This is the second Broken Bells album. Do you still consider it a side project?
James Mercer About halfway through the production of the first record, Brian [said,] “Oh, this is a band. This is gonna be a thing.”
Brian Burton It’s my only real personal creative outlet. I kind of bullied my way into doing a bunch of the lyrics this time.
What did you guys learn from touring together for the first album?
Burton It helped a lot in the recording of the second one. It really made it quicker and more enjoyable; that’s not an easy thing with musicians.
Mercer It’s funny, though: I feel like I’ve only ever met a couple of people who were actual jerks in the music business. Don’t you think?
Burton [Drily] No, I’ve met plenty.
Is it easier to work on Broken Bells than it is a Shins album, James?
Mercer Yeah. It’s easier because I’ve got somebody helping me do it, and because it doesn’t weigh on me as much…. And if something goes wrong, I can just blame Brian. [Laughs] If he and I had it our way, we might actually perform behind a screen.
Burton That’d be great. In Gnarls Barkley, when we were in costume, it seemed like we did it to be flashy, but for me it was the opposite: I did it to hide. We hired as many people as we could. We had, like, 13 people on stage, and we all dressed up and it was great.
Mercer There were some good-looking girls in the band, too. That’s a good distraction. People look at the girls.
How did you feel about each other’s previous work before you teamed up?
Burton I was a big fan of the Shins. I remember where I was and everything when I first heard them.
Mercer I had heard the Gnarls stuff, of course, and [Burton’s famous 2004 Beatles/Jay Z mash-up] The Grey Album. Brian was doing a lot of work at the time. [To Burton] You were crazy busy when we started doing this.
Burton I took my first break ever after the first record. And after our tour, at the end of summer 2011, I felt like I couldn’t do any more music. Eventually I rediscovered creating stuff…. Then I saw James doing [a cover of Neil Young’s] “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” at a benefit show in L.A. and I was like, “Can I join in?” The whole thing was comedians, like Jack Black and Will Ferrell, and James goes up there with an acoustic guitar and breaks everybody’s heart in two minutes. I saw some people crying.
Mercer Just bumming everybody out. [Laughs]
After the Disco is pretty melancholy. Did you ever think, “This is too sad”?
Burton It’s never sad enough for me. I always say to people, “Name a great song you love that’s not sad.” You’ll struggle. James’ voice is very believable in that way; you don’t have to be way over-the-top to connect. And I think in my music I have a tendency to go a certain way, hitting on the sad nerves. Get a little sadness in there!