As Mercer release The Shins’ fifth album ‘Heartworms’, we talk to the frontman about inspiration, anxiety, getting older and whether or not he'll always make records with The Shins...
Why is has it taken so long to release a new record?
“The time promoting it needs to be put in. I thought the modern age meant you could drop albums whenever. Beyonce seems to put out albums as a surprise and not tell anyone, but poor old me has to put seven or eight months work in. It gave me more time to carry on working on the songs. I was tweaking away.”
And is this why you did that run of shows last year?
“Yes, we thought the album would be out in September, but instead, I just played some shows.”
That track ‘The Fear ‘– that’s been around for a while, right?
“Yeah, like 10 years. I’ve just never been able to finish it or work out what to write it about. I showed that to Eric Johnson from the Fruitbats in 2008 or something. I just knew it was something worth persevering with. The line ‘You don’t recognise me any more’ came and kicked off the rest of the song. Then I knew it was going to be a sad thing. That happens all the time with me; I write something then I realise what it means afterwards. I rarely have lyrics, I just work on music and go for feelings and moods. I catalogue all these ideas and then something jumps out and then I’ll try to write a chorus or bridge, and the lyrics only happen when I need to do vocals.”
That’s a song about anxiety. Is that something that’s affected you a lot?
“It has done. When I was a kid, I would have waves of it that lasted months and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Back then you just got told to shut up. It faded into this depression that lasted a while, and I haven’t had that for a long while. Sometimes anxieties come in, just from knowing that I have kids and I have to be there. It comes at weird moments in life, too. Like we went for this big meal the other night because The Shins are releasing a new record, and then I realised that it’s just me in The Shins so all those people were there for me. It was weird. It was friendly, but I was so anxious. ‘The Fear’, the song, is about someone who realises that he missed an opportunity with a relationship and he’s sad about it. The door has closed and he’s sad about it.”
Where do you draw stories like that from?
“Sometimes the thread of my own life, sometimes a friend, a relationship they’ve had that I can rip off. ‘Rubber Balls’ is about that – I had this friend who had an amazing girlfriend, but she was just terrible for him, she treated him so badly. There was almost something comic that I exaggerated into that song.”
The new album is a very nostalgic record, there’s a lot of you looking back on your youth.
“There is a lot of looking back. I have done it in the past, but more than ever now. It’s just getting older, and I’ve developed a new fondness for my youth. I used to think it was so fucking miserable, but now I don’t think that. I realise that it was cool that I got to move to the UK, or that I got to do this or that. It’s pockets of time, and immediately after you don’t think about it, but then I look back now and it was a happy youth.”
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Does have children make you more nostalgic?
“I guess it does. There’s also this weird bittersweet thing with having children. Like they’ll do something cute and in the moment it’s beautiful and then you realise that only two months later they’ll have changed so much and you’ll be nostalgic for it. It happens really quickly.
Is your family life an inspiration for songwriting?
“In certain ways. It changes perspective on things. ‘Name For You’ is about my daughters, and wishing them a happy, healthy, confident life out there as young women. Some of the stuff on ‘Port Of Morrow’ was really dark and I felt that was because I had kids. It was me thinking that the world is this big old scary place, and there was these fragile young things being born into it. And now, things are even worse! The world isn’t even as good as when I wrote those dark songs. I sometimes wonder if it’s a completely selfish act, having children, and inflicting this on them. It’s a strange thing we do when we know we don’t have to. We’re so compelled to do it, and then you think ‘What was I thinking?’. Why is it so compelling to have kids? It’s complicated.”
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Did you always know there’d be another Shins record?
“I had these song ideas that I really liked and I wanted to see them finished. If I can keep doing that, writing these kernels of ideas, then I will be driven to finish them. I don’t want to have the regret of something not being realised.”
Will you always make Shins records?
“I hope so, but then maybe it would be nice if the songs dried up! I am trying to avoid regret in life, and it’s those little song ideas that keep me going and drive the whole thing.”
Do you find it easy?
“No, it’s hard to make records. I know people who are really strong musicians, like Greg Kurstin, who find it much easier than I do. He’s a brilliant guitarist, songwriter, pianist and a really strong engineer. I’m trying to learn how to do more of that.”
You produced the new Shins album, so you can’t be that bad.
“With a lot of help from my friends. I enjoy the process and I knew I had the time. I had to buy some new gear, so there was a lot of sitting there with the manual to work it all out, plus the software challenge. But we got there and we got the damned record done.”
You’ve not got what might be considered a body of work behind you.
“Yes, well there are 55 Shins songs, plus B-sides, plus Broken Bells material. It feels crazy. I can’t believe ‘Wincing The Night Away’ is 10 years old. It’s starting to feel like a career. I guess this is what I do. I can finally say I’m a musician. It’s a sizeable amount, and playing live, there’s choice. But there’s only going to be 90 minutes. I’m not doing a Springsteen, I don’t get that. I don’t like anyone’s music to listen to three hours of their music. But we might do a medley on the new live shows, to get more in there.”
Do you still enjoy being a one-man band?
“We had some personnel changes for normal reasons. Swift has joined The Black Keys, and he’s in The Arcs and he’s producing a lot. I like the fact that he’s free to do whatever, and Joe Plummer is off working with Cold War Kids. I like the feeling that there’s no pressure and no one is obliged to me in any way. It’s like an open marriage, we decide on the day.”
What’s coming up?
“Proper touring in March, a video, more promo. It’s like a machine whirring into life.”
How do you feel about the other records now?
“I’m embarrassed by the production quality of Oh, Inverted World. And then it’s just weird nitpicking things with the others, mainly the production. I stand by the songs, by the production is not there. I recognise the guy singing those songs, but I was very shy and insecure on those first three records. I’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years, for the better. I’m certainly a lot happier. Forever onward.”
The Shins’ James Mercer