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The Shins’ James Mercer on drawing inspiration from skateboarding

James Mercer (Photo: Nikki Fenix)
James Mercer (Photo: Nikki Fenix)

On March 10 The Shins will release Heartworms, the band’s fifth album and first in five years. It’s a record that sees James Mercer getting back to his roots and finding ways to take past inspirations and make them feel new again. The A.V. Club talked to Mercer about one of his childhood passions: skateboarding. Here, Mercer talks about his early experiences with the sport, with it serving as a social activity when he lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and England. Mercer talks about the inspiration he drew from skateboarding, falling out of love with it, and finding ways to embrace it again as an adult.

The A.V. Club: What drew you to skateboarding initially?

James Mercer: My earliest memory of a proper skateboard would be in the ’70s. I had an older cousin who had a skateboard, and I guess the first time you see something that looks like a piece of technology, there was something attractive about it. It had fairly good-sized trucks on it, but I don’t know what brand it was or anything.

But the real thing is in the ’80s, living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It must have been about ’84 that we had a thing called the Price Club there, which is kind of like Costco today, and there was a company called Action Sports that, for $40, you could buy a proper wooden deck with really heavy, terrible trucks. It was called the Kamikaze. So the Action Sports’ Kamikaze was my first proper skateboard. And that was probably ’85 that I got that.

And the cultural thing of it was mainly just these certain kids, who, for whatever reason, they had been turned on to the subculture that was surf culture and skate culture. Maybe they had, like, a stepdad that lived in California or some shit, so they’d cross the desert and go to L.A. once in a while. Somehow, they were exposed to this thing, and they would bring it back. I remember kids starting to wear Vans and so on—just that culture that was marketed to us when we were kids, but it felt like a subculture. And for some reason, I was attracted to it. Partly because of that. It was just immediately associated with punk music and new wave music, and I’m just talking about Albuquerque. We had this wonderful thing in Albuquerque, which were these cement ditches that had really nice transitions to them. People would just hang out in the ditch in middle school and high school just because there would be kids skating in there and smoking cigarettes and whatnot.

Right at the end of eighth grade I moved into a neighborhood, and behind my house was a really nice ditch. And so I had some friends in the neighborhood who started skating at the same time, and one of them had a Kamikaze as well. Then another kid bought an Uncle Wiggley deck, like it was probably $100 for just the deck at that time. Which was nuts for a 14-year-old to do something like that.

I was kind of a small kid, and some small kids just end up hanging out with other smaller kids who aren’t as athletic. How does it work? If you’re 14 and you’re skinny, you can’t be on the football team, basically. It’s just not even really possible. But skating is something that you can do that gets that athletic urge satisfied, but you get to do it on your own terms. You can be as ballsy as you want to be. It was perfect for me.

AVC: Were things that were steeped in subculture always appealing to you? Were you inherently drawn to things that existed outside of the mainstream?

JM: Man, you have to go back pretty far. Because I’m remembering being introduced to Pink Floyd in, probably, 1980. Dark Side Of The Moon was the record, and there was something about that spooky heartbeat thing and the strangely melancholy nature of some of the melodies that really appealed to me. I knew it wasn’t straight music, you know what I mean? There was something about it that I knew I wasn’t hearing on the radio.

But the cultural thing, when it became a social thing was that summer after my eighth grade year. I really started hanging out with these kids, and we really got into skating and learning the basics. Ollieing was not a thing yet. Natas Kaupas was getting into that stuff, but I don’t think he was really in Thrasher [magazine] at that time. I don’t seem to remember the moment, but I know I moved to England in the summer of ’86 and kind of lost all my friends that were into skating. I didn’t really have a lot of friends, so I skated a bit, but it wasn’t so much a social thing. Then I met a couple kids at the end of that school year that were into skating, and I immersed myself in it. We got really obsessed. We started watching all the videos that any company would come out with. It was Santa Cruz and Powell-Peralta, all the Bones Brigade stuff. I remember going to see, what’s the movie, Police Academy 4, where the Bones Brigade were in the movie. And so, like fucking totally overly enthusiastic idiots, we took our skateboards to the movie to show our identity with this new sort of pop culture phenomenon at that moment. And we skated out of the theater. [Laughs.] It was like going to watch a karate movie and then walking out doing karate stuff with your friends.

AVC: There was obviously the community aspect, but did it feel empowering to find something that was open in terms of expression?

JM: There’s something artistic about skating. A psychologist could tell you exactly why that is, but I think there’s something much more expressive that gives you a lot of room for unique and individual expression. Whatever you’re interested in can become something you kind of own in your group of skater friends. So that’s kind of cool. You can have some weird quirk about your physicality or some strange talent that allows you to invent some weirdass way to ride this curb. And that’s so fun. Maybe that’s what links it to other creative efforts, is that it’s in itself a way to be creative, whereas maybe playing football is less so, and playing basketball is maybe more so than football.

AVC: This was kind of a flashpoint for skateboarding, but it had a pretty notable decline shortly thereafter. Did you stick with it even after it fell out of vogue?

JM: In the summer of ’89 I moved from England back to the States, and I was really into skating. I’d picked up the guitar, and I don’t think I’d really written a proper song yet—I was just messing with a guitar. I was really disappointed to find out that my friends who had been skating with me had not gone deep into it like I had. They had kind of given it up. They had started skiing, which, strangely, is an Albuquerque thing. There’s a ski resort on the edge of town, and you can drive to the mountains and get on a tram that will take you 5,000 feet up to a ski resort. So they started teaching skiing and stuff, and they got really into that, which is understandable. It’s probably also a cool sport. So I lost that again. I lost my friends who were into it.

And here’s what happened: I went and met kids who were into skating, and culturally it was very different from England. Kids were really competitive with one another. The culture of skating in Albuquerque, at least what I saw, it was real rough. It wasn’t the energy that it had in England. It was a strange transition, and I just kind of faded out of it. I ended up meeting one kid and started skating in the summer of ’91 again, and I got back into it for that summer. By then I was playing in bands, and most of my social group wasn’t into skating. So I think the social element of it was just really, really important to me. I wasn’t that talented of a skater that I could go somewhere and just fucking dominate over everybody. I was certainly good in my group of friends in England, but it wasn’t as big of a cultural thing there. We used to get on the train and go down to London and would skate at this place called South Banks, which was kind of the hub of all skating in England at that time. And it was just one of those coincidental things that it had some banks that were nice and you could just kind of do wall rides off of them. Now South Banks is actually a designated skate park. Back then we used to get into altercations with people there, so it’s very different now.

So yeah, it faded for me. It just changed, man. Not only was the vibe in Albuquerque very different from the vibe I was experiencing in England—it was a little bit nerdy, in a way. It was these kooky kids that were into skateboarding. You didn’t feel like you were a badass doing it, necessarily. You had to convince people you were worth talking to, honestly. It was strange to be a skater.

Coming back to the States, the music was changing, too. It was more hip-hop stuff, and maybe that was just Albuquerque, but it was going into territory that I wasn’t yet into. So it faded for me right when all the street shit started happening. I remember H-Street. I remember Mike Vallely being a kid that could do a McTwist at a real young age. I remember those H-Street videos happening, and I was kind of fading out.

AVC: This was also the time that skating was getting more aggressive, due in part to the new street style. Did it feel like it was no longer for the weirdos and was becoming something that football players could do after practice?

JM: That would have been so much later. In the summer of ’91, I got a little bit into it. I was really fascinated by the handrail stuff and kick-flip stuff, and I was more trying to get into that. And that was about it really. I take my daughters out, and we go skateboarding at the skate park, and I’m doing the same old stuff. Maybe hitting a little bowl and doing a rail-slide is the most I can offer them.

The cultural change then that you’re talking about, where it’s sort of more accepted and so on, I didn’t really experience that. By then I was playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. We were playing that on PlayStation. I saw the phenomenon that it became, but I saw it from quite a distance.

AVC: What’s your relationship like with skating now? What brought you back to it even in a casual way?

JM: In a weird way, I think it’s being older and realizing that it doesn’t have to be about a social thing. It’s something that is part of my story, and it’s something that I really love, regardless. I subscribe to Instagram accounts of skaters, and I enjoy watching the beauty and grace of a well-executed trick. I suppose, if someone was into baseball for an extended period of time during their formative years, they’re always going to be interested in it. And that’s the way I think it works with me.

Jon Sortland, who is our drummer now, he was a longtime skater and a much better skater than I was. And he continued skating longer than I did. Through the ’90s, he was still skating. So we skate around here a little bit, just goofing off and enjoying the pleasure of that weird freedom you have. And it’s still something familiar to us, so it is a bit like riding a bike. I’m not near as good as I was, but it’s still something I can do without really risking life and limb.

AVC: Do you feel like it’s weird how that kind of skater’s eye never leaves you? Even 20 years later you can see a good transition and start thinking about its possibilities.

JM: Oh, totally. You’ll see banks or something and start thinking about how you can ride that thing.

AVC: Is it strange to think such a simple activity ends up coloring your perception of little things in the world?

JM: I still have really strong opinions about rollerblading. It’s just like, why? The one thing I notice in myself is when I see something on YouTube and it’s some kid on a scooter getting hurt doing a really hard trick, I’m like, “Why are you fucking trying to do this on a scooter?” Even if you land it, you’re still a dude on a scooter. I apologize right now to whomever is into scootering, but that’s the way skaters look at it.

AVC: Who are some modern skaters that you follow—be it on Instagram or otherwise—that you get excited about?

JM: I follow Ray Barbee, who was a skater back at the end of my run. I follow Tony Hawk, who I am lucky enough to know now and is a really cool dude. I’ve done some of his charity things, and he’s a bit of a Shins fan. I was staying at a hotel, and he came up to me and said, “Are you James Mercer?” I was like, “Yeah, Tony Hawk. What the hell? How do you know?” But he’s a really cool guy, because his Instagram is super rad in that he features other younger skaters a lot of the time. He’ll be at a ramp and somebody will impress him and he’ll just post it, which is kind of rad.

A lot of them don’t have proper names. I’m just following them. I’m actually running through my feed right now and looking for them. It’s usually just a weird arty word or something. And I wouldn’t even really know what team they skate for. Here’s a thing called @MetroSkateboarding, and it’s just an amalgamation of different skate tricks and stuff.

That aspect of skating, that creative thing, I hadn’t really thought of that. I hadn’t really ever tried to articulate that, I guess.