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TAS Interviews: Broken Bells

Broken Bells

Broken Bells

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The new album by Broken Bells, better known as James Mercer of the Shins and Brian Burton (Danger Mouse), is out this week.

I couldn't be more thrilled about it. I had a chance to talk with the guys recently and they were both really excited about the work that they've been doing together. Both James and Brian were invigorated by the experience and were really happy to do something different from what they'd been doing in the past.

Of course, I realized that I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the status of their previous projects. The response, however, was pretty much what you'd expect. James says that the Shins are still going, just on hiatus. And Brian is not ruling out another Gnarls Barkley album, but it's not really top priority for him. He did hint at a new project, but wouldn't give me any details even though I asked very nicely. I guess we'll just have to wait for more news on that.

Since I spoke to James and Brian several weeks ago, before the tragic death of Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous this past Saturday, we only touched briefly on Brian and James' work with Mark on Dark Night of the Soul. After all kinds of legal hassles holding up the release of that album, all seems to have been resolved over the last couple of weeks and Dark Night of the Soul will likely come out by early summer. Sadly, the album's long overdue release now seems especially bittersweet given Mark's passing. You can find out more about the project here.

Around the time I spoke to Brian and James, their debut album had appeared mysteriously on the internet, nearly a month (or more) before its official release:

Alisa Ali: How did [the Broken Bells] album leak early?

Brian Burton: The version that leaked is not what you have though.

Alisa: Tell me the difference?

James Mercer: It's not mastered, there's parts missing on some of the songs and there's a song missing.

Brian: There's a song missing and there's a song we really didn't include that's on the leak somehow. We don't even know how it happened. It was just an earlier version. I mean, it's similar, it's just not what you have in your hands.

Alisa: It's so funny that it leaked and there are reviews of the leak.

James: I know, it's shameless, isn't it?

Brian: We don't know what the reviews are, don't tell us please!

Alisa: Do you generally not read reviews?

Brian: You hear about them and sometimes if they're really good, they get put in front of you and you'll go, okay, that's cool. But on this one, I think, it's kind of irrelevant really. We've both been doing this for a long time and I think we're kind of meant to do what's on there so if somebody likes it, great.

James: I'm proud of it. I love it.

Alisa: You did release one song from the record early, "The High Road." Why did you choose to release that early?

James: We sort of felt that it was a good combination of both of our input, and it kind of made sense, it's catchy.

Brian: Even though there's no other song that sounds exactly like it on the record, it's a good ... the same reason we led off with it on the album. Not a whole lot of thought went into it. It wasn't completely our choice.

James: Brian's very good at arranging that stuff. I think you thought about the order for quite a while.

Brian: Yeah, I just thought it was a good way to start.

Alisa: James, you're singing in falsetto a lot on the record.

Audio clip

Mercer and Burton discuss vocals

Alisa: So Brian, what are you playing on the record?

Brian: I'm playing most of the instruments that have keys on them like organs, pianos and synths. And drums. A little bit of bass. And James did all of the guitars, singing and bass stuff also. We stuck to similar instruments that we felt comfortable with for the most part. We didn't have any preexisting songs to [go into the studio with]. We'd just go in each day with nothing and sit and write a song and start recording it, playing it right then and there and seeing what would happen.

Alisa: Very different from how you normally work? You were doing a nine to five type job?

James: We used Brian's studio and he has a strong work ethic (laughs).

Alisa: Do you get in trouble if you come in late?

James: Well, I can't come in late because he's my ride.

Alisa: You're carpooling?

Brian: Yeah, cause James lives in Portland so every time we worked together he'd just come [over]. I don't have a roommate so he just comes to my house [and is] my roommate for a couple of weeks and we'd drive to and from [the studio] every day. And that's how we got to know each other. We'd met, but we only really became friends from recording this album. So that's how everything came together so by the end of the album, when the lyrics came, we really knew each other pretty well and it all made its way onto the album.

Alisa: James, what is it about Brian - and vice versa - that makes it all work so well?

Brian: It's hard to ... the specifics of it would probably not be that interesting to everybody but from the beginning, the first day we went in, we'd never done anything before but within the first half hour or so we had the whole structure of a song. We just have a lot of respect for one another. And there was no real ego involved at all.

James: You have to trust the other person. I think it was a good decision also, we decided if either of us didn't like something it wouldn't go on the album.

Alisa: I really love the song "Vaporize."

Audio clip

Mercer and Burton on recording "Vaporize"

Alisa: Didn't you guys work together, James and Brian, with Sparklehorse? Wasn't that the first time you worked together?

Brian: No, we started this album around May of '08 and we worked on it for almost a year and at one point during that time there were a few songs left on that Sparklehorse album that we were doing and one of them was one I'd wanted James to be on and it just took us a while to finish it. We'd been more than halfway done with the Broken Bells album we just took a break and did that one song. It sounds very different from the Broken Bells album because the music was done by Mark Linkous and myself. But that's not when [James and I] first started to work together.

Alisa: How cool you got to work with David Lynch too.

Brian: Yeah, it was cool. And Mark Linkous as well. And all the people on it. So great.

Alisa: Brian, what about your other projects? Gnarls Barkley?

Brian: Perhaps one day. Just not right now, [Broken Bells] is the active thing that I'm doing and it takes up a bunch of time and it's slowed me down a lot. I don't have plans to produce much any more in the immediate future. Or in general, I don't know. I got a lot more out of the process, writing and playing and being a part of it in this way than I did out of all of the producing stuff I've done.

Alisa: And you have plans to do another record as Broken Bells?

James: Yeah, we've already started working on that. It's fun.

Brian: It's the most enjoyable record I've ever been a part of easily, even though it's sort of sad in certain places it was really an adventure to make.

Alisa: And plans for the tour?

Audio clip

Mercer and Burton talk about touring

Broken Bells kick off their tour on Wednesday, March 10 right here in New York. More dates will be added, but here's the schedule so far:

Mar 10 -Music Hall of Williamsburg - SOLD OUT Brooklyn, New York

Mar 14 -The Troubadour - SOLD OUT Los Angeles, California

Mar 17 -SXSW Austin, Texas