That might sound curious given how James has fronted a fully-fledged band for over a decade, but this was different. When they collaborated for the first time in LA, it wasn’t necessarily the first of many steps, but it was a process that required both of Broken Bells to take a risk and seek out something they hadn’t yet achieved.
“I didn’t know we’d get on so well, but we did,” says Brian, sitting on a plush hotel sofa in East London. Both of them are dragged out and jetlagged, as James downs an energy shot mid-interview, piping up in the process. Touring, interviews, the inevitable add-ons of being in a band; these weren’t considered when Broken Bells first started out in 2010.
After initial sessions, “each thing came with its own next step,” says Brian. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, it was just a case of ‘Well, why wouldn’t we?’
“I just wanted to have somebody to write songs with that I thought would be a really unique voice. I had a feeling James could be more versatile and that would’ve been the main important thing. And very quickly, it was obvious that was the case.”
For the Shins frontman, the first Broken Bells record wasn’t just an exercise in writing songs with a different person. It got something out of Mercer, a new confidence that shows itself up in second collaborative LP ‘After The Disco’. “[It] revealed to me that I could stand on my own a bit,” James affirms. “I think I was a bit co-dependent on my bandmates when we started out.”
He describes the experience he’d grown accustomed to as “not really healthy”, claiming that “we got into such a situation where [the band] sort of knew that, about me. It was just a strange thing.
“Working with Brian was such a terrific break from that. And then I came back with this new perspective and whole new confidence about myself. This project changed everything.”
That was the ‘… Disco’. Following a debut album and the subsequent touring, Broken Bells suddenly became a fully-fledged band, something in the back of James and Brian’s heads, even when they went back to working on other projects. Although they insist that they never email ideas or jot notes down, that it’s all a process that takes place as soon as they’re in the same room, second album ‘After The Disco’ is driven by a desire to improve, to step things up a notch.
For starters, what began as an initial pairing together eventually developed its own studio relationship. Feedback and complaints were aired out with no fear of the consequences. “It was easier for James to critique me this time round,” admits Brian. “And it was easy for me to take it because I had that much respect for him.”
“I think Brian and I are closer as friends now,” echoes James. “And that somehow probably shows up [in the new album].” If anything’s shifted, Brian says, it’s the way they approach what’s within a song. The nitty gritty details, the underlying themes. “Our lyrical standpoint became more personal,” he affirms. “It was ok if one of us took more of a lead on one song. It was understood. It was like ‘alright, I see where this is going. Go ahead.’”
As it progresses, ‘After The Disco’ shows the pair speaking from the same page, albeit one laced with fear, loneliness. There’s more to Broken Bells than the mere novelty of collaboration. Here, they’re showing their sensitive side. It’s a lonely world out there, they claim. “It’s personal, it’s very personal for either one of us depending on what lyric or what song,” says Brian.
Summing up the album’s dark but optimistic endpoint, James refers to “the endless longing that life is filled with, especially if you’re lonely. Even if you’re not, it seems like those periods are intermittent periods of satisfaction. And then it returns. I always think of our pink orb as that - here it comes again.”
Loneliness can manifest itself constantly, for anyone trying to hit a creative goal. “When you make stuff, you want to prove you’re worthy,” Brian declares ‘Brian and I are closer as friends now.’, speaking as a guy who made ‘The Grey Album’, guested on Gorillaz records, wrote number 1 singles with Gnarls Barkley. As if he’s anything left to prove. “You want to prove that you’re somebody, that you did something, that there’s proof that you were here. Usually you want to prove that to people. So, you want people to appreciate it or acknowledge it in some way. Usually you start out without any of that. And then they do, and then they don’t again.”
If Broken Bells stems from a desire to prove something - and indeed the debut showcased the pair’s ability to transform and redefine their own boundaries in a dazzling instant - it’s countered with a level-headedness, something that comes with experience. “You’ve got to be careful what fuel you run off of,” Brian says as James ironically takes another sip of his imported energy shot. “You can’t have a chip on your shoulder. If you’re running off of toxics, it can eat you up. I think there’s still a fair amount of that here and there.”
‘After The Disco’ backs up and defies the debut. Just like everything Danger Mouse and James Mercer have previously put their name to, it circles around expectations instead of meeting them head-on. This is their band and it’s their means of being most vocal. Brian calls it “his main project”. The continuation of Broken Bells shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. Both involved are treating it just like any other band, a strike while the iron’s hot project that won’t stop until they’ve reached their creative peak.
Taken from the new, free DIY Weekly, available to read online or to download on iPad now.
Broken Bells’ ‘After The Disco’ is released on 3rd February.
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