James Mercer (left) and Brian Burton
James Minchin

What began as mutual admiration has grown into a winning artistic combo. So it’s no surprise that the sound of BROKEN BELLS is music to our ears.


Music history is littered with star collaborations and supergroups that didn’t work or last. But Broken Bells — the band partnership between The Shins’ leader, James Mercer, and Grammy-winning producer Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse — is one of the rare exceptions.

Broken Bells, which just released its second album, After the Disco (Columbia, $12), has succeeded on several levels, due in large part to the mutual admiration and creative alchemy between its principals. “This whole thing started because James is one of my favorite songwriters — ever, really — and I love his voice,” Burton says. “And, then, it turned out we also got along really well. We’ve become great friends.”

For Mercer, the appeal of the project was also about taking on a different role. With The Shins, he’s the focal point, writing the songs and fronting the group. “So there’s a certain weight of responsibility on me in that context,” Mercer says. “But with Broken Bells, it’s entirely lifted. There are different things I get to explore as well. I have more freedom. I can almost reinvent myself.”

The pair put out a critically acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2010, then quickly followed with an EP, Meyrin Fields. Eventually, they put the band on hold: Burton returned to producing and working with the likes of U2, while Mercer released and toured behind a new The Shins’ record, Port of Morrow.

When their schedules finally freed up last year, the two reunited, with Mercer holing up at Burton’s Los ­Angeles home to write and record. With both contributing to facets of the tracks (music, lyrics, production), After the Disco plays like a true mingling of their distinct sensibilities and talents.

“That’s why there’s a good amount of tension in the music,” Burton says. “It’s genuinely two people’s ideas coming together, not just one person jumping on top of another’s. We didn’t know what kind of record we were making; we just started making it.”

“Broken Bells doesn’t have a fixed aesthetic,” Mercer says. “It’s whatever we come up with together that inspires us both.”

The new record strikes a somewhat different chord than the band’s debut; it’s both more visceral and more introspective than its predecessor.

Broken Bells is on the road next month, with plans to tour the U.S. through much of early 2014. At a certain point, Mercer and Burton will return to their other career obligations, but both men promise that their partnership will continue. “Being in a band with James, that’s my main thing; that’s what I like to come back to,” Burton says. “Creatively, that’s the centerpiece for me.”