Concert preview: Broken Bells comes into its own with After the Disco

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From the June 12, 2014 edition

In the midst of Broken Bells’ sophomore album, After the Disco, singer/songwriter James Mercer offers up a small confession: “Somehow you got it in your head you could make it on your own,” he sings.

Though The Shins frontman, who’s joined in the side project by musician/producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse (The Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley, the forthcoming U2 album, etc.), is ostensibly speaking of a busted relationship, the line could also have been cribbed from his own life, and in a recent phone interview the married father of three daughters opened up about his ongoing attempts to move beyond his insular ways.

“It’s hard for me to exaggerate the change that’s happened in me over the last 10 years, going from being really, really introverted and insecure to being almost normal,” said Mercer, 43, who joins Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton) for a concert at LC Pavilion on Thursday, June 19. “A lot of it was being forced to face those fears and sometimes embarrass myself and whatever. Because I’d had this success with The Shins, it put me in these situations where I had to meet people and I had to go shake hands and I had to go onstage, and it happened night after night after night. I think after a while … your brain sort of rewires into it. Not that I still don’t get anxious about things, but it’s less of a problem for sure.”

The shift was further aided, in part, by Mercer’s experiences at an acquaintance’s funeral shortly after he and Burton started work on the first Broken Bells record around 2009.

“It was a strange experience hearing people say what a wonderful time they’d had with this person, and I started to realize if I had a funeral right now there would be no one saying that stuff [about me] because I hadn’t been open,” he said. “That all culminated in me trying to say yes to things and open up and change.”

When first approached to work with Burton, Mercer was initially hesitant, and he said he entered into the collaboration with genuine trepidation, afraid of what his Shins bandmates might think of his dalliances and lacking confidence his abilities would translate outside the only group he’d known for much of his adult life.

“I had found friends I was comfortable with, and even though the relationships were difficult at times, I was OK with that,” Mercer said. “I think I had to face that full issue — the issue of the relationship with my bandmates — and that was the beginning of something.”

With this new record, excitement replaced the lingering sense of dread — “There was no anxiety this time; it was purely like, ‘This will be a vacation,’” Mercer said — even if it’s not reflected in the music itself, which tends to be world-weary and somber, awash in woozy, retro-futuristic synthesizers and shimmering, post-midnight vocal melodies. Indeed, both the album’s title (After the Disco) and its general mood were inspired by numerous late-night conversations between the musicians, with the single Burton relaying his various romantic frustrations to the happily married Mercer.

It helps, of course, the singer has experienced his share of heartbreak, and his Shins’ catalog is littered with the carcasses of many a failed relationship (“You still have those wounds,” he said matter-of-factly). These days, however, Mercer is growing increasingly comfortable looking outside himself for inspiration.

“I look back at my 20s, and I was so selfish and self-centered. Everything that mattered was me,” he said. “I didn’t think that’s how I was at the time, but looking back now I recognize it. Maybe getting older helps you care less about yourself and more about the people around you, which was a long, slow process for me.”

In a similar vein, Mercer spoke about his ongoing maturation as a musician, progressing from a twenty-something hell-bent on wowing his peers (“I specifically remember Amy Linton from Henry’s Dress, which had done such great music, and really wanting to impress people like that — or at least be taken seriously by them,” he said) to a 43-year-old close to at home in his own skin.

“I’m in a different place now,” he said. “I think now I can write for myself a little bit more, and it’s more about exploring for the sake of exploring as opposed to worrying about everyone else so much.”

Photo by James Minchin