There’s soon to be a new album from Broken Bells — the duo of James Mercer (The Shins) and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) — and you’re about to find out how it all came together.
Let me set the scene for what you’re about to read (or hear): I was sitting with Robin Hilton of All Songs Considered in Washington, D.C., Burton was in a studio at NPR West in Culver City, Calif, and Mercer joined us from Portland, Ore. I started out our chat by playing “Perfect World,” the opening cut from Broken Bells’ new record, After the Disco, which will be released in January. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
James Mercer: Was [“Perfect World”] the one that we actually took some inspiration from [composer] Jan Hammer?
Robin Hilton: I was gonna say, it sounds like you broke out the Yamaha DX-7 for this one, out of ‘84 or something.
Brian Burton: This was recorded, I wanna say, maybe halfway through the album. I’m trying to remember how it came about. I think I was just doing some arpeggiated synthesizer things, and then we probably came up with the chord progression ourselves, and then just started putting instruments to it. And that hook came somewhere along the line. … I remember when it did happen, though, that it felt like, okay, well, there’s like a shamelessness to it, with the keyboard sound and the real, over-the-top melody. It was like, “So what, man?” We grew up listening to things that were big, but they were sad, too. So, it was like, well, we can be big as long as it’s as sad as [our music gets]. It’s just there. So we didn’t really dial it back too much.
Hilton: So who were you listening to? Who were you thinking of?
Mercer: A lot of it comes from the sound of the equipment. It just harkens back to those dramatic, synth-based songs, maybe from the ‘80s.
Hilton: That really was a question of production with those songs, because there are some that I’ve heard since then that are stripped back, or maybe done acoustic, and you hear them in a completely different light. But yeah, it’s totally a production.
Bob Boilen: Flock of Seagulls, maybe?
Hilton: I was thinking The Cure.
Burton: The one thing that I remember was that, there’s two parts to this song. And I think at that point, we had already done the song “After the Disco,” and we had been thinking about it, I think. So we had two ways of presenting the song. And instead of picking one, we did both. So, it starts out in one way, and then the second half of the song is heavier and half-time, and more of a downer in a way. But that went with the whole “After the Disco” thing. There’s the party and then there’s the thing that happens the next day. So, that song had both. It had the faster thing, and then it went to the morning after within the same song.
Hilton: There a lot of great changes in these songs. I feel like there are three or four songs in one song. Is that a product of one of you handing it off to the other? I don’t mean in separate rooms. I mean collaborating on the writing process of it.
Mercer: I think we come up with a lot of production ideas and then change our minds halfway through, but we still love the original idea, so we sometimes tag it on at the end, Brian?
Burton: Yeah, and the other thing that happens is, a lot of times, if there’s a basis for an idea that we like, something really simple, we search for something to go on top of it. Something else that makes us react to it. And some of those reactions, sometimes, will have two or three reactions that we really like that don’t necessarily have to do with each other, except for that they came from the same inspiration. So, I’ll be listening to James sing to something, and I’ll be a fan of a bunch of the things that he did, and it’ll be hard for me to pick, so I’ll go, “Let’s use two or three of these things.” And the one thing that holds it together is that it still came from the same bed of music. So, you can use them, and they do still make sense.
Boilen: And then the words, which I’d say are pretty hopeful. Who wrote the line “We look for exit signs, but we can’t be changed into nothing overnight. And though we know it’s over, it keeps exploding every morning when we rise.”
Burton: Oh, gosh, it could have been either one of us.
Mercer: Do you remember? I think that’s a bit of both of us.
Burton: Yeah. It sounds like it.
Boilen: Describe that. I mean, do you both sit around a computer trying to figure it out, singing words to each other and typing them as you go?
Mercer: Well, we’re listening to the music, and we’ve got some notepads, and we’re coming up with ideas and talking about what we hear as meaning in the music and stuff.
Burton: Most of the lyrics are actually — if you look back at it now, when you’re in the middle of doing them, it seems kind of tedious. But then, when you look at it afterwards, most of them actually came from … conversations outside the studio, and us knowing each other. It’s almost like — you know that movie Usual Suspects, where the guy is looking at all the things around the room and describing a whole story based on that? And then, next thing you know, you have this whole story that came from everything he saw. It’s kind of the way the lyrics were done here, where all of the conversations and hanging out James and I do outside the studio winds up finding its way into the record. But I think with [After The Disco], we did most of them together. We waited till we were done with most of the music and melodies, and then we went in and wrote pretty much all of the lyrics in about a week.
Hilton: Well, it’s interesting, because it sounds like such a personal record.
Burton: It is.
Hilton: It sounds like a break-up record in some ways. And in collaborations like this, I always wonder how much of that is inspiration or working through something emotionally, and how much of it is just a couple of guys in the studio having fun and working hard.
Burton: Well, James and I have different lifestyles. We have different lives completely.
Boilen: Oh, let’s hear about some of this.
Mercer: Mine’s boring and Brian’s is fun.
Burton: No, no … well, I have more, multiple relationships to deal with, and James is married. But still, that’s a whole other complex thing, as well. So, it’s kind of where those things wind up crossing over. It’s interesting how you can have a bunch of different relationships that don’t have anything to do with marriage, and then you can have one that’s this one thing, and they still have a lot of things in common. And some things may sway a little bit more toward my experiences, and some obviously are more toward his. If you know us or even just that, you can pick out things here and there. But it is interesting how they seem to still work together.
Boilen: And the difference between — I mean, first of all, [After The Disco] is nice because we know [Broken Bells] is not just a one-off project. We know that you guys are going to be doing this a bunch. I think that you probably knew that when you finished the last one. How’s the relationship changing?
Mercer: I mean, I think we just know each other better.
Mercer: It’s easier. I remember the first time when I went down [to Los Angeles] on that first occasion to record for the first record, I was nervous. I hadn’t really collaborated like this with anybody.
Boilen: Meaning so open-ended and not knowing?
Mercer: Yeah, exactly. And it’s sort of a vulnerable position to be in. Brian’s this successful producer, and just standing in front of the microphone and scatting melodies into existence. And I’m ‘old hat’ at it, and we have that confidence in each other and trust.
Boilen: And it also sounds like, just if I took that description, I would say that Brian was a lot more active in making the music in the last one, and this one, you’re working together more, making the music, would that be right?
Burton: I don’t think so. I can see where it may sound that way, but I think that after making that last record, James a lot of influence in what I did as far as trying to come up with melodies, so that might have even affected other things that I had done. But I think that by the time we got back to doing this, the process was very similar. But I think like James said, we were more comfortable.
Boilen: Speaking of reflected, I’m gonna play a little bit of the title track, and I’d like to talk about the theme and the feeling that you’re after in a song like this.
Burton: There was just a line in the song that described a lot of things. It was the one that kind of accidentally happened where it was sung in a certain way and it sounded like it was saying “after the disco.” And I thought, well, that sums up a lot of things. It’s after the party. Like, after you find something out, or after something happens, we just kind of went with it for this song. And then it became a theme, but there’s nothing disco about the album. I didn’t think there was, anyway. It’s just nothing we ever would have done. [The title] fit. It was cool. I just thought “After the Disco” sounded cool. … I think we [were] just kind of like, “Well, we’ll just use that,” and didn’t think anybody would think that we would make a disco record or anything.
Hilton: I felt like after listening to After The Disco that you [Mercer] backed off your falsetto a little bit on this record, compared to the last one. But then on a cut like “Holding On For Life,” you’re totally channeling Barry Gibb or something.
Boilen: That’s the other thing, I heard Bee Gees in something like this.
Hilton: I’m seeing the white suits, the matching white suits and synchronized dancing on stage.
Boilen: There is a zeitgeist about that, of course, these days. And so maybe that’s just what happens. It gets in the air. You hear it on the [new] Arcade Fire record [Reflektor], you sort of hear it in the [latest] Daft Punk record [Random Access Memories]. You hear it in a lot of records, right? Maybe that’s just in the air, and as a listener, you glean that even if it’s not there, and if the sound came out in 2002, you wouldn’t have thought Bee Gees.
Burton: It’s funny, because I thought that in the way the song started, it sounded like a Dre or Ice Cube record from the early ‘90s or late ‘80s.
Mercer: That’s right.
Boilen: Let’s hear the beginning.
[Opening of “Holding On For Life.”]
Hilton: That’s true.
Burton: It’s like [Sir Mix-a-Lot’s] “My Posse’s on Broadway” or something.
Hilton: Theremin. That pseudo-themerin sound at the top.
Burton: Yeah, the last thing that we were thinking about was that. And then there’s this melody that came out of James that was like the chorus. It sounded kind of like the Bee Gees a little bit, but so what, the Bee Gees had some good choruses.
Mercer: Quite a few.
Burton: That was one of the first things we did. We did that like the fourth or fifth day we worked on the new record. The idea came and then we put it off to the side and readjusted it six or eight months later.
Boilen: And where were you, how many days was this?
Burton: We started, what, a year ago, last October? A couple weeks?
Mercer: Yeah, it was. I was touring a bunch for the last Shins record [Port of Morrow]. But whenever I had a break, I would hop down to L.A., and we fit in a week here and there, right? A week at a time?
Burton: Yeah, I think we did a week, and then another week.
Boilen: Do you then take [the songs] home to live with a little bit?
Burton: We just left it. I mean, they were unfinished songs, so we’ll leave them until we go to work again. So, I think we had a nice four or five things the first couple of weeks, and then we came back, I wanna say February, and did a full six or seven weeks straight, and did the majority of the rest of the record then.
Boilen: Any other musicians?
Burton: No, just me and James.
Hilton: What about the horns on something like “Control” — are those just samples?
Burton: There are ways of doing things where you push a button, and it’s a real horn playing the thing. You can do that now.
Burton: Where you play a chord, and it’s really sampled horns playing a single note. It’s not fake horns playing, you know what I mean? They’re real horns, but they’re not in the room. So you’re playing the lines and everything else, we just played them on a keyboard, and it sounded really good. So, we were gonna get horns, but we said, “Well, they actually are using real horns in this program we’re using, and it sounds like real horns.”
Hilton: I think that’s confusing for some people who don’t understand some of that sort of studio stuff. They hear the word “sample,” and they think, “You took a pre-recorded line from it.” And you didn’t — but someone pre-recorded every single note in the scale with these horns.
Burton: They don’t sound like bad synthesizer horns. You can go to a basic synthesizer horn, and it won’t sound like a horn, but now they do sound like horns.
Hilton: It’s very convincing.
Burton: Actually, we did have some back-up singers on a few of the songs this time, which was different, because we didn’t do that the first time. And we also did have a live horn on one of the songs.
Mercer: Yeah, we had Nate [Walcott] come in.
Boilen: Nate from Bright Eyes?
Burton: Yeah. Yeah, he toured with us last time. What was the song? It was “No Matter What You’re Told.” Other than that, there are strings. Daniel Lupi did string arrangements, which were great. So, we did have live strings on the album. But the basics were just, yeah, James and I went in and just figured it out.
Hilton: Did you drum much on this one? I’m hearing a lot of drum machines on it, and I’m wondering how much live drumming you did.
Burton: Most of it’s live drums, but I wanted it to sound like a drum machine, so thank you. … I definitely don’t play like a drum machine, they have to be made to sound like that. And that’s one thing too with this record: the drums are much more interesting, because I’d be playing, and James would just come out, and he’d just be standing over the top of me, and be like, “No, no, hit this one or that one,” and I had never had anybody do that. And it’s kind of like when you’re producing somebody else or something. And so he was suggesting something, and it just made stuff so much better because it was then again a mixture of ideas. And so the drums were much more interesting to me on this record.
Boilen: And did you do any of that to him while he was singing?
Boilen: James, how would he get in your face?
Mercer: Relentless! [laughter] He just has suggestions about where to go melodically or, “Don’t do the falsetto there.” That’s his job as a producer.
Hilton: I’m so fascinated by producers and all the work they do, and you’re certainly on the short list, Brian, of my all-time favorites. And I wonder, I listen to records like this and I think, “I wonder how this would sound if a completely different producer was steering the ship on this.” Or if James were doing these songs on his own, as a Shins record or something.
Mercer: It would be very different, I would say.
Burton: I will say though, I think as far as this record is concerned, it is really kind of all-in-one. We just did everything together. (And James himself could be a really great producer if he decided to go do that, and I warned him against it and told him not to. But he could!) This record was definitely done in that way. You can’t really separate the two, because [we were] writing and recording at the same time. One thing would definitely lead to the next when it came to either a melody or a sound or the tempo — any of that stuff would change the other things. So, it was very wrapped in together. It definitely wouldn’t be what people think of as a traditional way of producing.
Mercer: There’s something about Brian’s personality that I think gives him an exceptional ability to produce people and help them bring their ideas to light. It’s a thing, you know? It’s a certain, strange, Jedi ability, I think, to be a good producer. He rides me in [a] very humble [way].
Boilen: Well, yeah, we expect that of him. Is it kind of both welcoming and warming?
Mercer: And threatening.
Boilen: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the other word.
Mercer: It’s just a lot of things - it’s a subtle, strange talent.
Boilen: Is there anything that happened [during the recording] that just felt like you broke new ground? Or just something that you never [would have] imagined?
Mercer: Immediately, I’m thinking about “Holding On For Life.”
Burton: I thought the same thing, actually.
Mercer: I just love that chorus. I just love it.
Mercer: And I just love the reference to the Bee Gees, which I admire.
Burton: Yeah, I’d say the same thing, just because, I guess musically, from the drumbeat and everything, I would have never done something so blatantly simple and obvious in that kind of way, on purpose. And I just kind of put it there as a placeholder. Exactly how you hear it now is the way we started it. We didn’t even have chords. It was just like, “Here’s this drum beat and this thing.” And then, for it to turn into a chorus that sounds like the Bee Gees, yeah — it’s just something we never would have done.
Boilen: So you’re gonna take this on tour. Brian, are you going to play drums again?
Burton:I don’t know. If anything, I’ll play some stuff maybe from the last record. And some of these new parts are a little bit harder to do, again, because James was helping me with them. They sound better, but they weren’t necessarily as natural. I’m not a seasoned drummer, I guess you could say. I’d rather have somebody do it effortlessly, and then I could maybe pay attention to some other things. I’ll do it if it’s easy.