Things have changed in the life of James Mercer in recent years. Since creating the Shins as a poppy home recording side project to his band Flake Music in 1996, he’s overseen four albums – including this year’s Port of Morrow, the first since effectively dismissing his bandmates – been half of the Broken Bells, alongside Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, gotten married and become a father to two daughters. Yet that shy teenager with the bedroom recording gear is still alive and well, as Andrew P Street discovers.
[Previous album] Wincing the Night Away was quite a difficult album to make, was it not? Yeah, it sort of was. I was up against a lot of technical issues. I had purchased a computer and some digital record gear that was really giving me a hard time. It was sort of a transitional phase for the recording industry – or I guess the recording electronics industry. They realised the potential of home computers, but they overestimated it as well.
I was curious because the sound of that record is so dense compared to the new one. There was a leaden quality to it that that’s definitely not true of the last two. True. You know, usually you have to cut out a lot – you could argue that I simply should have been more discriminate about what I left in the mix.
Did that experience of that and the Broken Bells record inform the way that you approached Port of Morrow? I think certainly both of those did and now it’s just difficult for me to figure out exactly how. Some of it is pretty easy to talk about. Brian encouraged me to sing in a falsetto voice, which I hadn’t done too much of before hand and it turns out to be effective and comfortable for me to do. I think I had probably shied away from it just because it was something different.
In a lot of ways, and I realise this isn’t a new observation, the album does kind of almost straddle a middle ground between the Broken Bells record and the Shins. Yeah, I agree. So much of the aesthetic of the new record is there because of [producer] Greg Kurstin. He worked in a similar way to Brian Burton and uses a lot of very similar equipment actually. They are both lovers of old vintage keyboards and analogue synthesizers and stuff like that. I think there almost a coincidental relationship between the Broken Bells record and Port of Morrow.
Was there a moment when you thought this wasn’t a Shins record? Could this have been a James Mercer solo record? Well, there was a time when I wondered what I was going to do. After Broken Bells I was wondering, “What am I going to do next? Should I do a solo record? Would it be honest for me to say it’s a Shins record if I’m going so much of this on my own?” And then I remembered that a the very first Shins things were just me in my bedroom working on a four track, so I realised that the Shins has always been a recording project for me that I wanted to look like a band.
Why? Because I always wanted to be in the Beatles [laughs].
Ah, the whole band-as-gang thing? Yes. But I think because of my personality, it didn’t work out that way. There are lots of other projects like that, which appear to be a band but are actually just a dude.
On a personal level it must still have been really difficult to turn around to Marty [Crandall, keys/bass], Jesse [Sandoval, drums] and Dave [Hernandez, guitar], people you’ve worked with for so long, and say “you’re not in the band anymore.” [long pause, quietly] Yeah. But it wasn’t “I’m never working with you again!” In fact, I did call Marty and Dave back in to work with me on this record, because I like working with them.
Was that weird? Yeah, a little bit.
So what inspired the decision? I had experienced this new freedom working with Brian and working with new people. And I’d learned a lot from these people – different aesthetics, different music, and just played differently and I was fascinated by that and wanted to continue that sharing experience by putting it into the Shins. So I started looking around for people that fit the bill.
Is that was you see as a band going forward, having a floating group of like-minded players? Actually, Marty and Neal [Langford, former keyboardist] were on stage with me the other night: they joined us for a song and that was really fun. I wouldn’t mind doing that again, so maybe the Shins is sort of growing in numbers of people who I enjoy working with. It’s just expanding.
You’re a father now, but you’re committed to spending the rest of the year running around the planet promoting this album. Is that wrenching? Yes, it is. We are limiting the time away from home to three weeks at a time, which makes it difficult for the promoters. But three weeks is a lot with a three year old kid, though. I mean, I come back and the relationship has changed.
That’s got to hurt. It does. But that’s all I can do. I don’t have a choice. I need to provide for the family and this is what I do – and it’s something that I love to do also. There’s two ways that I’m compensated for doing this.
You’re making me think of the video to ‘Simple Song’, with you as a father figure with estranged children that you force them to play your music. There’s a parallel there. How conscious was that? True. [laughs] But the idea for that video was the guys who made it listening to the lyrics of the song. It’s pretty coincidental in a lot of ways.
Given that this record is so separate to the previous ones, how does it feel if you do a bunch of new songs and then pull out something like ‘Caring is Creepy’? Does it feel like you’re covering yourself, or does it still feel like it’s yours? It definitely still feels like it’s mine. I been thinking about that a little bit actually when I’ve been playing: like ‘man some of theses songs are getting to be 15 years old’. It’s strange. I was a very different person back than and some of the subject matter I wouldn’t have written about now but I think I would have written it in a similar way if I had to address it.
What do you mean? Well, the things that I obsessed over in my late twenties are just different now. I was very much trying to figure out who I needed to be in life and in relationships with women and things like that, when you’re 28. I think you’re really still figuring that shit out. Now I think I’m more concerned with the outside world, maybe because of having kids. We send our kids out into that world and they go out and have experiences unrelated to our day and you begin to wonder what it is about the world that makes it such a messy place and how do we get away from it. You start thinking about these big but practical questions.
You do seem like the sort of person who like to have things in their place; between being a touring musician and having children is it like you’re being unwillingly drawn out into the wider world? Oh man, that’s very true. [sighs] And it’s caused me to be very neurotic at times because you do obsess over that lack of control you have at times and inherently by thing you can’t control. You want to have the control and you know you can’t. [pauses] It is a difficult thing. My brother is similar and it’s very stressful for him. He has a really hard time with it.
Do you think it’s just temperament, or a clinical condition – mild Asperger’s Syndrome, perhaps? I really don’t know. Why do I spend the time I spend thinking about the things I do? It’s hard to say.
It does seem like your recent musical history has been almost a tug-of-war of trying to maintain control, yet inviting outside influence. One thing from working with Broken Bells was that I did have to let go a lot. It was a terrific freeing experience and it had such terrific results, I think. That helped me have confidence.
In what way? I learned that there is something I bring to a project that is valuable. You don’t want to go to me and have me play the drums [laughs], but I have certain things that I do better than a lot of people, and that’s okay and other musicians will accept you for it. Not everybody is expected to be Prince.