Q&A: Broken Bells’ Danger Mouse And James Mercer On The Making And Meaning Of After The Disco
With After The Disco, the sprawling and ambitious sophomore effort they’ll release next week, Shins frontman James Mercer and superproducer Danger Mouse cement their band Broken Bells as more than just a way to pass the time between other projects — and their other projects are legion. Mercer is coming off a year of promoting the Shins’ big comeback record Port Of Morrow, while Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) has been busy as usual juggling a bunch of high-profile production jobs including the next Black Keys album, the forthcoming U2 record, and (allegedly) the new Frank Ocean project(!). Plus there’s the CeeLo-confirmed Gnarls Barkley reunion on the horizon. But when Burton and Mercer spoke to Stereogum from Burton’s Los Angeles home last week, they were laser-focused on Broken Bells: Per Burton, “We’re really just doing this.”
Thats just as well because After The Disco deserves their full attention. The album, streaming at iTunes this week, presents a richer, fuller sonic world than the one they plumbed on Broken Bells’ self-titled debut. That world is home to adventurous songs that put more distance between Broken Bells and Mercer’s Shins wheelhouse — distance upward, apparently, given the retro-futuristic short film that accompanies After The Disco’s release and the music’s space-age sonics. It’s familiar but difficult to define — not quite indie nor psych nor soul nor (ahem) disco, though all of those sounds rear their heads at some point. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say it sounds like Broken Bells; they’ve built upon their first record and in the process affirmed a distinct identity for this band. In an exclusive interview between rehearsals for the tour that begins next month in Minneapolis, Mercer and Burton talked about After The Disco’s creation, their unique creative chemistry, and the unfortunate coincidence of putting “disco” in your album title the year after Daft Punk saturated pop culture.
STEREOGUM: When did you guys start conceiving this record? When were you working on it?
BRIAN BURTON AKA DANGER MOUSE: We started it probably at the end of 2012 — I think November.
JAMES MERCER: Because we both are doing other things here and there, it was most just fitting it in. If I had a week off or Brian had a week off, we’d get together. It was these intermittent moments which is why it’s kind of hard to say exactly what moment we started because we just kept taking advantage of whatever time we could find over the course of six months or so.
BURTON: I think we did the bulk of it in February and March of 2013. We had a few things before then as well but that’s when we did most of it.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I was wondering if it was an on-and-off thing or if you guys took a big block of time and banged it out.
BURTON: Actually the second half of doing this album was really a full four weeks or so in a row of working so it was a big chunk. The first album took us longer to do than this one as far as the overall period of time. This one was a little bit more concentrated.
STEREOGUM: When you started thinking about this record, did you go in with the idea that you would try to keep the vibe going from the last record or was there an intent of doing something really different from the first one? What was the thought process or the direction going into it?
BURTON: I think it depended on the day. Some days we wanted to do something different. We started out the songs in different places that we hadn’t been before. Something like “Holding On For Life” or something really fast or more up-tempo. I didn’t want to repeat the first record, but essentially it’s still me and James, so it’s still what we do. So it has a lot of similar elements, but we did specifically try to start at different places to experiment and see what happened.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense. I think what you said is right: when two minds come together, there’s going to be some similarity there. I feel like a lot of times the second time through a collaboration will end up feeling like, “I’ve heard this before,” but I was pleased with this because I felt like you guys were actually able to push it into different directions. Was there a key to making sure that happened, to forcing yourself not to repeat yourself?
BURTON: I don’t know. I get what you’re saying and I think it’s true.
MERCER: It’s kind of a natural thing. When you start doing something you’ve already done, you get bored. It’s not as entertaining. There’s something really selfish about the whole process of making music together — you really just entertain yourselves, and there’s this drive to have fun. Of course we take it fairly seriously at times, but the awesome thing about what we do is that it’s all realized on some form of enjoyment. If you’re not having fun making music, it kind of undoes the whole thing.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about how a Broken Bells song comes together. James, do you bring songs to the table, or do you guys write together? Is there a difference in your mind, James, when you’re writing a Broken Bells song or a Shins song?
MERCER: Shins stuff would be me on my own at home writing stuff. Brian and I write together. Oftentimes, I’ll come into the studio and Brian will have an idea he’s been thinking about. Usually, I would say we come up with shit on the fly in the studio. But it’s always a collaboration. It’s not like I bring finished songs or anything.
BURTON: Yeah, for the most part that’s what it is. Sometimes one person will take the lead on a certain section of a song or the whole idea for a verse or chorus and start mixing and mashing them up. There’s no rules or anything like that. It’s not like we can’t do it that way. It’s just that this is the most fun way for us and it’s what we’ve been doing.
STEREOGUM: Were there certain subjects on your mind or certain topics of conversation that you kept coming back to in the studio that were driving the head space of the record?
BURTON: Well, when we record, James comes down like he did now, and he stays with me, and we wind up hanging out a lot. Our conversations wind up leading into the lyrics of the album eventually. As far as what we talked about, most of it was personal stuff. The only real talk that we did about the music itself that wasn’t so specific as lyrics was talking about the idea that some of the music that we liked we hadn’t really done before or hadn’t really made on our own yet. Some of the stuff that we liked that was made when we were younger — like some of the ’80s stuff — and how some of that music was melancholy but still danceable and up a little bit, and we hadn’t really done stuff like that before. We did talk about that a little bit, but I don’t know how specific it was. I remember that being an idea and that making its way into some of the songs. Other than that, when it came time for all of the lyrics and everything else, those would have been a reflection of the talks that James and I had gone through and what we decided to write.
STEREOGUM: You guys have talked before about the contrast between one of you [Mercer] being single and the other [Burton] being married. Did any of those romantic conversations played in or any kind of “big life questions” play into the lyrics?
BURTON: Yeah, they did. I think that’s a lot of what the album is. But it depends on the song. There’s songs where I might have some idea in mind, but James does too in his own experiences. We have a lot of similarities. James is a bit older than me, and he definitely offers advice. Even though it’s not the same situation, we definitely relate about a lot of stuff.
STEREOGUM: I was wondering about the short film that you made in conjunction with the record. How much of that came about at the same time as the music or was that something that was conceived after the album was done?
BURTON: It was after. We gave Jacob [Gentry] the whole album.
MERCER: It was Brian who put together kind of a short story, and then he and Jacob made it into a sort of screenplay, right?
BURTON: No, I just gave it to him and he put it into that format. I just gave him a short story that was a page or two long. It was just an idea, and we wound up following through with it, and it ended up being a short film and a music video as well.
STEREOGUM: Were you involved at all in the casting or the directing or execution of it or was it more something that you came in and gave your approval to?
BURTON: That was all Jacob’s thing. The only thing we really did was show up for the video itself. It was all Jacob’s vision and idea for the way it looked and what happened in it.
STEREOGUM: Obviously the title of the song “After The Disco” was important enough to the project that you made it the album title. I was wondering if you could kind of unspool that for me a little bit over what the thinking was behind that song and why it ended up being the title track.
BURTON: It was the first song that we did lyrics to. We still made a lot of the album after that, but we usually wait towards the end to do our lyrics. But that one we decided to just go ahead and finish the song right then and there. That’s a little significant because as we were continuing, we liked the title and the name of it, and we started to think that we liked the title and the concept of it. But we still had a lot of album to make after that. But that was where it came from. Obviously it wasn’t anything to do with disco, and we’ve had to explain that a lot because nothing on the record really sounds likes disco music at all. This song would have been done about a year ago, so there wasn’t that whole Daft Punk disco-y thing yet. We just thought After The Disco, it’s a cool sounding thing. Kind of, “After the party is over with, there’s the rest of your life.” It was simple enough to us, and we never thought anyone would ever think our music was disco because if you listen to it, it’s just not. But, of course, our first single sounds a little like the Bee Gees, so we kind of screwed ourselves into having to talk about that after adding After The Disco, it adds up to something to think about.
MERCER: I felt that we needed to avoid the idea that it would be a disco record but then again, it’s like whatever. People can think whatever about the record. Buy it and then be surprised when it’s not what you think it is. I loved that phrase. When we were rehearsing “After The Disco” the song, it becomes a more cohesive symbol for the whole project. It even applies to the first record to me.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense. I had kind of envisioned After The Disco applying to the somewhat moody music that you listen to when you get home from the disco, but you made the comment that “after the disco, there’s the rest of your life.” That’s a whole other dimension I hadn’t considered.
MERCER: That’s what we both were looking at mainly. The other application is cool too, though.
STEREOGUM: For sure. This is a more generalized question about the project but I thought each of your could talk about what appeals to you about working with the other guy.
BURTON: We’ll try. We’re sitting right here so it’s a little strange but… For me, Bells is a place where I can work with somebody and just make music and figure it out as you go. James has become a really good friend and it’s really just a comfortable and fun place to go and do stuff. It is a little different. What we do is different and I like that we can try completely different things. James is very good at not just adjusting but doing things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect and we’re doing more of that on this record and there’s probably more coming of that as well.
MERCER: For me, it’s similar. I like the fact that Brian sees this as his outlet for creative stuff and where he can bring so many awesome ideas to everything. It’s hard to say. All of Brian’s talents — he has this awesome arsenal of skills, and it’s cool to work with somebody like that. …And he dresses nice. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Have you guys started rehearsing for tour yet? Have you started working out the live show?
MERCER: Yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing these past couple weeks.
BURTON: We’re going every day to rehearse this week as well. Figuring it out.
STEREOGUM: Is there anything that you can say about it without giving away any surprises in terms of ways songs transformed or things that might be a little bit different about the show compared to the record?
BURTON: Right now, we are still discovering it. Once we get comfortable with the songs and learn the songs we can start doing things a little more unique. We have to learn the songs first. When we make them, we don’t have a traditional band in. We don’t figure them out, rehearse them, and then go in and record them. We create them and then record them all in one go and then we move onto the next one.
MERCER: What I’ve seen as we play the songs in rehearsal is that they’re kind of developing. They’re new versions of what we’ve done. It’s kind of cool. It could be one of those things that six months from now into touring, we’ll be like, “Damn, I wish we could record all this shit right now.” The other thing that’s cool is that I’m excited to see all the visuals that we’ll have on stage and all of the projection ideas. We’re trying to work that out too and I think that’s going to be fun to see that come together.
STEREOGUM: I imagine touring for this record will take up a good chunk of time for this year, but I know you guys both have a lot of other stuff you work on. How hard are you going to tour the record? Are you going to be out for a good part of the year?
BURTON: We have a decent amount planned so far. Just like last time, as we start and get out there, we’ll see how it goes. If we keep enjoying doing it, we’ll probably do it longer. But right now, this is the project that we’re thinking about, so the time element won’t interfere with any other projects. If it’s better for us to keep touring, we will. If it’s better for us to stop again, we will. It doesn’t have to do with any other projects or anything like that. Not right now, anyway…
[Photo by James Minchin]