Broken Bells head back to the musical future

With Broken Bells, James Mercer and Brian Burton take a retro approach to forward-thinking music

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      The high-profile members of the two-man supergroup known as Broken Bells have never been accused of being fixated on the past. Right up until the March release of Broken Bells, James Mercer was famous as the frontman for Portland’s the Shins, a band that helped make the ’00s the decade of forward-thinking indie rock.

      Producer Brian Burton, the other half of the duo, has proven himself even more progressive. The man known to his mom as Danger Mouse first hit the hipster radar as the mastermind behind The Grey Album, which famously blended the Beatles’ White Album with Jay Z’s The Black Album to create what’s arguably the most celebrated mashup collection of all time. Since then, he’s topped the charts as half of Gnarls Barkley while proving himself a go-to-producer for artists determined to throw their fans a curve ball. (In danger of being pegged as garage-blues minimalists, the Black Keys turned out to be much more when they teamed up with Burton for the 2008 hit that was Attack & Release.)

      In some ways, though, the decidedly odd couple of Burton and Mercer went back to the past when they got together to create Broken Bells, a project they’d talked about doing since 2004. What you hear on the group’s debut is two guys using vintage equipment to create something that will surprise those who thought they had a pretty good idea where the two musicians were coming from.

      “Most of the equipment we used is from the ’60s and ’70s,” Burton says, on a conference call with Mercer from his Los Angeles home. “The drum kits, the mikes, the organs, all the keyboards and synthesizers and guitars—we have all the same stuff that was used on old records. That’s kind of the way we decided to do it. It was all intentional.”

      What’s misleading about all that is that no one is going to confuse Broken Bells with a long-mothballed artifact from the Summer of Love or Have a Nice Day decade.

      Still, the duo isn’t completely shy about plundering the past for inspiration. The keyboard flourishes in the kaleidoscopic-pop jam “Sailing to Nowhere” sound salvaged from a tinny AM radio, while “Mongrel Heart” starts out as a pointy-shoes-and-black-nail-polish postpunker before unleashing a battery of spaghetti-western horns. Mostly, though, Broken Bells seems on a mission to reinvent MOR for the Facebook nation, the warm and organic-sounding results suggesting that the band wouldn’t be out of place sandwiched between Air and the Dandy Warhols on an iPod playlist.

      What Mercer likes about Broken Bells is that the record was every bit as challenging for him as it might prove for less adventurous fans of the Shins.

      “I had kind of created this insular environment for myself where, creatively, the Shins were something that I really kind of took the reins of,” he says. “I hadn’t done a lot of collaborating with people since my early days in bands. And then there was also the fact that Brian has worked with so many great bands and musicians, and the fact that the stuff he does on his own is so solid. I was sort of sitting there going, ”˜Well, shit, I hope I can keep up and not disappoint.’ ”

      Making things easy on Mercer was that he and Burton had a mutual-admiration society going on. Already familiar with each other’s work, the two first came face-to-face in 2004 at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

      “I met all the Shins at once, and at the time I didn’t even know who James was,” Burton says. “I had the record, but there was no picture of them. I remember being kind of quiet at first. But I watched them play, and then ended up hanging out with them that night.”

      Mercer and Burton knew early on they wanted to work together. Getting Broken Bells off the ground, however, would not only take half a decade, but also required the two to figure out what direction they would take.

      “We didn’t sit down with a strategy where we tried to formulate what we were going to sound like,” Mercer notes. “It was more like ”˜Sit down, start messing around with this old equipment, and as soon as something starts to capture your ear, you document it.’ We kept building that way, and it worked out, I think, really well.”

      Indeed it did, with Broken Bells swinging easily from the multilayered synths-and-phasers-soaked majesty of “Your Head Is on Fire” to the stripped-to-essentials soft-pop of “The High Road”. Mercer notes that there were times when he was forced to step well out of his comfort zone, even going so far as to channel the purple-clad pervert known as Prince on the electro-tinted, chilled-out thumper “The Ghost Inside”.

      “I was kind of goofing around with the idea of doing falsetto on that one, and Brian really liked it,” Mercer says.

      Burton jumps in with: “We tried a bunch of different things and they weren’t really working. So we went back to the idea of maybe doing it falsetto. It just seemed like that was what worked naturally with the music.”

      What both were surprised to discover was that, despite their different backgrounds, they had no problem meshing as a team. In fact, things went smashingly enough that Mercer suggests fans will have a tough time figuring out who is responsible for what on the record. So, as much as the winsome acoustic-rocker “October” might come across as something pulled from the Shins stockpile, it’s in fact anything but.

      “I think there are some pretty big surprises on the record,” Mercer says. “Stuff that sounds like something that I would have come up with is often Brian, which I think is really cool.”

      Ultimately, though, even if they weren’t a solid team when they first entered the studio, the Broken Bells bandmates left as just that.

      “Brian is really easy to work with,” Mercer says. “He created a completely natural environment where you’re allowed to play around with things and try and figure out what sounds cool. That means experimenting and making mistakes and coming up with things that don’t always work at first. And we really were experimenting—it’s like we were just making up this whole thing as we went along.”

      Broken Bells plays the Commodore Ballroom on Wednesday (May 26).