What started as a side project in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has become a somewhat unexpected career for James Mercer. Mercer has made many decisions even he himself sometimes questions, however the success of The Shins – now a completely different lineup to the original band, besides Mercer himself – is undeniable.
With other side projects – like Broken Bells, with producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) – and production satisfying his other creative itches, the humble songwriter was quietly reflective yet jovial when he spoke to Music Feeds ahead of The Shins’ upcoming Australian tour.
MUSIC FEEDS: How are you, James? How has this tour been going?
JAMES MERCER: I’m well thank you! Um, I have been home for about three days from tour. I came back pretty exhausted, we had done what seemed like a longer stretch but it turns out it was only about three weeks. My God, it felt like we were out forever. Only because we didn’t have any days off. We’re having a great time out there touring and stuff, I assure you, but yeah, I’ve just been resting. I slept until noon today, which is ridiculous that never happens.
MF: Oh my goodness, it sounds like you must have needed it!
JM: Yeah, exactly. (laughs)
MF: So before we jump into it too much, I just had to ask – is it true your wife was a journalist who interviewed you for a story?
JM: Yeah! She was writing for Spin and she came out to Portland and interviewed me, and yes, that’s how I met her. She never actually published the interview (laughs) she has the tapes somewhere. But yeah, what it was, was, I think she was out near Portland probably to visit a friend of hers and see Portland because she was curious about moving outside of New York. And then she met me, and we really hit it off, and over the next few weeks we became an item. So it wasn’t, I guess, in her mind ‘appropriate’? (laughs)
MF: That’s fair, I can see how that could be awkward. Growing up I know you moved around a fair bit, what kind of influences did you pick up during that time?
JM: Oh man, that’s interesting. Um… I would say the most important time, musically, for me, moving around would have been in England. Because I was a teenager, you know. I had lived in one other exotic place, which was Germany, but I was only there from nine to 11 and all I really knew of music was the stuff my American friends showed me, so I got turned on to Pink Floyd and Steve Miller and stuff like that. (laughs) But my experience in England was kind of huge because as a teenager you can go out there, you can go and see shows and you can have a drink in a pub and it was the late ’80s in England, which I think was a pretty special time.
MF: So when did you decide to get into music? What prompted that?
JM: It’s funny because professionally there wasn’t ever a clearly drawn line, you know? In high school, over in England, I started playing keyboard, I took some keyboard lessons, which were (laughs) hilarious because a girl I ended up dating, it was her ex-boyfriend’s mom teaching me. So I’d be sitting there learning how to play and he’d walk in with his friends (laughs) and see me there. Then I picked up a guitar and started messing around with that. Then I had a couple friends who thought it would be cool to start a band – I mean, if you like music and you’re a teenager everyone thinks it would be cool to be in a band, you know – so we started screwing around in one of the kids’ bedrooms, playing guitars and somebody had part of a drum kit or whatever. So that began in high school, but it never really became part of my social life until I moved back to Albuquerque New Mexico, and I fell in with some friends who were actually in a band. They invited me to join them because they had heard me singing at parties and stuff (laughs) something stupid like that.
MF: So I know The Shins was originally a side project, what made you decide to retain that name when the other guys moved on?
JM: Oh right. Well, I mean, I didn’t want to at first because I felt like I had established such a brand while playing out there on the road, you know? But then I was reminded that The Shins’ first release was a bedroom-recording project that I had done, largely on my own. It was just me and my friend Jesse Sandoval who was the drummer. So the origins of the band were very diverse, I mean, it was a bedroom-recording project. And then, even the first live iterations of The Shins, it was just me and a drummer. That was like ’96 or ’97, it was just me and a drummer – guitar and drums and singing. We even opened up for Guided By Voices in that form.
Then when I got signed… Okay, I can tell you… I was in a band called Flake, in the ’90s. And I broke up that band because I was frustrated, partly because certain song ideas I had wouldn’t be approved, basically, by the communal mode of a band like we were. So that became a frustration – I couldn’t do folky numbers, I couldn’t branch out as much as I wanted to. So I left that band. Then when I started The Shins I recorded a lot of stuff on my own, and I got signed, and I was still really tight friends with the guys from Flake. It was a natural thing for me to hire them to come out on the road and play The Shins songs with me.
It was difficult (laughs) it was difficult to digest, for all of us, that new change. Like, how did we go from the early ’90s without any real success to this? I mean, it was just difficult, but… so anyway… that’s kind of how… I’m getting lost in the story (laughs) so that’s how The Shins started. So when I finally decided I needed to move on to opening it up again, basically, to how it had been, I did want to just break up the band and end The Shins. But my manager was like, “Dude, look at the other artists who have done that. Do you have the reason that they had for doing that? Do you really have a good reason to no longer use The Shins as a name?” And, you know, I didn’t. So I kept it. (laughs)
MF: And fair enough, too. Now I remember reading somewhere that you suffered insomnia, and somewhere else that you were shy as a kid, and I thought, “Hmm, maybe he’s got some anxiety going on.” But you actually wrote a song about that on Heartworms, didn’t you?
JM: Yeah, yep, I did. I think more people have anxiety than admit it, you know. But yeah, I find at times when I’m anxious… I… yeah, I’m probably a totally anxious person, admittedly (laughs). I’m probably realising the times when I’m not feeling super anxious are probably the times when I’m having a drink or something (laughs) like I am now. Yeah, you know, it’s such a common thing you know? It’s funny, I was surprised when I saw an article, I don’t know where, but part of the gist of it – and I don’t read these articles, so I probably glanced at it for one second – it was just that basically, it was brave of me to come out and talk about this issue, you know? I don’t know, I guess I didn’t think of it that way. It’s just life, you know? Life is fuckin’ stressful. It’s filled with anxieties… and then parenthood, throw that on there and it’s like gasoline on a fire!
MF: Haha, I don’t know about that one personally, but yeah, I have heard that.
JM: It’s just one more to worry about. (laughs)
MF: So what made you decide to self-produce and record that album? Was that kind of going back to your roots a bit?
JM: You know it’s funny because during these interviews I’ve realised it had been quite a while since I had really produced anything because you’d have to go back to Wincing The Night Away, which would have been 10 years prior… right? Oh my God, yeah. So, you know, because I’d worked with Brian (Burton) and he had produced the Broken Bells things, and then I had done Port of Morrow and Greg Kurstin had produced that. I guess it was partly to go back to my roots. I think I missed it. I missed joy; there’s a certain weird joy in learning the technical side of things and then turning it into something that’s attractive, you know? I think that’s why engineers are engineers, and there’s a side of my personality that is like that, I do like some of that ‘gear’ stuff. You know, I think it might be… it’s more that than the control, really. But sometimes having that control over your own schedule, really, honestly, is probably the biggest thing. Like, if you want to go work on the thing at three in the morning you can. You can start screwing with it and no one’s going to be like, “What did you do to the track?”, because it’s mine. It just gives you a certain freedom, I guess.
MF: Yeah, I can understand that. Now obviously you’re heading out to Australia soon – are you excited?
JM: Oh we’re super excited. I’m thrilled that this is going to be the last tour this year. I mean Australia is probably my favourite place to tour. We’ve got members of the band that have never been to Australia, so I’m going to feel like a big shot showing them around. (laughs)
MF: Oh excellent. How many times have you been out here now?
JM: Um, I think it’s at least three times playing shows or touring… and then probably a couple more times for press. Oh and then another time I went there for a festival, kind of like a songwriter’s convention or something. I remember I was forced to do interviews in front of thousands of people and it was fucking terrifying.
MF: Oh how awkward! So, is Broken Bells still a thing? How do you keep up with all of your projects – and what’s next for you?
JM: I’m not exactly sure what is next. I have corresponded with Brian a little bit about getting together, and he has affirmed that he’d like to do the same but he’s really busy (laughs) as we all know, and obviously I’m busy right now too so I wouldn’t be able to do it in the next few months. I’m not exactly sure what will end up next. I think it would be fun to go into the studio with my current band and do some more recording. We re-recorded the whole record, actually, kind of for fun… in a totally oppositional attitude. Like, if it was acoustic it’ll be electronic, if it was a rock song it’ll be acoustic, you know. We kind of tweaked everything and we had a blast doing it, and the label loved it, you know, Columbia loved it and they’re going to be putting it out, so there’s that. It’s called The Worm’s Heart, and we had such a good time doing that; it went so quickly and we produced it all together, it was a real communal thing. I’d really like to do more work like that.
Honestly, I’d like to get together with them and jam stuff into existence, you know, the way a band properly does.
Catch The Shins touring Australia this December. Dates below!
The Shins 2017 Australian Tour Dates
Monday, 4th December
Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Tickets: Handsome Tours
Tuesday, 5th December
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane
Tickets: Handsome Tours
Friday, 8th December
Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Tickets: Handsome Tours