The Odd Couple: Broken Bells Interviewed
, January 22nd, 2010 07:50
Production wizard Danger Mouse and The Shins frontman James Mercer talk to Ben Hewitt about running away from bears, creative exhaustion and their new collaboration Broken Bells
“My parents have this miniature snowzer that developed diabetes and went blind,” says James Mercer, the man who's been making the world of shy indie outcasts a happier place for nearly 10 years with The Shins. “And I think I’d just gotten signed to Sub Pop so I didn’t have a job - I was about to move to Oregon - and I was living with them before I moved. So I took the dog for a walk up in the mountains, and put this little dog on the leash, and went out to the nature trial.”
He pauses and grins as Brian Burton - aka Danger Mouse, the twisted brain behind the Jay-Z and Beatles mash-up The Grey Album and pop behemoths Gnarls Barkley - looks on in amusement.
“And I heard this rustling,” he continues, “and it was bear season, when they start coming down out of the heights to forage for stuff. So I started kind of creeping up and I took the leash of the dog and put it over a stick. And I walked just a little bit further and a female black bear just stood up in front of me. It was huge, full grown. Way, way big. I was scared shitless. Then, at the same time, a cub went right up the tree.”
Danger Mouse, on the verge of laughter throughout the story, finally loses it. “Oh man,” he says, shaking his head.
“Right”, says Mercer. “So I went RARGH” - he stands up, arms held aloft in an intimidating pose - “which I’d been instructed to do. I had a pistol, because it was bear season, so I guess that would have been the last resort. I started backing up, and I was literally shaking because I was so terrified, but acting pissed at the same time. Then I was like ‘Misty’ - the name of the dog - ‘Misty, Misty, come here’. She’s freaking out because I’m screaming and yelling, and she has no idea what’s going on because she’s blind.
“Of course, the dog can’t get to me, because she’s tied to a stick, so I have to go back to get to the dog.” He shakes his head. “It was just the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced.”
When he’s not battling bears or rescuing visually-impaired canines, Mercer can usually be found fronting The Shins. But recently he’s not been doing that either. He and Danger Mouse are about to release Broken Bells, a record they began working on nearly two years ago.
“We first met at Roskilde Festival in 2004,” remembers Danger Mouse. “I was playing by myself, just Djing or something, and I came back the stage, both because I’d left something and also because I’d heard they were playing and I was a fan. So I saw them before they went on and I stayed at the side of the stage and watched them play.
“From there we went to hanging out and watching some other shows - we watched Morrissey I think - and then we went into Copenhagen. It was pretty good. I just remember it being completely daytime when we finished, and being at some kind of random train station. I was drunk as hell, trying to find my way out of there. I didn’t know where I was.”
So did you think, back then, that you’d end up sitting side-by-side today discussing a project you’d worked on together? Were you fans of each other’s work?
“I don’t think I had any work back then for them to be a fan of,” says Danger Mouse. “I think I only had The Grey Album.”
Mercer nods: “Yeah, we knew The Grey Album.”
Danger Mouse continues: “I was in the middle of doing Gnarls and I’d just started doing something with Gorillaz, but I had nothing really out there. But yeah, I was a fan of The Shins. I’d just gotten their second record.”
If Danger Mouse could stroll around Copenhagen’s night spots virtually undetected in 2004, he certainly couldn’t now. In the last six years he’s become increasingly ubiquitous, both for his work with Gnarls - their first album St. Elsewhere went Platinum three months after it was released in 2006 and the lead single ‘Crazy’ made history by becoming the first track to top the UK charts purely by download sales - and his production duties for acts including Gorillaz, The Rapture, Beck and The Good, The Bad & The Queen.
Meanwhile, while The Shins’ rise to prominence may not have been so meteoric, they’ve slowly carved out a niche for themselves as indie anti-heroes since the release of Oh, Inverted World in 2001. In 2003, their Chutes Too Narrow LP could only muster a chart placing of 86 in their native America. Four years later, Wincing The Night Away debuted at number two in the same chart, as well as a non-too-shabby number 16 place in the UK.
Yet despite their respective success, a feeling of restlessness inspired them to work together. From their initial meeting in 2004, Mercer and Danger Mouse began to run into each other on tour. As the latter began to work with more and more artists, the idea of a collaboration became increasingly appealing - not, as he says, to “mess it up”, but because he was “really into James’s vocals and melodies…I just thought it would be really interesting”. Their managers floated the idea of working together between them, and in 2008 they began working in Danger Mouse’s studio together. “At first it was just to see what would happen,” he recalls. “After half an hour we already had one song, and we had four or five finished tracks by the end of the week.”
Mercer, especially, felt like he needed a change in direction. “I think there was probably a lot of reasons [for wanting to do something different],” he says. “I think I had just been doing the same thing for so long and wanted to do something new. I was getting a little bit exhausted over having so much responsibility over the records and everything, so I wanted to collaborate and see what it was like to work with somebody on an equal footing.
“It puts you in a situation where all you have to do is come up with ideas and be creative.”
Whether his decision had anything to do with the band conflict that led to the departure of drummer Jesse Sandoval last year (Mercer claimed he had left for artistic differences; Sandoval contradicted him by claiming “I got fired. There’s no other way of looking at it”) is left unsaid, but it’s clear that Broken Bells is something he’s keen to distance from his day job. When asked how important it is to him that Broken Bells is seen and judged as its own entity, he replies: “Oh, yeah. Very. Because it is, you know? The whole process is different, the whole approach is different. I’m singing, and that’s the only relationship to The Shins. That’s it.”
You can still trace elements of The Shins in Broken Bells, though. There are differences, of course - new single ‘The High Road’ is a bluesy number with a spacey, woozy feel that would seem to owe a lot to the presence of Danger Mouse - but the melody still feels undoubtedly Shins like.
“There are probably elements that are similar”, agrees Mercer. “But it’s also probably different in that Brian wrote some of it, so it doesn’t all come from me. There are things that happen chord wise, and in the mathematics of song writing, that wouldn’t have come up if it was just me writing on the song.”
Danger Mouse concurs. “I don’t think anything I ever did was trying to sound deliberate from The Shins. I think there’s moments that sound like they could have come from The Shins, but that’s because James’ style and voice are very unique. And like James said, normally I would try something and come up with my own things musically, but knowing I was doing it with James I wasn’t so worried because I knew once we worked together it would sound completely different.
“A lot of times when I was doing Gnarls it would just be myself in the studio and I would send a bunch of stuff out to see what was good, what did Ceelo like. This time, I was there crafting it with James so if there was I part I was stuck on or wasn’t so sure about, or you know, he had an idea like ‘Maybe you should do it this way’…it was much more of a collaboration. And it was good to put a bunch of ideas out there and have someone you respect in the studio say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’.”
That’s interesting, because in 2007 you told the New York Times you see yourself as an “auteur” in the studio - that you like to have complete control over a musical project…
“I think that article…”, he pauses. “I know the one you’re talking about, it gets brought up a lot…it was definitely…some parts were right on but some were misinterpreted - not with any malice from the writer's point of view. I was asked a question about who in music I would compare myself to, and I was saying I compared it a little bit more to the way a film director works than to a musician. There’s an idea and a concept, but I’m not the one singing. On this record, there wasn’t anything premeditated about it at all. I just wanted to be in a band. Hopefully people don’t pay too much attention to what I’ve said or done in the past.”
So you obviously got a lot out of working with each other. What would you say the other’s three best qualities in the studio are?
Both laugh. Danger Mouse goes first. “He washes his hands a lot. We both wash our hands a lot actually. So good hygiene, that’s important.
“We both drink in the studio - at the end of the day.”
Not while you’re working?
“Sometimes while we’re working.”
So, clean hands and alcohol consumption. That’s two. One more?
“I don’t know,” he replies.
“I’m not going to answer that question,” interjects Mercer.
“That was basically my way of not answering that question,” laughs Danger Mouse. “I feel like I’m on a gameshow or something, like Newlyweds.”
It’s not the only question that is evaded in the interview. Although the two seem at ease and are happy to chat away about topics ranging from the history of British alternative rock band The La’s to the aforementioned encounter with the Black Bear, certain subjects are brushed away. Both are happy to give their favourite films by David Lynch, who was involved in the Dark Night of the Soul project engineered by Danger Mouse last year which featured contributions from Mercer, Sparklehorse and many more (Danger Mouse plumps for Mulholland Drive, Mercer for Lost Highway), but Danger Mouse refuses to discuss what working with the director was like, explaining: “I don’t really like to go into that kind of stuff”. Likewise, he chooses not to discuss the reasons for the long delay of the record by simply answering “I like to talk about each thing separately”. Mercer, meanwhile, is happy to talk about the subject of fatherhood after having two children since 2007 - it’s “given everything a new context” for him - but he chooses to divulge as little information about a new record from The Shins, although he does tell us “I’ll be writing songs and recording stuff probably later on in the year, but it won’t come out next year”.
But even with those dodged questions, it’s clear that both are extremely happy with Broken Bells; not just for the finished results, but for what it gave them in the creative process. If they both embarked on the project looking for something different - a break from their past endeavours or just the prospect of something fresh and uncomplicated - they seem to have found it. It’s not their words on Broken Bells itself that crystalises this, but a small moment near the end of the interview. Mercer talking about Some Days Are Better Than Others, a film he’s starring in which is released later this year. He plays “a sad sack sort of guy who can’t get a girlfriend - I think I’m basically playing myself 15 years ago”. I ask Danger Mouse if he’d be interested in pursuing a career in acting, too, and he says: “No. Not me, not me. Just the same way I wouldn’t want to sing either. I couldn’t do it…”
“You’re just not a show off," laughs Mercer.
“I always used to think that,” he laughs too. “Not in a negative way. But I think James has changed that a little bit for me.”