Danger Mouse, James Mercer ring in Broken Bells

Tue Feb 9, 2010 10:46pm EST

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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Observed over Stellas in the lounge at the Soho Grand, Danger Mouse and James Mercer make an unlikely pair.

Mister Mouse -- whose birth name is Brian Burton -- has a neatly trimmed Afro and goatee; he could be the founder of some startup that combines social networking, crowd-sourcing and, say, cats. Mercer, best known for fronting the indie rock act the Shins, looks like Kevin Spacey. Burton represents his home base of Los Angeles -- he's a multiracial genre-crossing musician whose iPhone screensaver is a picture of ferrets dressed as characters from "The Wizard of Oz." Mercer lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, who owns an organic bedding company, and two kids. He worries about public schools and his backyard compost pile.

But when one half of Gnarls Barkley and the man behind Natalie Portman's favorite band met at a festival in 2004, things clicked. They kept in touch, hung out at other fests and finally tied the knot in 2008 and formed Broken Bells. Now, almost two years later, the pair is about to release a self-titled album, due March 9 on Columbia.

"It was good timing for both of us," Mercer says. "I was trying to figure stuff out and I wanted to do something different. I tossed around the idea of a solo record, but in the end, I'm glad Brian was looking for someone to work with, because it would have been crazy for me to do it on my own."

The album the pair created is multilayered and almost psychedelic, tethered by Mercer's steady vocals -- and it manages to sound almost nothing like the Shins or Gnarls Barkley.

Mercer is quick to add that the new project doesn't mean that the Shins are defunct. Burton says that Gnarls Barkley is on hiatus while he works on Broken Bells and Cee-Lo records a solo album, but notes that the future is unpredictable. "I never feel like I have to do anything," he says. From his pioneering Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up "The Grey Album" to his production work on Beck records, Burton's career has been built on anything but predictability.

GENERATING IDEAS

The pair established a schedule, with Mercer spending two weeks at Burton's L.A. studio and two weeks in Portland while they recorded. At the end of the process, the pair had 20 "ideas," as Burton puts it.

"I don't know if I could call them songs per se," he says. "We pared everything down and grouped everything that fit together. There were things on there that we loved, but they didn't fit in."

The project wrapped last spring. At the time, Mercer was a free agent -- the Shins had fulfilled their recording contract with Sub Pop and hadn't signed any other deals. But Burton's situation was a little more complicated.

While living in the United Kingdom in the early part of the decade, Burton had signed to an indie label called Lex Records, which then struck a deal with EMI, which assumed his contract. In 2009, Burton tried releasing a collaboration with indie oddball Sparklehorse, "Dark Night of the Soul," but EMI blocked the album's release. (The album quickly leaked online, and Burton ended up issuing a collection of David Lynch photographs and a blank CD under the title.) According to sources, EMI and Burton have resolved their differences, and there are plans for an official debut Danger Mouse CD.

Meanwhile, Burton and Mercer met with various labels about the new project. "We kept it really under wraps and paid for it ourselves," Burton says. "There were a few people who wanted it, but ultimately, we decided to go with Columbia."

"Supergroups" like Broken Bells face a unique set of challenges, and sales can be mixed at best. For every dream team like Monsters of Folk, which debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200, there's a band like Tinted Windows, which failed to catch fire.

When it came time to premiere the video for the first Broken Bells single, "The High Road," Columbia partnered with MySpace and showed teaser clips of the video in the days before release. As soon as the video went live, it spread throughout the blogosphere, picked up by indie and hip-hop sites, as well as mtvU. MTV2 and VH1 plan to add the video to their programing rotation as well.

The track is also having success on multiple radio formats. In Seattle, for example, it has been played on nonprofit alternative KEXP, modern rock KNDD, adult alternative albumKMTT the Mountain and hip-hop KUBE.

The stations aren't the only Seattleites responding to Broken Bells. Starbucks will stock the album, along with the usual chains and indie retailers.

OUT OF THE BOX

In addition, Broken Bells created a 7-inch exclusive for indie retail; the band will also sell a deluxe version of the album for $39.99 that is designed to be a music box -- a darker, more modern and ballerina-less version of the little-girl classic. When opened, it plays a track called "The Overture," which is not on the album. Burton adds that the box can be hacked and the music can be pulled off to be remixed. In addition to the album, the box will contain stickers, posters, lobby cards and a leather book.

Although a version of the album has already leaked, Burton and Mercer say they aren't worried. "The songs on the version floating around the Web now are mislabeled. There are songs on there that aren't on the final album -- it's an old version," Burton says.

The pair adds that it has no idea how the album ultimately will be received. "I didn't think (the Gnarls Barkley hit) 'Crazy' would ever do well," Burton says. "We got turned down by all the majors before signing to Downtown. A U.K. DJ got the track and started using it as a promo for a show, and then it grew there, and then KROQ (Los Angeles) started playing it, and that was it. It was funny, though, because urban stations wouldn't touch it."

Burton says he's experiencing some of the same resistance with Broken Bells. "When I travel, people ask me what I do, and when I say I'm a musician, the next question they ask is, 'What kind?'" he says. "Is this rock? Is it soul? Is it something else? I don't know, but I do know we did something great."

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