Broken Bells: Life 'After The Disco'

Feb 4, 2014
Originally published on February 6, 2014 6:12 am

After the Disco, Broken Bells' second album, grew out of late-night conversations about what happens once you've grown up, or what happens after the party. The title phrase developed from band member James Mercer (The Shins) riffing on melodies until he hit something that sounded like "after the disco."

"Life is sad," Mercer says. "People, you know, are going to pass, and you know that you will one day. I mean, there's that. I think that Brian [Burton] and I have pretty heavy conversations about things like that."

"You think about what it's going to be like when you're older, and now you're there, and, well, now what do you do?" Burton (Danger Mouse) asks.

Speaking recently with NPR's David Greene, Mercer and Burton discussed their creative process and how making the album provided a refuge from other projects, both personal and musical.

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Our colleague David Greene chatted recently with two musicians who've realized that whenever their careers hit a wall, they want to keep making music - just differently.


James Mercer and his band, The Shins shot to the top of the indie rock world with help from the movie "Garden State."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What are you listening to?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Shins. You know them?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You got to hear this one song. It will change your life, I swear.


GREENE: A few years later, The Shins all but broke up.

JAMES MERCER: I think the focus left working on the music and became just sort of interpersonal relationship stuff.

GREENE: Hoping to re-focus, Mercer turned to a friend, Brian Burton. He's better known as Danger Mouse and he's one of the industry's hottest producers. He's worked with U2 and Norah Jones and was part of the R&B duo that made this.


GNARLS BARKLEY: (Singing) I think you're crazy. I think you're crazy...

GREENE: James Mercer and Brian Burton formed their own duo, Broken Bells. They're out with their second album, it's called "After the Disco."


GREENE: Both men came in to chat with us. They're at different places in their lives. Mercer is a family guy in Portland, Oregon. Burton is living the single life in L.A., and his house is where the guys camped out, working on the new album. Mercer says after his ups and downs with The Shins, this really feels like a refuge.

MERCER: I had done Shins for quite a while and it's all my songs, you know? And so there's a certain monotony with that. You know, it's me going back into the salt mine and trying to figure out, OK, another thing that I got to be really eloquent about again.


MERCER: You know, there's times when it kind of feels like that. And then, this is like I get to come down and collaborate with somebody who has very different approach in the way he records music and even the way he writes music. And I get to just, sort of, take on a different role and it's really exciting. So yeah, this is a refuge for me. You know?


BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) Girl, take a seat. Rest your weary bones. Your secret is safe in my hands...

BRIAN BURTON: I like to work with unique singers and James is a very unique singer.

GREENE: What makes him unique?

BURTON: Something about his voice connects with me very personally, very specifically. So that's all I really need to, you know, to be honest. And he has a lot of range, as well.


BELLS: (Singing) Ain't nobody calling. Ain't nobody home. What a lovely day to be lonely. You're holding on for life...

GREENE: That's probably the range are talking about there. Right, Brian?


BURTON: That's part of it, yeah. Sure.


GREENE: James, I feel - I kind of get a Bee Gees kind of feel. I mean it's the falsetto. Is it tough to do that?

MERCER: Not too difficult for me. I mean I think a lot of people can actually sing falsetto. In a way, it's sort of a trick to make it easier to hit those high notes.

GREENE: You're saying it's easier to do falsetto? I don't know if I believe you.

MERCER: It's easier than using a full voice.


MERCER: You know, which for me means I need to be like screaming, basically...


MERCER: ...and get that high.


BELLS: (Singing) You're holding on for life. Holding on for life. Life. Holding on for life...

GREENE: Paint me as scene here. I'm imagining something that resembles like a man cave or a bachelor pad or something.

BURTON: Not really.

MERCER: Brian's house is pretty nice. He probably has...


MERCER: It's a lot nicer then...

GREENE: A really upscale man cave.



BURTON: Well, we don't record the album at my house or anything like that. I mean we basically just get up in the morning each day and like go to work, basically. You know, some people carpool - they take each other up. But where are you the same plays and we just go find out we're going to eat on the way. We know we didn't go to the studio, and we go in and we just start writing and recording songs.


BELLS: (Singing) After your faith has led you down, I know you want to run around and follow the crowd...

MERCER: I spend a lot of time on the mic just sort of scatting out melodic ideas. You know, just trying to riff and come up with something. And so, Brian, during that whole process is guiding me and say what he likes, what he doesn't like. And so, we build it together that way. So there's just a lot of feedback.


BELLS: (Singing) 'Cause I'm waiting here much too long and found us, too, thought I knew your love. But you denied....

GREENE: Isn't that process you talking about, how you came up with the title of the song and that this element is named after, "After the Disco."

MERCER: I said something that sounded like after the disco and we both like that.

GREENE: What is that title mean?

BURTON: Well, like you said, it just was a line. And I guess at the time, it was kind of almost more of a question: You know, what happens after the party is over with or growing up - what happens next.

GREENE: There's something kind of sad about the idea that you're thinking about what comes next after the party is over. Is there something about sort of hitting a moment in your lives, where you guys are contemplating that question?

BURTON: I think so. I mean there's a little melancholy to it, for sure.

MERCER: Life is sad.

BURTON: It can be in a lot of ways.


GREENE: Why do you say that? Why do you guys say that?

MERCER: Oh, well, for the obvious reasons, you know. People you know are going to pass and you know that you will one day. I mean there's that. We can start...


MERCER: Brian and I sometimes have pretty heavy conversations about things like that.

GREENE: Mortality and that sort of thing?

MERCER: Yeah, you know.

BURTON: A little bit. And I think also it's not so much that when you get a little bit older or to be an adult, that you're disappointed.

MERCER: Your youth goes away...

BURTON: Yeah, your youth goes away and it's what you've been dreaming when you're younger about what it's going to be like when you're married, or what it's going to be like when you have a job. Or when you're older and then you get there and it's not like that at all. And it's like, well, what do people in their 20's and their 30's now dream about for the next 50 years?

GREENE: Brian, I read that before starting this record, you went through difficult time that involves taking a break from music for a period of months; a drive across the country. Tell me what was happening.

BURTON: Well, without getting too personal, I guess I just needed a break. I think I'd been working myself to the point where I wasn't sure about my own motivations for what I was doing anymore. So I just needed some time off. And, you know, it was supposed to be just a month off hanging out in New York, and it turned into about seven months. And I just didn't do anything.

And I just kind of - I had to re-remember why I do what I do. And it wound up being really simple. And New York is full of art and creativity, and so I just got quickly reminded: Oh yeah, I just like to make things. I should just go back to concentrating on making things. So when I kind of got out of that little funk, you know, the first thing I was thinking about was getting back into Broken Bells.


INSKEEP: Brian Burton and James Mercer from Broken Bells, speaking with David Greene on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

I'm Steve Inskeep


And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.