“Perfect timing. Almost to the point where you’re superstitious.”: In which James Mercer, of Shins indie rock fame, outlines his gradual disillusionment with his old band and suggests how the subsequent summit with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton might turn into his sonic salvation.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
DATELINE: Tempe, Arizona – April 10, 2014
James Mercer steps out from behind his keyboard, gesturing expansively with his hands as the song “After the Disco” picks up steam. When the chorus kicks in he throws his head back and holds the microphone far out front, opening the throttle on his singing. The once helium-voiced Shins frontman is singing fully from his diaphragm now, and it is something to behold: a full range, from deep baritone to skyscraping falsetto, has burst out of this wispy indie-rock guy like one of those creatures from Aliens. He’s dressing for church now too; gone are the un-tucked plaid shirts and jeans he once favored, replaced by a sharp, perfectly fitting black blazer, slacks, and dark dress shirt.
Mercer follows an interesting pattern throughout the performance. He ventures out just so far, then retreats back behind his keyboard, crouches like a boxer, then begins the whole cycle again. Each time he goes out a little further until, by the end of the show, he is fully riding the waves of audience approval. Remarkably, he doesn’t seem to grasp the scope of his vocal ability, which gives his performance a guilelessness and purity you don’t often see. He has hit that sweet spot in his career where he is no longer insecure, but is not yet arrogant. I relish this moment; it will surely not last. At some point in the not-too-distant future, enough people will speak loudly enough of his gifts that he’ll start to recognize his own greatness. And then, even as the confidence solidifies, something will be lost.
For now, I watch a natural showman take his first tentative steps into the spotlight, unaccompanied by the guitar he has hidden behind for almost two decades. The occasion for this is the current tour of Broken Bells, the band Mercer co-leads with producer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Burton, also known as Danger Mouse. This is a good time to see them. Burton and Mercer are accompanied on this tour by two formidable road warriors: a wiry, ultra-focused guitar wiz and backing vocalist named Dan Elkan, and a towering beast of a drummer/keyboardist/bassist named Jon Sortland, who looks like a cleaned-up barbarian. He’s brutal and precise. That is to say, he brutally and precisely beats the shit out of all three of his instruments, which gives Burton and Mercer’s meticulous compositions an aggressive edge onstage.
Broken Bells are still playing small theaters. That, too, won’t last.
A couple of nights later, in Tucson, I get the chance to interview the two Broken Bells composers on their well-equipped tour bus. Foremost on my mind is Mercer’s transformation from sensitive, disheveled balladeer into immaculately groomed soul sensation. Up close, the singer is handsome in a brooding sort of way. He has a classically photogenic face: sharply lined brow; intense, soulful, and perpetually worried eyes; a long, sloping nose; and a dark, well-kept beard. He looks tired but healthy. I tell him that I feel he has “uncorked” something as a vocalist and performer, and that I’m hearing Hall and Oates and the Bee Gees in his new style. Mercer frowns slightly at this. He doesn’t know me well enough to realize that I’ve just told him his music is awesome slathered with perfect.
“They were just white dudes being influenced by the same thing I was,” he says dismissively. “This form of music is the American music. You don’t have to have an obscure record collection or anything like that to know about Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke. That style of singing—let’s say the older R&B style—that’s the most emotionally powerful singing that’s been done. I’m sort of emulating that stuff, maybe, for the first time. Whereas I used to just do it when I was drunk in my house, now I’m actually bold enough to do it on a record.”
This is a fine answer and I have no reason to doubt Mercer’s sincerity, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed. I was hoping he’d say that he’s obsessed with Hall & Oates and the Bee Gees, and that he keeps a copy of the latter band’s album Cucumber Castle under his pillow at night. Because the thing is, I have to go back to Hall & Oates’s Rock ‘n’ Soul Part 1 to find another record as catchy as the new Broken Bells album After the Disco (and Rock ‘n’ Soul was a greatest hits album.) Prior to that, I have to reach back to the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
Broken Bells’ first, self-titled album was, for me, another story. The band emerged in 2009 as a superduo of sorts, a collaboration between Mercer, who had already enjoyed considerable success with The Shins, and Burton, then best known as one-half of the duo Gnarls Barkley and co-writer of their mega-hit “Crazy.” Such a pedigree leads to high expectations, and at first I was underwhelmed. Some aspects of the production sounded, to me, a bit tinny, and for every great melody there were several that went in one ear and out the other. I found myself longing for either the Shins or Gnarls Barkley, but not this mixture of the two.
Now, however, having heard the band perform many of the songs from that album live—with Elkan rounding off some of the harsher edges with his warm guitar tones and Mercer bringing his newfound vocal commitment to bear on the material—I am beginning to reassess that first offering. While it’s still not exactly my jam, I can see that, at the very least, it paved the ground for the new work. As Mercer says: “The biggest ‘uncorking’ for me was when I worked with Brian on that first record. That was when I did things that I hadn’t done before, that maybe I would have been afraid to do before. I did it and it worked and a lot of that goes to Brian, who is confident in the work and feels comfortable with putting it down. Therefore, it bolsters you, so you let go.”
Yes. What the more organic live performances have revealed is the rich diversity of material on that first Broken Bells record. From the quirky mid-tempo anthem “The High Road” (watch the video, above) to the falsetto-saturated funk of “The Ghost Inside” to the early New Order sounds of “The Mall and Misery,” one hears the giddy range of possibilities inherent in the partnership. I can see, too, that the project was a stretch for both artists: for Mercer, it represented a step away from the comfort zone he had created for himself with The Shins. For Burton, it marked the final step in his long evolution from sample-happy “DJ Dangermouse” into a fully fledged composer and musician.
“The stuff that Brian writes is just shit that I wouldn’t do,” Mercer continues. “I’m having to think in a different way, which is great. Whereas in the past I’ve spent so much time sitting there and being the guy putting chords together and then singing over them and doing that whole process alone. That is a huge factor in why we sound different from The Shins and any of that.”
Mercer has taken a circuitous path to get to this point. A military brat, he spent significant stretches of his youth in Hawaii, Germany, and England. He began his teens in Albuquerque, New Mexico, completed high school in the UK, and returned to Albuquerque for a half-hearted attempt to study chemistry at the University of New Mexico. It was during this phase that he fell in with a rotating cast of musicians that eventually gelled into the band Flake Music and, later, The Shins. Given Mercer’s noted fussiness as a songwriter, it’s not surprising that his material was strong right out of the gate; he’s the type of guy who would prefer not to leave his bedroom until he’s sure he’s come up with something good. Thus, one of The Shins’ earliest songs, “New Slang,” is also one of their best and most popular. It certainly leaves an impression: the gentle, insistent acoustic guitar pattern accompanied by an eerie, wordless falsetto melody—a melody all the more striking because it only shows up in the intro and outro; the restrained, reverby electric guitar that shows up twice to shade in the spaces between the verses; the solitary tambourine: all of these elements adding texture upon texture. One of the most subtle pieces of music ever to go viral, “New Slang” appeared in the public consciousness first as a featured release for Sub Pop Records’ “Single of the Month” club, then as a showpiece track on the band’s debut album Oh, Inverted World, and finally (and most infamously) in a scene from the movie “Garden State” in which Natalie Portman plays the song for Zach Braff, saying, “You gotta hear this one song; it’ll change your life, I swear.” Such a ubiquitous presence across the hippest of platforms (we’ll just overlook the McDonald’s commercial) coupled with the group’s almost too-appropriate move to Portland en masse set them up as the anointed kings of early 2000s indie rock—and primed them for a backlash.
And yet, Mercer outmaneuvered that seemingly inevitable outcome. Before the Shins could overstay their welcome, he met Danger Mouse and veered off with his new partner into what would ultimately become Broken Bells (their first collaborative effort appeared on the Danger Mouse album Dark Night of the Soul). When the Shins finally returned in 2012, the band had an entirely new lineup and a markedly different sound. They were fresh again.
Of course, the collateral damage was the careers of the other founding members of The Shins, who suddenly found themselves out of their own band. James Mercer is not a diva; he’s not malicious or self-absorbed, but he is very precise in the execution of his art—a character trait that should be readily apparent from even a casual listen of “New Slang.” He doesn’t relish replacing old friends with hired guns but will do so if the new lineup promises to push him further. That restless search for new creative horizons has led Mercer deeper into the Broken Bells collaboration and has enabled him to sidestep the “Portlandia” malaise.
The minor key that always underscores the major key of perfectionism is anxiety, for every perfectionist lives in a world that feels not quite right. Successfully reconciling oneself to this discomfort is the key to long-term survival, and Mercer seems to have managed that about as well as anyone. In earlier interviews I’ve read, his tension practically leaps off the page. But during our own conversation, he is relaxed and engaged. He has the air of someone who has done quite a lot of internal work to get to where he is. One of the things that makes Broken Bells so remarkable is the fact that such a control-oriented songwriter would submit so wholeheartedly, so unquestioningly, to a collaboration in the first place. Such a move is only possible because he has chosen a partner whose creative vision is even more forceful and expansive than his own. Met with such powerful assurance, the lifelong perfectionist is able to loose his self-imposed inhibitions and soar.
“The Shins became a business,” he says. “Like being the center of a business that was sort of rolling down the road. Things were getting difficult. For me, the idea that I could work with somebody who’s got so much to bring to this thing, somebody like Brian, was just perfect. Perfect. Perfect timing. Almost to the point where you’re superstitious.”
To be continued… Below, watch the band live on Letterman this past June. Meanwhile, in part 2 of our Broken Bells story, Mercer and Danger Mouse meet via an eHarmony ad and… just kidding! Our correspondent Lurie details his college days with Burton – which included a musical collaboration, and we are NOT kidding about that – and we learn how everything gradually begins to fall into place. Tune in right here, tomorrow. After that comes part 3, natch. [Note: Broken Bells are currently on a North American tour, and will also kick in with another tour leg starting in late September. View dates HERE.]
Photo credit: James Minchin