For a guy who’s paired up with everyone from Cee-Lo Green to David Lynch, Brian Burton — a.k.a. Danger Mouse — can’t understand why people have such a hard time wrapping their head around [artist id="3226420"]Broken Bells[/artist], his brand-new collaboration with the Shins’ James Mercer.
“It’s been weird doing press for this. For whatever reason, it feels like ‘The Newlywed Game,’ ” laughed Burton, perhaps best known as one-half of Gnarls Barkley, a Gorillaz producer and the creator of the Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up Grey Album. “They’ll be like ‘What do you like about him? What are his great qualities?’ And I’m like, ‘His hygiene.’ It’s really weird.”
It’s especially odd considering Bells is probably Burton’s most straightforward project to date. Working with Mercer — who would fly down to Los Angeles from his home in Portland, Oregon, and crash in Burton’s guest room — the two have created an actual band, with both men writing songs and playing instruments. Then again, when you’ve made your living mainly as a producer, people seem to have a hard time grasping the concept of you doing anything different.
“Before we started, I had been doing more writing and playing, so that’s what was really interesting me. So when we talked about working together, that was part of it. I kind of just wanted to be in a band,” Burton said. “It was just that I didn’t want to have to hold back creatively in any way. I had great experiences, and I learned from a lot of really great people that I had gotten to produce and work with. But I just wanted to go in and write some stuff.”
And, after working with Mercer for roughly a year, the end result is the Bells’ self-titled debut, which hits stores on March 9. Over the course of 10 sonorous tracks, the duo explore jazzy, spacey sonic terrains and spin webs that, in a lot of ways, don’t seem all that different from their previous projects (Burton’s never-released Dark Night of the Soul album, and the Shins’ 2007 effort Wincing the Night Away
But nothing could be further from the truth, which is what drew both men to the project in the first place.
“It was liberating, absolutely. And, at first, a little bit nerve-racking,” Mercer said. “It had been a long time since I had collaborated, writing-wise, with anyone. And Brian’s worked with such great artists and he’s done so much, so it was a little intimidating at first. But he’s real casual about everything, and it went real well, right off the bat.”
“I started out making my own records in my dorm room with a four-track [tape recorder], writing songs that weren’t very good. And I did that for a couple albums, worked with some other musicians, and the first album I ever produced that wasn’t my own thing was the Gorillaz record,” Burton added. “And then I only produced for a few years … it was definitely a way for me to learn from a bunch of really great songwriters, so I took producing as a chance to do that. It was really fun and I learned a lot doing it — I guess I just thought this was a lot different, because of the writing element of it. I knew if it wasn’t any good, it would stand out pretty bad.”
And while both Mercer and Burton maintain that their other projects are still happening (Mercer said there “very well might” be a new Shins record next year), the Broken Bells remain their top priority. They’ve already begun work on a second album, and plan to take their show on the road. This is, after all, an actual band. And they’re itching to prove it … even if they have to go through “The Newlywed Game” to do so.
“It’s kind of odd for me to sit here and hear Brian say he likes my singing and stuff. It’s flattering,” Mercer smiled. “I think I’m falling for him.”