Oy! What a last couple years it's been for Brian Burton and James Mercer.
Mercer, one of current pop music's better lyricists, is the founder of the Shins. Darlings of the Sub Pop imprint for nearly a decade, in 2008, Mercer took the fate of his band in his hands (as if it hadn't always been) and left Sub Pop for his own record label, Aural Apothecary. A year later, in a move still clouded in discreet drama, Mercer fired keyboardist Martin Randall and drummer Jesse Sandoval, replacing them with Ron Lewis and Joe Plummer of Modest Mouse and Black Heart Procession.
Until further notice, the Shins are on hold and any future music will be made with dorm room DJ-turned-Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist and producer Burton, who first crept into the scene as Danger Mouse. Together, the pair comprises Broken Bells, a dreamy, almost downtempo effort of pop done darkly.
The incidental release and ruckus reception of the Grey Album is what initially put Burton on the international scene. Producing records — some of them signature — for MF Doom, Beck, the Black Keys, Gorillaz and Sparklehorse (the latter the lifetime project from the beautifully beleaguered Mark Linkous, who took his life in March) have made Danger Mouse a sonic commodity. But Gnarls Barkley, Burton's "Crazy" collaboration with ex-Goodie Mob emcee Cee Lo Green, transformed him into a living legend. The dude does not rest.
Broken Bells is wrought with therapy — beats that'll make your head bob are matched with loopy melodies set to weary stanzas. These guys are working shit out together.
1. Metro Times: Broken Bells is quite the unlikely summer release, and its single, "High Road," quite the dubious summer jam, eh?
Brian Burton: Right, yes. I wouldn't have thought it to be a summer record either. But if that's what it can make its way into being, then that's cool too. I think anytime an album can feel right throughout the year, no matter what season it is, I'm down for that. I know how it goes, though — sometimes you get a record and play it a lot for a certain period of time, then you move on from it. But when you hear it again, it brings you back to that place and time. That's cool. That's kind of the goal.
There's definitely a deliberate thing that was happening when James and I were getting toward the end of recording. We really wanted to put songs on the record that fit together so that you weren't pulled out of the dream, so to speak. I think a lot of the records I've done in the past, there's always a song or two that are really weird or just really different from the rest, so they sorta stand out. I wanted to make a record that didn't have any of those, but instead just stayed in a certain place so that whoever was listening to it could also stay in that place.
2. MT: I know you listen to a lot of different music. Does the style of music you listen to affect the music you make?
Burton: Not recently. I think I was more affected early on, because I was discovering so much, just taking in a whole bunch of music. Now, sounds don't seem that new, which doesn't mean that they're not great or that I don't like them, but that they're no longer a shock to my system. And a lot of the music I hear these days is better than the stuff that originally did shock my system. Weird how that works. When I hear something that I really like, it still has some sort of effect. Maybe it's like a learning curve. I mean, I listen to and can appreciate more music now than I ever have before, but that's due to exposure. I'm just not as fascinated by the sparks. For me, it's about what stays with you after it's all over.
3. MT: Lasting quality over immediate impact?
Burton: I think that started to be the focus just in the last couple years with music I've done. I had to concentrate on making sure that was a big part of what was being done — that it's not just style, it's substance. Style changes all the time. I guess you could say that I've never really been any one style, personally, and I don't think I'm part of any real trend or have ever been concerned with what sound is "in" or "out," so to speak. If I were concerned with what sound was in, I don't think I'd do very well.
4. MT: You've commented on the cinematic quality of the music you make. Perhaps no other album of yours emanates those tones more than Broken Bells.
Burton: I think it's a very visual record. I think it's important for the music I make or am involved in making to contain that feel. It doesn't really matter who the singer is — not to say they're not important because they're the most important part of the whole thing — it's just that the way I experience making music as an art form is that I like to be taken somewhere, to have to visualize things. I think most of the music I make could be heard as cinematic. You should be taken someplace else. There are some deliberate choices you can make in the studio to make sure that happens, when recording or writing songs. Where the vocals are placed, when certain instruments come in or are cut out, what parts are made to stick out, what song is first or last on the record — all of that dictates what kind of journey you go on when listening. If you get it right, you can go down that road whenever you put the record on.
I've been talked to about a bunch of times [about scoring a movie], and it's always been something I've thought I wanted to do. Early on, in the dorm room days, when I first started making music, I felt it all sounded like fake soundtracks. I've only ever really seriously started thinking about it recently though, now that I feel I have a good grasp. I feel capable of writing parts for certain scenes, writing parts for different instruments. It's not something I'd ever want to do as a full-time thing, but doing one here and there could be cool, if it was the right project with the right director.
5. MT: You've made a name for yourself as a collaborator. Is there a Detroit musician you'd be keen on collaborating with?
Burton: One of the musicians I've already done some stuff with [on Sparklehorse's Dark Night of the Soul LP] and that I might do more with in the future is Iggy. I first met Iggy in 2004. It was my first year of living in Los Angeles. I was booked to play a show with Iggy and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at this place downtown. I was still in some legal trouble with the Grey Album [his infamous Beatles mash-ups]. When Iggy came up to me, he told how he'd really wanted to meet me, and that he and others in his circle felt I was wrongly being messed with [over the Beatles controversy], and that if I ever needed anything, he'd be there. He was really nice, man. It turned out that he meant it all too. We see each other at festivals. We've made it a point to keep up.
Mark Linkous and I put the music together for the track and after Iggy heard it, I flew down to his home in Miami to record the vocals. I won't get into what happened in those sessions, but I'll tell you that it was definitely a very good experience, enough to say that we want to do more in some kind of way down the road.
Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 1, at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit; 313-961-MELT.