James Mercer is part of two very distinct—and very popular—bands: the Shins and Broken Bells. The Portland resident and father of three took the indie world by surprise with the former back in the early 2000s, while the latter, a collaboration with prolific producer Danger Mouse, finds Mercer testing new ground as a soul-inspired frontman with a slight disco jones. The Shins are still at it, albeit with a new cast of musicians surrounding Mercer. But Broken Bells, which released its triumphant sophomore album, After the Disco, earlier this year, seems to be just getting started. Turns out Mercer is feeling much the same.
WW: How did the partnership with Danger Mouse come about?
James Mercer: Brian [Burton, aka Danger Mouse] had bought [the Shins’] Chutes Too Narrow
and really liked it. He came and met us at a show, and we kind of hung
out that night and hit it off. Then what happened was, I came into some
sort of crisis, basically, with the Shins where I wanted to do something
different. Brian found out about this, and we had a lunch meeting, and
Brian was like, “Let’s basically form a band, put out a record and see
what happens.” And it was just kinda perfect timing, you know?
Broken Bells’ sound is often dubbed “nostalgic.” Are you more moved by old music these days?
I think I listen to a pretty good mix of old and new stuff. The thing about old music is that there is just so much of it, and you can pick and choose and always have your favorites. But I’m not somebody who would say I only listen to older stuff. Back in the ’90s, I was pretty bummed on the music scene and would have said that.
Are there plans for a third Broken Bells album?
Yeah, we’re gonna actually get together in September and
do the typical thing where I fly down to L.A. and we’ll work in the
studio for a week and see what happens.
What originally brought you to Portland?
I had been through here before on tour, and I kind of knew
the town. It felt like a place that would be a soft landing. I wanted
to get out of Albuquerque. So on tour, I remember Pittsburgh being
really cool and also Lexington, Ky., being really cool. But I really
liked Portland. I liked the old houses. I liked the fact that you could
rent a house and there would be a basement to record in.
It’s changed a lot since the early 2000s, when you moved here. Are there things you miss?
I was watching a YouTube video of Elliott Smith, and he
was walking around town, and in the ’90s it was just so different. There
wasn’t a lot of fucking high-rises going up. So, in a weird way, I
guess I’m nostalgic about it. The first place I ever played in Portland
was the Egyptian Lounge, which was a place on Division that turned into
the Weird Lounge or something. But it was a strip club run by a guy
named Evil. So we had this night, hanging out with Evil and strippers,
and that was my introduction to Portland. It was awesome. It was right
across from the Ace Hardware, but they tore it down and it’s a big condo
now. Yeah, I am nostalgic for the old days.
Where do you go to muse?
My house has what was an old carriage house out in the
back, which is my studio now, and I love being out there. It’s that
whole thing with old houses, which I love. I think living in a place
that’s so aesthetically appealing is nice. Albuquerque had so much
construction that happened in the ’60s and ’70s that that’s the dominant
form there. I wasn’t super-inspired by that.
I’ve read you were contemplating a solo record prior to Broken Bells forming. Is that something you still want to do?
No, only because I don’t think it’s necessary. I was in a situation where I needed to work with other people. I was just kind of tired of the situation that was the Shins back then. And I changed all that and I’m much happier now. It was either break up and do something totally different or do something on the side. And I guess that became Broken Bells, which for the last year has been my main focus.
SEE IT: Broken Bells plays Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, on Monday, Aug. 11. 8 pm. $49. All ages.