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A Quietus Interview

"I Feel Like This Is My Best Work": James Mercer Of The Shins Interviewed
Dave Pollock , March 1st, 2012 05:58

David Pollock talks to James Mercer before the release of their much anticipated new album, Port Of Morrow

The Shins have hit the big time, and here’s what it feels like: being flown to London so you can sit in Sony’s office fielding questions about your brand new album on the phone, an album whose release, in James Mercer’s case, must be arriving with no small amount of trepidation. He doesn’t entirely admit to it, of course, that element of nervousness that Port Of Morrow, the follow-up to 2007’s US top three hit record Wincing The Night Away, is now here.

An objective observer might even say he appears to have put this moment off, with Port Of Morrow coming after a head-clearing trip into side-project territory with Broken Bells alongside Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton and some rather intensive action on the family front. By his own admission, the all-but-solo recording of Wincing The Night Away turned Mercer off creating any more Shins music for a while, but now he’s back it’s with a new band backing him up.

The result, informed by the particular pressures of being a new father and all the bittersweet emotional decompression that involves, is a fine record filled with meatily-chorused, transtlantic guitar-pop anthems. Will it “change your life, I swear” like this band famously did for Natalie Portman in Garden State? Well Mercer’s life appears to be unrecognisable from the last day a Shins album went on sale, so why not?

You’ve just announced an All Tomorrow’s Parties show in March, right?

James Mercer: I did not know about that. I know I’m going to be over here, I believe it’s the 22nd of March, playing at the Forum?

Yeah, that’s the one. It was announced today on Facebook.

JM: And that’s an ATP thing?


JM: Oh, so that’s Barry [Hogan] and them, that’s cool. I did not know that…

So the new album Port Of Morrow’s your first away from Sub Pop, yes?

JM: Yeah, that’s right, the first full Shins album, yes. We did one or two things before that which were on Aural Apothecary, which is my little imprint, a place for me to release things when I can.

Why did you come to leave Sub Pop?

JM: Really, just because my contract ran out, and after that I pretty much listened to my management’s advice. But you know, we had worked with Columbia on the Broken Bells thing and got to know everybody and it worked out real well, so… there’s a lot of cool people here.

What was your management’s advice?

JM: To go with Columbia! I mean, we shopped around a little bit, I guess, but it was the working relationship they’d developed, they thought was quite good. So we continued with Columbia.

But there was no problem with Sub Pop? You still get on with people there?

JM: Oh yeah, not at all. I love all those guys and I miss ‘em.

So was it just a case of trying to kind of increase the profile of the band?

JM: I suppose so, yeah, and maybe… I do know that Sub Pop often looks at bands and the projects that they do as, ‘We can take you to a certain level and them probably after this you’ll go to another label if you’re successful.’ It’s almost part of the programme. So it’s an Aural Apothecary release and a Columbia release, but more than just a distribution thing. Anything label-oriented that needs to be dealt with is Columbia. I get to have my imprint on it because I get to own the master in this relationship, but really it’s Columbia records. I’ve cut a good deal with a certain amount of creative freedom, but also I’m obliged to do a bit more work promoting the record and living up to my end of the bargain.

When was the album recorded, where and who with?

JM: I began recording demo stuff in about May, if I remember rightly. After a few months of that I decided to start looking for someone to produce the record. I decided I wanted to have that objective producer role involved, and so I went down to LA - I had this friend, Greg Kursten, somebody I’ve met over the last couple of years who is married to an older friend of mine. I went down and loaded up a song just for him to hear, and he pretty quickly just started messing with the synthesiser and playing some stuff to it, and it just started to really enrich the track, you know? After about an hour of experimenting with things in his studio, I really decided that he ought to be the guy for the job, and I asked him if he would be willing to do it, and he said yes.

So there was a three year gap between releasing Wincing The Night Away and recording Port Of Morrow?

JM: Yeah, so we toured through until maybe early to mid-2008, then I was looking for something to do I wanted to do something different, I didn’t want to go back into the studio for Shins. Then Brian approached me about doing Broken Bells, and so we started a band basically and got that signed up to Columbia, made that record, toured that record. I’ve just been working on other things, I guess. Oh, I had two kids!

How old are they now?

JM: Four and two.

Is it hard work being a dad and making music?

JM: Oh, it’s not… I don’t think it’s super-easy just being a dad, period. But we make it work. I’ve got a studio at the house in Portland, it’s actually in sort of an outbuilding, so I’m able to go and get the alone time that I need. But its, y’know… being a dad’s being a dad. A pain in the butt! [laughs]

How did Broken Bells go for you? Was it a success on its own terms or just a way to divert your attention from being in The Shins?

JM: It was the perfect change-up, I would say. It was a collaboration, which I wanted to do, it was taking a very different approach to recording and to writing. It fit the bill for me, I felt so different after that time away.

When did you feel ready to come back to The Shins?

JM: Oh, maybe a few months after the end of touring Broken Bells. I gave myself a bit of time to relax, and then I started going back through all my old tapes, trying to see which of these old songs I might be able to finish. Some of them are quite old, at least the original concepts for them. I think there’s a couple that might be about eight years old. As far as really buckling down and getting them put together, it was probably… it kind of overlaps with the recording process, but I would say it took me six months or something like that to write the record.

Did you feel a certain pressure after Wincing The Night Away? Obviously it was really successful and you’d spent a few years before that being more of a kind of alternative artist. When it was such a success, did you think, ‘Right, I’m going to have to follow this up somehow?'

JM: Y’know, maybe so. Maybe a little bit of pressure that you don’t want to slide back, I guess. But I was mainly thinking about the quality of the record, you know? I just wanted it to be strong lyrically and musically. I didn’t want to disappoint. I mean, I don’t really know what else I would do. When it comes to The Shins I want to remain at the centre of it, to have that creative control. But at the same time, you know, I worked with a lot of new people and with Greg Kurstin as a producer. That was different, working from an early stage of the process with a proper producer.

How did that work out? How pleased are you with the result, how different is it to what you’ve done before?

JM: I think in some ways it’s very different, but I’m very pleased with the result. In some ways it’s the strongest sounding record I’ve done. I think the songs are stronger too. Unless I’m tricking myself, I feel like this is the best work I’ve done.

It’s a lovely record. It all seems to be… I found it strange when you said it was written over a number of years, it seems to be very concise and interlinked. It’s hard to explain, there’s a certain feeling, a nostalgia to it, almost. A certain feeling of looking back, a reflectiveness.

JM: Well, the majority of the lyrics were written closer together temporally than the music. But I guess what it is, is that often I’ll sit down with the guitar for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, and I’ll come up with something I like, a little part or a melody or a chord structure, and I’ll record it onto a little micro cassette recorder, or now it’s my phone. And then I just kind of forget about it, just move on. So some of those things that ended up being used on this record are quite old, but the songs really were fleshed out and finished and structurally realised in a pretty short period.

Is there a mood to the record, a frame of mind you were in when you were writing the songs?

JM: One of the themes I think I see in it, lyrically and so on, is the idea that… just the idea that, I guess, everything in life has a positive and negative side to it. Not necessarily positive and negative, because that’s too judgemental and evaluative. Just that beauty and grotesqueness are intermingled, and y’know, life is a dichotomy.

Is there anything in terms of specific songs you could use to illustrate that?

JM: Yeah, I think 'Port Of Morrow' kind of sums up what I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s about having children and also understanding our own mortality, and maybe even having children heightens your awareness of how short life is and how quickly… you see the children growing up and it just becomes all the more bittersweet, those moments. I remember my youth, you know? You’re reminded of your own youth when you have kids, but you look in the mirror and you’re not a child. Your youth is gone, pretty much, or mine is. But at the same time it increases your appreciation for the beautiful things in life. That tinge of sadness that beauty has is kind of new to me, I guess. I think in my twenties there was more contrast between the dark and the light, and now you sort of mourn for every good moment that happens. That probably sounds depressing, but if you know what I’m talking about its not a depressing thing. It’s just realistic, you know? Part of life as you get older, I guess.

I know: the change in perception that overtakes you, that overwhelms you when you’re thinking about your position in life as a parent as opposed to an autonomous human being.

JM: Yes, exactly. I mean, there’s a certain amount that you care about yourself and so on, but it’s eclipsed entirely when you have a kid, it’s a whole different thing. It’s just gone.

It must be tricky to keep your artistic focus and sense of yourself as an artist?

JM: I suppose. I mean, there were times when I was frustrated by it, but like I say I’ve got the studio that I can lock away in when I have to, and I think this whole new experience for me has been a bit of a fuel to enhance my writing, almost. Things seem to matter to me that didn’t before, I just didn’t realise the importance of certain things, and suddenly you’ve got a whole new bunch of stuff to write about.

So what’s next for The Shins? The album and a long tour to go with it, I’d imagine?

JM: Yes. Yeah, that’s gonna be the next year and a half. But I’ll try and be home as much as I can, and my wife and kids are gonna come out as well, to try and ease the strain.

This will consume your life - here’ll be no space for more Broken Bells or any other side projects, will there?

JM: Probably not, because every chance I get I’m going to want to be home in Portland with the family. So those things will just have to wait and I’ll get onto them in 2013.

Port of Morrow is out on Monday March 19 on Aural Apothecary/Columbia. The Shins play The Forum in London on Thursday 22nd March