Interview: James Mercer of The Shins

James Mercer tells Sharon O'Connell why he almost called time on alt.pop ensemble The Shins

The Shins The Shins - © Frank Ockenfels

It’s not often that a chat about ’70s krautrock and old valve compressors turns into a deep conversation about imagining your own memorial service, but that’s where James Mercer takes it. The Portland-based singer-songwriter and guitarist is refreshingly frank in outlining how his band The Shins arrived here, at the point of their fourth album, and the changes he had to make to reach it.

Honesty is nothing new for Mercer, of course. Along with his talent for hook-studded, bittersweet melodies and the emotional wallop of his clear, high voice, it’s Mercer’s straight-from-the-heart lyrics that have helped win The Shins legions of fans, including Heath Ledger – more of whom later – not to mention their leap into the limelight via Zach Braff’s ‘Garden State’ and a Grammy nomination for 2008’s ‘Wincing the Night Away’. New record, ‘Port of Morrow’, is as irrepressibly forlorn as previous albums, but it’s noticeably bigger and brighter, sonically speaking. It’s also the group’s most commercial album to date, something Mercer makes no apology for.

‘I certainly wanted us to have a hit record,’ he admits, ‘but didn’t really know what to do to try and make that happen. But I feel very happy that [current single] “Simple Song” has been embraced by alternative radio. Greg Kurstin [producer] deserves a lot of the credit for how big the record sounds and that’s what I wanted, but there are moments in some songs where you need it to get small – moments where, if it sounds too big, it feels pretentious. Again, it’s a credit to Greg that it doesn’t.

'Everything is heavily pushed through British valve compressors in a style like old George Martin productions,’ Mercer adds. ‘Greg was expanding his huge collection of vintage gear while we were recording; I think he was using this new Shins record as an excuse to add to it!’

It’s impossible to mention ‘Simple Song’ without noting that alongside the buoyant melody and sweet harmonies, there’s a brilliantly unexpected, galumphing rhythm and a widdly, quasi-prog guitar motif, both so atypical of The Shins they send eyebrows shooting skyward on first hearing. If there’s a country swing to ‘The Rifle’s Spiral’, then ‘40 Mark Strasse’, harks back to Hall & Oates, while ‘Fall of ’82’ recalls The Eagles, Nick Lowe and even (gulp) Wings. Mercer admits he and Kurstin share a love of prog rock and the German ‘kosmische’ music pioneered by visionaries such as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze.

‘As a child I lived in Germany at the Ramstein airforce base, where my dad sang at a nightclub in Kaiserslautern,’ Mercer explains. ‘My parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so when I was like, ten or 11, I would go with them to the bar until two in the morning. It was a very popular country ’n’ western place called Charlie’s Country Club and my dad performed there wearing a big cowboy hat, singing mostly covers. On the drive from the club back home to Ramstein, there was a stretch of highway that the GIs called “40 Mark Strasse”, because there were prostitutes there. So, that song is about a boy of my age, who’s infatuated with a teenage girl who’s a prostitute and lives in the same apartment block. Greg also spent time in Germany as a child, so we both have this affinity for stuff like Neu! and Can, and other progressive bands like King Crimson, too.’

Why did Mercer recruit a whole new band (including former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, now of Wild Flag) for ‘Port of Morrow’? That seems a little…harsh.

‘Working with Broken Bells [his collaboration with Dangermouse] had a lot to do with it. I really enjoy working with new people and I wanted something new to be brought to The Shins. At one point, I’d even contemplated starting a new band before Broken Bells, and doing away with The Shins.’

A radical thought indeed ­– apparently prompted by Mercer’s invitation in 2008 to perform at the memorial service for Heath Ledger, Hollywood actor and Shins fan. It turned out to be something of a watershed experience for Mercer, who’d only met Ledger a couple of times. ‘Hearing his friends and family members talk about him revealed that he was really engaged with life. I think he was a very brave person, grabbing life by the reins and going for it. I really saw him as somebody very different from me, and I pictured myself at my memorial service and knew it would not be anything like that. I really felt like a ghost in comparison.’

You may not be the bravest soul, but people would be saying equally appreciative things about you, right? ‘I was closed off from people,’ says Mercer, simply. ‘Frankly, my relationships with people were either co-dependent or barely existed at all. I know it must sound namedrop-y to talk about this “celebrity funeral”, but I really was affected by it. I know that people lay it on thick once you’ve passed, but nevertheless, I felt like I didn’t wanted to go without experiencing more of life.’

Mercer certainly plunged in from that point on. After this revelation he ‘started saying yes to things’, and so found himself hiking around the backwoods of Patagonia, hooking up with Dangermouse, getting married and starting a family. It has, Mercer says cheerfully, ‘been change after change since then.’

‘Port of Morrow’, then, slots into that continuum of change. It’s The Shins, but not exactly as you might know them. Mercer’s prerogative, maybe, as ‘just a simple man, cursed with an honest heart.’

Port of Morrow’ is out now on Columbia.