James Mercer of The Shins
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It’s been five years since the Shins put out a new album, but in a way, the new Port Of Morrow is a surprise simply because the band is back at all. In the time since 2007’s Wincing The Night Away, the group’s founder and leader, James Mercer, parted ways with bandmates Dave Hernandez, Jesse Sandoval, and Marty Crandall, and formed a new group, Broken Bells, with Brian Burton of Danger Mouse and Gnarls Barkley fame. Mercer also acted in the feature film Some Days Are Better Than Others, and started a family with his wife, designer Marisa Kula. But even as Mercer concerned himself with other projects, he says he never stopped writing Shins songs, and lately, he’s been performing with a supporting cast of ringers that includes songwriter-producer Richard Swift and Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer. Mercer’s change in direction is made plain on Morrow, which bears the influences of Broken Bells as well as Mercer’s mainstream pop-rock ambitions. The A.V. Club recently talked to Mercer about Morrow, the changes in the Shins’ lineup, and whether it will be another five years before there’s more new Shins music.
The A.V. Club: It’s been five years since the last Shins record came out, and you’ve been busy doing different things, including Broken Bells. Why did you decide to make this a Shins record and not just a James Mercer solo record?
James Mercer: You know, I don’t like the idea of a singer-songwriter record. I don’t picture myself that way, and it’s not my favorite sort of look, I guess. It’s really just an aesthetic thing. It’s like John Denver or some sort of a band—there’s something cooler about the idea of a band. And the other thing is that I really rely on other people. I need a band to make this cool, to make the record what it is. So it always ends up being a band, regardless of who the members are. When I started The Shins, it really was just me, alone, but it was still The Shins. I was totally recording stuff and writing songs as The Shins and all of that. So the beginning inception of the whole thing was some sort of a lie, I guess. [Laughs.] There were bands like the Lilys that was one dude who wrote everything and would record with a number of people. There was Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s a guy writing songs and recording stuff in his bedroom, and then they’d go out on tour, and he’d get his friends to support him. So I guess I wanted it to be that sort of thing.
AVC: Do you have any sympathy for fans who might say, “This isn’t really a Shins record”?
JM: I do have sympathy for them, but they were misled, in a way. [Laughs.] I mean, to a certain extent, if they were to think that this is not The Shins, they would certainly be wrong. That was The Shins, and this is The Shins.
AVC: Your former bandmates Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez appear as guest musicians on Morrow. How did they end up getting involved?
JM: Well, I liked what they do. So I called them up and asked them. I had a number of things that I really thought Dave would sound good on. There’s things that—Dave Hernandez has a certain sound, tone, and style, and he comes up with ideas that you really don’t get anywhere else, and the same thing with Marty. Marty has a melodic sense, very unique. So I wanted to have them pitch in.
AVC: Was there any weirdness with them as far as continuing The Shins with a different lineup?
JM: I think they’re pretty understanding about it. You know, I’m still friends with them, and we still talk, and I hope to work with them again. I mean, I love those guys not only as still friends, but they’re really good musicians, too.
I don’t want to diminish in any way what they did on the records and what they added to the band. I guess where I’m at on that is just that it was always very much my project. It revolved around me. It was me writing the songs, and very much in control of the aesthetic of the records. That aspect, I think, wasn’t fully understood at the time, because for me to go about the process of trying—why would I say that? Why would I, in an interview, go out of my way to make that clear? It wouldn’t be in my personality. It wouldn’t be very becoming of anybody. It’s an annoying aspect of this new situation that I feel like sometimes, somehow, that point needs to be made. Because in reality, I came up with the big ideas, the songs and lyrics and maybe concepts about production and stuff, especially back then. But I did rely on those guys to help me make it cool. There’s no way in hell I will ever play guitar as good as Dave Hernandez, ever. He’s technically proficient and incredibly creative and smart about note choices and all that shit. And there’s so many things that Marty and Jesse do that I could have never done.
AVC: Have you talked at all to Jesse Sandoval? Given his 2009 interview detailing his acrimonious break with the band, it seems like the relationship has been strained.
JM: I have spoken to Jesse. We’ve communicated, and it seems like it’s not an irreparable thing.
AVC: That must’ve been strange for you, to be in a situation where there’s suddenly interest in your inter-band drama.
JM: I just don’t really read it. I don’t really engage in that. I don’t know about it. I know that there are a lot of sort of silly things that one thinks as a music listener about bands. I am a fan of many bands. I find myself making assumptions, even at this stage: “So they went out and had that band open for them? Weird.” At the same time, I know that oftentimes, those decisions—you’re not always totally in control of those decisions. Sometimes there are things that just happen. And I still find myself having that same response. So I can’t blame people for doing that. But I know I want to keep writing songs, and The Shins is the vehicle for my songs, and I need to stay happy doing it. I’ve done what I need to do to stay engaged. That’s all I can say.
There’s a lot of sillier reasons why people will drop The Shins as a favorite band. I don’t expect everybody to just be understanding. It’s music, it’s not oxygen. It is to me, maybe. [Laughs.] But not to everybody.
AVC: You’ve talked about the influence producer Greg Kurstin had on Morrow, and particularly how he gave you confidence in the studio to experiment. How exactly did he give you that confidence?
JM: Well, Greg influenced the record in part because he plays a lot of parts on the record. He did a lot of cool performing stuff. He’s got a lot of really wonderful vintage synthesizers, and he’s a master at using them. Not just being a piano player, but the other weird skill is understanding the electronics, and knowing how to find sounds and generate really cool tones and sounds. So there’s that aspect. He’s a performer on the record; he’s in the band. And then, he’s just a strong writer, too. This is the first time I’ve ever had anybody say, like, “Um, what if you went to A minor there?” And he’s a really gifted engineer. He’s just one of those people. [Laughs.] Just makes you wish you had started when you were 7 like he did, or whatever it takes—just be born with that talent.
AVC: You used to make records alone in your bedroom, just recording by yourself. Do you think if you had felt the way you do now, those first Shins records would sound like Port Of Morrow?
JM: I was just listening to some old tapes from ’95, ’96, when I was learning how to record on 4-tracks. And there’s some cool stuff there. There’s definitely some things I would like to put out maybe as some sort of unreleased rarities-type thing. But at the same time, there’s a lot of dumb ideas, you know? There’s a lot of things I’m glad didn’t get published, and in a way, I’m glad I didn’t have some band of slick dudes who could really help me get it out there and maybe get signed and all that stuff, because it would’ve been an identity that I probably would have had to try and shake off. Marty and Jesse and Neal and I, we learned how to play our instruments together. We went through that process together, and you can’t really replace that. It’s a bond for us. At the same time, as things change—I’m in a very different situation in my life. I’m married with kids and so on, and I’m also responsible. I’m in the middle of this thing. It’s inherently something I think of differently than they ever did. So it’s always just been a different situation for me.
AVC: On some level, whenever you call something The Shins, that must hem you in as far as what people expect from you.
JM: Yeah, that feeling of being hemmed in got pretty scary to me, especially by the end of the touring for Wincing The Night Away. That’s part of the reason I wanted to do something different, and then [started] working with Brian [Burton] for Broken Bells. That being such a different thing for me, a different way of creating stuff, after doing that, I was really charged and ready to do Shins stuff again. I’m not ready to feel hemmed in again, certainly not after that, after feeling so free and having these new experiences with new bandmates and working with somebody so collaboratively, someone like Brian.
AVC: Do you still look at The Shins as your main creative outlet?
JM: Yes, I do, definitely. I mean, it’s kind of where my songs go. My attempt at really doing classic sort of songwriting is Shins stuff. When I was doing Broken Bells stuff, I was writing when I was with Brian. I would write when I was in the studio with him, or when I was at his house. So everything I did otherwise, like at home and stuff, that was always piling up and going to be a Shins record. So I knew fairly early on into Broken Bells that the next thing I would do would be a Shins record.
AVC: Was your work with Broken Bells an influence on Morrow?
JM: Yeah, it is. It’s certainly part of it, the experiences I had with Broken Bells, both touring and just making a record, and the fresh feeling of something new, and working with different people and so on. You know, one thing I was going to say about the earlier part of the conversation was, which Shins is it that people are thinking of? Is it songs like “Caring Is Creepy,” where it’s Neal Langford writing the bassline? Or is it songs like “New Slang,” where it’s just me, but Dave Hernandez wrote the bassline on that song? I mean, it just seems like it’s always been different people helping me and working on things.
AVC: As you said, you’re a family man now. How has that affected your songwriting?
JM: Well, I think you can listen to some of the lyrics in some of the older songs and hear a lot of complaining. [Laughs.] So there’s a direct influence there. I think now that I’m happier, it’s not that I’m necessarily writing happier songs, although I think there are some happier songs on this record than the others. It’s that I have the ability to write about things outside of myself more. I’m not so hunkered-down and introspective.
AVC: What do you see in the years ahead for you musically? You’ve talked about making another Broken Bells record. Is there anything else you’re interested in doing that you haven’t had a chance to do yet musically?
JM: I guess one of the things I’d like to do maybe is produce another band. I’ve never done that. I’d like to maybe do that, and then put whatever that ends up being out on [his label] Aural Apothecary. I would like to put out the old Flake stuff. We’re talking about putting out a compilation of stuff. Flake was the band I was in before the Shins, and Marty and Neal and Jesse were in that band. So we wanna put that stuff out, things like that. I don’t really have the idea that I want to start an R&B band—nothing that exciting.
AVC: Do you foresee it taking another five years to make another Shins record?
JM: I hope not. I am doing another Broken Bells record after the touring is done for this Shins record, so that will take some time, but we’ll see. I certainly hope it’s not another five years.