It’s an unassuming voice I find myself exchanging New Year’s niceties with on an early January evening; Danger Mouse, traditionally, is one for letting pretty much everything else do the talking. He’s unquestionably one of the most sought-after producers on the planet; the clutch of Grammys he’s won were enough to secure him a position on Esquire’s run-down of the 75 most influential people of the twenty-first century. His first collaborative project, Gnarls Barkley, spawned a platinum-selling record and Rolling Stone’s song of the decade, ‘Crazy’. In the three weeks since I last spoke to him - our first chat was torpedoed by problems with the transatlantic phone line - U2 have won a Golden Globe for a song he produced.
That he’s found time to squeeze in a second Broken Bells record is a testament to the efficiency of the relationship he’s struck up with James Mercer; parts of After the Disco were recorded during breaks from Mercer’s tour schedule with The Shins. It’s a far livelier affair than the duo’s self-titled debut, with brooding soundscapes swapped out for punchy synths and bouncier rhythms. For Mercer, Broken Bells represents the opportunity to play with more abstract ideas than the fairly rigid singer-songwriter confines of The Shins allow him; for Danger Mouse - or Brian Burton, when he’s at home - it’s a chance to cross to the other side of the sound desk, and be a musician first and a producer second.
DiS: How collaborative is the process of making music with Broken Bells? Do you divide things up between the two of you, or is it more open than that?
DM: The only thing that’s really fixed is that James is the singer. I don’t know about percentages. We both bring a fairly equal amount to the table; if you were to go back and break the songs down, you’d find that, but we’ve never approached it that way. It’s not like there’s some pre-set division of labour. It’s hard to tell, because we work so much, so fast and a lot of it tends to come pretty easily - it’s not clear what idea was who’s. We were just coming in and picking up the guitar or keyboard as we felt like it. We’re laid back, yo.
Did you have any idea of how you wanted After the Disco to sound when you started out? It’s quite a bit poppier than Broken Bells.
The only idea we went in with was not to do the same thing again. Other than that, there were no pre-conceived ideas about how things were going to sound. I think we came to realise afterwards that what we came up with kind of evoked the same sort of feeling in both of us; we could both hear a little bit of what we’d grown up with in there, so I can see why you might hear it as a little bit of a throwback.
There’s definitely some eighties vibes in the instrumentation, the synths especially.
Yeah. Like I said, it wasn’t deliberate. We just kind of picked up on it afterwards. I mean, even now, I still feel a little bit too close to it all to talk about it, you know? We’ve not even played these songs live yet. It’ll be easier to look back on and analyse in six months time, I think.
When I spoke to James, he said that you wrote most of the lyrics on After the Disco, which surprised me. Was that a new thing for you this time around?
I definitely wrote a lot on the first record, too. I think it just so happened that there was more of my stuff than James’ on this record. I’ve always written in the past, so Bells is no different, really. A lot of what we wrote was done together, so there was a lot of overlap. A lot of the ideas just kind of bled into each other.
What have you written lyrics for in the past? Gnarls Barkley?
Nah, that was all Cee-Lo [Green]. I’m not sure I want to name names, just because it might look like I’m trying to take credit or something; just suffice to say that it wasn’t a totally new experience for me. I guess the difference is that the stuff I have written hasn’t had this kind of exposure before. I think the casual listener is still going to assume that James writes all the lyrics, anyway.
Did you find it daunting to be writing lyrics with James? That’s kind of his bread and butter.
It wasn’t, really. He encouraged it. I first got involved with that side of things just to try to help him out a little, and maybe speed the process up a little bit. It just kind of came to be that we worked well together on them; it’s not like I came into Bells in the first place thinking, “here it is! This is my outlet for all these lyrics I’ve been sitting on for years!”. The whole process was so collaborative that it didn’t feel weird to be sharing that stuff.
Has your working relationship with James changed at all?
It’s definitely easier to communicate with each other now. You don’t worry as much about giving a quick response to each other’s ideas - that seemed like a bigger deal last time. You’re not as comfortable shooting things down with somebody you don’t know all that well. We spent long enough on the road last time to get to know each other properly.
How does your approach to the production on the Broken Bells records differ from when you’re producing for somebody else?
It all gets blended together, in reality. I mean, with Bells, it’s far more of a hands-on process, if only because you’ve got to set the studio up, figure out which instruments we’re gonna need, all that kind of stuff. I think I already had a style of working with production that I carried over into working with James.
So you wouldn’t say Bells has had an impact on the way you work with other artists?
Not with the production, no. I like to get things done quite quickly, and that means you can’t really afford too much hesitation. Somebody has to be able to say, “that’s it for this, that’s it for that”, and move on. I probably took on that role naturally. Maybe it’s something that James has adapted to and kind of tuned into himself since last time. Other than that, I definitely don’t collaborate with anybody else in the same way that I do with James, with all the ideas just being born out of sitting in a room with him and trying to find something that sounds cool.
James was telling me that you came up with an After the Disco concept, where every song would’ve been like the opener, ‘Perfect World’ - starting out fast and ending on a kind of slow coda. Did any form of that make it to the finished record?
That was just an idea that we threw around early on. ‘Perfect World’ was actually the second song we worked on, I think, and ‘After the Disco’ was the first - that, by the way, was the only one that we wrote the lyrics for as we were writing the song. We knew we wanted to call it ‘After the Disco’, and we were thinking about how the idea of that might tie into the record - it seemed like a potential title. The idea was that maybe the first part to the songs would be fast, and ‘at the disco’, and the second halves represent the morning after - ‘after the disco’. You’d be taking this journey with each song. But, you know, it sounds like a nice plan, but the music controls itself. It’s probably optimistic to think that you can go in and write ten or fifteen songs and have most of them just conform to this idea you’ve had. I think the whole idea of a concept kind of went out of the window in the end.
Did you play a lot of drums on this record? A lot of the percussion sounds sequenced.
We used live drums and drum machines, although I was into the idea of making the live stuff sound like machines. I blended them together on some tracks, too. I wanted to do something a little weird and bring out a kind of synthetic quality that matched the instruments we were using. We’re starting to rehearse now and we’re realising with certain parts, you know, “oh yeah, there’s a reason we sequenced that.” There’s stuff you couldn’t play live on a kit, because it’s part programmed. I wasn’t actually too worried about how realistic it sounded.
Were you wondering how you were going to make the songs work live as you were recording?
Not really. It was just a case of getting what you’re looking for, by any means. I guess when you go in to rehearse and figure things out, you’ve got to be open to the idea of maybe not relaying things exactly as they sound on the record, but that’s fine by us. It’s not like we started out as a live band.
Some of the less typical instrumentation on the record - I’m thinking of the horns on ‘No Matter What You’re Told’, or the strings on ‘The Remains of Rock and Roll’ - did you handle that yourselves, or bring in other people?
Yeah, we had other people do that. I mean, like I said, there was generally a lot of stuff we left until after the fact on this record. With the strings, we kind of left it thinking that we could just maybe sample something there, or try to emulate that sound another way. It wasn’t until afterwards that we actually realised getting a string section in would be feasible. The horns were the same; it was just a case of drafting some friends in. We could have done without, but I’m glad we didn’t now. I think that stuff is a big part of this record sounding more expansive than the last one.
Do you feel like you’re out of your comfort zone when you play live? I guess you’re not a touring musician by trade.
It wasn’t totally new; I did two big tours with Gnarls Barkley. The thing that was new to me was playing live drums. I had a lot of nerves about that to begin with. Everything else was familiar - playing with a full band, living on the road - but I definitely wasn’t a drummer before the last tour. Hopefully, that’ll be a little less nerve-wracking this time; it’s been a while, though.
What are your plans for the year ahead? Are you going to be on the road for most of it?
Right now, it’s just Bells for the immediate future; I think we’ve got the next six months pretty much locked in, at this point. As far as I know, we’re both open to carrying on beyond that, if we keep getting offers. This pretty much becomes my day job when we’re putting something out. It’s not like I’m rushing back to work on records for other people.
Do you think you’ll always put this band on the back burner in between records to go and work on your own stuff? Would you ever just carry straight on with another Broken Bells record?
I’m open to another one, for sure, but it’s too early to tell at this point. We might both want a break from everything, or we might want to do another one straight away. Nothing’s ruled out, but it’s impossible to predict for now.
Of all the artists you’ve worked with, what is it about James that makes you want to keep working with him?
I guess the main thing is that he’s got one of my favourite voices. We work very well together and have a lot of fun in the studio, and I just think this arrangement is a good vehicle for me to make the kind of records I want to make. James has a such a great vocal range, so there’s a lot of room for diversity. It’s not like his voice limits us in the respect that if you don’t like this record, you definitely won’t like the next one. I don’t feel those limitations at all, really.
After the Disco is released on February 3rd via Columbia Records. Broken Bells play one UK date on their European tour:
24th March, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, LONDON