Broken Bells talk new album, psychedelics and Bee Gees
The band Broken Bells is the guilty pleasure of super producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse (one-half of Gnarls Barkley), and James Mercer, lead singer of avant-garde indie four-piece The Shins. Ironically, the Bells is where Mercer and Burton go for their R&R away from the industry. But rather than coming back with flawless skin, they have produced an experimental collection of genre-busting tracks. “The record reflects the hangover or comedown after the party,” says Danger Mouse of their second album “After the Disco,” due out Jan. 14. Metro sits down with the duo in an East London hotel to chat about the bizarre Bee Gees sound, psychedelic experiences and why the band is a pressure-free passion.
How long did it take you to put this record together?
Brian Burton: Overall, this record took eight weeks.
James Mercer: It’s crazy, man. Halfway through I was thinking “It’s kind of done.” We had a record – I was shocked.
Burton: It makes me want to go back and do it again, to be honest. The hardest thing is the ending – doing the lyrics is the real f—ing hard shit. It’s a real difficult thing being literal about things.
James, you said in an interview: “We need to do another record, for sure. It’s fun. I think [Danger Mouse] enjoys it, too. It’s like a vacation – although I don’t want my wife to know that!” Does it feel like an affair of sorts?
Mercer: [Laughs] Like a musical affair or something – you get to run off. The thing that’s cool about it is that we share the burden of all the creative parts. There’s nowhere near the pressure that I feel doing something like The Shins or like Brian would feel doing a record on his own. It feels like I’m not working; it’s not this laborious tedious thing, so you do sort of feel guilty in a way [laughs].
You’re both independently successful, so is this partnership more about the music (a kind of vanity project) than about commercial success?
Burton: We genuinely want to make the best shit we can possibly make – there is ambition involved. We want to do something that’s new and different and that could be really successful. I want this to be the most successful thing that I’ve been a part of. It just happens to be something that’s not as torturous.
I’m not the only one to point out that there’s a bit of a Bee Gees feel to the latest release. Were they an influence?
Mercer: It is kind of coincidental. We saw it too. I was in the vocal booth just tracking and doing a falsetto and that’s what came out. I was doing track after track when I came into the control room and heard it played back with all those layers – that’s the Bee Gees and that’s how they did it.
Will you be getting the tight white suits out?
Mercer: [Laughs] I need a feathered wig. I can’t grow the hair.
You’re singing in falsetto, so maybe the Bee Gees were onto something with the tight trousers.
Mercer: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s hard for me to do. It’s a bit of worry, actually. Will I be able to do that every night? The thing about playing live is you do get better at it, as long as you don’t get a cold.
Burton: It seems to come naturally.
But Bee Gee jokes aside, their music was hardly as complex. I found the first Broken Bells album got deeper after each repeated listen – such rich production. Brian, do you hide easter eggs in albums to reward loyal listeners?
Burton: I definitely don’t intend for that to be the case. I’d much rather everybody heard everything right of the jump. Maybe I’m better at editing other people than I am myself – maybe there are too many ideas.
“Holding On For Life” is a deep-sounding track title. Are you singing about a deep-seated depression or are you just reaching that time of life?
Mercer: What I picture in my mind is someone lonely holding out for love and life – the desperation.
Burton: There’s a lot about our girls and that one was a little more literal. The loneliness, desolation thing is a theme throughout the record.
The video is kind of psychedelic and a bit trippy. Were you drinking mushroom tea at the time of making the video?
Mercer: [Laughs] We love psychedelic music and I’m not sure whether it’s because I’ve taken psychedelic drugs or not. Maybe it’s just coincidental.
Burton: Psychedelic music is just experimental with melodies. It hooks you in with things you can repeat or sing.
Is this a concerted effort to make Broken Bells more of a big deal?
Mercer: We want to have a bigger sort of show. We want to have something impressive happening and we’ll see how it works. It’ll depend on whether people are loving the record and how big the record gets dictates how much we’re willing to put in.