The Shins’ lead singer, James Mercer has had a pretty successful career. But that didn’t stop him from feeling nervous around Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, a.k.a. one-half of Gnarls Barkely and Mercer’s new bandmate in Broken Bells.
“I had this worry about whether I was good enough,” says the Grammy-nominated singer from his home in Portland. “Who can sing as well as Cee-Lo (the other half of Gnarls Barkley)? He’s the best.”
It didn’t help that playing with Burton marked the first time in years that Mercer collaborated with someone other than his Shins bandmates in a serious way.
“There were moments where I was like, ‘I’m in another band.’ It’s the first time I had done that — I’ve been playing with the same people since 1992.”
But Burton is the king of collaboration — besides playing with Cee-Lo, he’s worked with MF DOOM, Beck, Sparklehorse The Black Keys, Gorillaz and the list goes on. Danger Mouse’s long resume helped put the nervous singer at ease. “Brian just sees playing with me as a different style,” he says. “And he loves what I do with The Shins so he knew what I was about.”
The way this album was made was also a new experience for Mercer. In The Shins, he writes all the songs himself (“It’s partly the M.O. of The Shins that it would be my thing,” he says). With Broken Bells he and Burton wrote the songs in the studio — Mercer didn’t even have any music to show him beforehand.
It’s hard to tell whether or not the in-studio collaboration was the ideal way to make this record. Burton and Mercer have two distinct styles — the former is an expert at crafting groove-heavy beats, the latter is all about bright indie pop — and both show up here, perhaps a little too often.
But what they both do well is craft catchy songs, and this record is full of them. The best tracks include the sombre-sounding Citizen and the weird, almost waltz-like Sailing to Nowhere, where Broken Bells sounds like an actual band and not two talented guys from other acts playing together.
Mercer says he didn’t think too much about avoiding The Shins sound. He left that up to Burton. “I’m not that advanced to be thinking about it,” he says. “Brian has a much broader view of production, so he probably was thinking about it.”
There’s no question that the twosome’s debut is a solid pop disc, but the more they play together the better they’ll sound on their next effort. And, there will be a next record, as long as Burton’s got room in his schedule to write one.
“I would definitely do another record,” says Mercer, adding that writing a new Shins album is next on his to-do list. “But it depends on Brian. He does all kinds of things. Who knows, he might be writing novels and will have to say no.”