Grammy-winning artists Danger Mouse - a.k.a. Brian Burton - may be one of THE most sought after modern rock-R&B-and pop producers of the last decade, having helmed albums by the likes of Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys and Beck - and hopefully U2, with that album’s release still up in the air - but he’s got his priorities straight.
Burton says his experimental-alt-space-rock-pop band with The Shins frontman James Mercer, under the moniker, Broken Bells, is where it’s at, musically speaking, for him.
“This is the most important thing that I do since we did the first one,” said the L.A.-based Burton, seated beside the Portland-based Mercer recently in Toronto before a theatre show in support of Broken Bells’ second full-length album, After the Disco, released in February.
“So I’m always just waiting for this to come back around. It’s fun to be in a band.”
Mercer, meanwhile, has to juggle two bands.
“It’s hard for me to make that call because I have my creative outlet as well with The Shins. But this is Brian’s creative effort. I really enjoy doing this and I really enjoy doing that. I hate to sound lazy but this is easier because Brian is such a huge part of the creative process so we collaborate and we get in the studio and get a huge amount done and then there’s the other side, with The Shins thing, where it sort of all falls on my shoulders as far as writing the songs and so it takes a lot longer. And there’s more pressure. So I’ve got two different outlets and they’re both very different in that way. And it seems to be working.”
Burton and Mercer met at the Roskilde Festival in 2004 and were mutual fans of each other work but they wouldn’t begin recording their first self-titled Broken Bells album until 2008, releasing it two years later followed by a 2011 EP, Meyrin Fields.
Their working relationship, while good, doesn’t always seem to be an easy one.
“I learned that Brian is going to be honest with you, he’s going to tell you what he thinks, even if sometimes he’s wrong,” joked Mercer. “You just know that at least he’s coming from an honest perspective, he’s not trying to ‘yes’ you or blow smoke up your a-- ... he’s tough. I’m more diplomatic.”
Adds Burton: “I don’t think (I’m tough). But I can understand (the reputation). I see it all the time with people’s (reactions to me) I guess. To me, I’m pretty in my own head about stuff so I’m just like, ‘No, no, no. Like I’m here to make sure nothing goes out of this door unless it’s up to a certain thing.’ So I’m hoping, I’m hoping. And sometimes you forget it’s somebody’s creative idea that they feel strongly about. I do the same thing. I put stuff out there and I think it’s good and I’ll say, ‘Hey, what about this thing?’ And it won’t get a reaction and I’ll go, ‘Oh, this is how it feels.’ And so I do understand it from my side of things as well. Sometimes it takes a minute to register that somebody doesn’t feel the same thing but you can’t always go based on what other people think so much, you just have to go with what your gut is on stuff .... But with James and I we just keep the stuff that we both like, it’s easier that way.”
After The Disco, which has spawned a Bee Gees-like first single (vocally anyway), Holding on For Life, was inspired not by the late ‘70s but rather the influences on those helming those records.
“We were listening probably to the stuff that those producers back then were listening to, like Kraftwerk,” said Mercer. “I was hoping for some danceable stuff. Upbeat things. But our tendency is to write really slow stuff.”
Added Burton: “We did the same kind of songs but just faster. We’d speed stuff up but then at some point the song wound up being just like us anyway, having this melancholy thing, wound up happening in the song, some place, some way.”
Speaking of wistful, Broken Bells recently did an amazing cover of The Beatles’ And I Love Her on David Letterman’s Beatles week celebrating the 50th anniversary of their arrival in America.
The song’s acoustic performance featured a videotape of Ringo Starr drumming alongside Burton and Mercer.
It looked effortless but maybe it was hard to be pull off?
“It was lucky to be honest,” said Burton. “The drum track that we found had I Am The Walrus in it and we already knew we wanted to do And I Love Her, and we changed the key to make it easier to play, but when we changed the key, it happened to fit the same key as I Am The Walrus so the music that was leaking through the drum track matched up with the new key that we were playing the song in, which was really lucky. I thought it was good.”
As for the fate of his work on the highly anticipated U2 album, Burton claims to not have a clue despite the Irish band already releasing two songs from their sessions with him, the Golden Globe-winning and Oscar-nominated Ordinary Love and the single Invisible.
“I don’t really know - I just know it’s not done,” he said.
But he’s still the producer?
“I don’t know. I’m working on Bells right now I have no idea what they¹re doing. I’ve been working on it for YEARS but I’m sure they’re still working on the record.”
He will allow that he watched U2’s stripped down acoustic performance of Ordinary Love on the Oscars a week ago.
“It was good,” said Burton.
And no, Burton who co-wrote and produced Ordinary Love, wouldn’t have gotten to take home one of the golden statuettes had U2 won.
“I don’t think so, no,” he said. “There was some kind of rule or something like (you can't have more than four people win the award).”