Broken Bells

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

BY Ian GormelyPublished Feb 20, 2010

Although their debut as Broken Bells comes out this month, the seeds of this collaboration between the Shins' James Mercer and Danger Mouse - going by his given name Brian Burton - dates back to the Roskilde Festival in 2004. It was at the Danish music fest that the two first met and discussed working together. "I was a fan of the stuff that Brian had done," says Mercer. "We were acquaintances. I had a feeling that our personalities would mesh really well."
Burton was likewise an admirer of Mercer's work, but it would take another four years to get the two into a studio together. Once there, things quickly fell into place. "We didn't talk about what it would sound like," says Burton. "We just went in one day. We didn't have any songs and we started writing and recording at the same time." The resulting self-titled album is a sublime blend of Mercer's vocals and Burton's 21st century Pet Sounds instrumentation. "It was an easy thing," he says. "It was just making sure we had the time to do it, and we made the time."

What are you up to?
Mercer: We've been so busy just promoting this record and rehearsing and getting the live act together. So that's the only thing I've been working on. It's just taking a little while for this to come out.

What are your current fixations?
Mercer: I'm reading some Cormac McCarthy stuff. But that's sort of pedestrian now, isn't it?
Burton: I'm in the middle of reading a book on Frank Capra. It's a big book that I started a couple of days ago.
Mercer: Frank Capra was the famous director, right?
Burton: Yeah.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
Mercer: I remember seeing the Flaming Lips one time and just feeling like it was some kind of a gospel. They played at the Crystal Ballroom. Brian, you were talking about that show that you played with them a couple of year ago.
Burton: Yeah, that was great. I think my most memorable show was seeing Olivia Tremor Control. It was one of the first shows I ever saw. It must have been in '97 or '98 or something. It was the first time I'd ever seen like 12 people on stage with their instruments.

What have been your career highs and lows?
Burton: We played the Hollywood Bowl, which felt really good because I've been in L.A. for so many years now that I had a lot of friends there. It was cool to play. I've seen a lot of shows there. As far as a low is concerned, when I was 19 I DJed a 13-year-old girl's birthday party. It was the first gig anybody ever paid me for.
Mercer: What went wrong?
Burton: This must have been in the mid-'90s. I actually had records and all they wanted to hear was *NSync and stuff. And they kept saying, "play it again, play it again!"
Mercer: My career low, I was in a band called Flake and we were playing a kind of bar restaurant and the chicken enchiladas were headlining. It was "chicken enchiladas $2.99" and then "Flake."

What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
Mercer: One of our fellow bands in Albuquerque told me, "You look like the three fucking stooges." Thanks guy.
Burton: I'm pretty protective about stuff like that, so I don't remember hearing anything.

What should everyone shut up about?
Mercer: 2012. People should start shutting up about the end of the world. Or, agree to this: If you do continue to talk about it, once it doesn't come, permanently shut up about the end of the world. From that point on. That's the contract I want signed by everybody.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Burton: I'm not putting that in an interview.

What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
Mercer: Peanuts with a cherry on top?
Burton: [To Mercer] Oh. I really didn't know what you meant. I was really slow on that one.
Mercer: Sundays are always imperfect. I used to hate Sundays.
Burton: Yeah, Sundays are ruined by the threat of Monday.
Mercer: Sleeping all day.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Burton: I was thinking in terms of music, but I guess that isn't necessary. Shit, what is this for?
Mercer: What I was thinking of was my own gut instincts that I didn't follow. But as far as advice I don't know. Brian?
Burton: I'm trying to stay within musical terms. I guess that I was told to slow down and I did take the advice eventually, but not because of the way it was told to me. I had been told to slow down before because I was working too much.

What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
Burton: That they don't like the Beatles. That would go for both.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Mercer: I think the one time we toured Canada and I just remember seeing a lot of wildlife. Kind of boring maybe.
Burton: The cold. It's always been freezing when I'm up there.

What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
Mercer: Steve Miller's Abracadabra
Burton: Mine was George Michael's Faith. So even cooler.

What was your most memorable day job?
Mercer: I worked at an amusement park as a ride operator and I was absolutely miserable, but memorable.
Burton: I worked at a Foot Locker for while. That kind of sucked.

How do you spoil yourself?
Burton: I don't want to answer that one to be honest.
Mercer: I've got kids, so we'll get a sitter and go see a movie. That's the most indulgent thing I do these days.

If I wasn't playing music I would be...
Mercer: I did odd jobs selling things, none of which would have led to a career or anything.
Burton: I think I probably would have tried to work in film in some kind of way.

What do you fear most?
Mercer: For me I'm a parent so anything happening to my kids.
Burton: Stage fright. It's getting better though.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Burton: I'm not going to answer that. James that's on you.
Mercer: Well I'm married so I'm not supposed to answer that one.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Burton: We met the ['80s wrestler] Iron Sheik last night. He was at a benefit show. That's got to be pretty up there.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Mercer: I wish I had David Attenborough always on hand. What would I serve him? I don't cook much.
Burton: The serving part I don't know but I think I'll say Oscar Wilde. I don't cook much and I don't know what he likes to eat.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Mercer: I know what my Dad wished. My mom was the free spirited one. "He should do what he wants to do." She thought maybe I should farm. My dad thought I should be an electrical engineer.
Burton: I have no idea. I have no clue.

What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Mercer: I just keep thinking of really funny songs. Really cheesy shit. "Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong."
Burton: Soul music or something. I don't know...
Mercer: Maybe that Neil Young song, "Don't Let It Bring Me Down." That's a good one.
Burton: That'll make people fucking cry. I'm trying to think of something that will take the edge off a little bit. I'm assuming people will be upset if I die. It depends on when I die. If I die now it'll be different than if I die when I'm old. If I die when I'm old, no big deal.
Mercer: It depends on how you die too.
Burton: Let's just assume that I die now. I want something that will make people cry really bad.

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