Since starting The Shins in the mid-’90s, James Mercer has conducted the majority of his songwriting in enclosed solitude. In fact, Mercer proved that The Shins are essentially a channel for his creations by recruiting an entirely new lineup to play on the band’s latest record Port Of Morrow. Thus it was most unexpected when he teamed up with super-hip producer Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) to form Broken Bells in 2009. However, this experiment with creative partnership didn’t upset Mercer’s songwriting flow, and Broken Bells return this week with their second LP, After The Disco. Ahead of its release, Mercer explains the perks of sharing responsibility with someone you respect.
“It’s Brian and me together working on these songs, so in a way I get to be more of a fan of the stuff,” he says. “It’s easy to collaborate and submit to the idea that you’re not going to be in charge of everything when you know that the other person has terrific taste and has succeeded in implementing that taste.”
Much like their self-titled debut,After The Discofinds Mercer and Burton stretching out into a variety of genres. For instance, the falsetto-heavy R&B of lead single ‘Holding On For Life’ sits alongside the acoustic grandeur of ‘Leave It Alone’ and the title track’s upbeat gleam. Mercer says the songs are largely products of experimentation.
“We just start with trying to put together anything that’s attractive. There’s no agenda and no real architecture that we’ve set up about, ‘What kind of record should this be?’ It’s just: try to figure out something that sounds cool and then build on it, make a song and then move on to the next one.”
Despite jumping in a number of stylistic directions, Broken Bells are noticeably more pop-focused than The Shins. The duo’s assertive tilt could be perceived as Burton adding a positive kick to Mercer’s customary introspection. “The easiest thing to think would be that I’m going to bring these Shins songs to the table and he’s going to modernise them or something,” Mercer says. “But it’s kind of the opposite. When I’m working with Brian I’m like, ‘Let’s do the shit that Brian really does well.’ Of course Brian is wanting to do something different, so we battle it out and find Broken Bells.”
Burton has a reputation for commandeering the studio environment, which might conflict with Mercer’s preference for having control over the songwriting. However, joining forces wasn’t a violent adjustment. “Maybe there were small moments when I had to let go of things, [but] once you resign yourself and you know that ‘this is a collaboration’, it wasn’t really difficult. It makes me look back and feel like a bit of an idiot for having it be so hard in the past,” says Mercer.
Lyrically,After The Discois centred around the ambiguities of human relationships. Although this sounds like Mercer’s bread and butter, the collaborative nature of Broken Bells extends to the lyrics also.
“A lot on this record has to do with Brian and the world that he lives in down there in LA, being a single guy and therefore searching for something,” Mercer explains. “I’m married so I just have a very different lifestyle. When you’re single there’s a huge element of your future that hasn’t been sorted out yet, like, ‘Who is this person going to be?’ It’s like a big flux. There’s a lot of talk about that type of stuff [on the album]; dealing with relationships and so on.”
After The Discois out Friday February 7 through Columbia/Sony.