Broken Bells: Danger Mouse Meets James Mercer What happens you blend the sounds of The Shins' frontman James Mercer and producer Danger Mouse? You get Broken Bells. Melissa Block tries to uncover the source of the duo's tweaked sounds in an interview.
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Broken Bells: Danger Mouse Meets James Mercer

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Broken Bells: Danger Mouse Meets James Mercer

Broken Bells: Danger Mouse Meets James Mercer

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Today, a musical mash-up. We're going to hear what happens when you blend the sounds of indie rocker James Mercer...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JAMES MERCER (Musician): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: With those of musician and producer Brian Burton, also known as Danger Mouse.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRIAN BURTON (Musician): (Singing) I think you're crazy. I think you're crazy.

BLOCK: Danger Mouse is one-half of the alternative urban duo Gnarls Barkley. James Mercer is the lead singer and founder of The Shins. And together, they've collaborated on a new CD under the name Broken Bells.

(Soundbite of music)

BROKEN BELLS (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: That's James Mercer singing falsetto, Danger Mouse on organ, drums, synthesizers, and Danger Mouse says both of them on the clapping.

(Soundbite of music)

BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Mr. BURTON: Very '80s. I was reading this book about (unintelligible) 500 best singles ever, or whatever, and it was mostly stuff from the late '70s, all through the '80s, and the guy mentioned that every cool single had hand claps.

BLOCK: There are tons of layers on these songs, but you've made a point of saying that this is not sampled, that all the recording was done live in the studio.

Mr. BURTON: Yeah.

Mr. MERCER: Right, some of it sounds sampled because of how we treated it, but yeah, it's all performed there.

BLOCK: And that's important to you?

Mr. MERCER: It's more fun.

Mr. BURTON: Yeah, and I think the control that you have when you do that, if you decide you want to go left at this one moment, you don't have to interrupt. You can change the chord. You can do whatever you want on it. I think for us, this was definitely more about the songwriting and making cool songs that, you know, could just be played on a guitar or a piano or something, and then all the other stuff was just really for fun and sonically to - that had a lot of our influences in it.

BLOCK: Let's listen to one of the songs. This is "Sailing to Nowhere."

(Soundbite of song, "Sailing to Nowhere")

BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: Brian, what are we hearing here?

Mr. BURTON: Oh, gosh.

Mr. MERCER: See that part sounds like a sample, yeah.

Mr. BURTON: This is a Wurlitzer with an acoustic guitar, and then it changes over to this really psychedelic kind of - it strums and Hammond organ, yeah. I kind of meant for it to sound like it was this inserted piece from somewhere else, maybe.

(Soundbite of song, "Sailing to Nowhere")

BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: There are lots of shades, I think, of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in here, right?

Mr. MERCER: I hear that now. I hear that now that you say that, but I hadn't before.

Mr. BURTON: I mean, the idea that these things could be, there could be all these changes and go here and go there, that's great. You know, I mean, we obviously love The Beatles, and we really wanted to make something that had our influences in them for sure, you know, but still sounds like it's still James, and there's still, I guess, me in there somewhere.

BLOCK: What's happening at the end of this song? We're hearing sort of crowd sound. I think there's a train, somebody whistling.

Mr. MERCER: I pictured it as...

Mr. BURTON: As a harbor, right?

Mr. MERCER: Yeah, I pictured it as the final sort of docking of this ship on which something disastrous has happened.

Mr. BURTON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Sailing to Nowhere")

Mr. MERCER: There's a story about a ship coming into harbor in the 1340s, bringing the plague to Europe. These sailors showed up and they were in a horrible state. They had black, apple-sized goiters on their body. I mean, it was the beginning of the end of, I guess, half of the population of Europe, right?

BLOCK: Now, is that what you were thinking about when you wrote this song, or is that just - you've added after the fact?

Mr. MERCER: It's imagery that, while we were working on it, was going through my head.

BLOCK: There are a bunch of times on the album where James' vocals are sort of folded way back in this cushion of layered sound.

(Soundbite of music)

BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: And I'm wondering if, at a point for you, Brian, maybe the lyrics became less important as words and as meaning and really more as another instrument or another kind of texture that you're folding in.

Mr. BURTON: Maybe. I think James' voice is definitely the lead instrument on this album. It's a good thing, I think, and I think it's important for - 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 visually, whether it's outer space or whether it's an island full of people or you traveling along with a girl somewhere or a guy somewhere or something. Whatever it is that comes to your mind based on what the music is doing is - that's much more important to me, as opposed to hearing something...

Mr. MERCER: Literal meaning.

Mr. BURTON: Yeah, or 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 whether you really want to put on headphones and listen to every little part of it.

BLOCK: You know, there's one moment in particular I wanted to ask you about on the song "Mongrel Heart."

(Soundbite of song, "Mongrel Heart")

BLOCK: I think you know where I'm going here. I'm thinking I'm watching a spaghetti Western right now.

Mr. MERCER: Sure.

Mr. BURTON: Right.

Mr. MERCER: Showdown.

BLOCK: Yeah?

Mr. BURTON: Yeah, I mean, that's a big influence of mine, musically. I think it is with James, too, and "Mongrel Heart" was a huge adventure of a song for us. It was in the middle of the recording process, and I think we spent a week, almost, on it.

The horn is what really puts it over the top, you know, and when the horn comes in...

BLOCK: It's just right there.

Mr. BURTON: You might as well, you know, really. It's not like we're trying to hide that it's this Morricone feel to it. I would hate to have not had it on there and then been, like, oh, but you've got to hear the version that had the horn on it. It was just over the top and crazy. So we just left it.

BLOCK: You know, I think maybe one of my favorite parts on this CD is that this song, "Mongrel Heart," moves right into the last cut on the album, "The Mall & Misery," and I was thinking as I was listening to it, you know, for people who don't listen to albums as albums sequentially anymore, you know, they're on shuffle, and they're popping up in any random order...

Mr. MERCER: That's true, that's not going to work.

BLOCK: That's gone, right?

Mr. MERCER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "The Mall & Misery")

Mr. MERCER: That's one of my favorite parts of the record, too.

Mr. BURTON: It's cool. I mean, you know, 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, you know, and make them listen to the whole album. It would be kind of cool. I'm sure the label wouldn't be into that.

BLOCK: Why didn't you think of that?

Mr. BURTON: ITunes wouldn't be into that either, I'm sure, but you know, I've always wanted to do that, but this is kind of a way of doing that in its own way, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: James Mercer and Brian Burton, also known as Danger Mouse, thanks so much.

Mr. MERCER: Thanks a lot.

Mr. BURTON: Thank you.

BLOCK: Together, they are Broken Bells. At our Web site, you can hear Broken Bells' new album in its entirety, and tomorrow night, you can hear them live in concert from South by Southwest. That's This is NPR.

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