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Broken Bells' James Mercer on Turning Dark Songs Into a Party Record

The Shins frontman talks about 'After the Disco,' fatherhood and more

James Mercer and Brian Burton of Broken Bells.
James Minchin
January 31, 2014 1:40 PM ET

Last week, Danger Mouse told us that Broken Bells' new album After the Disco was "a pretty sad record." The other half of the Bells' equation, the Shins' James Mercer, says it's not a total buzzkill. "There's a lot of personal angst there," Mercer says. "If you were to take the chords and play them on a piano they would sound pretty sad. But then you add the beat and the hooks and it becomes kind of a party record in a way." Rolling Stone spoke to Mercer about what After the Disco means to him, how parenting influences his songwriting and what the new U2 album might sound like. 

See where Broken Bells' 'The Ghost Inside' ranks on our 50 Best Songs of 2010

When the Shins were touring for Port of Morrow, were you already thinking of the new Broken Bells record?
There's not a lot of thinking that I need to do away from the studio on Broken Bells stuff. Brian [Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse] and I come up with most of it there, together, which is kind of cool in that there's not a lot of preparation required. There were a couple times when I had a bit of time off in the last year and half and I was able to go down to L.A. and work with Brian and we just got a lot done really quickly. At the end of it, we didn't realize how much we had actually recorded because it was only a couple more weeks of working and we were pretty much done with the record. We were both kind of surprised that a few days here and there adds up over time and the record was kinda done before we knew it.

After doing the first record [2010's Broken Bells] and taking it on the road, did your idea for what this band could change over time?
Yeah, I guess so. On the last record and tour, we really became a band and worked out a lot of the kinks in the live show by the end of it. We felt pretty solid. I don't know. The record sold well. It did quite well for a first record for a new band, when you consider Brian and I have other things going. 

What in your mind is "After the Disco" about?
[Brian's] lifestyle and him being single and just dealing with relationships and stuff, whereas I'm kind of an old married guy. I can take those subjects and run with them too, you know. There's a lot of late night conversations that we have hanging out, working and stuff. I think some of that ends up the next day in the form of lyrics too.

Is it like being at a point in your life where you're older but you're not sure things had turned out the way you wanted?
A lot of that, yeah. He's more in flux. He's got this incredible career that's going 100 miles an hour and he's also trying to have a life and that's just hard to do. Some of that tension is great fodder for lyrics writing. There's a lot of his personal angst in there. 

What were some of the albums that were on repeat when you were working on this?
He introduced me to Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger's La Carotte Bleue, Sean Lennon's project. That was a record that was on quite a bit this last six months or so. And then there's always a lot of older music that we listened to. There's always the Beatles and David Bowie's Hunky Dory.

Was there anything that happened in your life that informed the record?
For me, I think that I'm a softening element, whereas Brian I think can sometimes be pretty dark in his musings about life and so on. Maybe it's just parenthood that puts you in a situation where you just have to develop a new attitude I guess about things. I think there's a bit of back and forth and we come to some shared ground. 

Would he take breaks to work on the U2 record? Was he thinking of that at the same time as working on that record?
Yeah, he definitely was going back and forth. It was kind of fun to be able to hear the works in progress of U2 because I was such a huge fan of theirs in high school.

How's it sounding?
It sounds awesome. It sounds really cool. It was kind of cool to hear that they record in a very similar way to the way that I work, where you improvise and try your best to come up with melodies and stuff but you don't have any lyrics.

I can't wait to hear what he does with them.
Me too. I'm so hoping it's going to do well for both parties. I think it would be great to be a hit.

Is he going to do the whole record with them?
Apparently they've done just tons of material. Apparently that whole first record is just Brian's work.

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