Courtesy of the artist
James Mercer (left) and Danger Mouse are Broken Bells.
James Mercer (left) and Danger Mouse are Broken Bells. Courtesy of the artist
What happens when you blend the sounds of The Shins' frontman James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton), one-half of Gnarls Barkley? After meeting at a Danish music festival six years ago, the two are now collaborating under the name Broken Bells.
There are many layers on their self-titled debut, but the band has been very clear that all the recording was done live and not sampled. The two admit they tweaked many of the sounds, but Burton says it was more about the "songwriting and making cool songs that could just be played on a guitar or a piano."
In the interview, All Things Considered host Melissa Block asks about the different textures in "Sailing to Nowhere." After identifying all sorts of tweaked instrumental sounds, Burton says, laughing, "I just don't want to give everything away."
While writing "Sailing to Nowhere," Mercer says the image in his mind was the docking of a ship returning from a disastrous journey in the 1340s. It's brought back the plague to Europe and, as Mercer puts it, "apple-sized goiters on their body. It was the beginning of — I guess — half of the population of Europe."
There are a number of times when Mercer's vocals are folded way back into a cushion of sound.
"James [Mercer's] voice is definitely the lead instrument on this album," Burton says. "I think it's important when you're listening to music that when you're hearing it, you don't really picture the people making it. Instead you picture something else, whether it's outer space, an island full of people, or you traveling along with a girl somewhere or a guy somewhere. Whatever it is that comes to your mind based on what the music is doing — that's much more important to me than somebody sitting there with a guitar singing to you. It's important that you're able to take this album and let it be part of your life whether it's in the background or you want to put on headphones and listen to every little part of it."
One thing about living in a digital world is how the "shuffle" feature has changed the full album experience. Block especially noticed how the spaghetti western-inspired "Mongrel Heart" moves straight into the final track, "The Mall & Misery," and how people listening out of sequence might miss the transition.
"That's one of my favorite parts of the record, too," Mercer says.
"I almost want to put a track marker in the middle of each song instead of the beginning of it, just to mess with people and make them listen to the whole album," Burton says. "I'm sure the label wouldn't be into that."