Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Safe space is the place for Broken Bells

When James Mercer’s band The Shins became popular, and the songwriter and musician was finally making good money, he thought about moving to Kentucky. Lexington, no less. The Albuquerque, N.M. native was 32 at the time.

“I liked the way it looked. I liked the way it felt,” Mercer recalls. “I was in a position in my life, for the first time, that I really didn’t have to worry about getting a (day) job. It was, like, ‘You can live anywhere,’ and it felt right when I was there.”

When it’s pointed out that a college-town environment might have hindered his anonymity, Mercer laughs. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” The well-traveled son of an Air Force officer decided instead to relocate to the musician-heavy Portland, Ore., where he already had several friends, including Louisville native Greg Brown. Shortly after the move, Brown co-directed a Shins video, “The Past and Pending”. On visits to Portland before the move, Mercer notes, “It was never raining when we came up,” which seemed like a good omen.

Since then, Mercer has also started another band, Broken Bells, with Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse. Their fusion of organic pop and electronic, studio-based creations means their touring lineup this summer will include several instrumentalists; Burton moves around from drums to keyboards and string instruments, and Mercer is spending less time behind his guitar, adding keyboards or merely crooning. “It’s been really fun, this whole new set up, especially the visual aspects of this tour,” he says.

They’ve teamed with a Montreal company to create lights and other design elements. “They’re just such wonderful artists, really creative people … so, really, it’s on them. They designed it and we just approved it,” Mercer laughs. “It’s interesting how it changes the vibe onstage. There’s so much to look at that has nothing to do with us — it reduces the amount of pressure on you. Which is really strange to think about, but you feel more loose and free up there onstage.” He laughs again. “You know that there’s a lot of shit that has nothing to do with you. For Brian and I, our personalities, that really helps us.”

Parts of the two men want the spotlight, he agrees, but they’re not totally comfortable in it when they get it. After a decade or more of renown, how have they not yet learned how to balance their shy sides and their show-offy sides? “Man, I don’t know,” Mercer says. “I think, certain nights, it’s getting the right amount of whiskey!”

He also says he’s been surprised to learn over the past several months of touring how much better his singing comes through when he’s not also playing guitar. “It goes back to confidence — because you can concentrate on just one thing, you can do it really well; and when you do it really well, you’re bolstered by that, so now you’re confident, more comfortable onstage … so it’s really a different world,” he says. “If you’re playing an instrument and singing — at least for me, I’m self-taught, I’m not a natural at it — it’s really nice to be able to focus on one thing.”

The live show ties in to the futurist theme of their latest album, After the Disco, which has extended to their videos and even to 3-D printed models. Part of the proceeds from this tour have gone to the B612 Foundation, which — no joke — is working to keep Earth safe from asteroids.

After six hit albums with two bands, what else does he hope to accomplish? Sounding like a Woody Allen character, Mercer’s somewhat surprising answer is, “I’d like to make a really killer record … I’d like to make something I’m really proud of. I think I always end every project feeling that way, but then I feel, like, ‘Oh, I should have done more of this’, or ‘It could have been stronger in this way or that way’ … I can’t help it, but I just look forward to the future, and the prospect of making something great, you know? I don’t know that I’ve done that yet.”

I thought you would have said something like “Astronaut,” I say. The married-with-kids rock star, now 43, laughs and says, “I think I’m more pragmatic than that.“

Broken Bells with Elf Power
Friday, June 20
Iroquois Amphitheater
1080 Amphitheater Road
$30.50; 8 p.m.

photo by James Minchin

c. 2014 LEO Weekly


In this week’s issue, LEO Weekly has my profile of James Mercer and his current tour with Broken Bells. During our conversation, I also asked him about another current topic in his life – the use of a Shins song in Wish I Was Here, a new movie written and directed by Zach Braff, whose 2004 movie Garden State did much to change that band’s life a decade ago #natalieportman.

LEO: If this had been a year ago, I would never have asked you about Zach Braff. But… (we both laugh) because the trailer for his new movie has one of your songs -

James Mercer: Yeah.

LEO: Obviously, you would have to approve that.

JM: Yeah. So, Zach called me up and asked to do a song for his new movie, basically. And his music supervisor came out — this lady Mary (Ramos), who’s awesome — she came and showed me the movie, and I liked it. I guess it was a rough edit of the film? But it was really touching, and it was about having kids and all this stuff, which I can relate to now. And I set about trying … at first, I was trying to … they had in there, they had some songs they liked, but they wanted me to make something better, so they could replace it. I couldn’t handle that pressure (laughs), so I called him up and just asked him, “Man, can I just try and come up with something that, to me, feels like the movie?” And he was, like, “Sure, do it, go for it,” you know? “There’s a spot at the end of the picture when that would work.” So I set about writing lyrics about what the movie was about, and kind of came up with a song for the film. Which I haven’t done a lot – it was a real challenge to do that, you know? To just be, like, “OK, do something awesome — now! (laughs) And it can’t be about the shit you want to write about!” But it worked, and I am really stoked with the song. I think it’s one of my better songs. I can’t get enough of listening to it, actually. I’ve been enjoying it lately.

LEO: I can only imagine how many times people have asked you about Garden State. I bet Zach Braff doesn’t get asked about the Shins every single time he’s interviewed.

JM: Right? Yeah, I guess, yeah. It’s cool – for me, it’s like one of those things where … it’s always difficult when something is such a big deal that happens to you or the band. But looking back on it now, I just realize it was such a good thing for us! It’s something that will be always there, and I mean, in 20 years, I guarantee you my children aren’t going to be complaining about it (laughs)! Having too much spotlight on the Shins back in 2004. It’s just been a wonderful thing for us, and I feel like I owe Zach so much for it. I’m so grateful.

LEO: And what’s so interesting is, 10 years ago, you were both younger guys trying to find love, and now you’re both — I don’t know him personally, but at least in the movie and in your real life, there’s marriage and dealing with kids —

JM: Yeah, exactly.

LEO: So maybe 10 years from now, you guys can check in again —

JM: Right (laughs)!

c. 2014 LEO Weekly

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