The Shins' James Mercer: Fond of Y-O-U
The Shins' James Mercer winces upon a star.
By Raoul Hernandez, 3:26PM, Thu. Mar. 1, 2007
My rave review of the new Shins album, Wincing the Night Away, was less an absolute belief in its perfection than a prediction. A prediction that no matter how long the Shins make albums, Wincing will remain one of the band’s crowning glories. Their Rubber Soul, let’s say – their first masterpiece. Only time will tell, of course, so let’s check back in 10 or so years.
Since I obviously had definite impressions of Wincing, how could I turn down one of four interview slots with its creative force, band leader James Mercer? Spending 30 minutes on the phone with Mercer was then an exercise in confirming or debunking my own theories. No artist ever really wants to reveal the secrets behind their work – the illusion is half the fun – but almost all are interested to hear individual readings on the output. Mercer was no different and very genially so. Even so, I’m still kicking myself over forgetting to ask him about all the animal references on the album. Make that wincing.
See you animals at the Backyard next Wednesday, March 7.
Austin Chronicle: How’d it feel – and this is one of my colleague’s phrasing – being "cock-blocked" out of the No. 1 spot on Billboard by Pretty Ricky?
James Mercer: [Laughs] Yeah, we were making some jokes about that. But, oh man, we were so happy to see that the record was doing so well. To us, it’s all just such a surprise. I don’t think we had a moment where we actually felt disappointed that we didn’t get No. 1.
AC: Was it a shock to suddenly be No. 2 on the Billboard chart?
JM: Unbelievable. Absolutely. We made a couple jokes about Pretty Ricky, but there was never actually a serious moment where we were pissed or anything.
AC: Have you heard any of the Pretty Ricky stuff?
JM: I have no idea at all what it is. I really don’t. I’m kinda curious.
AC: The Shins’ career arc has been great up to this point, with the McDonald's commercial and your music being used in the film Garden State. What expectations did you have for the new album?
JM: By the time the recording process was winding up, I felt really confident about the record. I felt that it was going to impress the hell out of the people that already liked us. But, you know, I had no notion that the marketing or whatever would actually lead to people who aren’t necessarily indie record store patrons out there buying it. I felt like there had been a fair amount of time since Chutes Too Narrow, since the last big marketing push, and there had been a fair amount of time since Garden State. So I kind of figured we’d probably lost the attention of most of the kids that came along just because of the movie. But it turns out that the audience had actually grown on its own while we were in the recording process.
AC: With you as the principal songwriter and guiding force behind the band, was there ever any sense for you of like, “Okay, we’ve come this far. It’s time to push the envelope”? Or was this just making the third Shins album?
JM: Well, maybe a little bit of both. I did consciously want to expand and find new range. At the same time, the songs were generally written the way I’ve always been writing songs. So there was a bit of a push: “Hey, we’ve got to find new ways to do music – new ways to keep it interesting. For me.” So, yeah, it’s just both. And I think the next record will be the same thing. There’ll be a desire to find new and interesting colors and so on, as well as just keep crafting good, strong pop songs.
AC: I find a certain amount of historical revisionism in the growth of any band’s catalog in that with each new successive LP, a fan’s relation to previous albums changes. For me, Wincing the Night Away makes your other two albums sound almost primitive. Have you experienced anything like that?
JM: Huh. That’s an interesting question. I suppose as you learn more about writing and recording music, as I have, you look back and listen to the old stuff. And it does strike me sometimes the choices I’ve made. It’s always changed. So, yeah, the old stuff actually does keep changing even though it’s stagnant. Strangely, your perspective on it changes and that makes it something new every time. That’s an interesting concept.
AC: It is. The Beatles make Rubber Soul and you think, “It can’t get any better than this,” and then several albums later they’ve made the White Album and you’re going, “We could have never foreseen this.” You still like Rubber Soul, but the White Album changes your relationship to it.
JM: It really does. It’s … God, well. You know it’s hard to tell if that’s what's going to be happening for us or not. I certainly can’t help but hope so.
AC: Is Wincing the Night Away just 11 songs or is there a larger thematic whole in there from you as the songwriter?
JM: I usually think of these things as individual songs, and then there’ll be some running strains that happen just because of the time frame that you happen to be obsessing over these things. Generally, I work on the songs as separate entities without really much reference to the others that are being put together.
AC: Obviously, a musician can obsess over any one song. Is it then hard to then let go of it so you can work on the other 10?
JM: It’s sometimes hard to realize, “You know, this one’s just not gonna work. It’s just not gonna fit in.” But, you always have hope that you’ll use it later. And sometimes those songs you end up [scrapping], you cut ‘em up and turn them into part of a different song. Everything sort of goes into a catalog; if it doesn’t get used, it goes into this library of parts and ideas and concepts, and it’s surprising how often they pop up in other songs and you’ll need them and then it’ll suddenly, totally make sense.
AC: As a lyricist, how much editing do you do on your songs?
JM: Tons and tons.
AC: You’re lyrics aren’t literal most of the time.
AC: Or even linear. They’re very impressionistic.
JM: Yeah. I start out, often, really just stream-of-consciousness and just laying down ideas. I sometimes feel uncomfortable when things are too linear and too straightforward. I don’t know why exactly, but I enjoy when things are a bit oblique. I don’t know. So I do work hard on the lyrics. It’s not my favorite part of the process, though. I do try and make sure that there’s something engaging about the lyrics and that they don’t distract.
AC: Do you learn about yourself through your writing?
JM: Yeah, I do. I think that that’s very true about this record, too. The few years before I started on this record, a lot of things had changed about my position in circles of friends and in relationships and in life in general. I think it was really kind of confusing to me on a lot of different levels – new responsibilities that I had to people. I just used to be so much less of a character socially. I think a lot of [the new material] is partly because of that, all of these changes. I sorted some of that out a little bit at least through the writing process.
AC: With the enthusiastic reception of the new album, and given the nature of art in general, does it concern you that in future writings you might have to go through similar life transitions in order to glean good art?
JM: I wonder. I don’t exactly think so, because some of my favorite songs are the ones that came from hypothetical situations that I then fictionalized a bunch of stuff around. So like “Phantom Limb” is something that’s largely invented and I’m proud of those moments.
AC: One of my favorite songs on the album is “Girl Sailor.”
JM: That song is loosely based on a relationship with a girl, but there’s a lot of elaboration and fiction to it as well. Musically, it was a song based on a hook: It’s that first [singing], “Da da da dum, bum bah. Pum pum,” which sounds like Motown to me. It sounds like some old Sixties R&B, back when R&B was super melodic and poppy. Then it just sort of goes from there. It’s very English in a lot of ways.
AC: The musical bed on this album is so rich. It really does remind me of the Beatles or Echo & the Bunnymen.
JM: Those are some favorites of ours, so yeah [laughs]. A lot of credit goes to Joe Chiccarelli for production. He’s a fantastic, talented guy. He helped a lot. The Kinks was one for me musically – an influence during that time. There’s a lot of stuff all blended.
AC: Which song has that synthesizer break? It reminded me of Steely Dan in the Seventies.
JM: That’s “Sealegs.” Yes. Very Steely Dan, very Steely Dan. [Guest pianist, not Austin guitarist] Eric Johnson is a huge Steely Dan fan.
AC: So you guys were going for that?
JM: Sort of. It’s funny how that whole thing came into existence. “Sealegs” was a song I worked on extensively at home in my studio. At one point I had these two guitar samples. I dragged them with the mouse to the right on my computer desk top – so they were out of screen, and I didn’t have to deal with them. I played the song constantly, playing it over and over and over again, sort of meditating on it and trying to find something cool in it. I did this, and I left the room to use the bathroom. While I was in there, the song ended and there was silence for a while, and then suddenly, those two clips that I had dragged started overlapping each other, forming these minor seventh chords looping back and forth. It struck me, “Hey, that’s how I can end the song.” Because I was struggling, trying to figure out how I was going to end that thing. I was like, “We’re going to go into this fucking, like, Santana free jam” [laughs]. And that’s what we did. So it’s these Latin-style chords over and over, and then we just jammed on it. It worked out real good.
AC: It’s just the title I’m sure, but the opener, “Sleeping Lessons,” reminds me of Michel Gondry’s films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep.
JM: [Chuckles] I haven’t seen Science of Sleep, but I have seen Spotless Mind.
AC: There’s such a dreamy quality to the song. The opening musical statement is like bubbles from the subconscious. What were you going for in that song?
JM: First of all, it changed a lot. It started out with a very different idea. It was going to be sort of a rock & roll riff. I wanted it to be kind of like Gary U.S. Bonds, an old R&B act. And it was going to turn from that into something very lush and dreamy. Well, I realized halfway through that that wasn’t working. What needed to happen was to go from dreamy to garage-y. The energy needed to increase at the end. Then it started to make more sense to me. It’s this idea that you’re lulled to sleep, brought into this womb of sleep, and then in there, that’s where your brain activity really starts to go, so therefore the energy increases, and your song is going. What follows are the episodes of dreams, and there are these songs [the body of the album]. Then at the end, “A Comet Appears,” which is releasing you into reality, in this dark sort of way at the end, and the birds and so on.
AC: That prompts two questions. First, do you think people understand how great this album sounds at loud volumes?
JM: [Laughs] Man, that’s funny, because we listen to music really loud, the guys in the van. Marty [Crandall, Shins bassist] has a great system, and we always crank that thing. So I don’t know. We should have put a little disclosure there: “Please turn up the volume.” The vinyl version of the record sounds really good cranked.
AC: Do you hear a difference between the CD and the vinyl?
JM: Yes. It’s a pretty distinct difference. I had a little bit of trouble with the guy who was doing the mastering on the vinyl. We went back and forth. We finally got it right, and it sounds really, really good turned up. Sounds great.
AC: The other question had to do with you mentioning Gary U.S. Bonds. I remember Spoon’s Britt Daniel talking about Kill the Moonlight and how much that album was influenced by his love of Motown.
JM: They’re so good, Spoon. They’re just so damn good.
AC: How much is that golden era of Seventies R&B an influence on you?
JM: It is the most effective music that I’ve ever heard. I think that that era, for me, is just the most inspiring and moving. I feel like a poser when I’m trying to dance to modern hip-hop. I just feel like it’s just not … Whatever is being expressed – the animosity and the sort of darkness being expressed – is totally lost on me. That macho feeling doesn’t put me in a mood to dance at all. But the sounds of the fucking Shirelles, we’ll all dance all fucking night.
AC: It’s ironic to me that writers like yourself and Britt Daniel take so much inspiration from that genre when your average indie kid probably isn’t making that leap. At some point I’m sure you’d like your fan base to go pick up a Shirelles’ album, but again, indie nation isn’t necessarily making the connection.
JM: Yeah, well how do you do that? [Laughs] It’s crazy.
AC: In a recent Rolling Stone piece, it mentioned that you studied chemistry in college. Talk to the relationship between math and music.
JM: Right. There are moments in designing a song, where your intuition – at least at my level, which is limited – where your intuition fails you. What saves you at that point is going through a series of mathematical steps to find your options when you’re up against the wall musically. Because there’s this sort of mathematical logic behind it, although it’s vague and you can’t necessarily find attractive things just simply by following some sort of a formula. I work music intuitively almost all the time until I’m up against a wall. An understanding of abstract logical relationships is how math helps you with music.
AC: Does that then mean that most engineers and producers have that facility and knowledge?
JM: Not all of them have that, but it helps if they do I think. Used to be that in the old days they had to be real engineers – designing boards and developing an intuitive understanding of the components that are used to create these pieces of electronics.
AC: Speaking of chemistry, how’s the Shins’ chemistry these days?
JM: I’m very sensitive to people’s personalities. I find it very difficult to be creative if I don’t feel comfortable being vulnerable. The chemistry in these friendships is very important to me. I’m sure that has a lot to do with why Jack White and Meg White are so good together. What they allow to have happen in that strange world.
AC: Has the chemistry of the band changed over your career?
JM: Gosh, that’s hard to say. I think we’ve all changed a lot. We’ve grown up a lot. We’ve all mellowed a lot. There’s less turbulence. Things seem to be pretty smooth, and people seem to be comfortable with how things are going. But we’ve had situations where I was unable to get through something with someone. We had a bandmate, Neal [Langford], who just – we couldn’t seem to get him to where he was comfortable. It was so difficult, so disappointing. It was hard on him. Some of the material for this record is about that relationship and just how difficult it is to go from being intimate with these people and being vulnerable and exposed, and confiding, sharing all these experiences – this is the nature of the Shins, this is not the nature of other bands – to then have it just start to fall apart.
AC: Do you worry about ending up like the Radiohead documentary, Meeting People is Easy, where they’re absolutely miserable at having to play the media game and it’s driving the band apart?
JM: Well, I haven’t seen that movie, but it’d be interesting to watch, because for the first time we’ve had to begin doing that. And it is taxing. People probably don’t realize how exhausting it can be to do two sets in a day. It’s stressful. You certainly enjoy performing, but it’s stressful. You don’t want to mess up and that requires a lot of concentration. It’s a heightened experience and therefore exhausting. When you’re done with it, it’s a relief. You’re like, “We did it.” But sometimes on these days when you finish a thing like that that was kind of an arduous task, then you realize, “Holy shit. In four hours we’ve have to do it again on the other side of town for a radio thing.” Boy, it can be a bit much. But the guys have been really good about it. I don’t know what it is. I think maybe we’re running on a bit of adrenaline right now. Maybe by the time we’re in Radiohead’s shoes, we’ll be less excited about these things.
AC: Last question – more chemistry: How’s your chemistry with Austin, Texas?
JM: Oh, we have the best shows in Austin, Texas. We love Austin. Austin’s close to home. Maybe it’s partly that. But Austin’s also just such an enthusiastic and forgiving and happy crowd. I think you move to Austin as a young person principally because you love music. But your also somebody who is open-minded about music. I don’t know. The kids there are just the best.