Not-so-odd couple

As Broken Bells, Mercer and Burton combine the best of their indie, R&B sides

James Mercer of the Shins (left) and Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley). James Mercer of the Shins (left) and Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley). (Josh Cheuse)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / June 4, 2010

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They were supposed to be this year’s odd couple, a match made in hipster heaven but potentially a bit dicey in practice. Instead James Mercer, who fronts indie-rock heroes the Shins, and producer and musician Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse from R&B raconteurs Gnarls Barkley) have made one of 2010’s most cohesive pop records, as blissed-out as it is breezy.

Calling themselves Broken Bells, Mercer and Burton released their eponymous debut in March, and it achieved a rare feat among unlikely collaborations: It skims from the best of both artists.

The album has the classic songcraft Mercer’s fans expect from his work with the Shins, and brimming beneath the surface is Burton’s penchant for mercurial beats and ambience. It turns out Broken Bells, who play a sold-out show with a full band at Royale tonight, aren’t that odd after all. And their pairing happened almost as organically as how the songs were recorded.

“In early 2008, I had just done a bunch of touring for [the Shins album] ‘Wincing the Night Away’ and decided I wanted to do something different,’’ Mercer says recently from a tour stop in Detroit. “I was just looking for a new experience to broaden my horizons. Brian heard about that and was kind of in the same mode.’’

Mercer and Burton met in 2004 at a music festival, and confessed they were mutual admirers, but the timing didn’t work out until four years later. They knew they wanted to work together but had no idea where the music would take them.

“I was a really big fan of his songwriting and his voice, and he’s a really great guitar player,’’ Burton says in a separate conversation. “It was that simple. I didn’t know what it was going to turn into or anything like that. We got along so well and we’re looking to do some more things together, which is why it turned into a band more than just a side project.’’

For Mercer’s part, he liked the prospect of getting outside his comfort zone, a place he had inadverently put himself for too long.

“The idea of writing with somebody — that back-and-forth feedback — was attractive to me,’’ Mercer says. “I wanted to not be the center of everything so much. I had set things up in the Shins where I was comfortable and in control of my environment. In a way that eventually gets a little old. You need to shake it up.’’

Broken Bells accomplished that, but it’s also both a departure and extension of the Shins’ melodic indie pop. Songs such as first single “The High Road’’ gurgle with ambient synths and loll about in spacious arrangements. Mercer stretches out with different instrumentation and lyrical content, but it still has his fingerprints all over it. That was by design.

“I usually try to know what people have done to see where they could go,’’ Burton says. “I was a genuine fan and never really thought I would change anything about the Shins. I like the way their stuff sounds, and I love those records. I wasn’t trying to do something different — or similiar, either.’’

As nonchalant as the album sounds, Mercer and Burton admit they were cautious in the beginning, preferring to work together in private to see what transpired before announcing the project. They kept everything under wraps last September, and the album followed six months later.

“That was intentional,’’ Burton says. “I didn’t like the idea of there being any kind of expectations. It’s in my instincts to do something that’s not expected.’’

Mercer had the same reaction: “At first, we weren’t sure if it was going to end up being anything. We didn’t want to appear to have failed at something.’’ He adds that he felt like he had less at stake than Burton, who has a long and acclaimed history of working with others, from Cee-Lo (his partner in Gnarls Barkley) to Beck to the Black Keys to Gorillaz.

“I think Brian probably had more trepidation than I did at first,’’ Mercer says. “There’s probably not as much pressure on me to do high-quality projects.’’

Sensing that didn’t come out right, he clarifies. “I was looking at it as this crazy other thing I do,’’ Mercer says. “I assumed right off the bat that everything we did was going on a record. But Brian is much more of a serious producer. He produces other people’s stuff, and he sees his career as an arc, while mine is just winding its own path.’’

Both men agree that they plan to record another Broken Bells album but aren’t sure when that’ll happen. Mercer says his next challenge is to write more material for a new Shins record, and Burton is as busy as ever, including the July release of “Dark Night of the Soul,’’ his collaboration with Sparklehorse (featuring the late Mark Linkous) and various musicians.

For now, though, their attention is on Broken Bells, and Burton is happy that he accomplished something new with this project.

“With this record, I wanted to finally do a record where you could do stuff to it — you could zone out and pay as much or little attention as you want,’’ Burton says. “There’s not any one song that’s showing off. There’s lots of stuff to pay attention to, if you want to, but nothing that really wakes you up from the dream.’’

James Reed can be reached at