‘But after the disco, all of the shine just faded away.” Broken Bells, the dynamite band led by the Shins front man James Mercer and the acclaimed musician-producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse), returns this week with its shimmering new album After the Disco, a melodic, morning-after follow-up to 2010’s self-titled debut and the 2011 EP Meyrin Fields. The Globe and Mail spoke to Burton about joy and making music, and whether the two are dependent on each other.
The album title, After the Disco. This isn’t a postdance-music album, so what do you mean with the title?
It’s about after the party. James and I talk about this kind of thing all of the time. You spend time thinking about the future when you’re younger. Now that you’re here, what do I want to dream about the rest of my life?
You can dance to the title song, but there’s somberness underneath. It reminds me of the Daft Punk album in that way.
I often have an argument with people. I say name me a classic song that’s not sad in some kind of way. And even if you can, you’ll have to search pretty far.
Broken Bells covered You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me on the last tour. Smokey Robinson is the master of upbeat melancholia. Is that what you were going for?
It’s not something we set out to do. Smokey Robinson, he’s my father’s favourite. It’s not about trying to be sad, though. It’s just what music does. It’s that loss, that sadness – that thing.
I read one description of Broken Bells as an “indie rock project.” I imagine you disagree with that depiction?
We see it as a band. We want to see where it goes, and we treat it the way you would treat the biggest thing you’ve ever done. There’s nothing indie about this. And there’s barely rock, although there are moments. I don’t [know] what it is necessarily. But I know what it’s not.
I hear a lot of classic radio pop in the songwriting. Squeeze and the Bee Gees.
Yeah. I guess if that’s popular now, we’ll find out. Daft Punk wouldn’t have normally fit into anything that was pop on the radio, but they just did it. It’s great when there’s popular music that’s actually pretty good. It gives you hope in that way.
Can you talk about a couple of other projects you’re involved in? What’s happening with the U2 album you’re producing?
I can’t really talk about the U2 stuff. It’s not done. And it’s really up to them to talk about, if they want to.
Okay, what about your rumoured new Gnarls Barkley album with CeeLo Green?
Me and CeeLo, we talk. I think we always assumed we’d work on something again together. You never know, CeeLo and I work pretty quickly together. But right now, it’s just Broken Bells for me.
There’s some disillusion to the lyrics of the Broken Bells record. I’m interested in something Neil Young said recently about it not mattering if you’re having fun making the music – that all that matter’s is the music itself. Is he right?
I ask myself that kind of question a lot. You don’t want to be ungrateful. You’re lucky to be making music for a living. There are times when I think, “It’s for the music, it’s for the music – just keep going.” So, no, having fun isn’t important to the outcome. But if you’re not having a good time, you’re not going to be making very many records. Which is fine. It depends on what angle you’re coming from.
What angle are you coming from?
When I don’t have a good time making music, I think of quitting a lot. I really do. I can create something else. I’ll do something else.
Is that really a possibility?
Well, I have enough good times making records that I would just narrow down what I do. James and I get along so well, and the end results do okay. Bells is easily the most enjoyable thing that I do, as far as making records is concerned. Broken Bells reminds me how much fun I have making music.