and to come up with melodies that match it, or accentuate what I find interesting.

“I get to indulge myself in a way I can’t on my own so, more than anything, it’s fun,” he adds. “Working on my own can be frustrating, but with Brian, I seem to avoid all that and get straight to the good stuff.”

Burton is equally full of praise for their work. After all, the reason he and Mercer met, back in 2004 at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival, was because he was a fan of The Shins, and sought out Mercer backstage to tell him that. As the story goes, when he eventually found his way to the band’s dressing room, Mercer was listening to Burton’s Grey Album.

“Brian smiled when he realised what I was listening to,” recalls Mercer, “but it was everywhere he went for that year. I don’t know many people who weren’t always listening to The Grey Album.”

Like its predecessor, After The Disco was recorded in Burton’s Mondo Studio in LA. Mercer left his Portland, Oregon, home to move into his musical partner’s spare room for a week at a time while they were recording. “It was great. We’d go out for breakfast, work all day, have dinner in the evening, sleep, and do it all over again. It was a lot of fun,” says Mercer. “This time was even better than the first, because we were able to communicate and be honest with each other about what we did and didn’t like.

“When you first work with someone, you have to be that bit more polite, but now we’re not offended when someone’s critical. It’s all the more efficient.”

Thematically, the album has one significant idea at its core; the notion of being comfortable with your life not working out as you’d planned. At 43, Mercer has seven years, a wife and two daughters on his bachelor bandmate.

“We’ve become very close friends and we have a lot of similarities, but we’re very different too,” says Burton. “James helps me talk through a lot of stuff, and this record is really personal for both of us in different ways. Because we’ve spent so much time together and know each other so well, it makes it a lot easier to write lyrics.”

“Brian’s at a different stage of his life to me,” continues Mercer. “He’s yet to find that someone, the person he’s nuts about and wants to marry. He’s a successful single guy, out there looking, and has certain attitudes to relationships that I don’t have anymore, so I suppose a lot of what I do is temper what he’s thinking.”

Talk then turns to the future, and what comes next for the pair.

Mercer says last time he toured as Broken Bells he had a load of ideas that became the next Shins album, while Burton - reading between the lines of his refusal to speak about his work with U2 and the fact that the Irish giants are yet to announce their 13th album - possibly has a little finishing up to do with them. He also wants to step away from producing other artists, but keeps being sucked back by requests he just can’t turn down.

There will, almost certainly, be more from Broken Bells, as it becomes less of a side project for them both.

“Broken Bells takes precedence over everything else,” concludes Burton. “It’s the most dear thing to me, definitely my favourite thing I can put all my creative energy into. It feels like home.”