The thing James Mercer likes most about Broken Bells is that nobody saw it coming.
“Yeah, it’s been fun to start from scratch and just sort of deal with people’s expectations and hopefully surprise some people,” says Mercer, who regularly leads Portland indie rockers The Shins and joined forces with Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz and Black Keys fame.
“We’re really enjoying this.”
Broken Bells is still a story in progress, much to Mercer’s delight. The duo released its self titled debut album on March 9 and watched it debut at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart. The first single, “The High Road,” strolled to No. 19 on the Alternative Songs survey, while a second, “The Ghost Inside,” is in the midst of its climb.
The live incarnation of Broken Bells, meanwhile, debuted at this year’s South By Southwest Music & Media Conference and is now in its first major North American tour before heading across the pond to play European festivals this summer.
“I thought it was going to be a little more difficult than it’s been to try and communicate what we were about and who we are and why you ought to (care),” Mercer, 39, notes. “I’m pretty green on the whole chart thing, but it definitely feels like people are getting this and excited about it, which is gratifying.”
The bond for Broken Bells was forged when Mercer and Burton met in 2004 at a concert, when they expressed mutual regard and talked about working together. But Burton was busy with Gnarls Barkley in the wake of the success of the single “Crazy,” and Mercer and The Shins were juggling their own commitments in promoting 2007’s “Wincing the Night Away.”
Nevertheless, Mercer recalls, “We would see each other repeatedly at festivals and stuff and got to know each other a little bit better. He would show me stuff he was working on and producing. I had asked him in the past to remix a record or something like that, and he didn’t want to do it, so I wasn’t sure what he thought.
“It turned out he had the idea of starting a band.”
Mercer and Burton started working together in March 2008, when the latter invited Mercer to his Los Angeles studio.
“He’s got a really nice place there to record,” Mercer recalls, “and we just kind of sat down and he introduced me to his engineers. I think he picked up some instrument, like a chord organ, and we started playing chords together. I hovered over him and started humming a melody, and pretty soon we had a little part to record.”
That song didn’t wind up on “Broken Bells,” but it did signal the start of the project. Mercer would travel between Portland and Los Angeles for two-week sessions, gradually developing “a cohesive sound” from plenty of sonic experiments.
“We had a lot of space-out, psychedelic jams that didn’t make the record but were lot of fun to do,” Mercer says.
They also helped him appreciate Burton as something beyond the idiosyncratic, mad scientist Danger Mouse persona he’d cultivated with his previous projects.
“I didn’t know he was as much of a musician as he is,” Mercer explains. “He’s just not intimidated by anything, which I think is a really impressive and neat thing.
“He’s somebody who didn’t grow up playing instruments, but he doesn’t care at all. He’s full-steam ahead. He has a music fan’s ear, and he knows what he likes. He uses that to guide him, and it works so well.”
Of course, Mercer now finds himself with more work — and two bands. He predicts that, after touring with Broken Bells, his next outing will be the fourth Shins album, which he’s going into with great anticipation. “(Broken Bells) has made me feel excited about doing Shins stuff again,” he says. “It’s been so inspiring. I want to take some of (Burton’s) approach and apply it to my (Shins) work.”
Meanwhile, Mercer says he fully expects Broken Bells to remain intact, with another album a more than likely prospect. “We need to do another record, for sure, because we’ve got these songs we need to put out,” he says. “We’ve got these songs that aren’t B-side type stuff, definitely ones we want on a record.
“I think (Burton) enjoys it, too. It’s so enjoyable ... It’s like a vacation — although I don’t want my wife to know that! We definitely will keep working together.”
Mercer isn’t sure of a timetable for either the next Shins or Broken Bells projects, but he says he finds no conflict creating music for either of the groups.
“I don’t really write anything ahead of time for Broken Bells, he explains. “We just go into the studio and start improvising. There have been a couple things that have strayed from that, but mostly we sit down in the studio and start working and see what happens. And then anything I’m writing by myself I consider to be Shins stuff.”
Broken Bells perform Tuesday at Saint Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. Call 313-961-6358 or visit www.livenation.com.
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