James Mercer and Bryan Burton (aka Danger Mouse) of Broken Bells. Courtesy Photo
James Mercer, The Shins' lead man and one half of Broken Bells, has established himself as a defining music-maker for our times. He's a meticulous writer that brings his unique aesthetic feel to every project that he works on. He's a singularly earnest performer and a pioneer of the post-2000 indie music landscape. He's got a one-of-a-kind, nasally, yet beautiful voice and a keen knack for haunting and penetrating melodies. Whether he's working with his seminal indie band The Shins or Broken Bells, his side project with Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse), Mercer seems incapable of making an album that seems pointless or static. Last week, I caught up with Mercer—who will be at The Aztec on Sunday, Oct 5 with Broken Bells—to chat a bit about his creative processes, how the beginning of Broken Bells may have prevented the end of The Shins, and other topics.
Where did it all begin for you? When did you start writing music?
In high school I remember sitting and, for the first time, really writing down chords that I had put together, and trying to create melodies and stuff like that. I guess it was junior year of high school. I was really writing terrible stuff. Really bad. Rough. And it would be bad for quite some time, you know, even into college. At some point though, I remember buying a four track [recorder], and I think it was a great writing tool, because I could listen back—and that, for me... that kinda elevated things a little bit.
Are we talking about lyrics too? How does that work for you; which comes first, lyrics or music?
Usually the song and its melody comes first. I'm usually just sitting with an acoustic guitar and striking a chord and immediately trying to sing something. And then that might become two chords and then, maybe, the melody catches and comes through those two chords nicely. So that would be the very beginning of maybe something cool. But then, there's a lot of just; 'No, that's boring. That's boring. Move on, move on.” There's a lot of searching until you hear that thing that finally seems interesting. Of course, then, there's always a chance you might go with that for a few hours and abandon it.
Sometimes words will come to me during this process, like for a chorus or something. And when they do, I'll write them down. The beginning pages of lyrics stuff are usually just random little phrases that I kinda write off to the left... words or ideas that pop in to my head while I'm exploring the melody. But often, as far as complete lyrics, it's right down to the wire. You know, like, a song will be being recorded, and then I'll finish the lyrics there. Lyrics are definitely something I procrastinate about.
What about the content of the lyrics? Do you set out with the intent of tackling certain topics?
The theme or the main concept of the song will usually be decided on fairly late in the process. So, there's a lot of stream-of-consciousness or writing down whatever images are coming to your head and then finally, hopefully, you get to a real idea. It's like a process towards cohesiveness.
I will say one thing, with this Broken Bells stuff, Brian [Burton] and I work on the lyrics together, so that takes a lot of pressure off of me. We get to riff on ideas, back and forth, so the lyrics come a lot faster or easier that way. With a lot of the songs on the new record [After the Disco], Brian led the charge on the lyrics, in fact.
How would you compare your experience with The Shins to your experience with Broken Bells? What are some of the pluses and minuses of each, for you? Does one invigorate the other?
It's interesting, I think that when I work with Brian on the Broken Bells thing and we go out and tour, it's always a period of growth for me. I'm always doing something that I wouldn't have normally put myself into. I'm always committing to these things and then I have to follow through. And I just learn a lot that way. And then I go back to The Shins and I feel, like, empowered, I guess... Although I hate that word. You know, like, I just sorta gain this confidence that tells me I can branch out a bit. So, [Broken Bells] kinda incrementally affects The Shins, because I have more freedom to do different things after doing Broken Bells stuff. I can do things that maybe seemed off limits before.
I think that Broken Bells is good for The Shins. I got into a place with The Shins where it started to feel like a business that I was having to run. I was having a hard time getting what I needed out of it. A lot of that had to do with personal issues with band members and stuff. So Broken Bells was this way of doing something else and kinda starting over from scratch and remembering what it was like to have fun with a blank canvas. The future is wide open, type thing. It saved me in that it gave me that confidence and showed me what was important about [The Shins] and that it would be sad to let it go because I couldn't figure out these stupid issues. So, after Broken Bells, I came back to The Shins and made the changes I needed to make. And I think that is why The Shins are still here.
Any chance you will ever do a true solo record?
Hmm... Maybe somewhere down the line when I am in a different state of mind. I mean, whatever I write when I'm alone, I throw at The Shins. And then when I come down to LA and Brian and I are writing together, that's Broken Bells. I mean, I think that those two are different enough from each other, the end results have different feels.
Tell me what we can expect from the show on October 5 at The Aztec? Do you play all Broken Bells stuff or maybe some Shins material?
No, it's all Broken Bells stuff. Pretty much both of the albums. We used to do a few covers, before we had so much of our own material. What we've also done is we have this really cool projection that's kinda a movie set up that goes along with the performance. So it's all kinda one piece, our performance on stage and this this art piece that happens behind us. It was created by a company out of Montreal called Luv. It's really great and, in fact, it's been nominated for an award. That has actually been one thing that's a bummer about playing big festivals right now, is that we don't get to use that aspect of the show. It has almost become another member of the band, this art installation.
Lastly, I deal with a great many talented musicians in San Antonio who are trying to figure out how to make their way. I wonder, what advice would you offer to budding songwriters and musicians?
I think there were, at least for me, two big things that helped. One was recording myself. So, what that does is it gives you the freedom to express yourself in your own unique way. The second thing is that I had a rebellious feeling in me at the time when I was discovered, or whatever, by pop culture. I had this rebellious feeling, so I was pushing myself to do something unique and different. So when the first Shins stuff came out, it didn't sound really like anything else. It was its own sort of thing. And that can be hard; I know because I struggle with it now, trying to do that. But those are the two things that gave me the ability to get shit done. The ability to record myself and this anger and rebellion in terms of pop music.
Once you have established that unique sound and that air of defiance, of newness, is it difficult to keep up with?
I think it can be. I think... it's strange. Well, first of all, you develop that sound, whatever it is. Maybe it is the equipment you use or your particular strange way of applying effects, or whatever.. or singing. And then, I mean, for me, I immediately wanted to move on and change and do something different. So I didn't want to use all the reverb and I wanted the second Shins album to be different from the first. That, in a weird way, is dangerous because there was something that people really loved about that initial sound. But, that's just how it is. I mean, you're lucky if you get to that point... where you're worrying about your second or third record and whether or not your fans are going to come along.
7pm Sat, Oct 5
104 N St Mary’s
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