Danger Mouse has become one of rock's biggest producers in the past five years, working with A-list bands like the Black Keys and U2 – but he admits his personal life hasn't been quite as successful. "I don't have a relationship, so I'm kind of all over the place," says the 36-year-old, whose real name is Brian Burton. "When I meet younger people, I'm like, 'Wait a minute, I'm not so young anymore. Is this the way it's supposed to be?'"
Burton's angst helped inspire After the Disco (out January 14th) – the second LP by Broken Bells, his collaboration with James Mercer of Oregon indie kings the Shins, who are on break. "He can be pretty dark in his musings about life, being single, all that stuff," says Mercer, who crashed at Burton's place in Los Angeles while they were making the record, often staying up late to drink and talk. "Whereas I've left a lot of that behind. I'm kind of an old married guy."
You can hear those emotions on standout tracks like the jittery dance-pop tune "A Perfect World" and the acoustic highlight "Leave It Alone," where Mercer sings hauntingly about heartbreak and deceit. At the same time, After the Disco is Broken Bells' catchiest set yet, augmenting the duo's psych-pop sound with late-night grooves and sleek synths. "If you were to play the songs on a piano, they would sound pretty sad," says Mercer. "But you add the beat and hooks, and then it becomes a party record, in a way."
Burton kept the recording equipment to a bare minimum – using only a couple of guitars and inexpensive synths to create loops for Mercer to sing over. "We like the idea of making a record that anybody could make," says Burton. "Doing something on a smaller scale, but making it sound really big."
Between sessions, they listened to everything from David Bowie's Hunky Dory to Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer, and bonded over old science-fiction films. Says Burton, "We're fascinated with what people in the Fifties and Sixties thought the future was going to be like."
The album clicked into place a year ago, when, on the last day of a monthlong session, Mercer started playing a simple melody on guitar while a car was waiting outside to take him to the airport. "Brian recognized it and said, 'Wait a minute, that's a thing!'" says Mercer. When they gathered again a few months later, that snippet evolved into the LP's glittery title track, with a wiggly bass line and lyrics about reluctantly leaving youth behind. "You can dance to it," says Burton, "but it still has the sadness, the darker melancholy thing we like to do."
With the Broken Bells album done, Burton is focusing on finishing U2's upcoming studio LP. "It's an ongoing process," he says. "That's all I can say." (Mercer, who got to hear some early tracks while he was recording with Burton, adds, "It sounds awesome!") The duo are also rehearsing for a winter tour, where they'll re-create the LP's layered arrangements onstage. "The way we make the records, there's a lot of trickery," says Mercer. "It'll be cool to see it turn into something real."
This story is from the December 5th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.