When Danger Mouse and the Shins’ James Mercer met backstage at Denmark’s Roskilde festival five years ago, the unlikely duo quickly discovered a mutual fandom. “As soon as I heard the Shins, I wanted to do something with James, no matter what,” Danger Mouse explains. Their partnership took time to develop, but in March 2008, Mercer began a peripatetic recording odyssey, sequestering for weeks on end at Danger Mouse’s Los Angeles home studio. Both were coming off of a series of high-profile, high-pressure undertakings — Danger Mouse had recently finished producing Beck’s Modern Guilt, while Mercer was coming off a controversial, radical reshuffle of the Shins’ lineup. As a result, they covertly began making music that resembled nothing either of them had ever done.
The result is Broken Bells, what was until now a top-secret collaboration. Maverick musician/studio maven Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) explains this latest effort is no one-off art project like Dark Night of the Soul, his much-hyped joint endeavor with Sparklehorse and film director David Lynch from earlier this year. And while he’s well known for producing the likes of Gorillaz, he claims it’s not a Shins album as produced by Danger Mouse; nor is it a trading-computer-files creation a la Gnarls Barkley, his acclaimed partnership with Cee-Lo. Nope, both Danger Mouse and Mercer agree that Broken Bells is, in fact, a band. “We just didn’t get anybody else in it but ourselves,” explains Danger Mouse. “We’d never worked together before, but then we did one song and it was great.”
Danger Mouse and Mercer make all this clear as they linger between shots during a spooky late-night video shoot for Broken Bells’ first single, “The High Road”: in the clip, the duo stalks a dark desert road with flashlights, encountering surreal characters like a burlesque dancer gyrating in a wood shack. It’s an appropriate visual for sounds that might’ve been beamed in from another dimension, one where electronica textures collide with psychedelic harpsichords and eerie Pet Sounds harmonies. “It’s melodic, but experimental, too,” Danger Mouse says of Broken Bells’ upcoming, as-yet-untitled album, which will be released via Columbia in early 2010. “We experimented a lot.”
That exploratory tendency rings clear in haunting tracks like “The Ghost Inside” and especially “Sailing To Nowhere/Deviant Sister,” which forges folk-soul apocalyptica out of carnival organ, spacey sound effects and lushly layered vocals that Mercer calls the “Age of Aquarius thing.” As such, when Mercer sings about “the guts on your blouse,” it’s obvious this is the darkest material either has made yet. “That song is really murderous — there’s some really sinister, nasty shit going on in there,” Mercer says.
Danger Mouse — infamous for mashing up the Beatles with Jay-Z on his 2004 Internet bootleg sensation The Grey Album — forsook his trademark sampling for live instruments (“Everything was played live,” he says); Mercer, meanwhile, found himself expanding his vocal style, debuting soulful falsettos and a ghostly lower-register croon that had never made appearances on his previous recordings. “There are a number of times on this record where you’d never guess it’s James singing,” Danger Mouse notes. “I’m doing things I’ve never done before,” Mercer adds. “When you’re the master of your own domain, it’s easy to fall into patterns. But with this, there was a freedom to try stuff and not worry about what it would mean for this identity I’ve created. And it just sounded cool.”
“We wanted to be in our own little world for this thing,” Danger Mouse concludes, “and it worked.”