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FILTER 47: The Shins: One Man Band

By Kevin Friedman on March 12, 2012


FILTER 47: The Shins: One Man Band

In approaching James Mercer’s house, an immaculate, multi-story Victorian on a double lot in Portland, Oregon, it’s obvious that the musician has reached a level of success of which most people only dream. The beautiful woman who answers the door apologizes, explaining that her daughter is sleeping and sends me around back to find her husband in his studio. This building, a converted barn finished with dark, rich, natural wood featuring a spiral staircase and filled with instruments and equipment, is equally impressive. Mercer, wearing a faded flannel shirt, a winter cap and a solid beard, opens the door and greets me warmly.

Since the last Shins album, the Grammy-nominated Wincing the Night Away, which debuted at Number Two on the Billboard Pop Chart in 2007, Mercer has been a busy man. With Danger Mouse, he collaborated on the Broken Bells project, a pleasant fusion of programmed-and-played production and Shins-style song craft, releasing an album in 2010 and an EP the following year. He’s tried his hand at acting, appearing in the indie film Some Days Are Better Than Others and making a cameo on the twee television show Portlandia. Songs were written, records were sold, houses were bought and children were born. And now The Shins are back, but there have been changes.

Despite some bad press surrounding the replacement of longtime Shins Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall and Dave Hernandez, the latter two appear on the new Shins album, Port of Morrow, and, according to Mercer, remain his friends. Nevertheless, Mercer enlisted the support of indie luminaries such as Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Wild Flag, The Jicks), Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse, The Black Heart Procession), Nik Freitas (a touring member of Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band and Broken Bells) and producer Greg Kurstin for the majority of these recordings. He now counts Plummer, Yuuki Matthews (Crystal Skulls), Jessica Dobson (Deep Sea Diver, Beck) and Richard Swift as backing members. While Mercer maintains that The Shins is a band, he also makes it clear that it is and always has been his band, assembled to present his songs and ideas.

In conversation, Mercer turns his head and upper body away when he begins to answer a question; then, finding his stride in stream-of-consciousness explorations, he turns to face me, eyes wide and unblinking. Apparently this is his first conversation with a person not involved in the making of Port of Morrow who has heard the complete album. He is genuinely excited and curious as we discuss which of its 10 songs stand out. Drawn from his own experience with depression as a pre-teen, “It’s Only Life” imparts a message of hope and comfort with the lyrics “I’ve been down the very road you’re walking now / It doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome / It takes a while, but we can figure this thing out and turn it back around.” The Laurel Canyon country of “September” summons the influence of Mercer’s father’s history as a cowboy crooner, and it’s not hard to imagine Conway Twitty singing, “I’ve been selfish and full of pride, but she knows deep down there’s a little child / I’ve got a good side to me as well, that she loves in spite of everything else.” Like many serious songwriters, Mercer has a soft spot for the genre. Other winners are the anthemic and celebratory pop of “Simple Song,” the clear single, as well as the West Coast balladry of “For a Fool,” perhaps the album’s best example of Mercer’s stellar songwriting skill.

Port of Morrow gleams with a production sheen leaning more toward a place on the radio charts than a life-changing mixtape. Unlike the previous Shins album, this record will be released on Mercer’s own Aural Apothecary label (with distribution from Columbia) instead of Sub Pop. And while there isn’t a moment as arresting as “New Slang” here, there are numerous songs mining a depth of emotions, crafted around melodies that are as catchy as they are intricate. Fans willing to look beyond the changes will likely find plenty to love in this new version of what in many ways is and always has been a one-man band.


Is there a theme to Port of Morrow?

The themes are love and death on this record. “Simple Song” is a love song. “September” is too. There’s another theme here, which would be depression, or people going through difficult times, and how you get out of that. “It’s Only Life” is about that—having a friend who’s struggling with staying positive. “Fall of ’82” is about when I was a kid and had a pretty bad episode with depression.

“It’s Only Life” really stands out; it’s got an earnestly epic yet classic Shins sound.

That feeling when somebody’s just struggling, you wish you could shake them and get them to break out of it. And there’s really nothing you could say. For me, it seemed to be like a slow physiological change. You finally come out of it, not because you have some “a-ha!” moment or because of some fucking religious quip that somebody says to you; it’s just finally your body relents or your brain chemistry adjusts. 

On “For a Fool” you sing, “Taken for a fool/
Yes I was and I was a fool / Following their rules / Guess I was a very honest tool.”

This person is frustrated because not only this relationship is done, but he’s also frustrated because he feels his confidence is shattered and he feels he’s been used a million times in a million different ways. He’s been gypped and fooled by society at large. I guess it’s me, at times. 

How do you feel that that’s happened to you?

That’s a dramatization of some sort, but I see that character as someone who got fooled and was led down a path in a relationship and ended up getting dumped. But I like the idea that sometimes those things happen to us. I’ve noticed that something will shake my confidence—something in any part of my life—and suddenly, strangely, other parts of my life seem to doubt other things. So he has this real existential worry about life—that it’s all been meaningless and that he’s just sort of been a dope. 

Can you tell me about the “death songs” on the album?

A line in the song “Port of Morrow” ended up being the title of the album. I used that phrase to mean death—this exit point that is in the future for all of us. We don’t know where it goes exactly but we have ideas about it. Port of Morrow is actually a place. It’s some horrible industrial port here. When you’re done touring, you pass this place on your way into Oregon. There’s a little sign that says, “Port of Morrow: This Way,” and there was something that sparked the imagination about that little sign. For me, it ended up being a metaphor for death. 

I chose “The Rifle’s Spiral” to be the first song because it’s my favorite. I read an article about a young man who had been recruited into being a suicide bomber. I was pondering that whole issue and what it must be like and how desperate you must be—just how perverse the whole culture of that idea is. The idea of religious violence is so dark and fascinating.

Do these themes run through all of your work, from your earlier albums with Flake, Flake Music and early Shins to now?

I seem to think a lot about what it means to be a human being who thinks and doubts and has to struggle with mortality. It’s fascinating to me how people create their own ideas about how it all works. I’m fascinated by people who don’t care about the truth, which is something I’ve realized—I care about the truth. I want to know the truth. I feel like it’s one of the few things humans can do that’s special and different from the rest of the animal kingdom. It amazes me that it’s not something a lot of people are really interested in. 

The Shins had some lineup changes a couple years back and original members were replaced, resulting in some undesirable press. Do you think it was an unfair response? 

I don’t think that it’s fair to assume [someone] got it figured out and that I’ve behaved inappropriately. If that were true, then Dave and Marty wouldn’t be my friends. One of the big things there is that it’s been four years; it’s been a long time. That’s difficult to sustain, for them, waiting around. It’s hard on me. And after working with Broken Bells and breaking out of my shell a little bit with other musicians, I didn’t want to just hang that up. I really felt a certain liberation doing that and I think I needed it. I think I needed to be invigorated again with playing and writing. So that’s another reason for this. Also, Dave and Marty seemed to understand that this has always sort of been my project and we would work together when it made sense. 

Talk about the transition from Flake to The Shins. It’s basically the same band, isn’t it?

It ended up that way. First, it was just me and Jesse as a two-piece; that was The Shins. I remember our first show; we opened up for Cibo Matto. Flake went on tour and we came up here to Portland. Dave Hernandez, who was in a band called Scared of Chaka at the time, asked, “Could I play bass in your band?” I was like, “Sure, man. Let’s do it.” He did for a little bit but then he moved to New York. So I got Neal [Langford] to play bass, and before I knew it, it was basically Flake again. But that was for playing live. Recording, there were guests on there, and I did some of the songs entirely myself. That’s the way The Shins has been. I really wanted to make it appear as more of a band, though. There’s something about the idea of a singer-songwriter that isn’t as appealing to me, as a listener, in comparison to something like The Beatles. I didn’t want to make it appear as though I was a singer-songwriter taking this out on the road.

photo by Frank Ockenfels

Do you still feel that way?

Yeah, I really do. With the guys who I’m going out with now, I tell them, “Listen to the record. There are certain things I want to have happen. But otherwise, we should really interpret and cover these songs.” [The backing musicians] really change things and make them their own, and I love that. So it is a band that you experience when you see us play live. It’s always been like that, even with the first record. It sounds like a band covering the record. We never did a good job of making it sound like the record, intentionally.

How does your approach to writing and recording with The Shins differ from the way you write and record with  Broken Bells?

Mainly, it’s just that I sit and do all the writing; the chord progressions and lyrics are all on me. With Broken Bells, I would share the duties with Brian [Danger Mouse]. When he was writing chords or sitting at a piano, I would be singing and seeing if I could find something cool as a melody. It was pretty much all me and Brian performing all the instruments. On Shins stuff, I can use whoever I want.

Was it a relief to have someone else help with the songwriting? 

Oh, it was. In Flake we would all write songs together while drinking beers in the basement. It was a real garage band. We would all come up with parts and talk it out and write together, which is really fun to do. But it wasn’t very successful for us. It wasn’t until I started really sweating over the crafting of songs and making sure things really flowed together in a pleasing way that I had any success with it.

Do you have a favorite era of songwriting?

It would be the British bands from the ’60s. The Beatles are so terrific, and The Zombies. Even The Rolling Stones are better songwriters than I first gave them credit for. There’s this understanding of the classic chord structures and then this real obsession and fascination with American R&B. Somehow that just comes together in these really beautiful combinations. 

I grew up listening to Western music—country western stuff. My dad was a nightclub singer and played country songs. I don’t know how many nights I fell asleep in a booth in a nightclub bar with all that smoke and people drinking booze. I secretly wish and hope that someday one of my songs will be covered by the country world. I just think that would be some sort of a coup. 

Is there something specific you want people to know about The Shins and this new album?

I’m hoping people will listen to it with an open mind and not worry too much about the lineup changes that have happened in the last four years but just understand that The Shins has always been this thing that sort of revolves around me and involves people from all parts of my friendships.     F

This article is from FILTER Issue 47