When we spoke last week, James Mercer was chipper at home in Portland, Oregon after a brief four day tour.
Then, he was on a sort of high, indulging in the chance to kick back with a few weeks off, able to appreciate almost two decades of accomplishments instead of being immersed in them. This will be the last deep breath the Shins’ auteur will take for the next few months. Now, he’s embarking on a worldwide tour — one of the first stops on this half year journey is the Norva on May 16th.
Mercer was chatting on the phone from the “dilapidated carriage house” his friends transformed into a recording space. Able to hold four horses and two carriages, according to Mercer’s calculations, it provided plenty of space for creative juices to flow while making “Heartworms.” The Shins’ first record in five years, Mercer took his time to “do all kinds of weird things” alongside “whatever the fuck it takes.”
“The whole process of making this record was really allowing myself to come out to this old carriage house and lose myself,” Mercer said. “Whether it was spending the hours necessary, or drinking the right amount of whiskey.”
New digs sure beat the Albuquerque basement where Mercer solely recorded the Shins’ first record, “Oh, Inverted World.” Then, he was budding, broke, and hiding shoddy equipment with reverb and delay. Now, he’s back as solitary representation of the Shins, with developed sound, solid production, and talented collaborators to back him up.
Despite suggestions this is the first time Mercer has taken reign of production in 10 years, he said he’s “always been high to the aesthetic direction of the records.” Mercer also detested the suggestion that he is the sole producer when it comes to “Heartworms.” He credited bassit Yuuki Matthews’ mixing for being the “critical moment where things became cohesive.”
Matthews didn’t only serve as the production push Mercer needed, but also an epiphanic shove during a reflective moment for the Shins. The bassist, who has played with the band since 2011, noticed Mercer’s refreshing lack of restriction on this record — he’d become more open and free. “That’s what you want,” Mercer said, “that’s kind of the goal.”
Restrictions are lifted in Mercer’s songwriting in accordance to lyrics that are more personal and pinpointed. “This record is much more biographical than it’s ever been,” Mercer said, with straightforward songs dedicated to his daughters, like “Name for You,” or ones that document his youth, like “Mildenhall.” Mercer said the latter is “verbatim what happened during [his] high school years” and “stands out as the most honest and straightforward song [he’s] ever done.” Older songs like “New Slang,” Mercer said, tackle multiple issues and relationships at once. “There’s a lot of [vagueness] going on in my songs,” he said, “you have to mine your emotions and memories.”
Mercer said “The Fear” is “honest and open about the idea of anxiety.” The track works to answer the question “what if I had fucked up my life?” and serves as a look back on past regrets. Molded after a Mercer which could’ve been, the subject is “somebody just not understanding the situation they’re in, and being selfish and focused on protecting themselves,” Mercer said, “as a young person, I think it’s hard to keep yourself from being that way.”
The track “existed as the chords, rhythms and melody” for over a decade, Mercer said, and was “one of the songs [he] went to” when starting the record. Before knocking out the lyrics in 10 minutes, he always “knew the verses would be really riffy and…kind of jazzy.” The chorus “you don’t really recognize me anymore,” however, were words he’d held onto all this time. Mercer described this line as a summary of conversations where “you’re really trying to reach” someone you care about, “when you realize they have no real understanding of your perspective…and they say something that reveals they had no idea who you are.”
While “Mildenhall” is straightforward, “The Fear” is hyperbolic, but both speak to an insecure, younger Mercer. “I need to remember what it was like to be a lonesome loser, and to be cheated on, and tap into [that],” he said. “There’s a certain confidence I have now that I’ve never experienced before,” said Mercer, “and it’s part because of aging and simply getting tired of being scared.” Mercer isn’t purposefully holding onto apprehensions from the first three records simply for the sake of better art; “they’re still there, in a way,” he said.
Anxieties build higher in adulthood, echoed in “Half A Million.” Inward insecurities of an inverted world have now turned into rightside up responsibilities of reality, such as family and property. Mercer claimed they’re “unavoidable,” but not due to life’s fickleness the semi-selfish songwriter of yesteryear may have whined about, but because Mercer “[wants] to fulfill them out of [his] own heart and desire.” Instead of being engulfed “in a world of regret like that character in ‘The Fear,’” Mercer said, he must be “a million different things at once.”
Balancing fatherhood and devoting himself to delivering “strong, engaging art” requires “a certain rebellious attitude,” Mercer said, suggesting the skater who bonded with new classmates over Jesus and Mary Chain tapes might still live on after all.
“We’re always still that kid,” he said. “There’s things that happened to me when I was 12 years old that still inform my decision making.” Mercer chuckled. “Which is probably not great. I probably should get therapy.” He qualified that songwriting serves as a kind of therapy, and even after all these years — like any other therapy — these grievances are still prevalent, but controlled.
“That’s just the way it is,” Mercer concluded.
The Shins play the NorVa Tuesday, May 16. Doors are at 7pm. For more info or tickets, click here.