“I went in there and started riffing again, you know, just scatting stuff out. I had a falsetto a couple of times and Brian lit up. I figured out a lyric, then just started tracking. Once I did multiple tracks of it, that’s when I realised, ‘Oh my God, it sounds like the Bee Gees’”.
James Mercer (the Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) are two radically opposed personalities with two completely different ways of approaching music. But ever since they first worked together back in 2008, they’ve pressed on in secret, shared inspirations, jammed incessantly, and kept on uncovering affinities. It was only a matter of time before their Broken Bells collaboration finally transformed from super-group side-project into fully-fledged band.
A lot has changed since Broken Bells, their brilliant debut album. Released four years ago now, the songs contained within were all out-and-out, no-holds-barred pop: honeyed, melodic, rewarding. In their wake, they toured the world, wowed on the festival circuit, scored a top 10 Billboard placing, received a Grammy nomination, but then everything stopped. It was unclear whether the project had a future. In the mean time the pair headed back to their domestic lives and day-jobs. While Mercer had another child and put out the Shins’ fourth record, Port Of Morrow, Burton produced records for the likes of the Black Keys, Norah Jones and U2. Feeling “almost a little burnt out”, the artist-producer also took his first ever vacation, seven months spent idling away in New York “not doing anything at all”.
Fast-forward to 2014, and—brilliant news—the duo see Broken Bells as an on-going reality. So, they have been working on new material. In fact, they’re on the cusp of releasing their second album, After The Disco, and Mercer, on the phone from his home in Portland, Oregon, is currently talking about his skyscraping falsetto on comeback single “Holding On For Life”. It seems he’s feeling a little nostalgic. “It was quite a while ago that I actually first started using it, even back in my old band Flake “, he admits. “I was doing that once in a while, but that was in the 90s when it was totally uncool to do that, at least in the indie rock scene I was immersed in. But then when the Shins started, I don’t know what happened, but I guess I gained a bit of confidence and felt sort of rebellious. I remember the B-side to ‘New Slang’, which was one of the first things to come out for the Shins on a national level, that B-side was a completely falsettoed track. So, yeah, it’s been a while. I think Brian really gravitates towards it and really likes the energy it creates”.
But have they really made an album of disco songs? Are they really jumping on that post-Daft Punk, Chic-revival bandwagon? You could say the new album is a little deceptively titled; later on, a rather more frank Burton will insist, “come on, it’s obvious it’s not a disco record”. But Mercer isn’t so sure. “I mean, it’s the music I grew up on, at least partly”, he says when asked about the similarity of his melodies to those of the Bee Gees. ‘That was the stuff that was on the radio in my childhood. It’s good shit, you know, that’s the thing. The Bee Gees were great writers and great singers and all that. When you listen to that stuff you can just hear it and go, ‘yeah, I totally fucking understand why this was a massive success’. So basically, it’s always at the back of my mind somewhere; you always have a sense of that stuff.”
These prompts of the fertile subconscious intercept at every level. As it later transpires, lyrical improvisation sometimes plays a key role in their song-writing. Here, its fruit included the album title. “Oftentimes I’ll go into vocal booths and just sort of scat out some melodies to give us an idea of the possibilities, of where the song could go melodically”, explains Mercer in an expert tone. “During one of those, I said something that sounded like ‘After The Disco’ and it was me just sort of running through random phonetics. So, we had that, and both Brian and I kind of liked it. I think, in a way, it became a context after that and it seemed like an interesting idea, a theme. You know, the sort-of let-down feeling after something splendid has happened. That became a metaphor for after your youth, after all of that stuff. It just has that melancholy ring to it, which Brian and I for some reason perversely love”.
So much so, he claims, that this melancholy mood rears its ugly, but sweet-sounding, head throughout the entire album. It’s certainly a pessimistic listen. ‘To us”, he states, “that whole concept began to take on meaning”. An hour later, we follow up the theme on the phone to Burton, who is on a well-earned break from live show rehearsals in his California studio. Before we abandon all talk of genre, he reiterates in his trademark burr, “I think we maybe should have put a question mark or something after the title because people are focusing on the positive sound of disco music too much. It’s just not.”
Adding that introspection and love-relationships figure dominantly in the subject-matter, it soon becomes clear that Burton has taken on a much greater share of the lyric-writing duties this time around. Fuelled by his 7-month break and extensive production work, particularly on the Black Keys’ El Camino (“There are little things I picked up, here and there”), this burst of creativity was clearly inspired by an intricate network of influences, diverse periods of time and his slightly complicated personal life, which he’s unwilling to comment on. “I mean I’m always influenced by different things from people I work with and you wind up using them sometimes, but mostly it’s not. It’s just the way that I work all the time: I try different ideas, different patterns start to form, and then they change again. Working with, and observing the Black Keys on that record had a big influence.”
Speaking to him like this, you’re constantly reminded that Brian should be more of a creative artist, rather than a producer, even though he is most famous as the latter. “The way he thinks of himself and the way he thinks of his work is as an artist, as a writer and a musician,” Mercer expands. “He said he had tons of things he wanted to talk about, tons of ideas that he wanted to express. And I just facilitated his writing process, in a way.”