When James Mercer, frontman of American indie rockers the Shins, and artist-producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, reunited to make After the Disco, their second record as Broken Bells, they had very different musical visions.
"I think I wanted to make a more upbeat record," says Mercer, 43, over the phone. "I wanted it to be faster and more danceable. I'm not exactly sure what Brian's initial idea was, but I knew he wanted it to be dark and sad."
And so, like two adult people in any healthy relationship, they reached a compromise. After the Disco would be sadder and faster. "It's kind of a strange thing to work for -- sadder and faster," he says with a laugh.
It works -- especially when you consider the album's title-turned-thesis statement. Released in February, After the Disco evokes post-party dance floors, sticky with spilled champagne and strewn with confetti. It's a 4 a.m. record, existing in that thrilling space when the possibility of the night hasn't quite given way to the sober light of morning. It's wistful, to be sure -- blame Mercer and that dreamy voice of his -- but you can still dance to it.
Mercer and Brian liked the after the disco idea, too. When they were riffing on what would be the title track, the phrase stuck out to both of them.
"We thought it sounded cool -- there's something melancholy about it, but there's also something groovy about it, too. We both wrote it down in our notebooks, and I think it was in the back of our minds, subtly influencing everything. It's after the party, after the night -- maybe after your youth, for a bigger metaphor."
For Burton and Mercer, the record marks another successful collaboration. The pair met in 2004 at Denmark's Roskilde Festival, bonded by "the mutual respect for the work we'd done separately," Mercer says. It would be another four years before they started working together; in 2009, they emerged as Broken Bells, music's "odd couple."
Indeed, the collaboration piqued the music community's curiosity; one of indie rock's most melodic voices and writer of such life-changing songs as New Slang working with the guy behind Crazy, one of the biggest singles of the aughts as one-half of Gnarls Barkley. (The same guy who also had the brains to take the vocals from Jay Z's Black Album and the instrumentals from the Beatles' White Album and mash them up for The Grey Album.)
"When we first got together, it was just 'let's see what happens,'" Mercer recalls. "I had never done sort of thing before, going to another town and essentially starting a band. For me, it's always been that thing where you're best friends and you start a band and you're sort of shy to be even doing it in the first place and then you get a gig and it goes from there. So this was a big deal for me. I was really nervous heading into it."
As it turns out, he didn't need to be. The duo struck gold in the studio; Broken Bells' self-titled 2010 debut was a critical success and was nominated for Best Alternative Album at the 2011 Grammy Awards. The project's fate was sealed. "After that, it was like, 'Why wouldn't we do another record?' "
Their process is intensely collaborative. Although Mercer has made a habit of writing every morning when he's at home, "it's always Shins stuff. Bells stuff I do in the studio. It wouldn't make sense if I wrote songs and brought them down to Brian -- it'd be like him producing a Shins record." Is that something that would ever happen? "I don't know if he would do it," Mercer says with a laugh, "but it would be cool."
Mercer says their working relationship has evolved since their first foray into the studio.
"We're more straightforward with each other. As we got to know each other we got more comfortable with being like, 'No, I don't like that.' That's made things more efficient; we weren't worried about being polite." It's a creative partnership he relishes. "As Shins touring was winding up (the band released its fourth studio album, Port of Morrow, in 2012), I was really looking forward to getting back into the studio with Brian. It's an adventure."
He's also enjoyed taking After the Disco on the road; the band will bring the record to the Burton Cummings Theatre on Aug. 4.
"Performing it live has been fun -- for me more than anyone, I think. I'm playing keyboard, but I'm mostly just singing," says Mercer, who plays guitar in the Shins. "I was worried about it -- like, 'what do I do with my hands!?' -- but I think I'm singing better because I don't have to concentrate on anything else."
Just as performing with Broken Bells has made him a stronger singer, recording with Burton has made Mercer less precious in the studio when it comes to Shins material. "It's sort of an attitude. Brian is very cavalier about it. He's very much about getting ideas down."
Learning to live with the flaws immortalized on record is something Mercer is working on. "But it bothers me if I think something was a good idea and it didn't get its fair shake."
Like When You Land Here, It's Time to Return, an album Mercer released with Shins precursor Flake Music in 1997. "We did our best, but we didn't have anyone mix it, so it sounded terrible," he says, laughing.
Happily, the record is getting a do-over. "(Engineer) Kennie Takahashi (Danger Mouse, Black Keys) remixed it for us as a sort of a bro deal and it's being re-released on Sub Pop this fall. It feels like closure."