This is the day of the expanding man," sang Steely Dan several decades ago, a prescient claim which, in terms of musical development, has only begun to resonate strongly in the past five or ten years, with the rise of eclecticists like Damon Albarn. The artist who perhaps best bears out the notion of the expanding man is Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, whose diverse work includes partnership with Cee-Lo Green, as half of Gnarls Barkley; with rapper MF Doom as Dangerdoom; production of the second Gorillaz album, Demon Days, and another Albarn project, The Good, The Bad And The Queen; and further production work for the likes of Beck, Sparklehorse, Martina Topley-Bird and The Black Keys. Burton's range and intentions were signalled with his first solo outing, 2004's The Grey Album, a highly unofficial mash-up project which combined treated samples from The Beatles' "White Album" with vocal samples from Jay-Z's The Black Album, which swiftly became an internet cause celèbre following the inevitable cease-and-desist order from EMI.
The album's status as an art project, however, was retrospectively strengthened a couple of years later when he collaborated with graffiti artist Banksy on a project which involved covertly replacing 500 copies of Paris Hilton's album in English record stores with a version featuring altered artwork and a 40-minute song built from vocal soundclips of the hotel heiress. Last year, yet another of his art projects was stymied by EMI's intervention, this time a three-way audio-visual collaboration between Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse and David Lynch, Dark Night Of The Soul (Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous committed suicide last week).
Burton has likened his approach to that of a film director, the creator of different kinds of musical worlds, within which his collaborators and production charges can perform. His latest musical world is as unexpected as any of his previous projects. Broken Bells is the name of a new group formed with James Mercer, songwriter and frontman with American indie band The Shins. The two first met in 2004 at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, where Burton was DJ-ing. "I had played the night before," he explains. "I had just gotten their record Chutes Too Narrow, and wanted to see them play, so I stayed on to watch them the next day. Then we'd see each other on tours and at festivals here and there for years, and we kept up our acquaintanceship."
It was during this period that Gnarls Barkley became hugely successful with the single "Crazy" and album St Elsewhere, whilst The Shins' brilliant third album Wincing The Night Away hoisted them to the upper reaches of the American charts, so neither of them could spare much time for any outside musical enterprise – not that the subject ever came up. "We never even talked about it," says Mercer, "we just kinda hung out together."
"It just happened that in 2008 the timing was right, so we started working on this," adds Burton. "I was finished touring Gnarls, and wanted to do something different, and James was kind of the same way, he wanted to do something different, so we got together to see what would happen if we messed around. Producing was always a way for me to do other things, learn from other artists. But I wanted to be able to develop ideas and not have other people place restrictions on what I do creatively. It's different when you're taking somebody else's idea for a song and trying to add yourself to it in some way, or make it more like something you want to hear, rather than going in and trying to come up with your own ideas from scratch. So recently I've been playing more instruments, writing more songs, coming up with ideas and trying to do more stuff in that way. And when James and I got together that definitely softened the blow, because no matter what you do, James is still very unique and on top of how things are laid out musically."
Previously, Mercer had written all of The Shins' material, displaying a distinctive sense of melody and chord structures, and an equally unique lyrical slant, both of which are reprised to some extent in the Broken Bells songs. "That pleases me, that there's something distinct about what I come up with melodically," he says, "I think that's my best suit, I have a talent for melodies. But it's difficult for me to understand exactly what that is, or how it works. And certainly, on this record I didn't have the luxury of sticking to my usual chord structures – Brian has a whole other sort of angle on things."
Perhaps the best way of describing Mercer's melodic gift, I suggest, is to say that his melodies take the scenic route, rather than the most direct, which tends to make his songs less immediate, the kind of tunes which grow on the listener over four or five plays.
" I'm glad it's understood in that way," says Burton. "I figured people would understand it more, I guess. Listening to James's voice, the way he sings and everything, I wanted to hear what it would sound like in different situations. Trying to make a beautiful record was really the only thing we had in mind. I don't know if it's as polished, as much as it just feels right as a whole: it's almost like a place you can go to when you listen to it."
The duo recorded the album at Burton's Los Angeles studio, Mercer commuting down from his Portland, Oregon base for a week or two at various times over the past year, until they had about 20 ideas, of which they used the best ten. "I like that it's not too long," says Mercer. "There was actually another song that I thought should be on the record, and Brian talked me into dropping it. It's so concise. I don't understand the idea of 'bonus' tracks – I think people are sometimes a little too into what they're doing, too excited about their own entertainment value or something. Labels love having those extra tracks, because it gives them rights to the master – they then own that song, it's another song they'll get licensing money on. I know it's boring to talk about business, but in most contracts, after 11 songs, everything is free: they only pay you for the first 11 songs, so if there's 17 songs on the album, you're giving them six for free. Labels love that shit."
The resulting album is one of the year's best so far, up there with the Midlake album (with which Burton and Mercer are deeply enamoured) whose elusive, tangential manner it shares, from the way it seems to sidle in nonchalantly on the back of a casual synth line, to the echoes of Brian Wilson, Ennio Morricone, Calexico and more further-flung influences (such as the strange alliance of Western dobro guitar and Oriental string textures on the closing track "The Mall & Misery") scattered among the tracks.
"We weren't that deliberate about those things," says Burton, "it's just that we happened to have a lot of influences, and we kind of help each other, when we're recording, to keep to the parts which sound most natural and best. We tried a lot of things, and maybe two or three ideas would get turned into a single song, while some other songs would be tried in three different ways till we found the way which worked best. We were just trying things out. And in the end, I can't think of many influences we didn't put in there! When you spend that much time making an album, that's going to happen."
Though initially reluctant to discuss lyrics, Mercer does admit to a predilection for a certain type of thematic direction. "I hope I keep finding new things to write about, but my favourite themes to write about are broader things about the human condition," he says. "Is that the right term to use? About situations when we know of our own mortality, and how we face that? That seems to be the real blood of art, for me. It's what makes for passion and stuff."
Several of the songs, I volunteer, seem to be about grasping opportunities and taking control over the direction of your life, realising the range of potential possibilities.
"That's conversations Brian and I have," says Mercer. "We're getting to know each other all the time we've been making this record, just hanging out after working in the studio, having a few drinks. And I think some of that ended up coming out in the songs."
"We're different in age, and our lifestyles are very different as well," adds Burton, "but we're very similar as people, so it's interesting to see how things affect each of us. We both question things all the time. And towards the end, there was a little bit of space that came into it as well – by which I mean, outer space: realising our own insignificance, and things. Which can either be quite daunting, as in, 'I might as well off myself', or it can be so fantastic, so amazing how free you are, and how much of a drop in the bucket this is.
"I don't want to get too literal about it," he continues. "Everybody's going to take whatever they take from it, which is good. It's much to better to have a song dealing with an idea, prompting thoughts in your head about different things. I always remember how a song by a band I loved meant something special to me because it was playing when I heard of how a friend of mine had passed away; then later, I learned it was about a political person having an affair, and it ruined the song for me. I wish I had never found out!"
The album 'Broken Bells' is out now on Columbia