Broken Bells’ Danger Mouse sounds off

Broken Bells’ glitzy pop is an exercise in perfectionist production

Producer Brian Burton (right), better known as Danger Mouse, and James Mercer (left) are Broken Bells, a savvy electro-rock duo.

Image by Courtesy of Broken Bells

Producer Brian Burton (right), better known as Danger Mouse, and James Mercer (left) are Broken Bells, a savvy electro-rock duo.

by Grant Tillery

Producer Brian Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, didn’t aim to make a Broken Bells album that fell in line with the current disco trend in pop music.

Broken Bells, comprised of Burton and the Shins’ lead vocalist, James Mercer, tried to channel the Cure and the Smiths in their latest release, “After the Disco.”  

But album title aside, the band’s current direction is more Bee Gees than Depeche Mode, whether they like it or not.

“We don’t work out what the record’s going to sound like before we start it,” Burton said. “It’s a snapshot of wherever I am right then and there. The songs are a little bit faster, and that can mean a lot of different things to different people. If you listen to a lot of disco music, then it might reference that. If you listen to early ’80s stuff, you might think it’s that.”

Burton and Mercer met in 2004 and tossed around the idea of collaborating before forming Broken Bells in 2008.

Their self-titled debut, an exercise in atmospheric pop, dropped in 2010. The introspective, melancholic sonic palette was less a stark departure from Mercer and Burton’s populist roots than creative license to explore their full artistic potential.

“After the Disco’s” Bee Gees influence comes from Mercer’s voice on the up-tempo numbers. His soaring falsetto is a dead ringer for Barry Gibb. The pulsating synthesizers resemble Daft Punk’s arrangements on “Random Access Memories.” The title track could be confused for “Get Lucky,” but Burton puts a more down-tempo twist on the tracks rather than veering into infringement territory. His perfectionism keeps the duo sounding different despite those similarities.

“I overanalyze everything I do in every part of my life,” Burton said. “If something doesn’t feel right, I mess with it.”

Burton views his tenacious work ethic as both a blessing and a curse, and he’s keen on making music rather than getting trapped behind the boards.

“I don’t sit all day long with a sound or anything else,” Burton said. “I like making music — I don’t like editing it and slaving over it. I’ve always thought my stuff was a little bit sloppy, but I’ve heard the opposite.”

This precision makes Broken Bells’ music more accessible than similar acts. They’re slick without coming across as smarmy — a la Steely Dan — and lay down a good beat thanks to Burton’s perfectionism. Populism is their friend, not their foe.

“Sometimes things are too accessible or not accessible enough,” Burton said. “You can fall somewhere in the middle –— that seems to happen to me a lot. Any time something hits, it just does. And any time I’ve been a part of something like that, it was never anything that you could’ve seen coming. With this, I never saw it as reaching huge levels.”

Burton is known for his restless nature, but he foresees Broken Bells as his sole project that has staying power.

“I could easily see this being the first thing I do where there’s three albums,” Burton said. “I haven’t done any project or [worked with] any band more than [three] times.”


Broken Bells with Cayucas
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: State Theatre, 805 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $38.50
Age: All ages