If you were scanning the music landscape for the perfect combination of contemporary artists, James Mercer and Brian Joseph Burton probably wouldn't be your first choice.
Mercer is the frontman and creative force behind the Shins, whose indie rock leans toward jangly guitar pop. Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, is the musical force behind the rap-inclined Gnarls Barkley as well as The Grey Album, an electronic mashup of Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album.
So there was a certain WTF? when the two of them — who first met six years ago at a European rock festival — came together as Broken Bells, a project that brings out Mercer's experimental side and Danger Mouse's pop instincts.
Preceded by the eerily beautiful single, "The High Road" (and its no-less-memorable accompanying video), the eponymous debut album that Broken Bells released in March quickly reached the Billboard Top 10. Now, they're out on tour as a six-piece band — seven when their roadie Dave takes over the drum kit — with plans to go back in the studio together after the next Shins album is finished.
In the following interview, Mercer talks about being in a fully collaborative musical project, acting alongside Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein in the new film Some Days Are Better Than Others, and transitioning from confirmed slacker to dedicated family man.
Indy: You're used to running the show in the Shins. How different was it working with Brian one-on-one?
JM: It was pretty different, yeah. We'd both decided early on that if either of us didn't like something, then that was it. We wouldn't make a record where you sat there going, "Ah, I just really wish we didn't have that part." We both have a veto and as long as we don't abuse it, it's nice.
Indy: What did you get vetoed on?
JM: Probably a lot of things! But they're things that are just on the fly. Like, "How about this chord?" "No." And you just get over it pretty quickly. I think we both respect each other, and if he doesn't like it, then it's probably either bad or there's something else that could be better.
Indy: Did he bring things out in you musically that might not otherwise have occurred?
JM: Yeah, I think that I felt a lot more freedom to sing more emotively. We had a sense of the rulebook not being written on this.
Indy: On "The Ghost Inside," your vocal is pretty different. Was that a bit of a stretch for you?
JM: It's something that I do naturally, actually. But it's just something I had never used. I guess I never had the song to bring it out, you know?
Indy: How would you describe that song? 'Cause I've never been good at describing music myself.
JM: Really, it's not very different from a lot of Shins songs, if you think of the chorus. You know, it's in a minor key and it has certain resolves that go to major. But then there's the rhythmic aspect of it and the production that Brian brings, and those were actually Brian's chords.
Indy: Would you say the song has kind of an '80s soul feel?
JM: I think it absolutely does. It definitely has that '80s maybe white soul feel.
Indy: This record has more keyboards and electronics than you might naturally bring to it yourself. Did that influence your own approach?
JM: I suppose maybe it did. It did kind of induce this R&B spirit in me.
Indy: So who was your favorite '80s R&B artist? Anything cheesy?
JM: Oh, I love Hall & Oates.
Indy: Actually I do, too, but don't tell anybody, all right?
JM: I know. But it's crazy. A song will come on the radio and you're like, "What is that goddamn song?" And it's another Hall & Oates hit. Like, how many do they have, you know?
Indy: Did you ever see this as a touring project, or did you think of it as a studio thing initially? Has fatherhood changed your priorities about balancing life on the road versus domesticity?
JM: Yeah, it did change my priorities quite a bit. When we first started working on this, I remember talking to Brian and just being like, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could do this, and put out a record, and not tour?"
Indy: How'd that work out for you?
JM: I think what happens is, you start working with a label that really feels that part of your end of the deal is touring. But we also really feel invested in this record, and we want it to do as well as it can. And we know from experience that touring is a big part of that.
Indy: So these days, do you get more sleep at home or on the road?
JM: Oh my God, I'll probably end up getting more sleep on the road this time. Yeah, I've got a 9-month-old and a 3-year-old.
Indy: You're a movie star now?
JM: Right, you heard?
Indy: I did. Matt McCormick [who also directed videos for the Shins and Sleater-Kinney] said he created the character with you in mind. That the character essentially is you.
JM: Well, in reality, I think there's a lot of Matt in that character.
Indy: The movie's promo says it's a "sad valentine to the forgotten discards of a throwaway society." Have you ever felt like the forgotten discard of a throwaway society?
Indy: When was the last time?
JM: Well that aspect probably is realistic about how I felt before my career, I guess, started. I was working temp jobs. That was me for sure. I kind of thought I had it figured out. It was like, you don't need to spend that much money to eat or be happy. I just figured out how to buy stuff at the thrift store, you shoplift occasionally, you know, shit like that.
And the other thing was: Don't have kids, don't get married, don't do that stuff. Don't put yourself in a situation where you're gonna increase the responsibilities you have. It was a whole philosophy that my friends shared back then.
Indy: You were on Sub Pop for a long time [from 2000 to 2009]. Is this your first major-label experience, and if so, how does it meet your expectations, good or bad?
JM: It's a lot better than I was worried it would be. But Sub Pop sometimes uses a major label to put your record out overseas, and we had kind of a bad experience with that.
Indy: How so?
JM: What happened was, Sub Pop has sort of a deal, or at least a friendly relationship, with Warner Brothers in Japan. So instead of our first record coming out on a small independent label there, Warner Brothers Japan had the option to say whether or not they wanted to put it out. So, "We take the option, we own the Shins for this record." And then they decided not to put the record out.
And so now, no one could put the record out over there. And that record was huge for us, it totally changed our lives, it made us. So it taught us that when you deal with a major label, you can really be neglected, and abused basically. But that hasn't happened at all with Columbia.
Indy: So I assume enough water has passed under the bridge that you can listen to the song "Big in Japan" without crying?
JM: Yeah, just barely. I'm getting there. Therapy has helped a lot.