Quiet Reflections // The 405 meets The Shins
Soaked in an uneasy mix of excitement and apprehension, my interview with James Mercer was initially delayed as he was 'running late'. A minor delay was totally understandable, considering Mr. Mercer was currently engaged in an extensive tour of the US, before even contemplating the time he'd spend visiting the rest of the world.
However in this brief wait, I began to really think about whom I was interviewing. James Mercer, the man behind The Shins and, through which, the man that had shaped so many of my angst driven teenage years, helping me to come to terms with many problems and issues that appear futile now, but were totally absorbing at the time. That was just it though; the James Mercer in my mind was an artist, and a person, several years out of date. After all, Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow were eleven and nine years old respectively, and in that time Mercer had inevitably grown in a similar manner to myself, though admittedly with far more creative talent. Therefore when I was finally connected through to talk to him, I realized I had a rare opportunity to not only examine The Shins in their present state, with the release of their latest album Port of Morrow, but to also achieve a view both of The Shins, and myself, with an intimate lens of hindsight.
Beginning our conversation, Mercer appeared to be in an entirely jovial, if not slightly tired, state of mind, stating that it'd "probably be a year" before he could really consider the tour done. James continues, "it does get easier, you get used to the travelling, and the lack of sleep! The thing that doesn't get easier is being away from your family," and as to remedy this he makes sure to keep each stint of his tour under three weeks. And there we had it, under a minute into our interview and it was made very clear I wasn't talking to the James Mercer I had envisaged in my mind, I was talking to James Mercer, family man. Now this isn't meant to be a slight at all, in fact as you'll read on it formed a great part of our interview, but it did confirm my initial thoughts of a development in maturity.
Focusing on Port of Morrow, The Shins first release away from Subpop, I enquired on how it differed from their previous releases, to which Mercer replied, "well the writing process has been the same; that's consistent. Generally it's me with an acoustic guitar and coming up with songs. Where this one really varies is that I got Greg Kurstin involved." Kurstin's influence on the record can be very clearly seen, as it has been stated by several reviews, and Mercer believes that the record "benefits from that [working with Kurstin], and I'm really pleased that Greg performed a lot on the album too." However while this marked a definite shift in The Shins recording process, Port of Morrow still managed to capture, by in large, the same melodic genius which has coursed through the veins of the band's previous releases. I put it to Mercer how he felt he was able to achieve this, to which he confidently responded, "there are times you get yourself into a situation where it's like the timing, or the amount of time you're given to write and record the record is just smaller than you'd like. I think I've done a pretty good job of avoiding that, I mean if you look, I've taken my time doing these records."
I felt it appropriate at this point to broach the subject that had troubled me prior to our phone call, and I began by quizzing Mercer over the inspiration behind Port of Morrow in reference to his previous records, and whether he could thread a narrative between them. He contemplates this for a few seconds before stating, "one of the differences I've noticed with this record is that I seem to be looking outside of myself more on this record than I ever have before, so I'm writing things about the rest of the world." I question him further on this, asking what it was about the rest of the world which took his attention; "I mean, some of the stuff is even about current situations across the world politically and things like that, which I've never really done before. That said, one of the threads seems to be constant with me, even going back to earlier bands, is the struggle that people have understanding their own mortality and trying to deal with that." It was this attempt to deal with one's mortality that had been a major attraction for me to The Shins' music all those years ago, and can be seen very clearly in their now infamous track 'New Slang', so it was reassuring to hear this was something that still troubled Mercers' creative mind.
However this entrance into a more out looking mindset needed further understanding, considering it stands as a foundation to the creation of Port of Morrow. I asked Mercer why he felt it was right to make this shift in his latest record, to which he responded, "I think there are a couple of things. One is having kids! When you have kids you really start to get more concerned about what's happening in the world, because you know your children are going to have to be a part of it." This rise into parenthood was matched by his own emotional stability, which Mercer furthered his answer with, "The other thing is that I think I'd exhausted a lot of the story material from my own personal life, and my own personal life has calmed down a lot as I'm married now, so there's a consistent thing happening there now emotionally which wasn't there when you're single and you're struggling to find somebody, and it's often messy."
Therefore, at least in Mercer's eyes, Port of Morrow should be seen as a development that is closely linked to his own emotional development, along with a greater scope of vision of the world around him, applying these observations to music as to better understand them. In this sense Mercer as an artist hasn't changed at all, he still uses lyrics and instrumentation to try to make sense of troubling issues that swirl around his mind, rather these issues no longer exist exclusively about his own existence, but the existence of the world around him. This considered, it was still important to gain a further knowledge of the background in which Mercer grew up. Revealing more about his late childhood, Mercer reminisced about going to high school in Suffolk, and as a result he "got really turned onto Britpop. I remember going into Andy's records and I bought 'Ocean Rain', 'The Queen is Dead', and I lucked out basically." He pins down a key moment of his musical development to seeing My Bloody Valentine live a few times, and states, "I had been listening to Sonic Youth, and that to me [seeing My Bloody Valentine live] was the perfect combination between that strange, dissident arty shit that Sonic Youth were doing and the pop stuff, the British melancholic pop, that kind of combined that."
As we closed our interview, and the interruption of his tour bus almost leaving without him, it felt appropriate to ask Mercer about his approach to live performances. Many artists have differing experiences to taking their music to the live arena, some never make it while some begin their musical careers there before even writing their own material. Mercer laughs as he remembers his first shows and exclaims, "it took a while!" He goes on, "I'm not a natural born, talented musician! I really had to learn how to play the instrument. I was able to sit and write, but that is a whole other thing, and you're dealing also with the pressure of performing live. We had to learn all of that stuff, pretty much after we got signed to Subpop." This striking level of honesty was refreshing, but then again it is relatively easy to say this after you've released four very successful albums, admittedly some more successful than others. Mercer continues, "for me it's something I had to learn, and I remember a conversation I had with Subpop and I said 'is it possible for a band just shouldn't tour, as it's just bad advertising for the band?!' However they assured me that I shouldn't have to worry about it. They said they have dealt with bands that just didn't seem to give a shit enough or couldn't get their stuff together for the live thing, so in those cases you don't really encourage them to go and play. So they were very positive and stuff, and we worked at it."
While The Shins are set to go on a world tour that will effectively take near a year to complete, I was keen to know what lied beyond that for Mercer. Was there another Shins record in the making? Or was Port of Morrow and its shift away from the Shins of old a swansong? However my downbeat apprehensions were unfounded, as Mercer enthusiastically stated that, "the next thing I figure that is going to happen is Broken Bells. I'll probably be doing this for another year, and hopefully if Brian has time off from his incredible project, we can get together and make another Broken Bells record, and then I'll go away and record another Shins record." And with this assurance we bid our goodbyes, and closed the retrospective lens which had guided our conversation.
Port Of Morrow is out now, and you can visit the band by heading to theshins.com
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