Interview The Shins: ‘I Used A Lot Of Friends To Make This Record’

James Mercer sits down with Simone Scott Warren to discuss the long-awaited return of The Shins.

The Shins were dead: to begin with. A single announcement that we might expect a new record in the future had appeared back in 2008, but with the rest of the band leaving, their contract with Sub Pop coming to an end, and James Mercer appearing to have been completely distracted by both Danger Mouse and fatherhood, the likelihood of finding our eardrums being regaled by a new record by The Shins seemed, frankly, remote. And if this was to be it, we had three great albums to content ourselves with, and, since that namedrop by Natalie Portman in Garden State had originally launched the band into the mainstream, a tangible reason to hate/not hate Zach Braff.

Fast forward four years, and sunk into a sofa in a room that appears to have been decorated in the style of a Japanese hotel at London’s Sony HQ, Mercer is the first to admit that the future of The Shins was unclear. With the rest of the band’s departures, he’d become tired and disillusioned. “After the ‘Wincing The Night Away’ tour, I wasn’t really excited about doing another Shins record,” he explains, “So I started to think, well, what else can I do? Do I make a solo album? I think I was feeling the pressure of being at the centre of The Shins. A little bit of that had to do with the longstanding relationships that I had with the people around me, I loved those guys, I enjoy working with them as well, but at that time, it’s difficult after years…”

In a well timed entrance, Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton emerged on the scene, and Broken Bells appeared to arise from the ashes of The Shins. “Brian came up with the idea of doing Broken Bells,” James clarifies, “He was in a similar sort of mood, I don’t know exactly what his motives were, but he wanted to do something new.” Mercer might not have needed much in the way of persuasion, but he didn’t approach the Broken Bells project without some sense of trepidation.

As it becomes clear during the course of our conversation, he’s surprisingly unassured, seemingly unconvinced of his own talent. “I had never gone and worked with someone so famous and talented as Brian,” he admits, “It was intimidating. I had always been a little shy, about going and collaborating with someone else.”

But without having taken on that particular challenge, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t now be finding ourselves in possession of what once seemed an impossibility, the glorious fourth album from The Shins. ‘Port Of Morrow’, named after an industrial estate in Oregon, began to take shape in early 2011, with James initially recording from his Portland home. Released in March via Mercer’s own label, Aural Apothecary, Jame concludes that this move was less to do with creative control than it might seem. “Columbia Records is really releasing it, but I get to own the masters, and I get my own imprint on it,” he clarifies, “The people at Columbia, they know what they’re doing and they want a relationship with the band. It’s not like the old days, where you’d have heard stories like ‘We lost total control and they made us dress up like chickens,’ that doesn’t seem to be happening so much anymore. Maybe if you were trying to do a Katy Perry type thing, you could be in danger of losing creative control, because they really wouldn’t be taking you so seriously.”

With a new band assembled, including Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer and Beck’s former guitarist Jessica Dobson, it’s heartwarming to see James so utterly enthused by The Shins once more. Perhaps this can, in some part, be attributed to allowing more of a collaborative process during this record’s recording? “Oh yeah, I really used a lot of friends to make this record,” he tells us, “The biggest contributor was Greg [Kurstin], who ended up producing the record and playing a lot.”

Whilst previous Shins’ outings had made some use of a producer, Mercer always appeared to complete the lion’s share of the role himself. “I thought, I can manage to do this s**t, if I’m allowed to have all the time that I want in my studio, I can figure it out on my own,” James confides as to his old attitude, “that’s better for me, that’s the type of musician I am.” It transpires, this work ethic was more attributable to his own lack of self confidence than any artistic megalomania. Self deprecating to the end, James admits that having worked with Danger Mouse, he’s been left with “a better understanding of the role of the producer. I mean, I always had a concern, am I going to get a producer and they’re just going to be accustomed to these super talented people? The biggest thing I got out of the Broken Bells experience was a sense of confidence about my own abilities, that I wouldn’t necessarily be a horrible disappointment.”

This newly discovered self-belief clearly drives the new record; ‘Port Of Morrow’ is a grandiose, upbeat affair, with plenty to delight both old and new fans of the band. Working closely with Kurstin, whom he hired after an hour’s trial, the resulting record shimmers with a sophisticated confidence. Lead single, ‘Simple Song’, opening with Mercer’s vocals being spun through Kurstin’s mellotron, is a good example of the aesthetics of the album, sounding for all the world like a missing track from ‘Quadrophenia’. It’s a comparison that Mercer seems pleased with, telling us that he loves The Who, and having spent some years at school in Suffolk his own influences are indebted to a raft of British bands; “I spent that formative time going to see shows, House Of Love, Jesus & Mary Chain, the stuff of the late eighties. There was an industry that really promoted those bands, and a lot of great labels, so it was easier being over here to get to know these bands. A band like Jesus & Mary Chain, at that time in the States, it was the most avant garde and weird kid who would ever know anything about them, it was one in a million kids.

That was my frame of mind about music, I really came to identify with those bands, and then I went back to the States and my friends were listening to… Poison.” That being said, by no means should the aural success of ‘Port Of Morrow’ be attributed solely to the collaboration with Greg Kurstin, or a youth spent in deepest darkest Suffolk. Mercer’s attitude to life has changed with the advent of fatherhood, and he confesses that this has had a direct effect on his songwriting. “I think there’s more of a sensitivity that I have to both the positive things, the feelings that I have toward my family, but also to the darker things about life, things that happen in the world that are not so good. You care more.”

Although the thought of leaving the bosom of his family for a life back on the road isn’t one that fills James with pleasure, he does appear to be trying to make the best of the situation. “I enjoy playing shows,” Mercer concedes, “and it’s going to be fun to go out with the band, the guys I’m working with are just great, but I’m going to be away from my wife and kids, and that’s just… that’s melancholy, it’s a sad thing to think about.”

Along with the separation anxieties, there’s also the small matter of translating the record for the live arena. It’s something that Mercer preferred not to consider too much when recording, explaining that he believes doing so would have limited the record. “Maybe I thought about it once in a while,” he says, “I occasionally thought, ‘oh my god, how are we going to pull this off live?’ But I didn’t let that thought inhibit the way that I record. I tend to think of the recording process as the most important part, because I spend a lot more time listening to records than I do going to shows. So I concentrate on that, and then when it’s time to do the live thing, we don’t have to do it exactly the way it is on the record, if it’s different, maybe that’s a good thing. Some bands stress about that so much, and it’s like, why don’t you just play the CD, we’ll all dance together, and you can charge us less.”

so after four years of believing that The Shins were dead and buried, and ‘Port Of Morrow’ having wormed it’s way into this writer’s affections already, it’s with no small sense of relief that James reassures us that this is definitely not the last we’re going to see of The Shins, this is absolutely not their swansong. Although, we may have to wait a while for their return; “We’re going to do another Broken Bells record, that should be in 2013, and then another Shins record after that. I’ll see you again, doing another interview about that. But first, we’re going to tour for the next year and a half, we’ll have a lot of fun and we’ll bring the family out and it’ll be good. Stay positive,” he whispers, almost to himself, “Stay positive…”

The Shins’ new album ‘Port Of Morrow’ will be released on 19th March via Aural Apothecary / Columbia.

Taken from the March 2012 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

Read More

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Stay Updated!

Get the best of DIY to your inbox each week.

Latest Issue

March 2024

Featuring Green Day, English Teacher, Everything Everything, Caity Baser and more!

Read Now Buy Now Subscribe to DIY