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Q&a The Shins' James Mercer - on Port Of Morrow, pirate hats & living in Elliott Smith's old house

Q&a The Shins' James Mercer - on Port Of Morrow, pirate hats & living in Elliott Smith's old house
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With The Shins‘ recent fourth studio album Port Of Morrow currently positioned in the upper echelons of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, frontman James Mercer has plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Not a bad turnaround for the group that saw their keyboard player and drummer leave in 2009 while Mercer put the group on hold to record the Broken Bells album with Danger Mouse. However, with The Shins a full-time concern again, we caught up with the singer to find out why he wrote this record solo, what prompted the change in personnel and how he ended up writing parts of the album in Elliott Smith‘s old house…

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How the devil are you?

“I’m very good, thank you.”

Port Of Morrow is The Shins’ fourth studio album. Does it make recording easier having a couple of records already under your belt?

“It’s never easy. I was commuting each week, flying from Portland to Los Angeles to record it with Greg [Kurstin, producer] at his studio. That sounds arduous but it wasn’t too bad. I would nap, read… in fact one of the songs, No Way Down, came about on a flight. I was reading this article about the American trade deficit and the lyrics just came out of me which was cool as that song was causing a lot of trouble. I’m happy with it, definitely. Greg worked really hard with me on it, so yeah, it feels good.”

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Did doing Broken Bells with Danger Mouse have an impact on this record?

“It made me let go of the reigns a little. In the past I would really sweat on every little detail. I would really get in there and move things around. But after working with Brian [Burton, Danger Mouse] I was a bit more trusting – I realised I don’t have to be so controlling. The guys I’m working with, they’re talented musicians, you know? I eased-up a lot thanks to Brian. It was a really rewarding experience working with him in every way. I never actually left the Shins mindset, it wasn’t hard to switch gears or anything. I was working on songs for this album alongside Broken Bells the whole time.”

So how come it took so long? Your last Shins album, Wincing The Night Away, came out in 2007.

“Well, there was actually a pretty similar gestation period to Wincing The Night Away. I began working on songs as far back as 2007 when I was winding up things on the last record and worked right through till last summer, on-and-off. I tend to write pretty slowly, to take my time with things. [Recent single] Simple Song was one of the earlier songs. I wrote it on the living room floor of my old house, which weirdly used to belong to Elliott Smith. My wife and I had no idea when we bought it, it was just a weird coincidence. The neighbours told us once we’d moved in. My friends were like, Man, that’s a place in music history! Can we come hang out?”

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There’s a more intimate feel to this record. Was that something you purposely tried to introduce?

“Well, this record was definitely more personal, insofar as Wincing The Night Away had just been finished and I had gone through a pretty serious transition period in my life. I had decided to really take the reigns on my professional life. I needed to take it a little more seriously and represent the band personally. To make it understood that this was me, James Mercer – that it’s my personal thing. It’s not like I write when we’re practising any more – it’s not a communal thing. So yeah, it’s definitely more personal.”

Is that what led to the departures from the band?

“I still haven’t really dealt with all that, really. It was part of a bigger thing, where I had lots of different friendships changing. Being in a band with The Shins’ trajectory, going back home to people in Albuquerque… it shakes things up. I had just started this life with this beautiful woman. I was in transition, total flux. I like to think of it like streams, like, when you talk about boating: between where the current is and the standing water is, I was in the stream.”

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You’re a father now, did that have much of a bearing on the album?

“Oh man, quite a lot. When you love something like that, something as fragile as a child, it completely changes you and your thinking. You just have this joy, you know? It’s like a… tentacle of love stretching out of you, all the time. When I was writing the album, one of our children had a health scare. It was terrifying. Having children is this whole new world of emotional terror. So yeah, a couple of the songs are about that.”

You came back with Simple Song as a single earlier this year, which seems a very ‘Shins’ thing to do. Forget the big, complicated comeback, here’s something simple, immediate and straightforward. Was that the plan?

“Ironically, Simple Song was the most difficult song to put together in the studio. I think I cursed it by calling it that. [Laughs] Writing it was fairly straight forward but recording was tough. It’s a very different style of song for us to do, so it took a while to get it right. It has this real 60s mod sort of vibe to it that makes me think about The Who when I play it. It’s the sort of song you have to play with a lot of attitude for it to work, because it really is so fucking simple; just the same riff, over and over. To make that entertaining you kind of really have to – I don’t know, wear a pirate hat or something – give it some real attitude. Maybe that’s an idea for stage outfits…”

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This is the first Shins album to be released on your own label, Aural Apothecary. Did the move away from Sub Pop change anything for you?

“Not really. When I write songs it’s such a different mode: it’s something I do at home, I’m usually just lost in the moment and not thinking about business type stuff. So no, there was no real kind of difference in the songwriting this time around, even if I was technically a bit more liberated. Sub Pop were great, always a pleasure to work with, so it really wasn’t a radically different experience for me making this record.”

So, what’s next for you?

“There’s a sketch for The Shins’ touring that goes all the way until summer 2013. Our future is laid out for us! I’m nervous about the time away from my wife and kids. I know it’s time well spent, touring and setting this record up. As for Broken Bells, Brian and I will pick the weeks we both have off and start writing again over the next year, interspersed through touring. Beyond that, who knows?”

Al Horner@Al_Horner

For more head to Theshins.com.


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