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Burton formed Gnarles Barkley with CeeLo Green and has produced the Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Portugal. The Man and U2. Broken Bells is a project he’s been focusing on with James Mercer since 2009, when the two were working on the first album, “Broken Bells.”
Mercer and Burton are on tour, and when they stopped through Boston last week for a show, Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson sat down with them in the green room at the House of Blues.
He asked whether there are a lot more albums in the band’s future. Both said yes.
“We work well together, we work quickly together and it’s fun. So there’s really no reason to stop,” Mercer said.
On the album’s name
Mercer: “It was me trying to phonetically sound out stuff when I was riffing melodies, and it sort of sounded like I said, “After the disco’ … And then we just fell in love with it. It just seemed to sum up this melancholy after the party. And it became symbolic to us, a little bit, like after your youth.”
On whether they write for a particular audience
Burton: “James and I seem to just kind of write for each other and impress each other and just kind of make something we like … I definitely don’t think what we did this time was typical.”
Mercer: “Really we’re just in the studio, experimenting, playing around until we find something cool, and we grab onto it and try to elaborate.”
On producing a record
Burton: “It’s trying to bring a vision of something from the beginning to the end. If you’re lucky, the people you’re working with, you have similar visions. And sometimes if you don’t, you have to convince them. And sometimes if you do, it still doesn’t always go as great. But you’re still trying to get a finished record with a certain feel.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AFTER THE DISCO")
BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) After your faith has let you down, I know you'll want to run around and follow the crowd into the night. But after the disco, all of the shine just faded away...
HOBSON: Broken Bells has a new album out. It's called "After the Disco." It is the second album for the group, which is a collaboration between James Mercer, of The Shins, and Brian Burton, a.k.a., Danger Mouse, who, by the way, was named one of the most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire magazine. He formed Gnarls Barkley with CeeLo Green and has produced the Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Portugal. The Man and U2. But "Broken Bells" is a project he's been focusing on with James Mercer since 2009, when the two were working on the first album - called, simply, "Broken Bells." Here's the song "The High Road."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE HIGH ROAD")
BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) 'Cause they know and so do I, the high road is hard to find, a detour to your new life. Tell all of your friends goodbye...
HOBSON: Well, James Mercer and Brian Burton are on tour right now. And when they stopped through Boston last week for a show, I sat down with them in the Green Room at the House of Blues.
You're calling this a project. Is it still a project - Broken Bells - or has it become more than that, at this point?
JAMES MERCER: Everything is a project. Probably, loosely...
BRIAN BURTON: Yeah...
MERCER: Well, I mean, we're a band, though, you know what I mean? It's not - project sort of maybe implies that it was something that we were going to record and then see what happened, and say goodbye and be done with it. And it was - that was never really our thought. We were like, let's start a band. And that was the original conversation.
BURTON: Yeah. That's what it still is, yeah.
HOBSON: What do you see as the future of it, then? Does it have a lot more - are there a lot more albums to come, at this point? Or do you think...
MERCER: There should be.
MERCER: We work well together. We work quickly together. And it's fun, you know? So I - there's really no reason to stop, you know?
HOBSON: Where did "After the Disco" come from, by the way?
MERCER: It was - there was a lyric, or it was sort of me just sort of phonetically trying to sound out stuff while I was riffing melodies. And it sounded kind of like I said, "After the Disco," and Brian thought that was cool. And then we just kind of - I think maybe we just decided, well, let's just use that and we'll layer it, and we'll have that in a placeholder. And then we just fell in love with it. It just seemed to sort of sum up this sort of melancholy after the party. Maybe - and then it became sort of symbolic to us, a little bit. It's like after your youth and, you know, finally facing reality and stuff like that.
HOBSON: The song that everyone has heard already is "Holding on for Life," which people - I'm sure, you've heard. and actually, I think you've talked about the fact that they're comparing it to the Bee Gees.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, ''HOLDING ON FOR LIFE'')
BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) You're holding on to life, holding on to life, love, holding on to love...
MERCER: Well, I mean...
BURTON: The chorus...
MERCER: ...the chorus has a sound that's certainly - like, vocally when I stepped into the control and heard those sort of layers, I immediately said, whoa. It's got a Bee Gees vibe to it. Songwriting-wise and production-wise, it's probably not very similar. It's really just kind of that one aspect of it. But, I mean, my God, you know, the Bee Gees wrote such incredible stuff, and did it so well. To be compared to them is kind of quite an honor, actually. It doesn't do them justice. (Laughter)
BURTON: Yeah, we're not trying to say it - shy away from it as if it's a bad thing. It's just - it's something - it was an afterthought for us really. It's more of just a thing, You know, like to me, all the stuff like that sounds like The Four Seasons, like Frankie Valli. It has that. Whenever you sing at a certain high range falsetto like that real melodically, it has that feel to it, and the Bee Gees that, the most famous at doing that. But a lot of stuff if you sing it that way, it's going to sound like that.
HOBSON: OK. You bring up The Four Seasons. Now, I want to ask you both what you listen to when you were growing up.
MERCER: They would have been, you know, there's a number...
HOBSON: Before your time, yeah.
MERCER: Yeah, you know, but they - well, but then they have the stuff that they did for the "Grease" soundtrack, right? Sure, that stuff was on the radio anyway. They're one of my favorite things ever actually. But, you know, the Beatles is a huge thing that I think Brian and both I love.
BURTON: I didn't really grow up listening to the Beatles, but I just, you know, I just, I had '80s pop, top 40 stuff in the early '80s and then R and B, soul music that my parents were listening to was always in the back on, then hip-hop music. Really, when it started, I was living in New York and hearing that a lot. And especially when I went to the South I listen to that a lot more, things like Outcast and Goodie Mob eventually, and things like that.
HOBSON: I came to see your show a few years ago in New York at Terminal 5 when the first album came out. And if you look around the room at that show anyway, people in their 20s, 30s, even 40s, but that was basically the demographic of it. Who are you writing for when you are writing?
BURTON: I think we think about the audience, think with each other really. I think it's just James and I seem to just kind of write for each other and try to impress each other and just want to make something we like. And then we'll figure out where it falls after that, you know? I definitely don't think that what we did this time was typical or would easily fit into anything, so for better or worse.
HOBSON: James, you agree with that? You...
MERCER: Yeah, I do, I agree with that. Like, I don't know. It's, you know, people probably do that to some effect. You know, I was thinking, like, OK, we're going to sell this to the kids. It's got to have this and that. And I mean - but really, we're just sort of in the studio, experimenting, playing around until we find something cool, and then we grab onto it and try to elaborate, you know? And it's not as sophisticated, I guess, as that.
HOBSON: How do you guys like playing live?
BURTON: I'm liking it much more this time. I'm a little less nervous this time. I'm usually not a big live person, not really performer, more of a creator. But I feel comfortably, surprisingly, this time around. I don't know, I think I'm just more, I guess, more experienced, I guess, with doing it. So it's getting better for me.
HOBSON: But you prefer to be behind the scenes or at least where people can't see you?
HOBSON: Can you talk, by the way, about what it means to be a producer for people who don't understand what that means in the role that you had in so many...
BURTON: I mean, it's just basically trying to bring a vision of something to - from beginning to the end. And if you're lucky, the people you're working with have - you have similar visions. And sometimes, you know, sometimes if you don't, you know, you have to convince them. And sometimes if you do, it still doesn't always go as great. But you're basically trying to get something, a finished record with the sound with a certain feel. I have an idea in my head of what I like about what people do, and I tried to make a (unintelligible) of what I like about what people - what a certain person does. Some people do a lot of different things, and I happen to like a few of them and trying to do a whole record just on those things. And that's just what I like to do, and some people like that, some people don't, but that's to my way of doing it. So I was trying to get something interesting for a whole record. That's just those things, you know? Sometimes, it winds up making people do things they haven't done or whatever.
HOBSON: Have you guys been on the same page all along? You must have had disagreements about...
MERCER: Yeah. I mean, the way we worked it out, though, we have this sort of understanding where if either of us don't like something, we have the ability to sort of just veto that thing. You know, if we're just, ah, I'm not feeling it. OK, whatever. We'll figure something else out. And Brian is really quick to move on if that's necessarily, and I am too. So I think that keeps thing flowing.
HOBSON: OK. Finally, let me ask you each what you're favorite song on the album is.
BURTON: Gosh, I don't even know. Probably the "Angel and the Fool" right now.
MERCER: That one is really cool. I was going to say "Medicine." That's my favorite right now.
HOBSON: Well, James Mercer, Brian Burton, Broken Bells, thank you so much for speaking with us. Have a great time on your tour.
BURTON: Thanks, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDICINE")
BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) Another lonely evening when you're staying up counting omens. In the morning, is it so disturbing that you just won't let it go? You think hurting gives you license, license, to do anything at all.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDICINE")
BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) Take your medicine.... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.